The Gospel According to St. James
from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by Gregory Rigsby
To me, the characteristic which best defines the essence of C. L. R. James is his faith — his abiding faith in Truth. More than that, and this is the very substance of his faith, C. L. R. James sincerely and honestly believes that he knows something of the Truth — some important fraction of it. In his work is reflected as hot a zeal as that of any missionary who was willing to give his life for his faith. This is his claim to sainthood. In proper time, the hardships and sufferings which C. L. R. has endured for what he believes is the truth will be chronicled, it is well-nigh impossible for any thinking person to hear C. L. R. express his views or to read his penetrating analyses of society and not get caught up in the truth that this man is expounding - not his truth but the truth (or a facet of it) through his eyes. This is the saintliness of the man; this is the essence of his work — the fierce tenacity with which he has pursued Truth. So much for St. James! Now for his gospel!
Perhaps I should begin by telling you what C. L. R. James does not consider "the good life." He does not consider that a higher standard of living will provide the good life. Describing the good life in his work Modern Politics, James writes: "It [the good life] is not (his emphasis), it never has been, merely a question of what the vulgarians call 'raising the standard of living.' Men are not pigs to be fattened." Two observations ought to be made about this question: first, the appositional and emphatic clause, "it never has been," and second, the word "merely." Let us begin with the second observation first. James is not saying that material well-being is not a just pursuit of man. Rather, he is insisting that merely material wealth, that is material wealth alone, will not provide man with the happiness he seeks. Man finds his happiness in the quality of his relationship with his community. Individual well-being does not constitute the good life; rather, man achieves happiness when he becomes an organic part of a living community and actively participates in helping to realize the purpose of his community. James unequivocally condemns this modern narcissism, this self-obsession of modern man (Ahab in Melville's Moby Dick is the prototype), this modern religion of individualism, where everyone continually consults himself as a separate entity, viewing the phenomena of life and all transformations of the universe as a truth peculiar to himself. Condemning Ahab in Mariners, Renegades and Castaways as "the most dangerous and destructive social type that has ever appeared in Western Civilization," James pin-points the source of Ahab's degeneration: "he is a man who wants to live fully and completely according to his beliefs." Indeed, the major focus of James's study of Moby Dick is the debilitating and corrupting influence of individualism which tends to separate and isolate men from one another. Individual well-being ("a higher standard of living"), be it reflected in wealth, or prestige, or intellectualism, never in itself brings the good life.
Counter-pointing the isolation born of individualism is the congeniality which communal brotherhood breeds. James believes that if man genuinely wants to extricate himself from his present hell, he has to align himself with the principle, the law, as it were, of relationship. The law of relationship governs the cosmos, and only when men reflects this cosmic law in his dealings with his fellow-man will he achieve true happiness. In his short stories and in his novel Minty Alley, James creates this human fellowship. As early as 1929, in his short story "Triumph," James deliberately sets the action among characters who did not enjoy a high standard of living — the porters, the prostitutes, cartermen, washerwomen, and domestic servants of the city. Yet, despite their material deprivations, these people enjoy a liveliness and vitality which is the essence of the good life. The law of relationship governs this back-yard community. Here is one of the characters speaking to a neighbor whose man has left her stranded and destitute, with no money, no food: "As long as you livin' here an' I cookin' I wouldn't see you want a cup o' tea an' a spoonful o' rice." This is the stuff of which happiness is born; this is charity — not a condescending giving but an unself-conscious sharing. Describing his idea of the good life, James focuses on the communal oneness of these materially deprived people: "They shared their rum and their joys and troubles." Significantly, for James happiness is not the absence of hardships and miseries but the fraternizing and sharing of the good with the bad. Later in the story James creates a new Eden — no Adam, master of the beasts and eating as many apples as he wants, but human beings who on Sundays would sit together, drink together, sing hymns together. James caps the description of this scene, "everything would be peaceful and happy." It is clear, then, that for James, peace on earth and good will among me are one and the same thing. So, too, Minty Alley is set among "ordinary people" who are busy with the business of living.
Does this mean that James condones poverty and applauds deprivation? Is he suggesting that lack of food to eat or clothes to wear, or that inadequate housing is necessary for the good life? Of course not. What James is saying is that among these people, where nobody is anything, among these people who owe no allegiance to anybody or anything except the relations with one another, among these people who live and work and play together, one can find the essence of happiness, the essence of the good life. The problem then is how to improve the material well-being of these back-yard people and still retain the communal relationship which charges their work and actions and keeps them vitally alive. That is a political problem. To understand James's answer to this question, we must gloss on the observation of the quotation which I made earlier — "it [the good life] never has been [a higher standard of living]."
We must clearly understand that C. L. R. James has a "sense" of history. I use the term "sense" in a very deliberate manner as opposed to "non-sense." James sees all history as the unfolding (evolving?) of an action. Here again my use of language is deliberate. "Action" is used in the Aristotelian sense of a beginning, a middle, and an end. For example, he sees the San Domingo (Haitian) Revolution in his masterpiece The Black Jacobins as an action in itself, but depending on where you see the beginning of this slave revolution and where the end, The Black Jacobins, as the title of the book suggests, can be seen as an incident in a larger action, the French Revolution. So, too, for James, Pan Africanism is an incident in a larger action, the worldwide revolt of the oppressed masses. James is convinced that in these various actions, be they enacted by slaves on a Caribbean island, or by the bolsheviks in Russia, or by the struggling working people in a backyard or in an alley in Trinidad, or by the detainees on Ellis Island, or by the crew on the Pequod, or by his ownself in his life experiences, wheresoever and by whomsoever these actions are enacted, there is contained in them some principle, some pattern, some law governing the relations of these people involved. This is the truth about which James is certain. James knows with every cell of his body that a proper empirical examination of actions will reveal the law of social behavior, the law which I have termed above, the law of relationship. This is why James can say with authority when speaking about a higher standard of living, "this never has been," and by implication, "this never will be," the criterion to define "the good life." James believes that he has identified the essential truth about human behavior — a system of mutuality.
Here let me inject that I think that it is James's own experience and his own self-analysis which gave the direction and character to his critical thought far more than anything he learnt from Thackeray or Rousseau or Kant or Hegel or Karl Marx himself. Let me use just two examples from his quasi-autobiographical work, Beyond a Boundary, to make my point. As a nineyear- old boy, James won an exhibition to one of the best high schools in the country. To win an exhibition in the early decades of this century was a major achievement which brought prestige to one's school, to one's family, and, most of all, to one's self. But to be "the youngest boy ever to have won an exhibition," that was an achievement par excellence. The little boy was lionized by his family, relatives, friends, teachers, newspapers — "Congratulations poured in from all over the island." To add insult to injury, this nine-year-old boy comes second in an island-wide essay contest among sixteen- and seventeenyear- old competitors. Now he is placed on a pedestal, and as any little boy, he laps up the adulation and attention. But deep down, perhaps beyond levels of which C. L. R. himself was aware, the boy was not satisfied; he was not one with his peers. Earlier in this same book, James recalls sitting at the window in his house overlooking the local playground ("my grandmother and my two aunts . . . preferred me . . . in the house where they could keep an eye on me") and waiting for a local cricketeer to make a stroke — a cut — the likes of which James claims he has never seen bettered in his life. When Arthur Jones went to bat, everybody waited to see him cut. How James tells it interests us: "The crowd was waiting for it, I at my window was waiting." Notice the separation! James does not brood on this; in fact, he is infected with the anxious waiting of a crowd that anticipates a show of athletic mastery by one of its local heroes. When he was not watching cricket, he sat at his window reading voraciously. I am not suggesting a lonely boy who seeks retreat in the world of books. Not at all! James is a lively boy ("adventurous" he calls himself) who has to be reined in, and his energy spills over into books. It is this circumscription of his liveliness together with his intellectual achievements in competitive tests which tended to isolate him.
I have heard C. L. R. lecturing on George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin, and James's focus was on the protagonist's recognition (and feeling of guilt) that his education separated him from his closest friends. I am suggesting that this is what C. L. R. James, as a young boy, instinctively felt was happening to him, and he resisted it. He resisted it with every sinew, every fiber, every muscle of his ten-year-old body. Writing about his high school years James is explicit: "My scholastic career was one long nightmare to me, my teachers and my family." Modern psychologists might say that he was afraid of success. I think, more correctly, that he rejected, albeit unconsciously, the isolation which intellectual excellence within a colonial educational system bred. It isn't that he played too much cricket and so fell back in his studies; it is that he chose the camaraderie of the cricket field over the isolation nourished by the intellectual elitism which was being bred into him. This was the awakening in James's breast, a revelation if you like, of the law of relationship. When he came to Karl Marx, James brought the truth with him; in Marx he found a structure and a methodology which clarified and confirmed what his experience had already taught him.
In Modern Politics, James examined all of Western civilization as one action. The beginning is Greece; the middle is comprised of the complication and conflicts of major movements and thinkers; the end is in the beginning. Since James sees history as evolving toward a world society similar to what existed in the Greek city-states, he concludes that the political structure which the law of relationship demands exists in its, essential form in the Greek city-states. The form of government which existed in these city-states was called direct democracy. Direct democracy means that "the public assembly of all the citizens was the government." In other words, every man helped in a direct manner to shape the laws which governed him. Administrators were chosen by lot, and invariably no one was allowed to serve a second term. In this way, all people had a chance to serve as a member of the administration. It is this direct democracy, modified to accommodate modern circumstances, which will allow for a general improvement in everyone's material well-being without the loss of the camaraderie enjoyed by the people who lived in Minty Alley. So thought James and so too he taught. He describes his ideal society, his republic, his city of the people as "a form of government which reproduces, on a more highly developed economic level, the relationship between the individual and the community, that was established so wonderfully in the Greek city-state." Emanating from the law of relationship, as it were, is a collective will of the people, "the general will," Rousseau calls it. This "general will" is real to James. He captures it in Beyond a Boundary: "whenever Matthew sank down and made [a sweep to leg], a long, low 'Ah!' came from many a spectator, and my own little soul thrilled with recognition and delight." Society has to learn to trust this general will of the ordinary people — the grocer, the waitress, the porter, the dish-washer.
It will be a mistake to leave with the impression that James rejected individual worth. Indeed, it is for individual freedom which he thinks all government must work. Each individual is like an incident in a larger action, the society, but the growth and development of the society depends on the free activities of the individuals. Individual worth is best expressed when a person knows that he is vitally and meaningfully participating in the development of his society. Even as a member of a family feels his fullest selfexpression when he uses the strengths of his family tradition and family values to help nourish the further development of his family, so must an individual feed on and, in return, nourish the members of his community. James expresses the idea more precisely and more gracefully: "The citizen is alive when he feels that he himself in his own national community is overcoming difficulties. He has a sense of moving forward through the struggle of antagonisms or contradictions and difficulties within the society, not by fighting against external forces." No bureaucratic organization nor party direction generates societal growth. It is from the interaction of individuals who wake up the society itself that the society moves forward. For this self-movement of society to take place, each individual must be free. Each individual must realize that, as Rousseau's Social Contract stipulates, society has no rights over him. Each man must be his own master.
Yet, though individuality or personal freedom must always remain intact, individualism or the cult of self-isolation must be destroyed. When James looks at a Caribbean sportsman, Garfield Sobers, the Willie Mays of cricket, he writes: "I see Sobers always . . . as . . . the fine fruit of a great tradition." James sees Sobers as the embodiment of the whole history of the British West Indies: "he is one of us. We are some of him." So, too, when James looks at the Mighty Sparrow, the B. B. King of calypso, he writes: "It is not his unusual personal gifts . . . [for] he is so obviously a man of the people." Again, commenting this time on a West Indian intellectual, J. J. Thomas, James observes: "It was the Caribbean human condition which produced Jacob Thomas. To know him well is to know ourselves better." Always there is the dialectic between the individual and society. The individual obviously has to bring certain capacities, but the essence of his achievement is not the result of the work of his brilliant individual effort, but is due in reality to his historical past. But the knife cuts both ways. Degenerate men are substantially the bitter fruits that result from the situations in which their historical past has placed them. For example, James sees Ahab, not as a madman obsessed with a white whale because of his own malicious ways, but as the culmination of a certain type of man which Western society has been cultivating. It is the life that he lives that makes Ahab what he becomes. Ahab does not like the life he has to live. James explains: "Ahab's isolation from the men with whom he works [is] an isolation forced upon him by his position of command." So, too, in rejecting parliamentary democracy and political parties, James observes that these elected leaders, "Once you put them there . . . acquire, not through malice, not through vice . . . but from the objective circumstances — they acquire a life of their own which is separate from the life and interests that they are supposed to serve." Again, it is the historical circumstances, the law of historical development which shapes the individual.
I want to end on this observation concerning James's concept of the individual. To elevate him is to elevate the Caribbean. There is all the need to pay homage and acknowledge the great intellectual achievements of C. L. R. James, for he embodies in all of his work, the burning desires of the Caribbean people, nay, of all progressive people of the world, a desire which is so aptly couched in the West Indian's wishful thinking — "All ah we is one!"
Gregory Rigsby is a West Indian who teaches at the University of the District of Columbia.