from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by John Bracey
Summer 1981

It is a most pleasant task to be able to offer a word or two on the importance of the life and work of C. L. R. James (Nello).

I learned of C. L. R.'s existence when I read The Black Jacobins in an undergraduate course on Negro History at Roosevelt University. The book had a tremendous impact on my understanding of the revolutionary process and of revolutionary personalities. It remains after forty years one of the finest works of historical and Marxist scholarship that I have read.

I first met C. L. R. in Fall, 1969, when as one of a number of demands of Black student activists at Northwestern University in the wake of a building takeover in the Spring, 1968, he was asked to teach West Indian history and politics as one of our new offerings in Black Studies. He was simply beautiful. He taught a course based on a close reading of The Black Jacobins and gave a series of lectures that began with the ancient Greeks Aristotle's Politics, Aeschylus, Sophocles and ranged far and wide in world history ending in this century with the social and political writings of Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. The series of lectures published as Modern Politics and the essay "Peasants and Workers" in Radical America (Nov.-Dec. 1971) convey the sweep of C. L. R.'s analysis.

As often as possible C. L. R. would come to dinner with my wife and a few friends on Thursday evenings. He was quite explicit as to when he should be picked up from his apartment, and when he should be returned. We did our best to provide the fare that he suggested, and were even fortunate enough on one occasion to obtain some Red Snapper which really made the evening. Those dinners-discussions were among the most interesting and intellectually stimulating experiences that I have ever had in or out of academia. What C. L. R. accomplished in his firm, but subtle, way was to help smooth over some of the rougher edges and to loosen up some of the more rigid dogmatism of the views of myself and other young Black radicals. C. L. R., now that I think about it, was one of those "soft" Marxists (for lack of a more precise term) very much in the tradition of Raymond Williams, John Berger, and E. P. Thompson in England, and say William A. Williams in the U.S. No base, superstructure, conjunctures and over-determinations for him. Marxism was a method and a critique: a method to study people and the things that people have done and can do to make their way in the world. The lived experience was the proper focus of attention.

C. L. R. also helped to open up and legitimatize our curiosity that ranged far and wide in the general areas of history, politics, philosophy and culture. He was quite skillful at pointing out the linkages between the experience of Blacks and that of the rest of the world. I can recall a discussion where several comrades and I were railing against Europe and its evils. C. L. R. intervened with "But my dear Bracey, I am a Black European, that is my training and my outlook." C. L. R. said this without apology, and without seeking our acceptance. He was merely (merely?) saying that to blindly reject all things originating in or influenced by Europe would mean rejecting not only people like himself, but rejecting a significant part of our own cultural and intellectual baggage. The clear implication was that we were much too intelligent to do that. C. L. R., as a good Marxist, upheld the best of what earlier societies produced in terms of literature, art, philosophy, and values.

Two additional incidents stick in my mind on C. L. R.'s outlook. First, C. L. R. cut short a discussion of Marxist-Humanism by saying that the phrase was redundant. To be a humanist in the twentieth century was to be a Marxist. Finally, shortly after C. L. R. arrived to teach at Northwestern University, we informed him that the library had a copy of his World Revolution. At the same time a publisher was reprinting it without his knowledge and charging some ridiculously high price. C. L. R. had no copy of this major work of his and expressed a desire to obtain a copy. We offered to "liberate" the copy from the library and give it to him. Our rationale C. L. R. created it; it was a product of his labor and if anyone was entitled to a copy, it was C. L. R. He was horrified at our suggestion. He said that the bourgeoisie could accuse him of working for socialist revolution, but he would never let them accuse him of stealing. C. L. R. James is a gentleman and a scholar in the fullest meaning of those terms.

C. L. R. went on to teach at Federal City College and to participate in the Sixth Pan-African Conference. We have met infrequently these past ten years. I remember our talks, and our agreements (and our disagreements) on the relative merits of various individuals and groups active during the late 1960's. I still teach The Black Jacobins in a course on "Revolution in the Third World." I consider myself privileged to know him as my teacher, colleague and friend.

John Bracey is Associate Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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