Personal Notes
from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by George Rawick
Summer 1981

The most important lesson to learn from the life of C. L. R. James is something that he has told virtually everyone around him: "Do your own work, do it well, and if it is right it will make its way." This old-fashioned adage is basically a statement of revolutionary patience and revolutionary determination.

In the nineteen-twenties and the early thirties, James was a teacher and literary figure in Trinidad, dedicated to the politics of West Indian nationalism. He wrote what was one of the first West Indian novels, Minty Alley, founded the first West Indian literary journal, and intervened in the struggle for independence primarily with several important pamphlets.

In the early nineteen-thirties, in England, James and a few others, starting with nothing but their ideas and their commitments, gathered around them figures who were to become major leaders of the struggle for African independence: George Padmore, James's boyhood friend from Trinidad, whose struggle for Pan-African solidarity and African freedom were to lead to the Gold Coast rebellion and the creation of modern Ghana, the first step in the liberation of Africa; Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of the struggle for Gold Coast independence and the first head of state of an independent Ghana; Jomo Kenyatta, head of the struggle for Kenya's freedom and the first Kenyan chief of state.

Also in the same period, James found time to write a play about the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture. The play was produced in London with Paul Robeson playing the lead role!

And as has been true all his life, James moved around the British Isles and elsewhere, giving talks to large and small groups, writing articles for prominent and obscure journals, having conversations with an endless stream of people who sought him out, and, ultimately most significantly, probing for that relationship with the mass of the population that would release in himself his own, most focused and valuable energies.

In 1938, James argued with Trotsky in Mexico about Black nationalism, pushing Trotsky to an understanding that the revolutionary must support American Blacks choosing national self-determination and independent struggle, if those would be the choices they would make. In this, James moved Trotsky from the narrowness and elitism of his organization which was fixated upon hammering out for each and every sector of struggling humanity a complete revolutionary program and back towards coming to understand and to be linked with those "molecular forces of history" which Trotsky had so brilliantly portrayed in his great history of the Russian Revolution. James has never swerved from this faith in the self-activity of ordinary people making their own history.

At the moment in the nineteen-thirties when the Third International would come up with the pitiful shotgun wedding between the slogan "self-determination for the Negro people in the black belt" and "Black and white unite and fight," James understood and developed the idea of the autonomous struggle of Black people, an autonomy strong enough not to be submerged in or subordinated to the struggle of the white, male working class of the metropolitan center of capital. This notion of autonomy of struggle was carried through by James and those who worked most closely with him to include not only Blacks but all other national groups, women, youth, even artists and writers.

I think that James's ability to understand the entire question of the Black struggle came from the fact that he personally shared in this struggle and that other West Indians, most notably Marcus Garvey, had put forward a nationalist position. But James's achievement was that he united this current of Black thought and struggle with Marxism, and in so doing, transformed some part of the central Marxist heritage. Neither Garvey nor James made this idea grab hold of the minds of numberless Black men and women they merely created channels through which the idea could flow and be expressed.

In 1939 James came to the United States and stayed until deported in 1953. In 1940 he went into the bootheel of southern Missouri, along the Mississippi River, to organize Black and white tenant farmers and sharecroppers. He carried with him a copy of Hegel's Logic, which he studied on the side of backcountry dirt roads while waiting to speak to those he had come to organize. If one reads James's Notes on Dialectics, which was originally produced in 1948 as a series of letters, there is a blending of the ideas of Hegel and Marx and those of the most submerged sector of the proletariat. These workers understood through the text of their own lives the concreteness of the struggle between Master and Slave. Philosophy becomes proletarian in James's writing not only because he understood Hegel and Marx but because James's life has combined an incredibly rich study of the full range of Western thought with the most concrete study of the lives of ordinary men and women, and participation in their struggles. Read James's novel of the nineteen-twenties, Minty Alley, and you will find the daily details of working class life in Trinidad become a vibrant political document and a very good novel.

One of the keys to James's thought is his very intense concern for questions of human psychology, the psychology of the individual as a person of his or her own times. Not only do these concerns permeate Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, they appear again and again in the essays published as The Future in the Present, 1977, and in Spheres of Existence, 1980, and of course in that monumental biography, The Black Jacobins. It is characteristic that James begins his magnificent essay "The Olympia Statues, Picasso's Guernica and the Frescoes of Michelangelo in the Capella Paolina" with a discussion of himself, his own early relationship to horses (horses dominate the Guernica, one must remember) and his own early memories of Michelangelo and Raphael.

Not only has James written on Toussaint, Picasso, Michelangelo, and Raphael, he has written on cricket players, including such great West Indian cricket players as Garfield Sobers and Learie Constantine, on the great calypso singer The Mighty Sparrow, and on W. E. B. DuBois, George Jackson, and Paul Robeson. It is not surprising that James's early work on West Indian nationalism was written as a biographical essay: The Life of Captain Cipriani.

But above all, James has been concerned with the activities and potentialities of the ordinary man and woman at all times. In such writings as Every Cook Can Govern and James's great essay on human history, Modern Politics, this focus on the ability of ordinary people to transcend the present is the dominant theme.

Even James's very conception of the process of the transformation of society is based on a revolutionary view of the human personality. The Hungarian Revolution, for example, was made by modern men and women, transformed by the modern world and transforming it, modern men and women who instinctively knew, for example, that in the modern world the first thing one does in a revolution is to capture the television station. James makes quite clear what his view of revolutionary activity is all about. "New" men and women make, in the bowels of the old society, a new society. This new society and these new people make the revolution in order to defend their new lives and their new society.

James's concern with the human personality permeates his everyday conversation. There is something about the method which is that of the novelist, the playwright, the literary essayist, all of which of course James is, in addition to being a political figure and a Marxist revolutionary. Whether he is talking with a famous novelist from Barbados, an infamous American trade-union hack, a seventeen-year-old American working class young woman, a young unemployed "printer's devil" from Trinidad, a working journalist who had been a dairy farmer, a Pakistani auto worker in London, the Polish woman cleaning the hotel room in Windsor, Ontario, or an American university professor, James constantly asks question: "Where are you from?" "What did your mother and father do?" "You lived on a farm? How did you milk the cows, by hand or machinery? How many cows a day? What else did you do on the farm? Did your family make much money? Your father had to work at a gas station in order to make ends meet? What does he do today?" "You work in an automobile factory? What exactly do you do? What are the working conditions like? Are the toilets clean? How many breaks do you get during the day?" James in his life has followed the example of Karl Marx, who even went so far as to have a questionnaire about working conditions passed out to workers.

In the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies, James did some of his finest writing on the game of cricket. From the time in the early nineteen-thirties when James first came to England, he wrote on cricket, the sport which is middleclass in England and in the West Indies is the game of the broad, popular masses. James has both made part of his living and found release for his passion for the game by writing on cricket for such English journals as the Manchester Guardian. He played cricket as a young man both in Trinidad and England as a semi-professional and has been for the past forty years universally acknowledged among those deeply interested in cricket as the finest cricket reporter in the world. His writing on cricket reached its highest point in his magnificent Beyond a Boundary, half personal memoir, half profound work on cricket, published in the sixties. John Arlott, known as England's outstanding native-born cricket reporter, referred to this book as the finest volume ever written on cricket.

For many years James co-edited the most serious, scholarly journal about cricket, The Cricketer's Journal. It was a cross between The Sporting News and The Journal of Sports History, exclusively devoted to cricket. His co-editor of this journal was a Major in the British army, a War Office stalwart, a Tory, and an old-India hand, who spoke with that peculiar accent that sounds as if one had a mouthful of marbles. They deeply respected each other's dedication to and knowledge of cricket even though they were of course political enemies.

And yet cricket for James was neither simply a way of making a living nor a private indulgence. For James, cricket is essential to the West Indian struggle for freedom, for his development of his views on the human personality, and a mark of his respect for an important aspect of the life of the West Indian masses. James has always thought that public sports were central to the life of the working class and the popular masses throughout the world, that through sports they expressed crucial aspects of their personalities. For example, Correspondence, the newspaper of James's organization in the United States in the late fifties and early sixties, had a regular, lively column on professional sports. The baseball reporting was, in my opinion, particularly fine and laced with comments of much historical and sociological insight.

Thinking of James on cricket, I remember sitting with him in the bleachers at the Oval, one of the great London cricket pitches, among a West Indian crowd, being taught the game by him and being infected with his enthusiasm. In many other ways, I had the privilege of sharing with James the details of everyday life for several years in London. Buying salt-cod and salt-beef in a London West Indian market, joking with the vendors. Playing the slot machines in London pubs. Betting a few shillings on the horse races. Watching him take out one of the dozen postcard prints of Picasso's Guernica which he had around so that he could study it at every spare moment. Buying two and three copies of every newspaper and journal so that he could tear out the clippings and give them to others. Buying several copies of books he is interested in so that he can always have one around. Drinking scotch before dinner. Listening to James tell the many sly jokes he is fond of and repeating the punch line. Trying to follow his meticulous sense of time, listening to him begin a lecture with "It is now 8:14. I will lecture until 8:44." Going with James to see the film "Dr. Zhivago," which certainly is not particularly sympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution in the midst of which it is set, and hearing him tell me that every would-be revolutionary ought to see it not, of course, to persuade them to oppose the revolution but, I believe, because it shows that revolutions are not games to be played at but serious, wrenching affairs, filled with death and destruction.

But more than that. Partially, I believe, James liked "Dr. Zhivago" because it deals with the struggles of a literary man to continue his life and poetry writing in the midst of the revolution. James was never enthusiastic about the artist or writer becoming political. He has always seen them as having a particular, unique function. In Mariners he tells us that the real business of an artist is "the study of human personality and human relations." James tells us that "Melville is not an agitator. He is a creative artist who is moving steadily towards that rarest of achievements the creation of a character which will sum up a whole epoch of human history." Writing on the West Indian writer Wilson Harris, James suggests that the artist lifts us from the "everyday" to the peak, to the transcendent, the boundary limit situation.

Not that the artist need be "right," but he must be heard. Or so I understand James. For James all of this is important, for the communist revolution comes not to destroy Western Civilization but to fulfill it. We cannot create a desert and find in it the new society. With all of its limitations, panderings to reactionary ideas, and sheer romanticism, "Dr. Zhivago," I think James was telling me, is a film that has a germ of truthfulness because it treats the writer with this particular care and has, ultimately, this concern with Western Civilization. James can usually take the artifacts of everyday life and culture and find within them something of value, of significance, of importance. That is no mean achievement.

George P. Rawick is a prominent author on Afro-American and labor history, now Professor of History at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. He spent several years in the early 1960's with James in London.

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