C. L. R. James: Renaissance Revolutionary

By Alan WarhaftigJanuary 12, 2023

C. L. R. James: Renaissance Revolutionary
CYRIL LIONEL ROBERT JAMES was born in Tunapuna, Trinidad, near Port of Spain, on January 4, 1901, the eldest of three children. His father was a schoolmaster, his mother a great reader. Both belonged to the island’s small Black middle class. In Beyond a Boundary, his extraordinary 1963 memoir, James explained:

This meant that my grandfather had raised himself above the mass of poverty, dirt, ignorance and vice which in those far-off days surrounded the islands of black lower middle-class respectability like a sea ever threatening to engulf them. […] My grandfather went to church every Sunday morning at eleven o’clock wearing in the broiling sun a frock-coat, striped trousers and top hat, with his walking-stick in hand, surrounded by his family, the underwear of the women crackling with starch. Respectability was not an ideal, it was an armour. He fell grievously ill, the family fortunes declined and the children grew up in unending struggle not to sink below the level of the Sunday-morning top-hat and frock-coat.

James was raised as a Victorian, a unique product of the British Empire. As a child he was drawn to cricket and English literature, passions that remained with him throughout his life. In Beyond a Boundary, he precisely situated his childhood:

Tunapuna at the beginning of this century was a small town of about 3,000 inhabitants […] Like all towns and villages on the island, it possessed a recreation ground. Recreation meant cricket, for in those days, except for infrequent athletic sports meetings, cricket was the only game. Our house was superbly situated, exactly behind the wicket. A huge tree on one side and another house on the other limited the view of the ground, but an umpire could have stood at the bedroom window. By standing on a chair a small boy of six could watch practice every afternoon and matches on Saturdays […] From the chair also he could mount on to the window-sill and so stretch a groping hand for the books on the top of the wardrobe. Thus early the pattern of my life was set.

Young James, known as “Nello” (a diminutive of Lionel, his middle name), read widely; his favorite book was Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which he estimated that he’d read at least 20 times by the time he was 14, and which he credited with instilling in him an innate distrust of authority. After acing the competitive entrance exams at age nine, he became the youngest ever to win a scholarship to Queen’s Royal College. It appeared that he was on his way to one of the professions and the security and respectability they offered, pretty much the most a young Black man could hope for in colonial Trinidad. But, as he recalled in Beyond a Boundary, he would have none of it:

How were they to know that when I put my foot on the steps of the college building in January 1911 I carried within me the seeds of revolt against all it formally stood for and all that I was supposed to do in it? My scholastic career was one long nightmare to me, my teachers and my family. My scholastic shortcomings were accompanied by breaches of discipline which I blush to think of even today. But at the same time, almost entirely by my own efforts, I mastered thoroughly the principles of cricket and of English literature, and attained a mastery of my own character which would have done credit to my mother and Aunt Judith if only they could have understood it. […] I look back at that little boy with amazement, and, as I have said, with a gratitude that grows every day. But for his unshakable defiance of the whole world around him, and his determination to stick to his own ideas, nothing could have saved me from winning a scholarship, becoming an Honourable Member of the Legislative Council and ruining my whole life.

James’s faults apparently weren’t serious enough to prevent his being hired to teach at his alma mater. One of his students was Eric Williams, who would go on to earn a doctorate in history at Oxford, lead Trinidad to independence, and serve as its prime minister until his death in 1981.

In his spare time, James played club cricket, was active in literary affairs as part of a group that published the literary magazine The Beacon, and wrote short stories and a novel. One story, “Triumph,” appeared in Trinidad, a short-lived magazine that James co-edited. Another story, “La Divina Pastora,” was published in Saturday Review and anthologized in Edward J. O’Brien’s Best Short Stories of 1928.

During a vacation, James wrote his only novel, Minty Alley (1936), a coming-of-age story about Haynes, a bookish young Black man whose life is unsettled when his mother dies and he cannot afford to remain in the family home. He rents a room in a house in Minty Alley, whose other residents are of a lower social class. Haynes is fascinated by their passionate approach to daily life, so different from his own middle-class upbringing, and is drawn into their lives in various ways. A classic of West Indian literature and the first Black West Indian–authored novel to be published in Great Britain, Minty Alley offers an impressive sociological portrait of Trinidad in the 1920s.

At the time, the island was undergoing a profound transition, beginning the process that would lead to independence from Britain in 1962. The leading political figure was Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani, a white planter born to Corsican immigrants, who had served as an officer of the West Indies Regiment during World War I. While his regiment saw little action, Cipriani was impressed by how well the soldiers, many of them “barefooted men,” adapted to the complexities of a modern military. This led him to conclude that the West Indian people were fully able to handle the democratic responsibilities of political independence.

Cipriani was the first advocate of self-government for Trinidad. After the war, he revived the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association and later founded the Trinidad Labour Party, with a socialist platform modeled on that of the British Labour Party. As Cipriani was fond of saying, “What’s good enough for the English worker is good enough for me.” When Trinidad’s first election was held in 1925, in order to fill a minority of places on the Legislative Council that advised the British governor, Cipriani was elected to represent the Port of Spain constituency. On the council, he was a constant thorn in the governor’s side, advocating a minimum wage, compulsory education, nationalization of the foreign-owned electric company, and the abolition of child labor. James was drawn to Cipriani and wrote a biography, The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies (1932), an early, very useful source on Trinidad at a turning point in the island’s history.

James left for England in 1932, taking with him the manuscripts of Minty Alley and The Life of Captain Cipriani. Determined to earn his living as a writer, he headed for Lancashire, where he had an invitation from the great Trinidadian cricketer Learie Constantine, the first Black man to play in England’s professional ranks. Constantine offered to look after James until he could establish himself. James returned the kindness by ghostwriting Constantine’s autobiography, Cricket and I (1933), while Constantine financed the first printing of The Life of Captain Cipriani. One of its chapters, “The Case for West Indian Self-Government,” was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press as a pamphlet.

Constantine also introduced James to The Manchester Guardian’s Neville Cardus, the dean of England’s cricket journalists and an eminent classical music critic. Cardus was impressed by James and immediately hired him to cover county matches, a job he held off and on for six years, the income from which provided significant support to James. Years later, after receiving the distinction of knighthood, Sir Neville would observe that “[c]ricket is much more than a game for Mr. James: it is a way of life.”

In London, James was drawn to politics and took to the chaotic milieu of the British left like a young duck to water. If Trinidad in the 1920s was in transition, Britain in the 1930s was in a positive frenzy, its intellectuals polarized between fascism and different flavors of communism. The great argument on the left was whether Soviet Russia was, as the propagandists claimed, a workers’ paradise or, as mounting evidence indicated, a totalitarian betrayal of the revolution.

James sided with the mounting evidence, joining James Maxton and Fenner Brockway’s Independent Labour Party. Brockway introduced James to Fredric Warburg, of the famed banking family, who had recently entered the publishing business. Warburg read Minty Alley, still in longhand, and offered to publish it. It was one of the first novels published by his fledgling firm Secker & Warburg, which would go on to release such important works as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya (1938), as well as translations of works by Robert Musil, Thomas Mann, André Gide, Franz Kafka, and Alberto Moravia.

Minty Alley appeared in 1936, the same year that James’s only play, Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History, was performed in London’s West End by the Stage Society, with Paul Robeson in the lead role. In 1937, Secker & Warburg published James’s World Revolution, 1917–1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, a systematic critique of Stalinism that was regarded, for a time, as a key theoretical work for Trotskyites. In 1938, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution followed, a landmark history of the Haitian Revolution. In 1939, James’s translation of Boris Souvarine’s French exposé, Stalin: A Critical Survey of Bolshevism, caused a stir when it was published on the eve of the Moscow trials.

As a self-described “literate and loquacious colonial,” James was in high demand as a public speaker on both general politics and colonial issues. As Warburg recalled in his memoir, An Occupation for Gentlemen (1959):

James himself was one of the most delightful and easy-going personalities I have known […] [H]e stood six feet three inches in his socks and was noticeably good-looking. His memory was extraordinary. He could quote, not only passages from the Marxist classics but long extracts from Shakespeare, in a soft lilting English which was a delight to hear. Immensely amiable, he loved the fleshpots of capitalism, fine cooking, fine clothes, fine furniture and beautiful women, without a trace of the guilty remorse to be expected from a seasoned warrior of the class war. He was brave. Night after night he would address meetings in London and the provinces, denouncing the crimes of the blood-thirsty Stalin, until he was hoarse and his wonderful voice a mere croaking in the throat. The communists who heckled him would have torn him limb from limb, had it not been for the ubiquity of the police and their insensitivity to propaganda of whatever hue. If you told him of some new communist argument, he would listen with a smile of infinite tolerance on his dark face, wag the index finger of his right hand solemnly, and announce in an understanding tone — “we know them, we know them” — as of a man who has plumbed human wickedness to its depth and forgiven it, since man even in his wickedness is pitiable.

Shortly after his arrival in London, James went to hear a prominent Black communist, George Padmore, only to discover that Padmore was the nom de guerre of his childhood friend, Malcolm Nurse. While Padmore and James had political differences, their friendship resumed. With Jomo Kenyatta and others, James and Padmore founded the International African Service Bureau, which promoted African decolonization. James became the editor of its journal, International African Opinion, but perhaps his greatest contribution to Pan-Africanism was made after he arrived in the United States, where he met Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghanaian political activist, theorist, and future leader of Ghana. James gave Nkrumah a letter of introduction to Padmore, asking the latter to “do what you can for him because he’s determined to throw the Europeans out of Africa.” Padmore and the Bureau were instrumental in helping Nkrumah launch the Ghana Revolution.

At the end of 1938, James went to Mexico to visit Trotsky, telling the exiled Bolshevik that the Black movement was better organized than the labor movement and should be autonomous. Trotsky did not agree. James determined that Trotsky’s mind was occupied with Russian issues, but he also concluded that something must be wrong with the man’s reasoning if he’d arrived at the wrong conclusion.

James spent the next 15 years in the United States, devoted to examining the Hegelian roots of Marxist thought. He used the pseudonym J. R. Johnson and collaborated in many of his efforts with Raya Dunayevskaya (a.k.a. Freddie Forest), Trotsky’s former secretary. The duo formed the Johnson–Forest Tendency, published theoretical works and pamphlets, and developed a small following.

Unfortunately for James, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service did not make distinctions among left-wing political activists. Caught in the McCarthyite web, he was interned on Ellis Island in 1952 to await deportation. As his second wife, Constance Webb, wrote in Not Without Love: Memoirs (2003), James suffered from a painful ulcer and the onset of Parkinson’s. He was fortunate to survive, as Ellis Island’s infirmary was ill-equipped to care for him, and most of the other political prisoners were Stalinists who viewed him as an enemy. James managed to use his term of incarceration profitably, though, writing Mariners, Renegades & Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953), a gem of a study of Moby-Dick and Pierre.

Freed in 1953, James left for London, where he wrote about politics for publication in the United States. He visited Nkrumah and advised him during the early years of the ill-fated Ghana Revolution. He also began work on Beyond a Boundary, a brilliant blend of autobiography, cricket, and commentary on West Indian and European culture, all of which is infused throughout with James’s considerable charm. It is frequently cited as among the finest books ever written about cricket.

James returned to Trinidad in 1958 at the invitation of Eric Williams, his friend and former student, whose People’s National Movement was leading the island to independence. While there, James helped Williams formulate policy and edited the PNM’s newspaper, where he stirred up a lively controversy, described in Beyond a Boundary, over the captaincy of the West Indies cricket team. He lectured widely on politics and West Indian culture, and published two books aimed at a West Indian audience: Modern Politics (1960) and Party Politics in the West Indies (1962).

James also served as secretary of the West Indies Federal Labour Party, part of the governance of the West Indies Federation, which was established as a pathway to decolonization. While the federation was a promising idea, it was doomed by the constituent islands’ divergent economic interests and conflicts between their leaders. Jamaica withdrew first, followed by Trinidad, and a powerful enmity developed between James and Williams. James left for England in 1962, just before Trinidad’s independence — a painful experience for one of the earliest proponents of West Indian self-government.

In England, James prepared Beyond a Boundary for publication and continued to write articles for the Trinidadian press. When he returned to Trinidad in 1965 to cover a cricket match for a British paper, he was placed under house arrest, but the public outcry threatened to turn into a riot, forcing his release. He remained in Trinidad for several months, founding an unsuccessful political party to oppose Williams and the PNM.


Thanks to St. Clair Drake, my professor and mentor, I met C. L. R. James in October 1976 in Washington, DC, where he was a professor of humanities at Federal City College. His health was delicate, and he tired easily, but his mind was incredibly agile. We met three times during the week I was in Washington, discussing a variety of literary and political subjects. (Excerpts from our conversations are published in the companion piece to this essay.) Of particular interest to me was his novel Minty Alley, which I’d read two years earlier in Trinidad. The novel had impressed me, as its vivid characters resembled the people I had known while lodging with the family of a college friend.

Several months after we met, I received a phone call from James, who asked whether I would be interested in adapting Minty Alley “for the stage or whatever they’re doing these days.” I told him that I was certainly interested. I said that I had been wondering whether he would be willing to be interviewed on video. He suggested that I come to Washington for further discussions.

I arrived at his apartment at the Chastleton a week later. He opened the door dressed to the nines, wearing a suit and the distinctive wide-brimmed hat that was his trademark. At 76, he cut a dapper figure. He announced that he wished to take me to lunch at a French restaurant, Sans Souci. The name appealed to him as a historian of Haiti, for Sans-Souci was the tyrant “King” Henri Cristophe’s most elaborate palace.

The restaurant Sans Souci was a favorite lunch venue for Washington’s political elite, and while I was being outfitted with jacket and tie by management, James discussed cuisine with the maître d’. All eyes were drawn to him, a phenomenon I repeatedly witnessed while in his company, as his style and quiet intelligence were magnetic.

The following evening, at the Kennedy Center, we saw Arnold Wesker’s The Merchant (1976), based on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. While the play had some interest, James was ultimately disappointed. He took it in good cheer, though, commenting, “If I could speak to the playwright, I would tell him that it is not necessary to rewrite Shakespeare — only to read him properly.”

The last time I saw James was in Los Angeles in 1981, when he was on a speaking tour. He had aged considerably since our last visit and was very frail. Though he carefully rationed his energy, he came to life during his lectures. With crystalline elocution, he gave three hour-long lectures in 24 hours, on different topics, each a perfect essay on its subject. At UCLA, he was heckled and nearly jostled by members of the Spartacist League.

While he was in Los Angeles, we signed a literary purchase agreement for Minty Alley, an arrangement that pleased him enormously. While James had largely surrendered his literary ambitions to his political commitments half a century earlier, it was obvious that the artist in him was alive and well, and that he didn’t want that aspect of his life submerged when the final accounting took place. I showed him the copy of Minty Alley he had inscribed to me in 1976: “Literature here, not politics, or political by accident.”

C. L. R. James was a brilliant, articulate, charming man, one of the finest public intellectuals of the 20th century. He was not one to lounge on what he called the “bathing beaches of contemporary philosophy.” While he profoundly comprehended the personal terms in which social problems manifest, he was a materialist and refused to indulge a tragic worldview. He was also intellectually pragmatic. As he wrote in his preface to Beyond a Boundary: “If the ideas originated in the West Indies it was only in England and in English life and history that I was able to track them down and test them. To establish his own identity, Caliban, after three centuries, must himself pioneer into regions Caesar never knew.”

James intimately understood European culture. His teachers, after all, were Thackeray, Shakespeare, and Marx, whose methods of inquiry he mastered along with their ideas. James extolled the virtues of a humane democracy, in which the interests of all members of society are respected, rather than trod upon by the greed and ambition of a few.

When Beyond a Boundary received its first US edition in 1984, Derek Walcott, the 1992 Nobel laureate in Literature and probably the Anglophone Caribbean’s greatest poet, reviewed it on the front page of The New York Times Book Review:

In his long life Mr. James has arrived, through this book, at a calm center. His calm is that of a meridian between two oceans, two cultures, even between radical and conservative politics, without mere neutrality. His calm is not neutrality. It has the passion of conviction, for decent conduct is the first and last thing required of men, as it is of states.

James spent his final years in London, where a public library branch was named in his honor in 1985. (There was subsequently an attempt to rename it due to James’s leftist politics.) In 1987, he received Trinidad’s highest honor, the Trinity Cross. After his death in 1989, at age 88, James was buried on the island where he was born.

Since James’s passing, most of his books have been reissued, along with many volumes about him and his work; he even had a place of honor in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe (2020), an anthology of five films about West Indians in England. Meanwhile, Michael Dibb’s terrific 1976 documentary on James, produced for BBC’s Panorama series and also titled “Beyond a Boundary,” can currently be found on YouTube and Vimeo. It beautifully captures the C. L. R. James I knew.


Alan Warhaftig taught in LAUSD for 28 years. In retirement, he is pursuing his longtime interest in Caribbean studies.


Featured image: Joseph Stella. Metropolitan Port, ca. 1935–1937. Smithsonian American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery, Transfer from the General Services Administration, 1972. www.si.edu, CC0. Accessed December 14, 2022. Image has been flipped to mirror image of original.

LARB Contributor

Alan Warhaftig taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 28 years. In retirement, he is pursuing his longtime interest in Caribbean studies.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!