Don’t Be Afraid of Going Wrong: Conversations with C. L. R. James
By Alan WarhaftigJanuary 12, 2023
ALAN WARHAFTIG: Can you say a bit about your experiences when you left Trinidad for the UK?
C. L. R. JAMES: Before I went to Queen’s Royal College, I had read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair about 10 or 15 times. I used to read that book over and over again. Not because it was a famous book, not because it was a classic novel — because it was in the house. And it was a long book — about 800 pages. I couldn’t absorb it, you know. But I would read it all. And there I got into the habit — I am sure from there — of being very disrespectful and critical of people in authority. Thackeray is very strong on that. He is against the English aristocracy, who had to give way at that time to the bourgeoisie. He’s not so much in favor of the bourgeoisie, but he recognizes that the aristocracy’s claims to superiority have no real basis. And he uses his tremendous powers of sarcasm and description against them.
And I absorbed that, so that, by the time I was about 15, that is the way I saw the world. And it was very helpful to see the world that way in the Caribbean, because the people who came from Britain and ruled the colonies were in much the same situation as the aristocrats were in Thackeray’s novel. And I absorbed that, and, very naturally, I passed into the idea of being against them. I was against them before I analyzed who or what they were. It was natural to me to be against them, and particularly when they came from England and were ruling and the chief justice was appointed from Britain and the attorney general and the governor were appointed, and all of them … I didn’t do anything about it, you know. I simply felt that’s the way I grew up.
Well, I had made up my mind from early on that I was going to earn my living as a writer. I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I didn’t want to be a doctor. I didn’t want to be a teacher. I wanted to be a writer. But it was obvious — to be a successful writer dependent upon your public, you had to go to England or the United States. You could not be a successful writer in Trinidad. There wasn’t the audience. Who would publish your books? So I kept sending stuff abroad that was accepted by publishers, and I saw that I had gifts in that direction, so I kept on saving money and eventually had enough to go to England and start. [At that time,] Learie Constantine, the great cricketer, was living in England, and I told him about this. And he told me — a very generous man — “You come to England and do your writing. And if your writing is not successful immediately, I will see about it.” So I went.
What did you do when you arrived?
I went up to Nelson — in Lancashire, where Constantine lived — and I went to see a local cricket match. And I saw there one of the greatest of all cricketers. He was at this time a man of 60, and I wrote an article about him. Why? Nobody knows. A habit of journalists. I sat down and wrote the article. Something had struck me, so I wrote — 1200 words. I showed it to Constantine and said, “Look.” And he looked and said, “That’s a very fine article.” I said, “Where can I get it published?” He says, “I don’t know, but I can tell you what to do. Send it to Mr. Neville Cardus — the senior cricket writer in England at The Manchester Guardian — and tell him I told you to send it to him and ask him if he can get it published.”
So, I sent it to Mr. Cardus. And I get a letter from him telling me to come and see him. Nelson is about 40 miles from Manchester. I picked myself up, and I went to see him. He said, “We like your article very much. We are going to publish it.” I said, “What? In The Guardian?” He says, “Yes, we’re going to publish it in The Guardian. And there’s something else. I have a lot to do here reporting cricket. I want to have an assistant so that I can go off in this direction. Would you like to do that?” I said, “I’d be most willing.” He says, “Well, you’ll hear from us by the time next season begins.” And next season, they gave me a job. So, I went straight away and, for years, earned money by writing about cricket for the press. And a lot of publicity.
You spoke to a lot of public groups when you were in England. How did you get involved in that?
Now, I have always been a remarkable speaker from a public platform. It is a quality that I respect but do not exaggerate because you can have that quality and perpetrate the most stupid and mischievous ideas, or you can have that quality and put forward ideas that are really beneficial. Now, since I was 16, I’ve been speaking an hour or two. I never used a piece of paper. Never. I stand up and speak for an hour and a half, two hours sometimes.
And I go to England in 1932 and the anti-imperialist, anti-colonial movement has not yet developed fully. But it is coming, and various elements in the Labour Party, or various people who are interested in colonial questions, are very anxious to hear a literate and loquacious colonial speak about the colonial problem. And here is one! So, they sent for me everywhere: “Come and speak to us.” So, I went all over England, and then they began to see my name in the newspapers writing on cricket in The Manchester Guardian. All the progressives read that paper. Even the reactionaries read it. And I made my name on cricket matches. And then I write books, so there are reviews of my books. I published, in England, six books in six years. And so, I get widely known. They’re sending for me, and people are telling others, “That James is a tremendous speaker. Send for him. He can hold an audience.” And I’ve been able to do that all the time. That’s one of the burdens of my life.
You wrote a play about Toussaint L’Ouverture, the hero of the Haitian Revolution. When it was performed, Paul Robeson starred as Toussaint, and you also had a role in the production. How did you come to be involved in this?
A friend of mine told me, “Why don’t you give your play to Mr. So-and-So of the Stage Society?” I said, “I don’t mind.” So, he read it, and he said, “Well, Mr. James, we will perform your play.” I am astonished because they have performed the plays of Bernard Shaw, and that’s the kind of society — a very distinguished body. And to have a play performed by them … So I say, “Okay, I will be very glad.”
But they say, “We will want Paul Robeson to play the leading part. Do you know him?” I say, “Yes.” “So ask him.” I say, “Well, I’ll ask him.” I used to see Paul Robeson — we used to talk a lot. Paul was living in London at that time — he was a tremendous figure in London. And he read it and said that he would play. So, the Stage Society got a lot of professional actors, and I used to go there watching them rehearse. We had one actor playing a certain part, and he wasn’t doing it well. So, two or three days before the performance, there was a meeting of the committee, and the committee said, “That man can’t do that scene. James, you have to take the part.” I protested. I said, “What is all this? I want to sit up in the audience and watch the play.” They said, “You have to play.”
It wasn’t a very important part, and I didn’t play against Robeson. But I’ll tell you this much: Robeson always believed that that play would be a success. And I remember him telling me, “James, we will put on that play. I will play Toussaint, and you will play [Jean-Jacques] Dessalines; and then I will play Dessalines, and you will play Toussaint.” But at the time, he was heading towards Moscow, and I was a Trotskyite.
Yesterday, you were telling the story of how, when you went to meetings of the British Communist Party, you would sometimes gain the floor and show them from their own pamphlets how they were misquoting Lenin. Could you tell that story again?
I could give you one concrete example of that. A woman from Russia, who was in England at the time, held a meeting at which she set out the Stalinist policy. And she said, among other things, that Lenin had always said that socialism could be constructed in a single state. And she read from a pamphlet in which Lenin was supposed to have said that. Now, on the platform was Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, and one or two others. I believe one of the poets was there who was a Stalinist — he joined the Stalinist party. But Kingsley Martin was there and one or two other British intellectuals. And she read from this volume of Lenin, a book translated and published at any rate by the British Communist Party. She wouldn’t see that I was putting up my hand to speak. So, Gerry Bradley, on that occasion, told her, “Comrade James wants to say a few words, and he’s been standing up, and here he is. Are you going to let him speak?” And she knew that Bradley had the reputation that he would bust up any meeting. Tremendous fighter! He lived near to me. An extraordinary man!
Well, she finally said, “Yes.” And I got up and read from a volume — that same volume of Lenin — in which Lenin had said that socialism was impossible in a single country. And the Stalinists had published that volume and had published a translation of what Lenin had written. But Stalin, about 1924 or ’25, had crossed that out in Lenin’s publication and had written that it was possible. And that was the book she read from! But I got up and said, “I have here your own Communist Party publication of that speech, of that writing by Lenin where he said it is not possible. I say, I have it here. Let me bring it up and show it to you.” And I walked right up to the platform and said, “Here it is, here is Lenin’s volume where [there’s] a statement that socialism is impossible in a single country … here it is on page so-and-so.” And I showed it to her. And Kingsley Martin and the rest of them read it and said, “Yes, there it is.” They couldn’t understand that. And the meeting faded away.
I don’t know that it was so politically important. I don’t know what good it did. But it was great fun to destroy their meetings. They had no means of stopping me at all because I had so much of what they had published that was against what they were saying. And I was very familiar with this material. So, I remember one or two meetings where I arrived late and, when I walked in, could see what had happened to them at the platform. They knew that there would be trouble now, and they would be talking and whispering to one another and would bring the meeting to a close as quickly as possible. At the mere sight of me! And the pamphlets in my pocket!
Did the cricket ethic get in the way of your revolutionary politics?
It might have. We were brought up with the cricket ethic … a certain acceptance. The cricket ethic is essentially an ethic of acceptance. And it may have gotten in the way. Because I know the writings and some of the boys from Guadeloupe and Martinique, and their attitudes show that their tradition is the tradition of the French Revolution. But the tradition of the British intellectuals is parliamentary democracy. The Liberals in and the Tories out, or the Tories in and the Liberals out. That is the British tradition. And the cricket ethic is part of that. But today, after some 10 or 15 years of independence, we are getting rid of that. And the cricket ethic itself is under fire.
In addition to your writing and political work, you are now teaching. How are you getting on with your students?
I’m teaching at Federal City College [now called University of the District of Columbia], and I am doing there quite well. I think they like me. I like them very much. Many people are coming there — 35 years old, 45, 50 — who have been doing domestic work or some manual labor. And they come there to get an education, and usually it’s Black people. It’s not an education to go out and get a job but to understand the world a little better and to go and be active in progressive movements. In that respect, they mean more to me than all the students I have had.
What are you teaching?
I am teaching history. But, well, I am teaching also, for example, the philosophy of history — which means I am taking everything into consideration. I have spent one or two sessions on Ibn Khaldun, a Muslim in North Africa in the 14th century, who wrote one of the finest treatises on what history means that I know. Then, I’ve got a boy who is a Buddhist, a white boy, to come and tell them what is material in a discussion between a Buddhist priest and [Arnold] Toynbee. In reality, I don’t do so much history as I do history as a part of the humanities.
You have written that unless professors and students participate in the conflicts of their own society, they cannot possibly understand the problems and solutions attempted by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
Yes. I wanted to draw the attention of my students to the fact that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were not professors in some abstract university. They were in Athens at the time, and Plato was very hostile to the democracy. And it was his hostility to the democracy that led him to work out The Republic and various other texts. He was dealing with realities — that is the basis of the Greek philosophers. They were dealing with democracy, in life. There it was. And that’s why they remain, up to this day, the foundation of all that we are attempting to do. And the tendency of students is to read these books and to get answers ready for the questions they will be asked when it comes to their final papers. And that’s what I wanted to break down. “Unless you are aware that there is a struggle going on around you, and know what is taking place,” I said, “you will not be able to understand Plato, Aristotle, and the rest of them. You won’t be able to understand the relevance of an intellectual movement and ideas to a concrete social struggle.”
After so many years of traveling, where is home?
My home is where I find myself most happy in the political work that I’m doing. And at present, I would like my home to be in Trinidad for the sole reason that they know me and I know them. And the Caribbean as the whole is in a position of crisis in which anybody who has some contribution to make should be ready to make it. For that particular reason, I would like to be there at the present time.
Otherwise, I have nowhere to be home. The places I really like would be Tanzania or Cuba. But I have no home … I live in England — I’ve been there for a number of years. Most of my books are there, and my papers. But I have no conception of home. But I would like to go to Trinidad because I could be of great use there, more use than I am here. I could teach and take part in what is going on. I know the Trinidadian people very well, and they know me. They know my father. I’d like to go back to the Caribbean because we have shown in the past that we have immense possibilities, not only for self-development but [also] for doing things that mean something in the world at large. And I know a whole lot of young people in the Caribbean from all the various territories who are thinking in terms of new conceptions and new developments. And they look at me and feel that I am with them. I certainly am with them. I’m prepared to listen to them, and I’d like to go back there. They will listen to what I have to say because what I have to say is not to tell them what to do but to ask them, “What is to be done? You tell me. You all must tell me.”
When the revolution broke out in 1970, I happened to be in Ottawa speaking. And I told them, “I want you to take note that I am saying here that at the present time, the policies of C. L. R. James are the policies that the revolutionary elements in Trinidad are carrying out. Don’t let anybody quote what I have written in books against what they are doing. What they are doing is what matters, and please put aside my ideas. I hope they helped them to reach where they are, but be clear about that: not what I’ve written in books but what the young people are doing.” And my idea of going to the Caribbean is to encourage this process of development, this readiness to experiment and leave behind what they are ready to leave behind. But they are a bit nervous as to where they are going, so I would tell them, “Everything now depends on you. Don’t ask me. You find out. You know. And go wrong. Don’t be afraid of going wrong. Lenin says that a man who never went wrong never did anything. So go wrong and you will find out. As long as you have a general democratic attitude, and the moment things are too wrong, then people will complain, and you will change to something else.”
But those islands, I believe, have a great future, and I would like to contribute to what is taking place at the present time. And that, I think, is the end of it, and where normally you would play, in England, “God Save the King.” Well, tonight, we haven’t got that, but that’s the end of it.
How did you come to write Minty Alley?
That novel was written [around] 1928. That is pretty near half a century ago. And what has astonished people of this generation is the clear manner in which the conflict in the novel has been posed. The sharpness of the relationship between the educated middle-class West Indian, of whom Haynes is one, and the rank-and-file people — I call them not proletarians but plebeians. The conflict there is as sharp as it could be. And what is really astonishing is that, at the time I wrote the novel, I hadn’t the faintest idea of any social relationships or social antagonism. All of that is something that I have been able to see afterwards.
At the time, I was interested in fiction writing. And one vacation — about 1928 — I had been living in the place that is the house in the novel. I had two rooms there — I began with one, but I had two — by myself. And all that took place in the novel was going on around me, and I saw it, and I was busy practicing the business of writing. I was about 28 — 27 or 28. The girl I married [Juanita Samuel Young], I was engaged to her then. But I saw these people for the first time. Previous to that, my life had been spent among Black middle-class people — teachers and others of the kind. I had gone to Queen’s Royal College. I was teaching there. So that sort of person and that sort of life was an entire mystery to me. Now, what to do? And then I think I made the first of two very good strokes. I transferred the person who was there amid those plebeian people to myself at the age of 20.
As I say, I was about 27, and I understood something of the world. But I thought, imagine that I had just left college at the age of 19, and I had gone to live there and had met these people for the first time. So that the events of when I was living there are seen through the eyes of a 19-year-old boy, just educated at the Queen’s Royal College. That’s what this novel is about. And I have all the characters in the country at the time. There was Mrs. Rouse, who is a West Indian type. Her morals were the morals of the West Indies: she would live with a man, but she was a Victorian woman and had this sense of devotion to the man she was in love with, and concentration upon what she ought to do. And her manners and style were very Victorian. That interested me because I knew the Victorian tradition very well.
Did you go on to England after you graduated from Queen’s Royal College?
No, I didn’t. I remained there, though of the nine masters at Queen’s Royal College, eight of them were from Oxford and Cambridge. Later, I went back there to teach. So I moved in that atmosphere all the time. And I was very familiar with it. And the clergyman in my neighborhood was Reverend Merry, where my father used to teach — he was an Englishman, and he was very friendly. I knew his sons very well. So, I was very familiar with the Victorian type, and Mrs. Rouse is a woman of the old school. The nurse [Nurse Jackson] is a woman in-between — light-skinned, with many ideas that the light-skinned people had and the opportunities that they got. But she was one who had been unable to make it among the whites. Benoit was a good-for-nothing West Indian. There were quite a lot of men about in the Caribbean like that, and they were interested in nothing else but women. They had no ambitions. But the nurse had stimulated him because she had given him some ideas that he should be better, but nevertheless, that he was.
Then came the East Indian girl, Philomen. She was a servant, and at that time, in the twenties, the East Indian population in Trinidad had not yet lifted itself. So, she represented a typical East Indian of the ordinary type, fighting to do her best by hard work in order to be accepted among the plebeian Blacks. That was all she was. The other person who was very important in the book was Maisie. And Maisie was a girl I saw there. Now, a large percentage of the events in the novel are modifications or intensifications of things that actually took place. There is a character called Miss Atwell — Miss Atwell really lived there. And there they were, so I was aware of all this, but I put myself in that place as a younger man.
I never slept with Maisie. But I knew that, at the age of 19, my chief ambition would have been to sleep with Maisie. At the end of the book, when Benoit dies and the whole thing falls apart, I don’t do what was commonplace in the Caribbean at the time — make Maisie my mistress and put her to live somewhere and give her two or three children. I make her the dominant character. It is she who tells Haynes, “Look here, we must finish up with this. I am not going to go on with this. We have had enough. I am going.” And all through, it is clear that she is in many respects a stronger character than Haynes. He has education, good manners, good style — but she has character. And there were times when Haynes watched her and wondered if the girl whom he was going to marry — who was certain to be middle-class, well-educated, and refined in the British style — if she would have the extremely valuable and attractive qualities that Maisie had. And that is an important part of the book — Maisie, and the making of Maisie into the central character, and at the end it is she who decides what her future life is going to be.
Haynes is a very calm character, very quiet.
Quiet, well-educated — a Black middle-class person.
It seems that the greatest energy he expends is in trying to give Maisie those qualities in his own mind.
Oh, but those qualities that Maisie had … She wasn’t educated, but all the things he tries to give to Maisie, there were elements of them in her already. And that’s a reason that the book turns out to be now — in 1976 — fundamental to an understanding of the differences in the Caribbean. Not about independence anymore — that is clear to everybody, but the middle-class Blacks who are ruling cannot find any sort of relation to the plebeians and the proletarian types. And that is the problem. Now, I hadn’t worked it out. I hadn’t thought of that. I had written a novel, but I think I must have had very good sight and a very good education. By that time, I knew Thackeray, Dickens, Aeschylus, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy. And I saw among these people the violent passions I knew from books. I wrote this book at the rate of a chapter a day because … I was only writing.
What comes through, from reading the book, is that at the time you had a very strong sense of literary convention. The story doesn’t show the strains of having been structured.
No, it doesn’t at all. I did that very easily. I wrote it a chapter a day. I was just enjoying myself. And I took the manuscript with me to England where, in 1935, I met my publisher, Fred Warburg [of Secker & Warburg], who became a good friend. And I happened to mention a novel I had written. He said to me, “You have written a novel? Let me see it.” I said, “It isn’t even typed. It is still in my handwriting. It’s of no use to you, Fred. I’m getting ready to write World Revolution and Black Jacobins.” He said, “Let me see it.” So, one day I gave it to him. He read the manuscript and said, “I’m going to print it. And I’m going to give you a £50 advance,” which was equivalent to about $250, something like that. I said, “Well, if you want to print it …” So, it was printed, and it was well reviewed, and people said this was an interesting book. But nobody cared about the West Indian social life.
What did they liken it to? What did the critics say it reminded them of?
There was a lot of discussion about superstition. That was the kind of thing that British people were interested in at the time. The people were very superstitious, and their passions and hatreds and so on … What troubled a lot of them was to see that I was writing about West Indian people who were, in all the essentials of life, a Western people. They were superstitious, but there are many people in Europe who were as superstitious as they were. But the general life — there was nothing originally primitive in their lives. That’s what struck the reviewers as strange. They didn’t expect that.
You came from the Caribbean and wrote a very sophisticated novel. Was England prepared for that?
They were quite struck by that. They recognized that it was a finely written novel — they took it for granted, but they expected more. They expected the people to be much stranger. They expected people to be African. Or to be Amerindian, or something of that kind. But what they said was, “This is a remarkable novel, eh, good.” It was published. It was reviewed. And all who read it were quite pleased. But I noticed among many people a certain feeling that it lacked something violent that they expected from the Caribbean. And something strange, something tribal, something demonic.
The thing that strikes me is that there are some very intense and very important contradictions treated in Minty Alley, but they’re handled in a very gentle way.
I didn’t feel [that] I was doing anything else except writing. I wasn’t expressing the life of the people in Trinidad. I was practicing novel writing, which I had been studying. That was all.
What sort of character is Haynes? How did the Europeans view him?
The upper classes looked upon Haynes as one of those who had been educated … Many of the Blacks had removed themselves from the plebeian people and were quite “respectable,” so to speak. Haynes was not militant. Haynes wasn’t against anything. But I had one phrase there about Sergeant Parkes. I made it clear — with one paragraph — that Sergeant Parkes, who wanted to marry Mrs. Rouse, had been chosen by the chief of police to go down to “the islands” with the white people, who used to go there and carry on all sorts of sexual adventures and so forth. I put that in particularly to make it clear that it was not Black people alone who were doing this, that something of the same kind was going on elsewhere. But that wasn’t my business. I was merely concerned with these people. You know, this thing occupied me a great deal. In a purely human way. I was not concerned with them as social beings. I was not concerned with them politically. I wasn’t concerned with them rising from where they were. I wanted Mrs. Rouse’s business to succeed so that she would have some money. And I wanted Maisie to have some money — to have some nice clothes and so on. At the time, that was all.
But nevertheless, I keep on wondering: how was it that I saw so clearly? Many people tell me that, in England, people are quite fascinated with the book now. There is an English woman I know — middle-class English — who tells me [that] she doesn’t like Maisie. She says Maisie has no appeal to her. But to my wife [Selma James] and another set of young women, who are up to their eyes in the struggle for Women’s Lib, Maisie is a hero, and they say she is the beginning of everything — this defiance and refusal to be dominated by anybody and so on. So, that is what there is in the book … to me — I, who know how the book was written and the limitations of the person who wrote it. Today, of course, politically, I can see what it means. But in those days — that’s what I wanted to say — I had not one inch of political ideas in my mind. That came afterwards.
Have you ever wanted to write more novels?
I intended to write another novel. I had a novel in mind. But when I reached England — 1932, that was — the five-year plan was hitting Europe. It started in ’28. The Independent Labour Party split away from the Labour Party. Sir Stafford Cripps was in mortal enmity with the leaders of the Labour Party. So, I went into politics and never went back to fiction. Never wrote a line. I had a novel in my mind, but it is not important …
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.
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