CLR James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries review – making of a Marxist icon

A genius, a seducer, a self-destructive wreck… the firebrand author, historian and critic was a complex, fragile human being, as John L Williams’s biography reveals

CLR James died on a May morning in 1989. He’d had a lot of practise. For years previously the sad news had been broken to those who called on the old revolutionary, sportsman and critic unannounced: “CLR James is dead.”

For James it had become, John L Williams tells us in his new biography, something of a catchphrase. Much about Cyril Lionel Robert James – CLR to his disciples; “Nello” to intimates, Jimmy Johnson to the FBI – is contained in the gag. His love of mischief, his sometimes shocking asociality, a hint of his chronic health problems. And it reveals something else too: his extraordinary appetite for drama.

That appetite – that audacity – was evident from James’s first job, as a teacher in Trinidad, organising, choreographing and directing a school play of his choosing: The Merchant of Venice. To James’s delight, the all-Black student body “picked up the Shakespearean rhythm to perfection”. Twelve years before James’s move to Britain and conversion to Marxism – 18 before The Black Jacobins, his vaunted study of the Haitian revolution – and we already glimpse one of James’s key commitments. The literary leads to the social, and the social leads to the literary, as James put it, decades later. We make art – and art makes us.

Art’s “central action” for James – the working out of societal and existential dynamics in the struggles of the individual – was present in every aspect of his life. It was in the literature he spent silent hours and days engrossed in: Balzac, Hazlitt, Melville. It was in the Marxism he adopted and then reinvented. It was in his adored cricket: an interest as constant and as all-consuming as his devotion to high culture.

Not that James would recognise a distinction between the two. Both The Oresteia and a cricket match, he explained, grasp “at a more complete human existence”. Popular culture wasn’t, as some Marxists construed, an inert subsidiary to politics, a phenomenon external to the material, meaningful world. It was, James wrote, an extension of that world, an expression of the desires of ordinary people: of what they sense is possible in their lives, but not present. What they want but cannot have.

And any politics based upon the capacity of ordinary people to transform society ought to pay close attention to what ordinary people actually want. In 2022, it sounds commonplace. In the 1940s it was an insight too radical for many radicals. Even James himself claimed he watched Hollywood movies only to cope with the stress of intensively studying Hegel.

Culture wasn’t the only party line James crossed. Among Marxists he stressed the importance of race; amid black radicals he maintained the centrality of class. Rejecting Leninism in favour of a libertarian system of workers’ councils, he could be brutally, even prosaically, pragmatic when mentoring anti-colonial activists. “Buy refrigerators for your fishermen,” he told one visiting revolutionary, “and don’t shoot any nuns!”

And beneath the cult figure lay a flawed, contradictory human being. Williams, in this sense, writes a group biography. There’s James the Victorian, hater of vulgarity; James the romantic, doggedly pursuing the integrated human personality; James the seducer; James the genius; James the wreck, incapable of settling, perpetually insolvent, self-destructive, self-loathing. Beaten badly as a child, “Nello” struggled to open up. His marriages failed. His only son vanished.

An awareness of that fragility leads Williams to second-guess James, not always to his credit. Responding to an exhortation by CLR to “call for, to teach, to develop spontaneity – the free creative activity of the proletariat”, his disbelief is palpable. “This is utopian thinking,” Williams warns, “a dream of politics as it should be, not a reflection of reality.” James – a historian for whom materialism didn’t foreclose human agency, but foregrounded it; an activist who knew ideas were as real, in their own way, as events; a critic who knew writing could be action as decisive as any strike or demonstration – wouldn’t have agreed. “The future is contained”, James wrote, “in the present”. What you want is made present – made real – in what you cannot have.

In The Black Jacobins, James begins with a piece of boilerplate historical materialism: “Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint.” But with his usual audacity – that characteristic taste for the dramatic – there’s an appendix: “And even that is not the whole truth.” For CLR James, so much rested on those last words. So much still does.

  • CLR James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries by John L Williams is published by Constable (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


Madoc Cairns

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