100 Years of C.L.R. James

by Ralph Dumain

Today, January 4, 2001, is the 100th birthday of C.L.R. James. He missed out on the last 11 of these years. A more cynical person than I might count him lucky on this account, but our responsibility is to engage in the necessary retrospection to understand him and the century in which he lived, and, very importantly, how the two intersected. Is there a way we can do this without repeating the endless hollow overviews and without perpetuating the repellent rituals of hero-worship?

The last decade has witnessed, among its many travails great and small, a strenuous effort to establish James Studies as a viable and serious enterprise. The groundwork has been laid, but how much has been built upon it over a decade? This is not the place to cover the ground in detail, but some general observations are in order.

Not to denigrate the efforts of others, but the most ground-breaking work was achieved by Anna Grimshaw (in league with The C.L.R. James Institute), James's personal assistant during much of his last decade up to his death, whose major achievements within James Studies (i.e. not counting her work as an anthropologist), involved the editing and publishing of James's own work—most importantly hitherto unpublished materials—against the machinations of certain obstructionists, and secondly, providing a guide in her own essays, articles, and pamphlets to James's integrated vision. The 1990s saw numerous attempts either to augment or strangle Grimshaw's singular achievement in raising James Studies to a new level, but no published efforts have yet yielded a comparable leap to a new synthesis that would definitively pinpoint James within the conceptual universe of his century.

Not that more is not known or that no work has been done or that no comparative studies have been attempted: bits and pieces are there. What do I mean? Allow me to proceed by indirection.

James's engagement with the world begins with the social and mental universe of colonial Trinidad, barely emergent from the world of British Victorianism. As an autodidact he worked his way through the world, living it as a specifically socially situated (if later in life marginalized) individual rather than as an impersonal world epoch in general. He did not experience the civilizational crisis of World War I as Europeans had experienced it. His world-view was not toppled upside down nor was he affected by the avant-garde movements which were a product of this upheaval. James absorbed the European crisis later through Spengler, but it was not the same thing. By the time he got to experience it for himself in the 1930s in Britain, he did so as a person conditioned in a very different environment, with a freshness toward the world not having been habituated by its terror in the same way as his European (or even American) counterparts. He made totalitarian bureaucracy the basis of his oppositional view, but he never knew the fear. And still less the pessimism.

James's trajectory continued through a 15-year engagement with the USA, which saw the consolidation of his analytical methods, going beyond even his epochal achievement in historiography—The Black Jacobins—in collaboration with the other eccentric autodidacts of his tendency. After his expulsion from the USA in 1953, he retraced his steps several times for the rest of his life, in Britain, Trinidad, and the USA. His other universally recognized achievement was Beyond a Boundary, which explained not only the social meaning of the appropriation of English cricket by colonized West Indians of African descent, but the formation of his own life-world. It is not necessary now to enumerate all his other significant publications, except to mention that the American period yielded some comparably significant works: Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, the uncompleted but finally published American Civilization, and one might even add Notes on Dialectics and State Capitalism and World Revolution as his methodological summae.

I am being deliberately sketchy here, but I tell this abbreviated story to show the barest outline of a trajectory that has been oft-told but insufficiently analyzed. Neither the full extent of James's achievements have been adequately analyzed nor his significant shortcomings: all of which are of a piece. One cannot say that James exhaustively analyzed his world any more than we have exhaustively analyzed him. James selectively absorbed his environment in an original way, and selectivity implies omissions and commissions good and bad. Filling in the gaps to place James accurately in our universe of knowledge has not happened. Most comparisons with European thinkers—Gramsci, Adorno, etc.—remain superficial where they have been made at all. Some scholars are on the trail, but it doesn't look like the world has yet really got it. A new synthesis has not yet gelled.

And meanwhile the world has changed. The world to which James was applicable if at all is gone. Though it has yet to be admitted, James is really of retrospective value, for understanding our world retrospectively, not currently. Politically and culturally, James is of limited use for the problems of the 21st century, except to disabuse ourselves finally of the accumulated illusions of the 20th. This in itself is no trivial task. We are situated at the brink of something new and horrible. We can't think the new until we have definitively analyzed what we have passed through so that we can clearly perceive how we are now distinct from it. To paraphrase William Blake's obscure formulation, error must be given a definite and determinate form so that it can be cast off; create a separate space for it and then go someplace else.

The best we can do to honor James on his birthday, which in itself would have just bored him, is to think and fight ourselves out of the old and into the new.

©2001 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

To learn more about C.L.R. James, read:
"C.L.R. James: A Revolutionary Vision for the 20th Century" by Anna Grimshaw
C.L.R. James & American Culture: Addendum by Ralph Dumain
C.L.R. James & Usona Kulturo
(C.L.R. James & American Culture) de Ralph Dumain (in Esperanto)

For James quotes, try a few of my favorites:
C.L.R. James on the (Post)Modern Intellectual & the Division of Labor (1950)
C.L.R. James on Descartes & the Division of Labor
C.L.R. James on philosophical wastrels
C.L.R. James on the Secret of Hegel's Dialectic
C.L.R. James on West Indian Writers vs. T.S. Eliot & Jean-Paul Sartre: The New World & the Old

Live Interview on C.L.R. James with Ralph Dumain on KPFA’s “Living Room” (2004)

On Jim Murray & me:
Enlightenment Blackout
"New York Hurt Me, New York Healed Me"

For James texts & related material (by myself and others), see:
The C.L.R. James Institute

Related projects:

Herman Melville's Moby Dick & the Contradictions of Modernity

FEEDBACK: Melville the "Atheist"

"How to Think" (Sojourner Truth Organization)

Hegel, Marx, Goldner, C.L.R. James, Enlightenment & the Philosophical Dichotomies

The Dialectics and Aesthetics of Freedom: Hegel, Slavery and 19th Century African American Music by Greg Harrison

"Pocahontas": an intellectual play by Edward W. Pearlstien

"Oh, To Freely Pursue the Scholarly Life!" by Gary Shapiro

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe Study Guide

Richard Wright Study Guide

American Philosophy Study Guide

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Uploaded 4 January 2001
Links last revised 15 February 2020
Previous revision 29 October 2019

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