C.L.R. James: A Revolutionary Vision for the 20th Century

by Anna Grimshaw

In focusing upon one part of his much more comprehensive study of civilization, James hoped to develop his ideas about the creative process in society and history through debate with a number of American and European critics. The passionate tone and sweep of the letters which he wrote during 1953 to Bell, Leyda and Schapiro reveal the scope and urgency of the project beginning to unfold. These early exchanges also establish the elements of James's distinctive approach to questions of art and aesthetics; specifically his acknowledgement of the role of the audience in creative work, his adaptation of Melville's theory of original characters in great literature, and his careful excavations of the process by which life is transmuted into art.

The subjects James raised with literary critics ranged from comic strips to Aeschylus; and yet it is important to recognise that they are located within a single conception of civilization and its evolution.

Two essays written at much the same time, Notes on Hamlet (1953) and Popular Art and the Cultural Tradition (1954) define more clearly the broad historical contours within which James situated explosions of artistic creativity. For him, the development of the character Hamlet heralded the birth of the modern age--the freedom of the individual, the brilliant entry into history of the Cartesian subject ("I think therefore I am"). The work of the twentieth century filmmakers, however, marked a new stage. The innovative form and substance of film revealed to James what was distinctive about the twentieth century.

James argued that by developing a new form, a mass art form, Griffith, Chaplin and Eisenstein were posing anew the relationship between individual and society. In his view their work, with its panoramic scope and close-up focus, reflected more generally the dialectical movement of the contemporary world. At its centre was the presence of ordinary men and women and their need to express the uniqueness of their individual personalities within the expanded context of world society.

The critical figure in this historical shift from the old world to the new, from Europe to America, from the isolated, fragmented subjects of Proust or Picasso to the power and presence of humanity itself as the creative force in civilization, was Melville. In James's understanding Melville's work formed the bridge. It was part of a tradition which stretched backwards into history; and yet, for James, Melville was the artist whose work looked to the future.12 Moby Dick with its fusion of nature and society, individual and community, the particular and the universal, was filmic. The broad canvas (the panoramic scope) against which Melville situated individual character (the human personality in close-up) anticipated the creative developments of the twentieth century arts--particularly film.

But Melville's artistic prescience was not accidental. In developing the theory of the original character (". . . a type of human being that had never existed before in the world . . . the character itself becomes a kind of revolving light illuminating what is around it. Everything else grows and develops to correspond to this central figure so that the original character, so to speak, helps the artist create a portrait not only of a new type of human being but also of society and the people who correspond to him"), James was seeking to explore the connections between artistic creativity and moments of fundamental change in society.13 This became clarified as the relationship between the expansion of democracy (which resulted in new conceptions of the human personality and social life) and creative innovation (which refracted and gave expression to these hidden currents in human history).

Melville's depiction, in Moby Dick, of the ship's crew as the symbol of humanity against the destructive power of Ahab and the vacillation of Ishmael, heralded the appearance in the twentieth century of ordinary people as the force for civilization. James exposed the historical antecedents. They were to be found in the work of Shakespeare.

Like Whitman and Melville, Shakespeare wrote at a critical moment in history, as one era gave way to another. It was caught both in the form and substance of his work. For James King Lear held the key, being the dramatic culmination of Shakespeare's exploration of the question of government through the history plays and tragedies. Critical was the appearance of a new character, Edgar/Poor Tom--"Edgar, by his origins, by his experiences as Poor Tom and the various crises through which Shakespeare puts him, emerges as the embodiment of a man not born but shaped by a society out of joint, to be able to set it right."14

It was characteristic of James that, as a prelude to offering his particular interpretation of Shakespeare, he outlined the foundations of his method. This involved taking a position vigorously opposed to the conventional tradition of literary criticism. James began to make explicit the principles which governed his approach in the opening pages of a document known as Preface to Criticism (1955). He anchored his critical method in Aristotle's Poetics. He took as his point of departure the dramatic quality of Shakespeare's work and made central an understanding of the performance itself, the role of the audience and the development of character and plot. It is not hard to identify here the emergent form of the project which later became Beyond A Boundary.

The interpretation of King Lear James offered in the later pages of Preface to Criticism, and his belief in its central importance as a political play, clarified over the subsequent three decades. In particular, decolonisation and its aftermath threw questions of government, at the heart of King Lear, into ever more sharp relief.

(Africa, The Caribbean, America, Britain)

The Gold Coast revolution stood at the centre of the work James carried out during the second part of his life. The issues raised by this landmark in modern history drew him back into active involvement with the Pan-African movement; and, as both his private correspondence and public writings revealed, James was interested in exploring the dynamic connections between different aspects of the black diaspora in order to establish the presence of Africa at the centre of the emerging postwar order. James's letter (to Friends) of March 1957 represents a particularly fine example of his integrated perspective.

Despite the focus provided by the events of decolonisation, it is important, however, not to lose sight of the broader dialectical pattern which marked this phase in James's life--the creative links between his engagement with specific political moments and the much bigger intellectual project he was pursuing concerning the development of democracy in world history. There was constant movement between the two, between the particular and the universal; and, at certain times, James achieved a remarkable original synthesis within his own writing.

The letters on politics which James wrote to his associates in the years following his departure from America focused upon contemporary trends in eastern Europe (specifically the Hungarian revolution), Africa, the Caribbean and the United States. These upheavals raised to prominence the power and presence of ordinary people in the struggle for civilization. Challenging both oppressive political structures and the conventional forms of leadership and organisation, the events of the late 1950s were for James the concrete manifestation of social currents he had anticipated in work carried out a decade earlier. But as these letters show, James also saw their profound connection. Not only did these upheavals underline the general power of ordinary men and women to intervene critically in historical events. They also marked something new and specific--the appearance of black and colonial peoples as a decisive force in the shaping of modern society.

James returned to the Caribbean in 1958 after an absence of twenty-six years. He was highly sensitive to the significance of the historical moment. He saw the approach of independence as a time when fundamental questions concerning government, society and the individual were unusually clarified. Moreover he held that independence offered the populations of the colonial territories a unique opportunity to chart their future, weaving elements from their particular past with broader currents animating the modern world. James raised these issues in his public speeches, writings and journalism during the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was anxious to make the Caribbean people aware that they were indeed at the forefront of the struggle to found the new society--one, James anticipated, which would reflect something fundamental about the movement of world society as a whole.

Three articles James wrote while editor of The Nation illustrate these themes and have remarkable unity. First of all, in an important essay on Abraham Lincoln, James raised the most general question posed by independence--the question of democracy. His discussion drew upon his own break with the European tradition and his commitment to the society emergent in the New World. It was here that he saw the future of the Caribbean. Just as Lincoln, responding to a particular moment in history, extended and deepened the conception of democracy, so too, according to James, the Caribbean peoples at independence would emerge as a dynamic force--extending further in the twentieth century the theory and practice of democracy. James left no doubt about his recognition of the power, creativity and capacity for self-organisation among ordinary people. This was the theme of his later article on Carnival. But, for James, nothing gave more concrete focus to this dialectical interplay in modern history than the distinguished career of George Padmore.

Over a period of several months, beginning in late 1959, James published in The Nation extracts from his drafted biography of Padmore. What was interesting about Padmore's career was that it encompassed both the early struggles for freedom and democracy by colonial peoples which drew heavily on the European revolutionary movement; and the new, later, phase which was initiated by Nkrumah. The revolution in Ghana established Africa as the creative source for political resistance worldwide. It transformed at a stroke all previously held conceptions of revolutionary praxis. According to James, the work of Padmore, a West Indian, had been critical in this fundamental shift.

This theme, the relationship between the colonies and the metropolis, James took up again later, exploring it more fully in an appendix to the new edition of his classic work, The Black Jacobins. He recognised that questions of nationhood and national identity were at the heart of independence politics; but he had no time for the narrow, small-island mentality of the new Caribbean leaders. Indeed his challenge to them was explicit in the very title of his 1962 appendix, From Toussaint L'Ouverture to Fidel Castro.

James's view of the Caribbean was built upon a recognition of its distinctive past, its rich and diverse cultural traditions, its modern peoples; but, above all, he was fascinated by its peculiar place in the evolution of modern society. In The Black Jacobins he interpreted the plantation slaves to be among the first proletarians, working with industrial technology in the most advanced sector of Europe's international economy. James believed that Caribbean society two hundred years ago had revealed the critical elements of a world system still in the early stages of its evolution. He understood the island societies at independence to be similarly placed. This lay behind his passionate advocacy of a West Indian federation.

For James, federation became the collective symbol of the search for a new conception of nationhood appropriate to the world of the late twentieth century. At its core was the need to create something new from existing forms. But as he revealed in the conclusion to his appendix, this historical process was also refracted through the creative imagination and found concrete expression in the literary innovations of the Caribbean novelists. James's discussion of the work of Cesaire, Naipaul, Lamming and Harris neglects, however, to mention his own highly original work, Beyond A Boundary. It was published in 1963, the year following Trinidadian independence.

Beyond A Boundary completed the search for integration which James had begun in the Caribbean some sixty years before. As a boy he had grasped intuitively the interconnectedness of human experience; through political work in Europe's revolutionary movement he developed a consistent method for approaching the complexity of the modern world; but it was his experience of America which enabled him to realise fully his integrated vision of humanity. Thus, it is almost impossible to think of Beyond A Boundary apart from his great, unpublished manuscript on American civilization. In both works James achieved an extraordinary creative synthesis, a fusion of the universal movement of world history with a particular moment in contemporary society.

What James gave expression to in this book has to be understood as an extension of the tradition he had already established in his critical work on Shakespeare and Melville. If, according to James, Shakespeare heralded the birth of the individual personality and modern democracy in the creation of the character Hamlet and more fully developed it in King Lear (Edgar); if Melville recognised the danger posed by unbridled individualism and set against it the humanity of the crew; if Griffith, Eisenstein and Chaplin founded their creativity in the lives of ordinary men and women; then Beyond A Boundary represented the next stage. It broke the existing categories which fragmented the aesthetic experience. Its originality as a study of the game of cricket--and yet Beyond A Boundary was neither a cricket book nor an autobiography--symbolised a new and expanded conception of humanity as the black and formerly colonial peoples burst onto the stage of world history.

In the ten years since James's departure from the United States he had been preoccupied with this central question--the relationship between democracy and creativity. It was rooted in his revolutionary Marxism. But James was now charting new areas--he was seeking to clarify some of his general ideas through the detailed examination of artistic explosions within history. He believed that at those moments in history when existing conceptions of democracy were being broken and expanded through political struggle, there was a release of tremendous creative power. Thus the innovation of artists, such as Shakespeare or Michelangelo, Mozart or Melville, Picasso or Jackson Pollock, came out of the struggle at these moments to redefine the human personality. In the twentieth century, however, James believed that what the individual artist in history had struggled to achieve was now the struggle of ordinary people everywhere.

Beyond A Boundary was the product of this intense project. James's analysis of the game of cricket highlighted the direction of his general thesis. The core of the book was the chapter, "What is Art?"--James's exploration of the aesthetic experience. Later he intended to expand these ideas in another book built around an interpretation of photographs of cricketers in action. He wished to investigate here the sculptural dimensions of the game. What James had in mind may be guessed from the many notes and jottings he made at the time he began to write Beyond A Boundary. These suggest that he was interested in approaching the player in action as a form of public art, where "man is placed in his social environment in terms of artistic form"; and he was concerned to situate him within a historical tradition which began, in James's view, with the shift from sculpture to tragic drama in early Greece. The cricketer was a modern expression of the individual personality pushing against the limits imposed on his full development by society. It was inseparable, for example, from the artistic impulse James interpreted to lie behind the work of the great twentieth century film-maker, D.W. Griffith, and which he described in the following terms: "It was essentially Greek in spirit, (but) concretely modern. He says always--man in society. His films show individuality in movement within a social form historically expressed. It is Shakespeare and Aeschylus over again. The same relation."15

James transcended the division between high and popular art in Beyond A Boundary. This was something he achieved as a result of his stay in America, and it opened the way for him to excavate the aesthetic dimension of human experience as a single, yet multi-layered experience. It was here James established the area of integration, that creative fusion of individual and community, experience and knowledge, art and everyday life. Moreover, he recognised that what was achieved here was unique. It had profound implications for all other aspects of social existence.

In the years which followed the publication of Beyond A Boundary, James traveled widely through Africa and the Caribbean. His energies became focused on the problems of the newly-independent countries. His analyses drew heavily on the work of Shakespeare and Lenin; and it is not surprising to find them linked in the opening paragraph of his essay, Lenin and The Vanguard Party. If James had made King Lear the basis of his understanding of the question of government (and of the sheer brutality which often surrounded the collapse of the old order), he looked to the work of Lenin for an analysis of the problems of revolutionary transition. Throughout the latter part of his life, James claimed to be actively working on two books: one on Shakespeare and the other on Lenin. He failed, however, to complete either study.

Much of James's discussion of the post-colonial order was anchored in his analysis of the Ghana revolution. But his perspective was much broader, for he understood the birth of the new nations as a transformation in world society as a whole. Thus to analyse the rise and fall of Nkrumah was to cast light on the contemporary form of the age-old problem faced by all revolutionary leaders--the problem of government. For James, no one had addressed this more profoundly and concretely than Lenin.

Against the accumulated record of confusion and distortion surrounding Lenin's contribution to revolutionary praxis, James re-stated his simple, yet profound, insight into the phase of revolutionary transition. He depended heavily, particularly in his 1964 essay Lenin and The Problem, upon Lenin's last writings. From these he established the two guiding principles: the abolition of the state and the education of the peasantry; but, as James knew all too well, the new leaders of Africa and the Caribbean had both failed to dismantle the colonial state they had inherited at independence and they had distanced themselves from the popular forces mobilised to create the new society. His early article written for a Caribbean readership, The People of the Gold Coast (1960), and the later series of essays entitled The Rise and Fall of Nkrumah (1966) indicate the shape of his thesis and the development of ideas James had first articulated in The Black Jacobins.

James returned to the United States in the late 1960s. He spent more than a decade teaching in various universities and speaking widely on contemporary events. As his speeches on Black Power (1967, 1970) and Black Studies (1969) reveal, it was impossible for him to approach the political explosion of America's blacks without a developed historical perspective or an understanding of their dynamic connection with other resistance movements worldwide. The world was now one world. Mindful of his own statement on the black question some twenty years before, James recognised the serious threat such a movement posed to the organisation of society as a whole. It was symbolised, above all, in the adoption of the revolutionary slogans of black and Third World movements by people struggling against oppression worldwide. Even in the midst of the 1968 Paris upheavals, the French students drew much of their inspiration from such symbols as Che Guevara, Mao, Castro or the Black Panthers; and revealed, in a critical sense, that Europe's place as the centre of revolutionary praxis was decisively over.

Despite the speed of events and the urgency of debate during this period, James remained sensitive to the broader question of the relationship between these intense political struggles and forms of creative expression. His essays on Sobers (1969), Picasso and Jackson Pollock (1980) and Three Black Women Writers (1981) provide the evidence of this continuing interest in the question of democracy and creativity. These pieces are also the reminder of James's distinctive method of criticism--that is, his focus first and foremost upon the artistic work itself. James always insisted upon the integrity of the artistic vision, setting out to master its constituent elements before seeking to situate work of the creative imagination in society and history. His portrait of the West Indies cricketer, Garfield Sobers, is a good example of the approach. What was implicit here, however, was the theme of his later essay on modern art.

James interpreted the form and substance of Picasso's work to be a reflection of the crisis in European civilization, the struggle between humanity and barbarism, between creativity and decay. At its centre was the fragmented human subject amidst war, chaos and destruction. And yet, as James emphasised, in his critical appraisal of Guernica, Picasso had placed contradictory images in close juxtaposition. To him this suggested that Picasso as an artist could not make up his mind about human nature. He recognised at once the capacity for evil and the tremendous creative potential.

For James the first step taken in the artistic resolution to this crisis was by an American painter, Jackson Pollock. Jackson Pollock had started where Picasso finished--with the destruction and fragmentation of the human subject; but within the abstract nature of his work James found the beginnings of reconstruction, the emergence of humanity, of the active, integrated subject.

Later James saw the black women writers (Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange) as an integral part, indeed the most advanced manifestation, of this struggle to achieve "an active, integrated humanism" in the modern world. Their work, like Pollock's, came out of the New World. It represented something new, opening a window on the directions in which modern society was moving.

During his last years James often reflected upon his life's course. Although his strength was slowly, almost imperceptibly, slipping away, he could in conversation often startle his visitors with the brilliance of his insight, his grasp of the details of history, the accuracy of his analysis of contemporary events. He remained a revolutionary to the core. As his whole life and work had shown, there was no limit to how far such a philosophy and method could carry him. His vision of humanity, however, was animated by the simple but profound belief in the creative capacities of ordinary men and women. They were the force for civilization.


1. Reviewers at the time, while noting Robeson's contribution to the play, found Toussaint L'Ouverture rather stilted. Some thirty years later, the playwright Arnold Wesker wrote to James about the revised version of his play, now called The Black Jacobins: "Your canvas is enormous and I was fascinated to read the way you handled it. . . But there is a spark which is missing from the whole work. Forgive me, but there does seem to be something wooden about the play. The construction is dramatic; the dialogue carries the story and the dialectic of what you want to say, but when all the component parts are put together, it doesn't work." (Wesker to James, 16 May 1968).

2. Letter to Constance Webb, 4 February 1944.

3. See Discussions with Trotsky (1939), reprinted in At the Rendezvous of Victory (Allison and Busby, 1984).

4. Notes for an autobiography, see under section The C.L.R. James Archive: A Reader's Guide by Anna Grimshaw (C.L.R. James Institute, New York 1991).

5. Ibid.

6. Johnson was James's pseudonym; Forest, the pseudonym of Dunayevskaya.

7. Letter to Constance Webb, 1945.

8. For a detailed analysis of this work and the circumstances of its writing, see C.L.R. James and The Struggle for Happiness by Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart (C.L.R. James Institute, New York 1991).

9. Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, p.76, Allison and Busby, London 1985.

10. The intensity of this personal struggle was revealed in James's letters to Constance Webb in the late 1940s.

11. The fusion of the particular and the universal, the real and the symbolic, the actual and the potential. See my Popular Democracy and the Creative Imagination: The Writings of C.L.R. James 1950-1963 (C.L.R. James Institute, New York 1991).

12. James explored the connections between great works of art through an analysis of character. He was particularly interested in those characters which were continuations of a certain general type, e.g. the rebel or the intellectual, and yet revealed the specificities of a particular historical moment. Thus he understood Prometheus, Lear and Ahab, in situating their rebellion against the prevailing order outside society, to be part of a single tradition. But each of these original characters also revealed something new and specific about the age from which they emerged.

13. Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, p.77, Allison and Busby, London 1985. This was a theory which James borrowed from Melville's The Confidence Man.

14. Letter from James to Frank Kermode, September 1982 (my emphases), see under section III. in The C.L.R. James Archive: A Reader's Guide.

15. To Whom It May Concern, 20 September 1955. See under section II. in The C.L.R. James Archive: A Reader's Guide.

[End of Part Three & document]
(c) 1991 Anna Grimshaw


This essay was originally published in booklet form (comprising pp. 9-43) by The C.L.R. James Institute and Cultural Correspondence, New York, in co-operation with Smyrna Press, April 1991. 44 pp. ISBN 0918266-30-0.

It became the Introduction (pp. 1-22, notes pp. 418-419) to The C.L.R. James Reader, edited by Anna Grimshaw (Oxford, UK; Cambridge, USA: Blackwell, 1992).

Reprinted by special permission of Anna Grimshaw and The C.L.R. James Institute, Jim Murray, Director, 505 West End Avenue #15C, New York, NY 10024.

Web page prepared by Ralph Dumain, Librarian/Archivist, 8 October 2000.

Web page (c) 2000 The C.L.R. James Institute. All rights reserved. This text may not be published, reprinted, or reproduced without the express written consent of The C.L.R. James Institute.

(Uploaded 9 October 2000)

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