Novelist and orator, philosopher and cricketer, historian and revolutionary, Trotskyist and Pan-Africanist - there are few modern figures who can match the intellectual depth, cultural breadth or sheer political contrariness of Cyril Lionel Robert James. He was a lifelong Marxist, yet one with an uncommonly fierce independence of mind that expressed itself both in his rejection of conventional Marxist arguments and in his refusal to repent of his politics, even when it became fashionable to do so in the 1980s. He was an icon of black liberation struggles, and yet someone whose politics was steeped in a love of western literature and civilisation, whose affection for cricket was matched only by his love for Shakespeare. Above all, he was a humanist who never lost faith in the transformative power of collective human action.
Yet, as Farrukh Dhondy observes, C L R James remains relatively unknown outside the confines of cultural studies courses, black history groups and a handful of Trotskyist sects (although cricket lovers are fond of quoting his adage: "What does he know of cricket who only cricket knows?").
James's life and work have never received the kind of scrutiny they deserve. Dhondy first met James at a Black Panther Movement meeting in the late Sixties. A decade later, James came to lodge in Dhondy's house and the two became close friends. This friendship suffuses the book, gracing it with an unusual warmth. Dhondy provides a rounded portrait of James the man, a far from uncritical sketch of his intellectual vigour, his quickness of thought, his obstinacy, his arrogance, his warmth, and his failures as a lover and a father. But C L R James is also too impressionistic a portrait, and too lightweight in its assessments, to restore its subject to his rightful place in 20th-century political and intellectual history.
Dhondy is at his best in his appreciation of the humanist impulse behind James's work, and in recognising that the paradoxical source of this humanism was the colonial culture in which James grew up. James, Dhondy notes, "was the only intellectual of the black diaspora to espouse and embrace the intellectual, artistic and socio-political culture of Europe".
In an age where the struggle for black rights often meant the espousal of separatism, or of an "African" road to socialism, James "uniquely submerged racial awareness and distinction to democratic and egalitarian goals". It was a world-view, Dhondy observes, forged originally not by politics, but by literature and cricket.
Today, notions of "western civilisation" and "western culture" are more often than not seen as Eurocentric, the means by which to marginalise black experiences. James argued the very opposite. "We live in one world," he wrote in his 1969 essay "Discovering Literature in Trinidad", "and we have to find out what is taking place in the world. And I, a man of the Caribbean, have found that it is in the study of western literature, western philosophy and western history that I have found out the things that I have found out, even about the underdeveloped countries." For James, the works of Shakespeare and Hegel, of Mozart and Melville, provided black people with a means of breaking out of the particularities of their experiences and of entering a more universal form of discourse. And what of the influence of cricket? "It may seem absurd, or at least far-fetched," Dhondy notes, "to associate affection for a game with so large an ambition as delineating the directions of the history of our time. But James's origins and life as a colonial in early 20th-century Trinidad led uniquely, but precisely, to such an association."
For the architects of the British empire, cricket was more than just a game. It was a means of transmitting the values of discipline to the masses, while training the elite in its role as guardian of the empire. James drank deeply from such a Kiplingesque well. "I never cheated," he wrote. "I never appealed for a decision unless I thought a batsman was out. I never argued with the umpire . . . From the eight years of school life this code became the moral framework of my existence. It never left me."
But, as with literature, James saw cricket not simply as a building block of empire, but also as a vehicle for forging an anti-imperialist consciousness and a sense of national pride. In the Sixties, as the editor of the Trinidadian newspaper The Nation, he successfully campaigned for Frank Worrell to be selected as the first black captain of the West Indies, when it was still assumed that the West Indian team must be led by a white man. And throughout his life, James viewed cricket as a means of helping unite a disparate set of islands, of establishing a West Indian as opposed to an island mentality. He had little difficulty understanding why Norman Tebbit should make cricket the basis of his loyalty test - or why most black people should fail it.
Given his background and inclinations, it was inevitable that James should, in 1932, leave Trinidad for Britain - "an Englishman going back home", he once said. In Britain, James earned his money writing about cricket for the Manchester Guardian. But he made his mark as a fiery speaker and agitator with the Independent Labour Party, where he discovered a new world of western civilisation - that of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. James's Marxism eventually led him to America, where he spent 15 years debating, agitating, theorising and finally breaking with the Trotskyist Socialist Workers' Party - and with Trotsky himself.
Dhondy has little understanding of, and even less sympathy for, James's Marxism. To him, the Thirties and Forties are a blur of factionalism, splits and hopeless fantasies. Certainly, much of what James wrote in those years, in works such as World Revolution and Notes on Dialectics, is naive, and Dhondy's disdain for James's rhetoric might be the understandable view of a disillusioned radical looking back at the wreckage of 20th-century communism. Such disdain, however, does not make for illuminating biography.
There is little sense in Dhondy's account of the political and intellectual ferment of the Thirties and Forties that formed the backdrop to James's work. If James's belief that world revolution was imminent now seems fantastic, it certainly did not at the time. In a world torn apart by two world wars, the Depression, mass unemployment and fascism, even many intelligent conservatives were unwilling to bet on the survival of their system.
Dhondy's scorn for James's Marxism may be understandable. What is less comprehensible is his treatment of James's masterpiece, The Black Jacobins (1938). The story of Toussaint L'Ouverture and the slave revolt against the French on the island of Saint Domingue (the modern Haiti) is an extraordinary synthesis of novelistic narrative and meticulous factual reconstruction. All his favourite themes are to be found here: the importance of political leadership; the transformative power of mass action; western culture as both source of oppression and of emancipation; the necessity for class action across racial lines. The Black Jacobins is not simply James's most important and influential work. It is one of the most important historical works of the 20th century, standing comparison with E P Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. It is perhaps symptomatic of the weaknesses of Dhondy's biography that he should devote but a few scattered paragraphs to a discussion of the book.
James broke with Trotskyism in the early Fifties over two main issues: his refusal to accept the idea of the vanguard party, and the refusal of Trotskyists to take seriously the question of racism. He embraced pan-Africanism and became a mentor to - and eventually a bitter critic of - a generation of African and Caribbean leaders.
His writings on race and on black rebellion turned James into an icon of black radicalism and nationalism; and in the Seventies, a new generation of "cultural studies" academics embraced his cultural writings. How ironic that a man who insisted that "the origins of my work and thought are to be found in western European literature, western European history and western European thought" should become a hero to those whose vision of politics is to sweep away the legacy of dead white European males. It is, Dhondy observes acidly, "an undeserved fate" that his reputation now rests with those who least understand his life and work.
Kenan Malik's work can be found at www.kenanmalik.com