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The future in the present.

Paget Henry and Paul Buhle, eds., C.L.R James's Caribbean. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992. 285 pp. Cloth $45.00; Paper $16.95.

Anna Grimshaw, ed., The C.L.R. James Reader. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. 450 pp.

C.L.R. James passed away four years ago at the age of eighty-eight. He had written, over the course of a remarkable career, more than a dozen books and several hundred articles. In the last fifteen years, four volumes which collect many of his writings have also appeared. Nine additional books, both critical commentaries and collections of his writings, have either appeared or been announced since 1986.

James was born in Trinidad in 1901. His career--political and intellectual--took him from the West Indies to England to the United States to Africa and back again. He participated in the labor movement, left-wing organizations, and nationalist struggles in Africa and the West Indies. He wrote historical studies and political tracts, literary criticism, and novels. His commentaries included Shakespeare and soap operas, Picasso and cricket. What does C.L.R. James have to say to us now? Why are two C.L.R. James anthologies--one edited by Paget Henry and Paul Buhle, the other by Anna Grimshaw, both released in 1992--in particular, worthy of note?

None of us would deny that these are difficult times to be radical historians. Famine, disease, and ethnic hatreds are sweeping the world. Social amnesia and one-dimensional thought seem to dominate American culture. Twelve years of rightwing Republican rule have given way to "new" Democrats who offer little hope to most of us. The labor movement has reached its lowest point in two generations, while jobs disappear, wages plummet, and working conditions decline. These are difficult times indeed.

It is in times like these that we can learn so much from C.L.R. James. Half a century ago, in another dark period, he wrote:

[T]he seal of the bankruptcy of bourgeois civilization is the bankruptcy of its thought. Its intellectuals run to and fro squealing like hens in a barnyard when a plane passes overhead. Not a single philosopher or publicist has any light to throw on a crisis in which the fate not of a civilization but of civilization itself is involved. (1)

Paul Buhle usefully contrasts James with his contemporaries in the Frankfurt School. Unlike Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and company, Buhle writes, James "has never been overwhelmed by defeat." (2) James's West Indian roots freed him from the weight of European culture, yet allowed him a "dialectical acceptance of its accomplishments as a springboard for other works, outside and contrary to the mainstream, which would transcend the West's palpable limitations." (3)

In the darkness, James's great contribution is to help us discern the "future in the present." In a 1953 letter to a friend he wrote: "[T]he future is not born all at once. It exists in the present. The thing is to know where to look." These two books provide rich evidence that perhaps more than any other twentieth century thinker, James knew where to look.

His investigations took him not only into workplaces and oppositional movements, but also into poetry, drama, art, plays, movies, sports, humor, carnivals, radio, and television. Again and again, he identified dynamics, contradictions, liberatory impulses--evidences of a new world throbbing within the shell of the old.

I believe then that the forms in which these new passions and needs can be expressed are already clearly before us, although thwarted by the limitations of the very society that has helped to produce them. (4)

Much of James's peculiar insight rested on his refusal to accept dichotomies. He learned from both West Indian folk life and culture and the European colonizing presence. He spent long hours reading literary classics and he immersed himself in working-class life. He explored Shakespeare and Aristotle and comic strips and soap operas for insights into the human condition. He enthusiastically supported class struggle and independent movements for black liberation. Indeed, his sense of the dialectics of liberation rested on the synthesis of such seeming dualities in social movements, movements which progressed at such remarkable speed that intellectuals and would-be leaders were challenged to keep up with their dynamics.

James's peculiar sense of dialectics was only part of his restructured Marxism. He decentered the workplace and he de-emphasized the contradiction between the forces of production and the social relations of production. Instead, he saw the moving force of modern times in the tension between individual freedom and social life. "American society is driven by the fundamental conflict be tween the need for individual self-expression and the enormous need for collective association," he wrote while awaiting deportation in 1953. "This is the fundamental conflict in the world at large, though it has nowhere reached the pitch of sharpness it has in the United States." (5)

Driving this conflict forward was the cumulative development and creative energies of ordinary working people. Each generation incorporated the highest achievements of the previous generations. In response to a friend's despair about the rise of fascism, he wrote:

[T]oday the average advanced worker accepts as legitimate certain human and social values which make him, as a human being, infinitely superior to these men of past ages, infinitely his superior in intellect, learning and nobility of character ... The slow accumulation, century by century, of the thoughts of the great philosophers, which they could only hold on to as ideals, are now the common property, as a matter of everyday life, of millions upon millions of ordinary people. (6)

In struggle with its dialectical opposite, this cumulative development becomes the moving force of its time. James continued:

[T]his unprecedented movement towards a more profound civilization finds itself in terrible conflict with the existing social order... Fascism is nothing more than the attempt to suppress it ... The German Fascists struck at every principle I have outlined--men were not theoretically equal, the good life was not for man but for the state, etc. But, in the crisis, certain startling truths emerged. What people thought was the heritage of all civilization was defended only by the working class. (7)

James scoured contemporary society for "the future in the present," for arenas in which the "creative energies of ordinary men and women" beat against the boundaries of everyday life.

While James did not privilege struggle at the point of production, he explored the workplace through the lens of his particular framework. He conceptualized the labor process itself as a struggle over control, in which the workers' quest for self-actualization brought them into conflict with management's quest for domination. At times, as in Hungary in 1956, this struggle could explode from the workplace to engulf an entire society. There, as elsewhere, James looked for the "self-organizing that often contained alternative institutional solutions to problems that workers experienced." (8)

The social movements that emerged, then, were prefigurative of the sort of post-revolutionary society that could be expected to develop. James looked for grassroots empowerment, creativity and growth, as well as the emergence of transformative identities in oppositional movements. This perspective informed not only his analysis of working-class struggles in the industrialized West, but also the national liberation movements that swept post-Second World War Africa and the Caribbean. "James's post-colonial focus is on liberating the human potential of Caliban from the dehumanizing grip of the colonial class compromise," write Paget Henry and Paul Buhle. "The importance of self-organized mass activities derives from their educative significance for the participants." (9)

Yet, during most of James's lifetime--and ours as well--social explosions and transformative movements have been the exception rather than the rule. Far from despairing, this led James into cultural analysis in his pursuit of working-class creativity, identity, and self-expression. Here he was guided by the same framework he brought to workplace struggles and oppositional movements--a focus on the contradictions between mass self-expression and the institutional boundaries that sought to contain it. In 1943, he wrote in a letter to a friend, herself an aspiring actress:

The movies, even the most absurd Hollywood movies, are an expression of life, and being made for people who pay their money, they express what the people need--that is, what the people miss in their own lives ... [L]ike all art, but more than most, the movies are not merely a reflection, but an extension of the actual--an extension along the lines which people feel are lacking and possible in the actual. (10)

James's cultural analysis rested on a particular appreciation of the role of individual artists, how they could serve as expressions of "the future in the present." He contended: "The greatest writers seem to be those who come at the climax of one age, but this is because the new age has grown up inside the old and they are watching both." James analyzed individual artists in terms of their relationship to their historical context, but also to earlier artistic high points and breakthroughs and the new meanings their works took on in the years long after their deaths. In his essay "Whitman and Melville," for example, he explores their relationship to the tension in American culture between individualism and social life, offering new insights not only into these writers, but into what we can understand of the dynamics of our culture, not just in the nineteenth century but even in the twentieth, through reading them.

In addition to Whitman, Melville, and Shakespeare, the list of individual artists under James's microscope included painters Picasso and Jackson Pollock; writers Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Ntozake Shange; cricketers Garfield Sobers, Neville Cardus, and Learie Constantine; and musical performers Paul Robeson and Bob Marley.

Though James emphasized the importance of understanding "great" writers, he also argued for the necessity of casting our net as widely as possible in the selection of cultural forms to analyze. In 1953, he responded to a critic who had praised some of his work but had questioned the seriousness of his interests in popular culture:

My perspective on artistic development in the civilization of the U.S. is rooted in comic strips, soap opera, and jazz; the gangster film; the television comedians; and especially the great men of the movies up to 1930. My ideas of art and society, like my specific literary criticism, are based on Aristotle and Hegel. I doubt if there are many beside professional scholars who read and re-read Aeschylus and Shakespeare as much as I; but it is precisely these studies that have led me to see comic strips and soap operas as I do. (11)

Infused with his perpetual quest for mass creativity, James's exploration of individual artists and a wide range of cultural forms provide the tools to unlock insights into popular consciousness and identity overlooked by most cultural critics. One British scholar argues: "The thesis tying these variegated topics together is a statement of the masses' creativity across history, and the closely related parallel--to James--of individual, artistic genius." "He has used the available vehicles of mass consciousness, including his own," writes Paul Buhle, "to apprehend the untested capacities of ordinary people." James's analysis of "the connections between artistic creativity and moments of fundamental change in society" puts him in a class by himself--and makes his work all the more valuable to us in these dark times.

The two books under consideration here offer a great point of entrance into James's perspective and his life's work. C.L.R James's Caribbean provides a varied discussion of the specific significance of James's West Indian roots in his political and intellectual development. It brings together an impressive variety of scholars, many of them West Indians themselves, whose essays explore the implications of James's work for political, economic, and cultural analysis. It is well worth reading, for it provides insights that go beyond the value of James's own work and probe realms of great interest to us.

The C.L.R James Reader includes a rich selection of his writings, previously unpublished as well as published, spanning his youth in Trinidad to his final years in London. Anna Grimshaw has done a remarkable job culling through documents in order to put this selection together, and she has enriched it with marginal comments, notes, and a detailed bibliography. The entries in this volume give the reader a taste for James's interests and insights that is simply not available anywhere else. Moreover, like with Marx's Grundrisse, we are able to share in the scholar's "mode of investigation" that lies beneath his "mode of presentation."

As rich as both of these volumes are, I suspect that someone who begins with them will find her appetite whetted, only to be satiated with the consumption of more and more of James's work, which is--thankfully--becoming more readily available.

Peter Rachleff teaches history at Macalester College in St. Paul Minnesota. He is the author of Hardpressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement (Boston: Southend Press, 1993).


(1.) "Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity," in Grimshaw, ed., The C.L.R. James Reader, p. 153.

(2.) Paul Buhle, C.L.R. James: The Artist As Revolutionary, (London and New York: Verso, 1988) p. 4.

(3.) Ibid., p. 37.

(4.) "Letters to Literary Critics," in ibid., p. 227.

(5.) "Letters to Literary Critics," in Grimshaw, ed., The C.L.R James Reader, p. 224.

(6.) "Letters to Constance Webb," [1945], in ibid., p. 149.

(7.) Ibid., p.150.

(8.) Paget Henry, "C.L.R. James and the Caribbean Economic Tradition," in Henry and Buhle, eds., C.L.R James's Caribbean, p. 156.

(9.) Henry and Buhle, "Caliban as Deconstructionist: C.L.R. James and Post-Colonial Discourse," in ibid., p. 128.

(10.) "Letters to Constance Webb," [Sept. 1, 1943], in The C.L.R James Reader, 129.

(11.) "Letters to Literary Critics," [June 1953], in Grimshaw, ed., The C.L.R. James Reader, p. 220. Late in his life, James told Paul Buhle: "I was a classical man, but 1 was a calypso man, too." "The Making of a Literary Life: C.L.R. James Interviewed by Paul Buhle," in C.L.R James's Caribbean, p. 59. See James, "What Is Art?" [1963], in The C.L.R James Reader, pp. 316-326.
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Author:Rachleff, Peter
Publication:Monthly Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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