‘You never know when it’s going to explode’
CLR James's last interview now available as a podcast.
On Saturday 23 November, at the Oval cricket ground in London, education charity WORLDwrite is launching its new multimedia project on the life and works of writer and activist CLR James. In the run-up to the event, WORLDwrite has released an exclusive podcast, ‘You never know when it’s going to explode‘, based on an interview James gave to Living Marxism in 1989 (see below). Featuring the voice of James himself, it is thought to be one of the last recordings of him before his death on 19 May 1989. To listen to the podcast, visit here.
‘You never know when it’s going to explode’
by John Fitzpatrick, Living Marxism, April 1989
For once the publisher’s blurb is no exaggeration: ‘CLR James is one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable individuals.’ Nobody could argue with that. Born in 1901, James was a leading literary figure in his native Trinidad well before he came to Britain. From Nelson, Lancashire, he became cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian and other papers. In 1938 he published The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, a landmark study of slave revolt. He has written extensively on politics, dialectics, literature and sport. Beyond a Boundary, his remarkable study of what cricket meant to him, and should mean to us, came out in 1963.
He lectured for years in the USA and in Africa, and acted as eminence grise to such leaders of Pan-Africanism as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. He was also a relentless political activist, a leading figure in British Trotskyism in the Thirties in the Marxist Group and the Independent Labour Party; and in the Forties, a leading figure in and out of the American Trotskyist organisation, the Socialist Workers Party. In the Sixties he entered the fray in Trinidad with his Workers and Farmers Party.
Paul Buhle’s book CLR James: The Artist As Revolutionary is an intellectual, political and cultural biography, a sensitive portrait by a man who has been an editorial collaborator with James for years. Himself an historian of American Marxism and former activist of the New Left, as well as cultural critic, Buhle is steeped in many of the concerns and the personalities close to his subject’s heart. If he sometimes makes inflated claims for his hero, it is not simply out of affection for the man and regard for his achievements. Buhle sees James as the nearest thing yet to an ideal reconciliation of the multiple identities of a sundered human nature, which is the fragmented condition of every man and woman in late capitalist society. It is an almost mystical theme, seeking redemption within the individual personality for problems which are social in nature and origin. It is consistent with the over-emphasis on ideology and the anti-Leninist bent of Buhle’s earlier work. Nevertheless, the story of James’ life, and the detail and the connections which Buhle brings to bear from his own wide learning, make this a book worth reading.
Holding: how fast?
CLR James, not far from 90, is now ensconced in a second-floor garret in Brixton. Perched above the offices of Race Today, with a view down Railton Road, he sits in an armchair flanked by shelves of books (a cricket ball is wedged among them). He gets the first question in: ‘Are you Irish? I thought you might have some whiskey in your pocket. No whiskey? Irish in name only.’
He is frail, but he talked for over an hour before tiring. Lucid and serious, but with a spry wit, he often checked after a long answer, ‘Is that clear? Good’. He was quick to rebuke any hint of a lazy or patronising question, and careful in all his replies. When towards the end I asked if he had ever seen anybody bowl as fast and straight as Michael Holding, he weighed the question up: ‘I couldn’t compare the pace of bowlers. I have known bowlers who were as fast as anything when they were playing. I will say this much. Holding ranks with the greatest fast bowlers there have ever been. I’m not going to compare him with George John or Statham, but he’s in that rank. There is no perhaps or maybe about it. He is one of the great fast bowlers. You want to know more, ask the great batsmen of the day.’
What did he think of the biography? ‘I thought it was a very good book, and a hard book to write, a biography. I haven’t killed anybody, but he made it interesting. A successful piece of work.’ The political climate in which the book has been published is very different from the times that it describes, when James rubbed shoulders with Leon Trotsky, and baulked at the latter’s advice to enter the Labour Party in the Thirties. How would he compare political work in Britain then and now? ‘In those days independent revolutionary work was quite an adventure. Today things are more organised. It’s harder in a way, but you know what you’re doing. In the Thirties the whole thing was wide open. You were in an open sea, and you worked hard or you sank. Today, it isn’t so. The organisations are pretty much set and now you join this or you join that.’
He had been in many organisations, and often in none: did he still believe in the importance of a revolutionary party? ‘I believe you must have an organisation, but I don’t believe that means you have to join something that’s there. Maybe you have to fight against an organisation to get a clear policy. In the old days an organisation meant a certain political and philosophical orientation. Today it is that in theory, but in reality it is a structure. In the old days the political line and the philosophical basis of it was dominant, not today.’ So he hadn’t moved away from Leninism? ‘No, I have always felt that I was a Leninist. I believe Lenin was the greatest political leader, theoretician and organiser that we have known.’
James took great pains to distinguish Leninism from Trotskyism. ‘Trotskyism and Leninism are not the same. Leninism – you are for the Leninist revolution; Trotskyism – you are for the Trotskyist party. Lenin had a philosophical view of the revolution. He was not on the surface. He was fundamentally opposed to bourgeois society and unless you are aware that every step that he took had that in mind you will go wrong with Lenin. Trotsky began to be for the party, quoting Lenin for the party, but in reality his conception of the party was different. Trotsky in the end was swept away by his followers into having, I wouldn’t say a superficial, but a conception of the party that was not fundamentally connected with the state of society. Lenin never lost sight of the party and its relation to the people.’
How would Lenin have dealt with Margaret Thatcher? ‘Lenin would have said, “She has won three times. Something happens once, that is an accident. The second time, maybe it is a coincidence. But the third time, that is an orientation. She has won three times, let me see why.” He wouldn’t rush into agitation to put up somebody against her. He would have said, “Bring me all her books and everything she has said”. He would have analysed them all and he would have said “She represents this and this today is stronger than it was, and she sticks to that, and that is why she wins; and now to defeat her we have to get down to these fundamentals”.’
James is a mine of rare firsthand reflections, not just on international revolutionaries but on the people who made the history of the British left – men like Red Clydeside MP James Maxton of the ILP. ‘Maxton was an orator. He had a fine voice and a rhetorical manner, and he said all the things that everybody agrees with. Maxton would get up and say “We are against these enemies. They support king and country. They support the army. But we are with the people and the ordinary soldier and the rank and file.” All these abstractions. Maxton, he was a marvellous man for making the abstraction revolutionary.’
What of the issues for the left in Britain today, like the race question? ‘I don’t see the race question in Britain as the race question in the vast colonial areas. The dominant question in Britain today is this: are you for the Labour Party or are you for the revolution? And the race question has to fit itself into that. That is the question in Britain.
‘When black people raise the race question it means to them a lot more than when the Labour Party votes in favour of their struggle. For them, that’s something in the paper. It means little. Only coloured people in Britain really feel race. An Englishman in Manchester or Salisbury or Dorset voting in favour of the black struggle, to him that is something abstract.’
What, then, of the colonial world, and the problems which beset African states like Nkrumah’s Ghana after independence? ‘I believe that in many an African country there was ultimately no distinction between the party and the state. At first the development of a party that had Marxism as its policy was undoubtedly valuable. I want to make it clear, in many a formerly undeveloped country the organisation of a party is a tremendous step forward. They leave the tribe, they leave the religious structure and they make a political structure. But if that political structure becomes a representation of the politics of the advanced country, there is a hell of a mess. That happened in Trinidad and it happened in many colonial territories because the Communist Party, the Stalinists, picked up these things and went to the colonial territories and said the party is what makes politics, and the party is our party… and once the struggle began as to which party, the organisation became dominant.’
The battle which James had with Stalinism was clearly the ongoing political fight of his life. He feels that it was a job well done. ‘Today it is becoming more clear that Stalinism is mainly a projection of the need of certain sections of the movement for political power. I wouldn’t say that the back of Stalinism is broken, but there is a movement against them [Stalinists], not just a few intellectuals or writers. People don’t rush to them as the hope of the future as they used to do.
‘And if you will allow me to say so, and this is particularly true in the former colonial territories, they understand Stalinism owing to the fact that James and other colonial writers not only spoke of independence but pointed out the evils of Stalinism. It was a tremendous struggle, you know, to make people understand that the Soviet Union, and the Communist Party it influenced, was the enemy of the revolutionary movement, but it was done and the theoretical foundations have been laid. We made clear that the things which happened were not the mistakes of leaders or the weaknesses of individuals, but were the result of the structure and system which grew up to produce them. I think that is one of the most important things we left behind.’
I asked about his fiction; does he have any favourite pieces now?
‘No. For this reason. I began by expecting to write fiction and to write literature and about society in a traditional way. But I came to Britain, joined the movement and became a political analyst and writer.’ ‘And activist?’ I suggested. ‘Yes, activist. Good. I left fiction behind. I don’t think anything should be made about my fiction. I hadn’t really become soaked in the Marxist movement. I was still on the surface.’
On the surface today, I put it to him finally, there is much pessimism about the prospects for revolution. ‘Well my friend, I want to say something about this. When I look at the revolutionary movement over the ages, over the decades, for me emerges one thing.
‘You never know when it is going to explode. The revolutionary movement is a series of explosions when the regular routine of things reaches a pitch where it cannot go on. To me that’s a philosophical question based on history and I am never in any doubt – I am in doubt for tomorrow, maybe – but I am never in any doubt for the day after tomorrow. It has been a fundamental part of my outlook, a statement of Marx early on, that the revolution comes like a thief in the night.
‘I believe, you know, that the Marxist theory is a scientific, intellectual theory such as the world has never seen before, and properly used, properly thought of, always with the feeling that history brings things new, that you didn’t see before – with the basic Marxist guide you can manage. On the whole we can view the future with a certain confidence; we have a method that is aware of the past, but open to the future.’
John Fitzpatrick is director of the Kent Law Clinic at the University of Kent, England. This interview was originally published in Living Marxism in April 1989.
WORLDwrite’s new multimedia project, ‘Every Cook Can Govern: Documenting the life, impact and works of CLR James’, officially launches on Saturday 23 November in the Long Room of the historic pavilion at the Kia Oval Cricket Ground, London with a debate titled ‘Should CLR James be fodder for a new twenty-first century canon?’. For tickets, please visit the event webpage. For further information about the project, email email@example.com.