Characterised by one literary critic as an "anti-Stalinistdialectician", James was known for his autodidactism, for his occasional playwriting and fiction – his 1936 book Minty Alley was the first novel by a black West Indian to be published in Britain – and as an avid sportsman. He is also famed as a writer on cricket, and his 1963 book Beyond a Boundary, which he himself described as "neither cricket reminiscences nor autobiography", is commonly named as the best single book on cricket, and even the best book about sports ever written.
In 1910, James won a scholarship to Queen's Royal College (QRC), the island's oldest non-Catholic secondary school, in Port of Spain, where he became a club cricketer and distinguished himself as an athlete (he would hold the Trinidad high-jump record at 5 feet 9 inches (175 cm) from 1918 to 1922), as well as beginning to write fiction. After graduating in 1918 from QRC, he worked there as a teacher of English and History in the 1920s; among those he taught was the young Eric Williams, who would become the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
In 1932, James left Trinidad for the small town of Nelson in Lancashire, England, at the invitation of his friend, West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine, who needed his help writing his autobiography Cricket and I (published in 1933). James had brought with him to England the manuscript of his first full-length non-fiction work, partly based on his interviews with the Trinidad labour leader Arthur Andrew Cipriani, which was published with financial assistance from Constantine in 1932.
During this time, James took a job as cricket correspondent with the Manchester Guardian. In 1933, he moved to London. The following year, he joined a Trotskyist group that met to talk for hours in his rented room. Louise Cripps, one of its members, recalled: "We felt our work could contribute to the time when we would see Socialism spreading."
When the IAFE was transformed into the International African Service Bureau in 1937, James edited its newsletter, Africa and the World, and its journal, International African Opinion. The Bureau was led by his childhood friend George Padmore, who would be a driving force for socialist Pan-Africanism for several decades. Both Padmore and James wrote for the New Leader, published by the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which James had joined in 1934 (when Fenner Brockway was its General Secretary).
In 1936, James and his Trotskyist Marxist Group left the ILP to form an open party. In 1938, this new group took part in several mergers to form the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL). The RSL was a highly factionalised organisation.
Speaking tour in the United States
At the urging of Trotsky and James P. Cannon, in October 1938, James was invited to tour the United States by the leadership of the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP), then the US section of the Fourth International, to facilitate its work among black workers. Following several meetings in New York, which garnered "enthusiastic praise for his oratorical ability and capacity for analysis of world events," James kicked off his national speaking tour on 6 January 1939 in Philadelphia. He gave lectures in cities including New Haven,Youngstown, Rochester, and Boston, before finishing the tour with two lectures in Los Angeles and another in Pasadena in March 1939. He spoke on topics such as "Twilight of the British Empire" and "The Negro and World Imperialism".
Constance Webb, who would later become James' second wife, attended one of his 1939 lectures in Los Angeles and reflected on it in her memoir, writing: "I had already heard speeches by two great orators, Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Now I was hearing a third. The three men were masters of the English language, a skill that gave them extraordinary power."
James's relationship with Louise Cripps Samoiloff had broken up after her second abortion, so that intimate tie no longer bound him to England.
In April 1939, James visited Trotsky in Coyoacán, México. James stayed there about a month and also met Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, before returning to the United States in May 1939. A key topic that James and Trotsky discussed was the "Negro Question". Parts of their conversation were transcribed, with James sometimes referred to by his pen-name, J. R. Johnson. Whereas Trotsky saw the Trotskyist Party as providing leadership to the black community, in the general manner that the Bolsheviks provided guidance to ethnic minorities in Russia, James suggested that the self-organised struggle of African Americans would precipitate a much broader radical social movement.
As "J. R. Johnson", James wrote the column "The Negro Question" for Socialist Appeal (later renamed The Militant), and was also a columnist for Labor Action.
While within the WP, the views of the Johnson–Forest Tendency underwent considerable development. By the end of the Second World War, they had definitively rejected Trotsky's theory of Russia as a degenerated workers' state. Instead, they classified it as state capitalist, a political evolution shared by other Trotskyists of their generation, most notably Tony Cliff. Unlike Cliff, the Johnson–Forest Tendency was focusing increasingly on the liberation movements of oppressed minorities, a theoretical development already visible in James's thought in his 1939 discussions with Trotsky. Such liberation struggles came to take centre stage for the Johnson–Forest Tendency.
After the Second World War, the WP witnessed a downturn in revolutionary sentiment. The Tendency, on the other hand, was encouraged by the prospects for revolutionary change for oppressed peoples. After a few short months as an independent group, during which they published a great deal of material, in 1947, the Johnson–Forest Tendency joined the SWP, which it regarded as more proletarian than the WP.
In 1955 after James had left for Britain, about half the membership of the Committee withdrew, under the leadership of Raya Dunayevskaya, to form a separate tendency of Marxist-humanism and found the organisation News and Letters Committees. Whether Dunayevskaya's faction had constituted a majority or a minority in the Correspondence Publishing Committee remains a matter of dispute. Historian Kent Worcester says that Dunayevskaya's supporters formed a majority, but Martin Glaberman says in New Politics that the faction loyal to James had a majority.
The Committee split again in 1962, as Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs, two key activists, left to pursue a more Third Worldist approach. The remaining Johnsonites, including leading member Martin Glaberman, reconstituted themselves as Facing Reality. James advised the group from Great Britain until it dissolved in 1970, against his urging.
James's writings were also influential in the development of Autonomist Marxism as a current within Marxist thought. He himself saw his life's work as developing the theory and practice of Leninism.
Return to Britain
In 1953, James was forced to leave the US under threat of deportation for having overstayed his visa. In his attempt to remain in America, he wrote a study of Herman Melville, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In, and had copies of the privately published work sent to every member of the Senate. He wrote the book while being detained at the immigration station on Ellis Island. In an impassioned letter to his old friend George Padmore, James said that in Mariners he was using Moby Dick as a parable for the anti-communism sweeping the United States, a consequence, he thought, of Americans' uncritical faith in capitalism.
Returning to Britain, James appeared to Padmore and his partner Dorothy Pizer to be a man adrift. After James started reporting on cricket for the Manchester Guardian, Padmore wrote to American novelist Richard Wright: "That will take him out of his ivory tower and making his paper revolution...."Grace Lee Boggs, a colleague from the Detroit group, came to London in 1954 to work with James, but she too, saw him "at loose ends, trying to find his way after fifteen years out of the country."
In 1957, James travelled to Ghana for the celebration of its independence from British rule in March that year. He had met Ghana's new head of state, Kwame Nkrumah, in the United States when Nkrumah was studying there and sent him on to work with George Padmore in London after the Second World War; Padmore was by this point a close Nkrumah advisor and had written The Gold Coast Revolution (1953). In correspondence sent from Ghana in 1957, James told American friends that Nkrumah thought he too ought to write a book on the Convention People's Party, which under Nkrumah's leadership had brought the country to independence. The book would show how the party's strategies could be used to build a new African future. James invited Grace Lee Boggs, his colleague from Detroit, to join in the work, though in the end, James wrote Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution on his own. The book was not published until 1977 (by Allison & Busby), years after Nkrumah's overthrow, exile and subsequent death.
Trinidad and afterwards
In 1958 James went back to Trinidad, where he edited The Nation newspaper for the pro-independence People's National Movement (PNM) party. He also became active again in the Pan-African movement. He believed that the Ghana revolution greatly encouraged the anticolonialist revolutionary struggle.
Ultimately returning in 1981 to Britain, where Allison and Busby had in the mid-1970s begun a programme of reissuing his work, beginning with a volume of selected writings, James spent his last years in Brixton, London. In the 1980s, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from South Bank Polytechnic (later to become London South Bank University) for his body of socio-political work, including that relating to race and sport.
James died in London from a chest infection on 19 May 1989, aged 88. His funeral took place on Monday, 12 June in Trinidad, where he was buried at Tunapuna. A state memorial service was held for him at the National Stadium, Port of Spain, on 28 June 1989.
James married his first wife, Juanita Young, in Trinidad in 1929, but his move three years later to Britain led to their estrangement. He met his second wife, Constance Webb (1918–2005), an American model, actress and author, after he moved to the US in 1938; she wrote of having first heard him speak in the spring of 1939 at a meeting in California. James and Webb married in 1946 and their son, C. L. R. James Jr, familiarly known as Nobbie, was born in 1949. Separated forcibly in 1952, by James's arrest and detention on Ellis Island, the couple divorced in 1953, when James was deported to Britain, while Webb remained in New York with Nobbie. A collection of James's letters to Webb was posthumously published as Special Delivery: The Letters of C.L.R. James to Constance Webb, 1939–1948, edited and introduced by Anna Grimshaw (Oxford, UK; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996). Stories written by James for his son were published in 2006 as The Nobbie Stories for Children and Adults, edited and introduced by Constance Webb.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of titles by James were published by Allison & Busby (co-founder Margaret Busby's father had attended Queen's Royal College with James), including four volumes of selected writings published during his lifetime "that looked to bring together the best of James' writing and introduce him to a new audience":The Future in the Present (1977), Spheres of Existence (1980), At the Rendezvous of Victory (1984), and Cricket (1986).
The C. L. R. James Institute was founded with James's blessing by Jim Murray in 1983. Based in New York, and affiliated to the Centre for African Studies at Cambridge University, it has been run by Ralph Dumain since Murray's death in 2003.
A public library in the London Borough of Hackney is named in his honour. There was a C. L. R. James Week of ceremonies in March 1985, and his widow, Selma James, attended a reception there to mark its 20th anniversary. Hackney Council had intended to drop the name of the library as part of a new development in Dalston Square in 2010, but after protests from Selma James and local and international campaigners, the council promised that the library would after all retain the name of C. L. R. James. A council statement said: "As part of the new library, there will be a permanent exhibition to chronicle his life and works and an annual event in his memory, and we are pleased to report the state-of-the-art education room will also be named after this influential figure." The new Dalston C. L. R. James Library was officially opened on 28 February 2012. The library is housed in Collins Tower, named for Sir Collins a co-founder of The Four Aces Club that was demolished to make way for the site. At the launch there on 2 March 2012 of a permanent exhibition dedicated to James's life and legacy, Selma James spoke.
On 17 March 2023, a blue plaque was unveiled in Southwick, West Sussex, to mark the house where in 1937 James wrote The Black Jacobins, at an address on Old Shoreham Road discovered by historian Christian Hogsbjerg from a letter that had been intercepted by Special Branch.
Duke University Press publish the series "The C. L. R. James Archives", edited by Robert A. Hill, literary executor of the estate of C. L. R. James, producing new editions of books by James, as well as scholarly explorations of his oeuvre.
He is widely known as a writer on cricket, especially for his autobiographical 1963 book, Beyond a Boundary, which he himself described as "neither cricket reminiscences nor autobiography". It is considered a seminal work on the game, and is often named as the best single book on cricket (or even the best book on any sport) ever written.John Arlott called it "so outstanding as to compel any reviewer to check his adjectives several times before he describes it and, since he is likely to be dealing in superlatives, to measure them carefully to avoid over-praise – which this book does not need … in the opinion of the reviewer, it is the finest book written about the game of cricket." A conference to mark the 50th anniversary of its first publication was held 10–11 May 2013.
The book's key question, frequently quoted by modern journalists and essayists, is inspired by a line in Rudyard Kipling's poem "English Flag" – "What do they know of England who only England know?" James asks in the Preface: "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" Acknowledging that "To answer involves ideas as well as facts", James uses this challenge as the basis for describing cricket in an historical and social context, the strong influence cricket had on his life, and how it meshed with his role in politics and his understanding of issues of class and race.
While editor of The Nation, he led the successful campaign in 1960 to have Frank Worrell appointed the first black captain of the West Indies cricket team. James believed that the relationship between players and the public was a prominent reason behind the West Indies' achieving so much with so little.
World Revolution, 1917–1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International. London: Secker & Warburg (1937). New edition, with introduction by Christian Høgsbjerg, Durham, NC: Duke University Press (2017), ISBN978-0-8223-6308-8.
A History of Negro Revolt. Fact monograph no. 18, London (1938). Revised as A History of Pan-African Revolt. Washington: Drum and Spear Press (1969). A History of Negro Revolt, London: Creation for Liberation, ISBN978-0947716035 (1985). As A History of Pan-African Revolt, with an Introduction by Robin D. G. Kelley, PM Press (2012).
The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. London: Secker & Warburg (1938). Revised edition, New York: Vintage Books/Random House (1963). ISBN0-679-72467-2. Index starts at p. 419. Library of Congress Card Number: 63-15043. New British edition with foreword, London: Allison & Busby (1980).
At the Rendezvous of Victory, Selected Writings, vol. 3. London: Allison & Busby (1984).
Cricket (selected writings, ed. Anna Grimshaw). London: Allison & Busby (1986); distributed in the United States by Schocken Books (1986). As A Majestic Innings: Writings on Cricket, new edition, London: Aurum Press (2006).
Anna Grimshaw (ed.), The C.L.R. James Reader. Oxford: Blackwell (1992).
^ abMargaret Busby, "Storming the pavilion of prejudice", The Guardian, 3 August 1996, p. 29: "Allison & Busby set about a publishing programme, beginning with his Selected Writings, and in the course of the next decade produced nine James volumes."
^"C.L.R. James: A TributeArchived 13 January 2019 at the Wayback Machine: Eulogies Delivered at the State Memorial Service Held for the Late C.L.R. James, National Stadium, Port-of-Spain, 28 June 1989", 1990, 20pp, in Trinidad and Tobago national bibliography, p. 31.
^Webb, Constance, "C. L. R. James, the Speaker and his Charisma", in Paul Buhle (ed.), C. L. R. James: His Life and Work, London: Allison & Busby, 1986, p. 168.
Douglas, Rachel. Making The Black Jacobins: C. L. R. James and the Drama of History (2019) online
Featherstone, Dave, and Chris Gair, Christian Høgsbjerg, and Andrew Smith (eds), Marxism, Colonialism and Cricket: C.L.R. James's Beyond a Boundary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018, ISBN978-1478001478.
Flood, Anthony, "C. L. R. James: Herbert Aptheker's Invisible Man", The C. L. R. James Journal, vol. 19, nos. 1 & 2, Fall 2013.
Forsdick, Charles, and Christian Høgsbjerg (eds), The Black Jacobins Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017, ISBN978-0822362012.
Gair, Chris (ed.) Beyond Boundaries: C.L.R. James and Postnational Studies. London: Pluto, 2006, ISBN978-0745323428.
Glaberman, Martin, Marxism for our Times: C. L. R. James on Revolutionary Organization, University Press of Mississippi, 1999, ISBN9781578061518.
Høgsbjerg, Christian, C. L. R. James in Imperial Britain. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014, ISBN978-0822356189.
McClendon III, John H., C. L. R. James's Notes on Dialectics: Left Hegelianism or Marxism-Leninism?. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004, ISBN978-0739107751.
McLemee, Scott, & Paul LeBlanc (eds), C. L. R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings of C. L. R. James 1939–1949. Prometheus Books, 1994. Reprinted Haymarket Books, 2018.
Nielsen, Aldon Lynn, C. L. R. James: A Critical Introduction, Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1997. ISBN978-0878059720
Polsgrove, Carol, Ending British Rule in Africa: Writers in a Common Cause. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. ISBN978-0719077678
Quest, Matthew. "C.L.R. James's Conflicted Legacies on Mao Tse Tung's China." Insurgent Notes, Issue 8, March 2013.
Quest, Matthew, "'Every Cook Can Govern:' Direct Democracy, Workers' Self-Management, and the Creative Foundations of CLR James' Political Thought." The CLR James Journal, 19.1 & 2, Fall 2013.
Quest, Matthew, "George Padmore's and C.L.R. James's International African Opinion." In Fitzroy Baptiste and Rupert C. Lewis (eds), George Padmore: Pan African Revolutionary. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2009, 105–132.
Quest, Matthew, "Silences on the Suppression of Workers Self-Emancipation: Historical Problems With CLR James's Interpretation of V.I. Lenin." Insurgent Notes, Issue 7, October 2012.
Renault, Matthieu, C.L.R. James: la vie révolutionnaire d'un "platon noir". Paris: La Découverte, 2016, ISBN978-2-7071-8191-6.