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Cyril Lionel Robert James (4 January 1901 – 19 May 1989) who also adopted the pen-name of J.R. Johnson was an Afro-Trinidadian historian, journalist, socialist theorist and essayist. He was influential in the United Kingdom and the United States in socialist parties and Marxist thought, as well as leading ideas about the end of colonialism. He is also famed as a writer on cricket.
Born in Trinidad and Tobago, then a British Crown colony, James attended Queen's Royal College in Port of Spain before becoming a cricket journalist, and also an author of fiction. He later worked as a school teacher, teaching among others the young Eric Williams, later the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. Together with Ralph de BoissiÃ¨re, Albert Gomes and Alfred Mendes, James was a member of the anti-colonialist Beacon Group, a circle of writers associated with The Beacon magazine. In 1932, he moved to Nelson in Lancashire, England as his friend, and West Indian cricketer, Learie Constantine's biographer, plus a hope of furthering his literary career. There he worked for the Manchester Guardian and helped the cricketer Learie Constantine write his autobiography.
In 1933, James left his home in the small Lancashire town of Nelson and moved to London. James had begun to campaign for the independence of the West Indies while in Trinidad, and his Life of Captain Cipriani and the pamphlet The Case for West-Indian Self Government were his first important published works. Now he became a leading champion of Pan-African agitation and the Chair of the International African Friends of Abyssinia, formed in 1935 in response to Fascist Italy's invasion of what is now Ethiopia.
James then became a leading figure in the International African Service Bureau, led by his childhood friend George Padmore, to whom he later introduced Kwame Nkrumah. In Britain, he also became a leading Marxist theorist. He had joined the Labour Party, but in the midst of the Great Depression he became a Trotskyist. By 1934, James was a member of an entrist Trotskyist group inside the Independent Labour Party.
In this period, amid his frenetic political activity, James wrote a play about Toussaint L'Ouverture, which was staged in the West End in 1936 and starred Paul Robeson and Robert Adams. That same year saw the publication in London of James's only novel, Minty Alley, which he had brought with him in manuscript from Trinidad. It was the first novel to be published by a black Caribbean author in the UK.
He also wrote what are perhaps his best-known works of non-fiction: World Revolution (1937), a history of the rise and fall of the Communist International, which was critically praised by Leon Trotsky; and The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), a widely acclaimed history of the Haitian Revolution, which would later be seen as a seminal text in the study of the African diaspora.
In 1936, James and his Trotskyist Marxist Group left the Independent Labour Party to form an open party. In 1938, this new group took part in several mergers to form the Revolutionary Socialist League. The RSL was a highly factionalised organisation. When James was invited to tour the United States by the leadership of the Socialist Workers' Party, then the US section of the Fourth International, to facilitate its work among black workers, John Archer encouraged him to leave in the hope of removing a rival.
James travelled to the USA in late 1938, and after a tour sponsored by the SWP, he stayed on for over twenty years. By 1940 he had developed severe doubts about Trotsky's analysis of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers state. He left the SWP along with Max Shachtman, who formed the Workers' Party. Within the WP, James formed the Johnson-Forest Tendency with Raya Dunayevskaya (his pseudonym was Johnson and Dunayevskaya's was Forest) and Grace Lee (later Grace Lee Boggs) to spread their views within the new party.
While within the WP, the views of the J-F 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. This political evolution was shared by other Trotskyists of their generation, most notably Tony Cliff. Unlike Cliff, the Johnson-Forest Tendency were increasingly looking towards the autonomous movements of oppressed minorities, a theoretical development already visible in James' thought in his discussions with Leon Trotsky in 1939. An interest in such autonomous struggles came to take centre stage for the J-F Tendency.
After 1945 and the end of WWII, the WP saw the prospects receding for a revolutionary upsurge. The J-F Tendency, by contrast, were more enthused by prospects for mass struggles and came to the conclusion that the SWP, which they considered more proletarian than the WP, thought similarly about such prospects. Therefore, after a short few months as an independent group when they published a great deal of material, the J-F tendency joined the SWP in 1947.
James would still describe himself as a Leninist, despite his rejection of Lenin's conception of the vanguard role of the revolutionary party. He argued for socialists to support the emerging black nationalist movements. By 1949, James rejected the idea of a vanguard party. This led the J-F tendency to leave the Trotskyist movement and rename itself the Correspondence Publishing Committee.
In 1955, about half the membership of the Committee left, under the leadership of Raya Dunayevskaya, to form a separate tendency of Marxist-humanism and found the organization 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 claims that Dunayevskaya's supporters formed a majority, but Martin Glaberman claims 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.
In 1953, James was forced to leave the US under threat of deportation for having overstayed his visa by over ten years. In his attempt to remain in the USA, James 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 on Ellis Island.
James returned to England. In 1958 he returned to Trinidad, where he edited The Nation newspaper for the pro-independence People's National Movement (PNM) party. He also became involved again in the Pan-African movement. He believed that the Ghana revolution showed that decolonisation was the most important inspiration for international revolutionaries.
James also advocated the West Indies Federation. It was over this issue that he fell out with the PNM leadership. He returned to Great Britain. In 1968 he was invited to the USA, where he taught at the University of the District of Columbia. Ultimately, he returned to Britain and spent his last years in Brixton, London.
C. L. R. James is widely known as a writer on cricket, especially for his autobiographical 1963 book, Beyond a Boundary. This is considered the 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.
The book's key question, frequently quoted by modern journalists and essayists, is inspired by Rudyard Kipling and asks: What do they know of cricket who only cricket know? 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. The literary quality of the writing attracts cricketers of all political views.
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.
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