In the belly of the beast

Issue: 150

Rhys Williams

A review of Christian Høgsbjerg, C L R James in Imperial Britain (Duke University Press, 2014), £16.99

In these days of intense state and media racism, any book that offers a deeper understanding of the role of anti-racist and black liberation struggles is invaluable. Høgsbjerg’s book provides a thorough and engrossing account of such struggles in the colonial world and in the belly of the imperial beast—where C L R James lived from 1932 to 1938. James left Britain ten years before the Windrush docked in London; the story of his time in the UK is a valuable insight into the vibrant political organisations built by black people in Britain before what is generally considered to be the start of “Black British History”.

The introduction provides a very useful review of the literature on James. The main argument here is against those academics who have defined James as primarily and uncomplicatedly a cultural figure, describing the “fragments” of his different interests: history; literature; Marxism; and cricket. This is an interpretation of James’s life that fits in with the “end of grand narratives” approach of much of modern academia, but is a far cry from James’s politics.

As Høgsbjerg skilfully shows in this biography, during his six years in the “imperial metropole” James developed a class-based approach to anti-imperialism and the liberation struggles of colonial people that would lead him to become a committed revolutionary and to produce, in 1938, the “grandest of grand narratives”—The Black Jacobins.

When James first arrived in Britain he lived with the Trinidadian cricketer Learie Constantine in the Lancashire weaving town of Nelson. Here James gained a direct experience of “the living tradition of class struggle”, observing at close quarters the struggle of workers to defend their livelihoods amid a sharp downturn in the industry and global economic crisis. The chapter on “Red Nelson”, as it was known, is among the most enjoyable in the book. His late-Victorian education in his home town of Port of Spain in Trinidad had left him with a love of classic literature and a political and cultural outlook that owed much to the cultural critic Matthew Arnold, as well as being shaped by his identification as a black colonial subject. James would later describe his early outlook as “Afro-Victorianist”. It was in Nelson that James started to develop a more explicitly class-based politics.

James was attracted to the Labour Party by its anti-colonial statements. But, under the influence of the Lancashire workers he lived among, he was beginning to change his view of how to win the struggle for independence, shifting from a perspective based on it being granted from above to a focus on the need to demand it from below, and the capacity of ordinary people to effect change. When he expressed his hopes for Trinidadian independence from a potential Labour government, he was told: “You make a mistake…they never gave us anything and we put them there; why do you think they would give you any?” A Marxist understanding of history and class struggle became the overriding factor that shaped James’s political development and informed his anti-imperialism.

It was in Britain that James read Leon Trotsky’s History of The Russian Revolution. The profound influence that the book had on James is something that Høgsbjerg returns to throughout, treating it, as James did, not just as a political and historical work of huge significance, but as a stunning work of literature.

During James’s time in Britain the world was racked by an economic crisis with “profound political and ideological consequences”. James developed his radical politics within this environment, embracing a “class-struggle Pan-Africanism” that became more and more informed by Trotsky’s anti-imperialism and theory of permanent revolution. The concept of combined and uneven development and the possibility of economically backward countries becoming the leading edge of struggle, with a small proletariat pulling in behind it layers of the peasantry and intellectuals, became a crucial component of his understanding of how to achieve liberation for the colonised peoples of the world.

When Benito Mussolini invaded Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) in 1935 James was able to apply his new radical politics to the movement against the invasion, maturing as an activist as well as a radical thinker. He joined the International African Friends of Abyssinia, a broad organisation including figures such as Amy Ashwood Garvey and Jomo Kenyatta, who would become the first president of Kenya. James played a key role in the organisation, making sure it had an anti-imperialist orientation, refusing to call, as many wanted to, for intervention by the League of Nations, arguing that “to come within the orbit of imperialist politics is to be debilitated by the stench, to be drowned in the morass of lies and ­hypocrisy”.

Høgsbjerg’s focus on the political breath of the campaign, alongside the detailed account of this little known part of black British history, provides a valuable resource for anti-racists and anti-imperialists today.

The Black Jacobins is dealt with towards the end of the book. Indeed, James wrote this ground-breaking history of the Haitian Revolution at the end of his stay in Britain. The reader is able to see James’s development as a thinker and activist capable of producing a work of such importance, applying the law of uneven and combined development elaborated by Trotsky to show how the slaves of Saint Domingue were able to liberate themselves in a victorious revolution and change the course of world history.

When James left Britain for the United States in 1938 he had moved from Victorian elitism to revolutionary socialism. This book expertly charts his development. It will not only be of value to C L R James scholars but to anyone who has an interest in British history.