Urbane Revolutionary: C.L.R. James and the Struggle for a New Society

Frank Rosengarten, Urbane Revolutionary: C.L.R. James and the Struggle for a New Society (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007).

The publication of volumes around the life and work of Pan African giant C.L.R. James seems to have slackened in the last few years, and, among those works appearing, taken a particular tack. The cultural contributions of James seem to have trumped his political work, a direction more than hinted at by his last aide-de-camp, Anna Grimshaw. Rosengarten usefully moves us back in the other direction.

We still lack much that research could supply on James’s activities in Britain of the 1930s and 1950s, including his influences upon Caribbean and African movements and upon a Pan African generation of intellectuals and activists (my biography of Tim Hector, reviewed in these pages, is a small contribution in several of these categories). Rosengarten draws upon published writings and the archive created by the late Jim Murray (another exists at UWI in Trinidad), to offer his own observations about James’s life and its various meanings.

Rosengarten himself is an urbane revolutionary, an emeritus professor at CUNY, and a scholar of Proust among other subjects. He can well appreciate, then, how James, the globe-trotting former novelist and literary journal editor who read Hegel with pleasure and became famous for his cricket reporting, would find many of his audiences insular and ignorant. Not least, of course, in the United States, where he was an outsize intellectual within a Trotskyist movement which had so little place for him that he had to carve out the place itself. Given the overwhelming size and influence of the Communist movement, James would have been out of place anywhere, but perhaps least out of place in the English-language Caribbean, where left-wing variants of British “labourism” salted with black nationalism were the only prospects available in organized form. Then again, James craved and needed larger venues than the Caribbean offered.

There was the dilemma, and if the “Johnson-Forest Tendency” peaking at fifty or so adherents for a decade or so gave James a sense of a political movement under his leadership, it was never a social movement, and was definitely constricting in its own ways. Rosengarten, who knows his Trotskyism, follows the bouncing ball of ideas that could only take root here and there, and seeks the origins of James’s approach in the British 1930s (where Trotskyists had some real influence in the Independent Labour Party, but abandoned it) and up through the Johnson-Forest Tendency’s rise, its abandonment of the Trotskyist movement, and its splintering into several parts.

Rosengarten’s recounting and analysis of the writings of Selma James, the Pan African’s third and last wife (but from whom he was separated, though never divorced, by the middle 1960s), is a signal contribution here. Like any number of people who disputed one or another point of C.L.R. James and chose not to work directly with him, Selma James extended his ideas and practices in ways of her own, and in old age continues to do so at this writing.

I am disappointed to say that Rosengarten cannot follow the more diffuse patterns of influence that run through the New Left and continue until today. The reasons for this are none of his fault. The audiences that met James’s speeches in the early 1970s, as he toured campuses, were often sharply divided between New Leftists (some of them readers of the SDS journal that I had founded and which served as the main outlet of James’s ideas in those days among the young generation), youngish Trotskyists (mostly, not entirely, around the Independent Socialist milieu), Black Nationalists, and ordinary Caribbean immigrants who were simply proud to have one of their own become a “big intellectual.” These milieus had little in common and sometimes little sympathy for each other. In time, with the passing of James himself, the influences seemed still more indirect and difficult to trace, except in the academy. Still, it would be possible to find thousands of activists and intellectuals, not all of them on the Left, on whom his impress would be life-long.

I am, of course, one of those, and my eager reading of The Outlet (weekly newspapers of Antigua), until Tim Hector’s untimely death in 2002, verified my feelings that the wholeness of James’s worldview had survived in some form. That seems less certain now, but Rosengarten’s work and especially his careful treatment of James as cultural visionary helps restore the prospect of the great Pan African as more than fodder for intellectual history, however valuable that may be. We owe Rosengarten a vote of thanks for the effort.

Reviewed by Paul Buhle

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