Thursday, December 18, 2014

Where to Begin Reading CLR James?

[Some folks asked me where to start if they wanted to started reading CLR James. I was composing an email for them, but this actually seems easier. So here it is!]

Okay, so there is probably no good way of developing an overview of CLR James’ work. He wrote a lot, for a period of over forty years, and from and about a lot of places. The public archive of his writing is unstable, too. He wrote under multiple pen/party names for many publications, so it’s probable that occasional work in socialist or black radical papers are floating out there and we don’t know about it. Moreover, more and more stuff is being republished (or functionally published for the first time) as part of the CLR James Archive series at Duke. Finally, James himself is something of an authorial catachresis: many of his texts were co-written. The mass of writings, coupled with the heterogeneity of his concerns, means that any number of CLR Jameses are possible: James the Marxist historian, James the pan-African anticolonialist, James the cultural critic, even James the fiction writer. On and on.

The list of James assembled here reflects my own interests in James as someone whose work a) attempted articulating Marxism to black radical traditions and b) theorized key features of capitalism that align neatly with various forms of workerism and autonomism. (They align so neatly, I argue here, because the work of James and his coterie was actually read by those who would give us the sexy European post-marxisms we know and love; the black radical tradition is the denegated center of much Marxism today.) My aim is also, really simply, to keep reading manageable. I know y’all don’t have oodles of time, comrades.

These aren’t presented in any particular order. Publication dates can indeed matter a lot with James. A great deal of his work in the 40s was occasioned by sectarian squabbles in the world of U.S. Trotskyism, and so the immediate occasion for any writing might be localizable to the need to respond to Shachtman or Cannon. Moreover, James’ break with Trotsky—in terms of party affiliations, yes, but also intellectually—decisively impacted his work in the 50s and 60s. That said, all of this material has implications that exceed the polemics that occasioned them (e.g., party disputes on the status of the Soviet Union, debates over the Negro question, and so on).

On with the show.

* The Black Jacobins (1938/1963). I probably don’t need to say much about this one at all. If you can find it, I highly recommend reading James’ “Lectures on The Black Jacobins,” published in Small Axe. I say “if” because I’ve just gone through the journal online and haven’t been able to locate it; it’s supposed to be in Small Axe 8. It is worth finding, though, because James reads The Black Jacobins alongside Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction and it is pretty much amazing. I also highly recommend David Scott’s Conscripts of Modernity for a reading of the significant reorientation of the text’s political horizons in the second edition (which is the edition you would read anyhow). This could also be paired with (the somewhat sloppy) The History of Negro Revolt (1938), later republished as The History of Pan-African Revolt.

* “The Historical Development of the Negroes in American Society” (1943). (This is included in CLR James on the ‘Negro Question’, and I recommend the entire volume.) This is a crucial text for understanding the practical relationship that should obtain between black struggle and Marxist political organizing. He begins by sketching the dialectical tension of racial capitalism: “side by side with his increasing integration into production which becomes more and more a social process, the Negro becomes more than ever conscious of his exclusion from democratic privileges as a separate social group in the community.” For James, this dynamic means that black organizations and mass movements agitating for inclusion in the polity would necessarily bring it into a confrontation with capitalism itself. Indeed, “such today is their proletarian composition and such is the interrelation with the American proletariat itself that their independent struggles form perhaps the most powerful stimulus in American society” toward revolutionary socialism. James would argue, basically, that Marxist parties should trust to the intensity of this dialectic. Instead of trying to steer black democratic movements or subsume them into Marxist organizations, “the party, with the fullest consciousness of the significance of the mass independent struggles of the Negroes, considers that its main agitational work among Negroes is the stimulation and encouragement of these mass struggles.” Put simply, “[The party] sharply condemns that distortion of Marxist truth which states or implies that the Negroes by their independent struggles cannot get to first base without the leadership of organized labor.” To be sure, there is residual vanguard-y Party-talk in here; it was, after all, a party document. But it operates in tension with the analysis provided. So one thing to take away is that James’ ultimate break with the Party-form is very much an effect of his engagement with black activism—not simply a result of his interpretation of the emergent political economy of post-Fordism, as we’ll shortly see. Another thing to take away: I think that this is a crucial analysis for any leftist or left organization trying to map the potentialities of, and its own relation to, the ongoing revolt.  

* Facing Reality: The New Society: Where to look for it & How to bring it closer (1958), written with Grace Lee (soon Grace Lee Boggs) and Cornelius Castoriadis. “The whole world today lives in the shadow of the state power. This state power is an ever-present self-perpetuating body over and above society…Against this monster, people all over the world, and particularly ordinary working people in factories, mines, fields, and offices, are rebelling every day in ways of their own invention.” Facing Reality marks James’ starkest break with vanguardism, and it makes sense: the text was published in the wake of the Hungarian workers revolution of 1956, which exemplified for James the ordinariness of the desire for freedom and the extreme level of political sophistication possessed by “ordinary working people” everywhere. For James et al., this event signaled the definitive end of the Party-form, whose logic of organization was as monstrous as that of the state. In a Negrian idiom, Party and State organizations were functionally apparatuses of transcendence that blocked or appropriated the immanent functioning of the social. (He and his crew articulate this wonderfully in State Capitalism and World Revolution [1950].) We also get a sense in this text of why it was that James became so preoccupied with the cultural fabric of U.S. life, as shown in texts like American Civilization and Mariners, Renegades and Castaways. For James, culture isn’t just a repository of prolie dreaming, although it is that. It is more importantly a primary place at which the cognitive, affective, and social competencies of people are enhanced—an inchoate articulation of the social factory thesis. What remained for radical organizations? Aside from showing up—at the demo, at the strike, at the barricades—nothing more than publishing a newspaper, elucidating the global state of things and the tendential drift of the world.

* “Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and the Caribbean,” “Marx’s Capital, the Working-Day, and Capitalist Production” (late 1960s) in You Don’t Play with Revolution. These are lectures that James gave to some Caribbean students in Montreal in the late 60s, and whoa: they are amazing. I mean, the entire collection is just fantastic, but James is actually a wonderful reader of Marx. The Brumaire essay is in many ways an attempt to read the current political scene of Trinidad (and Eric Williams in particular) through Marx. For James, it doesn’t quite translate: the political and social composition of Trinidad scrambles the operative analytic categories of Marx’s text. It’s James at his best, putting two things together in order to transform our understanding of both of them. His reading of the “Working Day” section of Capital is equally brilliant, and tracks the theoretical developments of workerism and autonomism neatly. Basically, the scene of production is constituted by political antagonism, and capital is reactive to the self-activity of workers. Rad stuff.

* Selma James, “A Woman’s Place” (1952) and The Power of Women & the Subversion of the Community (1972, with Mariarosa Dalla Costa, should include “A Woman’s Place”). A few things to say here. First, I think that it is impossible to understand CLR’s theoretical trajectory through the 50s without considering the impact of Selma James’ work on his thinking. Selma published “A Woman’s Place” in Correspondence in 1952, three years before she married CLR. Selma’s exploration of the doubly worked working-class woman, the way that a particular form of subjectivity is shaped in the unendingness of labor, not only shaped CLR’s thinking about gender and capital; it also attuned him more concretely, I think, to the necessity of recovering the concrete particularity of workers’ subjectivity. As for The Power of Women: I’m never sure how to understand the authorial relationship that obtained between James and Dalla Costa. Some versions do not cite James as a co-author. I also think I recall encountering James saying she doesn’t care to talk about disputes over the text’s authorship. (But see here.) Whatever the case, it is a brilliant extension and concretization of some of the concepts that were only incipient in CLR’s work. That is to say, in addition to all of its billion merits, The Power of Women allowed me to re-read CLR in a more productive fashion.

So, that’s it! Like I said, I wanted to reduce the reading load. Some of my favs aren’t on here: his book on Nkrumah (which has the best dedication ever), “Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity,” and on and on. But if you find this useful and trust my taste, I’m totally willing to do another. Or feel free to yell at me for my omissions. 


Christian Hogsbjerg said...

Thanks for putting this together, Chris - a useful post - and definitely agree with your starting with The Black Jacobins.

I think however I would want to also flag up:

*Beyond a Boundary - still an excellent way to understand James's early formation in the colonial Caribbean (though I can understand if American readers prefer to start elsewhere given it is fundamentally about cricket).

*Minty Alley and his early short stories esp. Triumph. It is important to appreciate James's early formation as a writer.

*'Revolution and the Negro' - 1939 essay - this essentially sums up much of James's early political work.

*Mariners, Renegades and Castaways - about Herman Melville's Moby Dick important to register the power of James's literary criticism.

*I would go for 'Modern Politics' (1960 lectures) over 'Facing Reality' personally (Facing Reality may appeal to autonomists, and it is an easy enjoyable read, but it is full of some rather dubious propositions that James then had to disavow later on - for example stating that 'the socialist society exists' [referring to the limited degree of workers' power over production in societies like 1950s America and Britain] - to which someone at the time commented along the lines of 'if the socialist society already exists you might have thought more people would have noticed'. Facing Reality is not the most useful introduction to James's work in my opinion.

* The Selected Writings in the Allison and Busby collections 'The Future in the Present', 'Spheres of Existence' and 'At the Rendezvous of Victory' - there are sadly out of print but a joy to dip into and there will be something there for every taste.

*Finally, I think it is important to flag up the pioneering collection edited by Paul Buhle in 1981 - 'C.L.R. James: His Life and Work' - though perhaps a little dated now, this is probably still the single best edited volume of essays about James's life and work that exists and should be in the hands of everyone reading James for the first time. A kind of classic in its own right.

-p. said...

Fantastic list. I'd have to include "The Making of the Caribbean People," (also in *You Don't Play with Revolution*) because it's where I think James most clearly articulates his vision of the particularly revolutionary history and potential of the West Indian people, an idea that indispensable to understanding CLRJ's work.

*Jacobins* and *BaB* get to that idea,of course, but it can be lost in the larger scale of those two books. This essay is just a perfect expression of James's concept of West Indian identity.

Gautam said...

Really enjoyed this, Chris, and especially appreciated your identifying the interests/commitments that inform these choices. I've got to say -- I can see why so many start with The Black Jacobins, but I didn't really *get* it until I'd read a lot more James, especially Mariners. The gateway to James that I tend to recommend (like your earlier commenter) is the essay on "The Making of the Caribbean People." That nicely leads into Modern Politics and/or Beyond a Boundary (whose elusiveness for American readers is really overstated, I think), which remain the key texts in my personal canon.

Christian Hogsbjerg said...

If people are getting a lot out of 'The Making of the Caribbean People' then they might like to also try and track down James's 1969 essay 'The West Indian intellectual' which serves as the introduction to the reprint of JJ Thomas's book 'Froudacity' (London: New Beacon Books, 1969) - and is not a bad introduction to James's own life and work either.

Chris Taylor said...

This is all great, guys, and I totally agree with most of this. Where do you see James turning back on the propositions floating in FR, Christian? (And by the way, *loved* the book! Although I really want to push you on the politics over culture narrative--and metanarrative--underwriting it)

Christian Hogsbjerg said...

Glad you liked the book Chris, even if there are some issues arising which we might have to discuss another time...

On James's retreat from some of the arguments in Facing Reality, I read his 1962 essay 'Marxism and the Intellectuals' (in ''Spheres of Existence'') as a kind of implicit refutation of some of his earlier arguments:

Here he talk of the rise of the CIO for example, and does not say anywhere that 'the socialist society exists' on the factory floor. Indeed:

''the most significant and enduring memory of the formation of the CIO was the treasured possession of a worker in Flint many years after – he probably still has it. It was the first contract between the workers and capitalists of a big automobile plant. It consisted of only one typewritten page (full of creases from being constantly folded, opened and refolded). But by this contract, if the workers had a grievance, all workers in the department stopped work and went to discuss the matter with the superintendent. After discussion the decision was made on the spot.

This was not socialism or anything like socialism. Socialism is the organization of production by people who work and are in charge of work. Socialism is not a continual fighting with the boss. But at any rate in those days the workers established their right and their wish to be something else besides a mere category of production like rubber or steel.''

Chris Taylor said...

thanks, Christian!

John Garvey said...


The collection of essays edited by Paul Buhle was originally published as a special issue of Urgent Tasks, the journal of the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO). It's available online at

John Garvey

Christian Hogsbjerg said...

Thanks John - yes, that issue also includes some material on James - for example by David Widgery and Franklin Rosemont - that sadly didn't make it into the edited collection - and so in this sense is even more valuable.

Eddie Goldman said...

"The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in US" (July 1948) is essential to understanding James, as well as quite timely, these 67 years later.

I also saw a synopsis of a short essay called "The Opium of the Intellectuals" about the abhorrence of the petit bourgeois intellectuals for sports. But I have never been able to locate the whole essay, even after asking Hill, who is supposed to be collecting everything. So if anyone knows where this is, please let me know. Thanks.