In praise of CLR James
A challenging new biopic reveals a tireless, fearless revolutionary.
The great Trinidad-born CLR James, though perhaps not as well-known as he ought to be, is today an accepted figure. Respected for the breadth and depth of his thought on subjects from colonialism to cricket, from Stalinism to slavery, from Marxism to the movies, his name adorns the walls of libraries, and his magnum opus, The Black Jacobins, finds itself on reading lists in universities across the globe. Yet in his time, his courageous challenges to received wisdom and authority saw him trailed by the British and American security services, and even detained on Ellis Island as a ‘foreign subversive’.
A groundbreaking new film Every Cook Can Govern is the first feature-length exploration of James’ life, thought and legacy. Drawing on never-seen-before archive footage of James, in-depth research, and outstanding contributions from eminent scholars of his work and from those who knew him, the result is many things at once: a historical tour de force; a film that truly gets to grips with what it meant to be a revolutionary in the 20th century; and a challenge to the prevailing myths that justified colonialism and imperialism.
A teacher in his early days in Trinidad, James travelled to London in 1932 with ambitions of becoming a novelist. He worked as a cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, having been invited by the great cricketer Learie Constantine to Nelson, a Lancashire weaving town. Dubbed in the press as ‘Little Moscow’, Nelson provided James with a self-reliant, outspoken community hungry for knowledge. It prompted him to turn his back on the prospect of a comfortable life writing literary fiction and cricket reports. As James himself put it, ‘the world went political and I went with it’.
In Every Cook Can Govern, we learn that it was a Nelson local who first lent James a copy of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and it was another Nelsonian, Harry Spencer, who lent him the money to travel to Paris to research The Black Jacobins, his groundbreaking study of the Haitian Revolution. Not only is the book a gripping read, particularly for its account of the revolution’s astonishing military successes, in which the Haitian slaves defeat the British, the French and the Spanish invaders – but it was also an essential intervention into the debate on slavery. As historian James Heartfield summarises in Every Cook Can Govern, James made it clear that the abolition of slavery didn’t come from the ‘toffs in frill shirts and velvet coats’ in the British parliament. Instead, the drive for abolition came from the slaves themselves who rose up and made the plantation system unviable. As James puts it, it was not William Wilberforce or Thomas Clarkson, but ordinary Afro-Caribbeans, who were to ‘make history which would alter the fate of millions of men and shift the economic currents of three continents’.
James was scathing of the evangelicals who wallowed in the illusion that it was they who set the slaves free, for this account was not just inaccurate – but dangerous. Anti-slavery rhetoric had, since the 1840s, been entangled with colonial civilising missions. In 1935, Mussolini’s Italy justified its invasion of Ethiopia on the grounds of abolishing slavery, which sounds odd coming from a fascist dictatorship. James led the anti-fascist movement on behalf of Ethiopia from London, but his consistent anti-imperialism left him with few friends. Many British liberals supported Mussolini’s humanitarian, anti-slavery intervention. Even Marcus Garvey, whose arguments had been essential to demolishing the myth of black inferiority, turned his fire from Mussolini to the Ethiopian Emperor, and James heckled him at Speakers’ Corner for doing so. James saw through the lie that colonising Africa would set Africans free.
James’ brave, principled and consistent stand against imperialism also led him to oppose the Second World War. He rejected the simple moral tale promoted by Churchill and Roosevelt of freedom-loving democracies triumphing over evil totalitarians. This was no war for democracy, he argued: it was a war for empire. Democracy may have extended to the 35million or so Britons who had the vote, but not to the 360million in the colonies who did not. James went on to spend 15 years in the US, initially invited by Trotsky, where he learned of the brutal reality of segregation. He urged black Americans to resist joining the war effort. Hitler may be a vile criminal, James notes, ‘but I have no democracy and the democracy I haven’t got Hitler didn’t take from me’. What is more, the Roosevelt regime was experienced by many as a form of dictatorship, where factory workers were subject to 50- to 60-hour working weeks supervised by the military.
Nevertheless, James loved America – particularly for its rich popular culture. He was fascinated by its novels and films, but most of all by the people who enjoyed them. Even his imprisonment there could not dent his love for American culture – it was while incarcerated on Ellis Island that he crafted his lesser-known classic Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, an analysis of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick.
He counted Melville among the great Western writers, professed his love for Thackeray and Shakespeare, and devoured the works of Ancient Greece. In the Western canon, James saw the true universal and revolutionary potential of ideals so often dismissed in our relativistic era as the musings of Dead White European Males. His aim was to see these ideals realised.
Every Cook Can Govern provides a fitting tribute to James, a true revolutionary driven by a belief in freedom for all and in man as history-maker, unafraid to challenge prevailing myths and prejudices, and unwilling to compromise on his principles.