Paul Anderson,Tribune, 16 June 1989
C L R James, who died a fortnight ago in London at the age of 88, was one of the most important Anglophone left intellectuals of this century. He was born and educated in Trinidad, emigrating to Britain in 1932 and becoming cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian.
It is for his writing on cricket that he is probably best known in Britain: Beyond a Boundary, published in 1963, is a brilliant exploration of the game’s relationship to class and colonialism that has yet to be surpassed.
But his most lasting work is undoubtedly his historical writing, particularly The Black Jacobins (first published in 1938 and just reissued by Allison and Busby at £5.99), his pioneering Marxist study of the 1791-1803 slave revolt in San Domingo led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.
He was not, however, just a great historian and cricket writer. All his life he was a passionate active opponent of colonialism.
His polemical writings and speeches inspired many of the first generation of post-colonial politicians, especially in the Carribean, though he was less than inspired by them, particularly after returning to Trinidad in the fifties.
Before that, in the late thirties and forties, he had been one of the leading figures of the Trotskyist movement in Britain and then the United States; in the early fifties, working closely with Raya Dunayevskaya after both had broken with Trotskyism over the nature of the Soviet Union and the role of the vanguard party, he had played a major role in establishing a humanist Marxist (though still residually Leninist) intellectual current that prefigured much of the sixties New Left (not least, according to critics, by fabricating “first-person” accounts of life on the factory floor).
James lived his last years In Brixton, in a flat above the offices of Race Today magazine, which under the editorship of Darcus Howe adopted James’s workerism and his insistence on autonomous black organisation outside the established labour movement.
Never an easy man to get on with, James had plenty of detractors as well as fervent disciples. Many of his political judgments were to say the least questionable. But for all his faults, nobody can deny his intellectual stature: the world has lost a great man.