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C. L. R. James (1901–1989)

Author of The Black Jacobins

56+ Works 3,189 Members 43 Reviews 9 Favorited

About the Author

A native of Trinidad, C. L. R. James grew up in a very respectable middle-class black family steeped in British manners and culture. Although justifiably well-known in the British world as a writer, historian, and political activist, his contributions have been underappreciated in the United show more States. A student of history, literature, philosophy, and culture, James thought widely and wrote provocatively. He also turned his words into deeds as a journalist, a Trotskyite, a Pan-African activist, a Trinidadian nationalist politican, a university teacher, and a government official. James was a teacher and magazine editor in Trinidad until the early 1930s, when he went to England and became a sports writer for the Manchester Guardian. While in England he became a dedicated Marxist organizer. In 1938 he moved to the United States and continued his political activities, founding an organization dedicated to the principles of Trotskyism. His politics led to his expulsion from the United States in 1953, and he returned to Trinidad, from which he was also expelled in the early 1960s. He spent the remainder of his life in England. Among James's extensive writings, the two most influential volumes are Black Jacobins (1967), a study of the anti-French Dominican (Haitian) slave rebellion of the 1790s, and Beyond a Boundary (1963), a remarkable exploration of sport, specifically cricket, as social and political history. Other important works include A History of Negro Revolt (1938) and The Life of Captain Cipriani (1932). James represents an unusual combination of activist-reformer (even revolutionary) and promoter of the best in art, culture, and gentility. (Bowker Author Biography) show less
Image credit: Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901-1989) 1989 photograph (CLR James Internet Archive)


Works by C. L. R. James

The Black Jacobins (1938) 1,376 copies
Beyond a Boundary (1963) 478 copies
Minty Alley (1936) 110 copies
The C.L.R. James Reader (1992) 69 copies
American Civilization (1993) 60 copies
Letters from London (1932) 47 copies
History of Negro Revolt (1970) 33 copies
The Future in the Present (1977) 25 copies
Cricket (1986) 22 copies
80th Birthday Lectures (1984) 7 copies
Takeover (1988) 1 copy

Associated Works

Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (1656) — Contributor — 71 copies
Visions of History (1983) — Contributor — 59 copies
Trinidad Noir: The Classics (2017) — Contributor — 37 copies
L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume 39 (2023) — Contributor — 16 copies
Here to Stay, Here to Fight: A Race Today Anthology (2019) — Contributor — 14 copies


Common Knowledge



What we have here is a magnificent alternative history; not in the typical sense of the word but rather in the way that James presents his version of the event of the Haitian revolution. Originally written at the almost inconceivably early date of 1938, James gains everything from his distance from what we now consider to be the norms of historiography and loses nothing. The writing is fresh and cutting and perceptive in a way that any book written in 2022 could only aspire to be, even as it is closing in on 100 years old. One of the great degenerations of discourse (whether it be in politics, journalism,or academia) as it stands today is the loss of the guiding light of ideology. In pursuit of a moderate, neutral, “objective” view of reality, those who take it upon themselves to make sense of the world have surrendered the incredible tool that is an overt and proactive world view. The Black Jacobins is one of the best pieces of nonfiction writing I’ve ever come across that bears out how powerful a good writer with a good agenda can be. James comes from a Marxist perspective, and for a word so often bandied about, the popular conception of Marxism ignores what is its greatest strength, its historical clarity. Marx himself was the master of tracing historical trends and following them into possible futures. The facts and figures that often give people the impression that his work is dry and boring are, for the sensitive reader, imbued with prerogatives to work for a system that is fairer and that in the end will mean a better life for the mass majority of people. Throughout James’s book, you are constantly made aware of the reverberations the actions of the brave ex-slaves that overthrew their colonial oppressors as they course down through the years to the present day - James never lets you forget that the forces that made the destruction of San Domingo a necessity are still very much with us to this day. He, following the precepts first set out by Marx, understands that whatever evil ,vicious, inhumane behavior man commits, our basic nature is determined by our role in the power chain, reified in cold hard cash. Throughout the book, we are made to understand that the “race war” that the revolution eventually spiraled into was not the result of any essential difference in black or white, but rather the racial identities coming to perfectly equate with that persons role in the immensely profitable twin systems of colonialism and slavery. This point of view is so often lost in modern discussions of racism in the USA, accurately identified as a gaping shame on our country, but not often talked about as the symptom of an essential arrangement of economics and power, rather then the source of the problem itself. The fact that the final stages of the revolution resulted in the massacre of all the whites on the island was the direct result of the whites identifying themselves as the “masters” for the entirely of the preceding colonial history of San Domingo. How could slavery be truly and forever abolished when the people who only a few short years before had set themselves up as those with a biological imperative to rule and oppress were still living on the island? This of course is how systematic racism, being a convenient excuse for the grossest exploitation of labor, finally cuts the other way.… (more)
hdeanfreemanjr | 21 other reviews | Jan 29, 2024 |
If you've seen Steve McQueen's exceptional series on Amazon Prime, Small Axe, then you are in some degree familiar with this classic account of the Haitian Revolution. In the first film in the suite of five, Mangrove, C.L.R. James appears as a character. Later in the same film, Barbara Beese, one of the real-life characters in this superlative film, expresses her consternation to her partner, the real-life Darcus Howe, who is beginning a rereading of The Black Jacobins, suggesting that he has read the book a sufficient number of times and should consider reading something else.

If you've read this book, you'll probably feel some sympathy for Darcus Howe, or anyone else who has read this book more than once. It is dense book, crammed with the minutiae of events of the Haitian Revolution and personalities connected with it, and undergirded with a plethora of evidence gleaned from primary sources. I do not for a moment that this book rewards those who reread it.

As I read the book, I quickly realized that to fully understand it without several rereadings, one really must read at the same time a reputable and comprehensive history of the French Revolution, with which the events in this book were intertwined to a much greater extent than I heretofore understood. The historiography of the French Revolution is vast, so you'll have a large selection from which to choose. For the record, Georges Lefebvre's The Coming of the French Revolution is highly regarded. In fact, as Mr. James points out in the bibliography of The Black Jacobins, "The crown of this work of over a century has been attained by M. Georges Lefebvre, whose one-volume history of the Revolution, and his mimeographed series of lectures to students at the Sorbonne, are a fitting climax to lifetime of indefatigable scholarship, sympathetic understanding, and balanced judgement of all parties, groups and individuals in the Revolution, which it would be difficult to parallel."

Finally, consider this statement, also gleaned from Mr. James bibliography to The Black Jacobins: "It is impossible to understand the San Domingo [i.e. Haitian] revolution unless it is studied in close relationship with the revolution in France."
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Mark_Feltskog | 21 other reviews | Dec 23, 2023 |
Sometimes I get a bit worried about how much real estate cricket takes up in my head. At those times, I have often been reassured by the knowledge that the Trinidadian Marxist and historian C. L. R. James was afflicted with the same condition and still managed an intellectual career.

Having actually read the book now, it's clear that there were some kind of spatial contortions going on in James' head that gave him about a hundred times the mental real estate that I'm working with. The man appears to have thought more about cricket than I've thought about everything combined in my entire life. And it's been productive thinking!

We're always hearing that what you see out in the middle is a microcosm of the world, but I've never seen anyone spell this out in such fine detail as James. The book isn't a gimmick where he's challenged himself to draw links between the struggle for West Indian independence, English schoolboy sports etiquette, and the narcissism of small differences. The links essentially draw themselves when you lay out the history in the right way.

My ultimate takeaway from reading this is that it is immensely valuable to be constantly questioning how things are and why things are, and that this process should not be restricted to its traditional targets, but applied to basically everything.
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NickEdkins | 12 other reviews | May 27, 2023 |
This 1938 book is a fascinating look at how history used to be done: James is both passionately committed to the justice of the revolution’s cause (and a Marxist view of historical inevitability/class conflict) and basically willing to take the existing documentation, written almost entirely by whites, at face value. That means the book reverses racist moral judgments but generally presumes their account of events was factually accurate, which I don’t think a modern historian would do.
rivkat | 21 other reviews | Mar 3, 2023 |



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