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Urbane Revolutionary

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

Frank Rosengarten
Copyright Date: 2008
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    Urbane Revolutionary
    Book Description:

    In Urbane Revolutionary: C.L.R. James and the Struggle for a New Society, Frank Rosengarten traces the intellectual and political development of C.L.R. James (1901-1989), one of the most significant Caribbean intellectuals of the twentieth century. In his political and philosophical commentary, his histories, drama, letters, memoir, and ficion, James broke new ground dealing with the fundamental issues of his age-colonialism and post-colonialism, Soviet socialism and western neo-liberal capitalism, and the uses of race, class, and gender as tools for analysis.

    The author examines the in depth three facets of James's work: his interpretation and use of Marxist, Trotskyist, and Leninist concepts; his approach to Caribbean and African struggles for independence in the 1950s and 1960s; and his branching into prose fiction, drama, and literary criticism. Rosengarten analyzes James's previously underexplored relationships with women and with the women's liberation movement. The study also scrutinizes James's methods of research and writing.

    Rosengarten explores James's provocative and influential concepts regarding black liberation in the Caribbean, Africa, the United States, and Great Britain and James's varying responses to revolutionary movements. With its extensive use of unpublished letters, private correspondence, papers, books, and other documents,Urbane Revolutionaryprovides fresh insights into the work of one of the twentieth century's most important intellectuals and activists.

    Frank Rosengarten is professor emeritus of Italian and comparative literature at the City University of New York. He is the author of The Writings of the Young Marcel Proust (1885-1900): An Ideological Critique and The Italian Anti-Fascist Press, 1919-1945.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-306-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-XII)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. XIII-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-6)

    Prior to 2001, when I began my research on C. L. R. James, I was aware in a general kind of way that he had some original things to say about a form of socialism that could address the needs of humanity at the turn of the twenty-first century. I was impelled to go beyond generalities and delve more deeply into his writings by the confluence of several events and trends of the 1990s. One of these, which struck me and many others with great force, was the disastrous outcome of the seventy-three-year-old Soviet experiment. I had looked on the...

  6. Part One: Marxism and Johnsonism

    • CHAPTER 1 From Reformism to Revolutionary Socialism
      (pp. 9-24)

      C. L. R. James came quite late to revolutionary politics. Although rebellious as a boy and young man growing up in Trinidad in the early decades of the twentieth century, he did not stray far from the path set by his parents, Robert Alexander James, a hard-working school teacher, and his mother, Ida Elizabeth “Bessie” Rudder, a homemaker known for her extraordinary powers of concentration as a reader of fiction and drama. Whenever he looked back to his formative years, from his birth in 1901 to his departure for London in 1932, James tended to stress the literary side of...

    • CHAPTER 2 C. L. R. James’s Engagement with Marxism
      (pp. 25-45)

      From 1934 to 1938, James was a key player in the British Trotskyist movement, as both an organizer and as a journalist. He was also active in the Independent Labor Party (ILP), while simultaneously devoting himself to the burgeoning African and West Indian independence movements. In October 1938, in response to requests for his transfer to the United States that came from Trotsky and from James Cannon, head of the SWP, James took up new responsibilities in New York City as director of the party’s “National Negro Department.” But he was soon at the center of ideological dissension within the...

    • CHAPTER 3 Johnson Agonistes
      (pp. 46-61)

      James believed that both Lenin and Trotsky had greatly enriched Marx’s legacy. He was also convinced, however, that their theories and practices lost some of their original pertinence in the new conditions prevailing in Europe and in the formerly colonial countries during and after World War II. His rethinking of Leninism and Trotskyism in the light of historical developments from the outbreak of World War II to the postwar period is an important constituent of Johnsonism. Actually, James had begun to rethink his views on vanguardism well before the war, as can be seen in his essay on “Lenin, Trotsky...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Internal Life of the Johnson-Forest Tendency
      (pp. 62-84)

      From its beginnings in 1941 to 1947, the original nucleus of the JFT functioned as a minority “tendency” within the Workers Party [WSU, G, Box 7, F 6, letter from Glaberman to Webb, 18 February 1964]. In 1947, the JFT withdrew from the WP and rejoined the SWP. In 1951, following its second rupture with the SWP, it was not entirely correct to speak of the JFT as a “tendency,” since it no longer had any party affiliation. Nevertheless, the group continued to function, albeit in greatly reduced numbers and cohesiveness. The schism of 1955, and the formation of the...

    • CHAPTER 5 Women’s Liberation
      (pp. 85-97)

      James was committed in theory to equality between the sexes and to the principle of self-realization as a goal for all human beings. Yet for many years, as he himself admitted more than once, he failed to relate to the women in his life in a fully committed, responsive, and collaborative manner. This is how he characterized his relations with his three wives in a section of his autobiography entitled “The West Indian at Home and Abroad: My Experiences with Women”: “I was an inadequate husband. I didn’t pay any attention to them as human beings sharing a life with...

    • CHAPTER 6 Revolutionary Struggles in Eastern Europe and Cuba
      (pp. 98-114)

      C. L. R. James had a lifelong interest in revolutions inspired by egalitarian and socialist ideals. But he was also interested in how differences in historical context can affect the course and outcome of such revolutions. He took seriously a principle he articulated in 1948 inNotes on Dialectics, that “thought is not an instrument you apply to a content. The content moves, develops, changes and creates new categories of thought and gives them direction” (James 1980b, 15).¹ His views on Eastern Europe from the 1950s to the 1980s were quite different from those he had concerning the development of...

  7. Part Two: National-Popular Politics

    • CHAPTER 7 National-Popular Politics and Pan-Africanism
      (pp. 117-135)

      Toward the end of January 1957, James received an invitation from Kwame Nkrumah to attend ceremonies in Accra between between 2 and 10 March to mark the attainment of independence by the Gold Coast under its new name of Ghana [WSU, G, Box 5, F 9]. James accepted the invitation, and in a letter of 26 March 1957 [JI, F 4610] to his friends in the United States, he recounted some of his experiences in Ghana. This letter attests to the fact that he had not allowed events in Hungary to deter him from staying in close touch with revolutionary...

    • CHAPTER 8 Paths to Socialism
      (pp. 136-154)

      James always thought that his work for various black causes and his commitment to the Marxist revolutionary movement were parts of one and the same project, that they went hand in hand and could not be separated from each other. As he put it retrospectively in an “Outline” for his planned autobiography, from the time in the mid-1930s that he joined George Padmore in the International African Service Bureau, and became editor of its journalInternational African Opinion, black liberation and revolutionary Marxist socialism “were in reality only two sides of the same question” [JI, F 0707].

      Nevertheless, adaptation, sometimes...

  8. Part Three: Literature and Society

    • CHAPTER 9 Poetry and Truth in C. L. R. James’s Fictional Writings
      (pp. 157-172)

      James’s work as a fiction writer and as a literary critic is intertwined with the issues and aims that occupied him as a revolutionary political thinker and activist. It would be misleading to base an approach to his writings primarily on distinctions of genre.The Black Jacobinsis a historical work, yet its narrative sweep and underlying conception of human character and fallibility are literary to the core, and require not only some acquaintance with James’s Trotskyism but also an appreciation of how he makes use of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, as expounded in thePoetics. It isn’t difficult to...

    • CHAPTER 10 The Social Criticism of Literature
      (pp. 173-191)

      C. L. R. James upheld two principles concerning the relationship between literature and society. One was the autonomy of the creative process in relation to the demands of official authorities, whatever their political color; the other was that literature and society are inextricably enmeshed with each other, thereby imposing on the critic the obligation to show concretely how the study of sociopolitical structures, class conflicts, and the predominant cultural patterns at any given moment in time can “illuminate” a literary text (James 1992, 234). In a letter of 7 March 1953 to the Melville scholar Jay Leyda, to which Leyda...

    • CHAPTER 11 James’s Melville Criticism
      (pp. 192-209)

      Only one other writer in the English language held a higher place in James’s personal pantheon of immortals than Herman Melville, and that was William Shakespeare. Quite often he spoke of the two together, as if they had been somehow destined to illuminate each other. InMariners, Renegades, and Castaways: Herman Melville and the World We Live In, James said of Melville that he had “the finest mind that has ever functioned in the New World and the greatest since Shakespeare’s that has ever concerned itself with literature” (MRC84). Extravagant claims of this type are typical ofMRC; it...

    • CHAPTER 12 American Civilization and the Popular Arts
      (pp. 210-219)

      James rejected the elitist assumption that the aesthetic side of life was a closed book to ordinary people. He liked to point out that since classical antiquity, and then through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and modernity, writers, artists, and composers who stood at the summit of artistic achievement had always sought out a popular audience and were, in fact, capable of attracting a sizable public to their works and performances. It was false, he argued, to characterize a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Racine, a Rembrandt, a Dante, or a Goethe as remote, solitary geniuses who spoke only to a...

    • CHAPTER 13 The Haitian Revolution
      (pp. 220-232)

      James’s play on the life and death of Toussaint L’Ouverture and his history of the Haitian Revolution both exist in at least two different versions.

      In the case of the play, which was first entitledToussaint L’Ouvertureand later changed toThe Black Jacobins, the same version has been published twice, in a 1976 anthology of Caribbean plays edited by Errol Hill (1976) and in the 1994C. L. R. James Readeredited by Anna Grimshaw, who believes that this was the first version written and produced in 1936 (James 1992, 67–111).¹ The second version, which is in the...

    • CHAPTER 14 Beyond a Boundary
      (pp. 233-246)

      James’s cryptic little “Preface” toBeyond a Boundarymakes it clear that he did not want his book to be read as “cricket reminiscences” or as “autobiography.” His purpose was neither to provide a chronological account of his own experiences as a cricket fan, player, and journalist, nor to tell his life story except insofar as the framework of that story could shed light on the question he wanted to explore in his book, which was“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”The question is italicized, indicating its centrality in the book’s overall design. Indeed, James’s...

  9. About the Sources
    (pp. 247-248)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 249-256)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 257-272)
  12. Index
    (pp. 273-282)