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“That Dreadful Country”: C. L. R. James's Early Thoughts on American Civilization



If C. L. R. James could later reflect in Beyond a Boundary that before arriving in Britain, “about Britain, I was a strange compound of knowledge and ignorance,” then the same was fundamentally true about his relation to American society before his arrival there in 1938. This article will begin with discussion of the attraction of America for black West Indians, including George Padmore, in the era of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as the young James's own love of jazz and American literature. The complexities of the young James's “anti-Americanism” will be also explored, before we explore how James's turn to both Marxism and pan-Africanism after 1934 led to a new appreciation of both the power of the American working class and a new understanding of how a revolutionary solution might be found to the “Negro Question,” the question of the systematic racism towards black people in America. The article will conclude with discussion of James's 1938 work A History of Negro Revolt, in particular its Marxist analysis of the history of American slavery and its abolition during the American Civil War, as well as the strengths and limitations of Garveyism as a social movement.



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1 “Carl Van Vechten to Langston Hughes, October 27, 1941” and “Langston Hughes to Carl Van Vechten, October 30, 1941,” in Emily Bernard, ed., Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), 192–94.

2 Time, 5 Dec. 1938. For reviews in African American publications see, for example, Seabrook, W. B., “ The Black Jacobins ,” Journal of Negro History, 24, 1 (Jan. 1939), 125–27; Logan, Rayford W., “Reviews: Caribbean History,” Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, 17, 2 (1939), 5860 ; Ivy, James W., “Break the Image of the White God …,” The Crisis, 46, 8 (August 1939), 250–51.

3 The two had mutual friends in Paris, such as Nancy Cunard and Léon-Gontran Damas. For Hughes in Paris in this period see Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume I, 1902–1941: I, Too, Sing America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 343–44, 361–62. On “black internationalism” see Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003). On “black Paris” see Eburne, Jonathan P. and Braddock, Jeremy, “Introduction: Paris, Capital of the Black Atlantic,” Modern Fiction Studies, 51, 4, (2005), 731–40.

4 In 1941 James – or rather “J. R. Johnson” – travelled to southeastern Missouri to help support and report on a strike by the sharecroppers of local 313 of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA). See Taylor, Christopher, “Sharing Time: C. L. R. James and Southern Agrarian Movements,” Social Text, 111 (2012), 7598 .

5 Both, for example, had written plays on the Haitian Revolution in the 1930s. See C. L. R. James, Toussaint Louverture: The story of the only successful slave revolt in history (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); and Philip Kaisary, The Haitian Revolution in the Literary Imagination: Radical Horizons, Conservative Constraints (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014), 37–55. This essay has not explored the important question of how the US occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 shaped James's understanding of “American civilization,” but for some suggestive comments from James about the occupation see Dalleo, Raphael, “‘The Independence So Hardly Won Has Been Maintained’: C. L. R. James and the U. S. Occupation of Haiti,” Cultural Critique, 87 (Spring 2014), 3859 .

6 J. R. Johnson, “On Gone with the Wind,” Socialist Appeal, 13 Jan. 1940, republished in C. L. R. James on the “Negro Question”, ed. Scott McLemee (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996), 51–55, 54. In April 1938 Hughes, as an admirer of Stalin, had signed a public statement supporting the Moscow trials, “the efforts of the Soviet Union to free itself from insidious internal dangers, principal menace to peace and democracy.” See Rampersad, 374. Twenty years after their first meeting, James and Hughes enjoyed a more cordial reunion in November 1959, when Hughes briefly visited Trinidad to give a series of lectures. James, as a leading member of Eric Williams's People's National Movement, in this period would now do the honours by introducing Hughes to the audience at the Public Library in Port of Spain. See Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume II, 1941–1967: I Dream a World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 304.

7 On these see Leon Trotsky, On Black Nationalism and Self-Determination (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1980), C. L. R. James, “Discussions with Trotsky,” in James, At the Rendezvous of Victory: Selected Writings, Volume III (London: Allison and Busby, 1984), 33–64. For more on these discussions see Scott McLemee, “Introduction: The Enigma of Arrival,” in C. L. R. James on the “Negro Question”; Christopher Phelps's excellent introduction to Max Shachtman, Race and Revolution (London: Verso, 2003), xi–xxxvii, xi–lxiii, and Høgsbjerg, Christian, “The Prophet and Black Power: Trotsky on Race in the US,” International Socialism, 121 (2009), 99119 .

8 Trotsky, 59, 66.

9 C. L. R. James, Special Delivery: The Letters of C. L. R. James to Constance Webb, 1939–1948, ed. Anna Grimshaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 49. Such feelings would be heightened by James's first direct experience of racism and segregation in the Jim Crow South as he stopped off in New Orleans on his way back from Mexico in 1939. See McLemee, “Introduction,” xxi–xxii.

10 C. L. R. James on the “Negro Question”, 139. For evidence of testimony from the Harlem lawyer Conrad Lynn relating to Malcolm X’s familiarity with James’s text, see Lawrence Ware and Paul Buhle, “Malcolm X, C. L. R. James and Political Choices Today,” Counterpunch, 12 Aug. 2015, at See also Paul Buhle, “C. L. R. James: The Authorized Biography, a Quarter Century Later”; this stands as the Preface to the 2014 Japanese edition of Paul Buhle, C. L. R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary (London: Verso, 1989). Scott McLemee notes that Malcolm X’s reading of James dates from the early 1960s rather than the early 1950s as suggested by Buhle. Scott McLemee, personal correspondence, 29 Feb. 2016.

11 See C. L. R. James and Martin Glaberman, “Letters,” in Paul Buhle, ed., C. L. R. James: His Life and Work (London: Allison and Busby, 1986), 154–58.

12 Manning Marable, “Foreword,” in Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution (London: Redwords, 1998), xi–xvii, xi. Georgakas and Surkin, in their history of the league, note that “James's ideas were well known to League activists and Black Jacobins was the work which struck the deepest chord.” Georgakas and Surkin, 261.

13 For more on James's History of Negro Revolt see Christian Høgsbjerg, “The ‘Black International’ as Social Movement Wave: C. L. R. James's History of Pan-African Revolt,” in Colin Barker, Laurence Cox, John Krinsky and Alf Gunvald Nilson, eds., Marxism and Social Movements (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014), 317–35. For more analysis of the recent #BlackLivesMatters movement see Trudell, Megan, “Racism and Resistance in the US after Ferguson,” International Socialism, 146 (Spring 2015), 7593 . For some suggestions of what James himself might have thought of this movement see Matthew Quest, “C. L. R. James, the Ferguson Rebellion and Radical History,” New Historian (2015), at For how another legendary West Indian revolutionary Frantz Fanon found a new audience when he was taken up amidst the #BlackLivesMatter movement because of his comments in The Wretched of the Earth (1961) that the Indo-Chinese revolted “because it became impossible to breathe” see Peter Hudis, Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades (London: Pluto Press, 2015), 1.

14 C. L. R. James, Beyond a Boundary (London: Hutchinson, 1969), 114.

15 C. L. R. James, American Civilization (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993). See also Bill Schwarz, “C. L. R. James's American Civilization,” in Christopher Gair, ed., Beyond Boundaries: C. L. R. James and Postnational Studies (London: Pluto, 2006), 128–56.

16 James, Beyond a Boundary, 26. Richard Small, “The Training of an Intellectual, the Making of a Marxist,” in Buhle, C. L. R. James: His Life and Work, 49–60, 51.

17 James, Special Delivery, 171.

18 James, Beyond a Boundary, 37.

19 Thomas notes that “the idea of slavery haunted Thackeray's imagination.” Deborah A. Thomas, Thackeray and Slavery (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993), 1, 140.

20 James, Beyond a Boundary, 70–71. James would later impress the English novelist Edith Sitwell in 1932 by naming the novelist William Faulkner after she had alluded to “a young American writer of 31 or 32 who was a far finer novelist than D. H. Lawrence” but then refused to name him. C. L. R. James, Letters from London: Seven Essays by C. L. R. James, ed. Nicholas Laughlin (Oxford: Signal, 2003), 24–25.

21 Louise Cripps, C. L. R. James: Memories and Commentaries (London: Cornwall Books, 1997), 117, 168. Louise Cripps also remembers James discussing the idea of writing on Moby-Dick with her in England during the 1930s, as a work that illuminated “Man's struggle against Fate, and how his own obsessions could destroy him.” For James's 1953 work on Melville see C. L. R. James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live in (Hanover: Dartmouth College and University Press of New England, 2001).

22 Paul Buhle, “The Making of a Literary Life: C. L. R. James interviewed,” in Paget Henry and Paul Buhle, eds., C. L. R. James's Caribbean (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), 56–60, 59. According to MacDonald Celestin Taylor, James was offered a job as “manager of the new musical departmental store on Frederick Street” as a result of his expertise in the area of jazz and classical music. See Kent Worcester, C. L. R. James: A Political Biography (New York: State University of New York Press, 1996), 249. For one brief later comment by James on the history of jazz see James, American Civilization, 137.

23 Sander, Reinhard W., “The Turbulent Thirties in Trinidad: An Interview with Alfred H. Mendes,” World Literature Written in English, 12, 1 (1973), 6679 , 70. James would quote from an O. Henry short story, “Brickdust Row,” in one of his 1932 articles for the Port of Spain Gazette. See James, Letters from London, 100, 135.

24 There is extensive discussion of this in Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America (London: Verso, 1999).

25 C. L. R. James, A History of Negro Revolt (London: FACT, 1938), 67.

26 C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London: Penguin, 2001), 310.

27 The Beacon, 2, 12 (June 1933), 31.

28 Brinsley Samaroo, ed., The Beacon, Volumes I–IV, 1931–1939 (New York: Kraus, 1977), xviii. Nathan Schneider was a supporter of the Communist Party in America, and wrote articles for The Beacon on the appeal of communism in America during the Great Depression. See The Beacon, 1, 1 (March 1931) and The Beacon, 1, 2 (May 1931). Hazel V. Carby has argued that these two Americans had a significant influence in shaping the direction of The Beacon, in accordance with orthodox communist approaches to literature. I think whatever the merits of this position in general, there is no evidence to suggest that James himself was influenced significantly by this, as he had left Trinidad before The Beacon made any serious “communist turn.” Carby, Hazel V., “Proletarian or Revolutionary Literature: C. L. R. James and the Politics of the Trinidadian Renaissance,” New Formations, 10 (1990), 99108 .

29 James, C. L. R., “The Intelligence of the Negro,” The Beacon, 1, 5 (Aug. 1931), 610 .

30 C. L. R. James, “Barbados and the Barbadians,” Port of Spain Gazette, 20 March 1932.

31 C. L. R. James, “Barbados and the Barbadians, II,” Port of Spain Gazette, 22 March 1932.

32 Stefan Collini, Arnold (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 24. For Arnold's influence on the young James see Christian Høgsbjerg, C. L. R. James in Imperial Britain (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

33 C. L. R. James, The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 40.

34 James, Letters from London, 117.

35 Ross McKibbin, Classes and Cultures: England 1918–1951 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 434; James, Letters from London, 122.

36 Peter Noble, The Negro in Films (London: Skelton, 1948), 48, 56.

37 James, A History of Negro Revolt, 66.

38 John M. MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880–1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 80, 95.

39 James, Letters from London, 86–87.

40 These included the Ugandan prince Akiri Nyabongo and the Kenyan nationalist Mbiyu Koinange.

41 For more on the relationship between James and Robeson, see James, Toussaint Louverture.

42 The Keys, 1, 1 (July 1933). Roberts was on the LCP executive alongside James, as was another American, Warren H. Scott, from 1933 to 1934. See The Keys, 1, 2 (Oct. 1933). James and Roberts corresponded before Roberts returned to America in December 1934. Personal information from David Killingray, 6 Nov. 2014. See The Keys, 2, 3 (Jan.–March 1935), which also has a photo of Roberts.

43 Kent Worcester, personal communication, 28 Oct. 2009.

44 Nelson Leader, 16 March 1934.

45 As Trotsky noted in August 1934, “the ‘Minority’ that entered the ILP has maintained its internal solidarity and its connection with the international Bolshevik–Leninists, has made large use of the publications of the League in America.” Quoted in Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, Against the Stream: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, 1924–1938 (London: Socialist Platform, 1986), 194.

46 For a brief recent overview of these struggles see John Newsinger, Fighting Back: The American Working Class in the 1930s (London: Bookmarks, 2012).

47 Weaver, Alfred, “Strikes and the Economic Cycle,” New International, 1, 1 (July 1934), 1820 , 20.

48 New International, 1, 3 (Sept.–Oct. 1934), 65–67.

49 C. L. R. James, World Revolution, 1917–1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1994), 195.

50 Lessons of the International Strike Wave,” Fight, 1, 7 (June 1937), 13 , 1, 3.

51 New Leader, 15 July 1938.

52 New Leader, 2 Sept. 1938. Edwards had been the first commander of the ILP contingent in the Spanish Civil War, and would later serve as ILP chairman and then as a Labour MP. Such optimism was shared by the editors of the New International, who noted in January 1938 that “it is increasingly clear that the centre of gravity of the revolutionary labour movement is shifting Westward” to the United States, where “the labour movement is experiencing a sweeping upsurge.” The Aims of Our Review,” New International, 4, 1 (Jan. 1938).

53 For more on the IASB and James's political activism in Britain see Høgsbjerg, C. L. R. James in Imperial Britain. Interestingly, according to James's Special Branch file, James was from late 1935 in contact with the former American Communist leader Jay Lovestone and his group in America, who sent him copies of their Negro Voice and Race, and put him in contact with their black American contacts. The National Archives, Kew, London (TNA), KV/2/1824/1z.

54 International African Opinion, 1, 2 (Aug. 1938), 7. James was assisted in editing this journal by a black American student at the LSE, William Harrison.

55 Matthew Quest, “George Padmore's and C. L. R. James's International African Opinion,” in Fitzroy Baptiste and Rupert Lewis, eds., George Padmore: Pan-African Revolutionary (Kingston: Ian Randle, 2009), 97–132, 113–14.

56 James, A History of Negro Revolt, 22. For James's later analysis of Aptheker's work see C. L. R. James, “Stalinism and Negro History,” in C. L. R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings of C. L. R. James, 1939–49, ed. Scott McLemee and Paul Le Blanc (Amherst, NJ: Humanity Books, 1994). Aside from acknowledging James's History of Negro Revolt in the bibliography to his American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), Aptheker was in general silent on James's work. See Flood, Anthony, “C. L. R. James: Herbert Aptheker's Invisible Man,” C. L. R. James Journal, 19, 1–2 (2013), 276–97.

57 James, A History of Negro Revolt, 24–25.

58 Ibid., 28–29.

59 Ibid., 29–30.

60 Ibid., 30–31.

61 Ibid., 31–36. James did not pass over the period of “Reconstruction” when blacks played a part in the government of some southern states in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and were able to implement “the policy of a people poor and backward seeking to establish a community where all, black and white, could live in amity and freedom. It deserves to be remembered.” For more on Reconstruction see Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1990).

62 Robin D. G. Kelley, “Introduction” to C. L. R. James, A History of Pan-African Revolt (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1995), 1–33, 15. Cedric Robinson had previously also advanced the case that James during the 1930s was influenced by Black Reconstruction. See Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (London: Zed Books, 1991), 380, 409.

63 James, A History of Negro Revolt, 22, 31–32, 34. The only articles James refers to are Aptheker's effort in Science and Society from 1937 and one by a “Southerner” from April 1938 in the American Mercury. Indeed James himself later commented that he “had no idea what Du Bois was doing” with respect to the history of the American Civil War until he left Britain for America. MARHO, ed., Visions of History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), 275. In a lecture in 1971, James reiterated that “I learnt quite a few things in the United States. Among them I learned the work of Dr Du Bois, than whom no more important name in the political and intellectual development of the twentieth century can be called.” C. L. R. James, “The Old World and the New,” in James, At the Rendezvous of Victory, Volume III, 202–17, 209.

64 James, A History of Negro Revolt, 63–66.

65 Ibid., 68.

66 James, The Black Jacobins, 310.

67 James, A History of Negro Revolt, 68–70.

68 Ibid., 69, 71.

69 In the summer of 1938, on Trotsky's urging, James P. Cannon had invited James to do a speaking tour for the SWP that winter on Europe, the coming war and “the Negro question.” As James later proudly remembered, he “had written the history and articles. So I brought to the Trotskyist movement some international reputation.” James, Special Delivery, 8. Al Richardson, Clarence Chrysostom and Anna Grimshaw, C. L. R. James and British Trotskyism: An Interview (London: Socialist Platform, 1987), 11–12.

70 C. L. R. James on the “Negro Question,” 115–16. It is not an accident that one of the most outstanding Garvey scholars, the Jamaican historian Robert A. Hill, editor-in-chief of the Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, himself was a leading supporter of C. L. R. James from the 1960s onwards.

71 Ibid., 146–47.

“That Dreadful Country”: C. L. R. James's Early Thoughts on American Civilization



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