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Between the lines
The black power of C.L.R. James

Early in C.L.R. James: A Life, biographer Farrukh Dhondy introduces the concept of "the line": those constant adjustments to political statements of purpose by political revolutionaries in the hopes of setting forth a thesis palatable to the unmoved workers of England and America. The young Cyril Lionel Richard James (1901-1989), a native of Trinidad and a schoolmaster by training who left his island in pursuit of life as an "English intellectual," had something of his own perpetually shifting "line": first dedicated man of letters and obsessive philosopher of English cricket; then "Marxizing" radical (James coasted his way through early political life with a cursory knowledge of Das Kapital), and then encyclopaedic master of theory. He was a Trotskyite and then no more. He was the adopted grandfather of "black power" who had no love for the provincial and unstudied rhetoric of such movements. In the end, except for very definite shifts of political alliances, James wore these titles not in succession but all at once, and he remained the "English intellectual" who confessed that his bourgeois education at the hands of a colonial regime was the root of the revolutionary he came to be.

James is best known for a few texts: there is The Black Jacobins (1938), his landmark novelistic history of the Haitian Revolution and Toussaint LíOuverture; the Notes on Dialectics (first published in 1948), an application of Hegelís "algebra" of history to the writings of Lenin; and Beyond a Boundary (1963), a memoir of his life playing cricket. There is also a lesser-known and cultishly revered tract on Melville called Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, which was written in 1953, while he awaited deportation from Ellis Island (it was the height of McCarthyism, and he had overstayed his tourist visa by 15 years). Each of these works displays the brilliance that made him a foremost theorist of history, economics, and culture. Although he never fulfilled initial desires to achieve eminence as a literary figure, the lucidity of his writing and the precision of his analysis was girded in an early devotion to the literature, philosophy, and culture of the civilization his work sought to demolish.

Dhondy and James were friends, with something of a master-protégé relationship. Separated by a generation, they were both colonials whoíd escaped to the metropole. They were sometime collaborators on failed projects, with Dhondy as amanuensis. James also lived with Dhondy for extended periods as a house guest. The storytelling in C.L.R. James courses madly, with Dhondy trying on various stances. He is the traditional biographer, making pretenses to critical distance, and then the personal avenger of Jamesís legacy, pointedly correcting the shortcomings of other chroniclers. There are reckless interludes where Dhondy tells aspects of his own personal history, presumably to highlight his affinity with James. We are offered useful glosses of Jamesís primary works, important assessments of his lesser-known fiction, and details of endless episodes of "factional intrigue": Jamesís dizzying realignments, departures, and breaks within Marxist circles first in England, then in America, back in Trinidad, and finally in England again.

Dhondy gets the details right (though much of Jamesís early life is already told in Beyond a Boundary), since years spent at the old manís knee gave him unrivaled access. In certain areas heís overly personal, but where it is appropriate for a biographer to investigate the peculiarities of his subjectís intimate life ó especially in a boundless biography like this one ó Dhondy is coy and elliptical.

There is a bizarre chapter told in dramatic monologue, in which Dhondy takes on the voice of Trinidadian historian, politician, and James rival Eric Williams. In the next chapter, Dhondy parses the unflattering portrayal of James by V. S. Naipaul in his semi-autobiographical novel, A Way in the World. Naipaul concocts the surrogate Lebrun, who like James is a colonial revolutionary, is fashionable on the international leftist circuit, and is a prophet of resistance movements. Unlike James, Naipaulís Lebrun is a demagogue and a fraud. Rebutting this fictional distortion is just one of several instances where the biographer invites other thinkers and other works to the table of his remembrance. In passages like these, Dhondy is least successful.

This Life of C.L.R. James can hardly be read as definitive, but it is a useful primer on the prolific scholar. Perhaps the difficulty in setting Jamesís essence on paper is appropriate to this man whose legacy remains open for debate.

Issue Date: January 2 - 9, 2003
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