Book Review: CLR James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries by John L Williams is published by Constable (£20)

According to Madoc Cairns, C.L.R. James was a “genius, a seducer, a self-destructive wreck, firebrand author, historian, critic and was a complex, fragile human being”. Cairns somewhat absent-mindedly leaves out the fact that James was once a Trotskyist.

While Williams is not quite as forgetful, he is loathed to go into more detail about James’s radical past than is necessary. There is a degree of political laziness in this attitude, and Williams seems to be more content in studying James’s sex life than in his political history.

CLR James died on a May morning in 1989, but in terms of Marxist politics, he had been dead since the late 1940s when he broke with orthodox Trotskyism advocating a form of State Capitalism during the debate over the Fourth Internationals position on the Korean war[1]

Like many young men and women of his generation, James was attracted to Trotskyism through the writings of Leon Trotsky. Trotsky’s Russian Revolution History was particularly important to the young James. According to Williams, “it made an immediate and profound impression”.

Williams works through James’ life in chronological order. Williams explains that James was a child prodigy and was given a much sought-after scholarship to a British university. Also detected at an early age was James’s ability to not only speak to an audience but would be able to explain complex matters in a way that his audience would understand without diluting the content. He was said to have “a style so austere and at the same time so colourful that his pupils listened to him in thrall.”. James’ empathy with the downtrodding is clear in his first novel  Minty Alley (1936). Not his best work but worth a read.

James’s next book, The Black Jacobins (1938),[2] was researched in the early 1930s in Paris, France. Although the book takes on many aspects of the “history from below”genre, it is also heavily influenced by Trotsky’s historical materialist approach. James believed that the leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture, “did not make the revolution, it was the revolution that made Toussaint.”

In many ways, the revolutionary decade of the 1930s made James. He quickly became an important figure in the American Socialist Workers Party(SWP). James wrote some of his most important work while under the influence of the then-leader of the party James P Cannon and, more importantly, Leon Trotsky. Trotsky, who held some ground-breaking talks with James over the” Negro Question,” was not too impressed with James’s political manoeuvring and concluded his assessment of James in a private letter written in 1940, writing

“I received a letter from Lebrun on the IEC. A peculiar people! They believe that now in the period of the death agony of capitalism, under the conditions of war and coming illegality, Bolshevik centralism should be abandoned in favour of unlimited democracy. Everything is topsy-turvy! But their democracy has a purely individual meaning: Let me do as I please. Lebrun and Johnson (C.L.R.James) were elected to the IEC based on certain principles and as representatives of certain organisations. Both abandoned the principles and ignored their organisations completely. These “democrats” acted completely as Bohemian freelancers. Should we have the possibility of convoking an international congress, they would surely be dismissed with the severest blame. They do not doubt it. At the same time, they consider themselves as unremovable senators – in the name of democracy!”.[3]

Trotsky’s characterisation of James turned out to be accurate. James was to develop many oppositional tendencies to orthodox Marxism. One was his opposition to building a Leninist-type party like the Russian Bolshevik Party. Although this did not lead to his break from Marxist politics, his evaluation of the class nature of the Soviet state under the leadership of Joseph Stalin was a deal-breaker.

The first open appearance of James’s position was at the founding conference of the Fourth International. James went to the conference in opposition to the orthodox position on the “Russian Question”. In an interview given later in his life, he recounts 

“I can remember that conference for one reason. We were against the Trotskyist position on the defence of the USSR. In the United States in particular, when the Moscow Trials took place, there was a movement against the Fourth International, but the Russian question was the reason. I was in the United States, that was my last trip, and I told them, “I have joined you, but I have not joined because I agree with you on the Russian position”. They said, “You cannot have an international which is all united with Trotsky, but opposed to Trotsky on the Russian question. It means you are opposed to Trotskyism”. Freddie Forest and I set out like Christopher Colombus. We had another boy with us who had some money, and he supported us with some finance. We had not a position, but she said, and we agreed, we were going to find out why it is that the Trotskyist position seemed to be wrong on the Russian question in general. After a year or two, we came out with a full position in which we attacked Trotskyism from beginning to end. We started looking for the answer in Capital Volume I and the Communist Manifesto. That pamphlet we published (7). After, we started to study the question to find out why in the Trotskyist movement, we were against on the Russian question but in agreement on other issues. Trotsky died in 1940. I am positive if he had been alive he would have seen what we were talking about. No one mentioned it but they weren’t able to argue against it”.[4]

Up until his death, Trotsky opposed the conception that the USSR was “State Capitalist. In his seminal book, The Revolution Betrayed, he writes, “We often seek salvation from unfamiliar phenomena in familiar terms. An attempt has been made to conceal the enigma of the Soviet regime by calling it “state capitalism.” This term has the advantage that nobody knows exactly what it means. The term “state capitalism” originally arose to designate all the phenomena that arise when a bourgeois state takes direct charge of the means of transport or industrial enterprises. The necessity of such measures is one of the signs that the productive forces have outgrown capitalism and are bringing it to a partial self-negation in practice. But the outworn system, along with its elements of self-negation, continues to exist as a capitalist system.

Theoretically, to be sure, it is possible to conceive a situation in which the bourgeoisie as a whole constitutes itself a stock company which, by means of its state, administers the whole national economy. The economic laws of such a regime would present no mysteries. A single capitalist, as is well known, receives in the form of profit, not that part of the surplus value which is directly created by the workers of his enterprise, but a share of the combined surplus value created throughout the country proportionate to the amount of his capital. Under an integral “state capitalism”, this law of the equal rate of profit would be realised, not by devious routes – that is, competition among different capitals – but immediately and directly through state bookkeeping. Such a regime never existed, however, and, because of profound contradictions among the proprietors themselves, never will exist – the more so since, in its quality of universal repository of capitalist property, the state would be too tempting an object for social revolution.[5]

James disagreed with Trotsky’s definition of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state and its bureaucracy as a caste, not a social class. During his time in the SWP, James, alongside Raya Dunayevskay the formed Johnson-Forrest tendency that put forward that the Soviet Union represented a new form of “state capitalism” with imperialist tendencies. James exclaimed in his complete and open break with the Fourth International’s perspectives: “Orthodox Trotskyism can find no objective necessity for an imperialist war between Stalinist Russia and American imperialism. It is the only political tendency in the world which cannot recognise that the conflict is a struggle between two powers for world mastery.” [State Capitalism and World Revolution, 1950]. James would desert the SWP over its correct position in the Korean War. Moreover, the outbreak of the Korean War was the major postwar event which put the state capitalists to the test and decisively exposed them as apologists for imperialism within the workers’ movement.

James’s State Capitalist position was echoed by Max Shachtman and the leader of the British Socialist Workers Party, Tony Cliff. As the document, The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (US) relates, “The Korean conflict demonstrated the reactionary implications of the theories that the Soviet Union had become a new form of class society, either “bureaucratic collectivist” or “state capitalist.” The theoretician of “bureaucratic collectivism,” Max Shachtman, had broken with the Fourth International ten years earlier, promising to maintain an independent “third camp” position. But in 1950, he went over to the camp of American imperialism. Leaflets prepared by Shachtman’s organisation, called the Workers Party, were airdropped to Chinese and North Korean soldiers, giving them “socialist” arguments for surrendering to the American invaders. The leading proponent of the “state capitalist” view, Tony Cliff, broke with the Revolutionary Communist Party, then the British section of the Fourth International, which adhered to Cannon’s uncompromising opposition to the imperialist war. Cliff adopted a position of strict neutrality instead, condemning what he called “Russian imperialism” equally with that of the United States”.[6]

While much of the material of James’ life inside the Trotskyist movement is on the internet and in archives on both sides of the Atlantic, one is at a loss to understand why so little is in the book. This is puzzling because James’s future life was so much influenced by his time in the Trotskyist movement. Also, Williams makes light of the fact that James was at the founding of the Fourth International in 1938. Given that just by turning up, many of the people at the founding conference were later murdered by the Stalinists, Williams skates over this fact. It does not take a dialectical materialist to figure out that James’s life was in danger just by turning up. The murder of Rudolf Clement merits only a footnote. Again there is a wealth of material on this murder and others on the internet, so why does Williams give it so little attention.[7]

I cannot say that  I recommend this book. Leaving so much out is akin to writing a book on the bible and leaving Jesus out. James was a complex figure worthy of another biography from an organisation that would defend the Fourth International’s history instead of leaving much of it out as Williams does. Despite James’s break from Marxism, he is a person worth reading. His writings on the Negro Question are worth looking at, and his essay on the English Revolution is well worth a look. His book on cricket and other things Beyond a Boundary has never been out of print. The book had admirers, including John Arlott, the great cricket commentator. Former cricketers David Gower and Ian Botham were regular visitors to James’s Brixton flat. As regards Marxism, James was finished after the 1950s, and he ended his days a supporter of the deeply reactionary pan-Africanism.



[3]Three Letters to Farrell Dobbs-

[4] Interview given by CLR JAMES-to Al Richardson, Clarence Chrysostom & Anna Grimshaw-on Sunday 8th June & 16th November 1986 in South London.

[5] Chapter 9-Social Relations-in the Soviet Union-


[7] I have received a letter from Rudolf Klement’s aunt, who lives in one of the countries of Latin America, asking whether I know anything about her missing nephew. She states that Rudolfs mother, who lives in Germany, is in a state of utter despair, torn by the lack of any word about his fate. In the heart of the unhappy mother the hope arose that Rudolf might have succeeded in escaping danger and that he was perhaps hiding at my home. Alas, nothing remains to me but to destroy her last hopes.The letter of Rudolfs aunt is a further proof of the GPU’s crime. If Rudolf had in fact voluntarily abandoned Paris, as the GPU with the help of its agents of various kinds would like us to believe, he would not of course have left his mother in ignorance and the latter would not have had any reason to appeal to me through her sister in Latin America. Rudolf Klement was murdered by the agents of Stalin. Leon Trotsky: On the Murder of Rudolf Klement-December 1, 1938-[Writings of Leon Trotsky, Vol 11, 1938-1938, New York ²1974, p. 137]

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