New Book: C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain
Out now as part of the C.L.R. James Archives series with Duke University Press:
C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain by Christian Høgsbjerg
C. L. R. James in Imperial Britain chronicles the life and work of the Trinidadian intellectual and writer C. L. R. James during his first extended stay in Britain, from 1932 to 1938. It reveals the radicalizing effect of this critical period on James's intellectual and political trajectory. During this time, James turned from liberal humanism to revolutionary socialism. Rejecting the "imperial Britishness" he had absorbed growing up in a crown colony in the British West Indies, he became a leading anticolonial activist and Pan-Africanist thinker. Christian Høgsbjerg reconstructs the circumstances and milieus in which James wrote works including his magisterial study The Black Jacobins. First published in 1938, James's examination of the dynamics of anticolonial revolution in Haiti continues to influence scholarship on Atlantic slavery and abolition. Høgsbjerg contends that during the Depression C. L. R. James advanced public understanding of the African diaspora and emerged as one of the most significant and creative revolutionary Marxists in Britain.
Read the introduction here
"Christian Høgsbjerg's book is going to make a very significant impact on the community of C. L. R. James scholars and beyond. Høgsbjerg has thoroughly combed the key archival sources to generate a comprehensive, lively, and insightful portrait of James's intellectual and political life during his first sojourn in Britain. In doing so, he has filled in many key details and fleshed out many important events in James's life in Britain."
—Paget Henry, co-editor of C. L. R. James's Caribbean and editor of the C.L.R. James Journal
"When C. L. R. James left Trinidad for England in 1932, it was a kind of homecoming: A connoisseur of cricket, immersed in the works of Shakespeare and Thackeray almost from birth, James was the consummate Afro-Saxon intellectual long before setting foot in London. In C. L. R. James in Imperial Britain, Christian Høgsbjerg follows him into the meeting halls and radical bookstores, the cricket grounds and bohemian haunts, where this displaced 'Victorian with the rebel seed' emerged as a leading figure in the Trotskyist and Pan-Africanist movements. The fusion of insight with command of factual detail sets the new standard by which serious work on C. L. R. James must be judged."
—Scott McLemee, editor of C. L. R. James on the "Negro Question" and the forthcoming The Dialectics of State Capitalism: Writings on Marxist Theory by C.L.R. James
''C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain opens up the issue of the Third World struggle in an elegant and memorable way''
'C.L.R. James: Back in Style, Black in Style' by Paul Buhle, authorised biographer of C.L.R. James, author of C.L.R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary
"The excellence of this book by Christian Høgsbjerg on CLR James's first sojourn in Britain between 1932 and 1938 is signalled by the drama of its cover photograph. Wearing a very English raincoat, the Trinidadian writer and militant is pictured addressing a mid-1930s meeting in Trafalgar Square.
By 1938 Special Branch had judged James to be a fluent speaker, very well versed in the doctrines of Karl Marx and other revolutionary writers.
Shortly after arriving in England he moved in with his old friend and compatriot, the cricketer Learie Constantine, and was a powerful advocate of West Indian self-government. But his elite colonial schooling at Trinidad's Queen's Royal College and a literary apprenticeship in Port of Spain had certainly not made him a Marxist.
Steeped in English literature - he told me in a 1982 interview that he had read Thackeray's Vanity Fair ten times before he was nine years old - Høgsbjerg explains that in his early Trinidad days James had been a devotee of English Victorian cultural prophets like Matthew Arnold, with all his sweetness and light.
Yet within a few months of staying with Constantine in the insurgent Lancashire cotton-weaving town of Nelson, where his host was a Lancashire League professional cricketer, he had become so involved in and influenced by the struggles of the "Red Nelson" working class - which he allied with black struggles all over the imperialist world - that, as he declared, "literature was vanishing from my consciousness and politics was substituting itself." Høgsbjerg tells of this process of transformation with a compelling narrative vibrancy.
In subsequent chapters he tells the story of James's involvement both in the apparently contradictory worlds - yet not so if you were James - of cricket reporting for the Manchester Guardian and Glasgow Herald and active solidarity with world anti-imperialist and Pan-Africanist processes.
This was provoked by a reunion with his old Trinidadian school friend George Padmore who had written the pathfinding Life and Struggles of the Negro Toilers in 1931. In 1937, as part of his solidarity work for the Ethiopian people after Mussolini's fascist invasion, he helped set up the African Bureau for the Defence of African and People of African Descent in London.
Another engrossing chapter is that which tells of James's Paris-based research for, and the writing of The Black Jacobins, his history of the Haitian Revolution of 1791. Its forerunner, the play about its leader Toussaint l'Ouverture with Paul Robeson as the protagonist, was performed in London's West End in 1936.
Høgsbjerg has produced an invaluable addition to both British and Caribbean labour scholarship and has written it in such an accessible way that its stirring and provocative narrative ought to inspire thought and action.''
Chris Searle, 'A scion of black consciousness', Morning Star, 26 May 2014.
"Høgsbjerg discusses [James's] publications in various ways but it is the intellectual and social movement context the author brings to these works, which continue to animate critical minds today, that makes the reader pause and delight''
Matthew Quest, Insurgent Notes
''This impressively researched, well-written and accessible book demonstrates that James's time in Britain was a period of fertile intellectual growth for this inspirational writer and activist''
Brian Richardson, Socialist Review, June 2014.
''Just out from Duke University Press's C.L.R. JAMES ARCHIVES series is this important new book from Christian Hogsbjerg. Christian's first volume in this series was an edition of the original script of James's play Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. This new book is the first to offer a full examination of James's years in England following his departure from Trinidad in 1932. In the few short years between his arrival in England and his departure for the United States, James published Minty Alley, The Case for West Indian Self-Government, World Revolution, A History of Negro Revolt and Black Jacobins, all while keeping up work as a cricket writer and participating in the work of the African Service Bureau, International Friends of Abyssinia, and others. These years are vital for understanding James's evolution as a thinker and revolutionary, indispensable for understanding the work that he would do in the United States.''
Aldon Lynn Nielsen, author of C.L.R. James: A Critical Introduction
''One of the most impressively researched biographies of a prominent radical to appear in recent memory ... Anyone with an interest in black protest, literary London, and/or left politics in the 1930s will enjoy this smart, factually grounded yet thematically rich biographical study''.
Kent Worcester, 'Renegades and Castaways', New Politics (Summer 2014)
''Høgsbjerg has made a major contribution through his reconstruction of James’s life and times in imperial Britain. Recovering James’s ventures into radical bookshops such as Lahr’s, his time spent in Nelson and Bloomsbury, his touring Britain as a cricket reporter, and much more, Høgsbjerg does a supreme job of reconstructing the historical geography of a distinct, and distinctly radical, life. In this sense, his book is an example to geographers, historians or other radical intellectuals pursuing the study of previously neglected biographies.''
Daniel Whittall, Antipode (August 2014)
"One of the book’s greatest assets is the way it manages a remarkable density of information. Refusing to succumb to the temptation of showing a single, linear narrative of James, Høgsbjerg uses the most diverse sources to illuminate the man’s different facets. His James is a witty thinker, spectacular orator, gifted organizer, cricket lover, and a politics addict. Indeed, these different traits exist side by side, develop over time, and contribute to shaping James’s trajectory.... He illuminates James as an actor who participated in and influenced contemporaneous debates about how Marxism and Trotskyism could provide answers to fighting colonial rule and the rise of Fascism.... CLR James in Imperial Britain is a valuable contribution to the field of James studies. It illuminates the early phases of Afro-Caribbean anticolonial activism in Britain and the development of anticolonial Marxism. Simultaneously, it tells the story of a remarkable beginning and shaping of much of C.L.R. James’s thought".
Itay Lotem, Twentieth Century British History (November 2014).
Thursday 27 March, 7.30pm, Nelson Library, Lancashire.
Supported by North East Lancs TUC and Preston Black History Group.
Friday 11 July at Marxism 2014, central London
Edited to add: Check out this film about CLR James's life in 1930s Britain