Rebel filmmakers honour CLR James

October 28, 2017
CLR James speaks at Trafalgar Square, London, in 1935.

Every Cook Can Govern: Documenting the Life, Impact & Works of CLR James
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Cyril Lionel Robert James, best known as CLR James, was a Trinidadian-born, Black socialist whose work spanned many of the great struggles of the 20th century and across many continents.

A life-long anti-Stalinist, he died in 1989 just as the Soviet Union was beginning to break up – something that brought him joy. 

Now his remarkable life has been captured in a new documentary Every Cook Can Govern.

Born in the colonial-era West Indies, he possessed a penetrating intellect that allowed him to write superb literary criticism while never losing touch with his origins and the experience of Black oppression. 

Schooled in one of the most prestigious British West Indies establishments, James could have chosen class collaboration and a comfortable career. Instead, he became one of the most outspoken opponents of imperialism and lived a life of poverty.

Moving to England in 1932, James became the cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, a reflection of his life-long love for the game. Beyond a Boundary, his history of cricket, is said to be one of the greatest books ever written about any sport.

James was an early adherent to Trotskyism, a minority trend within the socialist movement in staunch opposition to the much larger Stalinist current. His work in defence of the Ethiopian people against the Italian fascist invasion brought together the group that formed the International African Service Bureau. The Bureau trained many of the leaders of the post-World War II pan-Africanist liberation movements.

In 1934, James wrote a play about the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture, which was performed in London's West End starring Paul Robeson.

In 1937, he wrote a critical history of the Communist International called World Revolution. The following year James wrote perhaps his greatest work, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution.

All this brought him to the attention of exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who suggested that James travel to the United States to assist the anti-racism work of the US Socialist Workers Party (US SWP).

Soon after arriving, James travelled to Mexico, staying for a month talking politics with Trotsky. Transcripts of those discussions have enduring value in clarifying Marxist anti-racist strategy and tactics.

James travelled by bus back to New York through the worst Jim Crow segregationist states of the US South. In this documentary, it is said that the experience scarred him so much that he could not bring himself to even speak with white comrades for a month. 

James remained in the US without a visa using the pseudonym “J R Johnson” until he was deported in 1953.

In the factional battle led by Trotsky within the US SWP at the beginning of World War II, James sided with the minority Max Shachtman grouping that preached a “bureaucratic collectivist” analysis of the Soviet Union, against the “degenerated workers state” view advocated by Trotsky and the majority of the party.

Following their split from the US SWP, James formed a factional group with Raya Dunayevskaya (Party pseudonym “Freddie Forest”) and Lee Boggs within Shachtman’s Workers Party (WP), and developed a state capitalist analysis of the Soviet Union. The Johnson/Forest Tendency ultimately broke from the WP and rejoined the SWP, but not for long.

James and Dunayevskaya began to deepen their understanding of Marxism by delving into its Hegelian roots, arriving at a kind of libertarian ideology to which he remained true for the rest of his life.

Within the SWP, the Johnson/Forest Tendency was criticised for excessive intellectualism and for forming a pseudo personality cult around James. In this documentary, which is totally uncritical, it is said that James was simply updating Trotskyism, because the movement had lost touch with reality.

Strangely, there is no mention of his Hegelianism, which was one of his enduring passions.

In 1957, James was invited to newly-independent Ghana by Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of the Ghanaian independence struggle and the country’s first prime minister. Nkrumah had been politically schooled by the International African Service Bureau while studying in England.

From this visit James wrote Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, a stirring account of the African anti-colonialist struggle.

James returned to Trinidad in 1958 and played a leading role in the independence movement. His radicalism soon brought on a conflict with the People's National Movement leadership and he was squeezed out.

Before leaving Trinidad, he gave a series of well-attended public lectures on the history of revolutionary politics that were later collected into the book Modern Politics.

Ultimately, James settled in Brixton, London, living quietly above the offices of the Race Today magazine. James influenced many Brixton radicals with his particular revolutionary theory of self-organisation.

Clocking in at two hours in length, this biographical documentary is best viewed in short grabs.

Missing from this film is the influence that CLR James had in the US after his departure, especially in Detroit. Some of his co-thinkers, for example, were involved in the Grass Roots Leadership Conference at which Malcolm X gave his brilliant “Message to the Grass Roots”.

The WORLDbytes philosophy is to empower volunteer-learners, and the heartfelt amateurism shows. But whatever this film’s weaknesses and political differences the viewer may have with CLR James, it is important that he has been honoured and remembered in this way.

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