Struggling with James

Urbane Revolutionary: C.L.R. James and the Struggle for a New Society
Press of Mississippi , 2008, 282 pages)


While not exactly a new book, Frank Rosengarten’s Urbane Revolutionary: C.L.R. James and the Struggle for a New Society is an important addition to the large body of James literature and deserves a serious critical response. Rosengarten, a scholar of Antonio Gramsci, is a late arrival to the James school, having embarked on a study of James only in 2001. If one dates the opening of scholarly interest in James as having begun with the publication of Paul Buhle’s C.L.R. James: the Artist as Revolutionary in 1988 (although it must be noted that Buhle’s interest in James well predates the 1980s), then Rosengarten is a latecomer who makes up for his tardiness with thoroughness and scholarly rigor.

James lived a large life and anyone attempting to understand him has to be able to follow his activities and grasp his prodigious intellectual output through five decades spent in the Caribbean, Britain, the U.S., and elsewhere. Rosengarten takes his task seriously and provides a strong biographical narrative as well as a critical analysis. Rosengarten frames much of his discussion on the tension he perceives in James between his universalist proletarian internationalism and what Rosengarten calls—appropriating a concept of Gramsci’s of the prison writings—the “national-popular.” By this is meant a national and particularist tendency (involving class collaboration) evident in James’s writings and activities regarding the de-colonizing world, especially in his period of intense involvement in the politics of his native Trinidad, where James first worked closely with independence leader Eric Williams (author of the influential book, Capitalism and Slavery), then broke with him and led an unsuccessful electoral challenge.

Perhaps the argument would have fared better if Rosengarten had developed more fully Gramsci’s use of the concept, but in any event, I don’t think he is on the right track in his analysis. What I believe Rosengarten is grappling with here is the theoretical inconsistency between the radical spontaneist current in James’s thought (most fully developed with Grace Lee and, to a lesser extent, Cornelius Castoriadis, in 1958’s Facing Reality) and the parallel form of mass struggle led by the party James believes is appropriate in the de-colonizing world (Trinidad, Ghana, etc.). In James’s thought, it appears that there is no relationship between the two. Rosengarten does not mention Greneda at all, but James’s writings on the Caribbean and Africa are not unconnected to the events of 1983, in which a fatal split in the revolutionary New Jewel Movement led to the assassination of Maurice Bishop and the subsequent U.S. invasion.*

One distinguishing feature of the book is the space devoted to Raya Dunayevskya, James’s co-leader in the Johnson-Forest Tendency. Dunayevskaya is all-too-often relegated to a footnote in accounts of James’s life in the U.S., but Rosengarten takes her work in this period seriously and treats her as a figure to be respected. While her life and work after her 1955 split with James is not taken up here, I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that there is a book about Dunayevskaya attempting to emerge from Rosengarten’s narrative. Such a book, I believe, would show that Dunayevskaya strongly developed some of the best contributions of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, the study of the Hegelian dialectic, in-and-for-itself, and the fullness of Marx’s critique of capitalism and capitalist society, contributions that James, while he never rejected them, did not pursue. These issues were at the heart of the divergence of paths between James and Dunayevskaya from 1953 to their formal break in 1955, a development which Rosengarten is not particularly strong on here.

Among the biographical details Rosengarten provides are at least two which provide thought for rethinking James. Small coin, perhaps, but they were unknown to me and are further evidence of James’s confounding theoretical inconsistency. The first is an account of a month-long trip James took to Cuba in early 1968, in the company of a large group of intellectuals and activists including Dennis Brutus and scholar Robert Hill, who would later become James’s literary executor. While Rosengarten indicates that James had some ambivalent feelings toward government control of the arts in Cuba, his attitude was for the most part strongly positive. While this is a small example, I find it impossible to reconcile this attitude toward a heavily state-oriented regime with the strongly mass-oriented nature of the work of J.R. Johnson (James’s political name) of the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, the whole theory of the foco, developed by Che Guevara (who was killed in Bolivia the year before), is best understood as an explicit negation of mass participation in the revolutionary process. The second is a perplexing engagement with the philosophy of Martin Heidegger James undertook in the 1960s. While the Marxist critique of existentialism was an important task (Dunayevskaya criticized Sartre in her Philosophy and Revolution, published in 1973), this intellectual episode is difficult to fathom.

I have not mentioned yet James’s literary writings, which are the subject of much of the recent James scholarship, but Rosengarten treats the topic at length. His discussion of James’s Melville book, Mariners, Castaways and Renegades, is unfortunately hampered by his strong U.S.S.R.-nostalgia (Gorbachev is described as having “rallied the forces of democratic renewal”). While I agree with Rosengarten’s position on the indispensability of that book’s concluding chapter for interpreting it as a whole, I disagree with him on the merit of the content of the chapter.

Rosengarten also takes up James’s classic Black Jacobins in his section on literature and includes a valuable textual comparison between the original edition (1938) and the revised form of 1963, the one available to readers today.

Rosengarten’s book reminds one that despite the great amount of published works on James of the last twenty years, much of his writing is out of print or exists, unpublished, in archival collections (James’s papers are dispersed between the Reuther Library at Wayne State University, Columbia University, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the University of the West Indies in Trinidad). Among James’s book-length works not currently in print are Notes on Dialectics, Modern Politics, and Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution. Among his papers are the manuscript of an autobiography and a large number of important letters to friends and colleagues. A brief list of recent contributions toward bringing out James’s unavailable work includes American Civilization, an important document of the 1950s edited by Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart and published in 1993; Marxism For Our Times (1999), edited by Martin Glaberman, James’s closest U.S. co-thinker (Glaberman passed away in 2001); Facing Reality, which was republished in 2006 in, not one, but two editions; and You Don’t Play With Revolution: the Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James, edited by Robert Hill and published year by AK Press (the lectures were delivered during a visit to Canada in the late 1960s—I have not seen this book yet).

Urbane Revolutionary is a serious book that makes a contribution toward helping us both comprehend and criticize the work of C.L.R. James.

* For a brief but important elaboration of this criticism, see Chapter 5 of John Alan’s Dialectics of Black Freedom Struggles (News and Letters Committees, 2003).

The Hathi Trust Digital Library includes a scan of the original edition of Facing Reality.


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