If the historian of slavery, British and Caribbean political activist, and one-time crickter CLR James (1901-1989) was still alive, he might set out his vision for the world through some compelling, broad-brush explanation of the state of the worldwide austerity project and of the limits it had reached through the opposing force of popular protest, whether in Turkey, Egypt or the US. It was equally his style to begin with something different, more intimate, a memory of a time long past.
CLR James began his visionary book Beyond a Boundary with a recollection, as a child, of having watched through the window of his family home, situated beside the ground of Tunapuna Cricket Club, as the team’s star batsman Arthur Jones emerged to applause, struck the ball hard, and was caught in the deep, before returning to the pavilion humbled, his supporters downcast. Even James as a child was overcome with despair. Why had this small incident cast him down so low?
This was James’ answer: “Time would pass, old empires would fall and new ones take their place, the relations of countries and the relations of classes had to change, before I discovered that it is not quality of goods and utility which matter, but movement; not where you are or what you have, but where you have come from, where you are going and the rate at which you are getting there.”
Six years ago, when I published my biography of CLR James which is now being published for the first time this month as an e-book by HopeRoad, I stated that it was my intention to persuade Marxists of the joys of cricket and followers of cricket of the calibre of James and James’ Marxism.
Events in the last few weeks suggest an unwelcome symmetry. The cricket has become more brutal since then with captains threatening to break the arms of the opposing team’s bowlers and batsmen returning home scarred. On the left too, we have had our brutes, and we struggle to disassociate ourselves from them. Perhaps on both sides of the equation we could do with a period of reorientation, a reminder of the best about ourselves, and of why we do the things that we love
James’ musings on Arthur Jones are as good a place as any to begin. “The relations of countries had to change”. James’ other great book, The Black Jacobins rescued from posterity’s condescension the story of the Haitian Slave Uprising and the part played in it by Toussaint L’Ouverture, showing that the slave trade was not brought to an end through the goodwill of William Wilberforce or any other Parliamentarian but as a result of a life-and-death struggle on the part of the slaves themselves.
“The relations of classes”: in James’ contemporary account the moment which made him a Marxist was travelling to England, to act as a ghost-writer for the great Caribbean all-rounder Learie Constantine who was then working as the club professional for the Lancashire club side Nelson.
James’ arrival coincided with a lockout by the owners of the town’s cinema. “The Nelson operators were paid at this time around 45 shillings a week, and the owners of the theatres decided to reduce their salaries. What followed was a boycott by the town’s public, who refused to consent to any lowering of pay … The whole town of Nelson, so to speak, went on strike. They would not go to the cinema. The pickets were putout in order to turn back those who tried to go. For days the cinemas played to empty benches. In a town of forty thousand people you could find sometimes no more than half a dozen in the theatres. The company went bankrupt and had to leave. Whereupon local people took over and the theatres again began to be filled.”
To his then lover Constance Webb James confessed his pleasure at hearing the story and his identification with the workers of Nelson: “I was thrilled to the bone.”
“Old empires would fall”. This was the immediate context to Beyond a Boundary, the independence of India and of the former European possessions all over Africa and across the world. More than two decades earlier James had helped to found the International African Friends of Ethiopia, a campaign against Mussolini’s colonial war, which had brought together such young activists as George Padmore and Jomo Kenyatta, who by the 1960s had become respectively (Padmore) the leading writer of African independence and a hero to the revolutionary left in South Africa and (Kenyatta) the first Prime Minister of Kenya following decolonisation.
In his memoir, James sought to show that the cricketing rise of the West Indies was the product as much of Politics and of History as of the talents of the individual cricketers; and he made a case for absolute human liberation, rooted in such unlikely supports as the moral code of the English public schools, the literary culture of the Victorians, and the succession by which a team game designed for the inhabitants of small, pre-industrial towns had become the property of the insurgent Caribbean.
Even if our public schools are more venal, and our literature barer than it was, even if sport is more widespread and shallower than ever, James principle of movement remains good. It is not what you came from or have but where you are going that counts.