I am grateful to Christian Hogsbjerg for giving me a copy of his account of CLR James’ emergence as a writer in the conditions of 1930s Britain (Duke UP, £16.03). It is a compelling book, of the right length for its material (280 pages), which sheds significant light on three aspects of James’ development, first his debt to revolutionary Nelson, second the impact of cricket on his Marxism, third, his (re)discovery of Toussaint L’Ouverture.
James himself stated repeatedly that he learned his revolutionary politics among the Lancashire weavers, and in particular in the small town of Nelson, to which he travelled in 1932 as Learie Constantine’s ghost-writer. Hogsbjerg tracks down details of James’s career as a visiting member of Nelson’s second XI. He finds examples of Nelson being described as a Little Moscow in the 1920s. He locates the source of James’ copy of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution - loaned by a fellow bibliophile Fred Cartmell. He vividly portrays the almost insurrectionary 1931-2 “More Looms” cotton strike, the immediate prelude to James’ arrival in the town. And he finds notes of James’ meetings for the ILP branch in Nelson.
Hogsbjerg revisits James’ appointment as Neville Cardus’ deputy on the cricket page of the Manchester Guardian. He places the 1933 West Indies’ cricket tour of England – James’ first major assignment – within the immediate context of the preceding ‘Bodyline’ Ashes and a hypocritical scare that the Windies might now attempt leg theory against England. He follows James’ rejection of Donald Bradman – not a builder of social movement but a mere accumulator of runs. And he digs out a later piece in which James attempted to explain bodyline in terms of the ides to be found in Spengler’s Decline of the West (another book loaned by Cartmell): “it was the violence and ferocity of our age expressing itself in cricket”.
From the perspective of a socialist activist living in Weimar Germany, Spengler might have been a bitter reactionary; but for someone who had been educated in the British colonies, the idea that the direct rule of the French and British empires was doomed to an imminent end had a different, more optimistic meaning. James rediscovered Toussaint, Hogsbjerg argues, in 1934, after moving to London, in a period where he was surrounded by both Trotskyist and Pan-Africanist friends, and was attempting a complex merger of these two strands of left-wing politics. Hogsbjerg detects other socialist influences on James’ Black Jacobins, including the French historiography of 1789, Marx, Jaures, and Kropotkin. James had a vision for the immediate future in colonial Africa, predicting what Hogsbjerg characterises as “a fluid and confused situation … with some whites immediately fighting in the ranks alongside black Africans”, in a single process of “international permanent revolution”.
I enjoyed the book, and recommend it to anyone who cares about James’ life and intellectual development. It is pleasing to find that even after three decades of James scholarship there are still new things to be said about one of the most inspiring and iconoclastic of the Trotskyists.