Among the more than a thousand films I have reviewed over the past 24 years, “Every Cook Can Govern: Documenting the life, impact & works of CLR James” earns pride of place as the most intelligent, serious and passionate application of Marxism among all of them. I strongly urge buying the DVD from the film’s website since it is not only a study of arguably the most important Marxist thinker since the death of Leon Trotsky but a chronicle of some of the major events of the 20th century class struggle seen through the prism of James’s career. The documentary brings together the most respected CLR James scholars (among them Paul Buhle, Scott McLemee and Kent Worcester) as well as family members such as his former partner Selma James and his nephew Darcus Howe, a revolutionary activist and major thinker in his own right. Finally, you can see James himself discussing his life-long career as a revolutionary that culminated with what he considered his greatest achievement—helping to destroy Stalinism.
When I joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1967, party veterans would always speak derisively of those dissidents who eventually found themselves removed either voluntarily or involuntarily from the group that Leon Trotsky considered the gold standard of his ill-fated Fourth International. CLR James was the leader of a tendency in the party along with Raya Dunayevskaya, who wrote articles under the names of Johnson and Forest. When the standard turned out to be made of fool’s gold, I made it a point to read the “renegades” who were always portrayed as fleeing helter-skelter from Marxism. James’s writings were an epiphany for me. All the appetites that I had suppressed in the SWP could be satisfied by reading James, especially his brilliant discussions of both high and popular culture. James was not only capable of writing on Shakespeare and Herman Melville. He also wrote “Beyond a Boundary”, a combination memoir and salute to the game of cricket. Indeed, the title of that book expressed my vision of the kind of Marxism that was necessary, one that sought to transcend sterile sectarian divisions on the left.
I was not the only person inspired by James. What makes the film so compelling was the passionate interviews with people who knew him when he was alive or through his writings, including a number of British college students who were familiar with his work as well as activists in the ongoing struggle against racism and imperialism.
What sets James apart from other Marxists was his lived experience as a subject of the British Empire. Born in 1901 in the town of Tunapuna in Trinidad, then a British colony, he became acutely aware of the racism of the white upper crust and the injustice of being ruled from afar. That racism expressed itself in a number of ways, including the unwritten rule that Blacks could not coach cricket teams as well as the poverty suffered by the descendants of slaves. His earliest achievements were in writing fiction, especially about the lower classes he identified with. Paul Buhle refers to his novel “Minty Alley” as remarkably contemporary and accomplished, one that could have been the first in a chain of critically acclaimed and financially rewarding works. Instead James devoted himself to a revolutionary career, something that Horkheimer once referred to as leading to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown. Not only did James choose such a career but one inside its most isolated and woebegone sector—the Trotskyist movement.
The film wisely chose to stick to James’s political life rather than his personal story. While I am sure that his marriage to someone as outspoken and talented as Selma James could have been a story in itself, co-directors Ceri Dingle and Rob Harris wisely focused on his activism and his ideas.
One of the most interesting parts of that life was the time he spent in Nelson, England that was to the textile industry that Detroit was to the auto industry. In both cases, the factories have either been levelled to the ground or lay dormant. Nelson was not only a stronghold of the Labour Party but its left wing. James felt at home among these workers and especially their love of cricket and football that were virtually the only entertainment for the masses in the age before television.
Alan Hudson, an Oxford professor who grew up in Nelson, must be singled out for his tour of the town that has the charm of the best guide you have ever heard as well as the erudition of someone with a scholarly grasp of working class history. In one memorable scene, he is sitting at a picnic table with young college students having what amounts to a seminar on James’s relationship to the town that makes you realize that leftists still have an important role in academia.
CLR James’s masterpiece “Black Jacobins” is dedicated to his “good friends” Harry and Elizabeth Spencer of Nelson, Lancashire, England. Harry Spencer was a leftist and well off enough to provide the 100 pounds that James needed to work full time on researching Toussaint L’Ouverture. The discussion of the book by various scholars in the film is worth the price of the DVD since it provides an eye-opening perspective on why France and England had diverse class interests on the slave trade. We learn that James had little use for William Wilberforce, the icon of British abolitionism and much more for the textile workers who refused to work on cotton exported from the south during the Civil War even though the loss of wages created severe hardship for their families.
If Deutscher was justified in calling Leon Trotsky a prophet, you can reasonably describe James in the same terms for his role as a tribune of the anti-colonial struggle. His advocacy put him in touch with some of the outstanding leaders of the liberation movement in British colonies like Eric Williams and Kwame Nkrumah. Williams, who was James’s student when he taught secondary school in Trinidad, wrote “Capitalism and Slavery”, a work that was a kind of companion piece to “Black Jacobins”. As much as James admired Williams as a scholar and revolutionary anti-imperialist, he was outspoken in his assessment of how Williams (and Nkrumah) cut deals with the British after their nations became independent. If James were alive today, you can be sure that he would be just as scathing on the African National Congress. As an uncompromising defender of the working class, James always knew what side of the barricades he belonged on.
Averse as I am to hype, let me conclude by saying that this film belongs in every socialist’s collection. It is one that you can watch repeatedly for both pleasure and edification. It cost 20 pounds for Britons and $33 for Americans. At five times the price, it would still be a bargain. This was a labor of love for the people who made the film and those who were interviewed. It is a stunning example of how Marxist ideas can be communicated in a film that other filmmakers would find worthy of emulation—including me.
Let me conclude with something I wrote about twenty years ago as part of a series of articles on Black Nationalism, long before I began blogging and before blogs were invented for that matter. It was based on Scott McLemee’s excellent introduction to “CLR James on the Negro Question”, a collection of articles he edited and well worth reading.
CLR James (1901-1989) was a Trinidadian revolutionary intellectual and writer who was won over to Trotsky’s ideas in the 1930s when he was living in London. He arrived in the United States in 1938 shortly after the publication of his “Black Jacobins”, a study of Toussaint Louverture, who led the Haitian revolution. In 1939 the public figure of CLR James disappeared. What happened is that he reemerged as “JR Johnson”, a member of the Socialist Workers Party. For the next decade he functioned as a disciplined member of the Trotskyist movement and all his writings were targeted for publication in party journals or internal documents.
James was not particularly interested in the “Negro question” when he came to the United States. The question did become important to him through his discussions with Trotsky, who did view the question as paramount as early as 1933. James was part of a delegation that visited Trotsky in Mexico in 1939, as I mentioned yesterday. It was there that the subject of Garveyism and black nationalism arose. Trotsky was more favorably disposed to the call for self-determination than James was, who doubted that Garvey’s mass appeal had much to do with the desire for a separate nation.
When James returned to the US after the Mexican visit, he went through a transforming experience. He visited New Orleans in order to learn about Jim Crow on a first-hand basis. He was astonished to learn that if he was seated on a crowded bus, a white passenger would expect him to give up his seat. This came as a profound shock to the aristocratic intellectual who had read William Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” at least twenty times by the age of fourteen.
In April 1940, James went with the Schachtman group into the new Workers Party. The Workers Party differed from the SWP on the nature of the USSR, which they no longer considered a workers state. In 1941, James ventured south again, this time to Missouri where sharecroppers were on strike for higher pay. The struggle was extremely militant, as the sharecroppers defended themselves with firearms. This was the closest James had been to the class struggle in the flesh. Workers Party organizers who were involved with strike support shuttled him back and forth to keep him away from any violence.
In the 1940s, James developed a fascination with popular culture. Unlike the Frankfurt exiles, James was enthralled with commercial entertainment, including radio soap operas. At this time, he also led a study circle in the Workers Party that had a rather unique approach to politics and culture. James explained:
We struggled to understand Marx in the light of European history and civilization, reading Capital side by side with Hegel’s Logic in order to get a sense of dialectical and historical materialism. We explored the world of Shakespeare, of Beethoven, of Melville, Hawthorne, and the Abolitionists, of Marcus Garvey and Pan-Africanism. At the same time most of us worked in the plant, struggling to squeeze every ounce of revolutionary significance out of what American workers were saying and doing.
In the late 1940s, James started to hook up with artistic figures in Greenwich Village, in particular at a club called The Calypso, where radical intellectuals of all races gathered alongside artists and stage performers. One of the waiters was James Baldwin, who was at work on his first novel. The dishwasher was a Schachtmanite named Stan Weir who claimed that regulars at the club thought that the Russian and American state leaders were “incapable of leading the world to more personal freedom and were part of the problem.” It was a place where “people were genuinely entertaining each other, and as an extension of their enjoyment, discussing politics.” No such places exist in Greenwich Village today, I can assure you.
At this time James became friendly with the CP writer Richard Wright and he soon discovered that they had a common appreciation for the revolutionary dynamics of black nationalism. In a letter to his wife, James explained their shared perspective:
Briefly, the idea is this, that the Negro is ‘nationalist’ to the heart and is perfectly right to be. His racism, his nationalism, are a necessary means of giving him strength, self-respect and organization in order to fight for integration into American society. It is a perfect example of dialectical contradiction. Further, however, the Negroes represent a force in the future development of American society out of all proportion to their numbers. The repression has created such frustration that this, when socially motivated, will become one of the most powerful social forces in the country.
James eventually rejoined the SWP after WWII, but found himself politically isolated. His unorthodox views on the USSR were one of the main sticking points. When he left party politics, James became an important and respected black intellectual who influenced a wide range of American and African revolutionaries, including George Padmore.
Even though James had long left the SWP, his views on black nationalism continued to exert an influence among Trotskyists since Trotsky’s own views and James mature views had so much in common. When the SWP began working with Malcolm X in the mid-1960s, Conrad Lynn (a civil rights lawyer and friend of James’s) gave Malcolm copies of James’s writing. When Lynn and Malcolm began discussing James, Malcolm stated that he was aware of James’s oratorical gifts. It is interesting to speculate on the transmission belt of ideas between Lenin, Trotsky, CLR James and Malcolm X.