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West Indian History Section
It seems to me that there are essentially three reasons why The Life of Captain Cipriani, together with the shorter 1933 pamphlet which emerged out of it, The Case for West Indian Self Government, should not be dismissed as a mere ‘antiquarian curiosities’, and in fact the publishers Duke University Press should be congratulated for making these works available again. Firstly, because The Life of Captain Cipriani effectively speaks in a most timely manner to some of the ‘silenced past’ relating to the black and colonial experience of the First World War in the official commemoration currently underway in Britain. For Captain Cipriani himself – a white Trinidadian Creole of Corsican descent, indeed related to the Bonaparte family - was an officer of the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR), and one chapter in James’s biography of Cipriani outlines for us the regiment’s experience during the war.
The BWIR, initially deployed to Egypt, was at first denied the opportunity to fight on the grounds that ‘the War Office considered the fighting qualities of the West Indians doubtful and preferred to use them on shell-carrying and labour duties’. As James – whose own efforts to join the Merchants’ Contingent of volunteers from Trinidad in 1918 were blocked on account of his dark skin - comments, ‘it was the old story of the black man being first refused an opportunity to be afterwards condemned for incapacity.’ After one section of the BWIR were given their chance at the Front, James quotes several British officers paying tribute to their ‘keen coolness’ under fire and general ‘soldierly bearing’ under ‘the most trying circumstances’.
Cipriani was transformed politically by what James describes as ‘the series of pitched battles against tyranny, edged by race prejudice’ that he undertook on behalf of the black West Indian troops in Egypt and then in Italy against the British army authorities. In December 1918, in Taranto, Italy, BWIR members mutinied against the blatant racist discrimination in their pay and conditions compared to other members of the British army. James quotes the words of one BWIR officer, Major Thursfield, who visited Taranto in June 1919: it.
The return of these embittered black troops of the BWIR to the Caribbean – and to poverty, overcrowding and unemployment – would be the spark that would lead to mass strikes and the birth of a militant nationalist movement post-war. Captain Cipriani, having earned the respect of the war veterans as their defender against British military officialdom would now take his place in history as a leading anti-colonialist, becoming President of the Trinidadian Workingmen’s Association and the self-declared ‘champion of the barefooted man’. As James notes, ‘it was in Egypt and Italy that was laid the foundation of the mutual confidence which is so powerful a factor in our political life today , confidence in Captain Cipriani as an unselfish and fearless leader, confidence in the masses as a people worthy to be led.’
Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901-1989) has begun to enjoy a revival among U.S. and European intellectuals which promises to spread his influence more widely in the present and future than was the case at any time during his life. He is best known for his magnificent history of the Haitian revolution, entitled Black Jacobins (first published in 1938 and reprinted often since then), but a growing number of people are becoming increasingly familiar with many other facets of his work.
There has been a flood of works by and about James since his death. There are now two biographies—one by “new left” historian Paul Buhle, and a more recent product of Kent Worchester’s careful scholarship. A massive anthology of his writings, edited by Anna Grimshaw, was glowingly reviewed in the New York Times. A fascinating collection edited by Buhle and Paget Henry entitled C.L.R. James’s Caribbean has now been followed by a re-issue of his sports classic Beyond a Boundary.
Grimshaw and Keith Hart have also made available a major work by James, rich in pioneering cultural analysis, entitled American Civilization. Professor Robert Hill of the University of California at Los Angeles is projecting the publication of the Collected Works of C.L.R. James over the coming years, according to a front-page story in the Chronicle of Higher Education. An important collection of essays by various scholars, edited by Selwyn Cudjoe and William E. Cain, C.L.R. James, His Intellectual Legacies, has just appeared.
The Revolutionary Studies series of Humanities Press has recently republished his 1937 classic World Revolution (a history of the Communist International), has published a volume edited by Scott McLemee and myself, entitled C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism, Selected Writings 1939-1949, and plans to bring out his wonderful 1960 lectures Modern Politics in the near future.
James is generally acknowledged to have been one of the most original Marxist thinkers to emerge from the Western hemisphere, yet essential aspects of his identity came from the other side of the Atlantic, from Europe and Africa. As he explained to one African-American scholar, “I am a Black European, that is my training and outlook.”
He offered penetrating analyses on the interrelationships of class, race and gender, and his discussions of colonialism and anti-colonialism could be brilliant. But C.L.R. James also embraced the heritage of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, the working-class and socialist movements of Europe and North America, and the Bolshevism of Lenin and Trotsky which transformed Russia and promised to liberate the world from all oppression. At the same time, his writings on sports deserve special emphasis—which is something that can be said of few Marxist theorists. James began his writing career by writing about baseball’s distant cousin, cricket, first in the West Indies and later in England.
Paul Buhle, following James, tells us that such sports are a means of “expression for ordinary genius,” adding that James regarded cricket as “a fully fledged art form equal to theatre, opera and dance. To this claim James added a populist amendment: ‘What matters in cricket, as in all the finer arts, is not the finer points but what everyone with some knowledge of the elements can see and feel.’ It embodied the elemental human movement which … constituted the basis and the source of renewal for all arts.” (One can imagine that these insights could also be applied to modern-day basketball, music videos on MTV, and much else.)
Such things—James felt—come from the same deeply creative sources as more conventional great art and also as genuinely revolutionary politics. The mass popular response to such things, similarly, has something in common with the emotions and sensibilities associated with social revolutions, in which masses of people creatively transform reality.