- C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain by Christian Høgsbjerg
Twenty-five years after his death, we have been treated to a sparkling work of biography and intellectual history in Christian Høgsbjerg’s study of C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain. James’s death — on Malcolm X’s birthday and in the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall — calls to mind the nexus of two worlds of history and scholarship: post-colonial and Marxist studies. Høgsbjerg’s book weaves a global story of international socialism’s rise and lamentations, while simultaneously illuminating the strides and woes of colonial independence and racial solidarity throughout the black diaspora. Høgsbjerg does this by highlighting a frequently overlooked period of James’s eight-year sojourn in Britain. The result is a sober but celebratory look at one of the twentieth century’s most significant literary and political figures at the heart of the British Empire’s demise.
Høgsbjorg’s narrative takes off by chronicling the optimistic liberalism of James in youth and following him from Trinidad across the Atlantic in 1932 to England, where he encounters a world at once familiar and extraordinary. There, James moves away from his love of Matthew Arnold and the fight for rights within the imperial sphere of Britain, to a radical and revolutionary politics. His encounters with George Padmore, fresh and yet unfamiliar Marxist texts, both Trotsky and Trotskyism — and a panoply of black and white activists, historians, cultural connoisseurs, and radicals — makes for fascinating reading. Britain is where he would come to publish his classic, The Black Jacobins, while also writing A History of Negro Revolt. Unlike any other author of the period, James drew attention to the radical underpinnings of France’s Revolution for Haiti, and ultimately, the cause of the working classes on a global scale, eschewing the “socialism in one country” espoused by Stalin. Høgsbjerg’s narrative captures the depth and moral force of James’s anti-fascist and anti-totalitarian populist politics, made all the more relevant during the rise of Hitlerism and Stalinism. [End Page 338]
It was one of James’s greater and more widely known talents in making English cricket a veritable metaphor for a people-based struggle for liberation. While the layperson may find it difficult to grasp the numerous finer points of cricket play as expounded upon in the text, what cannot be missed is the larger allusion to James’s cultural significance as a critic of social and political elitism. Indeed, James’s subaltern understanding of “the people” rather than the historian-feted rulers making history comes across throughout Høgsbjerg’s meticulously researched book. This is especially so in his coverage of James’s delight and duality of purpose in his writings on cricket.
There is a great deal to commend in this book — to both the expert and those newly introduced to James and his work. Thankfully, Høgsbjerg takes us from James’s classrooms in Trinidad to pub-crawls in London, and ultimately, to a world of exceedingly rich political activism and thought that often defies easy categorization. Contemporary scholars and students of black politics will find a truly international approach to coverage of the black diasporic movements of the 1930s as Marcus Garvey, Eric Williams, and W.E.B. DuBois shape but a part of the constellation of this story. There is also Orwell, Thackeray, and of course, Leon Trotsky, that make up a vital part of James’s encounters and enriched intellectual life. This is hardly history on the cheap as Høgsbjerg packs copious amounts of British, French, Haitian, Russian, and West Indian history into the text. By bringing us along with James, we are yet, somehow undaunted by the task of following so much in such a short period of time. We are happy to fight along with James as his oratory, prose, and personality carry us through.
For those looking to grasp today’s interconnected travails of racial, class...