C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain by Christian Høgsbjerg
“Christian Høgsbjerg‘s book is going to make a very significant impact on the community of C. L. R. James scholars and beyond. Høgsbjerg has thoroughly combed the key archival sources to generate a comprehensive, lively, and insightful portrait of James’s intellectual and political life during his first sojourn in Britain. In doing so, he has filled in many key details and fleshed out many
important events in James’s life in Britain.”
—Paget Henry, co-editor of C. L. R. James’s Caribbean and editor of the C.L.R. James Journal
“When C. L. R. James left Trinidad for England in 1932, it was a kind of homecoming: A connoisseur of cricket, immersed in the works of Shakespeare and Thackeray almost from birth, James was the consummate Afro-Saxon intellectual long before setting foot in London. In C. L. R. James in Imperial Britain, Christian Høgsbjerg follows him into the meeting halls and radical bookstores, the cricket grounds and bohemian haunts, where this displaced ‘Victorian with the rebel seed’ emerged as a leading figure in the Trotskyist and Pan-Africanist movements. The fusion of insight with command of factual detail sets the new standard by which serious work on C. L. R. James must be judged.”
—Scott McLemee, editor ofC. L. R. James on the “Negro Question” and the forthcoming The Dialectics of State Capitalism: Writings on Marxist Theory by C.L.R. James
”C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain opens up the issue of the Third World struggle in an elegant and memorable way”
‘C.L.R. James: Back in Style, Black in Style‘ by Paul Buhle, authorised biographer of C.L.R. James, author of C.L.R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary
“The excellence of this book by Christian Høgsbjerg on CLR James’s first sojourn in Britain between 1932 and 1938 is signalled by the drama of its cover photograph. Wearing a very English raincoat, the Trinidadian writer and militant is pictured addressing a mid-1930s meeting in Trafalgar Square.
By 1938 Special Branch had judged James to be a fluent speaker, very well versed in the doctrines of Karl Marx and other revolutionary writers.
Shortly after arriving in England he moved in with his old friend and compatriot, the cricketer Learie Constantine, and was a powerful advocate of West Indian self-government. But his elite colonial schooling at Trinidad’s Queen’s Royal College and a literary apprenticeship in Port of Spain had certainly not made him a Marxist.
Steeped in English literature – he told me in a 1982 interview that he had read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair ten times before he was nine years old – Høgsbjerg explains that in his early Trinidad days James had been a devotee of English Victorian cultural prophets like Matthew Arnold, with all his sweetness and light.
Yet within a few months of staying with Constantine in the insurgent Lancashire cotton-weaving town of Nelson, where his host was a Lancashire League professional cricketer, he had become so involved in and influenced by the struggles of the “Red Nelson” working class – which he allied with black struggles all over the imperialist world – that, as he declared, “literature was vanishing from my consciousness and politics was substituting itself.” Høgsbjerg tells of this process of transformation with a compelling narrative vibrancy.
In subsequent chapters he tells the story of James’s involvement both in the apparently contradictory worlds – yet not so if you were James – of cricket reporting for the Manchester Guardian and Glasgow Herald and active solidarity with world anti-imperialist and Pan-Africanist processes.
This was provoked by a reunion with his old Trinidadian school friend George Padmore who had written the pathfinding Life and Struggles of the Negro Toilers in 1931. In 1937, as part of his solidarity work for the Ethiopian people after Mussolini’s fascist invasion, he helped set up the African Bureau for the Defence of African and People of African Descent in London.
Another engrossing chapter is that which tells of James’s Paris-based research for, and the writing of The Black Jacobins, his history of the Haitian Revolution of 1791. Its forerunner, the play about its leader Toussaint l’Ouverture with Paul Robeson as the protagonist, was performed in London’s West End in 1936.
Høgsbjerg has produced an invaluable addition to both British and Caribbean labour scholarship and has written it in such an accessible way that its stirring and provocative narrative ought to inspire thought and action.”
Chris Searle, ‘A scion of black consciousness’, Morning Star, 26 May 2014.
“Høgsbjerg discusses [James’s] publications in various ways but it is the intellectual and social movement context the author brings to these works, which continue to animate critical minds today, that makes the reader pause and delight”
Matthew Quest, Insurgent Notes
”This impressively researched, well-written and accessible book demonstrates that James’s time in Britain was a period of fertile intellectual growth for this inspirational writer and activist”
Brian Richardson,Socialist Review, June 2014.
”Just out from Duke University Press’s C.L.R. JAMES ARCHIVES series is this important new book from Christian Hogsbjerg. Christian’s first volume in this series was an edition of the original script of James’s play Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. This new book is the first to offer a full examination of James’s years in England following his departure from Trinidad in 1932. In the few short years between his arrival in England and his departure for the United States, James published Minty Alley, The Case for West Indian Self-Government, World Revolution, A History of Negro Revolt and Black Jacobins, all while keeping up work as a cricket writer and participating in the work of the African Service Bureau, International Friends of Abyssinia, and others. These years are vital for understanding James’s evolution as a thinker and revolutionary, indispensable for understanding the work that he would do in the United States.”
Aldon Lynn Nielsen, author of C.L.R. James: A Critical Introduction
”One of the most impressively researched biographies of a prominent radical to appear in recent memory … Anyone with an interest in black protest, literary London, and/or left politics in the 1930s will enjoy this smart, factually grounded yet thematically rich biographical study”.
Kent Worcester, ‘Renegades and Castaways’, New Politics (Summer 2014)
”Høgsbjerg has made a major contribution through his reconstruction of James’s life and times in imperial Britain. Recovering James’s ventures into radical bookshops such as Lahr’s, his time spent in Nelson and Bloomsbury, his touring Britain as a cricket reporter, and much more, Høgsbjerg does a supreme job of reconstructing the historical geography of a distinct, and distinctly radical, life. In this sense, his book is an example to geographers, historians or other radical intellectuals pursuing the study of previously neglected biographies.”
Daniel Whittall, Antipode (August 2014)
“One of the book’s greatest assets is the way it manages a remarkable density of information. Refusing to succumb to the temptation of showing a single, linear narrative of James, Høgsbjerg uses the most diverse sources to illuminate the man’s different facets. His James is a witty thinker, spectacular orator, gifted organizer, cricket lover, and a politics addict. Indeed, these different traits exist side by side, develop over time, and contribute to shaping James’s trajectory…. He illuminates James as an actor who participated in and influenced contemporaneous debates about how Marxism and Trotskyism could provide answers to fighting colonial rule and the rise of Fascism…. CLR James in Imperial Britain is a valuable contribution to the field of James studies. It illuminates the early phases of Afro-Caribbean anticolonial activism in Britain and the development of anticolonial Marxism. Simultaneously, it tells the story of a remarkable beginning and shaping of much of C.L.R. James’s thought”.
Itay Lotem, Twentieth Century British History (November 2014).
”[As an] account of CLR James’ emergence as a writer in the conditions of 1930s Britain … it is a compelling book … 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…”
Dave Renton, author of C.L.R. James: Cricket’s Philosopher King
Høgsbjerg’s biography is an essential piece of the history of C.L.R. James. It is first and foremost an intellectual history which demonstrates how both theory and politics form and are formulated over years. And it provides proof that the revolution will not come without sustained intellectual engagement.
Yasmin Nair, Monthly Review 66/10, (March 2015)
This is an exceptional study and a necessary book for anyone concerned with understanding James’ life and work, or interested in the wider history of black radical and socialist politics in the twentieth century. As Høgsbjerg rightly concludes, James’ life and work remains, in many respects, an important resource of hope and inspiration for contemporary readers.
Andrew Smith, author of C.L.R. James and the Study of Culture, Race and Class, 57 (1), July-September 2015
What Hogsbjerg’s study does, with valuable new evidence and remarkable application, is explain how all of James’ political activities with the IASB, the ILP and the Marxist Group, as well as his publications across a spectrum of periodicals and political organs, were infused with James’ long project to think through the Haitian Revolution. Through this book we are able to appreciate not only the years of exertion that James put into creating his masterful work, but also how deeply he thought about this project
Leslie James, author of George Padmore and Decolonization from Below, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 16, 2 (Summer 2015).
There is a great deal to commend in this book — to both the expert and those newly introduced to James and his work. … 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. Du Bois 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, and cultural alienation brought about by the shortcomings of global capitalism and hyper-nationalism, they would do well to add Høgsbjerg’s delightful and poignant history to their shelves.
Saladin Ambar, author of Malcolm X at Oxford Union, in the Canadian Journal of History, 50, no. 2 (Autumn 2015)
In these days of intense state and media racism, any book that offers a deeper understanding of the role of anti-racist and black liberation struggles is invaluable. Høgsbjerg’s book provides a thorough and engrossing account of such struggles in the colonial world and in the belly of the imperial beast—where C L R James lived from 1932 to 1938.
Rhys Williams, ‘In the belly of the beast’, International Socialism, 150 (2016).
Drawing upon under-utilized and newly-released sources, C. L. R.
James in Imperial Britain interweaves the diverse strands of James’s thought and activism in a lucid account of this important moment in the life of one of the twentieth century’s most creative and original thinkers.
Marc Matera, author of Black London, in Anthurium 13, no. 1 (2016).
Critical of James’s incorporation by cultural and literary studies and the downplaying of his revolutionary contributions to radical history and theory, Høgsbjerg’s epigraphs from Lenin and Trotsky signal his explicit interest in reconnecting James to a rigorous Marxist tradition. His critique allows him to historicize, provocatively, some of the main streams in the past thirty years of James scholarship … Høgsbjerg’s account is unusual in prioritizing the importance of James’s six years in England during the 1930s for shaping his work after that.
Michelle Ann Stephens, author of Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914 to 1962, in the New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids, Volume 90, Issue 1-2,(2016).
C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain represents intellectual history at its best. Høgsbjerg reads James closely to show how his ideas about revolution, freedom and inequality emerged in dialogue with historical and contemporary political thinkers. Moreover, he sets James’s intellectual and political development in terms of how they were shaped by local and global dynamics.
Paul Hebert, ‘”Class Struggle Pan-Africanism”: C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain’, Black Perspectives (January 2017).
To take on James means taking on an entire galaxy of peoples and events and cultures which made James who he was. It is hard to think of a corner of the Atlantic world in the modern age which, somehow or other, failed to cross James’s path. To enter James’s mental world is a mighty challenge. Høgsbjerg acquits himself well…We learn of James’s movements almost day by day. The monograph is based on meticulous, serious research. Everything we need to know about this moment in James’s life is integrated in the narrative presented in the book. That is an important virtue. But Høgsbjerg is also skilled in synthesising all he knows, and assembling a pacey narrative in which the reflections of the author are integrated into the telling of the story. Behind this lies an agile political intelligence, which – in endeavouring to present James to a new generation – is a necessary requirement. Høgsbjerg’s political sympathies with James make his account of this part of James’s life compelling.
Bill Schwarz, editor of West Indian Intellectuals in Britain, Wasafiri, 32, 1 (2017).
Listen to a book launch event at UCL Institute of the Americas on soundcloud here:
For a short educational documentary film focusing on C.L.R. James’s life in Britain during the 1930s watch this: