Writer, historian and Marxist social theorist who intellectually influenced the post-war Caribbean and African independence movements.
James’ ideas were important in post-colonial and related studies because they showed that the Caribbean peoples were a fusion that owed as much to Africa as to Europe. His masterwork is The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Published in 1938, it became required reading for those studying African descendants, particularly in the Caribbean. His work and his political activism demonstrated a form of Marxism that showed a strong interest in struggles for autonomy, contrary to the dominant thinking of the left in that era that all that mattered was the struggle between the proletariat and capitalists. For James, it was equally important to fight for the interests of black and colonized communities, as was the case with many of the communities of African descent in the Americas and Europe.
Cyril Lionel Roberts James was born on Trinidad on January 4, 1901. As a youth, like many of the young intellectuals on the islands, he studied at Queen’s Royal College in Port of Spain. After graduating, he made a living writing stories and as a schooteacher. In fact, he taught Eric Williams, who later became the first prime minister of Trinidad after independence. Along with a group of young writers, he founded The Beacon, a magazine that became the foundation for English-language Caribbean literature.
Because he was a skilled cricket player, he began writing about the sport and worked for the newspaper the Manchester Guardian, writing not only about the sport, but also about its influence on the social scene. In London, his socialist ideas were nurtured and he actively participated in the ideological debate on the left and was part of the Independent Labour Party. After the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy in 1936, he joined the struggle on behalf of African nations. Along with thinker George Padmore, he developed a pan-African theory guided by scientific socialism.
During the 1940s, he lived in the United States. There, he joined the Workers Party and traveled to rural and black working-class communities around the country offering talks and conferences and helping them organize. During those years, James developed many of the fundamental ideas of his political ideology, such as, for example, that the majority of people fall into the “non-white” category: populations that eventually overcome their colonial situation. He was also convinced that Africans and their descendants, when organized in communal societies, were ideally prepared to create a new and more equitable social order.
In 1953, he was expelled from the United States for his socialist ideas and returned to Trinidad, where he joined the party led by his former student: the National Peoples Movement. He edited the party newspaper, which he used to continue disseminating his pan-African and anti-colonial ideas. He left the party, however, to support the federation of former British colonies in the Caribbean. He returned to England where he continued his books and speeches. In 1968, he was allowed to return to the United States and taught courses at Federal City College in Washington, D.C. He spent the final years of his life in London, where he died on May 31, 1989.
Author: Pablo Samuel Torres
Published: May 01, 2012.
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