C. L. R. James: Renaissance Revolutionary – lareviewofbooks

January 12, 2023   •   By Alan Warhaftig
This meant that my grandfather had raised himself above the mass of poverty, dirt, ignorance and vice which in those far-off days surrounded the islands of black lower middle-class respectability like a sea ever threatening to engulf them. […] My grandfather went to church every Sunday morning at eleven o’clock wearing in the broiling sun a frock-coat, striped trousers and top hat, with his walking-stick in hand, surrounded by his family, the underwear of the women crackling with starch. Respectability was not an ideal, it was an armour. He fell grievously ill, the family fortunes declined and the children grew up in unending struggle not to sink below the level of the Sunday-morning top-hat and frock-coat.
Tunapuna at the beginning of this century was a small town of about 3,000 inhabitants […] Like all towns and villages on the island, it possessed a recreation ground. Recreation meant cricket, for in those days, except for infrequent athletic sports meetings, cricket was the only game. Our house was superbly situated, exactly behind the wicket. A huge tree on one side and another house on the other limited the view of the ground, but an umpire could have stood at the bedroom window. By standing on a chair a small boy of six could watch practice every afternoon and matches on Saturdays […] From the chair also he could mount on to the window-sill and so stretch a groping hand for the books on the top of the wardrobe. Thus early the pattern of my life was set.
How were they to know that when I put my foot on the steps of the college building in January 1911 I carried within me the seeds of revolt against all it formally stood for and all that I was supposed to do in it? My scholastic career was one long nightmare to me, my teachers and my family. My scholastic shortcomings were accompanied by breaches of discipline which I blush to think of even today. But at the same time, almost entirely by my own efforts, I mastered thoroughly the principles of cricket and of English literature, and attained a mastery of my own character which would have done credit to my mother and Aunt Judith if only they could have understood it. […] I look back at that little boy with amazement, and, as I have said, with a gratitude that grows every day. But for his unshakable defiance of the whole world around him, and his determination to stick to his own ideas, nothing could have saved me from winning a scholarship, becoming an Honourable Member of the Legislative Council and ruining my whole life.
James himself was one of the most delightful and easy-going personalities I have known […] [H]e stood six feet three inches in his socks and was noticeably good-looking. His memory was extraordinary. He could quote, not only passages from the Marxist classics but long extracts from Shakespeare, in a soft lilting English which was a delight to hear. Immensely amiable, he loved the fleshpots of capitalism, fine cooking, fine clothes, fine furniture and beautiful women, without a trace of the guilty remorse to be expected from a seasoned warrior of the class war. He was brave. Night after night he would address meetings in London and the provinces, denouncing the crimes of the blood-thirsty Stalin, until he was hoarse and his wonderful voice a mere croaking in the throat. The communists who heckled him would have torn him limb from limb, had it not been for the ubiquity of the police and their insensitivity to propaganda of whatever hue. If you told him of some new communist argument, he would listen with a smile of infinite tolerance on his dark face, wag the index finger of his right hand solemnly, and announce in an understanding tone — “we know them, we know them” — as of a man who has plumbed human wickedness to its depth and forgiven it, since man even in his wickedness is pitiable.
In his long life Mr. James has arrived, through this book, at a calm center. His calm is that of a meridian between two oceans, two cultures, even between radical and conservative politics, without mere neutrality. His calm is not neutrality. It has the passion of conviction, for decent conduct is the first and last thing required of men, as it is of states.
Alan Warhaftig
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