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C. L. R. James and the Canon 1

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
December 11, 2013

This lecture was delivered by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe at the Oval in Surrey, England on the anniversaries of Beyond a Boundary and Black Jacobins.

As the organizers have pointed out, James once declared: "I denounce European colonialism but I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilization." They have also suggested that James would support enlightenment, universalism, and defend the progressive dimensions of Western civilization. I believe these declarations to be true. I also submit that James's works should be included in any canon of great writing because of the powerful insights he has given us about an understanding of the world in which we live, the encyclopedic nature of his knowledge, and his recognition of the importance of the work of the common man in the making of the modern world. When, for example, as he reflected on the Greek city states, he announced that "every cook can govern" he meant that every common person has the capacity to conduct the business of state because every individual is endowed with the ability to do so. As he observed in an article of the same name: "The average CIO bureaucrat or Laobour Member of Parliament in Britain would fall in a fit if it was suggested to him that any worker at random could do the work that he is doing, but that was precisely the principle of Greek democracy ("Every Cook Can Govern: A Study of Democracy in Ancient Greece; It's Meaning for Today").

James also recognized that ordinary men and women reveal themselves in their day-to-day activities, particularly in sports—such as playing football or cricket or the performances one sees in the daily soap operas on the television or in radio plays. In this context, two important comments by James are appropriate. In Beyond a Boundary he says: "Cricket and football were the greatest cultural influences in Britain in the 19th century, leaving far behind Tennyson's poems, Beardsley's drawing and concerts of the Philharmonic Society." He says also: "Cricket and football provided a meeting place for the moral outlook of the dissenting middle classes and the athletic instincts of the aristocracy."

He makes a similar point in Black Jacobins. That an ordinary man such as Toussaint, late in his life, could have organized the Haitian workers into the greatest fighting force in the world says much about the power of ordinary man in imposing his will on his circumstances. James described Toussaint as one of the greatest personages of his time.

All the great literature of the world, he would argue, is concerned about exploring the complexity of the human being; his strengths and his tragic weaknesses. One sees this quality in Shakespeare's plays or in the tragedy of Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, a novel that revolutionized the international canon of writing. There is no doubt about the power in which African literature speaks of the complexity of the human experience—the rise and fall of any man. These works can be compared with the Greek tragedies of Sophocles which James held in such high regard.

I have been asked to talk about what James took from the Trinidadian-Caribbean writers and from Western writers, if and why the influence of either one might have been underestimated, and what the correct balance should be. This question has been put incorrectly. It is not so much what James took from the Trinidadian and Caribbean writers as it is that James emerged from a complex trans-Atlantic culture, where the first transnational enterprise began, where the world's first proletariats emerged, and where the organization of the first global flow of trade began. In other words, James came from a rich cosmopolitan culture in which many cultures collided and one in which something new—call it modernity—was being formed. Already, in the nineteenth century, Caribbean citizens were drawing upon an emerging transnational culture—formed in the Black Atlantic—where European literature and culture were available for their taking. As I have pointed out in Beyond Boundaries, the Black Atlantic produced a rich culture with a range of discursive modes upon which James drew while he lived in the island.

James had a passion for learning especially when the Western world (read Europe) had said that nothing good could come out of the New World—in fact, Montaigne created the term "cannibal," a bestial human being on the margins of civilization (see Roberto Retemar's Caliban and Other Essays), to describe the descendants of that world. Upon reaching Europe in 1932, James found that his first task was to prove that his world was not made up only of "cannibals," that real people lived there and that black people were not the products of European imagination, a position made clear by Prospero who says of Caliban: "I pitied thee, /Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour;/One thing or other; when thou didst not, savage,/ Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like/ A thing most brutish, I endow'd thy purposes/With words that made them known" (see Shakespeare's The Tempest).

James wanted to demonstrate that Caliban possessed a vision of a world that was full and sensuous in its own right. The whole enterprise of the Black Atlantic consisted in the reclamation of the "black" self, via the Haitian Revolution where, as Aime Cesaire noted, "negritude stood up for the first time and said it believed in its humanity." Susan Buck—Morss sees within the Haitian revolution the space where the possibility of universal humanity "first" emerged (Hegel, Haiti and Universal History). The disappointment that the socialist conception of the world engendered demanded that James and others such as George Padmore (Pan-Africanism or Communism) re—think the promised liberation of African people within the context of communist ideology, hence the publication of James's first major book, World Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International (1937).

James brought with him a profound understanding of the universality of humanism when he arrived in England. He says in his preface to Beyond a Boundary, "To establish his own identity, Caliban, after three centuries, must himself pioneer into regions Caesar never knew." However, he needed the dialectics of Hegel (hence Notes on the Dialectic, 1948,) Lenin's political insights, and Marx's political economy to elaborate upon what he had brought with him to the mother—country. Anna Grimshaw would argue that later in his career, "the struggle between socialism and barbarism" constituted the foundation of his work (Anna Grimshaw, "C. L. R. James, A Revolutionary Vision of the Twentieth Century.")

Any attempt to include James in the world's "canon" of literature must recognize that he drew from both cultures, a Black Atlantic world and Western cultures, to offer a radically new vision of the world.


  1. A lecture to celebrate the publication of C. L. R. James's Beyond a Boundary and The Black Jacobins, at the Kia Cricket Grounds, London, UK, November 23, 2013.

Professor Cudjoe, a professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. His email address is and can be followed on twitter @ProfessorCudjoe.