Culture matters

By Aaron Kamugisha

C.L.R. James and the Study of Culture, by Andrew Smith
(Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-0-230-22021-8, 174 pp)

Street cricket, South Africa, 2008

Street cricket, Richtersveld, South Africa, December 2008. Photograph by David Sasaki, posted at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Two decades after his death at eighty-eight, it is testimony to the range, power, and appeal of the life work of C.L.R. James that the secondary literature on his work continues to grow at the rate of practically a book a year. This secondary literature is itself a sign of the times, and worthy of a study in its own right. It arguably signals a move from the dominant representation of James as activist-intellectual to James as cultural critic — a move first noted by Selwyn Cudjoe in his critical review of The C.L.R. James Reader back in 1992.

Nor is Cudjoe alone in this assessment. John McClendon, in his searching examination of James’s Notes on Dialectics, argues that accounts of James which fail to privilege his Marxism-Leninism are scandalously ahistorical, while Neil Larsen makes the assertion that James’s work, properly interpreted, represents a critical interpretation of twentieth-century Western culture that has been too easily appropriated by a North Atlantic cultural studies he would have disavowed. Clearly, for many, James’s legacy remains one worth arguing about, and nowhere is this tension more evident than at conferences on his academic work, where the divide between his friends and aficionados on one side and contemporary scholars without a personal connection to him on the other is often quite clear.

The quality of early scholarship on James produced important mid-1990s biographies and critical studies by Anthony Bogues, Aldon Neilsen, and Kent Worcester. A decade or so later, the field was more mixed — with fascinating and controversial studies by David Scott and John McClendon, David Austin’s welcome publication of James’s Montreal lectures (You Don’t Play with Revolution, 2009), Frank Rosengarten’s fine study Urbane Revolutionary (2008), and — quite simply — mediocre and flawed biographical assessments by Farouk Dhondy and David Renton. Andrew Smith’s new study, ambitiously titled C.L.R. James and the Study of Culture, is a return to the earlier critical work on James, and combines rigorous assessment, a thoroughgoing reading of the James canon, and subtle assessments that make a valuable contribution to the study of a thinker who should be recognised as one of the most important Marxist cultural theorists of the twentieth century.

Smith announces that the aim of his study is to “provide a clear account of James’s approach to the various practices and products of human creativity, of what gets called ‘culture’ with a small ‘c’.” Though the study is heavily indebted to James’s cricket writings — which Smith rightly considers constitute some of James’s best concentrated writing on a particular popular form — the value of C.L.R. James and the Study of Culture comes in its thorough assessment and critical meditation on all of James’s work, with considerable value for both those familiar with it and relative newcomers. If part of James’s burden, at times, is to trace the history of certain aesthetic forms, Smith wishes to explore the meaning of this for the wider study of culture; or, alternatively, ferret out a discernable Jamesian method:

. . . how might we go about developing an understanding of cultural practices which pays due attention to both “style” and “age”; due attention both to that which is specific to those practices as symbolic activities which come with their own expectations and their own histories of development and to the ways in which these things are related to — and revealing of — historical developments in a more general sense?

It is questions like this that preoccupied James, and the productive tensions they created in his writings are one of the central threads throughout Smith’s work. Smith wishes us to understand that James’s attentiveness to cultural forms is not secured by a purist dream of art for art’s sake, nor conversely is this concern a Trojan horse for a particular brand of social criticism. Rather, he understood too well how both approaches potentially dismantle the “pleasures and possibilities” that make people yearn for specific cultural forms in the first place. Here, James was also beyond two brands of Marxist cultural criticism: the unreflective Stalinism that saw culture as the mere expression of class consciousness, and the Frankfurt School criticism exemplified by Theodor Adorno, which often suggested consumers were both duped by and complicit with capitalism’s production of mass culture. James knew that “popular culture was essentially contested territory,” but he also understood only too well that culture at its best allows us to see the true possibilities of human freedom, in its most daring, revelatory forms.

The range of C.L.R. James and the Study of Culture is such that, inevitably, some readings by Smith do not ring true. So while I found his linking of the mocking of class privilege in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and James’s Life of Captain Cipriani (1932) astute, I am less persuaded by Smith’s effort to link Vanity Fair and Minty Alley (1936), with his claim that the latter is “narrated by a pompous and archaic Victorian voice, replete with obvious Thackerayisms.” On balance, Smith’s insights far outweigh these moments of disagreement, particularly in his discussion of the problem of artistic genius in chapter four. In one of the many subtle, thoughtful twists in this book, Smith argues that James believed humans have different “individual capacities and capabilities,” but, far from an elitist notion, this was anchored to a belief that any world worth having is one in which everyone can give his or her powers full play. The language of genius in James’s work functions as a way of “leaving space for the human messiness of history and the unpredictability of individual creativity.” Genius is dependent on talent and opportunity, historical and social context, but also on luck and chance.

I have a quibble with the structure of C.L.R. James and the Study of Culture, or, more specifically, with its chapter headings. Smith explains clearly why he titles his chapters “Forms”, “Contexts”, “Crowds”, “Players”, and “Uses”, but beyond the initial explanation it seems the analysis of each runs into the others, making it difficult to remember the precise contributions of the individual sections, and making the study feel repetitive after its second chapter. A larger problem seems to be the question of James’s location within the scholarly disciplines of the Western academy. I would have expected a book-length rumination on James and “the study of culture” to think more concretely about the central place that a figure of James’s stature ought to occupy in the (broadly defined) field of cultural studies, and of social and political thought and criticism.

While James’s work is increasingly anthologised in readers in cultural studies — particularly his essay “What is Art”, from Beyond a Boundary (1963) — these gestures still strike me as more tokenist than foundational. It is worth recalling here some of James’s landmark contributions. The Black Jacobins (1938) was not merely a classic study of the Haitian Revolution, and rightly, in its epic sweep, called by some the Caribbean’s War and Peace; in its tracing of the relationship between metropole and colony, it anticipated much late-twentieth-century work in Atlantic and postcolonial studies. James’s mid-century work with the Johnson-Forest tendency — the radical left study group he formed with Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee Boggs — resulted in the first English language translation of Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, which decisively influenced James’s view of human freedom, and his writings on politics and culture of this time. His American Civilisation (1992), in its scope, daring, and contradictions, is undoubtedly one of the great works on American culture by an outsider to it; while Beyond a Boundary is constantly reckoned to be among the best books on sport ever written.

This tallying of James’s contributions is not meant as mere praise. Rather, directed at Smith’s book, they question how, even while Smith draws connections to work which helps illuminate James, his decisive and distinctive contribution to the study of culture in the Western academy seems sometimes lost, or at least strangely minimised. Yet Smith gives us a fine exposition on why culture matters for James, and should for us: “not least because it reasserts this question of ethical or political or merely personal desire as the issue around which politics takes shape.” It is, “by virtue of its particular and objectifying forms . . . a highly uncertain context for the attempted reproduction of unequal social relationships.” For James, “the question of culture may help rescue us from the tyrannous logicality of a politics that has lost sight of possible human ends.” We should have little doubt that this remains, for the Caribbean and the world, an urgent question.


The Caribbean Review of Books, March 2011

Aaron Kamugisha is a lecturer in cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill. His current work is a study of coloniality, cultural citizenship, and freedom in the contemporary anglophone Caribbean, mediated through the social and political thought of C.L.R. James and Sylvia Wynter. He can be contacted at