It is a project he would have wholeheartedly supported – a crowd funded film made with more than 200 volunteer technicians and broadcasters aiming to bring an important historical figure to a wider audience.
It is fitting therefore that the subject of the documentary is CLR James himself, the Marxist scholar and political activist whose life and works bestrode the great changes of the 20th century and were animated by his conviction that “every cook can govern”.
That is the title of this feature length film that interweaves rare archive footage alongside the personal testimonies of friends and family and interviews with academics. Although James is best known for The Black Jacobins, the classic 1938 book about the Haiti slave revolt, the full range of his works is explored, reflecting an eclectic intellect that could talk about cricket, colonialism and Aristotle in the same sentence.
Every Cook Can Govern is a history lesson all in itself, such is the sweep of events that James bore witness to. But little known gems are also revealed: how he became a cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in the 1930s, his fractious encounter with literary doyenne Edith Sitwell in Bloomsbury around the same time, and his fondness for the films of Charlie Chaplin.
The film opens in the unforgettably named town of Tunapuna in Trinidad where Cyril Lionel Robert James was born in 1901 to become the youngest child to win a national competition for a place in the island’s prestigious Queen’s Royal College at the age of nine. Although the adolescent James was fired up by the ideas of Marcus Garvey, which represented a full frontal challenge to the claim that black people were racially inferior, he was eager to absorb the best of what western civilisation had to offer and developed a passion early on for the English classics, particularly Thackeray and Shakespeare, and for cricket, the sport of the English upper classes.
In 1927, he wrote Minty Alley, one of the first English-language novels written in the Caribbean, and at the age of 31 he set sail for England to establish himself as a novelist. He stayed in Bloomsbury before travelling to Nelson in Lancashire where, incredibly, his friend Learie Constantine was one of the best paid sportsmen in England as a member of the local cricket league.
Cricket in Nelson was played and enjoyed by the working classes, the same men and women who, James noted, were engaged in a militant struggle with local weaving bosses, hence the town’s nickname Little Moscow. For James, cricket was an “art form” that in the inter-connectedness of human experience also had political undercurrents. He later explored this in Beyond the Boundary, his1963 analysis of the game, which in the Caribbean symbolised the sense of empowerment taking place among the masses as they moved towards self-rule. This was underlined by Frank Worrell becoming the first black captain of the West Indies cricket team in 1960, a campaign James led. Hitherto the post had to be held by an Englishman.
His 10 months in Nelson proved a turning point, the film argues. James returned to London and began to immerse himself in revolutionary politics before becoming a leading figure in the Trotskyist movement, eventually meeting Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1939 to discuss the ‘negro question’ in the US. One of the books to emerge from this period is World Revolution, in which he examines the Soviet Union in the light of the damage done to it by Stalin.
He moved to the US, spending 15 years there as a founder of an influential Trotskyist grouping before being deported in 1953, producing what many people consider to be one of his finest works, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, a Marxist interpretation of Melville’s Moby-Dick.
Made by WORLDbytes, the online Citizen TV channel, Every Cook Can Govern‘s use of young volunteers, both to link sequences and ask questions of James experts, sets the tone of inquiry and learning that the film seeks to promote. It emphasises that here was a man not just interested in commenting on the world but changing it alongside others. “Above all, James was a humanist who never lost his faith in the transformative power of collective human action,” says the writer Kenan Malik, one of the film’s talking heads.
The anti-colonial movement represented one such force, which James devoted himself to in the second half of his life. In 1957 he attended the Ghana independence celebrations having collaborated over the years with the nationalist leader Kwame Nkrumah. However he later criticised Nkrumah for failing to dismantle the colonial state he inherited and distancing himself from the masses that mobilised him into power.
In 1958 he travelled to Caribbean where he became an active voice in the struggle for the West Indian Federation. “It was really not the story of West Indian independence,” says Selma James, James’ former wife who worked with him on the campaign. “That was settled before we came. The struggle was for federation, the struggle was to be together.” The federation, though, proved short lived, and the islands became the impotent dots in the ocean they are today.
James, the film tells us, was an “uncompromised revolutionary”, even in middle age turning his back on the comfortable life that could have been his. He ended his days in Railton Rd, the frontline of the 1981 riots in Brixton, and his book-lined front room sets the scene for several forthright interviews. He died in 1989 and fittingly his gravestone in Trinidad is in the form of a book.
Every Cook Can Govern, made by WORLDbytes as part of the education charity WORLDwrite, is available on DVD from http://www.clrjames.uk/the-film/buy-the-dvd/ The next screening is at the Selby Centre, London N17, on June 10. Free entry but book at http://www.selbytrust.co.uk/clr-james. To get involved as a volunteer visit http://www.clrjames.uk/volunteer/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in the Camden New Journal on May 18, 2016