The film Every Cook Can Govern: The Life, Impact and Works of C.L.R. James was released in April last year, and has been doing the rounds in meetings organised by different front organisations of the Spiked-online network, an ex-Trotskyist group led by the sociologist Frank Furedi and ubiquitous media pundit Claire Fox. It turned up in Manchester at the beginning of September at an event hosted by the Salon, and leaflets for the audience from ‘Worldbytes’ and ‘Citizen TV’ included the usual tell-tale Spiked lines on things like ‘economic growth and serious development for all’. No mention of socialism here, but the film itself is actually quite fantastic. The audience at the Manchester showing consisted, on my rough count, of members of at least six different activist groups. We were stunned at the unfolding story of CLR James, the revolutionary Marxist from Trinidad who joined the Trotskyist movement in the early 1930s and died in Brixton south London as an unrepentant activist in 1989.
The film traces a narrative arc from James’ love of cricket in Trinidad to his time in London and then, crucially, his experience of working class militancy in the Lancashire mill-town of Nelson. James lodged with the cricketer Learie Constantine and became active in the Independent Labour Party as a Trotskyist. We learn how it was the practice of class struggle and solidarity in the community that led James to revolutionary and so then to Trotskyist politics, and we are then taken through his experience of becoming a member of the Fourth International, which was formed in 1938, and then writing his classic text Black Jacobins and his play about the Haitian slave rebel Toussaint L’Ouverture which starred Paul Robeson in the leading role. The struggle against the US American and European ruling class and against Stalinism through the Second World War eventually leads us back to cricket as site of class struggle in James’ book Beyond a Boundary. We are then taken through interviews with his nephew Darcus Howe and interventions by Selma James, his partner and founder of the Wages for Housework campaign, to the end of his life.
The film doesn’t pull its punches, clearly locating James as a Marxist and revolutionary humanist in the best tradition of the Western Enlightenment, and it succeeds in opening up questions for activists today about our history and the place of colonialism and imperialism in contemporary capitalism. There is not time in just over two hours of a film that includes much unseen footage of James to cover all the aspects of his life.
There are two aspects that could have been stretched a little further. One is James’ continuing relationship with the Fourth International after the 1930s. The film notes that he visited Trotsky in 1939 and was still a revolutionary when he was deported from the US in 1953. What is not made clear is that James was part of an intense struggle inside the Fourth International as half of the ‘Johnson-Forest Tendency’ (James was Johnson and the Hegelian Marxist humanist Raya Dunayevskaya was Forest) which anticipated some early debates about the nature of the Soviet Union as ‘state capitalist’ and provided a platform for James’ argument that revolutionaries should support autonomous black self-organisation. He did not leave the Fourth International until 1949, and the FI can be proud to claim him as part of its history, a history of black struggle from which it has learnt much in recent years.
The other aspect concerns the way that James articulated the question of autonomous black struggle with standpoint and ‘identity’. It is clear that resistance to racism is necessarily bound up with the assertion of the common identity of the oppressed (as, for that matter, is working class struggle against capitalism). It is this concern with identity politics that the complex network of organisations around Spiked has spent so much time rubbishing in recent years, part and parcel of its hostility to the ‘nanny state’. It is intriguing and puzzling that James would be subject of a film documentary made by this group.
There are, it should be said, some very traditional and problematic aspects of the documentary format that the film follows. So, we have mainly young black women interviewing mainly white men who tell us how to understand James as a historical figure. Spiked community stalwarts like James Heartfield and Alan Hudson are dominant voices. There is a bizarre scene shot near Nelson where Alan Hudson and the young women are arrayed along one side of a picnic table. The jars of olives and other foodstuffs are turned so that the brand labels are hidden, while Hudson as the main figure in this last supper scenario is speaking into a microphone with a large Worldbytes sign stuck on it. Nevertheless, for all that, for all of the constraints of the format (and perhaps of the background guidance by Spiked in the writing, editing and format of the film), both Heartfield and Hudson speak as Marxists about a Marxist. This is a marvellous film, and you don’t have to be a supporter of ‘Citizen TV’ to love it.