International Gramsci Society Online Article
August 2002

Antonio Gramsci and C.L.R. James: Some Parallels and Similarities

Frank Rosengarten

From the late 1980s to the present, one of the most intriguing aspects of C.L.R. James studies has been the frequency with which various authors have compared James with Antonio Gramsci. Some of the reasons for this are fairly obvious, others much less so. In any event, it occurred to me that readers of the IGS Newsletter might welcome a brief review of writing on James in which Gramscian terms and concepts play an important role. But before doing that, let me indicate a few of the themes in relation to which† parallels and similarities between Gramsci and James are especially noteworthy.

First of all, organicist imagery is pervasive in the writings of both men. They both sought to integrate it into their understanding of Marxism as an integral, comprehensive conception of the world. They were both disturbed† by the tendency of many self-styled Marxists to apply Marxist theory in a mechanistic manner, which accounts in part for their frequent recourse to the word "organic."† Marxism for Gramsci and James was not a closed, static system unaffected by change. They believed that Marxism, like all bodies of thought rooted in human experience, must constantly renew itself, must draw from other currents of thought in order to remain relevant and viable. As a result of this premise, they were able in large measure to avoid the dangers of sectarianism and dogmatism. Neither felt constrained to reject automatically insights into historical, political and cultural problems merely because they did not conform to an established set of canonical doctrines and texts.

Secondly, what Gramsci designates with the phrase national popular has its counterpart in Jamesís gradual evolution towards what one James scholar, Patrick Ignatius Gomes, calls "Marxian populism."[1] The formation of a "national popular" culture was for both thinkers a top priority: for Gramsci, one of the grossest deficiencies of Italian national development was precisely the lack of a closely interconnected and fruitful relationship between the intelligentsia and the common people, while for James, especially after his return to Trinidad in 1958 following a twenty-six year absence from his native land, a task of primary importance for Trinidadian intellectuals was to help forge a creative bond between the islandís diverse races and classes within the larger framework of a political federation embracing all the countries of the Caribbean archipelago. James was as deeply immersed in the critical analysis of Caribbean creative writing as Gramsci was in the study of Italian literature, for both saw in their respective literary traditions an extraordinarily sensitive record of their countriesí social history.

That this notion of the "national popular" presents nettlesome problems from a strictly orthodox class approach to culture is quite evident, inasmuch as it embraces sectors of the population not usually seen as appropriate agents of radical social† transformation. It is also seen by some Marxists as theoretically incompatible with the idea of internationalism as the founding premise of Marxist thought. Be that as it may, what Gramsci and James have in common in this regard is their resolute adherence to a conception of the people that includes not only workers and peasants but all those whose way of life and mentality are necessarily conditioned by the need to cope with the burdens and travail of everyday human existence. James habitually called them "the great masses of† people" or, more simply, "ordinary people," and Gramsci, when mulling over the prospects for radical change in Italy, did not always restrict himself to the working class as its agent but spoke instead of "the creative spirit of the people." Itís difficult here to resist the temptation to say that, in this respect, both Gramsci and James were not unfriendly to the idea of "the people" raised to new heights of eloquence by Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Gettysburg Address. Neither of them would have been shocked by such a comparison, since neither was a doctrinaire Marxist when it came to dealing with the concrete particularities of historical conjunctures. This is why James was able to see the struggle of black people in America as having an independent significance of its own which revolutionary socialists should recognize and incorporate into their program of action; and why Gramsci -- to cite only one of many possible examples -- in the 1930s rejected a strictly class-oriented attitude toward the antifascist movement in favor of a more expansive and ecumenical view of how various political groups might collaborate against a common enemy.

Another of the traits that Gramsci and James shared was their abiding interest in the history, roles and functions of intellectuals. This is a subject where one finds a plentiful admixture of political and literary themes common to both thinkers. Three years ago, when I began my research on James, I was tantalized by Jamesís use of the phrase "organic intellectual" in his commentary on Shakespeareís Hamlet. In a famous section of the Prison Notebooks dealing with the formation and function of intellectuals, Gramsci distinguishes between "organic" and "traditional" intellectuals, the former being characterized by their function as representatives of a particular social group or class (Gramsci 1971, 5-23; Gramsci 1992 and 1994, passim). At first, I thought that James must have been aware of Gramsciís formulation when he, James, used it in his "Notes on Hamlet," where he asserts that in the Elizabethan era "the intellectual was an organic part of rationalist society and Hamlet is the organic intellectual." (C.L.R. James Reader , 245). But I have found no unimpeachable evidence in Jamesís writing of a direct Gramscian influence, which in a way makes their use of the phrase all the more fascinating.

It must be said, however, that while Gramsci and James shared a common concern with the role of intellectuals in political life, their ways of addressing the question are quite different. Jamesís writings on intellectuals are sometimes rather biased, scornful, and emotionally charged, while Gramsciís approach is usually cool and impersonal, considerably more "social scientific" in tone than Jamesís. Gramsci, to be sure, was capable of animus in his writing, and he could be sternly acerbic in his commentaries on writers (most often literary intellectuals) guilty of sanctimony, hypocrisy, superficiality, and other defects. Nevertheless, in the Prison Notebooks, he tended to deal with the problems that interested him from a rather detached perspective. James, on the other hand, at least when intellectuals were the topic of discussion, let himself go with abandon. Consider, for example, chapter V of Mariners, Renegades & Castaways, which James wrote while a "detainee" on Ellis Island in 1952. In chapter V of this work, titled "Neurosis and the Intellectuals," we find James in an especially sour frame of mind as he seeks to diagnose the cause of the pervasive doubt and confusion afflicting mainly "a special class of people, chiefly intellectuals and the idle rich who cannot decide what attitude they should take to a changing society" (Pease 91). Indecisiveness was only a minor symptom of a grave spiritual illness which James saw as endemic to modern intellectuals, especially literary intellectuals, one of whose nineteenth century spiritual† forebears was Pierre Glendinning, the protagonist of Melvilleís eponymous 1851 novel. Limitations of space preclude my quoting the long last† paragraph of this chapter. Suffice it to say that an angry James characterizes many of the seminal literary works of the twentieth century as "a catalogue of misery or self-centered hopelessness" (113).[2]† Eleven years later James acknowledged that his judgments concerning intellectuals and other questions taken up in his study of Melville were "challengeable," and in need of revision, because of their overly politicized character.[3]

Letís look now at some of the critical writings on James where Gramscian terms and concepts are germane to the authorsí main arguments. A good place to start is Bill Schwarzís 1994 review of American Civilization, which James wrote in the early 1950s but which was not published until 1993. Schwarz sees suggestive parallels between the life trajectories of Gramsci and James, most importantly their insular origins (Sardinia and Trinidad), their emerging consciousness of belonging to a "colonized" people, and their embrace of Marxism after their arrival in the "imperial" centers of England and Italy, where both encountered for the first time an advanced, organized industrial working-class movement. Schwarz sees these parallels from a rather strongly Eurocentric viewpoint:

The intellectual traffic across the old empires clearly possesses a prodigious unwritten history, and James represents one moment in this larger story. In my own mind Iíve always thought of James in this context in parallel with Gramsci: close enough in birth to be of the same generation, moving by virtue of the structures of colonial education from periphery to centeróGramsci an impoverished Sard nationalist, James a luminary in the largely unknown, tiny Trinidadian literary renaissanceóand then, when abruptly confronted by the internal culture of the metropolis, each moving to marxism: Gramsci to the Socialist Party and thence the Third International, †James to Trotskyism. (177)

The reason why the two men took radically divergent paths within the world socialist movementóGramsci to the Third International, James to the Fourth International and eventually to an independent revolutionary socialismóshould probably be ascribed more to differences in personality structure than to their sociopolitical views. If we look closely at the full spectrum of Gramsciís writings on Soviet socialism and on bureaucratic centralism, it is clear that he agreed with some of Jamesís reasons for denouncing the Stalinist regime. But he was able to accommodate a much wider range of possible "socialisms" within his overall conception of world politics than was James. This trait allowed him to temper his fears of the involutional and anti-democratic drift of the Soviet regime with a series of historical and pragmatic arguments having to do with the global struggle against capitalism, while for James the Soviet Union was simply a "monstrous tyranny" that embodied not socialist aspirations but rather all of the evils of capitalist exploitation in the form of bureaucratic "state capitalism" With benefit of hindsight, it would seem that James was much closer to the truth than Gramsci in their overall appraisal of the Soviet regime, but we should not overlook those aspects of Gramsciís more cautious and nuanced views that were pointing in an increasingly critical direction.

At the outset of his study Calibanís Freedom -- The Early Political Thought of C.L.R. James (1997), Anthony Bogues seeks to ground one of his main arguments, namely that around 1940 James began the "massive project of reconstructing Marxism," by connecting it to what he sees as a similar project undertaken by Gramsci. Boguesís argument, which recalls a similar generational divide in Perry Andersonís Considerations on Western Marxism, rests on the premise that there is a profound difference between the† generation of Marxist thinkers to which Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky belonged and the next generation, which included Gramsci and James (born respectively in 1891 and 1901). Bogues thinks that Jamesís effort of Marxist renewal took place in basically the same historical context as that of Gramsci, thereby bridging an otherwise insuperable gap between the two thinkers due to their different political affiliations. The paragraph in which Bogues proposes this comparison is worth quoting in its entirety:

In 1940, having recognised the limitations of the Trotskyist movement, James attempted the massive project of reconstructing Marxism for the †immediate post-World War II period. Here, his aim was similar in some respects to that of the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci. Within the classical Marxist revolutionary tradition, the major political thinkers and activists of the early twentieth century, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, had operated from the foundation of the success of the Russian Revolution and its immediate aftermath. Gramsci, on the other hand, wrote his major essays during the 1920s and 1930s, when the revolutionary temper had begun to subside, and within the framework of emerging new tendencies which were restructuring capital. Gramsciís central objective †was the survival of the "philosophy of praxis" (his phrase for Marxism) and the core of his work --the role of consciousness† and the development of the notion of hegemony -- was an attempt to explain the failure of the proletarian revolution in Europe. By focusing on consciousness, he was battling against mechanical determinist currents which had by then affected the character of Marxism. (1-2; authorís italics)

Later on in his discussion, in chapter seven, titled "The New Universals," Bogues restates his conviction that James and Gramsci had two things in common: their "approach to the philosophy of Marxism and history," and their conception of "consciousness" in the working-class movement (113-114). I would agree that "consciousness" and "subjectivity" are key components of the Marxism of both Gramsci and James. This is a point which Bogues finds well exemplified by one of Gramsciís most celebrated pre-prison writings, the 1916 little essay "Socialism and Culture,"† [4]†† †which certainly has its counterpart in many of Jamesís writings. What Bogues wants to do, it seems to me, is to establish Jamesís contribution to the discourse of "western Marxism,"† a contribution not yet sufficiently appreciated by students of Jamesís work. But at the same time, Bogues insists on a controversial point that removes James somewhat from Gramsciís politics. While James, Bogues maintains, "was a Marxist whose work can be located within a stream of Marxism, it was the black radical tradition which was the source of his radicalism" (xii).† In other words, Bogues, in line with the way he interprets Jamesís thought and action, places far greater emphasis on the racial origins of Jamesís radical world view than do many others who have looked at this aspect of Jamesís life. Whatever oneís position might be on this question, the fact is that from 1939 on, James, while not a "race man" in a narrow sense, did unquestionably see black liberation struggles as an independent† force for regenerative† progressive change, not only in the United States but throughout the world.

†Gramsci figures prominently In John Martinís unpublished 1995 dissertation American Class and Race Relations: An Intellectual History of the American Left, and in Grant Farredís Whatís my Name? Organic and Vernacular Intellectuals, soon to be published by the University of Minnesota Press. Martin devotes the fourth chapter of his study to James, where, like Bogues, he tries to situate James in the context of "Western Marxism." He credits James with having helped to revive "a long-submerged expression of Marxism" embodied in Hegelian idealism and in the early writings of Marx. Basically, he wants to show that, although James had no direct knowledge of "Western Marxists" such as Karl Korsch, Gramsci, and Gyorgy LukŠcs, "his perspective shares with these writers a strikingly similar reading and application of Marxís method" (124). [5]† Among features of his thought that James had in common with a figure like Gramsci was his faith in "the self-governing capacity" of ordinary people.

Farredís study utilizes Gramsciís ideas on intellectuals as a "template" for looking at two "organic" intellectuals, James and Stuart Hall, and two "vernacular" intellectuals, Mohammed Ali and Bob Marley. What emerges most strikingly from Farredís commentary on various facets of the Gramsci-James connection is that he sees a powerful affinity between "Gramsciís organicism, and Jamesís conception of self-movement, of emancipatory initiative, in opposition to all forms of mechanicism and bureaucracy" (112). Also worthy of note is the way in which Farred locates Ali and Marley as popular vernacular intellectuals quite conscious of culture as "a terrain crucial to ideological struggle." Farred thinks of his own work as informed by Gramsciís democratic discourse (11),† by which he means, among other things, Gramsciís belief that "all men are intellectuals," inasmuch as he felt that there is an inherent need in all human beings to form a more or less coherent picture of the world, whether one is a highly educated systematic thinker or a plain person with commonsensical notions about what is important and what isnít. As far as his view of James is concerned, Farred considers him from a Gramscian point of view as

††. . . .the site where the "traditional" and the "organic" intellectual confront each other, recognize their points of intersection and divergence, and comprehend how such an encounter complicates their position in relation to their community. (32)

Although Cameron McCarthy never mentions Gramsciís name in his excellent essay "Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: C.L.R. James and the Radical Postcolonial Imagination," he nonetheless draws upon Gramscian categories of investigation in trying to clearly articulate what distinguishes three types of "intellectual exemplars," which he calls the "organic/subaltern intellectual," the "authoritarian or resentment intellectual," and the "contextual/revisionary intellectual."

McCarthyís first category includes such figures as the Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint LíOuverture, whom James depicted so vividly in The Black Jacobins, and "the polyglot, racially diverse crew members of the Pequod in Herman Melvilleís Moby Dick† (94). These are intellectual types who emerge directly from the masses and seem inextricably bound to them." Seem† inextricably bound to them because as James describes the final years of Toussaintís leadership of the San Domingo slave revolt, it is clear that Toussaint lost close contact with his followers and eventually tied his own fortunes much too closely to those of the French Republic, which subsequently led to his imprisonment and death in the France of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The second type of authoritarian or resentment intellectual, whom Melville incarnated in the figure of Captain Ahab, reminds one of the personality types described by Fritz Stern in The Politics of Cultural Despair, and of Gramsciís reaction to Benito Mussolini, whose demagoguery exploited so effectively the personal and national resentments of his countrymen.

The third type, the contextual or revisionary intellectual, is, in McCarthyís view, represented by James himself. By this he means that James combined in himself both the learning handed down by the avatars of western civilization while, at the same time, developing the "magic arts of interpretation" with which he led a deconstructive assault on "the taken-for-granted and naturalized terrain of the West."† For McCarthy, James succeeded in overcoming the barriers conventionally erected by bourgeois society between intellectuals and the masses.

There are others who have pointed out parallels and similarities between Gramsci and James: Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart, Aldon Nielsen, and Jamesís longtime friend and co-militant, Grace Lee Boggs, come readily to mind. In most of these cases, the comparisons serve merely to orient the reader to particular features of Jamesís thought. Boggs refers often to James himself as "an organic intellectual" whose "spiritual leadership" stimulated his comrades in the Johnson-Forest Tendency to transcend the bourgeois separation between material and intellectual labor.[6] †As far as I can determine, she does not elaborate on this point. However, in view of the fact that Boggs was the main philosophical intelligence in the political movement led by James, and helped James to deepen his grasp of many of the problems with which he deals in Notes on Dialectics and other writings, her comments assume a special importance in this brief survey of the Gramsci-James connection.

James was an eclectic thinker who drew from many and diverse sources. The fact that in his revolutionary response to the crisis of modern civilization he employed methods and reached conclusions that were so akin to those of Gramsci is testimony to their common affiliation -- despite sharp differences in political orientation vis-ŗ-vis the Soviet Union -- with Marxist humanism. This, in any case, is the informed opinion of the historians, political scientists, and educators I have discussed.

In a subsequent issue of the IGS Newsletter I plan to offer another review of C.L.R. James scholars and writers not covered in this report who have made use of Gramscian concepts in their work.

A Note on Sources

The four-digit numbers used at the beginning of some of the footnotes are file numbers of materials consulted at the C.L.R. James Institute in New York City, under the direction of Jim Murray.


[1] 1205: P.I. Gomes, "The Marxian Populism of C.L.R. James,"† Department of Sociology, University of West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago; written in the 1980s. See also Gomesís excellent but still unpublished study C.L.R. Jamesís Marxian Paradigm on the Transformation of Caribbean Social Structure: A Comparative Critique, Ph.D. Diss., Fordham University, 1980.

[2] These are The Waste Land, Journey to the End of the Night, Darkness at Noon, Farewell to Arms, The Counterfeiters, and Remembrance of Things Past.

[3] 4152: In a letter to Ronald Mason, a Melville scholar, dated October 8, 1963, James wrote as follows: "I Believe that the terms in which I present my view of Melville are challengeable. So much so that I have outlined for my American publisher a revision of the book. I was too much dominated at the time by certain political considerations and those have affected my strictly literary analysis. My aim now is when the time is right to put the same view forward but nevertheless from a more strictly literary and less politically polemical and politically motivated basis. I have thought it over quite a while and I would like this to be done." As far as I know, James did not do a rewriting of his Melville study.

[4] See† A Gramsci Reader, ed. by David Forgacs (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1988), 56-59.

[5] 4935, Box 49; James was aware of LukŠcs.

[6] 2178:† Grace Lee Boggs, "Working with C.L.R. James,"† a talk given at Wayne State University, October 6, 1989.


Boggs, Grace Lee. "Working with C.L.R. James."† Wayne State University, October 6, 1989.

Bogues, Anthony. Calibanís FreedomóThe Early Political Thought of C.L.R. James. London: Pluto Press, 1997.

Farred, Grant. Whatís My Name?: Organic and Vernacular Intellectuals. Ph. D. Diss. Princeton University, 1997.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Ed. and Trans. by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

_____. A Gramsci Reader. Ed. by David Forgacs. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1988.

_____. Prison Notebooks. Vols. 1 and 2, Ed. and Trans. by Joseph Buttigieg. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992 and 1996.

Grimshaw, Anna and Hart, Keith. C.L.R. James and The Struggle for Happiness. New York: The C.L.R. James Institute and Cultural Correspondence, 1991, explicitly p. 55 and implicitly elsewhere.

Martin, John R. American Class and Race Relations: An Intellectual History of the American Left. Ph.D. Diss. Rutgers University, 1995.

McCarthy, Cameron. "Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: C. L. R. James and the Radical Postcolonial Imagination." Cultural Studies<->Critical Methodologies. Volume 1, Number 1, 2001 Sage Publications, 86-107.

Nielsen, Aldon Lynn. C.L.R. JamesóA Critical Introduction (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), explicit references pp. 42-43, 144.

Schwarz, Bob. "C.L.R. James in America." New Formations, London, No. 24,† 1994, 174-183.

Frank Rosengarten, Professor emeritus, The City University of New York, New York, USA
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