When C L R James’ Beyond a Boundary was first published 50 years ago, the sociology of sport and the politics of popular culture had no place in the academy or on the left. The book had to create its own subject, define a new field of intervention. James aimed to establish cricket as worthy of serious study and to expose the failure to study it as an unacceptable omission. As he says at the start of the book, he could no longer credit an account of Victorian society that found no room for W G Grace. Like that other seminal work of 1963, E P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, James’ book aimed to rescue the culture created by the lower orders from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’.
James was 62 when Beyond a Boundary was published. Behind him were decades of political struggle, taking in the West Indies, Britain, 15 cricketless years in the USA and a brief spell in newly independent Ghana. His publications already covered a wide range – history, philosophy, literature, politics – through which could be charted his developing anti-Stalinist Marxism, as well as the vast expense of intellectual energy in years of factional struggle in the Trotskyist movement.
In 1958 James returned to Trinidad after an absence of a quarter of a century. Independence was around the corner but exactly what shape it would take was uncertain. As editor of the independence movement’s newspaper and a key advisor to its leader, Eric Williams, James championed the newly-formed West Indies Federation and opposed the US base at Chaguaramas. When Williams opted for a pro-western policy, James found himself frozen out.
‘I had placed myself at his disposal, adapted myself to his needs,’ he observed ruefully. ‘He does not appreciate what that means.’ By the time Trinidad was granted independence in 1962, the West Indies Federation had collapsed and James had been forced into exile.
It was in the wake of this disappointment that James sat down to write his long-gestated book on cricket, which is very much an optimistic portrayal of West Indies’ destiny. He begins by asking ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ – adapting Kipling’s double-edged imperial lament, ‘What do they know of England who only England know?’
Declaring that the ‘answer involves ideas as well as facts’, he sets off on a great intellectual journey, passing through Victorian England, ancient Greece, industrial Lancashire (one of my favourite episodes, an affectionate portrait of a working class culture), the Trinidad of his youth and a Caribbean on the brink of independence. In doing so he urges us to ask not only ‘how men live’ but also, crucially, ‘what they live by’. That is, he calls attention to the superstructure of ideas, values and identities, and their embodiment in the praxis of daily life, including sports.
As innovative in form as it is in content, Beyond a Boundary is uncategorisable, a blend of memoir, history, theory, journalism, political manifesto. For all its diversity, it has what many of today’s hybrid texts lack: a commanding intelligence and a distinctive voice, dry, purposeful, thrillingly and theatrically didactic. The book is all of a piece and would be diminished by the loss of any of its component parts.
James’ over-arching concern is the development of West Indian cricket. He traces its relation to the hierarchies of colonialism and colour and the unique role it played in a stratified society. Recalling his early experiences of the game, he remarks: ‘Cricket had plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it.’
Leftists are often taken aback by James’ reverence for the English public school ethic. But what he saw in this ethic, as embodied in cricket, was something that fitted the needs of an emergent West Indian society, a self-discipline that was part of the struggle for freedom and equality. In his view West Indians were not only victims of imperialism but agents able to seize the tools of the oppressor and use them for self-assertion and self‑development.
That’s the lens through which he understands cricket. In its story he sees West Indians adopting and adapting the culture and technology of their masters, making it their own, turning its disciplines to their own purposes. As a Marxist, he viewed the revolt against colonialism not as a revolt against modernity or western culture, but as a revolt into a modernity of self-determination, a new relation to a wider world. So even at his most conservative, James is always revolutionary.
James argues that the ‘representative’ quality that dramatists struggle to infuse into their individual characters comes effortlessly to cricket: in the confrontation between bowler and batter, where the two are simultaneously individuals testing their individual strengths and embodiments of a larger group, the team, whose destiny is shaped by their actions. What James relished in cricket was this dialectic of individual and collective, moment and process, the technical and the spontaneous. His belief in the significance of exceptional individuals, figures created by history to make history, permeates Beyond a Boundary, not least in its finely-tuned portraits of George Headley and Learie Constantine, cricketers who became representative through their mould-breaking individuality.
As James notes, history blessed him with the perfect ending for his story. In 1961, he led the successful campaign to have Frank Worrell appointed captain of the West Indies, the first black man to hold the prestigious post. Here James’ love of cricket and his anti-colonial politics meshed. (Only James could depict Worrell as both the heir of Thomas Arnold and the equal of Trotsky as a powerful personality.) Worrell’s much‑praised leadership of the West Indies tour of Australia later that year provides Beyond a Boundary with its triumphant conclusion, in which James describes how West Indies ‘clearing their way with bat and ball … made a public entry into the comity of nations’.
As it turned out, Worrell’s team were merely forerunners of the great era of West Indies cricket supremacy, from the mid-1970s to early 1980s. In the team fashioned by Clive Lloyd, the team of Richards, Holding, Roberts et al, James’ prophetic view of West Indies’ cricket was fulfilled. Like Bob Marley, the cricketers projected a West Indian identity on to a world stage, briefly making these politically and economically marginal islands a centre of global culture.
What would James have made of the long decline that has followed? Surely, he’d note in the fall of West Indies cricket the absence of the very factors that made for its rise: the anti-colonial movement and the ideals of third world solidarity. Later cricketers, emerging from a West Indian society battered by neoliberalism, could not match the ambition, creativity and commitment of a generation determined to liberate themselves from the colonial and racist order into which they had been born.
James asked not only how cricketers played, but what they played for. His programme for the future entailed a ‘return of the cricketer to the community’. For James, what mattered in popular culture was its democratic content.
This is why I suspect he’d find much of today’s popular culture studies alien, particularly the tendency to treat the field as a continuum of texts, a self-referential symbolic order. For him the central task of the enterprise was the process of political and aesthetic discrimination, the honing of a method of evaluation. He might ask: ‘What do they know of popular culture who only popular culture know?’
Reading the book for the umpteenth time, it struck me that in his desire to do justice to cricket James overstates its claims. Perhaps he took cricket too seriously, and in doing so fell prey to what cricket historian Derek Birley called ‘the aesthetic fallacy’.
Cricket, James declared, ‘is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle. It belongs with theatre, ballet, opera and the dance.’ Yes, but it is also fundamentally a different type of spectacle, with a particular appeal. In sport, the aesthetic is an incidental by-product – not the purpose of the exercise, which is to win the competition. However well-rehearsed, cricket remains at root unpredictable; the result (and therefore the meaning) cannot be pre-determined.
I owe a huge personal debt to James, for many reasons. What now seems to me most important in his legacy is the example he set, more than any of his theories. It’s the virtue summed up in the title of his masterwork: thinking and living beyond boundaries, whether they’re the boundaries between cricket and the wider world, the boundaries that separate discourses and disciplines, or the boundaries of race, class and empire.