James then became a leading figure in the International African Service Bureau, led by his childhood friend George Padmore, to whom he later introduced Kwame Nkrumah. In Britain, he also became a leading Marxist theorist. He had joined the Labour Party, but in the midst of the Great Depression he became a Trotskyist. By 1934, James was a member of an entrist Trotskyist group inside the Independent Labour Party.
In this period, amid his frenetic political activity, James wrote a play about Toussaint L'Ouverture, which was staged in the West End in 1936 and starred Paul Robeson and Robert Adams. That same year saw the publication in London of James's only novel, Minty Alley, which he had brought with him in manuscript from Trinidad. It was the first novel to be published by a black Caribbean author in the UK.
He also wrote what are perhaps his best-known works of non-fiction: World Revolution (1937), a history of the rise and fall of the Communist International, which was critically praised by Leon Trotsky; and The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), a widely acclaimed history of the Haitian Revolution, which would later be seen as a seminal text in the study of the African diaspora.
In 1936, James and his Trotskyist Marxist Group left the Independent Labour Party to form an open party. In 1938, this new group took part in several mergers to form the Revolutionary Socialist League. The RSL was a highly factionalised organisation. When James was invited to tour the United States by the leadership of the Socialist Workers' Party, then the US section of the Fourth International, to facilitate its work among black workers, John Archer encouraged him to leave in the hope of removing a rival.
While within the WP, the views of the J-F tendency underwent considerable development. By the end of the Second World War, they had definitively rejected Trotsky's theory of Russia as a degenerated workers state. Instead they classified it as state capitalist. This political evolution was shared by other Trotskyists of their generation, most notably Tony Cliff. Unlike Cliff, the Johnson-Forest Tendency were increasingly looking towards the autonomous movements of oppressed minorities, a theoretical development already visible in James' thought in his discussions with Leon Trotsky in 1939. An interest in such autonomous struggles came to take centre stage for the J-F Tendency.
After 1945 and the end of WWII, the WP saw the prospects receding for a revolutionary upsurge. The J-F Tendency, by contrast, were more enthused by prospects for mass struggles and came to the conclusion that the SWP, which they considered more proletarian than the WP, thought similarly about such prospects. Therefore, after a short few months as an independent group when they published a great deal of material, the J-F tendency joined the SWP in 1947.
James would still describe himself as a Leninist, despite his rejection of Lenin's conception of the vanguard role of the revolutionary party. He argued for socialists to support the emerging black nationalist movements. By 1949, James rejected the idea of a vanguard party. This led the J-F tendency to leave the Trotskyist movement and rename itself the Correspondence Publishing Committee.
In 1955, about half the membership of the Committee left, under the leadership of Raya Dunayevskaya, to form a separate tendency of Marxist-humanism and found the organization News and Letters Committees. Whether Dunayevskaya's faction had constituted a majority or a minority in the Correspondence Publishing Committee remains a matter of dispute. Historian Kent Worcester claims that Dunayevskaya's supporters formed a majority, but Martin Glaberman claims in New Politics that the faction loyal to James had a majority.
The Committee split again in 1962, as Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs, two key activists, left to pursue a more Third Worldist approach. The remaining Johnsonites, including leading member Martin Glaberman, reconstituted themselves as Facing Reality. James advised the group from Great Britain until it dissolved in 1970, against his urging.
James's writings were also influential in the development of Autonomist Marxism as a current within Marxist thought. He himself saw his life's work as developing the theory and practice of Leninism.
James returned to England. In 1958 he returned to Trinidad, where he edited The Nation newspaper for the pro-independence People's National Movement (PNM) party. He also became involved again in the Pan-African movement. He believed that the Ghana revolution showed that decolonisation was the most important inspiration for international revolutionaries.
James also advocated the West Indies Federation. It was over this issue that he fell out with the PNM leadership. He returned to Great Britain. In 1968 he was invited to the USA, where he taught at the University of the District of Columbia. Ultimately, he returned to Britain and spent his last years in Brixton, London.
The book's key question, frequently quoted by modern journalists and essayists, is inspired by Rudyard Kipling and asks: What do they know of cricket who only cricket know? James uses this challenge as the basis for describing cricket in an historical and social context, the strong influence cricket had on his life, and how it meshed with his role in politics and his understanding of issues of class and race. The literary quality of the writing attracts cricketers of all political views.
While editor of The Nation, he led the successful campaign in 1960 to have Frank Worrell appointed the first black captain of the West Indies cricket team. James believed that the relationship between players and the public was a prominent reason behind the West Indies' achieving so much with so little.