The CLR James Journal

Volume 28, Issue 1/2, Fall 2022

Talia Isaacson
Pages 129-158

C.L.R. James’s Socialist Polis

This paper examines C.L.R James’s interpretation of Athenian democracy in “Every Cook Can Govern” (1956). It seeks to explain why Athenian democracy remained indispensable to James’s political thought. I argue that James reinterprets Athens as a proto-workers’ state, and explore the resulting contradictions and complexities. Within “Every Cook Can Govern” James presents a radical interpretation of Athenian Democracy at three points: (1) James claims that slavery in Athens was humane and economically insignificant, (2) he supports the theory of the “Athenian Miracle” found in Pericles’s Funeral Oration, and (3) he chooses to end his essay with a misleading interpretation of the anti-tyranny oath of Demophantos. James idealizes Athenian political realities, and ultimately invents his own version of Athens. But his idealization arose from principled skepticism regarding mainstream views of Athenian democracy and his political commitment to defending the capabilities of the ordinary person.