The ambassador from Zimbabwe was late to Cyril L.R. James' lecture Tuesday evening. The program began anyway. Midway through, the microphone was still not turned on and James -- 80, failing in voice but never in things to say -- was barely audible. The lecture was interrupted so that technicians could tinker with the microphone. Meanwhile, the ambassador from Zimbabwe arrived and was introduced to the couple of hundred people in the audience at the First Congregational Church.

James got the microphone back. "Mr. Mugabe," he said off-handedly, referring to the man who led Zimbabwe to independence, "was never late."

The audience applauded.

"C.L.R.'s still strong," said a James devotee contentedly at the end of a lecture that ranged from Great Britain to the Caribbean to Zimbabwe, all in the space of a half hour or so. It is also difficult to imagine that James, who has made a life of expounding on Marxism and politics, who awakens at 6 on the mornings when he is in San Fernando on his native island of Trinidad to read books and the New York Times and the New York Review of Books -- like any self-respecting intellectual -- was late to, oh, say his meeting with Trotsky in Mexico in 1939.

"I told him what we needed was a movement for black people," said James, distinguished professor of history at the University of the District of Columbia, who has been on leave in Trinidad for the last 18 months writing his autobiography. Years after he met with Trotsky, James changed his mind and broke with the Trotskyites. "Blacks don't need Trotsky or Marx," he said. "They are perfectly capable of producing their own leaders."

James is an avowed Marxist. "But I am a subject neither to Moscow not to Peking."

He is also an avowed lecturer, who spoke during a variety of lectures and seminars this week sponsored by U.D.C. on international affairs. Of communism in the Caribbean, he said, "What is happening in the Caribbean is that formerly colonial peoples are trying to establish themselves as a people," he said. "That isn't communism. It's a movement to get rid of existing shackles of colonialism."

He won't discuss El Salvdor. "I don't have enough information on it," he said. But he will talk about Nicaragua. "There's evidence that you can fight off a dictator and win, without being subordinate to Moscow." But what if the Nicaraguans are becoming subordinate to Moscow? he is asked. "I don't think they are," he said. Period.

In his lifetime he has counseled a man who rose to power as president of Ghana ("And we were talking about independence in Africa when it was considered a joke"), appeared in a play -- that he wrote -- with Paul Robeson, written a history of the Haitian Revolution, written an aclaimed study of Herman Melville and become an expert at cricket," he said. that, too. "Some people say it's the finest book ever written on cricket," he said.

What you notice, as he talks, are the hands, conducting the lecture -- whether it is being delivered in a church before a crowd or from a sofa in a friend's Northeast townhouse, with three people listening and the street outside quiet and windswept. The hands are smooth brown and the fingers, long with short nails, shoot out from his plams to emphasize a point.

"I've been in Trinidad 18 months, trying to feel the roots of what first affected me," he said, the fingers balling up as if to pull roots. "I'll give four lectures this week, then go somewhere else. Some people want me to speak on the radio or elsewhere. I expect I'll come back here in August," he said, and the hands wave, as if keeping tempo. Bare arms, thin and long, stretch out of his suit jacket. His wristwatch slips way down on his arm.

Amid talk of Margaret Thatcher's conservative economics policy -- he doesn't like it -- he paused to reflect upon the recently announced engagement of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer. "People in Britain have been saying he's already 32 and he should be married when he becomes king," he says shrugging. "One cannot be in England without taking account of the activities of royalty and its effect on people. Certainly the people who control England see to it that royalty is stressed."

He grew up with books in his family's house in a place called Tunapuna in Trinidad. "In the house was Shakespeare and Thackeray," he said. "In 1900 to 1910, my mother possessed those books. Do you know what that meant to me? My mother had impeccable morals and style. She never quarreled. When you wanted to quarrel, she turned her back and walked away. Very Victorian. My Marxist friends say I'm Victorian. "That's okay,' I say. 'Marx was one and Lenin was one,'"

He was educated at Queen's Royal College in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and taught there. He also wrote fiction. "I went to England in '32 and almost immediately lost sight of fiction writing and became interested in politics."

Now he shuttles between Trinidad and London and Washington, where he has been all week. "I live where I can carry out my political activities," he said. "I speak to students." In Trinidad he lives in a building provided by the Oil Workers Trade Union, frequently seeing George Weekers, president of the union. His wife prefers to live full-time in London. "I'm always moving around," he said.

He is wrestling with his autobiography. "It's a great strain," he said, frowning. And he reads until 10 or 11 at night. "Shakespeare, number one, is my favorite," he said. "Herman Melville, number two; and number three, a Russian writer named Pushkin, one of the greatest. Every year I read the classics -- Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides."

Of contemporary writers, he admires a Trinidadian named Wilson Harris and the Irishman, Samuel Beckett. "His political views I haven't got at all, but he can write," said James.

And then there is Thackeray. "I fell in love with him from my youth. Every now and then, I pick up "Vanity Fair' and read it, page one to page 800."

But Shakespeare is the one he dwells upon. "I think I'll write about Shakespeare," he said.

After the autobiography?

"No. I think I'll put it in the autobiography," he answered.