Remembering C.L.R. James

— Martin Glaberman

C.L.R. James, A Political Biography
by Kent Worcester
Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

C.L.R. JAMES DID not make it easy for a biographer. To track down all his activities, and to have the intellectual and political background to deal with Marxist theory, revolutionary history, classical and popular culture, national independence movements and the like, is quite a task.

Paul Buhle started it with his biography C.L.R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary, published in 1988. Kent Worcester takes it a long step further. There are inevitable inaccuracies and, of course, problems of interpretation. But Worcester avoids the two traps of the biographer who has a lot of sympathy for his subject—uncritical sycophancy, or the unconscious distortions to make the subject’s views conform to the biographer’s.

Worcester avoids both, giving James a biography that is critical and yet sympathetic.

A Writer and Revolutionary

Born in Trinidad in 1901, Cyril Lionel Robert James had written fiction and the political biography of an early labor leader before he left for England as a young man. There, within about six years, he had published the classic history of the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins; a Trotskyist history of the Comintern, World Revolution, 1917-1936; a translation of Boris Souvarine’s biography of Stalin; made his living reporting cricket for the Manchester Guardian and helped write the autobiography of Learie Constantine, a great West Indian cricketer.

He had achieved a leadership position in the young Trotskyist movement, and played an important role with a group of Africans and West Indians in the International African Service Bureau and edited its periodical.

In 1938 he came to the United States and stayed for fifteen years, years that began with conversations with Trotsky in Mexico, mostly about Black struggles in the United States. Later he formed a tendency in the Trotskyist movement known as the Johnson-Forest Tendency. (It is this period that was the focus of Kent Worcester’s first monograph on James and his politics.)

"It was as a leader of the Johnson-Forest tendency and its successor organizations," Worcester says perceptively, "that James came to terms with the theoretical underpinnings of Marxism and carved out a political niche for himself." (xiv)

During much of this period his stay in the United States was not quite legal, and most of his writing and speaking was internal to small political organizations and circulated in mimeographed bulletins. Despite the growing number of publications of his work, much yet remains to be rescued from archives.

After his deportation from the United States in 1952, he returned to England where he continued to involve himself in the politics of his American organization while writing and speaking on a wide range of subjects. In the United States he had written on Melville, in England he lectured on Shakespeare for the BBC.

He returned to Trinidad as the island neared independence from England and edited the weekly paper of the People’s National Movement (PNM), the party that attained independence.

James tried to press for the creation of a West Indian Federation but eventually broke with Eric Williams, head of the PNM, when it became clear that Williams was trading British colonialism for American neocolonialism. (James later expressed regret at not having formed a small Marxist group in Trinidad so that he would not have been so isolated in a nationalist movement.)

Returning to England, he published his classic Beyond a Boundary, his book about cricket, its relation to the struggle for West Indian independence, British society and James’ life. He came back to the United States in 1968, taught at the University of the District of Columbia, and continued writing and speaking, influencing wide circles of African-American students, scholars and activists.

The above is a very brief summary that leaves out, for example, his involvement with Africa and visit to Cuba. Kent Worcester manages to deal intelligently with the widely varied subjects that gained James’ attention.

The Crisis of Marxism

Of special interest in this study is James’ first American period, from 1938 to 1952. The Stalinist counterrevolution culminating in the Moscow Trials, the Stalin-Hitler pact and the beginning of World War II was reflected in the 1940 split in the Socialist Workers Party (the U.S. Trotskyist organization) over the question of defense of the Soviet Union.

James went with the minority led by Max Shachtman which, in the wake of Stalin’s deal with Hitler to carve up Poland and the Soviet occupation of Finland, rejected the party majority’s—and Trotsky’s—policy of "unconditional defense of the Soviet Union."

Worcester seems to think that the split was over the class nature of Soviet society itself. But in the 1939-40 faction fight, although some participants may have already begun to discuss that question, there had not yet emerged the clear theoretical alternatives to the established Trotskyist view of the USSR as a "degenerated workers’ state."

The question of the nature of Soviet society was confronted in 1941, in the first convention of the Workers Party (the new party formed by the expelled SWP minority). C.L.R. James joined with Raya Dunayevskaya to form the Johnson-Forest Tendency, which introduced the theory of state capitalism.

"James’ politics were forged in the crucible of classical Marxism, and in many respects his life and work can only be understood with reference to his lifelong attachment to Marxist principles." (xiii)  This began with the analysis of Soviet Russia.

Worcester notes that the Tenency "self-consciously turned to Hegelian philosophy in the same spirit as Lenin had at the outbreak of World War I: to make sense of a new epoch in the development of capitalism and the international workers’ movement." (98)  Though true, that says only part of what was involved.

Lenin, in the crisis that was the collapse of the Second International (when the major Socialist parties supported the imperialist governments in World War I), assumed that an event of that magnitude could not be adequately explained as "betrayal."

Lenin looked for the objective development in capitalist society that led to that betrayal, and found it in his study of Imperialism, a new stage of capitalism that he argued had brought to the fore a privileged layer of the working class that provided the base for reformism and social-patriotism.

James and his group tried to apply the same methodology to the equally great crisis of 1939-40. The result was the theory of state capitalism as a new stage in world capitalism, a thesis that offered insights not only into Soviet society but also into Western welfare-state capitalism and fascist totalitarian capitalism.

Partly as a result of this early collaboration, Dunayevskaya convinced James to stay in the United States. There developed a range of tendency positions that moved further and further from official Trotskyism.

The Workers Party, for example, did not accept James’ view of the revolutionary potential inherent in the independent Black movement —with its dual dynamic as both a nationalist and proletarian struggle, whose horizons should not be limited by the conservative or racist consciousness of white workers or established unions—in the United States. The Socialist Workers Party in the later 1940s eventually did, though not always in practice.

Leaving Trotskyism

By the end of World War II the Workers Party, in debating the ontours of the post-war world, was in James’ view heavily influenced by a theory of "Retrogression." This theory, promoted by a grouping of German exiles, argued that socialism had been removed from the agenda by the barbarism, destruction and genocide of the war, and must be replaced by the struggle for simple democratic demands.

This was the basis of the return of the Johnson-Forest Tendency to the SWP at the end of 1947, after a mutually agreed "interim period" of three months in which the Tendency would publish a considerable amount of material.

Part of the debate in the revolutionary movement was over questions of organization—the function of the party press, the basis for a Marxist theory arising out of American experience. James’ view was contained in a document called "Education, Propaganda, Agitation," which put forward a proposal for the "Americanization of bolshevism."

The culmination of the theoretical work in the Trotskyist movement was contained in Notes on Dialectics, written in 1949, which embodied a final break with Trotskyism—James’ rejection of the vanguard party, as a type of organization that had been valid in 1917 but had outlived its relevance.   

Worcester sees only part of the importance of this work. What is not mentioned is that James, in that book, foresaw in abstract form the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the creation of workers’ councils and the achievement of a form of dual power.

Worcester himself reduces the Hungarian Revolution to "industrial militancy" (138) and inaccurately portrays both Hungary and Poland in 1956. But, as the author notes, the Hungarian Revolution provided James’ organization with a powerful lift—but not with any significant organizational growth.

James’ organization left the Trotskyist movement and became independent as the Correspondence Publishing Committee in 1952. Rejected were Trotsky’s theories of Permanent Revolution, the nature of the Soviet Union and the vanguard party. That was also time, unfortunately, when James was expelled from the United States and McCarthyism was riding roughshod over the left.

Correspondence and Facing Reality

Two issues need to be dealt with: the organization and paper that was established, and James’ relation to his group after his return to England.

Just before he left, James gave a speech in New York in which he presented his views on the "layers" in an organization. There is no documentary record of this speech; in this writer’s own recollection, Worcester’s source presents a distorted view of what was involved, inverting numbers and exaggerating the resentment of intellectuals. (123)

In fact, what James stressed in this talk was the importance of tapping the resources of the working class in the organization and its press.

He said an organization has three layers: The first is the political and theoretical leadership; the second consists of activists in the arenas in which they work (unions, Black organizations, women’s groups, neighborhood organizations, etc.); the third consists of rank-and-file workers, youth, housewives, etc.

The relation of this third layer to the organization depended on the ability to listen to the rank and file. Formal democracy was not enough; that simply resulted in the members voting on proposals coming from the first or second layer.

The attempt to solve this problem resulted in artificial tactics which very often antagonized middle-class intellectual members. On certain kinds of questions it was consciously decided to have everyone hold back their views until the third layer had spoken.

This often resulted in awkward silences and I cannot say that it accomplished what was intended, But it was a good-faith effort to try to elicit the feelings, attitudes and experiences of rank-and-file working people.

This also relates to how the group thought about its paper, Correspondence. James liked to remind people of Trotsky’s criticism of the SWP paper, which Worcester quotes:

"Each of them [the paper’s journalists] speaks for the workers (and speaks very well) but nobody will hear the workers. In spite of its literary brilliance, to a certain degree the paper becomes a victim of journalistic routine. You do not hear at all how the workers live, fight, clash with the police or drink whiskey." (140)

The group went further than Trotsky, going out of its way to assure that the voice of working people appeared in the paper. In the days before the cassette recorder, Dunayevskaya coined the phrase "full fountain pen."

Workers were interviewed, their words typed up and brought back to them for verification, and published as small articles or letters to the editor. It was one of the reasons that Correspondence was able to deal with questions like family life, sports and popular culture that, as Worcester shows, foreshadowed the interests of the New Left a decade later.

That experiment in working-class journalism came to an end with the departure of Raya Dunayevskaya and about half the membership. [This group went on to form the "News and Letters" group—ed.] The further split of James and Grace Lee Boggs in 1962 brought the organization to its lowest point.

James Boggs’ book, published by Monthly Review Press under the title The American Revolution: Pages from a Black Worker’s Notebook, was a revised form of the split document, arguing that the working class as a viable force for social change had been supplanted by Third World movements (the Black Liberation movement was now seen as an extension of those movements inside the United States).

This split was the American version of international developments. The French group Socialisme ou Barbarie had an equivalent split when its leader Cornelius Castoriadia also turned his back on the working class.

There was a minor revival of the group, Facing Reality, in the late ’60s but not enough to make it a viable political organization. It seemed to be developing the ingrown characteristics of a sect. In 1970 I moved to dissolve the group—which was done over James’ opposition.

The Cultural is the Political

There are some James supporters who much prefer his writing about cultural matters to James the Marxist, who presume a considerable break in James’ concerns when he left his direct involvement with his American organization. Worcester doesn’t endorse that view, but does imply it when he ways of James’ activity in England:

"Apart from prodding the Correspondence group into shape, James devoted his energies to writing on aesthetics, the visual arts, cinema and literature. This second less overtly ’political’ project involved building on the Marxian cultural theoretic advanced in American Civilization and Mariners, Renegades and Castaways." (121)

These were not less political. In the copy of Beyond a Boundary that James sent me, part of his inscription read: "I cannot prevent myself from saying that within these covers, there is everything. I shall in time go into detail and will surprise even you. July 11, 1963."

None of us ever though that the work on Mariners, on American Civilization, on cricket, was anything other than an integral part of our politics.

And the "overtly" political activity was much more than "prodding" the Correspondence group. Besides the massive correspondence (some of which may soon be published), there was the work on Facing Reality, on a second "American civilization" document which was quite unlike the first one (and which everyone tends to ignore), and an attempt to produce a document on the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

Worcester calls this last, named "The Gathering Forces," a finished document. It was not. And the reason provides some insight into James’ attitude toward organization. He always thought that a revolutionary organization should split only on differences that related directly to the U.S. working class and the American revolution. When other questions divided us, no matter how important, he thought they should be put aside to see how things worked out.

In the case of "The gathering Forces," differences developed on China. James began to move away from our old position that the socialist revolution still had to be made there. So the dispute was put aside. But a document on the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution without China was impossible, so publication was tabled indefinitely.

There is so much that cannot be discussed in the confines of a review. But a word is necessary on Selma James, who was James’ wife from the ’50s on. Worcester gives her the credit due her for being James’ supporter and collaborator. He mistakes her original name as Weinstein, the name of her first husband. Her name was Deitch and she always played a significant role in developing our position on women’s struggles and in recent years as the founder of the Wages for Housework movement. The slip on the name is inconsequential. What was lost, however, was that James helped to raise her son, Sam, who was in the James’ household from the age of five to maturity. Hopefully, James’ role as a father and Sam’s place in that household can be restored.

It is a positive development that in recent years more and more has been published by and about James. Hopefully this biography will tempt more people to read James’ own work. it can be a major component of a developing awareness of the importance of marxism for our time and for the next century.

ATC 72, January-February 1998