“…those with ideas will not lead the mass.”
Marxism for Our Times is a collection of mostly unpublished and previously unavailable speeches, letters and position papers produced by C.L.R. James in the context of his work with the political tendency that he was associated with in the United States from the early 1940s to the end of the1960s. The documents were collected and edited by Martin Glaberman, a member of the group from beginning to end, and published in 1999. They are, in the order of the book, the following:
- “Education, Propaganda and Action,” a Workers’ Party document from 1944 (EPA);
- “Marxism for Our Times,” an address to the Solidarity Group in London in November of 1963 (MOT);
- “Letters on Organization,” letters written between December of 1962 and January of 1963 by James, in London, to Glaberman, in Detroit, for distribution to the members of the tendency and those close to it (LO);
- “Perspectives and Proposals,” a series of talks given by James in his London flat later in 1963 (PP);
- “Theory and Practice,” James’s introduction to a conference talk given by Glaberman in 1968 (TP).
In addition, the book includes an introduction by Glaberman and his conference talk mentioned just above.
James came to the United States from Great Britain in 1938 as a representative of the Trotskyist movement in that nation and was apparently only intending to stay for a brief time. As it turned out, he spent fifteen years in the country before being deported. The years were decisive in James’s development and were marked by an extraordinary record of achievement in practice and theory. Publications from his American period include: Notes on Dialectics, American Civilization, State Capitalism and World Revolution and Mariners, Renegades and Castaways. They all remain essential texts for those hoping to participate in revolutionary politics.
Initially, James joined the Socialist Workers’ Party, the more or less official Trotskyist group, but he left the SWP for the Workers’ Party in 1940. The new party was the result of a split within the SWP concerning the defense of the Soviet Union against Germany. Those who joined the splinter group all refused to endorse a defense of the regime but they differed internally in their assessment of the character of the state. James (usually identified as J.R. Johnson) and Raya Dunayevskaya (identified as F. Forest) argued that Russia had become “state capitalist” while Max Schachtman claimed that it was ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ (neither capitalist nor socialist). In 1947, James and his fellow members of what had come to be known as the Johnson-Forest Tendency left the Workers’ Party and returned to the SWP for six years. In 1953, they formed a new group, Correspondence. After only two years, Dunayevskaya and the better part of the membership left to form News and Letters. In 1962, James and Grace Boggs led still another split. In early 1963, the Johnsonite group was left with about a half dozen members. It was an excruciatingly painful moment and, yet, it prompted James to write for an audience of a handful as powerfully as he had written for audiences of thousands, if not tens of thousands (LO, 67-129).
In this review, I hope to provide an accurate summary of a number of the main themes that emerge across the different documents and attempt to demonstrate that James was no adherent of a simple-minded faith that the workers were always right and that there was little for revolutionaries to do other than to wait until the workers got around to acting. I will rely on extensive quotation since an adequate interpretation of his ideas demands a close attention to what he actually said and wrote.
James makes a number of distinctive, though not necessarily unique, points about Marx. The first is that Marxism represents the climax of centuries of European thought: “Dialectical materialism is not an accident, it is not something that Marx invented. It is the result of the climax and development of the history of European philosophy, and that is the spirit in which we use it” (MOT, 45).
The second is that Marxism provides “the theoretical basis for scientific humanism” (EPA, 33). I know that some, if not many, readers will be worried about the invocation of science. I’m not. I interpret “scientific” as being equivalent to “universal.” The humanism that Marx and James thought and fought for was not one that could be limited by nation, or religion, or “race,” or education. There is no room in their humanism for the preservation of the “unreal loyalties” that troubled Virginia Wolff.
The third is that Marxism is a tradition that must be understood, preserved and enriched:
“We have to say that they were here yesterday and we start from the same place today, but tomorrow we expect such and such. We are living in a society in which certainconclusions of Marx and Leninare very obvious. You haven’t to preach Marxism to the population as Lenin had to do. Today, life teaches Marxism to everybody. But if you wish to exercise an assured continuation of a tremendous tradition, you have to be serious students of Marxism.” (MOT, 61)
But, as always with James, you better look before you leap!
“But I insist that before you begin to refine, and before you begin to develop, and before you begin to add, you better find out what it is you have at the beginning. This is where we begin, and from where we go on. But we don’t wander about in general, being for the working class for all sorts of moral reasons. Marxism is not only a method, it constitutes a philosophy of life, a way you have to live.” (MOT, 63)
While it is well known that James read widely, searched for knowledge from every source and was convinced that one could learn much from non-Marxists, he appears to have been deeply skeptical about contemporary philosophy:
“I believe that philosophy has to tell you something, come to some conclusions about life. I read some of these books every now and then, and their great point seems to be that philosophy can tell you nothing except about Philosophy. Ordinary men cannot live that way. And we have to find a life to live. That Marxism does.” (MOT, 63)
This suggests a conviction that, in spite of James’s personal distance from the trials and tribulations of everyday life in the working class, he wants for himself the same thing that he wants for them, and not the other way around. Marxism provides a framework for a way of life for those from the middle classes who otherwise will risk becoming part of the apparatus of domination:
“Those who foresee what is coming and devote themselves to advancing the cause are naturally affected by the uniqueness of the situation. Most often they are intellectuals, motivated above all by a sense of historical development, and while this pushes them away from the crimes and catastrophes associated with the breakdown of a social order, they run the extreme danger of being caught in the organizational structure and ideas of a previous age.” (TP, 181)
The fourth is that the relationship which constitutes labor power as a commodity must be abolished by the workers themselves. Any alteration in that relationship achieved by others, even if it improves the workers’ circumstances, will leave the workers in chains. The conviction that this abolition is more than a nice dream is provided by evidence of new kinds of relationships among human beings being forged on the shop floor—evidence that skill is not merely present in the individual worker but is developed by work in common; evidence that the workers can easily accommodate variations in physical or technical dexterity among their members; evidence that what the workers do is profoundly more radical than what they say; evidence that the completion of the everyday tasks of work would be all but impossible without the cooperation and social ingenuity of the workers themselves (see Glaberman, Wartime Strikes and Kusterer, Know How on the Job: The Important Working Knowledge of “Unskilled Workers”).
What remains a point of contention is the suggestion that the recognition of the new society at the point of production is all but identical with the argument that an effective challenge to the existing order will emerge first and foremost, and be carried through to a successful conclusion, at the various points of production. There is no need to draw this conclusion from James’s work. No movement in American history was more illustrative of the power of his analysis than the modern Civil Rights Movement which first came to broad public knowledge in 1955 (although its first real moments occurred years before). That movement was grounded not in the factories, but in the streets. What the blacks had in common were their radical chains, forged in part by their common experiences in factories and on farms.
The fifth is that there is a unique need in capitalism for a hierarchy of managers:
“…unlike production with slaves, serfs, etc., the essential feature of capitalist production is that it creates a hierarchy of managers and officials who are placed in opposition to the workers in the process of production itself. ….the essential natureof the capitalist society. It needs a number of officials, a hierarchy of managers, whose function is placed in direct opposition to the masses of workers in the process of production (MOT, 49-50).
“Marx’s conception of socialism was that the main concern and concentration of production, of society, had to be the creation from the working class, of a certain type of person taking a certain role in production which was absolutely opposed to his labor power being treated as a commodity” (MOT, 50)
A human being cannot be reduced to a thing; inevitably, the process of production itself would reveal that truth to be practical as well as philosophical.
On Vanguardism: Lenin and Trotsky
James situates his understanding of Lenin in an assessment of intellectual and economic developments in Russia at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries:
“…the Russian proletariat and the Russian party achieved the same distinction in the development of Europe that the intellectuals achieved. The intellectuals did what they did because they were able to incorporate the discoveries of Western Europe and apply them to a particular situation in which they were compelled to be revolutionary, or generally speaking, opposed to the existing regime. …. In the same way that Western intellectual creativeness exported its discoveries to and was taken over by the Russian intellectuals, the Russian capitalists took over Western capital. So that about 1890 there began to develop … large-scale modern factory production of the most advanced kind (MOT, 55).
The stark contrast between the most modern of ideas and economic circumstances and the most backward of political conditions gave rise to the development of a distinctive revolutionary organization—the vanguard party. In 1905, it also gave rise to the emergence of a new form of proletarian rebellion—the mass strike. In that context, James insists that the proletariat led Lenin and that his political genius consisted in his willingness to be led. He quotes Lenin on the 1905 Revolution:
“The point is that it is precisely the revolutionary periods that are distinguished for their greater breadth, greater wealth, greater intelligence, greater and more systematic activity, greater audacity and vividness of historical creativeness, compared with periods of philistine, Cadet, reformist progress. … But Mr. Blank and Co. picture it the other way about. They pass off poverty as historical-creative wealth. They regard the inactivity of the suppressed, downtrodden masses, as the triumph of the ‘systematic’ activity of the bureaucrats and the bourgeoisie. … They shout about the disappearance of sense and reason, when the picking to pieces of Parliamentary bills, by all sorts of bureaucrats and liberal ‘penny-a-liners,’ gives way to a period of direct political activity by the ‘common people,’ who in their simple way, directly and immediately destroy the organs of repression of the people—in a word, precisely when the sense and reason of millions of downtrodden people is awakening, not only for reading books but for action, for living human action, for historical creativeness.” (167-168)
Furthermore, he defends Lenin from the charges leveled by Rosa Luxemburg (a revolutionary who he otherwise admires) in Leninism or Marxism that Lenin represented “the sterile politics of the overseer.” Instead, James argues that Lenin agreed with her assessment that revolutionary politics “is the product of a series of great creative acts of the often spontaneous class struggle seeking its way forward” (PP, 167).
James also makes use of Lenin’s last writings to argue that Lenin had a deep concern for the internal life of the Bolshevik Party. Lenin judged Stalin to be too rude, too rough, badly behaved, and to have a bad attitude towards comrades. Lenin suggests that he be removed and be replaced by someone who was more patient, more loyal, more polite, more attentive to comrades, and less capricious (PP, 140). This is hardly the stuff of Leninism 101 but it will prove to be very much part of Johnsonism 1963.
James considered Trotsky to be a great revolutionary. But, ultimately, he came to see Trotsky (and Trotskyism–Leninism carried over into a new period) as a disaster for the revolutionary movement because of Trotsky’s convictions concerning the limitations of the workers. He quotes Trotsky from his History of the Russian Revolution:
“To overthrow the old power is one thing. To take power is another. The bourgeoisie may win power in a revolution not because it is revolutionary but because it is bourgeois. …. It has in its possession property, education, the press, and a network of strategic positions, and a hierarchy of institutions. … Quite otherwise with the proletariat. … Deprived in the nature of things of all social advantages, an insurrectionary proletariat can count only on its numbers, its solidarity, its cadres (that is the party), and its official staff (that is the party leadership.” (PP, 58-59)
Trotsky was never able to escape from his understanding of Russia. As a result, he failed to recognize the new social type of a working class partisan who would come to stand as a barrier to the self-activity of the workers. What is this type? James quotes from Facing Reality (FR):
“Now, half a century later, what do we see? The trained professional agitator, the revolutionary socialist type of Lenin’s day is today the basis of the bureaucratic machines of the unions, the political parties and the governments. … Society has moved on since that time, and these elite types have now become the greatest obstacles to that release of popular energy and creative power which as always been the most powerful motive force in the creation of a new society. …
Propaganda of the so-called ‘Free World” against totalitarianism has obscured the fact that this particular social and political type is not necessarily a Communist. According to the political climate of the country he lives in, he may be a Communist or rabid anti-Communist. In the United States or Britain you will find him on every rung of the ladder of the union or the Labor Party. Often selfless and devoted, he is not infrequently engaged in a desperate struggle against a union or political bureaucracy. But his only perspective is that of substituting a more democratic, more capable, more honest set of bureaucrats. … On whichever side of the Iron Curtain he is, he is the mortal enemy of the shop floor organization, of Workers Councils in every branch of the national activity, and of a Government of Workers Councils as the essence and content of a new society.” (PP, 149)
He then adds, “Here is the Marxist dialectic in its most profound content. The social type, the specific personality, which represents the spearhead of the workers’ movement at the beginning of the century is the solid core of the bureaucratic reaction in every section of the working-class movement” (PP, 149-150).
And finally, the transition to a retrograde role among the leaders of the national liberation movements is dramatic and rapid in comparison to the same kind of shift among the working class leaders in the developed countries. But it is the same process, albeit occurring under different circumstances:
“The process has moved much more rapidly in the underdeveloped countries. What we are watching in them is this, that the type of political organization which is formed and carries through the struggle for independence does not take years to become a totally reactionary organization. In other words, what took 40 to 50 years to develop in the advanced countries, or 25 to 30 years, now develops with extreme speed in the underdeveloped countries before the independence and after the independence. Most of these organizations which worked splendidly and finely before the independence, as soon as they get in, are immediately in difficulties and are unable to govern the country and have to develop the most reactionary tendencies. It is happening all over Africa today.” (PP, 150)
On the Masses and the Negroes
In spite of his deep appreciation of the revolutionary potential of the workers, James is not oblivious to the fact that they are often mistaken. For example, he notes the attraction that many workers have for the various Communist Parties:
“…the great mass of the population which judges events by tremendous happenings saw that the Russian Revolution was led to power by means of a revolutionary party which formed an international, and believed for many years—and to some extent still believes—that that is the way in which a revolution must succeed. Utterly false. From 1934 to 1957 the history of the revolutionary uprisings and movements prove the exact opposite. The Vanguard Party is a dangerous anachronism.” (MOT, 59)
But, to some extent, that history still shapes the terrain of activity:
“That is the problem: the corruption of the revolutionary movement in Russia, the tremendous evils, the mischief, the straightforward political mischief, that it has accomplished and is still accomplishing, all that we have to put up with and do our best to correct, even in time to break with it, but nevertheless to establish ourselves with it now because that represents the opposition to the imperialism and capitalism which we have known for centuries and which Lenin and Marx and all the others fought against.” (LO, 95)
“One has to get rid of the conception of masses of people as stupid, misled, corrupted, and so forth. The Russian Revolution was so tremendous an event in human history and in modern history that it affected the conceptions and attitudes of a whole generation of people. And when after the war there was the possibility that people would begin to understand (and it takes a new generation to grasp the essence of what is happening), the Chinese Revolution came in 1950. Mao Tse-Tung joined up with Stalin (although Stalin had been opposed to theChinese Revolution and had told Mao so), fortified and strengthened in popular conception what the Russian Revolution had done and what people still believed it was doing in its opposition to Marx’s capitalism and Lenin’s imperialism.” (LO, 97)
The proletariat will have its work to do, its problems to solve. In 1962, James advised:
“The proletariat will have to find out its own ways and means. It has always done so. Every class has always found out its own ways and means. It took a long time at times. Usually it waited for quite a while and then with great violence did the work of a century in two or three years. Today, … the proletariat has got two obvious problems to settle. The first is the problem of atomic war and universal destruction. The second is the relation with the revolution of the colonial territories, with which we have to include, for example, the situation in Latin America.” (LO, 100)
Can the Marxists make a contribution to this process? The track record was not good:
“The American people, the younger intellectuals and the workers interested, as they were bound to be, in the life around them, in their own lives, in the lives of their own people, in the lives of those in their own country, learned from Marxism absolutely nothing.” (LO, 111-112)
James concluded that: “… today, Marxism as such is utterly discredited in the world” (PP, 155). In spite of that sad state of affairs, James did not despair. He returns to Marx: “Man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” James comments: “I believe mankind is very near to that realization. … And not only we, this is not a question of the advanced countries; all over the world, the great masses of the people are very near to this understanding, and that is what Marx said would be the result of the constant disorders and changes in capitalist production.” (MOT, 46)
In 1948, James had written his definitive political analysis of the Black issue in American politics—“The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the USA.” He insisted that the Negro movement was a constitutive part of the American revolution and that its emergence as an independent force would make an enormous contribution to a renewed insurgency. In this book, he turns to the Negro masses to make a point about the obsolescence of the vanguard party; he asks:
“Who educated the Negro mass movement? Who? Nobody knows. It is certain that those millions of people who are acting together thousands at a time and have dragged so many white people into the movement with them and have shaken the whole of the U.S. Government, have Congress and Kennedy and all of them in disorder, and have made themselves the center of attention of not only revolutionaries but of progressive peoples everywhere, who taught it to them? (PP, 169-170)
On Johnson-Forest & the Marxist Organization
James’s assessment of the tendency is always situated in the context of a recognition of its remarkable accomplishments, often enough his own. But he insists that neither he nor Dunayevskaya nor Grace Lee would have been able to do accomplish what they had without their participation in the group. But, he doesn’t underestimate the failure to consolidate a substantial revolutionary organization. In his estimate, the fundamental political failures consisted in the group’s failure to purge itself of Trotskyism and its inability to maintain a Marxist analysis (LO, 73). Too often, it was characterized by a lack of clarity about what it was doing:
“…if people plunge once more into doing this and taking action without knowing exactly where they stand and precisely what they propose to do, not only organizationally (with precision) but also in the most profound political sense, then it is my absolute certainty that the consequences will be another failure even more rapid than the last one and this time complete.” (LO, 72)
Furthermore, the group did not attend to the development of its members and thereby contributed to them becoming tired of the lives they were living (LO, 73). In spite of its renunciation of vanguardism, Johnson-Forest had been no better than those groups that remained trapped within that perspective. It had simply exhausted itself. Any enduring group must make careful provision for the completion of practical and theoretical work and for the personal development of its members. James may have learned this from his own experience but I think he also “learned” it from his re-reading of Lenin on the Bolshevik Party.
What are the Marxists to Do?
James’s thinking on this matter undergoes major development over the course of almost 25 years. When he was within the organizational and political world of a vanguard organization, he insisted that the thing to do was to teach Marxism to the workers. He had no sympathy for the notion that an understanding of Marx was beyond the capacity of interested workers. Over time, however, he moves from an emphasis on teaching Marxism to the workers to studying Marxism so that the revolutionaries can learn from the workers:
“Please do not make the mistake of not knowing that there are more people of that kind among the workers than there are among the intellectuals. They (the workers) are harder to get because they are people accustomed to dealing with serious and fundamental matters and they have their own experiences of facts and ideas which correspond to them. What they will have nothing to do with is people who come to them telling them to join those who are about to lead the socialist revolution.” (LO, 118)
Johnson-Forest’s unique insight (that the profound decay of capitalist society is accompanied by the “invading socialist society”) has profound implications for the work of the Marxist organization. Often enough, James focused on the need to record the developments in daily life, especially in the workplace, that prefigured the new society. But, that was not all. In Facing Reality, he had written:
“The task of the small organization earlier stated as merely to record the facts of the existing socialist society now begins to appear for the gigantic and utterly unprecedented undertaking that it is. … It can not only record, it can counterpose the existing formations of the new socialist society against the clumsy, tyrannical, bureaucratic monstrosities which claim that modern society can only live if governed by them.” (FR, 119)
The organization must imagine a new type of relationship with its periphery, with others in activist circles and with the masses of workers:
“We, therefore, as any other group of politically minded persons who realize the situation for what it is, have merely to do what we are able to do, to see to it that we organize ourselves properly to do what we are able to do and what nobody else can do, and a) to make contact with and keep contact with, and develop contact with all those within our immediate or our distant circle, to show them and to demonstrate in fact that we have something, and in this case it so happens that we have the best that one could possibly wish for; b) to make contact with and work sympathetically with all other types of organizations, our own and others, recognizing and getting them to recognize that while we are going to insist upon our own past, our own outlook and our own organization, and nothing will ever move us from that, nevertheless, we realize that where the whole community, so to speak, is involved in direct opposition to one degree or other, the idea, the very conception of vanguard is unbelievable stupidity. There simply cannot be a vanguard where the whole of humanity is involved and the whole of humanity knows that it is involved.” (LO, 107)
While the Marxist organization has no vanguard role in relationship to the masses, James does at one point suggest that it may legitimately be a vanguard in the socialist movement—but only to the extent that it sees things ahead of the others (LO, 117).
In 1968, James wrote a very brief introduction to a talk that Glaberman had given to a conference intended to reconstitute the tendency. He acknowledged that the political work has been made more difficult by the need to challenge not only the bourgeoisie but also Moscow and Peking and their allied political groupings. However, while the organizations appear formidable, “they no longer occupy any position of influence or authority among the great mass of the people trying to find their way out of the social and political morass in which they live” (TP, 182-183). James insists that the road to the masses is open to those who recognize that “…those with ideas will not lead the mass” (TP, 183).
Marxism in These Times
It is now more than forty years since James wrote most of what is collected in this book. The world is, in many ways, a far worse place and the possibilities of revolutionary politics in the United States appear slim indeed. Can James’s ideas on Marx and the Marxist organization be used to chart a course for those who are not yet ready to despair about the possibilities? I would argue that they do and that, in spite of the ways in which the long decline might indicate that his optimism concerning the capacity of the workers was perhaps unwarranted, we have no other good choice. I know of no other tradition of revolutionary politics that offers a better one.
Earlier this year, millions of Americans, along with still more millions elsewhere, poured into the streets to oppose the war in Iraq. The absence of a revolutionary Marxist current in that movement is a terrible indictment of what presents itself as the American left. But those who never had revolutionary politics or those who have left those politics behind cannot be blamed for the failures of revolutionaries. We need to pick up where James left off.
Of necessity, inevitably, in the mass that is in opposition, there will arise an innumerable number of groups, organizations, people, and individuals even, who are expressing their opposition to this or that but what is in reality an opposition to the whole perspective of universal disaster which is part of our existence today.
The Marxist alone can bring all of this into some sort of total perspective. The Marxist alone can do that. But he has to realize that in such a vast environment and such an immense and massive movement against what is going on, he must respect and realize for what they are, the movements of various types of groups and people, whoever they are, whatever they are. His only claim to recognition is the fact that more and more people, these various groups and organizations, will learn that in the immense confusion there is a center which seems to have a grip on what is going on and is itself up to the eyes in the concrete struggle.” (LO, 107)
It is obvious that no such center exists in the United States and that the numbers of those who might be ready to establish it are small. But, as James never tired of reminding his readers, there is important work for small groups to do. When he joined the International African Service Bureau in the mid-1930s, there were few who, in that dark hour, believed that the end of colonialism was approaching. He and his comrades in that group made a contribution. That is what we who want to be part of Marxism in these times must do as well. Marxism for Our Times is one of the places we need to start from.