“People from the ranks of the middle class are quick to describe the masses as backward, unorganized and undisciplined. They usually see the self-movement of ordinary people as disorganization. But the only disorganization present when there is a tremendous upsurge of the masses is the disorganization of the minds of those who are intellectually bankrupt.” - Kimathi Mohammed, Organization and Spontaneity
"They try to sleep on me like the Hästens/I'm big Haitian" - Mach Hommy, "Pissy Hästens"
("You think you can voodoo yourself outta this??")
If it’s true that history is not a mere accretion of dates and names, devoid of underlying meaning, it can’t also be said that this meaning is clear and widely available to any section of society today. Not even to Black radicals–those of us who most insist on history’s power to see our people through this century’s developing terrors.
In 2020, the mass-based Black uprisings in the US brought this problem into greater relief. All over the world, other Black nations announced, with their own mass actions against the neocolonial State, that we live in simultaneous time, that neocolonialism is making it impossible for us to breathe, too. The zone of nonbeing cuts right through this place, the imperial heartland; and the free activity of the Black masses here, enraged by State violence, can shake the foundations of world capitalism, and receive global reverberations right back.
Yet the major socialist organizations in the imperial core, the ones who want to wake us up from the fever-dream of race to the reality of class, not only stayed indoors for this chaos under heaven. They had nothing of meaning to say about it at all.
Sometime before, or sometime after, when the smoke is clear, they'll try to jump out there, and prove to the "dumb masses" their superiority of organization. But cries to “arrest killer cops” from the megaphones of college-age vanguards, in mobilizations that alert cops of the marching path in advance, only seem to suggest that police forces as a whole should not be arrested, if prison is the answer to criminality. Anyway, enough Black people know that prison is no deterrent to crime, which has to be socially uprooted; and the way you uproot police brutality, murder, harassment, and theft, is by uprooting the police from society. The people have been ready for not just slogans, but for real and effective action around abolition. But police and the prison are linchpins of the modern State, and “socialist” statists know this well. They don’t want to make promises to us they can’t keep, once they come to power. They’ve grown too sensitive as Marxist-Leninists to be called out for frequent changes in party line. Which makes them less brave than settler-leftists near the start of last century, in strange proportion to their diminished hopes of ever actually taking power. (Who really expects another October from PSL, WWP, or the CPUSA?) If history will free Black people, it won’t be this history, of a politics in decades-long decline toward the campus-centric cult.
In 1947, CLR James penned the masterly essay, “Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity.” In the wake of Hitler’s devastations, witnessing the birth of the nuclear arms race between the two superpowers left standing, James provided a summary description of the progressive dimension in world history, as seen through a Marxist lens–a corrective to the bourgeois standpoint, that can only see the barbarism of the present, and conclude that history is meaningless and savage. With his typical ease at explaining heavy subjects, James assured us that this unprecedented technical capacity for planet-wide barbarism, also contains the seed for socialism, therefore of an unprecedented advance in the humanization of life, of international comity and social enlightenment. The future is still there, its victories are previewed in the past and inseminate the present. You can have tomorrow, if you fight for it.
Here we are still in Babylon, roughly 80 years on, Linear Bourgeois Time. The Marxist parties are a farce, as they were already becoming when James wrote in '47. Imperialism’s strongest link could twist and melt across the flaming cities, and the vanguards would still be too weak to break it. A nihilistic buffoon, and reality show star, ran the world’s most powerful State as a clear criminal enterprise for four years, then commanded his mob to steal it back for the finale. Avoiding arrest, he grudgingly passed the reins to a gentler authoritarian; one only covertly fascist, who does his crime unimpeachably and by the books; who knows how to hide his racist record behind the Obama cult–and in America’s contempt for history, that centuries-old shadow of its own making.
Okay, the billionaire fraud wants his playpen back now, for another round of robbery; and if he can’t get it back, his fascist base will call another one like him into existence. Maybe the substitute will be smarter, more spartan-like and ideologically committed, which is terrifying. But it’s enough commentary on this country to know that its last Hitler tryouts didn’t need a fanatic philosophy or any great political skill. Only the braying stupidity of “my country!” of the Everyman Settler, confettied with a whole lot of money, just like the Everyman thinks he will be one day: Du Bois’s “American Assumption,” in the repulsive orange flesh.
Even popular culture–one of James’s favorite signs of America's rebellious democratic character–doesn’t speak to the common people, in the time of the gig economy. It zooms in on them, peeps what they don’t have, but should, then mocks them for their lack of hustle and self-marketing skills. Come on bruh, the bag is waiting! Do something on social media to get you talked about, then get you an endorsement, and boom! Sometimes the culture's horrified by the results from the debased rich zombies it has us worship: like when they openly praise Hitler and the Nazis. But never will it say, after the corny collective gasp, “the whole time, was that really us?”
Step outside all that; assume things also get better if they get worse. At least we’re not back in WWII. And there’s not only America, after all. This place, despite its power and attraction, has always been curiously stupid. But there’s a world outside of that, and humanity is not condemned.
We don’t yet have an (open) world war, true. But we do have the threat of it; palpably enough that children joke in class about when it’s coming. The Third World is already, has long been, dying by bomb, sanction, and land theft; and the Fourth World by less grisly forms of occupation, under cover of fraudulent rights. All of that could be accelerated to frightening speeds with another war, which will surely use the world of color first, for cannon-fodder, resources and added fronts. We don’t know exactly what the children of those schoolchildren could face, if their generation pulls through. But we do know that irreversible climate change will be a more lasting mark of our industrial civilization, than ever was a Sphinx or steppe pyramid of its own; a permanent inscription on the planet: ”Ecce homo (behold the Man).” And we wonder what–not who–would be left after 1,000 years, to recognize and register the glyph.
The fate of humanity is therefore, in some respects, more precarious than when it appeared at its worst in '47, when James composed his essay. But dialectical materialism, understood as the basis in material, objective reality for positive change alongside the negative, no longer seems the same Rosetta Stone for interpreting our time. For this installment of my series, I turn back to an examination of what I believe are salient lessons in the life and thought of CLR James (1901-1989), for any Black radical practice that wants to get past this past. I want to explain, from another angle, why there is hope in all this that the Third World masses will win.
I. A Life on His Own Terms
(Note: when I place quotes around the terms "developed" and "underdeveloped," it's not to suggest that monstrous economic inequalities, based on centuries of colonial theft, don't exist in the Third World. It's to problematize the binary construction "development/underdevelopment," that Jamaican philosopher Sylvia Wynter has argued keeps Third World state planning in a perpetual game of catchup with the West that has steadily robbed us, to the sacrifice of the least powerful/least recognized members of the nation. See her article, "Is 'Development' a Purely Empirical Concept Or Also Teleological?" Fanon makes a similar point in the chapter "On Violence" in Wretched, but I don't know if all of us heard it.)
Born in the imperial periphery, in the oil-rich, yet “underdeveloped” British colony of Trinidad, James’s prodigiousness was recognized early on by his elders and peers, and lovingly cultivated by his parents; especially by his mother, whose vast library sparked his lifelong love of reading. A bookish, yet socially confident leader of his schoolmates, who swam as calmly in social interaction as through pages of Thackeray and Chaucer; an athletic and avid cricketer, but with the impeccable manners and bearing of an urban gentleman, the young James was bound someday to make a brilliant impression on middle-class Trinidad society (Buhle, CLR James: The Artist as Revolutionary, 15-21). Given the limited opportunities of higher education at home for the Caribbean petty-bourgeois, it would be socially expected for an unusually gifted student like James to first set sail for the “mother country” to attend university, probably for training as a barrister or physician; then return home to practice his trade, while settling into a life of social climbing and comparative luxury.
Graduating from the island’s most prestigious secondary school, Queen’s Royal College, James initially followed in his father’s footsteps as schoolmaster there; one of his students was Eric Williams, who would later be the nation's first Prime Minister. But no further than this would James go on the prescribed path. Without plans to attend university, in 1932 he unexpectedly departed for Liverpool; leaving behind his first wife, Juanita, and his predetermined middle-class life, for the ”unrealistic” plan–for a Black writer back then–of becoming a novelist (Artist, 31, 34). Along with his dreams and formidable intellect, more classically trained than most university graduates, James brought with him the manuscript of Minty Alley: a novel based on the complexly mediated social world of Trinidad’s neglected lower classes, with whom he had spent much time. Eventually (in 1936) it would be the first novel published by an Afro-Caribbean author in England. In addition to his artistic brilliance, Alley showed the keenness of James' sense for the creativity and freedom of empire's liminal subjects; and reminds us of his boyhood fascination with calypso, the "improper" music of the poor Black masses. But broad recognition of his talents as an artist, and his ideas on cultural democracy, would have to wait. Because events were about to get a hold of him.
While the decision to live as a bohemian expat must have been a great blow to his family, they could not have then known that James would one day surpass their high expectations in the most grandiose and unlikely way, to become one of the great revolutionary intellectuals of the 20th century. His long career as writer and revolutionary would involve him in nearly every major political development of that century: from the international struggle over the fate of the Soviet Union and world communism, to the bubbling ferment of civil rights in the US, and colonial rebellions throughout the Black world; from the explosion of consumer capitalism and anticommunist reaction in the postwar US, to the gloomy denouement of the neo-colonial nation-state in the Caribbean and Africa; to the last throes of Soviet “state-capitalism” in the Cold War’s twilight. At each of these historic moments, James had either some direct influence on several key events, or he had written some of the most theoretically demanding, prescient, and stylistically rich studies of any observer of his generation.
As an autonomist Marxist, James understood his own decades-long political struggle as a fight for socialism from below. Initially drawn into the orbit of British Trotskyism, he wrote perhaps the first serious English-language contribution to Trotskyist theory, the magisterial World Revolution (1938). A detailed history of the betrayals of the Communist Third International (Comintern) by the Stalinist bureaucracy, World Revolution was also a lamentation for the working masses of Germany, China, and other revolutionary flash points of the 1920’s, whose hopes had been dashed by the realpolitik of the Communist Party under Stalin’s command. The Comintern had actively sabotaged these movements, James argued, so that they could be more “scientifically” directed from the “center” of the world revolution–the nucleus of approved Party functionaries and theorists nested in the Kremlin. Yet he had not spared Trotsky in this Trotskyist account either. With unusual aplomb for a "follower," James underlined the Red Army leader’s failure to mobilize the Russian masses during the Left Opposition’s struggle with Stalinism, as a major contributing cause to his defeat and exile. Remarkably for a revolutionary organizer and agitator, it was also during this period that he wrote a second (and more important) epochal work, The Black Jacobins (1938), his Marxist account of the Haitian Revolution.
The ghost of criticism followed James to the United States in 1938, where he joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), often finding himself in the role of gadfly. Never a solid “Party man,” he was often at odds with the “correct” Trotskyist line on key theoretical matters, like the value of independent Black organizations in the fight against Jim Crow ("The Revolutionary Answer," in The CLR James Reader, 182-183). He especially pushed back against Trotsky on the class character of the Stalinist regime. Throughout the decade following Trotsky’s assassination (1939), James would increasingly insist, against Trotsky’s devotees, that the Soviet Union was no “degenerated workers’ state”--a socialist society that Stalin held hostage, that could be recaptured and steered back to course, with correct leadership from a new International. Instead he criticized the Soviet model, state-owned industries and “socialist” planning included, as a state-capitalist society, marking a new and more pernicious historical stage in labor’s domination by capital. This latter disagreement, which called into question Trotsky’s very understanding of the nature of socialism, led James to bounce forth and back between the dissident Workers Party (WP) and the SWP in that decade, before making his final break with the Trotskyist movement in 1950 (Artist, 73-89).
Also in that decade, James was busy enriching the state-capitalist theory through a comprehensive and unique re-examination of the major works of Hegel, Marx, and Lenin; an effort undertaken with his nearest comrades, Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee (two historically significant theorists in their own right). As the Johnson-Forest Tendency (JFT), the trio worked within the US Trotskyist movement despite essential disagreements–much like entryists often work within larger parties to pull socialists toward Trotsky. They admonished militants to read the Marxist classics again, systematically and non-dogmatically, to slough off their unphilosophical approach to contemporary political questions; to do away with outdated concepts and develop an Americanized Bolshevism, one more suited to the postwar consumerist conditions of the American working class. But they seemed to have no effect. The halo around the martyred prophet was slowly settling around James Cannon and Max Schachtman, his most “correct” interpreters in each party, who were becoming cultists in their own right. The final break with both parties in 1950 allowed JFT to give proper organizational form to the autonomist and humanist vision of Marxism they had nursed through their Trotskyist sojourn (Artist, 73-74, 83-84, 88-89).
II. A Marxism for “Our” Time
“Now one of the chief errors of thought is to continue to think in one set of forms, categories, ideas, etc., when the object, the content, has moved on, has created or laid the premises for an extension, a development of thought. A philosophic cognition means a cognition in which the categories of thought are adequate to the object it is thinking about. It has nothing to do with Kant or Hegel.” - CLR James, Notes on Dialectics, 15
For Marx, the unity of theory and practice is a necessary criterion for evaluating movements. Through that lens, even looking at them charitably, the JFT’s results were highly mixed.
On one hand, their theoretical output, while largely unknown to wider Marxist movements of their day, broke entirely new ground in twentieth century radical theory. Even today it retains much of its analytic value for the critical study of “socialist” statecraft. And its reappraisals of Hegelian logic, Marxist philosophical anthropology, and the relationship between revolutionary organization and workers’ spontaneity in making revolution, can still surprise experienced readers of later generations–those of us who have heard enough points for and against Engels’ “corruption” of Marx, and no longer care either way; or who first learned alienation theory in forms already fetishized, and smile at their occasional reappearance.
On the other hand, in terms of practice, JFT seemed to struggle to translate their hard-won conclusions from their alpine heights of logical abstraction, back to the level of immediacy, where the workers on whom all depends can normally be found. Their failure in this regard led to splits in the Tendency, and splits within the splits, that perhaps say more about the limits of the conceptual tools brought to the project, than it does about the caliber of their thinking or their capacity to act.
Theory of State Capitalism and the Critique of Party Fetish
In a single, impressively slim outline, State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950), Johnson-Forest expands their analysis of Russian society into a vast social, economic, and philosophical theory of state capitalism; describing a new historical stage, defined by the state-directed, bureaucratic takeover and intensification of capitalist exploitation. They also pinpoint those objective forces of history that, with an inexorable logic, will enable the bureaucrats’ defeat by the working class.
Having nationalized industry upon seizing power; eliminated the distribution of its profits between private owners; and subjected production to the ‘more rational’ economic plan for national growth, the counterfeit “Marxist” party under Stalin believes it has solved the problem of economic crisis that haunted the previous system: the crisis of overproduction, of more goods than the economy can absorb, driven by the irrational need for ever greater profits. With state ownership and public planning, capitalism has supposedly been abolished. Well enough for the claim that the Party represents the workers’ interests; and the Party theorists can even get away with saying they are constructing socialism. But soon they are faced with the stubborn persistence of the real contradiction, that ensures growing class conflict, despite exact calculations of the “socialist” plan: the tendency of the average rate of profit to fall (State Capitalism, 6-8).
A word of explanation is needed here, because, as JFT themselves argue, the falling rate of profit is not generally known among Marxists as the real source of crisis in the capitalist system. According to Marx in Volume III of Capital, under mature conditions of capitalist production, the drive to maximize profits has a contradictory natural tendency to reduce profits. In the formula for the growth of the organic composition of capital, a certain percentage of industrial profit has to be recapitalized, or invested back into more capital–the precondition for producing more commodities and realizing more profit. The capitalist who fails to do so, even from indifference or lack of greed, soon falls behind their competition, and risks being ruined; so that capitalization of some profit that increases their output is a behavior imposed on capitalists as a condition of survival. Now capital comes in two forms: constant and variable. Constant capital includes all the material conditions for producing commodities: land, factories, raw materials, and (very importantly) machinery. These factors are necessary, but not sufficient, for the production of goods. Variable capital represents the wages of the workers, whose surplus-value production is the real source of value of the product, and who must have a certain income level to survive, to continue producing that value.
The capitalist thinks that investing more of the profit back in the workers, in the form of higher wages than are socially necessary, has no appreciable effect on worker productivity, and therefore represents a loss of existing profit, not a gain of potential new profit. On the other hand, the development and purchase of more machinery that simplifies the workers’ tasks, that allows them to put out more product in the same length of the working hour, results in an overall gain. But as more machinery (the “dead” labor of another section of the working class) is purchased, and the capitalist sees a return on their immediate investment; across the whole industry, there is a reduction in the socially necessary average labor time to produce a given product, and therefore its price drops. So the ratio of surplus value produced, relative to the cost of a growing mass of constant capital set in motion by workers, actually declines (CIII, 322-323).
The effect of this total process means that the worker (“living” labor) has to put more machinery into motion, has to speed up her original tasks, has to produce twice, three times as much, with no proportionate increase in compensation. She produces more commodities, whose value on the market decreases, the more that her labor can put out. To make up for her bosses' inexplicable loss in profits over time, she is increasingly made to perform as an unthinking instrument in the hands of her own machinery–living labor dominated by dead. (For Marx's general description of the organic composition of capital, and of the tendential fall in the rate of profits, see Capital Vol. III, Parts Two and Three, 241-338.)
This disproportion, between investment in machines and investment in wages, is what accounts for the “crises of overproduction” that are the more familiar focus of traditional Marxist theory. Increased industrial output, without increased capacity of consumers to buy, sometimes does contribute to the falling rate of profit across industries. But overproduction is not the key to crisis, according to JFT; intensified exploitation is (State Capitalism, 11). And, they will claim, it is not a problem for private property alone.
The bureaucratic industrial managers in the “socialist” countries soon realize this, when they are faced with worker slowdowns and independent unionizing attempts in the state enterprise. Particularly in countries where Communists have normally come to power, the need to develop the so-called “backward” economy is the greatest. The problem is magnified by several factors, because of encirclement by hostile, (private-)capitalist nations, with highly developed industrial sectors. This means that even though industrial production is planned, even though industry doesn’t grind on irrationally, simply to meet the needs of private owners, state owners nonetheless have to observe the same rules of investment in order to rapidly grow their domestic product. Which means the speedup of production through automation, and adopting ‘scientific’ techniques of labor management from the Western competitor. And that means inevitable resistance from the working class. Not only does worker resistance threaten to bring national growth to a halt, but also poses a crisis of legitimation for the Party–which bases itself on the theory of Marx, and its government authority on the “workers’ dictatorship”, and is always telling the workers these things.
In truth, the Party has outlived its usefulness, claim Johnson-Forest. Lenin said in 1917 that every cook can govern, and the proletariat have had decades of education since then. Only the workers’ direct control and coordination of the production process–which they know intimately well from years of “labor discipline,” and don’t need any state manager to run–can put an end to this highest contradiction of capitalist relations:
“Marx established that as long as the proletariat did not rule production, production knew and could know no other method of progress but the increase of constant capital, machinery, mechanization, at the expense of variable, living labor. The only revolution which could save society was the revolution in the process of production” (6).
However, the state-capitalists–JFT interchangeably calls them Stalinists, but the system would survive Stalin–are very good students of the bourgeoisie, and an important section of them come from that class directly. Therefore they have adapted a number of idealist-rationalist and elitist strategies of the class “enemy” to discipline and deceive the workers away from their birthright; beginning with the falsification of Marxist theory. We have already noted JFT’s criticism of socialism’s redefinition as national ownership and state planning. In addition they note several steps taken to infantilize the workers, to make them incapable of thinking and deciding for themselves with a view to the overall process of revolution; and therefore of needing the Party’s external guidance, in the form of Party-approved management of the process of production. This is in contrast with Lenin’s theory on the capacities of the working class: he had considered the workers “inherently revolutionary,” which is why he distinguished them from the labor aristocrats, the material base of the betrayals in the Second International (50). The very ‘essence of Leninism’, for Johnson-Forest, is to support the workers’ independent initiative as the first step in any revolutionary policy (62-63).
We’ll have the chance to interrogate this opinion of Lenin below. For now, please note that where Lenin comes in for commentary, it's to affirm workers' control, workers' ability, workers' initiative, against Stalin and also Trotsky.
Finally, to lower the critical consciousness of the workers, it's necessary for state capitalism to brutalize their reason. This means attacking philosophy, in particular the philosophy of Hegel, in which the dialectical method is preserved. Because of the misology and crass scientism of the 20th-century Marxist movement, this was an unpopular position, and it remains so today, when critique is more urgent than ever. But Johnson-Forest have strong reasons for emphasizing the dangers of this last strategy: the history of modern Western philosophy, from Descartes to Hegel, culminating in Marx and Lenin, is the record in consciousness of the class struggle against the division between mental and manual division of labor.
The state-capitalist, as has already been mentioned, shares many class attitudes with the bourgeoisie. One of these is the belief that there is an appropriate activity for each class. Whether that view is naturalized (as in the heritability of intelligence) or acknowledged as socially constructed, but irrevocable until society advances, makes no difference at all: it is still a reflection of the class prejudices of the victorious modern bourgeoisie, who fought in the French Revolution to liberate the means of production from feudal relations, but only so they could direct its production process from on high. The bourgeois rationalist planner considers the masses to be passive matter (bourgeois materialism), but oddly exempts itself from such determination when it comes to conscious planning of social action (bourgeois idealism). This confusion of first principles, this division in philosophic conceptions, reveals that the bourgeoisie have different ideological needs, depending on the class position they are examining: they can't imagine that the mass of humanity, the economic precondition for achieving their goals in production, is equally as free as the members of their own class. Furthermore, because they need the workers' peaceful exploitation to realize surplus value, the rationalist's view of history is one of a peaceful progression, emphasizing harmony rather than conflict as the basis for social development (96-97).
Philosophy in the hands of the working masses is dangerous to these elites, because it indicates the antagonistic class basis behind their differing conceptions of reality.
Within the history of philosophy, Hegel was the great critic of the rationalist school. His major positions that are relevant to the class struggle have some overlap; but this is because contradiction is the principle implied across them all, which Hegel places "squarely in the center of reality" (98).
Hegel's theory of the historical dialectic revealed that history advances through contradiction, violent struggle, not through "harmonious increase and decrease." This is obviously anathema to the rationalist theory of historical progress, but may justify the violent struggle of workers with employers. He also challenged the mechanical view of development, arguing that the development of a thing comes from self-movement, not the action of external forces upon it. This, too, is an important conceptual instrument for the working class, since it means that society will not be transformed through mere development of its material powers, but from the conscious activity of every subject (and Hegel was clear that no differences of freedom/unfreedom obtain between one human being and the next). This self-movement, itself, is a contradictory process, so that social transformation is necessarily struggle between forms of consciousness; and that struggle is directed primarily toward the overcoming, not of nature (as the bourgeois would have it), but toward the society that humanity has itself created.
Finally, Hegel held that "creative universality," not the mere enjoyment of goods, is the true end of human development. What might be called the productivist fetish of the bourgeois (their belief that increased productivity is humanity's purpose, since it yields more goods for us to use), is an ideological pillar holding up class society. We have seen that it is operational in the bourgeois drive to mechanization, and forms the foundation for the decline in the rate of profits. But if the full development of the personality, the subject's capacity to determine themselves in any direction they would like, was the whole point of our existence, then the deforming reduction of the human mass to repetitive performances in the labor division, would be the denial of human essence. As, indeed, it is, under capitalist production; though Hegel came too soon to see the problem in this way, from the standpoint of the modern worker under industrial conditions (98-99, 100).
The state capitalist can't accept any of this, for reasons that should be obvious according to the foregoing exposition. Therefore they launch on a campaign against the history of philosophy, reducing it to merely the "history of science," culminating in Marxism, which has superseded the "idealism" of the philosophers, of Hegel in particular (102). This, of course, is uncritical or "vulgar" materialism, which tries to reduce the subjective factor entirely from social processes; and which holds that mere accumulation of goods will result in a qualitative transformation of society.
Ironically, though, it is the fetishism of the political consciousness of the Party, which believes that it can defeat the contradictory laws of capitalist accumulation through rational planning, that is the actual "idealism", that is the real "philosophy" in its negative sense. Johnson-Forest claim that this Party fetishism is the whole meaning of the Stalinist ideology in particular, as outlined in his History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In this way, the state capitalists show their underlying unity with bourgeois consciousness: both private and state-capitalism share in ideological contradictions that were transcended by Hegel, and which the state-capitalist tries to conceal by reducing philosophy to a moment in the development of "science". They hope thereby to abolish class struggle.
But the dialectic lives in the objective features of the system, and in the subjectivity of the worker; thus the state-capitalist and his organizational fetish cannot be successful for long.
The brilliant synthesis of political theory, Marxist critique of political economy, and history of philosophy achieved by the Johnson-Forest Tendency, was not matched by equally brilliant results in the sphere of practice. In 1951 they began their organizing efforts among workers in Detroit through the auspices of a new organization, the Correspondence Publishing Committee (Artist, 103). Their idea was to gather the experiences of the workers in auto plants into newsletters, that would identify the subjective experiences of the modern plant worker with the theory of alienation developed by Karl Marx, in his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. (For that purpose, Grace Lee, a Ph.D in philosophy who was fluent in German, produced the first English translations of that newly published work, which were then circulated among the workers.)
Though they managed to gather around 80 members to this new organization, contradictions about the relevance of political organization began opening up between James and Dunayevskaya. In 1948, in his Notes on Dialectics, James had made the argument that the principle of self-activity had historically developed in stages leading up to the present role of labor. Whereas, from 1907-1917, Lenin had believed that the Party expresses the "being," i.e., the historical self-consciousness of the worker and their tasks in the present, we were now entering a stage where the workers, themselves, were becoming self-conscious, and that this consciousness was in contradiction with the principle of any distinct political organization to clarify their ideas for them (172-174).
James believed that the political party, as the expression of the knowledge of the workers' own being (i.e., the meaning of their experience), was a fundamental prop of the state; which, according to Lenin in 1917, would wither away, in proportion as every worker learned the functions now being done by distinct strata of bureaucrats:
"Now if the party is the knowing of the proletariat, then the coming of age of the proletariat means the abolition of the party...The party as we have known it must disappear. It will disappear. It is disappearing. It will disappear as the state will disappear. The whole labouring population becomes the state. That is the disappearance of the state. It can have no other meaning. It withers away by expanding to such a degree that it is transformed into its opposite. And the party does the same. The state withers away. But for the proletariat the most important, the primary thing is the withering away of the party. For if the party does not wither away, the state never will" (175-76) (words bolded for emphasis)
In the experience of the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet Union, which Notes on Dialectics and State Capitalism primarily had in mind, this argument for a stagist evolution of workers' self-consciousness makes sense. The workers in the Soviet bloc had been propagandized with the ideas of Marx and Lenin for several decades, long enough to see the contradictions between theory and practice in the Party hijacked by Stalin, and to directly take over the State machinery would imply the obsolescence of the Party itself.
But it is a bit harder to base a practice upon this Marxist reasoning in the Western capitalist world. Lenin's argument works in the Russian context precisely because there was a militant workers' movement whose actions were instrumental to the Bolsheviks' coming to power in the first place. The Bolsheviks had propagandized and organized workers for over a decade by that point, had explained the nature of their exploitation to them and acted as the vanguard to keep them from falling into mere "trade-union consciousness." If the workers are now able to act on their own independent initiative, by James's own argument, it is because of a prior process of cultivation from outside, allowing them to come into their own. (This is why his argument is not an anarchist one.) In the West, by contrast, there has been no corresponding movement, let alone a seizure of power by a workers' party, whose defeat would allow the workers directly to lay hold of the machinery of the State, making it obsolete.
So what was the response to this problem in Detroit? According to James's approach, the obsolescence of the Party form meant that an organization could not act in any leading role with respect to the workers. But if Lenin was right, wouldn't the workers' self-leadership at this stage simply dissolve into the fight for improved wages and working conditions on the shop floor, perhaps more regulation and choices concerning management, but never rise to a revolutionary consciousness of the need to overthrow capitalism itself, and of the workers' leading role in that process? Circulating the written grievances and experiences of workers, alongside passages from the young Marx condemning the animalizing effect of capitalist labor, is unlikely to spark revolutionary movement on a class-wide basis. Even if the conditions of work are objectively similar as those obtaining in the Soviet bloc, the political culture and the consciousness of the workers certainly is not. Base and superstructure are more complicated than that.
Dunayevskaya, in her reflections on the theoretical-practical disagreements between herself and James that led to the JFT's split in 1955, indicates that the "party-to-lead" is not the absolute opposite of the committee, the form in which Johnson-Forest had interacted with the workers. Some kind of synthesis between these two approaches was, indeed had to be, possible. Her own organization, the News and Letters Committee, which expressed her independent philosophy of Marxist-Humanism, would fuse the struggles of the Soviet workers with the proletariat in the capitalist world, and also the Black Revolution (Dunayevskaya, The Power of Negativity, 8-9).
It is important to note that, after the split, Dunayevskaya's organization did no such thing. After decades of activity in Detroit and elsewhere, the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism has had no significant impact on any of the three spheres Dunayevskaya identified, least of all on the Black Revolution. On the other hand, Grace Lee, a Chinese-American, and her husband James Boggs, a New Afrikan plant worker and theoretician, achieved greater organizing results on their own in Detroit, after splitting with James in 1962, and moving toward the position of the need for a Black revolutionary party form. (It should be remembered that the Black radical movement, since the Bandung Conference in 1955, had been advocating for greater Afro-Asian solidarity; it would not have been lost on the young students of Malcolm, who hammered constantly on this theme, that the union of the Boggses symbolized that solidarity on an intimate level.)
With all due respect for her considerable knowledge of Hegel, Marx, and Lenin (and especially for the indispensable work of translating Lenin's Philosophical Notebooks, which reveal Lenin's move, in 1914, away from the reflection epistemology behind the vulgar Stalinist theory of knowledge), it seems to not have occurred to Dunayevskaya that Black revolutionaries, especially by the 1960s, would not be too keen on accepting the theoretical and practical leadership (for that is what she's suggesting) of a white woman, whose main credentials for the task are her mastery of the philosophical and political writings of Europeans. If the mediation of the 'party-to-lead' and the committee does not mean quitting the principle of self-activity, then it would be contradictory to expect the Black Power movement, and every Black movement hence, to do away with the call for independent Black leadership: a principle whose importance James recognized as early as his debate with Trotsky, in 1939.
When James was deported to England in 1953, he moved further on the road toward total workers' autonomy, eventually forming the Facing Reality group in 1958; which saw the Hungarian Revolution, an attempt by the working-class to take over the functions of the government themselves, as the affirmation of his own analysis. Then he returned to Trinidad, to have a hand in events under the new government of his former student, Eric Williams. He therefore did not have to trouble himself with the issue of the relation of theory to practice in the US workers' movement. But he was an important Black revolutionary who had made historical contributions to Pan-African organizing and the study of the Black past, like The Black Jacobins (a classic narrative of Black autonomy) and A History of Negro Revolts. Therefore, he continued to impact New Afrikans in his absence; and upon his return to the States, he acted as an elder "statesman" (if such a term is appropriate) of Pan-Africanism and a mentor for young radicals of the Black Power Movement.
His influence on the Black movement during the '60s, not mediated through any organization, wasn't primarily to push it further toward his distinctive idea of Marxism. Some of his students in Detroit that went on to form the League of Revolutionary Black Workers became Marxist-Leninists; others within that formation moved towards anarchism, like Modibo Kadalie. (I am unable to confirm whether Kimathi Mohammed, a close comrade of Kadalie, became an anarchist as well. His important tract, Organization and Spontaneity, suggests that he followed James's political line from Facing Reality, more closely than other League members I have studied.) What this suggests is that the attractive element in James's thought was in its description and theorization of autonomous, mass-based Black resistance to colonialism and capitalism. Not the purity of its Marxism, or correctness of its one-to-one correspondence between moments in the Third International and categories in the Science of Logic.
Marxism and the Ineffectuals
James’s Marxism as expressed in Facing Reality and elsewhere, has sometimes been derided as “crypto-anarchist” by more orthodox Marxists, though James firmly denied that characterization.
In truth, James’ willingness to flout orthodoxy so as to deal with reality on its own terms, is to his great credit and his detractors’ shame. One thing that James can't be accused of is not knowing what Marx or Lenin said. Evidence of his encyclopedic knowledge of classical Marxist theory and political history is all over the pages of his major works, lesser-known manuscripts and articles, and in his lectures and private letters. However uneven the results, his “deviations” from Marxism speak less, I think, to his own limitations, than to the limits of the old Marxist categories for processing and transforming reality in the historical stage of state capitalism: an idea that depends on those categories. The paradoxy of that claim does not belong to James, nor do I think that it belongs to me as an errant interpreter. Instead it belongs to historical materialism that has left history behind.
By the second half of the 20th century, the proletariats in the industrial West had failed to step into their role in the world revolution. All signs indicated that, in fact, the ruling classes were successfully integrating the working class into the postwar consensus of official society, by means of the expanded welfare state, trade union co-option, and anticommunist scaremongering. These strategies were objectively supported by the postwar boom in production and spending on consumer goods, presenting the First World “proletariat” with much more than chains to lose. The revolutionary left, unprepared for this surprising turn in the dialectic, grew increasingly isolated from the labor movement, “progressive” mainstream politics, and embourgeoised popular culture. In the most reactionary countries, foremost the United States, this situation left Marxists more vulnerable than ever before to Red Scare tactics of censorship, blacklisting, and legal persecution. The postwar capitalist hegemony, unshaken by economic crises or the dispossessed proletarian avengers predicted in Capital, instead plunged First World Marxism into a state of crisis; first of the disconnection of practice from theory, then of theory from all reality.
In the McCarthyist US, “Marxist” mass politics that was not Stalinist had to base itself on the support of liberal reform movements in a rearguard fashion, while anxiously guarding against identification with Communist subversives. But this is not a “Marxist” mass politics, which must be revolutionary; it’s a concession to the practical impossibility of the same. And again: what is the value of a Marxist theory disunified from practice? Meanwhile, Stalinist politics had to be conducted mostly underground, with no immediate hope of influencing mass politics. This may be more consistent with a variant of Marxist practice modeled by Lenin and Stalin. But given the extreme shallowness of Stalinist theory, long since reduced to catechisms of a State religion, the conspirator’s courage would not reward them with any special insight into the world; only the hope they are not being fooled after so many risks. There are churches and cults for that.
Many disillusioned Marxists in the US simply turned reactionary–cynically embracing neoconservatism, after the earlier pattern of the Trotskyist “luminary,” Max Schachtman; or fled into collaborationist “democratic” socialism, like the “anti-communist” “philosopher” and CIA puppet, Sidney Hook. Because of the enforced philistinism of the settler American mind, the reasons given for these betrayals did not have to be intellectually substantial. It’s no coincidence that Hook, the most academically accomplished of the democratic socialists, later became a leading figure in the pragmatist movement–the only really home-grown American philosophical movement, born out of reaction to British Hegelianism. Pragmatism takes an entirely conventionalist and instrumental approach to questions of truth and right. After all, what’s more correct than what works? And in Cold War America, what works better than accommodation to the existing order and to the strongest institution, the government? A very circular path for pragmatism: from anti-Hegelianism, back to the “the real is the rational,” in its worst possible reading. As far as home-grown contributions to world culture go, there was never a danger that it would rival jazz.
In West Germany, many anti-Stalinist Marxists, seeing no political outlet in the “administered world” of triumphant state capitalism, took refuge in the academy, where rarefied and dour debates on German idealism, on depth psychology and bureaucratic rationality, or on the commodity form’s imprint on late capitalist art, displaced the classical Marxist questions on the contradictions of the business cycle or the centralization of capital. The writings of critical theorists like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Friedrich Pollock, of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, played a somewhat similar function for radical thought in retreat as did the Hooks and Irving Howes, etc. in the US. Though it must be admitted, they did so at a generally much higher level of theory than their Anglophone counterparts, and with fewer illusions about the virtues of the liberal "democratic" process and the power structures that it served.
Of the major representatives of the Frankfurt School, not a single one had any substantial involvement in a working-class movement or mass struggle, prior to announcing the foreclosure of revolutionary mass politics. Which is a miserable way of figuring out reality, especially for the “radicalized” sons of the bourgeoisie. Yet it is to their credit that they recognized the relation of theory to practice as a real problem for thought, considering that the political choices before them were discredited Social Democracy, and the laughable Communist Party of Germany (KPD), a mere puppet organization of Stalin’s with no real public support. The honesty of these academics about principled disengagement did at least seem to spare them the embarrassment of important forerunners like Georg Lukacs and Ernst Bloch, who bent their great minds to Stalin, instead of the knee.
The postwar radical alternatives in France were, until the ‘60s, dominated by the existential philosophy of Sartre and De Beauvoir, and by the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Neither philosophy originated in class struggle or out of theoretical concern with it. Both Sartre’s and Merleau-Ponty’s introductions to dialectical philosophy were chaperoned by the very singular Hegel interpretation of Alexandre Kojeve, an ironic “Stalinist” and esotericist from Russia, who took his bearings from Nietzsche, and from Russian existentialists like Shestov; and whose selective reading of Hegel bore the marks of elitism and worship of State power of his aristocratic background. It in no way prepared them to confront Marxist theory, and perhaps because of this they later on formed very tortuous relations with the French Communist Party (PCF). Sartre, who was probably a lifelong anarchist, became a fellow-traveler of the Party; though his highly subjectivist philosophy, influenced above all by Heidegger and Husserl, and his resulting ethics–which foundered beyond the immediately intersubjective–were at powerful odds not just with Communist practice, but with the Communist idea of the human. Merleau-Ponty, his one-time friend, was an actual member of the Party, though there doesn’t seem to be any line leading from theory to affiliation for him either. Both men would eventually leave the Party’s orbit, Sartre after Merleau-Ponty, but not before Sartre publicly destroyed their relationship over Merleau-Ponty’s perceived betrayal with his Party resignation.
Sartre in particular made many worthwhile contributions to theories of subjectivity, despite his poor reception after the structuralist turn in the '60s; especially with his concept of the metastability of the self, influential not only for De Beauvoir, but also for the early Fanon. And several gaps in his early approach to intersubjectivity, and to the subject’s relationship with the material world, were filled in by his renewed study of Hegel and Marx, in preparation for the massive Critique of Dialectical Reason. Yet the problem of theory and practice persists there, too. It is not really clear what existing movements Sartre’s treatise is addressed to; and in his remaining life he never used his gigantic influence in French society to build one.
These brief snapshots from three national contexts show how some of the best (and not-so-best) thinkers of the postwar generation of the First World, strained to create any possible clearing for Marxist theory, with the eclipse of Marxist practice by liberal-capitalist consumerism and Stalinist degeneration of thought. They all seem to fizzle out in pseudo-practice or non-practice: in doglike service to and reverence for the imperial State (Hook, Howe); in “Marxist” mandarinism, that grasps the world as false totality, since it can’t change it (Adorno, Horkheimer); in the ponderous and highly involved theoretical re-conception of the movement of social synthesis, that no longer objectifies the human subject in order to bring them to the Revolution–but can’t find them afterward, as real subjects beyond the book, in any actual revolution (Sartre).
(For more on the European transformation of Marxist theory, from its origins in the critique of political economy to the intellectualist preoccupation with method, as result of the growing division between Marxists and the working class movements, see Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism.)
James took none of these paths. Instead, he based himself on those moments in Marx and Lenin that are closest to his own belief in the autonomous masses, which he saw confirmed all around him: in Hungary, in the Caribbean, in Africa. But how close really was Lenin to James's philosophy of praxis? When he objects to the charge of anarchism, does he really do so on Leninist grounds?
Their Lenin and Ours
In his article "Lenin and the Vanguard Party" (1963), James argues that the typical ideas we associate with Bolshevism--vanguardism and the theory of the one-party state--are not Lenin's core ideas at all. Instead, James argues, Lenin's idea was the necessary preparation of the workers for their awesome responsibility, following the collapse of tsarism, since Lenin well knew that only the proletariat could save Russian society from collapse (James's justification for the party's 'receivership', so to speak, of the State). The theory of the vanguard party, he asserts, was a practical exigency in a country of 150 million, where the Party in power had less than 100,000 members (unlike Italy and France, which had millions of members in its respective Communist parties) (Reader, 327-329).
These are very curious arguments, and in my opinion they represent rare moments of historical dishonesty, or at a minimum of poor memory, on James's part. To start with the latter claim: the idea of the vanguard party, as is well known, didn't spring up suddenly, when the Bolsheviks took power. It was developed in 1902, in What is To Be Done?, which Lenin has never refuted as a document. Once again, as is very well known, What Is to Be Done? argues that without the theoretical-political leadership of the revolutionary party, the proletarian struggle will never advance beyond the economic struggle, toward understanding the relationship of their class oppression to the struggles of every other section of society in capitalist or semi-capitalist countries.
That is why he engages in so many polemics with Economism and Bernsteinism: precisely because these tendencies ignore that the Marxist Party is the vehicle for what the Leninist philosopher Georg Lukacs referred to as the imputed consciousness of the working class: their ability to see all the contradictions and the tendencies of capitalist society as a totality, from their standpoint of labor, whose exploitation is the source of that totality. Over a decade later, in 1914, his works "The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism" and his chapter on "The Marxist Doctrine" in his biography Karl Marx, Lenin specifies the foundations of scientific socialism in Marx's synthesis of the rational elements in the thought of the "most advanced nations": German philosophy, French socialism, English political economy. Especially in the chapter on "Tactics of the Class Struggle" in the Marx biography, he is clear that Marx's scientific insights ought to be the basis for the proletarian struggle. The Party is the inheritor of the correct interpretation of those insights; therefore it is the vanguard. This was the whole basis of contention between himself and Rosa Luxemburg, concerning the relationship of the Party to workers' spontaneity. The idea that Lenin's vanguardism was exigent on the conditions of holding power in an "underdeveloped" nation is disingenuous, or else it is fatuous.
To the prior and more essential point, concerning Lenin's support of workers' revolutionary initiative. It certainly is true that Lenin spoke often of the need to prepare workers to take over the State, and that this was preparatory to the withering away of the State. This is the justification-by-dialectics argument for the seizure of State power in The State and Revolution. But is it very evident from Bolshevik policy during his lifetime that he believed in workers' independent initiative?
Maurice Brinton, in The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control, gives extensive documentation of the ways that the Russian Factory Committees--independent workers' organizations arising spontaneously in March 1917, who wanted direct workers' control over various enterprises--were co-opted and undermined by the Bolsheviks, including by Lenin, before and after the October Revolution. Because of their independence from the Menshevik-dominated trade-unions, the Committees were seen as important tactical allies of the working-class in the struggle against the Provisional Government. Therefore Lenin, beginning in the April Theses, paid lip-service to support for their slogans, and supported them in the struggle with the trade unions (Workers' Control, 3, 7-8).
However, things began changing once the Bolsheviks seized power, and squeezed out the Mensheviks for control over the trade-unions. In rapid succession--for Bolsheviks do move fast, Lenin made sure of that--a series of decrees were handed down to bring governmental checks upon decisions made by the Committees concerning production numbers, working hours, the right to strike, and management; until, on December 13th, 1917, the "General Instructions on Workers' Control" laid down the official Leninist position: absorption of all Committees into the unions, at even the local level (Workers' Control, 15-16, 21, 26-27). It's a strange form of support for workers' initiative, that makes self-directed workers' committees that freely struggled alongside your Party before the Winter Palace siege, now subordinate to opportunist trade unions, that were Menshevist up until the eve of the Revolution!
What did this translate to in terms of real workers' control? Were the workers permitted now to determine production rates and working hours through coordination with other committees in their industries; to fire abusive managers, and gradually to take over the process of management entirely in co-operative fashion: to really begin socializing the means of production, which is what was meant by the slogan that sounded so good to Lenin, en route to Finland Station? In fact, the very opposite proved true. Beginning in late March, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee began introducing principles of 'labor discipline' and 'individual management' to the factories.
By labor discipline, the Bolshevik leaders meant: the implementation of Taylorism (so-called "scientific management," a capitalist method of extreme regulation of factory workers' movements and interactions to maximize productivity); introduction of piece-rate work to increase productivity (piece-rates, by financially incentivizing the quickest performance of the task possible, raise the average rate of a given good produced per hour; which then becomes the new standard of production imposed on the workers); and expulsion from the union for non-compliance with management (36-38).
In "The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government," Lenin has the following to say about Taylorism, which he had previously described (in 1914) as one of the newest devices for oppression of the workers:
The negative aspect of Taylorism was that it was applied in conditions of capitalist slavery and served as a means of squeezing double and triple the amount of labour out of the workers at the old rates of pay regardless of whether the hired workers were capable of giving this double and triple amount of labour in the same number of working hours without detriment to the human organism. The Socialist Soviet Republic is faced with a task which can be briefly formulated thus: we must introduce the Taylor system and scientific American efficiency of labour throughout Russia by combining this system with a reduction in working time, with the application of new methods of production and work organisation undetrimental to the labour power of the working population. On the contrary, the Taylor system, properly controlled and intelligently applied by the working people themselves, will serve as a reliable means of further greatly reducing the obligatory working day for the entire working population, will serve as an effective means of dealing, in a fairly short space of time, with a task that could roughly be expressed as follows: six hours of physical work daily for every adult citizen and four hours of work in running the state.
This is a very helpful passage for understanding Lenin's platitudes about the worker in general. Here Lenin wants to introduce a capitalist method for maximizing productive efficiency, but believes somehow that there will be "new methods of production and work organisation" that will allow the factory management to do so without harming the workers, as in the capitalist model. He does not name what these methods are, so it's safe to say that they don't exist yet. But he does know the name of Taylorism, because it already exists in the capitalist world; and he wants to introduce it to Russia. Then, he remarkably claims that it can be "properly controlled by the workers." Taylorism, to be clear, has to do with maximum uniformity and speed in movement; having the workers determine these matters themselves is antithetical to the very idea, which is why it is a supposedly "scientific" concept, imposed on workers by managerial experts from the outside. (This sounds like another scientific concept we've heard of.) Finally, without any evidence, he proposes that "in a fairly short space of time," such a combination of known and unknown factors, will likely lead to a reduction of the working day, to six hours for adult citizens and four hours for those involved in state work.
Here's a man who, his whole adult life, has only worked (very briefly) as a lawyer, and then as a Marxist theorist, organizer, and conspirator; now claiming, when in charge of labor policy, that there exist somewhere the techniques to mitigate Taylorism's worst effects. A managerial method will be brought in from the capitalist world and imposed on the working class, to ensure something called 'labor discipline': this, under the workers' dictatorship. Why not simply let the workers set their own pace, determine their own conditions and habits of work on a co-operative basis? If he trusts that the workers can (eventually) implement Taylorism without management, why doesn't he trust that they can oversee the production that they already undertake? If "every cook can govern," a totally foreign activity for a cook, then why can't every factory worker manage the work they were doing prior to revolution? These are the questions that would occur to those of us who have been bossed around by incompetent and cruel managers, and know we could do vastly better, with the help of co-workers, in those managers' absence. (It should be said that, for all his other virtues, James had no experience as an actual laborer. He could have gone over these same lines some thirty times, and still really bought it all.) But Lenin doesn't really trust the workers. Which is why, in the same article, he calls for "unquestioning obedience" to individual managers: one of the government's immediate tasks for industry. Workers' control...!
All of this sounds very much like the dictatorial mentality of the bourgeois rationalist, wanting to impose his will on the workers for maximum accumulation, from the Johnson-Forest description in State Capitalism. Lenin even acknowledges that Taylorism forces the workers to produce at twice and triple the original rate for the same amount of pay--exactly what machines are supposed to do in Marx's discussion of capital composition. Taylorism is a method of mechanizing labor still further, at the bodily level. Lenin wasn't sure what improvements could be made before setting about its implementation as an "immediate task" of government. But one thing it could never do, according to Marx himself: solve the riddle of falling value.
James's aversion to the label "anarchist" likely has something to do with the Marxist conceit about the theoretic-scientific superiority of the Marxist over the anarchist tradition, in the intramural conflict of Western radicalisms. But there really is no reason to choose sides, and Black radicals can step back, review the record, and see that neither side is winning: a First World problem. Instead what James does is to distort Lenin's legacy, so he can remain attached to a signal political event in his time, that was momentous for observers of the anti-colonial movement everywhere; one that understood itself as anti-imperialist, and possessing a science that would allow the other "underdeveloped" nations to reproduce its success.
As we've seen in this section, Marx's critical social theory, particularly his critique of political economy, has tremendous interpretive value for victims of capitalist exploitation. But it's not a manual for predicting all reality. The most orthodox Marxist theorists in the Western world have tended to be the least interesting, and their greatest organizing success in the perduring reign of capital has been to hold together quasi-religious sects; or to build parliamentary parties, indistinguishable in function from Social Democracy. The most interesting Marxist theorists have tended to be unable to do anything organizationally relevant with their innovations. James was far closer to the second category; but thought of himself as pristinely orthodox in his Marxism, like those in the first. That led to some errors of interpretation, not least in his appraisal of Lenin.
It is tantalizing to think of where his theoretics might have gone, had he taken up the "anarchist" label proudly, and began re-examining his early writings on Black revolution and popular movements in their light.
III. Caliban's Continent: Black Radical Autonomy in James's Pan-Africanism
"Angolan land but the links Cuban-built/neat trick, now China owns Sudan, the blood still gets spilt/game sewed like the AIDS quilt/Daniel Day, crazy straw up in ya milk/There Will Be Oil" - Billy Woods, "Cuito Cuanavale"
The IASB: A Study in the Political Challenges of Black Autonomy
Of course James wasn't only a Marxist. He was also a Pan-Africanist, to reverse Walter Rodney’s observation; and he saw no tension between these shared commitments of his long political life.
Sometimes though, his Pan-Africanism overtook his Marxism. As when, in the early 1930s, he crossed the barbed partisan line between British Trotskyists and Stalinists, to reconnect with a boyhood acquaintance: the Communist agitator and anti-colonial journalist, George Padmore (né Malcolm Nurse). From their resulting collaboration, grew many of the theoretical and practical presuppositions of the modern Pan-Africanist movement, as programmatically outlined at the Fifth Pan-African Congress (in Manchester, 1945).
The duo soon gathered around them a small but dedicated cluster of African and Caribbean radicals, with a shared obsession to uproot colonialism throughout the Black world. Mobilizations throughout the Black Atlantic to defend Ethiopia from Italy’s invasion were the spark that turned this discussion group into a political organ. Initially organized as the International African Friends of Ethiopia in 1935, in 1937 they reconstituted as the International African Service Bureau (IASB), with the political aim of achieving independence through mass revolutionary action. The IASB was at once a news and opinion service for Pan-Africanist intellectuals; and an illicit school for the training of African revolutionaries on the propaganda and conspiratorial methods necessary for freedom movements to survive under authoritarian conditions of the colony (Williams, “Marxism, Pan-Africanism, and the International African Service Bureau,” retrieved from roape.net).
Padmore’s path to the IASB is itself a telling study in the perils of Black autonomy when it parts ways with “Marxist” State power. In 1930, Padmore had organized the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW), a formal division of the Communist Profintern, whose aim was to stimulate and direct global Black labor movements along anti-imperiailist lines. His position at its head made Padmore, effectively, the most powerful Black member of the Comintern, during the period of its most intense agitation against Western imperialism. Nonetheless, Padmore would abruptly break with the Comintern in 1933, in disgust at its sudden shift toward peaceful relations with France and Britain: prelude to the Comintern’s ‘Popular Front’ period of the mid-30s. Politically isolated, hounded as a traitor by the Stalinists and their fellow-travelers, Padmore now struck out on his own, toiling under severe financial and personal constraints to build an independent network for global Black revolution. However, without the Comintern’s resources and global reach, and being barred by principle and reputation from any Western institutional support, Padmore and the IASB would never replicate the ITUCNW’s success in mobilizing working masses in Africa and the Caribbean.
(For more on the fascinating personal life of Padmore, see James Hooker, Black Revolutionary: George Padmore’s Path From Communism and Pan-Africanism.)
On history’s scales, though, the rewards of the IASB’s autonomy vastly outweigh its costs. Because of their rejection of campist ‘bipolarity’–the binary division of the world into liberal-fascist capitalist, and Soviet-sponsored ‘socialist’ camps–James and Padmore were favorably positioned to expose how Comintern policy often aligned with the interests of the ‘enemy’ capitalist camp. For instance, James was one of very few prominent Black Marxists of his time to loudly draw attention to Soviet economic support of Italian colonial expansion, through supplying oil to Mussolini during the Ethiopia invasion (Artist, 49). Furthermore, through the IASB, James and Padmore would apprentice several of the premier African independence leaders of the post-War era, including Jomo Kenyatta, ITA Wallace-Johnson, and Kwame Nkrumah. While enjoining them to study and apply the best ideas from Marx and Lenin to the African context, they also sternly warned them against becoming vassals of the Soviet Union. This strategy anticipated the Non-Aligned Movement, a signal development in the political self-consciousness of the Third World, by over two decades. In particular, the commitment of Nkrumah to a post-independence vision of non-alignment (crystallized in the statement that ‘We face neither East nor West; We face forward’), suggests the enduring stamp on the young statesman of his IASB apprenticeship. (Even as his later alignment, after the 1966 coup in Ghana, with the “socialist camp,” coinciding as it did with his condemnation of Fanon and Third Worldism, raises provocative questions about the relationship between campism and State power in the Global South.)
Though Padmore is not the direct focus of this article, his understanding of Pan-Africanism, as a distinct revolutionary socialist ideology for the Black world, deserves further commentary, because it reveals the easily overlooked political tensions between himself and James, and because of the implications of his program for the dialectic of the Pan-African ‘nation-state’. His classic work, The Life and Struggle of Negro Toilers (1931) reveals already the vast scope of the ITUCNW’s envisioned work among hyperexploited Black workers in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. Pan-Africanism or Communism? (1956), Padmore’s magnum opus, not only expands on the earlier study by documenting how colonial policies have created challenges for independent nation-states. It provides a history of the Pan-Africanist movement, from the emigrationist movements, to the UNIA and the Pan-African Congresses, to the independence movements after 1945, defining Pan-Africanism as a distinct intellectual tradition of diasporic origin and socialist, anti-imperialist aims. He further contrasts the support of Lenin–and Stalin!–for national liberation and the self-determination of nations and national minorities, with international Communists’ chauvinistic attitudes, duplicitous forms of alliance, and attempts to co-opt or defeat the native leadership of freedom struggles in the United States, South Africa, and Asia (Pan-Africanism, 290-293, 303-310, 332-363).
While Padmore’s view of the Communists’ record with oppressed people is very poor–hence the book’s provocative title–this should not be taken as support for an “anti-Marxist” socialism, of the sort practiced by Senghor and other neo-colonial leaders. Padmore was instead accusing the Soviet-led international movement of hypocritically stifling African attempts to adapt Marxism to the conditions of their homelands and oppressed communities, as Lenin had done in Russia and Mao had done in China (Padmore refers to this as Lenin’s “neo-Marxism” (Pan-Africanism, 300-301). Padmore, who remained a “scientific socialist” after his break with the Comintern, appears to be calling for a Marxism made concrete for the African continent. As Nkrumah’s teacher, it seems likely that this vision would inform Nkrumah’s own approach to statecraft, and to the ideology necessary to achieving African unity. (For a more “orthodox” Black Marxist critique of the Padmore-Nkrumah conception of Pan-Africanism, see Walter Rodney’s 1975 article, “Marxism in Africa”.)
At the same time, despite his hatred of the imperialist West, Padmore’s apparently non-aligned approach to the two ‘camps’, sometimes reads as friendly advice to the capitalist camp, to cooperate with the decolonization cry of nationalists, to prevent Africa’s satellization by the Soviets:
“The only force capable of containing Communism in Asia and Africa is dynamic nationalism based upon a socialist programme of industrialization and co-operative methods of agricultural production. This means setting the colonies immediately on the road to self-government, since only popularly elected leaders can harness the emotions and loyalties of the common people of town and country, and marshal their enthusiasm along the path of peaceful economic and social reconstruction…
“If the Western Powers are really afraid of Communism and want to defeat it, the remedy lies in their own hands. First, it is necessary to keep one step ahead of the Communists by removing the grievances of the so-called backward peoples, which the Communists everywhere seek to exploit for their own ends. Secondly, there must be a revolutionary change in the outlook of the colonizing Powers, who must be prepared to fix a date for the complete transfer of power…and to give every technical and administrative assistance to the emerging colonial nations during the period of transition from internal self-government to complete self-determination” (339).
Besides Padmore’s Cold Warrior language, which leverages the Communist threat to play one imperialist interest (African exploitation) against another (bipolar balance of powers), two things should be noted about this passage.
First, though Padmore never had intellectual objections to the use of revolutionary violence per se, given Africa’s severe "underdevelopment," he felt that if freedom was not to flow from Soviet arms, the best path to continental liberation would be non-violent direct action: peaceful demonstrations and strikes led by nationalist parties and supported by the masses, to pressure the foreign powers to grant independence, according to the Gandhist example (as Padmore had understood India’s decolonization process). Indeed, we see that Nkrumah’s own Direct Action movement in the Gold Coast closely follows the strategy Padmore describes here. This had been a major point of contention between Padmore and James within the IASB, as Robinson reminds us. James had insisted, based on his study of Black resistance movements in Ethiopia, Spain (during the Civil War), and the Caribbean, that only mass-based armed resistance could liberate the African continent. While James won the debate over the official line of IASB, when he departed for the US in 1938, the Bureau reverted to the old Padmore line (Black Marxism, 273).
The second point, and this one more subtle, is that Padmore believed that decolonization should be mediated between the colonial administration and the political leaders of nationalist movements, who alone can “harness the emotions and loyalties of the common people.” It would be anachronistic and unfair to disparage Padmore’s confidence in the nationalist leadership, who had not yet had time and opportunity to fleece Africa’s masses. When Frantz Fanon predicted the rise of neocolonialism in Africa with the leading parties’ help, it was on the basis of his study of the independence process in Latin America–not due to any magical insight into history’s direction. Nonetheless, it is important to note that Padmore, the chief theoretician of the Pan-African nation-state, requests full assistance from technicians and administrative elites of the mother country, in training the nucleus of what would become another elite group (the political-national bourgeoisie) how to manage the infrastructure of the colonial State they would inherit.
Even if the subsequent economic policies were conducted along “socialist” lines (state-controlled, planned production and development); and showed economic growth and improved living standards in certain sectors (but then, there was no guarantee that all African nationalists, brokering separate deals with the metropole, would even be “socialist”)–Padmore shows no awareness of the problems with the Party form, identified by his old comrade James. In an “underdeveloped” country, it is easy for the intelligentsia that usually control the nationalist party, once in power, to become a bureaucratic elite, resting hard on the back of working masses; while labeling their state-capitalist plans for exploitation “socialist,” because directed in the interests of the broad masses. Perhaps in spite of his fervent “anti-Communism,” Padmore was still too wedded to the Leninist theory of the State’s capacity to realize authentically socialist projects, to take notice of these possibilities.
However, he can probably be forgiven, since James himself, in his analyses of African politics in the ‘60s, seems sometimes to have forgotten his earlier critique of the organization fetish, and unflappable faith in the masses’ ‘free creative activity’ for building socialism. In the “underdeveloped” countries of Africa and the Caribbean, James believed (as he did not in the Soviet or capitalist spheres), that it was still necessary for the mass popular party to direct the processes of national reconstruction and social progress, again citing Lenin as the archetype for the "underdeveloped" country that undergoes a social revolution (Reader, 332-33). The anarchist Modibo Kadalie, one of James' former students in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, registers his disappointment that James refused to categorically denounce the vanguard party form in 1971, even after the "Bolshevik" Group within the League had made the moves toward centralization and purges that would spell that organization's downfall within the same year (Pan-African Social Ecology, 102).
In summary, what we see here is a failure by James to remain consistent with the best aspects of his own critique of the State and the organizational fetish. This failure is all the more remarkable in that it appears only in the very context of Black revolutionary politics with which his name is most readily associated. In the conclusion, we will suggest some epistemological grounds for this warp in the otherwise outstanding conceptual framework of James' political theory.
Conclusion: "Underdevelopment" of an Idea
In Caliban's Reason, the Caribbean sociologist and philosopher Paget Henry describes how the premodern/modern dichotomy in James's evaluation of cultures, an inheritance from European philosophy, is simultaneously undermined by his critique of Europe, his Pan-Africanist and Black autonomist commitments, and the suppressed African nationalist influences on his thought. James, in a sense, is the embodiment of "Caliban's dilemma": the harsh Afro-diasporic critic of European imperialism and civilization, who is nonetheless indebted to that same civilization for their conceptual tools of analysis. This leads him to a certain ambivalence about the structures of imperialist society and the cultural codes of meaning that it imposes on the colonized, evident in the multiple instances in his works where he refers to the "primitiveness" or "backwardness" of precolonial and colonial societies (48-49, 50).
Cedric Robinson makes a similar argument in Black Marxism, centering on the interpretation of The Black Jacobins. Much has been written in praise of Jacobins, the keystone text of modern Caribbean historical studies, and rightly so. James' description of the self-liberation of the enslaved African masses of San Domingo continues to inspire Black organizers throughout the world. (I can personally attest to its electrifying effect on me when I first read it, some two decades ago.) But a too reverential reading by today’s Black movements can cause us to overlook instances of mismatch between the Marxist form of argument in Jacobins, and its empirical content of creolized African revolution.
For instance, when James argues that the cultural basis for the success of the revolution was the San Domingo slave population's methods of production, which "closely resembled" the modern proletariat (Jacobins, 85-86), he is basically attributing the Haitians' capacity for revolutionary success to the discipline imposed by the slave regime. This argument is not arbitrary, but derives from Marx's description in Capital (Ch. XIII, "Cooperation), of the preparation of the industrial proletariat by large-scale production, for the socially interdependent labor processes that would survive the overthrow of private property relations. In the first place, this is a somewhat tenuous claim, since we know that cooperative agricultural work, on a communal rather than individual-plot basis, are near-ubiquitous in the regions most afflicted by slave traffic: the African did not have to be enslaved to learn cooperation. Furthermore, as Robinson reminds us, James' account, because it privileges the material determinants of the Haitian revolution, devalues the no less ontological-cultural springs of revolt in the syncretic African tradition of vodou, whose significance he relegates to a code for communicating without the slave-master's comprehension (275-76).
Because of his Euromodernist intellectual commitments, when James uncovers such dramatic cases of self-organization as the revolutionary self-organization of the enslaved Black masses, he cannot depict them without translation back into the Western-humanist semiotic code of valuation he inherits from the Marxist tradition. As a result, the ideological-cultural bases of Black revolt, the drive to achieve real autonomy from the heavens all the way down, is seen by James as through a glass darkly. Furthermore, the success of revolt is attributed to a convenient dialectic of the very labor process against which the slave is revolting. This is all the more unfortunate since, as Sylvia Wynter reminds us in her study "Beyond the Categories of the Master Conception," James's fictional writings, such as Minty Alley, give evidence of his semi-conscious discovery of a "pluri-conceptual framework" of social critique that examines domination beyond the bounds of the 'colonial-liberal' and 'Marxist labor exploitation' frameworks of the Western humanist project.
In a future installment of this series, I will be turning to the possibilities of such a "pluri-conceptual framework" for theorizing a Black radical autonomist politics that is unencumbered by the weight of "Man2 humanism," as it has been denominated by Wynter (whom James once described as "the greatest mind the Caribbean has produced"). I believe that a Black anarchic critique of Western politics, situating the best of James's insights into the more radical temporality indicated in the similar projects of Wynter and Robinson, can pluck the project of Black liberation out of the empty time of bourgeois modernity, that sometimes poses as an eschatology of class liberation, but never brings us anywhere but to a further state of decay.