Alex Callinicos




4 Heresies

4.2 C.L.R. James and the virtues of spontaneity

Shachtman shares with orthodox Trotskyism the assumption that, as Ted Grant (1989: 217-18) put it, “where we have complete statification, quantity changes into quality, capitalism changes into its opposite”. But there had always been, since the time of the Left Opposition in the 1920s, Trotskyists who challenged this assumption, and argued that the USSR and its replicants represented, not a new mode of production, but a variant of the prevailing one, namely state capitalism. The Johnson-Forest tendency in the United States, so named after the pseudonyms of its two main leaders, C.L.R. James (J.R. Johnson), and Raya Dunayevskaya (Freddie Forest), provided an influential formulation of this idea, arguing in a document submitted to the 1950 convention of the American SWP: “State-property and total planning are nothing but the complete subordination of the proletariat to capital” (James 1986a: 51). The Johnson-Forest tendency had originally left the SWP with the Shachtmanites in 1940. Reacting however, to the WP’s rightward drift, it rejoined the SWP in 1947 but finally broke with the FI in 1950. Thereafter it survived as a small but lively group of workers and students based in Detroit. Originally named Correspondence, the group experienced a series of splits, notably in 1955 when Dunayevskaya left to set up her own publication, News and Letters, yet nevertheless exerted a significant if diffuse influence on one of the most important movements of the 1960s, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, which had a major impact on some of Detroit’s auto-plants at the end of the Vietnam war (Georgakas 1986).

C.L.R. James is one of the most important counter-examples to the charge of Eurocentrism sometimes made against the Trotskyist movement. In fact, Trotsky’s ideas attracted support outside the advanced capitalist countries from the early years of the Left Opposition, first of all in China (Wang 1980). The Vietnamese Trotskyists enjoyed popular support in Saigon until physically suppressed by the Communist Party in September 1945. Trotskyism first appeared on the Indian subcontinent during the Second World War, and was able – though in peculiar conditions and with a tragic outcome – to become a major force in the politics of Sri Lanka (Ervin 1988-9). The Trotskyist movement in South Africa provided the British RCP with some of its main leaders (Ted Grant, Millie Lee), and has, through the Unity Movement and more recently the Cape Action League, exerted an enduring influence in the townships of the Western Cape (Callinicos 1988: ch.4). In the Middle East Trotskyism attracted such impressive figures as Jabra Nicola, a leader of the Palestinian Communist Party (see Mandel 1979b: xii; Cliff 1987:14).

James was, however, in a class all his own. Cricketer, novelist, historian, theorist, agitator, critic, James, through the diversity of his talents, the force of his personality, and the power of his oratory, had a lasting impact on those whose lives he touched (Buhle 1986; 1988). Soon after his arrival in Britain from Trinidad in 1932, he read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, one of the two books (the other was Spengler’s Decline of the West) which converted him to Marxism (James 1983: 270). James joined the Marxist Group, a Trotskyist group which had entered the Independent Labour Party, in 1934 and rapidly became a leading member, playing an important role in the campaign against the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 (Bornstein and Richardson l986a: chs.6, 8-10). Trotsky (1971a: 203) had written: “What characterizes Bolshevism on the national question is that in its attitude towards oppressed nations, even the most backward, it considers them not only the object but also the subject of politics.” This attitude underlies one main theme of James’s work, his concern for the liberation of colonial peoples, especially in Africa and the African diaspora in the Americas. In the 1930s this was expressed in his work with George Padmore in the International African Service Bureau, a main source of Pan-Africanism (James 1983: 268-70), and in his discussions with Trotsky about how to involve the SWP in the movement for black liberation which both expected to develop in the United States (Trotsky 1972c). But by far James’s greatest vindication of black people as agents of their own emancipation rather than as mere victims of oppression was his masterpiece, The Black Jacobins, first published in 1938. Here he set the great slave rising of 1791, which transformed Sainte Domingue from a French colony into the Republic of Haiti, in the context of the Atlantic world economy and the French Revolution, demonstrating the interaction between the ebb and flow of popular mobilization in the Caribbean and in Paris, and rescuing from what E.P. Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity” such great black leaders as Toussaint Louverture and Dessalines. A classic of Marxist historiography, The Black Jacobins was a major influence on works such as Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery and an anticipation of the “history from below” developed by Thompson and other British Marxists after the Second World War. But it was also intended as a political intervention, written amid “the booming of Franco’s heavy artillery, the rattle of Stalin’s firing squads and the fierce shrill turmoil of the revolutionary movement striving for clarity and influence” (James 1963: xi), and aimed especially at promoting the struggle for the liberation of Africa from colonial rule (James 1983: 267-8).

James went to the USA in 1938, on a speaking tour for the SWP, and spent the next fifteen years there. It is on this period that his claims to have developed a distinctive version of Marxism must rest. The theory he developed in the Johnson-Forest tendency involved a philosophical method, an analysis of capitalism, and a conception of revolutionary organization. James himself regraded his Notes on Dialectics, originally a series of letters on Hegel’s Logic written to his supporters in 1947, as his most important work (1986b: 165). In fact, the odd brilliant aperçu aside, the book is philosophically uninteresting, consisting largely of lengthy extracts from Hegel which James then expounds and seeks to illustrate by applying to debates within the FI. What James chiefly gleaned from Hegel was an aspect of the dialectic frequently criticized by other Marxists, namely the incorporation of all aspects of reality into an integrated whole in such a manner that every event, even the most apparently destructive, could be understood as part of a process striving irresistibly towards its immanent goal (see Callinicos 1983: chs.1-3). Thus James (1980: 65) told his followers: “Stalinism is a bitter obstacle. But see it as part of a process.” History at points seemed to James (1980: 97), like Hegel, to be an objective teleology, whose outcome was predetermined, in which “the inevitability of socialism” was “a necessity of logical thinking in dialectical terms”.

Teleological versions of history have often been attractive to revolutionaries in times of defeat such as the late 1940s, since they seem to offer the certainty of eventual victory (Gramsci 1971: 336ff.). But more was involved in James’s resort to Hegel. He was concerned to challenge Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism as a temporary aberration whose international influence involved the deception and betrayal of the world working class. Stalinism was rather “a necessary, an inevitable form of development of the labour movement. The workers are not mistaken. They are not deceived ... They are making an experience that is necessary to their own development” (James 1980: 30). The social base of Stalinism was provided by the petty bourgeoisie which, in the era of state capitalism, far from defending private property, sought, with the support of the working class, to abolish it (James 1980: 182ff.). “As the Social-Democrats were the labour bureaucracy of monopoly capitalism, the Stalinists are the labour bureaucracy of the era of ‘vast state-capitalist trusts and syndicates’ ” (James 1986a: 6-7). Far from Stalinist betrayals springing from the pressure of private capital in the West on the Russian bureaucracy, they were a consequence of the establishment of state capitalism in the Soviet Union, itself an extreme case of global tendencies. State capitalism was not a phenomenon exclusive to the USSR and its satellites but a general feature of the world economy West as well as East. Indeed, “[t]he Stalinist bureaucracy is the American [labour] bureaucracy carried through to its ultimate and logical conclusion, both of them products of capitalist production in the epoch of state capitalism” (James 1986a: 43).

Informing this analysis was the belief that “the new productive system of socialism is primarily distinguished by an entirely new organization of labour within the process of production itself, in a reorganization of society beginning in the factory, the centre of production relations” (James 1986a: 31). The failure of Trotsky and his orthodox followers was to rely instead on the abstract criterion of nationalized property, and thus to ignore the basic similarity of the production process in the USSR to that in the West (James 1980: 127ff.). This criticism was part of a more general rejection of Trotsky’s thought: “Trotsky ... made no contribution to the struggle for international socialism. On every serious point he was wrong” (James 1980: 137). This disdain for Trotsky seems to date back to James’s personal encounters with him. Recalling their meeting in Mexico in April 1939, James (1986b: 166) made the astonishing admission that he “didn”t pay attention” to some of Trotsky’s (1974: 249-59) most interesting reflections on the weakness of the FI (see Section 1.1 above). In any case, James (1980: 147) now looked for inspiration to Lenin, whose writings of 1917-23 were “the greatest possible source of theoretical understanding and insight into the world of today”. James’s Lenin was, however, a peculiar one, whose The State and Revolution represented the rejection of any vanguard party (James 1980: 140-1). In the epoch of state capitalism, the predominant tendency was for the distinction between the revolutionary party and the working class to break down. James was especially impressed by the Italian Communist Party which, in the late 1940s, had, he claimed, 6-7 million members: “In Italy already the party is the mass. In this sense the contradiction [between party and class] is on the way to vanishing” (James 1980: 119). Revolutionaries should no longer seek to build vanguard parties on the Bolshevik model. On the contrary, “[t]he task is to abolish organization. The task today is to call for, to teach, to illustrate, to develop spontaneity – the free creative activity of the proletariat” (James 1980: 117). James celebrated the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, one of whose “greatest achievements ... was to destroy once and for all the legend that the working class cannot act successfully except under leadership of a political party” (James et al. 1974: 10). The everyday struggles of workers resisting their exploitation in the factories, manifested for example in the British shop stewards’ movement, “constitute the socialist society and the basic struggle for socialism”, which revolutionaries should “align” themselves with rather than seek to lead (James et al. 1974: 113, 125).

This analysis of capitalism, and of “the emerging socialist society” at work within it in spontaneous shopfloor revolts, reflected James’s Hegelian confidence in a historical process which would inevitably subvert the existing order, using the most unlikely of instruments. This perhaps explains his strange enthusiasm for the Italian Communist Party, whose leaders had systematically suppressed revolutionary impulses among their followers at the end of the Second World War. It may also explain such disastrous misjudgements as his support for Kwame Nkrumah, whom he called “one of the greatest of living politicians”, the “Lenin” of the African revolution, and his praise of Kenneth Kaunda’s “Humanism” as in close harmony with the original conceptions and aims of Marxism” (Buhle 1988: 136-42). James nevertheless remained, till his death, rooted in the Marxist tradition, insisting that “[t]he idea that the emancipation of the workers will be the work of the workers themselves is the literal and total truth” (James et al. 1974: 91). He resisted pressures from many of his admirers who, under the influence of black nationalism, argued that black liberation could be achieved only by a movement autonomous of the working class, and argued instead that white workers must be won to the struggle against racism (James and Glaberman 1986). The universality of human emancipation affirmed in The Black Jacobins was central to James’s thought to the end.


Last updated on 13.3.2001