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The Neglected C.L.R. James

Paul Buhle teaches in the American Civilization Department at Brown University. His is the author of Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor (1999). His previous books include Images of American Radicalism, Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist, The Encyclopedia of the American Left, Working for Democracy, and C.L.R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary.

Glaberman, Martin, ed., Marxism for Our Times: C. L. R. James on Revolutionary Organization (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999), 206 pp., $18, paperback.

In 1963, when The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Overture and the San Domingo Revolution returned to print in an inexpensively priced paperback, early new left readers discovered (or rediscovered) for themselves a revolutionary classic and a beautifully written account of the first successful slave uprising since Spartacus. The idea that Haitians had not only freed themselves but played a role in the contemporary European class struggles was potent stuff for the emerging Black Power movement. But the scarcity of Pan-African author C. L. R. James’ other writings by the early 1970s, at the height of his popularity as campus lecturer and veteran revolutionary, was inevitably disappointing. The general availability of James’ works now, when only graying radicals can remember the vividness of his presence, seems deeply ironic. Likewise the miniboom of recent critical literature, including three biographical studies and several critical anthologies; for better or worse, James has belatedly come into his own as an academic subject. What political and intellectual use that readers will make of this work and the rest of what might now be called “Jamesiana” remains, of course, very much to be seen.

Martin Glaberman, a longtime disciple who maintained several groups in Detroit around James’ ideas, gives us material in Marxism for Our Times that has practically never seen the light of day. As Glaberman’s introduction reminds readers, the Trinidadian native was most at home with smallish political entities almost from the time of his political conversion in England of the early 1930s until his expulsion from the United States in 1953, and (so far as he could manage) beyond. In this capacity, he tutored discussion circles and individuals—the most famous included the young Eric Williams and Kwame Nkrumah—from London and Trinidad to the United States on theoretical, strategic, and tactical points. Marxism for Our Times possesses special interest because James wrestles with the problems of postwar capitalism when the ready answers of economic decline and impending crisis in the old sense moved off the map.

Frequently, James’ writings of the 1940s are marked by sweeping political-philosophical visions framed in the very particular terms of contemporary Trotskyism, and this is the case with the longest and most important piece in the book, “Education, Propaganda, Agitation: Post-War America and Bolshevism” (1946). Unlike so many wishful thinkers, James wanted to face squarely the American failure to build a European-style mass party, by proposing dramatically new directions. Speaking for the prospects of the Workers Party (an organization of some five hundred members), he wrote that its weekly newspaper might become “our press, our radio,…and our film short,” but only if it spoke to working-class readers directly and intimately, adapting itself as successfully to this climate as pre-Revolution Bolshevism had been adapted to Russian conditions.

This idea of political-cultural adaptation was in the air in various parts of the left since at least the 1920s, but arguably was captured best (albeit in crypto-Marxist terms) in James’ era by the Popular Front milieu around the Communist Party, and far more effectively in popular art than in politics and theory. As Michael Denning has shown in meticulous detail, the very logic of radicals in the entertainment world finding a willing audience carried them along further than they might have expected themselves to go. No one, save perhaps left trade-unionists (and trade-union educators such as the extraordinary popularizer Leo Huberman), was so successful at “Americanizing,” at developing the language and logic to circumstances. If talk about Marx and Lenin remained stubbornly “foreign,” films like House of Seven Gables, Talk of the Town, The Sea Wolf, Sahara, Action in the North Atlantic, and Woman of the Year (all of them written by Hollywood Popular Fronters)—not to mention the songs of the Almanacs, Billie Holiday, or Paul Robeson—traversed the lexicon for something beyond capitalism’s systematic racism and exploitation and often succeeded grandly.

The James of the rest of Marxism for Our Times speaks from the early to mid-1960s, when a recovered global capitalism faced new dilemmas, mostly involving the impact of the former colonial world. Socialism could no longer be seen as “inevitable” (a popular notion of Marxists in earlier eras) but rather as the alternative to barbarism in one sense or another. Yet the key ideas of Marx remained supremely useful, James insisted, because a Marxist view of social relations understood capitalism’s deepest contradictions even while the various efforts at state planning (East and West, North and South) were frustrated and finally turned into bureaucratic hash. Radicals might lose heart, James warned, hurling verbal jeremiads while quietly giving up on the vision of revolutionary change—or they might look at ordinary people’s lives more carefully and try to find the creative possibilities in responses to the stresses and strains of modern wage-slavery and colonialism’s heritage.

“I have a feeling,” James wrote in 1963, that “there are a lot of young people around nowadays who are looking for something to which they can attach themselves” (88). He was right, but revival of the existing Marxist groups was simply not in the cards, except for those which inserted themselves successfully into student radicalism (often with destructive effects) or managed for a time to draw a saving remnant from the collapse of the movement.

James urgently wanted to find something beyond the old vision of the vanguard party, something akin to the new left but more conscious of culture in its many senses, of Lenin’s legacy, and of working-class possibility. He was immensely heartened by the uprisings of 1968 and, personally as well as politically, sympatico with young radicals, especially young African-American and Caribbean Marxists. He had a special way of presenting the black struggle—efficiently presenting himself as a part of the history of the black struggle that included W. E. B. DuBois along with his fellow West Indians Marcus Garvey, Frantz Fanon, and Stokely Carmichael—that was well-nigh irresistible.

But he could not reinvent the traditional left because the task was beyond accomplishment. Indeed, the careful retelling of his small group’s history (down to the details of personalities, including Raya Dunayevskaya, James Boggs, and Grace Lee Boggs) is fascinating mainly because of the frustrations at wrestling with political forms and theoretical perspectives. If we read between the lines, we might see an unwillingness to let go of the familiar structure of past Marxist movements—an altogether understandable miscalculation.

Had James taken a more careful and sympathetic look at the milieu of his Popular Front political opponents in earlier decades, he might possibly have drawn the conclusion that the leftwing party in anything like its pre-1940 form had already dissolved (except for the groups of a few hundred who worked vigorously but could grow no further), replaced by more amorphous movements drawing upon popular moods and impulses. Even as the Communist Party (reorganized in the short-lived Communist Political Association) reached its all-time apex of some eighty-five thousand members, the larger milieu grew steadily less reliant upon Party guidance; the subsequent effort to reimpose political discipline proved almost as disastrous as McCarthyism. To be “radical” now meant something different, as early Monthly Review readers recognized, and organizational styles had fallen badly behind.

This shift, which James had already predicted in a way—and he was bitterly denounced by his fellow Trotskyists for his supposed apotheosis of “spontaneity”—appears to have changed the prospects for the left irrevocably. After the rapid rise and fall of Black Power and new left movements; the more protracted but similar trajectories of the women’s movement; gay and lesbian movements (not to mention the Chicano, Asian-American, and American Indian movements); the ebb and flow of organized and leftish environmentalism; and the often massive but decentralized anti-intervention and antinuke movements of the 1980s and 1990s, the newer pattern has become familiar.

The demonstrations at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in late 1999 provides fresh evidence not so much of “spontaneity” as decentralization; cross-movement alliances (now, at last, including labor again); and a heavy emphasis upon a public cultural presentation of the issues. Perhaps, for a left that peaked in the nineteenth century at five thousand organized socialists (with free-lover Victoria Woodhull vastly more charismatic than the immigrant Marxists who expelled her from the First International section), launched the Wobblies and Greenwich Village radicals alongside the Socialist Party, and saw the subsequent rise of muralists, singers, and moviemakers at the visible center of left public events, not so much has changed after all. Shedding indirect light on these issues, the particulars of Marxism for Our Time will not appeal to every reader, but sympathetic and patient readers will find much to consider.

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