Selma James was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, in 1930. She worked in factories as a young woman and, at the age of 15, joined the Johnson-Forest Tendency (sometimes called the Johnsonites), a group within and eventually a split from the U.S. Workers Party, founded by C. L. R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Grace Chin Lee (later Boggs) under the respective pseudonyms J. R. Johnson, Freddie Forest, and Ria Stone. In 1952, Selma wrote the classic pamphlet A Woman’s Place. Four years later, she married C. L. R. (short for Cyril Lionel Robert) in England, where he had been deported. The two were together for more than twenty-five years, each with their own political activities but also sharing important struggles.
Selma James went on to become a founding member and organizing secretary of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, a British organization established in 1965. In 1972, the publication of her and Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s groundbreaking The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, which discussed how women’s unpaid housework and care work is crucial to the production of the working class and, thus, the economy as a whole, launched the domestic labor debate inside the women’s movement. That same year, the International Wages for Housework Campaign was formed. James was also the first spokeswoman of the English Collective of Prostitutes, started in 1975 to advocate for the decriminalization of sex work and sex workers’ right to recognition and safety. In 1975, James helped found what became the Crossroads Women’s Centre, home to more than fifteen different groups—including Black Women for Wages for Housework, Wages Due Lesbians, and Women Against Rape—and now located in the heart of London’s Kentish Town, a few streets away from where Karl Marx lived with his family for more than ten years. In 1983, she delivered her important “Marx and Feminism,” later published as a pamphlet.
Starting in 1985, James helped found the International Women Count Network, which succeeded in getting the United Nations to direct governments to measure and value unwaged work in national statistics. Today, James organizes with the Global Women’s Strike, an international network of grassroots women’s initiatives that came out of Wages for Housework and of which she has been the international coordinator since 2000. She is also very involved in solidarity work with Haiti. As alive and kicking as many people could only wish for, James is also an active member of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and has been involved in work with her friend Mumia Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners when visiting the United States.
In 1932, at the age of 31, C. L. R. left his native Trinidad and Tobago for the United Kingdom, where he became involved in the international left opposition around Leon Trotsky and what became the anticolonial International African Service Bureau. “I arrived in England intending to make my way as a writer of fiction, but the world went political and I went with it.” From 1938 until his deportation in 1953, he spent fifteen very active years in the United States, where he eventually broke with the Trotskyist movement through the Johnson-Forest Tendency, while remaining highly critical of the official Marxism of the Soviet Union. As a black, anticolonial Marxist, he advocated for the emancipation of black people and encouraged an independent voice for women. In what may be termed the black movement of the 1960s and ’70s, C. L. R. was a popular and influential speaker. He is particularly well known for his brilliant interpretation of cricket in Beyond a Boundary and his history of the Haitian Revolution in The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. However, his life and thinking as a revolutionary involved in struggles and debates throughout important periods in the history of the left are widely ignored or forgotten today.
In an interview with Ron Augustin at her home in London, Selma James spoke of her political activities and years with C. L. R.
Ron Augustin: How did you and C. L. R. get to know each other, and how did this relate to your political activities?
Selma James: My sister was working as his secretary. She was already in his organization, the Johnson-Forest Tendency, a minority within the Workers Party, and she brought her bright kid sister to meet him. That would have been 1943 or ’44, when I was 13 or 14. I joined the Workers Party Youth Group in 1945 and was soon part of Johnson-Forest.
A few years later, people started to tell C. L. R. that I, in Los Angeles, had these ideas on women, and he invited me to have lunch with him when I came to New York. He said: “They tell me that you have ideas on ‘the woman question.'” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “You know, what is needed is a theory that embraces millions of women.” It had never crossed my mind before, but I immediately said, “Yes, I know,” because as soon as he said it, I did know. And he said, “Do you have that?” And I said, “Oh yes.” I had no doubt that this was the case. He said, “Alright.” So we sat down and I spoke, I don’t know for how long, half an hour or forty-five minutes. He said nothing. He listened intently to all that I said and nodded appropriately. And then I said, “That’s it.” And he got up and started to pace back and forth, saying, “This is really something. I mean, this is really something. You have to write this.” I didn’t know how to do that. But after that he seemed to incorporate some of what I had said into his view.
Fundamentally, I was saying that housewives are part of the working class and that their work (what is now called reproductive work) is integral to the way capitalist production is organized, and describing how this determined the way women, men, and children related to each other in the family. He later asked me to do a pamphlet on women based on what I’d told him. He told everybody, “Leave her alone. Do not tell her what to say. Let her do it herself.” And I did it, and it was successful, in the sense that all kinds of people read it and liked it, including my neighbors and the people I worked with in the factory, even my mother. We called it A Woman’s Place.1
In 1951, C. L. R. came to Los Angeles on a lecture tour, and we got involved. That same year, Johnson-Forest made a final split from Trotskyism.
I saw him before he was detained in Ellis Island by McCarthyism and we corresponded while he was in detention. I also read the first draft of his book on Herman Melville, which became Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, part of his case against deportation. Then, in 1952, I went back east to type Mariners as it was rewritten, and also to attend Johnson-Forest’s third layer school for the leadership to learn from its working-class members.2 I was in New York when he was released from Ellis Island and we were together from then. He had to leave the United States the next year, and my son and I joined him in January 1955.
RA: You each had a child already, and you were very young compared to him. How did that determine your life?
SJ: He was very respectful of mothers and of children. He knew that I had a child and that was a commitment he had to make, and he was quite prepared to make it. He and my son Sam had known each other in the United States, and after a while they became very close. He also stayed in contact with his own son Nob (C. L. R. Jr.), for whom he wrote stories, and he would draw a picture on the envelopes of a man’s face with a pipe and a hat, so that Nob would know that these letters were from his father.
RA: C. L. R. was a “political animal” by then. Were you?
SJ: I was too. I grew up in the movement of the 1930s, with the Spanish Civil War and the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys (nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a train in 1931). My truck driver father helped found a branch of the Teamsters union in Brooklyn. He used to listen to Adolf Hitler’s speeches with a clenched jaw; he knew what was coming. He understood German because he was born in Poland, the Austro-Hungarian empire at that time. He never learned to write but taught himself to read the Daily Worker. My mother quit school when she was 12 to work in a paper box factory. She told me stories later about her activities, helping families who were evicted and women fighting for Home Relief (what welfare was called then).
I was committed to Johnson-Forest. It was a different way of looking at the world from the rest of the left. Working-class people were central—not backward and to be led, but the source of the revolution. I was in the movement and I never thought that I should be doing something else. My commitment was much the same as C. L. R.’s. But I was an American working-class girl, and he was a European intellectual and an anti-imperialist colonial. I never remember finding the age difference problematic. I think the class difference between us was the greater gap, though my instinctive responses to all kinds of things interested him greatly, and I learned from him every day.
RA: You would describe him as an intellectual, although he had no formal academic background?
SJ: He had an educated and well-stocked mind. He had always read voraciously and carefully. He would read one book several times. I think he probably would learn some books by heart. I gathered, finally, that this was a way he would concentrate on developing his own ideas. He would finish a book and go back to particular sections until he had conquered what the author was saying and therefore incorporated it into his own thinking. At different points there would be different subjects on which he concentrated. He was well beyond the restraints of the university.
The person he was in Britain was not the person he had been in the States. That has to be said. In Britain, there was an anti-imperialist movement and the class struggle and a Labour Party. In the United States, race was central to class politics, and the struggle against U.S. imperialism was much more fragmented than the pervasive and focused struggle against the British empire. It felt like an entirely different context. Also, when we work in an organization, we are very different people, and when he was in Britain without Johnson-Forest, he was much more of an individual. You can’t do the same work or be the same person if you don’t have an organizational framework within the movement.
I also missed an organizational framework. And the left in the United Kingdom seemed out of date and out of touch, especially to my generation. Some on the left were lovely people, and they liked Correspondence, the newspaper put out in the United States by the Correspondence Publishing Committee, the organization that succeeded the Johnson-Forest Tendency. One of them, when I first met him, said, “Ah, you’re Selma, you know we read the Women’s Page of Correspondence first, that is our favorite section.” It connected politics with people’s personal lives and that was something new to them.
RA: Does that mean that you were rather isolated during the first years after you came to the United Kingdom?
SJ: Yes, I was. I went to work in a factory similar to the one in which I had worked in the States. I wanted to know what British society was about and to find my connections. I was an immigrant, and it takes a couple of years for any immigrant, no matter who you are, to settle in. I had to work hard to find my feet. C. L. R. knew Britain from the life that he’d lived before he went to the States. That was an entirely foreign life to me, and I had to find and make my own life, and I did.
Also, it took us a while to get to know each other since we had never lived in the same city before I came to England. C. L. R. was different in England. He told me once that he was never completely relaxed in the United Kingdom; he was more comfortable even on the continent—despite it being largely white and racist, it was not the British Empire and the particular antagonism with which he had always lived. I was shocked by racism and the absence of people of color in Britain and the rest of Europe in ways that he took for granted. The European left hadn’t come to terms with the role of race in the class hierarchy then. They were unselfconsciously racist. (The Wages for Housework Campaign—WFH—had a crucial split with Italy in the 1970s and it was on race: the black women stayed in the Campaign and the white women left. It was the only split we ever had over race.)
RA: Before leaving for Trinidad in 1958 in the run up to that country’s independence, and after your return to Britain in 1962, both you and C. L. R. left behind a certain political practice. Did you look for new political avenues?
SJ: In fact, we didn’t. But I became immersed in the antiracist and antiwar movements and later in the women’s movement. C. L. R. went on with his writing and with cricket, and we were both involved with the Caribbean diaspora. The left was not very interested in what C. L. R. had to offer, and it was mutual. Before he was deported from the United States, Johnson-Forest had been engaged in putting into practice what they had worked out as a new political and organizational perspective that left the vanguard party behind. This was the return to Karl Marx, after Stalinism had corrupted the left by echoing capitalist forms of management and repression in the vanguard party. The vanguard party, we were told, made the revolution in 1917 and we all had to form a vanguard party to make the revolution elsewhere. The fact that the party was out of V. I. Lenin’s control and resulted in Stalinism was not considered. Even Trotskyism, the prime enemy of Stalinism, formed a vanguard party in which the intelligentsia were in charge. Johnson-Forest was based on the rejection of a vanguard and experimented with new ways of organizing within the working-class movement, twenty years before the mass movements of the 1960s undermined the whole hierarchical concept of a vanguard.
That’s what C. L. R. contributed more to than anything else: creating a new kind of working-class organization in which the autonomy of black people, of women, and of young people was integral to our political focus, the way the organization was structured, and our relationships. We were trying to build an organization based on the power of the grassroots and the end of domination over working-class people. My work on women was encouraged by that. In industry, for example in Detroit, our people did not engage in competition with other left organizations for union posts. We were not trying to “lead the workers,” but were involved instead in trying to strengthen the struggle. We put out a newspaper that working-class people wrote and helped edit. When C. L. R. came back to England, he continued to try to lead the U.S. organization with long letters from abroad.
RA: When did it become clear to you that, in fact, something was over?
SJ: It became clear to me in the 1960s, because the organization hobbled along and then Martin Glaberman, who was keeping it going in the States, wanted to put forward a motion to dissolve it. I voted for dissolution and C. L. R. voted against.
It was obvious to me that Johnson-Forest was falling behind where the new movements were leading, including the connection between industrial countries and the third world. But the years of Johnson-Forest, the return to Marx, had pointed the way—no question. It meant that it could not go further in that form. But what Johnson-Forest stood for and worked for has been my political perspective ever since, enriched by all kinds of struggles and campaigning, and many people have rediscovered it in recent years.
RA: In 1958, he got an invitation from the new West Indian Federation.
SJ: Yes, we were in Spain, we had gone there so C. L. R. could finish what became Beyond a Boundary, and not spend a lot of money. The West Indies were celebrating the federation of the islands in preparation for independence and he was invited to stay and work for the federation. I joined him in British Guiana (now Guyana) around June 1958, and then we continued to Trinidad. C. L. R. enjoyed being home a great deal. I also loved the place.
Eric Williams, his old student and then chief minister, would come to see C. L. R. at all times of the day or night. He would come and pick him up from the office and he would say, “I have to deal with the post office” or the phone company or MI5 or something. “What do you think I should do?” He would take out his notebook and would take notes on everything C. L. R. said. So, “Tell them this and tell them that,” etc. C. L. R. enjoyed it enormously; it was something to pay back the country that gave him birth, but it also was a lot of fun.
RA: But politically there was not much in common between him and Williams, was there?
SJ: Well, looking back when I was no longer so ignorant, I finally understood that all differences could be blurred in the nationalist movement, especially if you are working in or around the rarified atmosphere of governments. C. L. R. wasn’t a nationalist, and I certainly wasn’t. But we were definitely for the West Indies against the British empire, we were for independence, obviously, and at that moment in time, the basic differences between C. L. R. and Williams were never articulated. Because you were beating the hell out of the empire, fundamentally, and that’s what you had always wanted to do. But, of course, the differences ultimately emerged.
One day, Williams came to tell us that the British representative had refused to hand over control of the police. Once Williams had left, C. L. R. said to me as a joke, “What would you do?” “I would tell them to go to hell, take the police, take it all.” And then a couple of hours later, Williams called and said, “I told them to take it all and as soon as I told them that, they said ‘Alright you can have the police.'” They knew he had a movement behind him. We had a good laugh. That’s how it was at that moment in time. That was 1958–59.
The Bandung Conference had happened in 1955. Ghana became independent in 1957. The anti-imperialist movement was the biggest movement the world has ever seen. In the words of cricket, we were on a winning wicket, it seemed to us that there was not a lot you could do wrong.
The leadership in the English-speaking Caribbean was not facing any of the serious questions, except a federation of the islands. But I had seen clear signs that Williams didn’t care whether the West-Indian Federation survived. Only Trinidad had oil, which meant an income independent of other islands. Each of the politicians was more interested in their own power than in bringing the populations together. Norman Manley in Jamaica was an exception but he lost. C. L. R. and I were deeply disappointed when the Federation was voted down. We knew it was a major defeat. The politicians had not explained to the people what was at stake and how joining forces and resources would give each of the islands much more bargaining power against the neighbor to the north. Independence would not be held back but it would be a flag-and-national-anthem one, with the personally ambitious in charge and vulnerable to the imperialists.
Years later, I saw how Hugo Chávez, who was a truly revolutionary leader, was sabotaged in Venezuela by the same ambitious types. Later still, when I edited and introduced a book on the socialist villages in Tanzania under Julius Nyerere, another fantastic leader, it was again clear how much the personally ambitious in his government undermined all he was trying to do.3 By then, I knew that achieving state power blinded most people to everything else that should have mattered; they became entirely manipulable by the same forces the movement had overthrown—the imperial powers and their multinationals. Nyerere said that independence was the “preliminary goal” with which you then changed your society, but for the nationalists it was the only goal. The issues that mattered in the West Indies—the question of what to do with the economy, the racial split in the population between those of African and Indian descent, and how the Amerindians were finally to be acknowledged —were never seriously tackled.
RA: Why did you leave the Caribbean in the end?
SJ: C. L. R. could not earn his living there. Williams made a deal with the United States and dissociated himself from C. L. R. The movement wanted the U.S. military base out of Chaguaramas and Williams made some compromise. C. L. R. went back to cricket journalism in England. By then he was not well, following a car accident in Jamaica. We were deeply upset when the outcome was individual independence as opposed to a West-Indian Federation, but we were glad to have done the work.
Once we got back to England, apart from C. L. R. finishing Beyond a Boundary and preparing a new edition of The Black Jacobins (naturally I did the typing), there was already an antiracist movement coming together of which I was very much part.4 By 1965, I was a founding member and organizing secretary of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination.
RA: Was Beyond a Boundary coming out in 1963 a kind of turning point?
SJ: It was for C. L. R. The book received the most extraordinary review in Wisden, which is the annual cricket bible. It was soon headed to be a classic and it has now been translated into a number of languages—unusual, to say the least, for a book on cricket. Wherever he went, when C. L. R. opened his mouth, people came to me and said things like, “Mrs. James, your husband is a poet.” And then The Black Jacobins was republished with a new appendix, “From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro.” He began to get invitations to speak and then to teach in the United States. Black students had gone to the universities and to the government to say they wanted him to be allowed back into the country. He gave lectures and then taught black history courses for some years at Federal City College, which then became the University of the District of Columbia.
RA: On his previous return to Britain in 1953, C. L. R. was active in the anticolonial and Pan-African struggle, continuing his earlier involvement in the International African Service Bureau. Is there a link with his later contacts in Africa?
SJ: When I joined him in the United Kingdom in 1955, he was involved with Mbiyu Koinange, who was Kenyan, at the time of the Mau Mau, and he, along with Grace Boggs, helped publish a book called The People of Kenya Speak for Themselves, about the education that a woman called Njery was developing at the grassroots level. This was one way of counteracting what the British government was doing and saying in Kenya against the movement. The repression was horrendous—widespread torture, detention camps, and the like. Mbiyu used to come regularly to the house and get help with writing letters to the Colonial Office and the newspapers, which is some of what C. L. R. had been doing in the 1930s, before leaving for the States. Our friends George and Dorothy Padmore, his colleagues in the 1930s, continued to be central to the anti-imperialist struggle worldwide.
C. L. R. was invited to Ghana’s independence celebration in 1957. We both went in 1960 when Ghana became a republic. He met Nyerere in Tanzania and was deeply impressed, especially with the Arusha Declaration. In 1968, C. L. R. attended the Black Writers Congress in Canada, which was a memorable occasion. That’s when Walter Rodney was prevented from returning to Jamaica to take up his post at the university. There were demonstrations in Jamaica, where some people died in the clashes, and in London, where a number of us were arrested.
He also spoke at a conference in Cuba about intellectual workers in the same period. He did some support work for prisoners in South Africa. He also broadcast on a free radio that the Pan Africanist Congress had organized. The Pan Africanist Congress was not connected with the Communist Party, as the African National Congress was, and had a most remarkable leader who died on Robben Island—Robert Sobukwe. Later, he was involved in supporting the Grenada Revolution. C. L. R. would always do what the movement asked, but he didn’t himself try to build or join any organization in Britain.
RA: Was he quite involved in the black movement at the time?
SJ: He was a big support for the black students. He certainly gave them a historical framework. C. L. R. was an extraordinary historian, by which I mean not merely that he made sense of history, but he was also able to make it accessible to anyone, academic or not. People learned a lot at his hand. He was not only appreciated as a speaker, he was appreciated as an educator, and as someone who gave meaning and perspective to the activities people were involved in. His conception of black history was an antiracist one, by which every committed person could be nourished. When I visited him on my own lecture tour in the United States, I could see that the students really loved him.
RA: At the 1967 Dialectics of Liberation Congress in London, where C. L. R. intervened in support of Stokely Carmichael and Black Power, he referred to the fact that the movement needed more knowledge of where it stands in history and where it’s going. Is this something you remember from those days?
SJ: I took those things for granted. I knew that C. L. R. had a political perspective based on history. From 1968, he was on and off in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Montreal, other places. He always stressed the self-activity of the oppressed and that this was the driving force of history and he thought it was the job of Marxists to convey that, especially to those in the movement—they had to look for it and encourage it in their practice. The Black Jacobins and what the Haitian slaves were able to organize to liberate themselves educated him in world history. He’d show that events were a response to what the movement demanded and fought for. Aside from Marx, there was nowhere else you could get that perspective then, and I suspect it is still rare now.
RA: Can you say something about C. L. R.’s life in Britain?
SJ: A lot of C. L. R.’s life was study. He would produce extraordinary new insights into everything that he touched. He did a study of Michelangelo’s frescoes and statues that showed the class politics of the great artist—Michelangelo had been in charge of the armaments in the uprising against the Medici. I don’t know if that was ever written up but it is quite brilliant. Recently, I saw an article of his that I hadn’t known about, on the action painter Jackson Pollock, something completely new and different.
In the sixties, we had a study group, once a week, of young people from the West Indies and one or two others. Walter Rodney was sometimes part of it. C. L. R. would spend hours every week advising students. They would leave with a much broader view of their subject than they previously had. But what benefit did the movement get from this work? Most of them were in academia to build their career, not to change the world. There are always exceptions, and Walter Rodney was a stunning example: his thesis was politically useful and historically creative, and he went back to the Caribbean to make available what he knew to grassroots people. C. L. R. also spent a lot of time and thought promoting the writers from the English-speaking Caribbean, especially Wilson Harris and George Lamming.
RA: From what he published in those years, the main topics seem to center around creativity, the artist in society, Marxism and culture, also some articles on Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore, and so on, but no “return” to the Marxist classics so to speak, or the New Left’s discussions of the late 1960s and ’70s.
SJ: He completed the work of studying and writing about Georg W. F. Hegel and Marx in 1948. We called his manuscript the Nevada Document and the typescript was circulated among some of us. (At the time, he was in Nevada working as a janitor, the only job he could get as a black man.) It was first published in 1980 as Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin.5 It is a great book that helps train your mind to think in an anticapitalist way, dialectically, about everything, beginning with day-to-day politics. You always learn to begin with the movement of the exploited: its strivings, its forms of organization, the new forms its enemy takes in response, and the ways the movement reorganizes in order to deal with that. He said Notes was his best work and I agree. Whether you agree with everything in it or not is irrelevant. It is the attempt to make the dialectic accessible to people like me who want and need to know, but are not trained to read and understand Hegel. It is always enlightening and sometimes beautiful. It is a scandal that it has been out of print for almost forty years and it tells you what certain intellectuals think of Marx’s method.
C. L. R. spent his last years studying decisive moments of class conflict. When he was in the United States, he had done work on the Civil War and the struggle against slavery; the abolitionist movement was the basis of Johnson-Forest’s antiracism. But now he concentrated on the French Revolution and the great struggles in the Low Countries in the Middle Ages. C. L. R. was interested in everything that was going on and always incorporated new information into his wide body of knowledge. In the 1960s in the United Kingdom, Richard Beeching had a plan to cut the rail lines that were not “economic.” One day, I moved a pile of books and there was the Beeching report, annotated. I could not imagine why C. L. R. had read it in such detail, but it was something that was going on in society and he wanted to know. He saw every phenomenon as part of a widening pattern. Each addition gave clarity to the rest. He was able to do that. And he always asked the right questions. You told him something and he asked you a question that made you review everything that you had just thought you knew all about. Sometimes it reinforced you: yes, I was right all along; but sometimes you had to say: I have to look at it again.
C. L. R. studied Lenin and Lenin’s “conclusion” in his last three essays, “Better Fewer but Better,” “On Cooperation,” and “Tasks of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection.” He thought that the political mistakes Trotsky made were revealed in the trade union debate in volume 9 of Lenin’s Selected Works. He knew that the central political issue was the self-activity of the working class striving for power against the planners, managers, and the personally ambitious within the movement and in society more generally. He was always looking for ways to identify self-activity and the forces against it, including within working-class organizations such as the unions and political parties of the left.
RA: Weren’t you and C. L. R. also looking for new forms of organization?
SJ: In some way, forms of organization are always quite similar: collectivity, cooperation, self-activity; that is, autonomy from all the forces and agents of repression. What changes is the sectors that come together, how comprehensive their demands are, what other sectors of society they can bring to their side, and what they are ready to do to win. Whether it was factory committees, or peasants’ collectives, or a slave rebellion, or a movement for civil rights, or a women’s movement against rape or for pay equity, or an antiwar soldiers’ movement, or the Palestinian Great March of Return, or a prisoners’ hunger strike… Whatever it is, whenever it is, people everywhere find themselves building organizations that have these qualities. I learned this from things that C. L. R. would read to me or tell me about. What he wanted to find out was what individuals of what sector(s) had initiated the organization(s) behind events as opposed to whom it might have been credited. Notes on Dialectics says that freedom is always what we strive for, whoever we are and whatever stage we are at in the struggle. The question for us was not what organization, the question was who is going to form it and when, and who is going to try to take it over and “lead it” to enhance their own power, and whether we will be able to defeat them. Ultimately, the question is how much of our freedom we have the power to demand. What happens now, increasingly, in most struggles, is that different sectors speak up and broaden the demands to ensure that they are included and become visible and integral to what the movement as a whole stands for: women, the nationalities, the races, the ages, the disabled, the sexual choices and identities, the prisoners, the veterans, the children… C. L. R. does not spell this out but opens the way for what the movements have articulated in action. For him, our job as anticapitalists is to see that even before organizations of struggle announce themselves, their direction is welcomed, encouraged, protected, advertised. He saw that to want to use and/or be in charge of such organizations of rebellion for your own purposes, rather than be an integral part of them, is itself the enemy.
RA: Hadn’t that been exactly the point in the analyses of the Johnsonites?
SJ: Of course. Johnson-Forest was an organization, rather than a party aiming to take power on behalf of the working class. C. L. R. was convinced of what Johnsonites could accomplish. Lenin had published What Is to Be Done in 1902, saying that the working class could not achieve revolutionary consciousness, that the intellectuals had to bring it from outside, and the left was stuck with that. C. L. R. insisted that Lenin later regretted writing that. But it was a lot of years later before Lenin understood all that was involved. He found out because he led a revolution and then had to lead a workers’ state, despite the fact that the intellectuals, who were supposed to bring consciousness to the working class, hadn’t even wanted to make the insurrection and were now managing and disciplining the working class. Before his death, in those last three articles, Lenin proposed ways for workers to have more power to lead the economy.
For C. L. R., Trotskyism had not broken with Stalinism—the direction still came from the vanguard rather than from the workers and peasants. Trotskyism had based itself on raising the consciousness of workers, but Marx had a much more realistic view. Early on he said:
Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.6
Martin Glaberman used to say with glee after reading this quote: “So it’s not communist consciousness that makes the revolution but the revolution that makes communist consciousness!”
C. L. R. didn’t understand this when he joined the movement in the mid–1930s, but researching for The Black Jacobins what the slaves accomplished in Haiti taught him a lot. By 1948, he was able to grasp Hegel and return to Marx. He spelled it all out in Notes on Dialectics. He then said, “Okay, now we have to build an organization that is not trying to be a vanguard, where working-class members are the transmission belt with the working class outside. They must shape what the organization stands for, what it does and how it does it.” And that was the Johnson-Forest Tendency when it split from both wings of Trotskyism in 1951.
To ensure workers’ power, it’s not enough to put working-class people in leadership positions. That’s a way to manipulate and even corrupt good comrades by pulling them away from their power base so they’re entirely under the influence of those deemed to be educated. C. L. R. was proposing something far more profound: an organization that fuses movement experience with an antivanguard theoretical perspective. It reinforced you against the capitalist habit of becoming a vanguard over others. As a young member, I was able to read or listen to the organizational speeches that C. L. R. would make, laying down the organization’s problems and principles as we developed them. Not this question or that question, but the question of how to organize internally and with the public as one continuum. These speeches must be somewhere in his papers and should be published and read today as a historical moment of an organization working out its antivanguard principles. I remember C. L. R. in the 1950s dictating a letter to Grace Boggs, whose training was in philosophy, saying: “Pay as much attention to the organization as you do to Hegel.” This has always stayed with me. It means that the internal structure of your organization is an embodiment of what you stand for.
RA: C. L. R. is often credited with making the case for black autonomy. How does this relate to the movements of the 1960s?
SJ: In the 1940s, even in the 1930s, he had established “the independent validity of the Negro struggle”—that is, you couldn’t prioritize the struggle of “workers” (which really meant white workers) over the struggle against racism (meaning black workers). This is in what we Johnsonites had all been educated. Establishing the autonomy of the black struggle also gave validity to the autonomous struggles of others sectors. Once you establish the “independent validity of the Negro struggle,” it is not difficult with the massive black movement of the 1950s and ’60s to move from “independent validity” to black people as a sector of the working class and their antiracist struggle as integral to the struggle of the class. This is no less true because some black people who are in the movement are not working class. Within every movement—of people of color, women, children, every sector—the class struggle rages between moving up in capitalism and destroying the capitalist hierarchy.
I made the short leap from “independent validity” to the black movement as a working-class movement in 1972.7 Once the black movement is acknowledged as a working-class movement rather than a so-called special interest, the potential for racism within the movement is undermined. Women speak for the whole class as black people speak for the whole class, as each sector making its own power felt speaks for the whole class—each broadens what the class struggle aims to achieve. The Poor People’s Campaign, a new mass movement in the United States, calls this coming together of sectors fusion.
The issues that women raise are also unifying issues within the whole movement. Caring, the work of reproducing and protecting the human race, is work that capitalism benefits from but has no interest in paying for because they are not interested in our welfare or even our survival as long as they can replace us with workers from elsewhere if needed. Women are demanding that the whole of society, rather than only women, must have survival and welfare as the focus, instead of everyone submitting to the needs of the capitalist market.
In the 1960s and ’70s in the United States, a movement of single mothers led by black women in the cities—Johnnie Tillmon, Beula Sanders, and others—fought for welfare for the reproductive care work all women did. This movement was not acknowledged by the mainstream women’s liberation movement; nor did the black movement give it the recognition and support it deserved. There was a similar movement in Britain of single mothers on social benefits (and probably elsewhere). Both paved the way for the creation of the International WFH [Wages for Housework] Campaign in 1972.
RA: From the mid–1960s, you have been continuously active in the antiracist and women’s movements. More than fifty years later, you’re still in the midst of political campaigns, the Global Women’s Strike network, and your cherished Crossroads Women’s Centre. What do you consider your most important political experience?
SJ: Building the international network of the WFH Campaign, and the Global Women’s Strike which it coordinates, has been a collective enterprise. All who participated have learned much about themselves, the world, and the movement. It has been exciting and difficult but always satisfying, as working creatively with others to change the world always is. The principles I learned in Johnson-Forest still guide my work, and have been developed collectively in the WFH Campaign. Others I work with have found them enormously useful too. They have also saved us from a multitude of sins. The WFH Campaign could never have done what it has without C. L. R.’s work on the “Negro Question,” the self-activity of the working class, and the work he encouraged on the “Woman Question” all those years ago.
What we put forward about unwaged housework, now called reproductive and care work, starting with A Woman’s Place in 1952, is much more acknowledged today as a crucial part of what the grassroots must stand for against capital’s destructive market and military. But there is still a lot of work to do to win social and political recognition for this work with hard cash, entitlement to land, services, resources, etc.—what we sum up with the demand for “a living wage for mothers and all other carers.”
All the autonomous organizations that are part of our network are involved with some or all of that, and with their own specific antiracist, antidiscriminatory demands, such as pay equity, work and accessibility for disabled people, domestic workers rights, decriminalization of sex work, sexual choice and identity, ending rape and domestic violence, ending detention and deportation, stopping the state from taking children from their mothers on false pretexts, ending prisoners’ solitary confinement, and many more, depending where we are in the world. Much of our work has to center on ending detention and deportation. Decades of immigration and the boats of immigrants risking their lives to escape war, repression, and destitution imposed by the West have changed Europe and the United States. Millions have understood that their own movement for liberation and defeating the new fascism depends on supporting immigrants’ right to stay and to make a claim on the accumulated wealth which they have done so much to create through centuries of imperialism. We work with Payday, a network of men who focus on organizing with refuseniks. (Their slogan is “refusing to kill is not a crime.”)
Some of us who are Jewish, including myself, concentrate on opposing Israeli apartheid and Zionism, as a struggle against imperialist occupation and militarism. We work with Haiti because we owe so much to the revolution they made and have had to defend for two hundred years. Their struggle and their leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as well as his wife Mildred Trouillot, have never gotten the acknowledgment our movement owes them. I’ve been welcome in Haiti because of my connection with C. L. R.’s classic The Black Jacobins. I see that the book is still useful in calling attention to what Haiti accomplished and, therefore, in strengthening today’s revolutionary Haitian movement.
Marx asserted that capital undermines “the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.”8 We now know more about how much the market usurps our time and has been destroying not only our bodies but all life on earth. The floodgates have opened for the movement to save the planet from capitalist greed. It is a chance for us to come together when every act to save the planet is in the interest of the whole human race. All over the world, indigenous communities, starting with women, have led struggles for land, water, and life, and against destruction and pollution caused by corporations and war. This protective work has often been as invisible as other care work women do.
One final word. C. L. R. was asked what he thought of “what Selma is doing with Wages for Housework.” He gave his usual brilliant answer: “You can’t be against it.” By which he could only mean that he was not going into the arguments, but that there was no way that anticapitalist people could oppose women who were unwaged building a movement to demand that the state pay them for their work.
- ↩To be found in Selma James, Sex, Race and Class—The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings, 1952–2011 (Oakland: PM, 2012), 13–31.
- ↩For comparison, see Selma James, “Striving for Clarity and Influence: The Political Legacy of C. L. R. James (2001–2012),” in Sex, Race and Class, 283–96.
- ↩Ralph Ibbott, Ujamaa: The Hidden Story of Tanzania’s Socialist Villages (London: Crossroads, 2014).
- ↩C. L. R. James, Beyond a Boundary (London: Stanley Paul/Hutchinson, 1963); C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938; repr., New York: Random House, 1963).
- ↩C. L. R. James, Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin (London: Allison and Busby, 1980).
- ↩Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, in Collected Works, vol. 5 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975), 52–53.
- ↩For comparison, see James, Sex, Race and Class, 92–101.
- ↩Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, in Collected Works, vol. 35 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975), 508.