The Destruction of a Workers Paper. C. L. R. James 1962
Honor to whom honor is due. There is a campaign on by the capitalist class in all the advanced countries to prove that capitalism is so affluent, that is to say, so prosperous that workers everywhere are becoming middle class. The rulers of society want to imply that not only has capitalism solved what Marxists say it cannot solve its, economic difficulties, but they want to throw water on the idea that socialism is an inherent need for working people. Where, as in England, there is a powerful Labor Party, they want to encourage voters to vote middle class, i.e. to abandon the idea that as workers they have their special political interests. By the same means they want to encourage voters everywhere to vote for reactionary parties. Raymond Williams, the English socialist writer, has given that bold example of capitalist lying propaganda a knock-out blow which I gladly reproduce. This is what he says:-
Before World War II the condition of the working class in England was a world-wide scandal. Poverty, unemployment, social degradation in many “depressed areas” seemed permanent. Undoubtedly the Labor victory in 1945 improved working class conditions of life. What is called “prosperity” is that the worst of the of the shocking conditions have been eliminated. The Conservatives accepted the change and promised, if they got back to power, not to go back to the old days. They have got back to power since 1951. They spend a vast amount of their resources and energy seeking to convince ordinary Se that, owing to this new prosperity, labor must now desert the very idea of labor politics.
Mr. Williams gives some figures. In 1924 the Labor vote was 51/2 million. In 1929, it was 81/2 million; in 1935 it was 81/2 million. To win the victory in 1945 Labor polled 12 million votes. But in 1950 the Labor poll was 13,235,610; in 1951, although Labor lost the election, it was 13,949,105. In 1955, when it lost again in a poll which was generally low, the Labor vote was still high, 12,405,246. The Conservatives said the low poll was due, among other things to bad weather. In 1959, after years of what the Conservatives call prosperity, the weather was perfect. The general poll was still low but Labor polled 12,216,166. Mr. Williams sums up:- in the days when capitalism was at its worst, the Labor vote was never more than 38% of the total votes. Despite the yelling of the capitalist about the prosperity which is making workers into middle class voters, the Labor vote during this prosperity has never been less than 43%. “These facts,” concludes Mr. Williams, “reduce the usual analysis to nonsense.” New houses and washing machines do not make the Labor voter a conservative voter. It should be noted that not only the Conservatives make this nonsensical argument. Many labor leaders wish to remove socialism altogether from the Labor program. This prosperity, they say, is making the workers middle class. Mr. Williams sums up the essence of the argument well: its is whether a washing machine, and even at times a small car, destroys, alters or effectively changes the consciousness of the worker which is created in the labor process. That is exactly it. Mr. Williams hints at but does not develop the facts about the poverty and low standard of living which still remain: even in a long book a writer cannot develop everything.
Now who is Raymond Williams and, apart from the facts, why is what he says of interest and concern to socialists everywhere? Mr. Williams is the most remarkable writer that the socialist movement in England has produced for ten years or perhaps twenty. And that places him automatically at the head of all English writers on social subjects. He is also a man of character and will. In the tumultuous thirties, many British intellectuals went chasing after Stalinism. The Left Socialists and even Marxist writers produced a crude theory of what they called class struggle which ended by leaving the ideas of the whole movement in discredit and disorder. Many dropped away because, soaked in Stalinism during the pro-Russian years of the war, and then demoralized by cold war and the Khrushchev repudiation of Stalinism, they went back to the Labor Party. Socialist theory sank to the lowest stage for generations.
Ten years ago Mr. Williams, of working class origin but with a university education, made up his mind to correct this state of affairs. Now after ten years his work is recognized for what it has done and is doing. He has shown the origins of British socialism in the history of Britain itself. He has concentrated on the manner in which British writers and the British workers have created what exists in Britain today. He has developed the idea of culture from an exclusive possession of the educated and intellectuals and shown that the only meaning the word has for today is a total way of life of the whole people. He has exposed the pretences of capitalist society and its tricks. He is a genuine socialist in that he recognizes that today the only way to a fully civilized society for all is the raising of the working class to a dominant position in society. For learning, hard labor, insight and devotion to the working class, his work and the support and controversy it has stimulated, is the biggest event in British socialist thought today. His work can be heartily recommended not only for the position it has won but for its own sake.
But precisely because of its virtues and the impression it is making, even while we bring the books to the attention of our readers (a thing we rarely do), Marxists have to show large and grave gaps in Mr. Williams’ work, and in his thinking.
Not only is Mr. Williams not a Marxist. In the chapter he devotes to Marxism, he does not seem to be aware of what Marxism is. And too many devoted contemporary Marxists either do not know or ignore Marx’s preoccupation with historical research and with the labor process, with production. Without a grasp of Marx’s use of history and the role of production, you will not understand the significance he attaches to those concepts so often used and so often abused – the concepts of class and of revolution.
Despite the title of his second book, Mr. Williams ignores the idea of the revolution completely. In fact he obviously knows so little about it that I have to go into some detail about, not what Marx says, which Mr. Williams has no doubt read, but what it means for us today, not for students but for everyone who is not a conscious anti-Marxist. Marx believed that the revolution was inevitable and necessary above all from his historical studies. If even it was part of his adaptation of the Hegelian Logic, his approach was based on history. In his last years he reduced the whole to a simple formula. There had always been mass revolution against exploitation and the evils of a decaying society. Capitalist society could not escape this fate. The difference now was that the makers of the revolution were objectively prepared by capitalism itself to do what previous revolutions had been unable to do, establish a just and harmonious society.
Many honest socialists believe that the revolution is a wish, and an illusion or at best a regrettable necessity. That it is and has been an integral part of social development is so insignificant a part of Mr. Williams’ equipment that he does not even argue against it. The neglect of this in his thinking is the most lamentable and glaring defect in his work. He simply does not know what the working class really is and what are its potentialities. He talks a great deal about the workers, or the working class, but he has never seriously examined the concept of class, in history and in social development. Let me give a brief historical summary of where it stands today for me, a Marxist.
In the English Revolution, the petty-bourgeois farmers and the workers and petty-bourgeois of the London area carried the revolution to a brilliant success, without them Cromwell would have been nothing. Suddenly in 1646 Lilburne, his colleagues and his followers in their struggle against Cromwell, hitherto their leader, laid down imperishably the political premises of the individualist revolt against semi-feudal society. It came like a bolt from the blue. Why and how? The answer is crucial. Freed from the mental domination of both the Royalist enemy and their own Presbyterian leaders, they discovered their own ideas of what political and religious freedom should consist of. They discovered the political premises and perspectives of their own class. Against their limitation is to be set the fact that it has taken three centuries for society to approach, not to accomplish, what they discovered. It is only within recent years that the enduring splendor of their thought has been discovered and made public.
The whole significance of revolution and the class are here established. It was not only their fight against the King, but their sudden discovery of the difference between them and Cromwell that forced them to think for themselves, to draw the lessons of their own independent class experience, fully and completely because they had to do it in opposition to all other classes. I am convinced that they could do this only because the revolution gave them the opportunity, forced them to think independently.
History and our use of history move. In the French Revolution we see a further stage. What for us today should be key movements of the French Revolution is not the work of Babeuf, traditionally the first socialist. Babeuf is part of our tradition, all of us begin with him. For us today, the key events of the French Revolution should be two. After the overthrow of the King, power in Paris passed from the bourgeois National Assembly to the petty-bourgeois Commune of Paris, backed by the petty-bourgeois and the neo-proletarians of Paris. After the September Massacre the Commune of Paris sent a circular letter to the other cities of Prance asking them to join with the Commune against the counter-revolution. They aimed at a nationwide movement against the bourgeois National
Assembly. The other Communes did not accept the invitation. What would have happened if they had I do not know. But this much is certain, that for a time at least France would have been governed by a combination of the petty-bourgeois and the masses of the towns, supported by the peasantry. The socialist revolution on a national scale was very near. They would have at least produced profound conceptions of socialist beginnings.
The second incident was the revolt organized at Eveche by the proletarians against the Assembly and now against the Commune. Robespierre, in mortal terror that this extreme revolutionarism of Paris would split France irrevocably into two, managed to direct this revolutionary force into the demonstrations of the days of May. Robespierre, if not right, seems to have been justified in his fears, and much of the anti-proletarian evil attributed to him (the psychologists have a wonderful time here) springs from this justified concern.
But what we have to notice is that the class, forced back on its own resources, at once develops an audacity and profundity which is beyond empirical expectation. For brief periods it was able, was forced to think its own thoughts. Without them, the French Revolution would have been defeated. Marx learned much from the French Revolution, limited as was the material in his time. Today we have many more proved facts than even Lenin had.
Mr. Williams is fascinated by the slow persistence and steadiness of the British working class. That has been wholly admirable but that does not exhaust history. And it does not exhaust the history of the British working class. Production links it to all other workers.
In Russia in 1905 the Russian workers formed the Soviet and carried it to a triumphant climax in 1917. They rejected parliamentary democracy and created a new political form, they created a political democracy suited to themselves. They failed against Stalinism for the same reason that Lilburne and the Levellers failed – they were too small a section of the population. It was the Hungarian Revolution which carried the Russian experiment to its conclusion – the Councils of Workers in the factories formed the only government that there was for a few days. They carried the historical development of the working class further. While the Soviet was mainly a political body, the Hungarian Workers Councils were both economic and political. I repeat. What happens in a revolution is that the class for the first time finds itself free to think its own thoughts and give some concrete form to its own experience accumulated over the generations. Whenever a revolutionary class moves, it establishes a stage for the international movement. I cannot believe that Mr.
Williams does not know this, or at least is not aware that this is Marxism. When Marxists talk about class they have in mind the history of civilization. The Soviet originated in the proletarian experience of production – a world wide experience.
It is the absence of ‘any conception of the spontaneous creativity of the working class (and all other progressive classes) that makes me view much of what Mr. Williams projects into the future with scepticism and more. The British working class has not said its last word on socialism. From my point of view it has not said its first. Some intellectuals and union leaders speak for it and it adapts itself to these pronouncements chiefly as a means of struggle against capitalism knowing that capitalism is in command. The general history of the Labor Party is one of adaptation to capitalism and this is because the working class as a whole accepts the policy of adaptation and does its best within that policy. Revolutionary activity. revolutionary politics, creativity on a genuinely comprehensive and revolutionary scale, that occurs very rarely in the history of a class. (Often, as in the French Revolution, the effect is immediately and powerfully felt in other countries.) That intellectuals and union leaders and political leaders have assisted the bourgeoisie in suppressing the independent activity and thought of the class is undoubtedly true. But fundamentally they have been able to do this because the class as a whole or a decisive section of it has not felt that the moment has come when at all costs they have to break out of the capitalist chains.
But Mr. Williams can say with some justification: if the class has not made the decisive step, has not faced the necessity of thinking its own thoughts and working out its own actions, what do you expect me to do? Here we come face to face with another fundamental of Marxism, the inevitability of socialism. It is possible that Mr. Williams believes this to be Marxist jargon, or a phrase to keep up the spirits of devoted fanatics. It is in reality the key to any serious Marxist political analysis of socialism. Marx did not use it as an incitement. It can be said that philosophically he never accepted it as truth, as absolute truth. Over and over again he carefully said: socialism or barbarism. That is to say, either the working class establishes the socialist society or the contradictions of capitalism will lead society to barbarism. The precise meaning of barbarism is a matter for debate, for those who wish to. For my part, not only were Fascism and Stalinism barbarisms (literally), but the ultimate in human barbarism has been reached when the most powerful statesmen of today organize their societies with the physical destruction of total societies as their main object. This is due to the necessity of preserving what they very rightly call their way of life. Marx’s inevitability of socialism was a philosophical, a theoretical postulate, a necessity of thought, based on his conviction that capitalism would inevitably end as it is ending. With this postulate you approach every political, every social, every economic problem or set of circumstances; you look for those forces, movements, objective or subjective, which advance the cause of socialism and hasten the destruction of capitalism. Unless this is the basis of your approach, Marxism is nonsense. Or is what its opponents call it, an evil force of disorder and destruction based upon the stimulation and organization of the worst elements in human nature and social life. Anything like this is completely foreign to Mr. Williams.
Marx devoted the main effort of his working life to demonstrating in economic terms the inevitability of the degeneration of capitalism. That is what Capital is about. Today we know that Marx never placed the inevitability of its collapse upon the growth of the productive forces and the concomitant decline of the market, and it is extraordinary to contemplate the distinguished Marxists who have poured forth their cataracts of ink on this barren soil. To put it briefly: all Marx’s economics ended in ever-increasing proofs of the insoluble conflict capitalism inevitably developed between its mechanical and objective progress, the diminishing number of magnates who benefited by this progress; and the growing size, objective organization, misery and revolt of the workers. Mr. Williams prefers to see socialism, if any process of development can be discerned in his empiricism, he prefers to see socialist history as events that happened. They just happened. How, and more important, why, he does not seem to know, or even to be interested in. But this means that how or why future events may happen he does not, he cannot know. Things have reached where they are and observing things he thinks that socialism is the only answer. His basis seems to be the semi-religious “brotherhood of man.” Marx understood the origin and importance of ideas. The great historical materialist also understood their limitations. And Marxists today have seen ideas so degraded that one of their many concerns is to maintain them in their essential integrity. Lenin here is a model. No man has added so much that is new to Marxism. None was always so vigilant in maintaining the integrity of Marx’s basic ideas.
What then have we to be on guard against in reading Mr. Williams? That, mainly, is the purpose of this article.
He examines and analyses with great insight and power where the British workers have reached today and where he estimates that they are going tomorrow. But he omits entirely the main lesson of history, the creative power of a class both in theory and action, when it is thrown on its own resources and is compelled to think and act for itself. I see no sign that he is at all aware of this. He is also unaware of the international significance of any great revolutionary working class action, a significance due to the universality of production.
The historical origin of his method (or lack of method) is obvious. The British socialist workers have not created any great revolutionary actions that have become an integral part of British and world history, as the French and Russians have done. Because many, Stalinists mainly, have attempted to base British revolutionism on a foreign, chiefly the Russian, example, Mr. Williams has fumed his back on that and based his devoted and profound work on the purely British experience. But he has fallen into another pit; he has based British socialism and its future purely on the British experience. Hence his great omissions of what the British working class has before it, being part, an integral part, of an international way of life.
There is here also, despite his undoubted devotion to the working class, the typical attitude of the non-Marxist intellectual. Ideas and the development of ideas dominate him. I view this with more than caution. For history shows that when the revolutionary class expresses itself as it usually does, in action and with ideas based on action, the intellectuals who have been advocating the importance of the class, as a rule bitterly oppose this new and unexpected expression of the very class they have supported. That is the lesson of history. The intellectuals are unable to understand this sudden outburst of independent ideas and independent action. The only safe way out is the Marxist preoccupation with theory, with history, and with socialism as an international movement. Writing about socialism in Britain, Mr. Williams does not mention the Hungarian Revolution once. But there is an even greater omission. He makes no reference to the American working class. I shall show next, that (with the possible exception of the Russian) it is from the American working class that we can as Marxists expect the greatest advance in socialist action and socialist ideas. When exactly this will come I do not know and have only contempt for the tune servers who want me to tell them the date. But I hope that here I shall demonstrate to Mr. Williams the validity and indeed the necessity of Marxism. I have to show, and I will, that Marxism and its expectation of the independent and creative action of the working class is not mere wishing or speculation or psychology but a scientific process. Without this scientific process you either ignore the American workers or indulge in wild and essentially subjective speculations.