Intellectuals and Revolution

James P. Cannon

Source: Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, Oct.-Nov. 1992. This 1961 letter to George Novack was found among the papers of the late George Weissman. The “M.” referred to is the well-known radical sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916-1962). Mills was the author of numerous works including The Power Elite (1956) and The Marxists (1962). The book discussed here is his controversial best seller, Listen Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba (1960).
Published in Building the Revolutionary Party, © Resistance Books 1997 Published by Resistance Books 23 Abercrombie St, Chippendale NSW 2008, Permission for on-line publication provided by Resistance Books for use by the James P. Cannon Internet Archive in 2005.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Andrew Pollack

Dear George:

This is to acknowledge receipt of your letter and Evelyn’s lively note of February 9 about your meeting with M. This is certainly interesting and important news. It is also gratifying to hear that a conversation between us about M. a year or so ago led, in a chain of actions and reactions, to your visit at his home.

But you are not quite accurate when you attribute my earlier suggestion that you undertake a serious and critical evaluation of M.’s work to my “customary generosity.” This explanation is a bit too generous on your part. The truth, which I began to love and revere in my earliest youth and which, in my later years, I am beginning to worship, compels me to admit that my motive was a little more complicated and devious than you make it. If I had anything to do with it, two other reasons for my proposal strike me as more plausible and closer to the truth.

In the first place, I recognized that you had studied M.’s writings and related material more attentively and thoroughly than I had and were better qualified as a Marxist scholar to analyze them. In the second place, when there is a big job of work to be done my lifelong reflex has been to look around for someone else to do it. In this instance, as in many others, you happened to be the one I pointed at. Now don’t get the idea that this disclaimer is another example of my well-known modesty. My general procedure in these matters is just a sly, Irish trick of turning the defects of ignorance and laziness into merits. I have been getting away with this sort of thing for years and years. And, strangely enough, the movement has benefited most of the time, while I have acquired a reputation as a nice guy who finds jobs for other people. In addition, as a sort of bonus, I have had the special indulgence to loaf and ruminate without being harried too much by my Irish conscience.

* * *

I think I agree entirely with everything you say in your letter in evaluation of M. He is different. As you know, I have always had a low, not to say contemptuous, opinion of the contemporary American intelligentsia. And that is not simply a carryover of the anti-intellectualism of my young Wobbly days. After I became a communist and recognized that the thinkers and leaders of the Russian revolution, like their own mentors before them, were all intellectuals, I made a serious effort at “thought reform” on the subject. But I must say that the intellectuals of our time in this country, particularly those who have made pretensions to radicalism, have done their best to keep me from going overboard.

Experience and observation over a long time have taught me two things about the American intellectuals in general, and the academicians in particular. They lack modesty, which is the precondition for learning things they don’t already know, especially about the dark interiors of social problems which have been explored by others but remain an undiscovered country for them. Supplementary to that defect, and holding them back from serious exploration, is the plain and simple fact that they have no guts. They want to keep out of trouble.

In the book of Catholicism, which I studied as a boy, there are three types of sins. The first are venial (small) sins, such as my own—work-dodging, procrastination, self-indulgence, shooting pool on Sunday, etc.—which are easily forgiven and which one can even forgive oneself after a few prayers, if a priest isn’t available. Then there are mortal sins, such as murder, blasphemy, adultery, etc. These can be forgiven by a priest if serious penance is done, but the mortal sinner must still serve time in purgatory before entering heaven. The third sin is the sin against the Holy Ghost. For that there is no forgiveness, and there is no place to go but to hell. Well, cowardice is a sin against the Holy Ghost! Or, to turn it around and switch from the catechism to Ben Johnson: “Courage is the first virtue, because it is the condition for the exercise of the other virtues.”

* * *

For quite a while I have regarded M. as a maverick on the academic range; his manifest courage and honesty seemed to separate him from the herd. Then his book about Cuba showed another and most attractive side of his character. I read it attentively, and kept assessing it as I went along, on two levels.

On one level it is an absorbing and moving exposition of the revolutionary process in Cuba, as the leaders of the revolution see it. And, to my mind, reading between the lines of their letters transmitted through M., they see more, and have studied and thought and reflected more about what they are doing, than they explicitly acknowledge in the letters.

They explain that they represent a new generation, starting from scratch, without the weariness and disillusionment that paralyzes the older generations of the radical movement. But they couldn’t have said that if they had not previously thought and reflected about it. They must have noticed that their youth gave them the energy and drive that youth alone can give, and that their simple ignorance, in contrast to the miseducation and disillusionment of their elders, had a certain positive side. They had less to unlearn.

They frankly say they are improvising as they go along. But the remarkable thing is that they have made the right improvisations almost every time, and keep in step with the revolution as it continues to develop. And this course has been continued since the book was written. Castro’s speech at the United Nations on the mainsprings of imperialism was the speech of a man who has picked up Lenin’s theory somewhere; maybe from the book itself. Then, in the press reports the other day Castro was quoted as saying—for the first time explicitly, as far as I know—that the socialist system is superior to the capitalistic system, and that in a resumption of normal diplomatic relations the United States would have to take this Cuban position into account.

From all this I got the impression that the Cuban leaders knew more about revolutionary theory than they claimed to know when they were talking with M., and that they know even more now, and are still learning.

* * *

On the other level, M. revealed himself as a man more clearly in this book than ever before. I kept saying to myself as I turned the pages from his introduction to his summary: “This intellectual really cares about the hungry people of the world. He worries, as he says himself, not about the sweeping revolution, but with it. He is even capable of anger—that holy emotion of rebels and revolutionists—about injustice, oppression, lies, and hypocrisy. What a dangerous wild man to be running loose on the American campus!”

His book moved me deeply. I kept thinking of writing him a note of thanks and appreciation. But with my usual procrastination and bashful reluctance to intrude on strangers, I put it off.

* * *

I would like here to make a brief comment on the important point dealt with inconclusively at the end of your talk with M. For convenience I will first quote a paragraph from your letter:

“If the Soviet economy is more productive, is it not then historically superior?” I asked. “What do you mean by historically superior?” he asked. “That it can produce more goods, more wealth, in less time with less labor per person.” “Yes, I think it can be more efficient but that is not for me the only test of historical superiority. More important is the moral, cultural, and intellectual superiority.” The discussion ended when I added that without a superior capacity for material production there couldn’t be a superior cultural superstructure.

I don’t think the apparent disagreement should be left in that stalemate. The question is more subtle, more complicated. And, for my part, I can see merit in both your criterion and that of M. They should be reconciled, not contrasted.

It is elementary that “a superior capacity for material production is the necessary basis for a superior cultural superstructure.” Even the Cuban leaders, who don’t profess to be practicing Marxists, know that and are working night and day to improve productive capacities to provide the means for all the other things. But in my opinion, there is also merit in M.’s concern for “moral, cultural, and intellectual superiority,” because it cannot be taken for granted that this will follow automatically from the reorganization of the productive system. This aim must be deliberately stated and consciously fought for all the time.

The fullest democracy in the transition period, institutionalized by forms of organization which assure the participation and control of the working people at every stage of development, is an indispensable part of our program. This has to be not merely stated, but emphasized. It distinguishes us from, and puts us in irreconcilable opposition to, the “economic determinists” and the totalitarians. It is the condition for the most efficient and rapid development of the new productive process.

And no less important, perhaps even more important: This full and free democratic participation of the working people, in all stages and all phases of the social tranformation during the transition period between the old society and the new, is the necessary condition for the preparation of the people for citizenship in a genuinely free society. It is not enough to learn to read and write and produce material things in abundance. That’s only the starting point. People have to learn how to live abundantly. That means they have to learn how to be free in body, mind, and spirit. Where else can they learn that but in the school and practice of ever-expanding democracy during the transition period?

In view of the way things have turned in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China, this part of our Marxist program—workers’ democracy as the only road to preparation for the socialist society of the free and equal—must be given particular emphasis in all our propaganda and all our arguments with people who are dissatisfied with capitalism, but don’t want to exchange it for totalitarian slavery.

If we fail to emphasize this fundamental feature of our Marxist program; if we omit it or slur over it in our expositions of the superiority of nationalized and planned economy; if we neglect to speak of freedom as the socialist goal—we will never win the American workers and the new generation of intellectuals for the revolutionary fight. And we won’t deserve to.

* * *

My thoughts have turned increasingly to this side of the problem of social transformation in recent years. My speech on “Socialism and Democracy” at our 1957 convention (later repeated at the West Coast Vacation School and subsequently published as a pamphlet) was a first response to the questions troubling many people shaken up by the Khrushchev speech and the Polish and Hungarian events. Our discussion of the Chinese revolution during the past two years has pushed me to think more deeply on the subject, and I will probably have more to say later.

Here I will briefly state my settled conviction, as an orthodox Marxist, in one question and one answer: Will the development of the productive forces by a system of planned economy, under a totalitarian regime of regimentation and thought control, automatically lead to the socialist society of the free and equal? My answer is No, Never! The workers must achieve their own emancipation; nobody will do it for them and nobody can. If anybody is looking for a fight on this basic postulate of Marxism, just tell him to knock the chip off my shoulder. From this point of view, it appears to me that M.’s concern, which I fully share, for the “moral, cultural, and intellectual superiority” of the new society—and by that I have to presume that he means a free society—contradicts his denial of the role of the working class as the decisive agency of social change. This stands out all the more glaringly if we recognize that the transformation of society is not accomplished by the single act of revolution, but requires a transition period during which people change themselves while they are changing society.

If the workers are unable to carry through this historical task, it has to be assigned to some kind of elite. But then we come to the embarrassing questions: Will this uncontrolled elite be benevolent? Will it extend freedom, purely from goodness of heart and nobility of intentions? Or will it curtail freedom until it is stamped out entirely? Experience so far in the history of the human race in general and of this century in particular, speaks powerfully for the latter assumption. I don’t know whether George Orwell’s 1984 was intended as a prophecy or a warning. But if one grants or assumes that the workers are unable to take control of public affairs and keep control, it is most logical to assume that Big Brother will eventually take over. This is not a new thought of mine, or even of Orwell’s. Trotsky bluntly posed this alternative twenty-one years ago in In Defense of Marxism.

He didn’t believe it would happen that way, and neither do I. The working class cannot be written off until it has been definitively defeated on a worldwide scale. That hasn’t happened yet in Europe and America, or in the Soviet bloc, as the events of 1956-57 gave notice.

In this country, where the issue will finally be decided, the working class in basic industry, previously atomized and without experience in organization, showed great power in the thirties. That is too recent to forget. The uprising which culminated in the constitution of the CIO was a semi-revolution. It could have gone much farther if there had been adequate leadership. The workers—who need an “elite” to lead, but not to substitute—have marked time and even lost some ground since then; but they have not been defeated in open conflict.

In my opinion, it would be rash and “unscientific” to assume, in advance of the showdown conflict, that they will be defeated. But if one does assume that, he should not shrink from recognizing the horrifying alternative which first Trotsky, and later Orwell, posed—and quit talking about the future good society of the free and equal. Under such a regime it would be unlawful even to think about such things.

James P. Cannon