The Destruction of a Workers Paper. C. L. R. James 1962

II. The American Working Class

1. The Reorganization of Work

First of all, before dealing with the American workers, I have to deal with what makes any human being into the social category we call a worker. What does so is work itself, the labor process. I said in my first article on the books of Raymond Williams that with the possible exception of the Russian, it is from the American working class that we must next expect big advances in socialist action and socialist theory about work.

In this article (and in the previous one) I speak often about “revolutionary” actions by workers. They are a commonplace of history. I believe that only the State Department could see in this analysis an incitement to what it calls subversive activity. Correspondence, I am glad to note, does not advocate “the revolution.” As a rule, small papers which do that, usually make themselves ridiculous, and ineffective for what they can really do. No revolution in the world can be made or stimulated by a small newspaper.

A small paper which advocates “the revolution” is usually viewed with scepticism if not amusement by workers. But any working class paper has not only the right but the duty to analyze Marxism seriously.

First, what do I mean by an advance in socialist theory? I mean primarily the reorganization of work, the reorganization of the labor process. The Russian experience has proved that nationalization of private property can result in greater slavery for the workers. How can workers reorganize their daily work in such a manner as to make it human, that is to say, a socialist procedure? That, today, 1961, is what socialism means. It plays a very small part in Mr. Williams’ two books. It plays so small a part in socialist theory as a whole that I have to spend some time on it.

Reorganization of labor is the obvious next stage of socialist progress. I am so positive about this because the whole world today accepts the fact that the nationalization of the essential means of production will follow automatically upon the overthrow or decisive defeat of capitalism. There are debates and necessary debates about the exact methods of planning. These will always be necessary. But it is today understood, even by the capitalists themselves, that the best way to develop the economy is to bring the whole under some central direction. To use a famous phrase of Marx, this belief has now gone far beyond the fixity of a popular prejudice. What every government had to do in World War II, as well as the Russian successes, brought home this truth to general consciousness. The capitalists pay lip service to what they call private enterprise,, by which they strive desperately to maintain their privileged position, but they too watch the economy as a whole and seek to fit their profits and privileges into some general plan. The leaders of any capitalist section of industry would not dream of carrying on without some sort of plan, only this plan is not for social welfare but for profits and to prevent losses. A genuine socialist government anywhere will not argue about the necessity of viewing the economy as a whole and planning it in the public interests. So, stage by stage, the socialist society establishes its premises in the consciousness of the world at large.

What is troubling the international working class is this. In that nationalization, that so-called socialization, where and how is the situation of the workers in the labor process organically improved? An assembly line in Moscow is an assembly line in Detroit.

The Russian experience is a terrible barrier to progress. The Russians have nationalized, collectivized, and they plan. The result is the greatest tyranny known to history. But that is not the main obstacle in the development of socialist consciousness. Nowhere has the working class or its supporters worked out, in life or in theory, any procedure where the labor process can be altered in such a manner that the workers will feel that the old capitalist slavery has been left behind for something new, for socialism, a new society.

That is the problem. And though everybody knows it, few talk about it.

We have here to go back to what socialism is and what it is not. When Marx was laying the foundations of his theory over a hundred years ago, he and Engels did a profound analysis of work. His analysis has never been approached, far less surpassed or even developed. We know part of it popularly today as the alienation of labor. Marx’s great point was that capitalist production of its very nature destroyed the human capacities and potentialities of the worker. One sharp basis of his conception of a new society was that work, the capacity to plan and work to a plan, was what distinguished human beings from animals. But under the domination of capital, man was made to labor as an animal. The necessity and possible benefits of this type of labor were the means of eating well and sleeping comfortably with his wife. Thus, says Marx, capitalist production made his specifically human qualities of being able to think and plan his work into an animalistic quality, and elevated to a special importance the characteristics he shared with animals.

“Be His Payment High or Low”

“Be his payment high or low” is one of the greatest phrases of Marx about the degradation of the worker under capitalist production. A socialist society does not have as its first aim giving workers higher pay. It does not primarily aim at making the working day six hours or four hours, or giving the worker six weeks paid holidays instead of two. The American worker has the highest standard of living in the world. This has not made him into a lover of capitalism. What Marxism aims at is not merely a decent living wage for all. It seeks above all to get rid of the wearisome, dull, grinding labor day after day, year after year, crushing the humane personality, with no prospect of developing the human interests, needs and capacities of man as a human being with aspirations to live and develop a fully human life.

The problem, and it is the last and final problem, is how to do that. Marx’s theory was based upon a very profound and elevated conception (with its foundations in the history of human society) of the development of man. He took the necessity of this development for granted. Man’s part of this inevitable development was that he himself had to work out the adaptation of his discoveries in science and engineering into a truly human development of human personality at work. History moves and man’s conditions of work change. Marx for the most part could concentrate only on the negative aspects inherent in capitalist production. In as much as the change would have to be the work of workers themselves, it is not surprising that it is only the negative development of Marx’s analysis which has been briefly expanded, by intellectuals. Some Marxists say today that all this talk about leisure and the vast sums and energy spent upon amusement is nothing more than a part of the capitalist degradation. A worker today is so trained and limited, wearied and stunted in his development by the capitalist productive system that all he can think of when he leaves work is amusement, relaxation by superficial and idiotic newspapers; silly films; routine comic strips; books about the most sensual love, i.e., the animal aspects of love; murder, either plain or disguised as adventure; commonplace songs; by all of which the capitalists not only make profit, but further deaden and reduce the worker’s capacity for human life. Now and then a man of genius and a few men of talent can stamp this collection of nonsense with some artistic creativity, but the aim of it all is to maintain the consciousness of the great majority at the lowest possible level, corresponding to the stultification in the labor process. To such a pitch has this wholesale degradation of human life been carried that to fight consistently against it would demand an effort beyond the powers of the ordinary man. He simply accepts it and the capitalists either tell him that this is life (the more the better) or, when challenged, say that this is all the majority of men are fit for.

The families of capitalists, sections of the middle class, all those who can live a more human life, can produce for themselves or at least support a few high-class newspapers, special music, special literature and other ways of employing their leisure time and developing themselves. But an artist, a professional man like an architect or an engineer, is interested in his work as work; he often spends his leisure time on his work; he does not believe nor do others believe that his sole purpose in life is to do four hours work a day instead of six, or to get so much more per hour. If he has a really good job, he doesn’t want to do as little of it as possible, for more money. That is the mentality that is carefully inculcated into the worker from his earliest school days (education), his whole life is shaped according to these principles, the amusement and relaxation the capitalists give him are aimed to strengthen this view of life.

Periodically, however, the workers break out. But only to fall back into it. For it will last as long as capitalism lasts. That is the nature of the beast.

Not that workers have not tried organizational ways out. In England at the end of the first war a section of the working class made a great attempt to establish workers’ control of production. They failed, and the whole thing seems to be buried beneath later events. Today workers are more rebellious than ever but they seem limited to fighting the capitalists at the drop of a hat for all sorts of grievances. Sometimes it seems to the capitalist that they fight him for fighting’s sake. Not only the capitalists themselves but labor leaders and sympathetic journalists are unable to find any reasons for this apparently purposeless and erratic behavior. They are unable to understand that a ferocious struggle, for ten cents an hour, or against some grievance can only be understood as a periodical revolt against the very conditions of labor and expresses

the sullen anger of workers at this degradation and their apparent helplessness before it. But until labor solves this problem, it cannot today think with hope, with confidence, about socialism as a new society. Workers know that nationalization, collectivization, planning, if these are done by their master’s, can easily result in greater stultification for them.

Now that is how, as a Marxist, I see capitalist society and the working class. Why do I think that it is in America that the working class will make the first break-through?

2. The Beginning of the CIO

Lenin is a useful guide. He always worked on the following principle. In estimating and planning for the future revolutionary activities of a working class he taught that you should always begin, begin, with the highest point reached by the workers in their previous struggles.

What is the highest point of the American working class, where must we begin? There is no doubt about this among Marxists. It was the movement, the type of struggles, which established the CIO in 1935-37. And it is evidence of the general backwardness of American social thought that this great movement is not firmly established as a part of American history and American consciousness.

The corresponding movement in England, the strike of the dock workers and match girls in 1889, though not anything near the range and power of the CIO movement, is an established part of the history of the British people, not only of the working class. But of all socialist-minded intellectuals (on whom development of the ideas of socialism mainly falls) the American intellectuals, for reasons which will appear, are the most backward.

On the surface the actions of 1935-37 merely established a new stage of unionism. The real truth is that we have no record of any working class which, apart from an actual revolution, took such grandiose steps to achieve its unionist aims. I can here mention only a few. First the American workers established the sit-in strikes: in other words they attacked capitalism at its root – the process of production itself. The fact, the actual fact, is that they seized capitalist property by force. Secondly, they opened their gates to Negroes, since the Civil War the biggest action on this running sore of American society. Thirdly, in general they acted in a manner that showed the revolutionary fervor that was moving in them. In dozens of thousands they did not wait to be told or urged. Many are the authentic episodes told of a worker rushing into one of the few groups of accepted organizers and saying, “We have shut down our plant. We have called a meeting to be organized. What do we do next?” The specific American readiness for action without theory is here seen at its best.

But perhaps the most significant and enduring memory of the formation of the CIO was the treasured possession of a worker in Flint many years after – he probably still has it. It was the first contract between the workers and capitalists of a big automobile plant. It consisted of only one typewritten page (full of creases from being constantly folded, opened and refolded). But by this contract, if the workers had a grievance, all workers in the department stopped work and went to discuss the matter with the superintendent. After discussion the decision was made on the spot.

This was not socialism or anything like socialism. Socialism is the organization of production by people who work and are in charge of work. Socialism is not a continual fighting with the boss. But at any rate in those days the workers established their right and their wish to be something else besides a mere category of production like rubber or steel.

We must not lose sight of the vast changes in all aspects of social life which workers’ mastery of production must inevitably bring. How far the workers’ command of production could go was hinted at by Marx in Capital, Volume I, and it should first be noted that Marx was very rough, on Marxists even, who asked him what the workers should do “after the revolution.” His answer was a warning to those learned idiots who read his books and then triumphantly announce, “Look. Things have not worked out as he said. Marx was wrong.” History is constantly moving on, especially production. Marx was very conscious of this and to enquiries about what the workers would do “after the revolution,” Marx replied: they will do what they see it is necessary for them to do; do not ask me for any recipes for the cook shops of the future. Yet, tracing the lessons of history, and not indulging in psychological guesses about socialist workers, he hinted at what would happen to that great social organization, the family, in the socialist future. The children would be educated in the labor process and the family would enter into a new stage of social development.

This is worth some space even in a necessarily brief survey as this. Most of the shallow profundities about the crisis in the modern family and about education are not worth even the time that it takes to read the titles. Nearly all of them accept capitalism as an eternal system. Hence the mess they are always in.

What Marx foresaw was that when workers were in full control of the labor process they would alter their family lives and their work to suit. If the labor process, work, were universally recognized as the first foundation of society and of man as a human being, then the education of children must begin in the labor process. This in principle is not as new and as revolutionary as it sounds. When, during the Middle Ages, the Catholic view of society and of man prevailed, everybody was educated in the fundamentals and practice of Catholicism from birth till5 death. In our day it is the labor process, work, the specific quality which distinguishes man from the animals, which will give to the world, not only to a nation, a common view of life and society. Dentists, artists, doctors, engineers, accountants, professors of languages, all will in time do their special studies. But all will begin with and share a common basis of thought. The special students of education, of psychology, will have a common basis for their researches into education. Not only will the family benefit by beginning life together. Side by side with the few specially planned and educative hours the children will do, our modern consciousness of a need to find useful work suitable to the aged will find its satisfaction. Workers will handle this automatically.

I have gone in some detail into the general outlines of this to make clear what socialism is and what workers are and what they are not. Workers do not write books on education, they do not read them. They will not as socialists become specialists on education.

But the Marxist bases his view of the future of society upon workers’ independent action, because such action will alter the material circumstances of life and the family to such a degree that theories of education and of family life and the labor process itself will assume a new common purpose and possibly within which human thought will venture into new spheres and possibilities, working them out by trial and error as men have always done.

Now what is actually happening in America today in the labor process? Short-sighted and ignorant intellectuals babble about high wages, unemployment pay, pensions and greater and more diversified leisure and means of communication. A few even pontificate on work, but they cannot see that this is a problem which only workers themselves can settle. It is a practical problem for practical people, who are not given to writing books. Intellectuals either know nothing about it or are afraid of it. The plain truth is as all workers (and readers of Correspondence) know, the workers in Detroit for example are today worse off than they were in the years of 1935-37. The union leaders have year by year sold out the workers’ hard-won privileges; after 25 years the workers know that they have lost the power even of fighting in the 1935-37 manner. They do not know what to do. It isn’t the contract, now of many pages, that inhibits them. Workers can throw that aside in one day. It is that they have had an experience they all know or their parents know. American workers have the national impatience with what has been proved unworkable. They will not go through that same procedure again. This is not pure speculation. They have defied Reuther and his benefits by raising the question of “local grievances” on a national scale. They have got no place. They now know that this is a far bigger question than they thought. What to do? What to do? To a Marxist the evidence is thick that they are today reviewing the whole problem. A Marxist bases himself on the fact that they will be forced to do something, and, not being theoreticians, they will, when acting, start from the highest point where they had reached before and which had failed. This Marxists base on the most thorough and continuing study of international labor that has ever been made.

3. The Working Class and the Nation

This is the strictly economic view of the question. Mr. Williams’ analysis shows him to be totally unaware of this problem even in its strictly economic context. But despite the primacy that Marxists give to economic analysis, we, above all, are aware that each working class is part of a distinctive nation, and that its economic actions are governed not only by the complexity and catastrophes of the historical present but by the historical past not only of the working class but of the nation. American Marxists seem singularly deficient in the historical appreciation of the American working class. When you compare the historical development of the American nation with that of the European nations – and you must compare with somebody – certain facts stand out. One certain fact. It is this: the American bourgeoisie has never been seriously challenged for the leadership of the nation. In the three great crises of American history, the War of Independence, the Civil War and the Depression, the bourgeoisie was able either to maintain unchallenged its official control of the state, or, in 1776, to form a state and an army to carry out its war. All the objective causes that can be given for this are subordinate to the fact itself. And one continuing cause and effect is that the American bourgeoisie has been able to establish itself abroad and at home, in the national consciousness, as the originator and guardian of individual liberty, freedom and equality. Marxists are inclined to forget that in social life and conduct these ideas are more firmly established in the United States than elsewhere. The American bourgeoisie did establish something new in the world. All this inhibits the working class in independent class action and independent class thinking.

But the hour approaches. That historical bourgeois domination of American society is running very thin. First there is the cold war. America is as busy risking the lives of Americans and of humanity as a whole as Russia is. The American bourgeoisie has accepted that the Negro question is a national scandal and a national weakness. It has promised the American people to solve it. But it is becoming clearer every day that the task is beyond it. Not unlike Russia, it openly sought to destroy the Cuban Revolution. It played along with McCarthy until he was obviously unable to do the job that was wanted from him – discipline the working class. The supremacy America has held in the practical application of economic advances is now challenged and has received some decisive defeats. Most important of all, the whole society, not only the workers, is conscious that something is grievously wrong. There is a frantic struggle for a sense of national purpose. So powerful and all-pervading has been the bourgeois domination that, with all due respect paid to the lies copiously mixed with half-truth of the anti-Russian propaganda, the tradition of freedom is so strong that the American people genuinely turn with horror from Stalinism and its inheritance, only to see every day the American bourgeoisie striking blow after blow at liberty.

Large sections of the American population are horrified and revolted at the rapid degeneration of American society. The sense of crisis is national, and has attained such a scope that one cannot see how the American bourgeoisie will be able to handle it. Whatever form a solution or the beginning of an attempt at solution will take, it seems fairly obvious that for the first time the American working class will have to assume, will be forced to assume national responsibility, think its own independent thoughts, carry out its own independent actions.

Thus, although the working class has its own special problems, the state of the nation is pushing it towards some action. Any action that it may take involves at once the national solution of the national and international problems. But history warns us that a class, forced into independent action, will think its own thoughts and act to solve its own problems. It is to me certain that if the American working class should find itself, not necessarily at the very start, but rapidly enough, forced to intervene independently in the task of national regeneration, that one of the first things it will do is to reorganize the process of production. If it will act at all – and either it will act or the degeneration of American society (and world society) will continue – its main, perhaps its first action will be to reorganize its daily life, that is to say the labor process. This, I have to repeat, is not merely nationalization or more wages in less hours. It cannot mean another mobilization for continuous fighting with the capitalist class or with a class of bureaucrats or managers (capitalist bosses under a new name). It must mean a total reorganization of the labor process, with the working class in complete charge of production and its energies and experience devoted to making production a fully human occupation. America is the country of production, and more than any other will be able to understand and accept such a transformation. American workers, more than all others, accept production as a way of life. They know that it is production which has made the American nation what it is. They have the experience of production being boldly changed to suit the necessities of production. They will not fail to change production for the necessity of a human existence and national regeneration. No one else but they themselves can do it.

But there will be bitter opposition. And it is regrettable that those intellectuals and labor leaders who have been talking most loudly about the new society will be the most dangerous opposition. Most dangerous because from their previous interest in and sympathy with the working class, they are likely to gain positions and voices of leadership. The dyed-in-the-wool capitalist reaction will recognize that for the time being they will have to accept other leadership and they will rally behind them, waiting for the time and the opportunity when these fail, as they are bound to fail, once more to take control.

This is the perspective. Without it you may do good work, but you weaken the first condition of success – the belief of the workers in themselves. The Marxist organization and above all the Marxist propaganda knows this. He knows that his great task is to work side by side with the workers on day-to-day problems, welcoming and in fact encouraging all possible allies. As a Marxist he is on guard always himself to avoid and to be in militant opposition to whoever and whatever will lessen the confidence of the working class in itself and in its own independent action. How exactly to do this is a difficult and at times apparently impossible problem. That is our daily burden, even if solved today, appearing in new forms tomorrow. But unless you know the problem and daily strengthen yourself in it, you will not only go wrong, but your best intentioned actions will do great harm to the very cause for which you are working.

Let me end with a historic weakness. As the crisis deepens numbers of the middle class and stray intellectuals become deeply perturbed and in their usual intemperate manner wish “to do something.” They may even attempt some independent actions. In America their record of recognizing the power of the working-class is very bad. Small Marxist organizations, hitherto confined to propaganda, may catch the fever, forget the special responsibilities which they have as Marxists and even find or indicate the solution of the ills of the day in the ideas and temper of these groups. Particularly they are inclined to do this if, as often happens, the working class, is watching and weighing the situation, knowing the gravity of its problems and its own heavy responsibility. Here Lenin can be, as always, a model of policy. In 1905 when Russian capitalism received a dreadful blow from its defeat by the Japanese, Lenin warned that even reactionary classes might be moved to fight against Tsarism and the disasters it had brought upon the nation. He advocated support of these. But in 1905 as in 1917 friends observed that when the party was deep in action and excitement over the revolutionary upheavals, Lenin (though leading the concrete struggle) used every spare moment to reread the classics of Marx. The great Marxist, although the leader of a mass party, was holding tight to the fundamental principles. He knew how easy it was to slip away from them.

The working class did not disappoint him. In 1905 it initiated the first general strike in history. It created the Soviet. It was in his mastery of Marxism that Lenin was able to expect and recognize these creative achievements for what they were. These two articles are a study of theory, stimulated by the theoretical work of a gifted and devoted theorist of Socialism. May I, without offense, say that Mr. Williams can add enormously to his equipment and possibilities by mastering Marxism in its basic theories and the practice of its greatest exponents.