The Destruction of a Workers Paper. C. L. R. James 1962
Nov. 11, 1961
In my last letter I raised certain aspects of the “backwardness of the workers.” You haven’t commented on them. You ask about Jim’s three articles in the New Society (there, it crops up again). First, a word in general. These views are not entirely new to Jim or to many workers. I have no objection to their appearing in the paper as what a worker thinks. But when they appear in the New Society that is another matter because they reject what the New Society means. And when it appears as a series and when, further, it is held up as a model, as Grace does in her document, that changes the picture completely. What does Jim say? First, that outside the U. S., socialism is looked on as a way to acquire material goods. False. We have said, and Jim himself saw that in the oil strike when he was in Trinidad, that material goods were incidental, that what people were fighting for everywhere was control of society, self-realization, new social relations. Second, that U.S. workers never had it so good – they have a sliding scale of socialism. False on two counts. American workers don’t have it that good materially. Maybe it’s only 25 or 30 instead of 1/3 of a nation that is ill-housed, ill-fed, etc. But it is no less than that. But more importantly, socialism is not the presence or absence of material plenty and to call high pay, etc., a sliding scale of socialism is to pervert all that socialism means. Or don’t you remember the famous phrase from Marx: “be his payment high or low?”
Third, workers talk about particular things, they are not for socialism as such. This is straight out of the WP-SWP.(WP-SWP refers to the Workers Party and Socialist Workers Party, Trotskyist groups.) Workers are judged by their consciousness, that is, by the extent to which they approve the party line, in this ease, “socialism.” Isn’t this identical with the criticism that the WP and SWP directed against us for our pie-in-the-sky revolutionism? We don’t understand the workers, they are not really interested in politics and socialism. If the Cuban revolution has any lessons for the United States it is precisely in this. (We said it a long time ago.) American workers are not concerned with theory in the way that European workers are. They are immensely practical and empirical. They do what has to be done and, maybe, after a while, they will stop for a moment and look back and say, well, this seems to be socialism that we are building. That is what the Cubans did. Since when have we judged the working class by formal answers to the question, are you for or against socialism? That isn’t Marxism, that is middle-class idealism. Fourth, a shortage of rights, not of goods. I have written about “rights” before. It is equivalent to immediate demands. It is no more true or less true than it was 10 or 20 years ago. We rejected it then. Why do we embrace it now? What workers are short of now, as they were then, is not rights, but power – that is, the right to decide everything. Fifth, a sharp line should be drawn between those who are ready to stand up like men and crusade for these rights, etc. That is pure agitation, which might not be out of place at a union meeting or in the Militant, but has no place in the New Society column. Our view of differences in the working class has always been based on class and layers in the class, not on personal courage or altruism. Finally, the Crusade for Socialism is as near as the first man who is ready to stand up and join the struggle. Absolutely, completely and totally false. The “Crusade” for socialism (whatever that means) is here now, in the actual concrete struggles of millions of workers, not for some abstract socialism but for what they want and for the power they need to get it. The conception of a Crusade for Socialism is totally Utopian and middle class because it is (like Jim’s three articles) totally divorced from production, from the role of the working class in society and from the necessities of the struggle.
You say the intellectuals, or some of them, are more and more looking for a way out and not looking down on workers. There is a much greater ferment among intellectuals today, true. It began with the Hungarian proletarian Revolution. Don’t ever forget that. But ferment is one thing and the working class is another. None of these intellectuals, none, none, none, is coming closer to the working class. C. Wright Mills is the best of them by far. And he can’t see the working class at all. All of them have their particular intuitions and strengths. But the workers? Where is one of them moving toward the workers without Correspondence?
What is at stake is the most fundamental conceptions of Marxism. Grace quotes Guevara on how Marxism is now part of the intellectual knowledge of man, just as Freud, Newton, etc., with great approval. Guevara is leading a nation. His remarks were perfectly valid, very fine, in fact. But we are a political organization, not a nation. We are not Freudians, Newtonians, Einsteinians or anything else of that kind even though we are intensely interested in these questions. We are Marxists, not because it is in some general way embodied in all of culture but because for us it is a method of thought, a conception of society and an absolutely necessary weapon in the struggle for socialism. It is our life.
With sadness, but great affection,