C.L.R. James 1967
Source: Speak Out, (March 1967).
Transcribed: by Christian Hogsbjerg, with thanks to Ian Birchall.
This article is based on a talk given by C.L.R. James at Windsor, Ontario, in Canada on January 14, 1967. – Ed.
I am very sensitive to the fact that I am in North America, that the society in which I am and where I lived for a number of years, began about the beginning of the 17th century. The only civilization that you are aware of here is this bourgeois civilization, the industrial development of a capitalist civilization. Therefore, the change that that development wrought in Western civilization you have no practical experience of – you haven’t got the remains of earlier civilizations around you.
I am very much aware of that and, therefore, in talking about modern politics I shall lay emphasis on the civilization which we have seen in Western Europe and in America from the year 1600. In 1619 the first slaves came to the U.S.; 1620 was the Mayflower. The foundation of American civilization is that British basis and from 1619-1620 to 1914 that civilization existed in the world. It had many great triumphs. It had all the evils that any advanced civilization has. But it was accepted by people as representing the best that humanity had yet done and it showed the way of progress for the future. From 1620 – I prefer 1619 for obvious reasons – to 1914, 300 years, the world lived and the people in it accommodated themselves to existence in a certain way.
What I have to say about modern politics is this: In 1914 that world broke down. I have not found that people in North America and in the Americas as a whole are very much aware of the fact that it came to an end in 1914. People in Europe are extremely aware of that. They know that these 300 years mark the beginning, the development, and the decline and decay of a certain form of civilization.
The bourgeois regime, the capitalist regime, the developed industrial regime, which began in the beginning of the 17th century established the national state. An important part of its development (which remains to plague it up to this day, despite all the pretenses that they have gone far towards solving it) is the question of the relations they have developed with the underdeveloped countries. I do not think many people are aware of the fact that when Britain, for example, and France went to India, the Indian civilization in 1600 had many features that were in advance of what existed in Europe at the time. And this relation of these countries which became the advanced countries is to a substantial degree owing to their exploitation of the underdeveloped countries. That is what made them what they became, looked upon as the vanguard of civilization, and in general as the advanced countries. I do not say that in order to taunt people with it or ask for some response. I say that because that today, as I hope to show, is one of the most powerful influences that led to the decay and makes it impossible for them to establish any harmony or order in the civilization which they represent.
So, the national states were formed. They had contact with underdeveloped
countries and laid the basis of the wealth that made them advanced countries. They were able to establish a political form- parliamentary democracy. Very important in 1914, not as important today. And in addition to establishing parliamentary democracy they were able, by means of parliamentary democracy and the joining together of political interest, representing political divisions in the country, to establish a form of government which was usually a monarchy. That monarchy didn’t represent what the writers like to say today, some liking for some symbol of everybody being together and some rule, some authority. The reason for the establishment of the dynasties on the basis of parliamentary democracy was to bring the
feudal elements, particularly the landowning elements, into the organization of the modern state.
That was the situation in 1914. There were disturbances, there was the Paris Commune, they had one or two small wars. But the wars were not very important. They went and they shot and they killed about 20,000 people or something of that kind. They came home again, and the people came out to welcome them and to celebrate that the war was over, and then the people went on with their lives. There were some very great difficulties,
some people cried. But by and large the wars didn’t fundamentally upset the
social life of the country. That was the situation up to 1914. I have to mention another aspect. I was reading a lot of books. I knew a lot of people who knew that world. The world of 1914 was, despite the disturbances in Europe during the 19th century, a solid world and knew where it stood. And the chief thing that I would like to remember about it is shown in this:
In Russia they used to send people into exile, into Siberia. And they made the Russian citizen have a passport in order to move. And it is very interesting today to read of the contempt in which they were held, the absolute degradation that Russia represented to a great deal of Western Europe, because they sent people into exile and demanded of the Russian citizen a passport. They didn’t know what they would be doing in less than 50 years’ time.
In 1914 the war began, by 1918 the basis of the world was gone. The disruption of the economy was such that in 1929 you had the greatest disorder in the economic life, the tremendous depression, something that Europe had not seen before. That was a direct result of this war. But the thing I would like to speak about was the breakdown of the parliamentary regime, and the dynasties that occupied the positions of rulers.
Up to 1914 democracy in the national state was the kind of government that everybody respected, that the backward countries looked forward to as the kind of government that in time they would be able to arrive at. By 1921 and 1922 that was done. Democracy began its descent downward. So today a large majority of the population isn’t democratic, has no wish to be democratic, though it may not like the particular regime that it has. But the parliamentary democratic regime is finished. In 1914 that was not so. In 1917 there was the revolution in Russia. And it seemed to people that he working class talking about socialism and trying to establish the new socialist regime, showed some promise for the future. Some were against it, but at least it had some historical development. What happened in 1922 in Italy was very different. You had the beginnings of the definite destruction of the democratic regime and the establishment of fascism. In 1933 you had that in Germany. It was coming a long time, you had the breakdown of the Russian revolution in Russia and the establishment of a totalitarian regime. By the time (1938-1941) the Second World War began, from the Bay of Biscay right over northern Europe, to Vladivostoc in Asia, you had the totalitarian regimes of the greatest cruelty and barbarism. The regime of Hitler and then the regime of Stalin. And those regimes were what Europe had reached in a few years after the great war of 1914 to 1918.
There is something that I think I ought to say. We know something about European civilization. We speak about Shakespeare, we do not necessarily make him English. We speak about Michelangelo. We speak of the great musical development in Germany, the great painting in France. It is European, it is part of the development of Europe. And it is easy to trace the reciprocal influences of these various countries upon each other in the particular spheres in which they have become very important and have led the world. But once you say that, you have to recognize that the degradation of civilization that took place in Germany is not particularly German. It is not a question of Hitler and his wicked Nazis. It is a stage of the decay and degradation of Western civilization as a whole. If we look upon Dante and Beethoven, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, the great Russian writers, as part of the development of Western civilization, then we have to look at what happened in Germany, and what took place in various parts of the earth as a sign, not of the evils that affect those particular countries in which it spread, but as a sign of general decay and decline of European civilization as a whole. And it began in 1914, and laid the foundations for the future decay between 1914 and 1918.
Now I think I can go a little further. The economy went to pieces. The parliamentary democracy did not only fail in certain countries but a large portion of civilization looked upon parliamentary democracy as the certain way of degradation and began to seek other ways of development.
And you have also art and such things taking a form in which we are unable to see any patterns for the future. There are gifted men, there has never been a more gifted man (I am told by people who ought to know) than Picasso, in technique and finish. But what he has had to say was very different than what the great painters of an earlier time had to say. Until he did Guernica he didn’t know what he was saying. He was making a lot of experiments, developing a remarkable technique, but in actual statement of something about the future of civilization, it took Guernica and the breakdown of civilization in Spain for him to do that.
We went into World War II and what took place in World War II was merely a development of what had started in World War I. There were certain additional features, that is to say, they had discovered by means of mechanical development the means of destroying people in a way that Napoleon had never thought of. They hadn’t reached that in World War I, though they had killed enough millions. But in World War II the habit of total destruction became an inescapable part of governments of the world and today that has grown still further.
Let me tell you two stories which I think w.ill give you some idea of the decay that has taken place. When I was a small boy I used to study history in the West Indies, but we used to study history in. the English language. We learned of three terrible massacres. One of them was the massacre of St. Bartholomew. It seemed some French Queen thought it was about time to get rid of some Protestants. She got rid of a few thousand, and that was known all over as one of the great massacres of the world. There was another massacre that we used to study in school. It was the massacre of Glencoe, in which those massacred were the Macdonalds, a Scottish clan. I never was too sure of it, but there was a lot of killing- almost 40 of them were seen after. The other one that we were concerned with was something that took place in Calcutta. I think it was in the year 1757 when an Indian potentate put about 500 British people, men, women, and children, in some small room. When they opened the place in the morning a good many of them were dead, the rest were pretty miserable, and we were assured that, by and large, that is the reason why the British went to India- to see about India and teach the Indian potentates that they were not to push all sorts of people into small places where they couldn’t breathe properly.
There are the three massacres. The massacre of the Black Hole of Calcutta, the massacre of Glencoe, and the massacre of St. Bartholomew. Nowadays, in 1967, unless you kill about a million people you can’t even make the front page. That is where we are. The question of massacre has reached the stage where you can kill any number of people and it does not matter what happens. The population is, or appears to be, seasoned to the idea of hundreds of thousands of people being killed for no particular reason at all.
The second thing is a series of articles that I read in the New York Times. They talked about the importance and the necessity of the people of the United States, the government, being able to destroy the population of Russia and vice versa, the importance of the people of Russia being able to destroy the population of the United States. The killing of 200 million people.! You had to live in 1914 to know that that sort of thing would have brought forth expressions of horror from all sections of the population. Today in the U.S. they discuss it in their popular press. They discuss the same thing in China. Mao joins in this nonsense: where they’re killing, 200 million Americans, 200 million Russians, if they killed 200 million in China I would still have 400 million remaining. So I can stand that awful business if that is the kind of game they want to play. That is the level civilization has reached. I want you to understand that as far as far as I and my friends are concerned, it is complete degradation and decay. The barbarism is not to come, it is here.
And now I want to road a passage from the highly respectable Times Literary Supplement (quoted in Facing Reality). They are not Marxists, they are not socialists, they are not revolutionaries. They are the voice of one of the most conservative social forces in the world today, the British aristocracy. The passage is worth bringing to your notice because it tells you what they think of the world in which we live, and the stage to which we have been reduced after the war of 1914-1918. “A time of strained and breaking loyalties all over the world – in politics, nationalities, religions, moralities and families – is certainly a time of troubles. Such a time has come upon us all, for the first time in history.” This is the first time in history that such degradation, barbarism, decay, and no perspective has descended upon the world. “That secular religion which once seemed the hope of half the world- Communism-has equally become a prey to conflicts of loyalty, nationalism and morality.” You see, some people believed that Communism was a doctrine which might offer some way out to the world in general. But after the 20th congress in 1956, in which the Russians paid tribute long overdue to Stalin; and the Hungarian Revolution, which showed that people could be brought up in the totalitarian regime, but that did not prevent them from revolting against it with a force and range and power which was absolutely unknown in the world before; and then later the struggles in Russia, the way in which Khruschev was got rid of -that has been a shock to vast numbers of people. And then the split between the Communist regime of Russia and of China, people realize that Communism, as they have known it, offers no way out. “In Russia, as in America, India and Britain; in the Jewry of the diaspora and of Israel alike, as among the dwellers in Arabia, the old faiths cannot hold the young, materialism rules the roost and societies bid fair to come apart at the seams. Worse, they begin to seem unpatchable;” They don’t begin to seem unpatchable; that may have been so in 1957. In 1967 you will find few people who take an interest in public affairs, and many who do not, who believe that the society in which we live is absolutely unpatchable. Their problem is what to do; they don’t know. “Worse, they begin to seem unpatchable; yet no one knows, no one can foretell, what kind of society will emerge as typical of the continental groupings (if not the “World State’ itself) towards which our familiar nation-states are being hustled.... The citizenry – and particularly, primarily, the thinking elite – will suffer a kind of schizophrenia: on the one hand their social instincts will still be urgent, but unsatisfiable; on the other hand, as a human-natural defense mechanism, they will decry and debunk any form of social activity, for that would identify them with the powers-that-be and imply acquiescence in the various forms of deployment of those powers.” They are sounding like the Communists used to sound in the old days, the difference between them and the old-fashioned Communists being that they are saying that everybody thinks that way of the kind of government under which we live. They go further: “Thus ‘a sort of traitor’ arises; not very many real, political, or military traitors, but rather a vast number of non-citizens – citizens of nothing, attaching no positive value whatever to their society and its administrative state, having no emotive affection for it, living as atoms in it, fulfilling the barest minimum of obligations to ‘get by’ and generally betraying an ‘I couldn’t care less’ mood.” That is what the acme of respectability in 1957 says about the large majority of citizens in the modern world. By 1967 it is infinitely worse.
And now I want to take up certain elements of the decay to which I had referred before. I speak of the question, what is to be done, or what we can reasonably expect will have to be done. I am not going to recommend anything. I don’t want to do that. I want to put the situation before you and I expect you are one of these ruthless citizens who live and get by how you can, but have lost faith and belief in the society to which you belong. And although you may not be active about it, although you are not a military or political traitor, you are a traitor in the sense that you don’t accept what is going on and keep yourself as far from it as possible. That is what I believe, if I am wrong some of you will be able to tell me so.
Now we go back to what began to break up in 1914. I said they had formed the national state. Now the national state today is not accepted anymore, they are trying to form a united Europe. Over half of Europe the national state was subordinated to one powerful state, to Russia. One most important national state in Europe, Germany, is split in two. I will quote Mr. Walter Lippmann. I don’t often quote him, but he says here one of the few things that I think is important, “that Germany is split in two because the two great powers, Russia and the United States, want it split.” They don’t want it joined together either one way or the other. So Germany, this central nation in Europe, one of the great centers of civilization despite what in Germany still remains a part of Europe and a part of Western civilization, is split in two. And there we have an example of what is happening to the national state.
Now we want to see also what the national state has been attempting to do. The British used to fight wars in order to prevent any national state becoming powerful in Europe. That is why they fought against Napoleon; that is why they fought against the Kaiser; that is why they fought against Hitler. It wasn’t a question of democracy and all that, that was to keep the people going. It was to prevent the domination of any single state in Europe. So they fought the war and America had to come to their assistance, and the state that was to dominate Europe under the Hitlerite regime was put in its place. What is the result of the war? Russia now dominates Europe as no previous state has ever done. In other words the purpose for which they fought the war has been lost completely.
In regard to parliamentary democracy, even the Pope, the Pope before this one, I believe, said, now look, there are these hundreds of millions of people who are Communists. They are not likely to change. So let us realize that we have to live with them, and accept them into the arena of modern civilization. The Catholic church has to take that step. So the idea of parliamentary democracy is gone and in the opinion of the Catholic church, which should have important information on these matters, is gone forever.
In regard to the economies of these countries, one of the steps Britain took after the war was to make both parties in Britain understand that there would be no unemployment in Britain anymore. Mr. Wilson had a majority of six and then he had a majority of 100 in the British Parliament. And the result of Wilson, the Labour Party in power, is that before the end of the year there will be nearly a million people unemployed in Great Britain, owing to the set policy of the government in reorganizing the economy.
You take France. France has had five republics since 1789. DeGaulle is now ruling France and the general opinion is that when he goes there is certain to be a sixth republic and it will only come into power as a result of violence.
What is happening in the United States? I will not go into that; we are too near. But at the same time I don’t think there is anybody who could say harmony and peace and the development towards civilization is taking place. I will mention only one American writer, Mr. Harrington, who says that the people living in substandard ways in the U.S. amount to 40 million of the population of nearly 200 million. And he sees no chance within the next few years of that 40 million being sensibly reduced. He says that it is likely to be increased. That is his attitude towards the richest nation in the world. And I was quite astonished when I saw Mr. Johnson deciding that he had to find something which will register him in the minds of the American public as somebody who was not merely going to continue with the Kennedy regime but was going to do something new. He came up with the abolition of poverty. Now, if you had lived in Europe you would know that the Stalinists in particular kept on telling everybody how poverty had been abolished in the United States. It was no use looking to the working class in the United States for anything. For some of them lived in fine houses, and had two cars; they went to work with one in the morning, and went to work with another one in the afternoon. You should have seen what happened to the British intellectual, first when Kennedy was shot, and then when Harrington’s book came and told about 40 million people living at substandard levels in the United States.
Now that is where we are. That’s the United States; that is Germany; there is no settlement on any sort of system or order in Russia at the present time. And I want now to deal with some political matters before we move on into finding out what there is to replace these regimes, which show an utter incapacity to settle the problems which began in 1914, and have continued uninterruptedly up to the present day.
I want to refer to something that they claimed to have settled. Their relations with the underdeveloped countries. I think that if we look at that we will see that they have settled absolutely nothing despite the giving of independence to the people of Africa beginning in 1957 and despite the achievement of independence of India in 1947 and the achievement of independence by China in 1949. Nothing has been settled. And the problems that have started as a result of the relations to the underdeveloped countries from 1600 to 1900 still remain to plague them, and year after year they get worse and worse. You remember in 1935 there was the invasion of Ethopia, by Mussolini. That is not a question of Italy and Ethiopia; it upset and nearly broke to pieces the collective security policy of the League of Nations. That was the relation of one small underdeveloped country to one imperialist country. Then came World War II, and afterwards they have come thick and fast.
I will just mention France: the problem with Vietnam, then the problem with Morocco, then the problem with Tunisia, and the problem with Algeria that broke up French democracy. It was the relation between France and Algeria which put DeGaulle into power with the peculiar regime that he has instituted there. But I prefer to speak of the United States and the underdeveloped countries. The U.S. has been able to say, well we have not been colonists, we are all in favor of the colonial regimes being made into independent states. But nevertheless when the struggle for independence began in the Congo, the U.S. was up to their ears in it, and in the fight over Katanga the United States intervened and took sides. I don’t want to go into what particular side they took, but they found themselves immersed in it to the last degree. Earlier they were immersed in a battle in Korea. And today they are up to their ears in a battle over Vietnam, a remote part of the world, far away. It shows, you see, that the relations that were established during the years when the advanced countries were dominant have not been able to work out, there are no viable relations between them and the underdeveloped countries.
So that today the U.S. in relation to Vietnam is carrying on a struggle which you would have thought could have taken place only during the 19th or 18th century. And not only the U.S. but the whole world is involved in it, which shows the stage which things have reached.
That is where we are. And the citizens are traitors. Some of them are traitors in their hearts. But they cannot accept the regime in which they live. They turn their back and do things to prevent themselves from being taken up by the police. But that is about all. The regimes can go the way that they want to go, but the people cannot accept them, cannot feel that they are a part of this state. They have shown themselves absolutely incapable of settling the problems which began in 1914 and which have continued uninterruptedly into the present. My position is simple. It is absolutely impossible to expect any order, any system, any recovery from imminent and actual disaster, from any of the governments which exist at the present time in the world. I am not speaking as a socialist, I am not speaking as a Marxist. I am speaking as someone who. is looking at the world and looking at the response of people to it.
Now, what is to happen. I don’t believe mankind has lived all this time and gone through all the trouble-that it has gone through, and built up the civilization that it has built, only to end in the decay and decline and the barbarism that began in 1914.
I start from the premise that today what I am saying to you is not as Lenin had to do, to say this and that and the other, to quote Marx, to say he wrote this in the Communist Manifesto, and this happened at the Commune. I haven’t got to do that. I am speaking to you about matters that you know, about information that you can gather every morning from your newspapers, from things that you talk of easily or things that you wouldn’t talk about because it is too offensive to talk about them. And I am speaking about matters that you are aware of, that everybody knows, and that is the problem. That is where we have to look for solutions. Everybody knows what is going on. The idea that you have to form special political parties consisting of the vanguard of people who want to overthrow the system, or consisting of people who know something about democracy, and wish to introduce democracy by revolutionary means in the backward countries- that is all over. There are some people today who say that we cannot look to the people of the advanced countries to make revolutions, but we have to turn to the people of the underdeveloped countries who seem anxious to move forward. I am not speaking of the necessity of making revolutions, I am speaking of sheer self-defense, sheer physical self-defense, to escape the dangers that are being built up by all these various governments today, and the damage that is being done to us psychologically and to the children, by the things we are forced to follow and accept. That is the situation in which a large majority of people in the world are, the mass of the population in the advanced countries and the great masses of the population in the underdeveloped countries, who have been brought into the stream of modern civilization by the means of communication which have been developed. Except for some people who control the means of production, the means of communication, etc., the large majority of people in the world today have a vital interest in bringing to an end what is going on. It was not so in 1917. It was not so even in 1939. I remember those days very well, everybody went forward, to educate the people and got them to support some kind of policy or program. Even Hitler and Mussolini from that point of view had to do that. They had to mobilize a certain section of the people and get them to enforce their strength over the others. Today it is not so. Everybody knows what is happening. And everybody is against it. You will tell me if that is not so. Everybody realizes a necessity of doing something to put an end to what is going on. Because what is going on is not only not human. It is barbarous. It is self-destructive, it destroys all the principles by which humanity has lived for many centuries.
Now who must do something about it? This is what I believe: the days of special political parties are over. The political organizations which will take part in the change of today will consist of the large majority of the population. For, except for those who are part of the special interests which continue to hold on to power, the largo majority of the population in every country, advanced and backward, is involved in what is taking place, and is, to use the words of the Times Literary Supplement, a “sort of traitor” to the governments which are over it. The large majority of people have to form some sort of political organization and bring this to an end.
An important part of this massive political organization will be played by elements of the working class for the simple reason that in modern society they occupy a very important and, in many respects, a dominant position. They will be a part of it. But the large majority of citizens, I am quite sure, if the possibility is placed before them of changing those regimes which have not been able to establish any confidence in themselves, will also be a part of it.
I believe humanity will continue to live and struggle with the difficulties that it faces. It has had many difficulties in the past, it has overcome them all. The difficulties that it faces today may seem to be immense, and they are immense, but the qualifications of people for settling their difficulties are as great, and are bound to be as great as the difficulties. I have to leave you with that; that the large majority of the population are against what is going on, they have no confidence in the regimes that exist. This is not Marxism, this is not socialism, this is not revolution. This is a common understanding of what is taking place in the world around us. This is what I’m speaking about. Mankind is faced with survival or destruction and I believe that the large majority of people will turn for survival and will in time take the steps that are necessary to recover what has been in danger in previous centuries, and which can continue if only we get rid of those who insist on maintaining power which they cannot handle.