Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 2
C.L.R. James and British Trotskyism
This letter is in response to Al Richardson’s introduction to the recent republication by Humanities Press of CLR James’ World Revolution.
I wish simply to state that I greet your introduction to the new edition of World Revolution, and that I think you exaggerate a bit the differences between us.
I was a De Leonite before I became a New Leftist, and the passage from one West Indian to another was not difficult. The De Leonism was similarly the source of my admiration for the ‘proletarian science’ of the Plebs League and so forth; I did not mean to imply that James imbibed it, or that it would have done him any harm. Save for questions of race and anti-colonialism, I admire the movements of 1900–20 more than any to follow.
If someone can tell me of a less original work than World Revolution among James’ key studies, I would be willing to acknowledge an error of judgement. I know of none. At the same time, if I were to write on the book again, my judgement would be more favourable due to the comments received, yours included. It was evidently impossible to reconceptualise the project of world revolution beyond the Trotsky-Stalin debate, because no one else did so. James struggled to do so, as you suggest. (By the way, I spoke with Albert Weisbord and several of the Oehlerites. Indeed, no one has interviewed on tape or collected interviews of more Trotskyists than me, for the Oral History of the American Left at New York University.)
In closing, I wish you and your comrades would write something of a more substantial monographic nature about James personally and his role amongst his British Trotskyist colleagues in the 1930s and again in the 1950s and 1960s, to the degree of his contact with semi-Trotskyist circles. The existing material – interviews and movement history – is inadequate in this respect, as you know. And no one else is placed to do the work whilst a few old timers of the 1930s still (I think) remain alive. Please do tapes if possible, and make them available in a public archive, as I have done at Tamiment Library with the US Johnsonites. I would do my best to get something like this published on this side of the Atlantic.
Congratulations and Best Wishes
Al Richardson replies:
Thank you for your kind letter. With you, I also pay tribute to the general education work of the Plebs League and the NCLC, but unlike the work of Stuart Macintyre to which you refer, I doubt very much whether the British Communist Party or its precursors made much of a contribution to it. For years J.P. Millar had to fight off their attempts to infiltrate it and take it over, and he even had to take its administration up to Scotland to keep it out of their hands. His frequent use of Trotskyists as lecturers and organisers – Henry Sara, Joe Pawsey, Frank Ward and Jock Haston all worked for the movement at one time or another – was a way of counteracting their influence. The Communist Party in particular attacked Fred Casey’s attempt to restore Dietzgen to his proper place in Marxist philosophy, on behalf of Stalinist dialectics, and in general tried to convert the NCLC into yet another of its front organisations.
On your second point, I doubt if there are really enough of the mid-1930s generation of British Trotskyists still around to be able to reconstruct all the influences upon James’s thought during that time, though I have to agree with you that it would be a worthwhile project. Enough remains in the record to suggest there was some influence from the movement regarded at the time as ‘ultra-left’ by the Trotskyists, and a crying need is for someone to reconstruct the entire evolution of this movement, which had authentic working-class roots going all the way back to French Syndicalism, Bordigism and German and Dutch Council Communism. The best person to be able to do this would probably be Mark Shipway rather than myself, as I have no real command of this field. But certainly there was a whole current at this time which stood on the left of both the Stalinists and Trotskyists, and the differences between James and Trotsky come from this direction without a doubt. Perhaps I did not express myself clearly enough on this in my preface to World Revolution, though I can plead in mitigation that some copy editor along the way has at times reduced my prose to gibberish (‘a telescoping effect and intention’).
All the same, I think it has to be pointed out that your verdict upon James’s book as ‘unoriginal’ is to be traced back to the well-known influence of Stalinism upon the New Left (anti-class ideology, Mao, Castro and Guevara cults, Althusser, etc). All the way through the period under review Stalinism used the terms ‘Trotskyism’ and ‘ultra-leftism’ as blanket condemnations for all its opponents on the left, irrespective of the accuracy of the label. But deep differences existed amongst all these groups, which it is the responsibility of honest scholarship to identify. I cannot help thinking that your previous adherence to De Leonism, which however ingrown was at least a class position, would have equipped you far better to understand this than your present involvement with the fashionable university-based radical intelligentsia of the New Left variety, who have so signally failed to break free from Popular Front presuppositions.
Updated by ETOL: 20.9.2011