Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3
C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism
Scott McLemee and Paul LeBlanc (eds.),
THE appearance of any collection of the essays of C.L.R. James is certainly an event to be celebrated, and James enthusiasts are in for a feast with this one. For the quality of his contributions is quite extraordinary, and only the review of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station does less than justice to that classic work. His mastery is all the more obvious when amusing attempts are made in some of the introductory essays to prove that he was one of the ‘soft Marxists … very much in the tradition of Raymond Williams, John Berger, and E.P. Thompson’ (pp. 53–4), or that ‘the New Left, the women’s movement, and above all the black movement seemed at points to be expressing in political logic the insightful kernel James had opened up in his venture beyond orthodox Leninism’ (p. 70). But as his most outstanding interpreter Paul Buhle points out, James ‘has been almost entirely outside what Perry Anderson has called “Western Marxism”, the drift of Marxist theory from the revolutionary parties to the academies between the 1920s and today’ (p. 55). For time and again James shows that he soars above those who would read their own thoughts into his, and make a harmless icon of him. Thus, unlike all too many soi-disant Marxists these days, ‘when challenged, he continued to insist on the primacy of the working class in the struggle for Socialism’ (p. 52), and as for abandoning the proletariat to sow illusions in Third World nationalism, ‘to those who, having for years accepted it, are now determined to depart from it, we are enemies, outspoken and relentless’ (p. 18). And despite Paul LeBlanc’s contention that George Breitman’s theories of black separatism ‘would have been impossible without the kind of analysis pioneered by James 25 years before’ (p. 6), James’ essay The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States (pp. 179–87) shows that, along with Trotsky, he was a resolute opponent of such nonsense. And here he is in good company with Lenin, for as Paul Buhle again remarks, it was ‘a fundamental breach of Leninist (or even Second International) discipline’ (p. 63) to talk of any such liberation outside the struggle of the working class.
My only misgiving about this book (admittedly, a minor one) would be that although it claims to be ‘a concentrated selection of writings from his “Trotskyist” period in the 1930s and 1940s’ (p. 20), it is in fact taken wholly from his output whilst he was in the United States, when he was already moving away from Trotskyism. We are therefore prevented from studying the development of his thought from its more conventionally Trotskyist basis whilst he lived in Britain. Let us hope that the same editors will bring out another book of his articles from that time, for only by placing the American period of his life in context can we hope to grasp the direction of his thinking, and the scope of his insights.
Certainly American scholarship about James neglects quite markedly the influence of the thought of the non-Trotskyist left that had already brought him into conflict with the International Secretariat by 1936. The originality of World Revolution, for example, is put down to the fact that he ‘came to the Trotskyist movement very much as an independent thinker, with a substantial store of previous knowledge and insights’ (p. 3), as opposed to the evidence of the internal documents of the time, which show that he was already influenced by the ideas of Boris Souvarine, Henri Chazé, Hugo Oehler, Albert Weisbord, etc. For example, without an acquaintance with the theories of the Union Communiste led by Chazé (Gaston Davoust), it would be impossible to understand why James accepted a ‘state capitalist’ theory of the degeneration of the Soviet Union during the split of 1939–40, as opposed to Max Shachtman’s ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ (p. 7). For we are repeatedly told that James went to the United States ‘for a lecture tour’ (p. 212) ‘at least in part to organise the Trotskyists’ work among African Americans’ (p. 219), which is only partly true, for it is quite plain that he was encouraged to go to remove him as an opponent of the leadership of the newly-united British section of the Fourth International, with whom he had been in political conflict since 1935, and that this was a Comintern-style exercise in ‘straightening him out’ (cf. Harry Wicks, Keeping My Head, pp. 181–2; Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, War and the International, p. 24). His supporters among the British Trotskyists, such as Bill Duncan and Harry Wicks, resented it for years afterwards.
This failure to identify important factors in James’ development may lie in the general lack of grasp of the intricacies of Trotskyist history, which (apart from the treatment in Charlie Van Gelderen’s excellent contribution) is the weakest part of the book. James’ ‘confident assumption that “Pablo has captured Cannon politically” proved to be short sighted’, notes LeBlanc (p. 14), whose own hindsight obviously does not extend as far as Cannon’s cult of Castro’s Cuba. We do not need to look too far for the reasons for this, for when LeBlanc cites his sources for the history of the Trotskyist movement (p. 28, n4) they turn out to be exclusively runners from the stable of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, the sole exception being Robert J. Alexander’s book, which is heavily dependent upon the information they provided for him.
But don’t let this put you off this superb book: buy one yourself, and another for a friend.
Updated by ETOL: 21.9.2011