C.L.R. James and British Trotskyism
The following text was originally published as a pamphlet by Socialist Platform Ltd in 1987. It has been out of print for some time and consequently we decided to republish it on our web site.
The interview was one of a substantial collection of interviews with veterans of the Trotskyist movement, assembled for our archives by Al Richardson and Sam Bornstein in the course of researching the history of the movement.
Some readers will find many of the names unfamiliar, and we hope to be able to provide moire extensive explanatory notes in the future. We did not want to delay the appearance of this document until that was possible however. Readers who want to inquire further into any of the individuals mentioned here will find references to most of them in Bornstein & Richardson’s 3 volumes on the history of Trotskyism in Britain (see Socialist Platform Ltd).
C.L.R. James and British Trotskyism
An interview given by C.L.R. JAMES
to AL RICHARDSON, CLARENCE CHRYSOSTOM
& ANNA GRIMSHAW
on Sunday 8th June & 16th November 1986 in South London
edited by Ted Crawford, Barry Buitekant & Al Richardson.
AR: When you first became connected with the British Labour movement in Lancashire did you start off by going to ILP meetings in Nelson, or did you become active after you came to London?
CLRJ: I was in the Labour Party. I was a Labour Party man but I found myself to the left of the Labour party in Nelson, militant as that was. I came to London and in a few months I was a Trotskyist.
AR: So there wasn’t a period inside the ILP when you were just an ILP member? You more or less joined the Trotskyists and the ILP at the same time?
CLRJ: I joined the Labour Party in London and there I met Trotskyists who were distributing a pamphlet. The Trotskyists decided to go into the ILP and I went with them.
AR: Which Trotskyists were these – the first that you made contact with in London?
CLRJ: There was Robinson and Margaret Johns and a man living here, the chairman of the party ...
AR: Bert Matlow?
CLRJ: There was Matlow, Robinson and Margaret Johns and one or two others. I joined the movement and read Trotsky’s books in French and the pamphlets in English. There were no books in English, only pamphlets, so after a time, I said, “Why haven’t we a book in English?” and they said it was about time that they had one. I finally picked myself up and got hold of Frederick Warburg. In those days people were moving from the Labour Party to the left, but they did not like the Communist Party, because the Communist Party meant Moscow, and so a movement began to develop and I was part of it. There was Groves, there was Dewar, people who were Marxists but not Communist Party. I told Warburg and he thought there was scope for the publication of books that were Marxist but not CP So I went away to Brighton and wrote this book in three or four months. Now I was very fortunate, because very close to where I lived was the Communist Party bookshop, so I had plenty of material. In 1935 – 1936 Moscow shifted from the “revolutionary” policy to associating with the bourgeoisie. Now the young people today can’t understand that at all, In those days when you met people you thought, “C.L.R. James, is he a Trotskyist, CP, or left or right – wing Labour?”. you were a political person and that mattered. Today it doesn’t seem to matter, but in those days it did.
AR: What sort of group meetings did you go to? Were you active in North London?
CLRJ: I was active in Hampstead. I joined the Hampstead group in N.W.3. and we had meetings almost every evening. In the summer we held meetings along the side of the road. We put up something to stand on and we sold books and spoke. I used to go into Hyde Park and I was a speaker there. I had formed a black movement, so I would speak for the Trotskyist movement and then walk about a hundred yards to where the black movement was speaking. There was always a lot of comic laughter about that with which I was well acquainted. Anyway that is what I used to do. Then I started a paper.
AR: Do you remember when you were in the Marxist Group in the ILP how you managed to recruit people like Arthur Ballard? What do you remember about him?
CLRJ: Ballard was a very tall, handsome, striking looking man who was working as a proletarian in industry but who was destined to be an intellectual. He was an intellectual type – in the way he thought, in the way he behaved and in the way he would eat and so on. He was a worker, and a worker in those days was very important in the Trotskyist movement. So here was this gifted intellectual with a proletarian base. He came with us, and became very friendly with me. We worked together and were very closely related not only as politicians but as friends. Then I had to go to America, and when I came back he had joined something or other. He was not a man sufficiently educated to hold the movement together, and let other people see the way it was going. But when he was with us he was tremendously active. He was a man, in spite of all my associations, that I remember with a great deal of affection and respect. When I came back after a number of years in America, he had gone his way and I don’t know what has happened to him now.
AG: The last letter you had from him was sometime in 1976. He had seen you on television. He was at that time in Cornwall or Devon.
AR: What do you remember about Israel Heiger? Heiger was a gifted scientist. Did you remember him?
CLRJ: He too went along with us but he wasn’t interested in theory. He told me he couldn’t go into that, but by and large he was with us, and he was important because every now and again he would come in and say, “Here is some money”, and give us ten pounds. He had a good job and his name was very useful to us, and he was very devoted to the movement, he did not go away from the party. His wife did.
AG: She later married Birney.
AR: When did Birney go back to Canada?
AG: It was at the end of 1936. He became Canada’s Poet Laureate. It was in 1936 when he left England because he wrote to say that he did not remember all that business about Abyssinia and the ILP and that he had gone before that.
CLRJ: I joined the Trotskyist movement and I learned Marxism in the Trotskyist movement. So I raised the Abyssinian question and Fenner Brockway wrote an article in the New Leader in which he supported entirely the position that I and some friends held. Then we went to the conference and we said, “Not the League of Nations but workers’ sanctions”. We were revolutionary workers. Then Maxton and McGovern said, “No”. They were for League of Nations’ sanctions. To say that you were in favour of workers’ sanctions was to support militarism. They were pacifists and not militarists. So they wrecked us on that question. We thought we had something. The party, I think it was at Keighley, had gone into the conference with Brockway who had illusions, but McGovern said, “No, we cannot support that, we are pacifists. You say that you are not for the League of Nations but you are for workers’ sanctions. That is for the workers to decide”. Then it came to the final conference; we had the experience of Keighley and we had the ILP members. When I proposed the motion in the course of the conference it met with tremendous applause from the audience.
Brockway came to me and he said “James I want to talk to you, and you as a man will understand this”. Brockway said that he supported the line I was taking, and he wrote an article in the paper supporting the line I was taking. He said “We can’t pass such a motion at conference condemning James Maxton and the party leadership. If you do that the party will fall apart, because you and I and a few more of us cannot form the party. They are the party and there are a lot of people supporting the party financially who won’t join the Labour Party or us, but they want the ILP to go ahead. If you were to condemn the party then ...”.He then went on to say that what we can do is to oppose the motion and instead propose it for further discussion on the NEC I said that I wanted to make a statement before I spoke and when the time came for the last motion I asked permission to make a statement. I made the statement and then I moved that we accept the resolution but to include this statement of mine. That was how it was done and that was my first experience of big politics. You will find it in the News Chronicle of those days.
AR: Before the conference took place, you had a successful series of meetings up and down the country, when it looked as if the party was going to support your line. Can You remember any of those meetings, because it appears they made quite an impact?
CLRJ: Yes. I went around. They made some impact, above all in Wales. I was welcomed by the Welsh and wherever I went they said they wanted me to, “Speak purely on the question of the party, so James could you speak? On Saturday sometimes and on Sunday night we have a party meeting at which you will speak on general questions”. So that was understood. The local ILP welcomed me speaking against the party leadership and on Sunday there would be general meetings. So I did this everywhere and in Wales I spoke about the colonial question and the need for West Indian self-government. The Welsh audience said, “We understand. We are in the same position in our relation to the British Government”. I hadn’t the faintest idea what they were talking about. Next they said, “Well, maybe not exactly. They can’t do anything to us but we in Wales understand what it is to fight poverty”. When I went to Ireland it was the same thing. In Ireland they had read about me and sent for me to come because I was speaking against the British Government.
AG: Did you meet Nora Connolly when you went there?
CLRJ: Not only did I meet her, but she came here to speak at our meetings and said she had come here with a counter-view. They sent for me, and I had a tremendous meeting with them because I spoke against the British Government. When I had finished speaking a fellow got up to speak, because I was putting forward the Trotskyist position. I did not go and speak about Trotskyism, I said that I do not come here for that purpose, but for a more general meeting. Then this fellow got up. He was a young fellow, a good looking chap of about thirty, and he denounced me In one of the finest speeches I have ever heard or remembered. “Trotsky was this, Trotskyism was that, you come here disturbing everything”, and so on. So I spoke to him after the meeting and said, “Let us go and have a drink somewhere. I have left politics now”. “I am a member of the Communist Party and you are an enemy!” “So you say that I am a Fascist!” I said. “Oh that’s all right”, he said and we parted good friends.
AR: While you were in Ireland, did you meet Paddy Trench who fought in the POUM battalion?
CLRJ: No. I met Nora Connolly O’Brien. She came to London for the ILP I had invited her. I remember that woman, because in those days the British Trotskyite revolutionaries were no more than left wing Labour. So I went to meet her and invited her to come over here and speak, and she did. Coming from the railway station we crossed the river by Parliament, and she said, “You should have done away with that years ago, it is easy from the river”. So I said “Yes, we are revolutionaries, but bombing the Houses of Parliament is useless”. “You’re talking of something that you know nothing about!” She instinctively saw the revolutionary possibilities. From this side of the river you could bomb the Houses of Parliament and get away with it.
AR: Do you remember the first occasion on which you met George Padmore?
CLRJ: In which I met George Padmore? Sorry you are making a mistake, a serious mistake. Padmore’s father was a teacher in 1905 and Padmore would come to Arima to meet his people, his uncle, and he and I would go to the river to bathe together.
AR: That would be before he went to Berlin?
CLRJ: That was before we left Trinidad. I knew Padmore in Trinidad. As boys we used to live in Arima and go and bathe in the river there. When we grew up, he was far more of a leftist than I was. I was a historian, whilst George had joined the labour movement in Trinidad before I did. Then he went to America, and I lost him. Then I came to England and joined the labour movement, and became a Trotskyist. Then the news came that George Padmore had been expelled from the United States and had come to England. Everyone was taking about “George Padmore” and there was a meeting and “George Padmore” was my old friend, my schoolboy friend from Trinidad! I hadn’t had the faintest idea that “George Padmore”, whom I had written about, spoken about and recommended to everybody was the same. That was a peculiar return. That night when we left the meeting we went to eat and finally parted at four o’clock in the morning, speaking the whole time about the revolutionary movement. Now he was a member of the Communist Party and had been a high official, he had lived in Moscow. I was a Trotskyist, but we remained good friends and when he left the Communist Party we joined together and formed the black movement which I had started. I started the black movement. It was very curious. I started the Trotskyist movement in European terms. Then Padmore came in. He said that he was a Marxist, but what about the colonial question? What about Africa? That movement became an African movement, a Marxist African movement. Padmore did that. He educated me and I carried it on. After he died, people began to think that I had brought Marxism to the African movement. It wasn’t so.
AR: Did he ever speak to you about his bad experiences with the Communist International, and do you remember the substance of what he said?
CLRJ: The substance of what he said was that the Communist Party would hope that something would happen and then they would do something. Padmore said that when he went to Moscow, he had been in Germany and when he was in Germany he had been sent to England. They sent a message to say that they wanted a black man in the Communist International in Moscow, and, as he was the right one, they sent him. He went to Moscow, he had nobody, but they made him into a big political leader. On May Day when Stalin, Molotov and the others would be on the platform reviewing the revolutionaries, they would invite him, and he would be up there with them representing the Caribbean, where they had nobody. Then Lenin died and they all went to pieces. He meant that the Communist Party began to change their line and, after the line had changed, they said that they could no longer be as completely for the revolution. “In the Caribbean, in your country and in America the blacks have democracy, so we are not going to attack them. There are some democratic capitalists.” So I said, “You told them there are `democratic capitalists’ in the Caribbean, ‘democratic capitalists’ in the United States, and ‘democratic capitalists’ somewhere else?”. He said, “I come from those countries, and they know me for years as the man who had denounced the ‘democratic capitalists!’. How do you expect me to go there and write and say that this is democratic capitalism?” They said to him, “Well George, sometimes you have to change the line”. His answer was, “Well boys, this is one line I can’t change”. He broke with them and went to England and we joined together and re-formed the Pan-African movement. That was a movement of strength.
AR: What do you remember when you sent out the journal International African Opinion? Roughly, what was its circulation and what sort of people were gathered around it?
CLRJ: I remember well the journal International African Opinion. Marcus Garvey’s first wife and I founded the thing. Was the date 1937?
AR: Yes. About then.
CLRJ: I am being cautious here, because I haven’t got documents. As I remember it, there was nobody concerned about the colonial movement in Western politics. Nevertheless something was happening. Mussolini had attacked Ethiopia and Mrs Garvey and I said that we were openly to oppose that. We felt that there ought to be an opposition, and we published the opposition. It is difficult to be precise, but I remember when at a certain stage we were writing we said, “Why is it only Ethiopia? We are against the whole imperialist domination, African and everywhere else”, and we wrote it in. I remember writing that, as no-one was talking about it, and to my astonishment within thirty years there were forty new African states. I have said that before, I think. That is one of the great experiences of my life. I want to emphasise, I hadn’t the faintest idea that would happen and when that happened I was astonished. We went into it and built it up. Others came in and said “You want this international movement, this, that or the other”. When we began we had no idea of going any further.
AR: Did you attempt to get your journal into the colonial world by smuggling it in or other ways?
CLRJ: We tried all ways. We couldn’t get it in normally, because many of those colonial governments, and those that came in afterwards, were quite hostile to us. Others, if not hostile were sympathetic that James was writing books that brought in the colonial people, but were nevertheless Marxist, Trotskyist. We had one or two people who worked on the waterfront. They gave the pamphlets to seamen and people in boats. In that way it went around.
AG: Was it people like Chris Jones?
CLRJ: Chris Jones was a very fine comrade. Chris would get himself into a temper and explode and make a revolution at the back of the hall. But he was able to get the pamphlets and make contact and people would send it around. We got it around, to my astonishment and delight. After all, we were but a few intellectuals in London, and could not have done much.
AR: George Padmore, whilst he was in Moscow, built up a tremendous range of contacts.
CLRJ: Yes, that is quite right. Padmore was quite a notable. When he split with Moscow, the platform that he had built up, went with Padmore. In other words, as happens quite often in the early stages of the movement, people follow a political personality and somebody whom they can recognise. I have to say also that Padmore and I were leaders of the black movement, though I was outside as a Marxist, Trotskyist. They came and followed James and Padmore, although I was quite sure that there was a large percentage of Padmore and a small percentage of James. They came in because of Padmore. He got on well with them.
AR: Some of those you were working with at the time, became very important later, in the politics of independent Africa. Were you able to influence any of them in a particularly Trotskyist direction, and do you remember any of the discussions you had with them?
CLRJ: No. But I can tell you this. I am very conscious that most of the African leaders of the independence movement, who were in Europe, orientated naturally towards the Marxist movement which said we are for freedom in the colonies. We never had too much power but I wrote one or two pamphlets and books in which it was very clear. Later I was often invited to come and speak on the Marxist movement in Africa. It was in a very small way influenced by the Stalinists. Normally they would have dominated it, but those leaders who had worked in London hadn’t become Trotskyists – but we had so educated them that Stalinism didn’t do much to them.
AR: Did you attempt to have conferences with them and try to get them to discuss together the idea of a United Africa, or anything like that?
CLRJ: I must say the idea of a United Africa was nonsense. That was quite obvious. It was not a practical proposition. East Africa was one way, West Africa another and Central a third way. On the coast there were different tongues, and away from the coast you had entirely different African villages and styles. So whilst in every resolution, or at the end, you spoke of Africa united at every important part, you knew it wasn’t being realistic. It was a general vision, and one that would become an ideal. I once spoke, and it was very effective, and said that the unity of Africa was closer, theoretically speaking, than the unity of Europe for this reason, that the African states were not organically settled as were Britain, France, Germany. There were large tribal organisations but they didn’t have the barriers between them that the European states had. But the policy shouldn’t be put forward when people objected. But that was all. There were one or two fanatics who talked about it, but they were so fanatical. There is one of them that I have in mind, and wouldn’t mention his name, although we would talk with him about it.
AR: Do you remember any of the debates in which you managed to get the Stalinists to debate with you at the time of the Moscow trials?
CLRJ: We had debates in London and I debated with them, and there was not only a debate, but there was one particular moment in which there were a number of people on the platform with Kingsley Martin and the rest of them. I challenged them from the hall and then I stood up. There was a man called Gerry Bradley, Gerry was a great fighter, irrespective of the number of policemen. Gerry was my good friend, he said to me, “James, there will be the two of us ...” and we went into the meeting together. He stood up and said, “Mr Chairman, Comrade James here has been standing up for the past half hour and wants to be able to say a few words ...”. The Communist Party did not want to give me the democracy, but they were afraid that Gerry would break up their meeting. Then Gerry turned to me and said, “Mr James, come with me” and led me up to the platform. The audience listened, and I put the case for Trotskyism, and it wrecked their meeting. The famous one was when they held a meeting and I came there at nine o’clock. They were speaking when I came in. They knew what was up and the chairman spoke for ten minutes and said that they had a full discussion of the question and must draw the meeting to a close. I used to go to their meetings and take only two people with me and their meetings would break up, because I had the Stalinist statements in my pocket and I would have a lot of copies and give the chaps copies and say “Now have a read ...”. “That is not so, but you yourselves have said that it is impossible for the bourgeoisie ever to meet him”, and they would say, “No, we have not said it”. I would say, “You did say it” and again they would say “No”. So I would say, “Wait a bit” and go and get the pamphlet and show them. I used to do that here. I used to speak in Britain, and made it a habit to wreck the Stalinist meetings.
There was a black man who had joined the CP He said to me that you could do that in Britain and keep breaking up their meetings but in America if you carry on like that they will kill you. As far as the police were concerned, if a Stalinist killed a Trotskyist they would have no part of that, so just take it easy. The difference between British democracy and democracy in the United States is that there you have to be aware, not of the government, but of the Stalinists. In New York and Massachusetts, the government would not bother with you, but the Stalinists in those days were the enemy. The bourgeoisie didn’t bother with us, as we were too small.
AR: Do you remember when you addressed a packed public meeting, when Jock Milligan was in the chair? Do you recall what you said there? It was on the Moscow trials and it was an enormous meeting.
CLRJ: Where was that?
AR: It was in London. I’m not sure whether it was in the Memorial Hall in Farringdon or the Holborn Hall.
CLRJ: I refer to it in World Revolution?
AR: No. A friend of mine was in the audience and he remembers Jock Milligan and you getting a bigger audience than anyone could have dreamed of. Everybody was standing at the side of the stage fearful about beginning, so what happened apparently, Jock got hold of a pile of books, put them under his arm and said, “Come on!”. That was the memory that my friend Bert Atkinson had. You wouldn’t remember him.
CLRJ: I remember the meeting very well, because there was a tremendous contrast between that meeting and meetings we held on Trotskyism, but on the Moscow Trials a lot of Communist Party members came and listened to what we had to say. It was a crisis for them, but soon afterwards I went to the United States in November 1938.
AR: Could you double back a little, because you have covered a lot of ground. Do you remember when you went to Paris to discuss the question whether you were to stay in the 1.L.P., or form a separate organisation, or join the Labour Party? It was called the “Geneva Conference”, but it was not held in Geneva, but in Paris. Do you remember when you went there?
CLRJ: Yes. I remember, Harber was there.
AR: Harber was there. Do you remember the other English representative? Was it Arthur Ballard?
CLRJ: No it was not Ballard. He was a close personal friend of mine.
AR: Apparently there was another English representative according to the minutes.
CLRJ: I am not sure now who the other delegate was. It could have been Starkey Jackson. I must say that as far as I remember it, I and Harber made a good speech. We were from the British Labour movement and I was aware that another fellow had come from Austria. He had come from the revolutionary movement, but we had not. I felt that very strongly in the conference. I would say a few words and speak, as I could speak in French, but I was aware that what was happening in Britain was nothing. The French themselves were in a bit of trouble. They were being persecuted. Some of the boys came from Germany, and even one or two from Russia.
AR: At the conference?
CLRJ: Yes, at the conference. They had been in Europe, and they came in secretly at the conference. They didn’t have much to say, but I remember them sitting there, and I spoke with them. It took some time, they smiled and said, “Yes”. But I know now that they were saying, “You are nothing but left wing Labour democrats”. Immediately after that conference the war came, and those boys from Belgium were shot. After the war, when we went to Belgium, we found that they had all been shot.
AR: Who was the Belgian delegate who supported you? In the minutes it mentions that you got support from the Belgian delegate, but not from the others. Do you remember who that was?
CLRJ: He was a working man. He was not an intellectual. He was about 35 to 40, and he was very friendly to us.
AR: Do you remember his name? Was it Vereeken?
CLRJ: No. Vereeken was an old fashioned Trotskyist. If I were to see him again I would remember him.
AR: You had some differences earlier with the Trotskyist movement around 1936-1937. According to the minutes you used to receive some of the material from Field’s group and Weisbord. You had some criticism about Trotsky’s theory about the development of European history at that time which is shown in your World Revolution. Can you explain in full the way you were thinking at that time and how you were developing those differences about 1937-38 when you wrote World Revolution?
CLRJ: I will tell you something which will astonish you. When I began to attack the Trotskyist position, some people in the United States said, “When we read your book World Revolution we said that it won’t be long before James is attacking the Trotskyist movement”. In this book it was pointed out to me in a particular paragraph. I agreed with the interpretation. I was told “James, when some of us read that quotation, we said that ultimately James will go”.
AR: Who was it that said that?
CLRJ: Friends of mine who were party members. They said that when they read that (they had long experience) and they weren’t surprised. I broke with the Trotskyist movement practically alone and said “No!” They said “What about the whole International?” and I said “I don’t care!”. In those days I wasn’t politically wise. If I had been, I would have waited, but there was nothing wrong, though I said “No!” It is not a wrong view to be against the defence of Russia, but at the same time for Trotsky. I said that if you are against the defence of Russia that Trotsky was advocating you are breaking not with Trotskyism but with the defence of Russia. Freddie Forest and I worked it out, and then I wrote the pamphlet.
AR: Can you tell me what else you remember about the founding conference of the Fourth International?
CLRJ: I can remember that conference for one reason. We were against the Trotskyist position on the defence of the USSR. In the United States in particular, when the Moscow Trials took place there was a movement against the Fourth International, but the Russian question was the reason. I was in the United States, that was my last trip, and I told them, “I have joined you, but I have not joined because I agree with you on the Russian position”. They said, “You cannot have an international which is all united with Trotsky, but opposed to Trotsky on the Russian question. It means you are opposed to Trotskyism”. Freddie Forest and I set out like Christopher Colombus. We had another boy with us who had some money and he supported us with some finance. We hadn’t a position, but she said, and we agreed, we were going to find out why it is that the Trotskyist position seemed to be wrong on the Russian question in general. After a year or two we came out with a full position in which we attacked Trotskyism from beginning to end. We started looking for the answer in Capital Volume I and the Communist Manifesto. That pamphlet we published. After, we started to study the question to find out why in the Trotskyist movement we were against on the Russian question but in agreement on other issues. Trotsky died in 1940. I am positive if he had been alive he would have seen what we were talking about. No one mentioned it but they weren’t able to argue against it.
AR: What other actual memories do you have of the founding conference in Paris? Can you remember who was there and what they talked about?
CLRJ: What I do remember was some Polish comrades who came and took the position that we were advancing. We did not advance it too strongly when we came to Europe and met these comrades. Also for the first time, I believe, some comrades from the United States talked about it. We put forward our position and had it copied into the minutes, but we didn’t press the issue. The Polish comrades told us “We are not going to vote for you, because we did not come here to vote, we came from Poland where there are big problems. The Communist Party there had a split, we split from them and now we have split from the split. So we haven’t come here to vote against the conference, but we are sympathetic to you, James. You have the line, although we are not supporting it”. Nevertheless we had a powerful influence on that conference but a year or two afterwards the whole movement threw it away.
Because Trotsky kept on insisting that you had to support the Moscow regime since the Moscow bureaucracy is just a bureaucracy, a labour bureaucracy. When the war came those bureaucracies that supported it would go. He said that this is what happened to Lenin with the Second International when the war came, and the Third emerged. I said, “No, you are wrong, because the bureaucracy that Lenin fought against was a labour bureaucracy, bureaucracy in the labour movement, but in Moscow they are not labour bureaucracy, they are a state power, which the war will build up and make stronger than ever. This will increase their domination over the rest of the workers”. They could not answer me at all. When the war came this is what happened.
AR: That is another interesting question. From the way I see the evidence you would have had a greater effect in the struggle against imperialism especially during the war and towards the end if you had remained exactly where you were in Britain co-operating with Padmore and organising and training this movement. What did you yourself think about this, when the IS decided to send you to the USA?
CLRJ: I was invited to the United States and I went there at the end of 1938 and started to organise the movement. We began to have something. As the war continued I did not know what to do so I discussed with them. Do you know Freddie Forest?
AR: Yes. Raya Dunayevskaya.
CLRJ: She had a tremendous influence on me. If it hadn’t been for Raya Dunayevskaya I would have come back to Britain, where I had a movement, where I had people, where I had a paper and where was known, because I was writing cricket for the Manchester Guardian. So I thought that I ought to go back to where the boys were speaking against the war. But Raya Dunayevskaya had come to the conclusion that I was the man to remain in the United States, a black man who was automatically the leader of the black movement, but whose education was such that he could be head of the Trotskyist movement as a whole. I was in doubt whether to go or stay. Raya was insistent that I stay, and then I said that I had no money to live on she said, “Don’t worry about money”. For months she got money for me. She had friend and was well established, and that is why I stayed in the United States. We finally split in 1955, but as a role in my history, for staying in the United States (and I am glad I did) she did it and that should be said.
AR: So when you first went to the United States it wasn’t considered then to be a permanent thing?
CLRJ: No. I went to the United States, but with the intention of coming back.
AR: That is very interesting because some of your supporters here who later went into the Revolutionary Workers’ League, like Cliff Stanton, Ben Elsbury, Sid Frost – those people, considered that the reason that you had been sent to the United States was because when they invited all the groups to unite In August 1938, because of their different origins, they sent you to the United States to give Harber a free run in the group that was to follow. Some were for entry work and others were for open work. So you say that was not true, but that was what a lot of your followers have been saying in this country.
CLRJ: No. It was not true. They were wanting me to do work. I had a national and international reputation. I had written the history and articles. So I brought to the Trotskyist movement some international reputation. I used to speak on Trotskyism, but they couldn’t hold me because I hadn’t followed Trotsky. I had read all the material. I remembered the night I joined the Trotskyist movement there were some people from Oxford and Cambridge who were joining the same night, but they brought some criticism to the official Trotskyists and they couldn’t answer. So on the same night I joined I had to speak on behalf of Trotskyism. I went to America and had a great deal to do with the foundation of the movement there. The blacks in America wanted me to form a black movement and I said, “No!”, that I was not going to do that. I was very effective, and the American Government said that I had overstayed my time there and must go.
CC: Is there any truth in the statement that Trotsky and James supported a black state in America ?
CLRJ: No! No! No! We discussed in some detail plans to help create and build an independent black organisation in the United States. That we did, but we were thinking of a political grouping that would advocate the cause of the blacks. But this was taken up by people to mean that we wanted to build a little black section of the United States – a black Mississippi! There were people in the United States doing that who were claiming that a part of Mississippi should be a black state, but the Marxist movement had nothing to do with that – absolutely nothing! But our enemies, or one of two of them, took it up when we said, “an independent black organisation”. I am sure that if you read the resolution you will see that it makes clear that it was a political organisation fighting for the position of rights in general and the black people in particular. That was misinterpreted to mean something else, but nobody took It seriously, although we had a lot of trouble with it. Nobody thinks so today?
AR: I think that is the way some people are interpreting it.
CLRJ: Well, you can tell them that it isn’t so, and that it never was so.
AG: Why were the CP pushing the line of an independent black state?
CLRJ: The CP was pushing it – that seems to be one of the mysteries of the revolutionary movement. One or two people believe that Stalin, who was notoriously backward and ignorant of international politics, thought so, and said so, and the rest followed. So for years they went along with this thing, which struck great blows against Marxism in the United States. It was such an absurdity that all Marxists were discredited by it.
AR: In the transcript of your discussions with Trotsky in 1939 I notice at one point you mention the groups in Britain. You describe roughly what they are and you mention the Workers’ International League and say that they were very active in the work they did. There did not appear to be any come-back from Trotsky. Was he interested at all in what you said, because there is nothing in his replies?
CLRJ: No. I wouldn’t be too concerned about that. People were coming from Britain, from France, from Norway, some from America and other places. I used to wonder how he managed to take it in and hold it in his head and express opinions on complicated matter in far-away countries which he knew nothing about. I stayed about a week. We had a general discussion and then Trotsky and I had a separate discussion that I had asked him for. That has been published.
AR: Do you remember any of the other Trotskyists who were there at the same time, from other countries?
CLRJ: There were two men from Poland and they listened to the discussion. They sharply disagreed with the attitude we were taking to the Trotskyist movement outside of Western Europe, but they didn’t intervene and say so. I have to be careful here, but their attitude, when the thing was explained to them in their language, was because we were introducing the idea of differences that were troubling us into those movements. I think that was the problem, and their concept was, that you don’t know the kind of thing it is to have a Trotskyist movement inside a Stalinist party regime. We haven’t time to argue all this, and there was one particular case where the Stalinists and Trotskyists formed a United Front, (I think it was in Vietnam) against the dominant party. The idea of a United Front with the Trotskyists elsewhere would have been impossible. At the time I was very much struck by what today I can see more clearly than ever. For us in Western Europe and in France the differences in the labour movement were matters of discussion, pamphlets, meetings. For them over there, there was none of that. It was a question of life and death, what your attitude was to the existing regimes and to the Communist Party. Because if you were at fault with the Communist Party they came to wipe you away. That was the struggle against the authoritarian state. You don’t only fight them with words, you had a murderous fight between sections of the new movement. That is what I remember.
AR: After you had been in the United states for a while the Trotskyist movement there split and you supported, or rather went with, the group led by Max Shachtman, but you had your own particular point of view. What do you remember of the circumstances in which you parted from the group led by Cannon?
CLRJ: Cannon was an Irishman of a similar type and with the qualities that distinguished the Irish in the Democratic Party. Physically he looked like them, and he had this capacity for two things, propaganda speeches to build up the movement, and intricate organisation. As for the refinements of political policy he wasn’t into that. Shachtman was the Jewish Boy, well-educated in urban universities, who did that, but Cannon was a very gifted man. He ran the party, and people were very concerned that they did not oppose him as secretary. There was much conflict inside the party, and then the Moscow split took place. Whereupon the party split and Shachtman went, and I went with Shachtman. The Shachtmanites said at the time, “Look, you are splitting!” but I said, “I am not splitting with you”. They split on the Russian question and I had differences with them, and this is still something on which I fancy that I was right. I said that you don’t split a party on the Russian question, because to split is a tremendous thing in our movement. You are cast out, and they say that you are an enemy of the labour movement. This also means that you are opposed to them in a manner in which you do not know yet. Freddie Forest and I stated that that was our position, but in what way we differed from them apart from the Russian question we didn’t know. So we decided to go and find out and make that public. We set out to study Marxism to find out why we split with them on the Russian question and we found we came out with new and different policies. That was quite a theoretical activity and the results were published.
AR: Can you give us some details on the way you worked on the philosophy part that came out in your Notes on Dialectics, on the method you used to work out some of those ideas?
CLRJ: There were three of us, two to begin with. Firstly there was Freddie Forest, and later Grace Lee joined us. Grace Lee had her doctorate from the university in philosophy. That means that she was a philosophy graduate, which meant that all the elements of the great philosophers she understood, but that was not all. There was another man, a short Greek-looking fellow, a white man named Johnny Zupern. He was not educated, he was a worker, but that fellow used to read the philosophical documents and not only understand, which many didn’t, but he understood them and expounded and developed them in a manner in which some of us, who were philosophically trained, couldn’t. He left us completely astounded. So we hired him and Raya, who knew what was done In Russian. Russian was the language native to her. She translated all that Lenin had said on philosophy. Grace Lee had all the Leninist writings, and the Marxist ones in German. I was familiar with all the writings in French. So we formed a rather formidable organisation, and we covered everything on Marxist philosophy. We were not going to say what Marx and Engels might say about philosophy, or Hegel. Everybody used to say that Engels had said this or that about Hegel. I said, “None of that, we are going to find out what Hegel said and deal with it”. We produced work which, to this day, I find invaluable. Many years later a Frenchman wrote, and he didn’t write badly, but in my opinion he didn’t write particularly well either, and he raised some problems. We are the only ones who had seriously gone into the philosophical analysis in terms of the doctrines of Hegel and German philosophy. Most of the Trotskyists made noises but left it.
AR: So in fact quite a long period of discussion had gone on before you actually wrote the document.
CLRJ: I remember talking to Forest and saying, “Well I don’t want to say it, but we must go into it”, and she said, “All right, I started it and I will finish it on what Lenin said about Hegel”. This was translated in Europe, and we not only translated but published. We had two translations. Grace Lee translated it from the German, but Freddie Forest translated it from the Russian, and so we had the two translations. I don’t want to go into it now, but I was quite impressed. We had an organisation here. Nobody has done these translations, and it later became one of the official documents, but we had done it and I was very much impressed, because I knew what it meant.
AR: When you went back with the SWP in 1947, how well were you able to work there? Was there friction a lot of the time? What was the sort of set-up between you? Because you did maintain your own independent views.
CLRJ: We went back in 1947 and left when?
AR: 1949 or 1950 as far as I can tell.
CLRJ: They were expecting that we would come in, thinking that the people who were with the Johnson/Forest tendency, having joined their party, not because of me but because we had a clear doctrinal statement would join them, but we went on and trained them in that way. Not one of them left, and Cannon and company were very disappointed, because they said, “They will come in with Johnson and Forest, but as time goes on we will work on them, and eventually they will join the majority”. We lost nobody, and when the time came for us to leave we cleared out. I remember Cannon telling people “What I don’t understand is that not one of these people joined our movement”. He also said that, “They don’t create any disturbances, they don’t keep up an agitation for their policies, they are very good party members. but they won’t join”. That meant a great deal.
Now when I had to leave they were not able to go on. This was partly my fault. I tried to keep leading the party from London, but if I had stayed in the United States we would have had an organisation, because they were good people, trained and full of ability, devoted to the movement. When I left, I told them who should be the leader, and that was blunder number one. That was followed by blunders numbers two, three, four and five. Complete blunder! Actually I should have left them alone, but I began by saying Raya should be leader. Raya didn’t fight it, although she didn’t want to be particularly, but she went along. She couldn’t lead, and it fell apart. Even today people will tell you that that was a movement not only for the people who were in it, although they went their different ways. They all became important leaders In the organisations in which they joined. They were trained, and disciplined, and had firm Marxist foundations. One thing I said, that before you join us you will have to do some work and present a piece in writing. You will have to take a piece of Marxist writing, expound it and get it published, even if it has to be published by us, otherwise you cannot become a member of our party. They all did that.
The footnotes are insertions by the editors, in consultation with CLRJ, to clarify aspects of this interview.
World Revolution 1937, recently republished by Humanities Press, with a new introduction by Al Richardson
Padmore was a party name. His name in Arima was Malcolm Nurse and the fathers of both boys were teachers. Arima is a small town 15 miles from Port of Spain.
International African Friends of Ethiopia, later it became the International African Service Bureau.
This was the pseudonym for Raya Dunayevskaya.
State Capitalism & World Revolution, 1950.
At this point CLRJ was handed the following cutting which he read:
The article by Clive Davis on C.L.R. James (Guardian February 17) contained misleading information on James’s meeting with Leon Trotsky in Mexico.
The meeting was called to discuss the question of black liberation in the United States. As transcripts of these discussions show there was a large measure of agreement amongst those involved. The participants agreed on the right of United States blacks to self determination, up to and including the right to form their own state if they wished. They also discussed In some detail plans to create and build an independent black organisation in the United States.
After these discussions CLR James returned to the US and drafted a resolution on black liberation for the Socialist Workers Party – the US section of the Trotskyist International. The resolution was overwhelmingly accepted by an SWP Congress.
Transcripts of these extremely interesting discussions between James, Trotsky and others can be found in the book Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-determination published by Pathfinder Press.
Guardian, 21st February 1986