from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
Summer 1981

In addition to the voluminous writings of C. L. R. James which have been published in one form or another, there is also a massive correspondence which is virtually unknown except to those who were the recipients of his letters. These include responses to letters he received, discussions which he initiated, responses to events or activities of those associated with him, of which he became aware, and letters of guidance and instruction.

These letters varied from short notes to letters of many pages. Those of us who were in groups with which he was associated sometimes got long letters every day for a week or two, sometimes received no letters for months on end. In any case, it was one of the most rewarding aspects of association with James. For we who were Americans it was, in the years after his expulsion from the United States, almost the only contact we had with the man who founded our tendency in 1941.

Unfortunately, most of James's correspondence is scattered over most of the earth. Some of it, I am sure, will never be recovered. A few individuals, in the U.S. and elsewhere, have small collections of James's correspondence. The letters which follow are a part of the Martin Glaberman and Jessie Glaberman Collection in the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit. Most of this correspondence covers the period during which there was an organized "Johnsonite" Tendency in the U.S.

The first letter was written as a report on a visit with Martin Luther King in London. It was sent as an addendum to a short letter addressed to "Dear Friends" and dated March 25, 1957. The language and concerns obviously reflect the time in which it was written. "CPP" in that letter is the Convention Peoples Party, which Nkrumah headed and which was the leading party in Ghana. "UGCC" is United Gold Coast Convention.

The last two letters were responses to letters written by me. The first was to a Black activist in Detroit. The 1948 resolution referred to in this letter was the Resolution on the Negro Question of the Socialist Workers Party. The second letter was written to James and concerned the draft of a pamphlet on which we were all working, a pamphlet eventually published as "Negro Americans Take the Lead." The relevant parts of my letters are included.

Martin Glaberman
March 25, 1957

. . . .
Yesterday the Rev. Luther King and his wife had lunch with us and stayed here from 12.30 until nearly 5 p.m. With us was George Lamming, the West Indian writer who has just received a distinguished literary prize, the Somerset Maugham award of L500 for his book IN THE CASTLE OF MY SKIN. The award demands that the winner must travel and he is going to Ghana. There was also with us Dr. David Pitt, who is likely to be the first West Indian or African to run for Parliament in England. His constituency is likely to be Hampstead, and of course he is running as a Labour Party candidate. He also was in Ghana.

After about two hours of general conversation, Luther King and his wife began to speak about the events in Montgomery, Alabama. I shall include a chapter on their experiences in the book on Ghana, and as I give you an account here of what he said, I shall introduce one or two parallels from the Ghana experience. The more I look at this the more I see that we are in the heart of a new experience which demands the most serious analysis.

One Thursday, on a day in December, a woman was arrested for travelling on the bus in a seat reserved for white people. In Montgomery, Alabama. The woman resisted, and to this day she says she does not know why she did. Thousands of Negroes had obeyed the regulations for many years. A local trade union leader went down and bailed her out and called up Dr. King, suggesting that they should "do something." It was the kind of statement that is made a hundred times a month in variouss parts of the South whenever one of these outrages takes place. This time, however, King called up a few of the better class Negroes and parsons in the community and they called a meeting for the Friday. About 60 of them, upper class Negroes, got together and they decided to call for a boycott. The idea was not entirely new, because some months before, a girl of 15 had defied the bus regulations and people had spoken of the necessity of doing something and had talked about the boycott, but it passed, as so many of these things pass. They decided to call for the boycott and started off at once to inform people by phone. They also prepared a document telling the people not to travel on the buses from Monday morning. The news spread, and on the Monday morning there began one of the most astonishing events in the history of human struggle. The Negro population of Montgomery is about 35,000. From the Monday morning and for about one year afterwards, the percentage of Negroes who boycotted the buses was over 99%. The Commissioner of Police and the head of the Bus Company have stated that never on any day did more than 35 people ride the buses.

In addition to calling for the boycott, the committee had called for a meeting on Monday evening at the Church of the Rev. King. When they saw the tremendous success of the boycott they were nervous about going through with the meeting. King says that they thought along these lines.

The boycott has been a tremendous success and if we have a meeting now and nobody turns up, or very few people, then the whole movement will be exposed as a failure, (and at some other time I shall give my own experience of what the failure of a movement in the South can mean. It is usually the signal for fierce reprisals by the whites.)

King and the others, however, decided that they would go through with the meeting. From about 3 o'clock in the afternoon there were people waiting to get into the Church for the meeting at 7 p.m. The Church itself could hold only a few hundred people, but there were thousands packed around it, but luckily the Church had loudspeakers so that they could hear. Half an hour before the meeting began, King, who had been elected Chairman of the committee, left the company and went outside for half an hour's meditation. He recognized that this movement had to have some political policy to guide it. He had had no idea whatever of being a leader for the struggles of his people. He was a young man of 28 years of age, but he had read philosophy and he had read also the writings of Gandhi, but with no specific purpose in view. In the course of the half hour's meditation, however, the idea came to him that what was needed to give this movement a social and political under-pinning was the policy of non-violence. But as he explained, nonviolence as he conceived it, had nothing passive about it. While it stopped short at armed rebellion, it is incessantly active in its attempt to impress its determination and the strength of its demands upon those upon whom it is directed.

King worked out his policy in that half hour and submitted it to no committee. There was no time. When he was called upon to speak, without any notes, he delivered his address, and from that moment he became the guiding principle of the movement.

King was elected Chairman of the committee by a unanimous vote. He himself had had someone else in mind to propose. It turned out that they had thought of him as Chairman because in his preaching he had always emphasized a social gospel, that is to say preaching with an emphasis on the improvement of the social situation of the community, and not with the emphasis on individual salvation. That was all, but it had singled him out in the minds of his fellow preachers, and other members of the upper class Negro community who formed the committee.

After that, the movement was on its way and for one whole year never looked back until victory was won.

It is one of the most astonishing events of endurance by a whole population that I have ever heard of. There are other details which on another occasion I shall go into. But there are a few points I want to make at once.

(1) The always unsuspected power of the mass movement.

Some of you may have beside you Padmore's book, Africa: Britain's Third Empire. Now Padmore is one of the most forward looking and inwardly confident of all who have interested themselves in Africa, and if you look on page 207 of this book which bears the date, May Day 1948, you will see that Padmore is still thinking that "the strained relationship which existed between the chiefs and intellectuals, . . . is giving way to a united effort between the chiefs and people." I do no injustice to George when I say that as late as 1948 he shows no knowledge or indication of the tremendous power of the mass movement, which the CPP would soon unloose. At that time the movement had taken the form of the boycott of European and Syrian merchants, and later the march of the ex-servicemen who had been shot down. Nkrumah and five others were arrested and deported for six weeks. It was only one year later in June 1949 that the CPP was formed and launched with a rally of 60,000 people, and when it did get underway, just as the masses in Montgomery, Alabama, it never looked back.

(2) The significance of the leadership.

(a) At first sight it would seem that Nkrumah had had a long training. Whereas King had had none at all. (This is undoubtedly true and the question of the various trends of thought which went to the development of Nkrumah is an extremely important one which in the book I shall go into in detail.) But with all due regard to the small scale of the Montgomery occasion and much larger scale of the action of the CPP in Ghana, the similarities between the two, in my opinion, are greater than the differences. King's programme was created on the spur of the moment, so to speak. Further, in Chapter 10 of his autobiography, it is obvious that if even Nkrumah was clear in his own mind as to what positive action meant, not only the Government did not understand it, but the public did not either, and on pages 110 to 112 you can see the frantic haste and the circumstances in which Nkrumah wrote down for the first time a pamphlet with the significant name, "What I mean by Positive Action."

In other words, both of them put forward decisive programmes which the crowd caught up almost in passing.

You will note how close the idea of positive action is to King's spontaneous conception that non-violence was in reality the opposite side of an unceasing attack upon the enemy.

(b) The critical moment in the history of the CPP is the decision at Saltpond to break with the UGCC. All who have studied this episode, a highly important one, know that Nkrumah and the leadership had more or less decided for the time being not to break and it was the rank and file delegates and the crowd outside who practically dragged Nkrumah from the conference hall and told him to go inside and resign. I am positive that at these and other critical moments when the leadership seemed to waver, it was always the demonstration by the mass of its force and determination and its confidence in them, that enabled them to take the forward step.

You note the precisely similar situation with the Montgomery committee on the Monday afternoon when they were ready to call the whole thing off, but were impelled to go on by the thousands who were lining up since afternoon for the meeting that they had called that night.

(By the way, just as in Ghana, the historical accidents are for the most part on the side of the advancing mass movement, and some of them, as in Ghana, are as funny as hell. A coloured servant took one of the leaflets to her white mistress on the Saturday morning. The mistress called up the local newspaper and the whites, anxious to know what these Negroes were up to, published it. A lot of Negroes who had not heard anything and could not possibly have heard in time learnt about what was involved from this gratuitous stupidity of the white newspaper.

Rumour spread that some Negroes were intimidating others from riding the buses. The Commissioner of Police, in order to prevent this, appointed two motor cycle riders to go along with each bus. The sight of them scared off all those Negroes who may possibly have had the idea of taking the bus.)

* * * *

September 30, 1963

Dear Luke Tripp,

I would like to thank you and Uhuru for your participation in our meeting on the Negro revolt on Friday, Sept. 20, 1963. Your participation helped make it a meeting of great value and significance.

The presentations were divided into three parts: A personal statement of great power and feeling by Francis H. Mitchell, who witnessed much of what happened in the struggle in the South as an Associate Editor of Ebony; a theoretical statement presenting the viewpoint of Facing Reality by myself; and your militant statement of principles and views for an organization taking an active part in the struggle.

I believe that the combination of these points of view helped to clarify many things for us and for the audience, some of which were dealt with in the summary at the conclusion of the meeting. The question of "hate," for example, was one of the important ones raised in the discussion. In the summary it was noted that although we believe in the basic goodness of all men (that is why we are socialists), that is an abstraction which does not move people. People begin to act to change the society precisely when they are so fed up with all the degradation, discrimination and humiliation that is forced on them that they hate that society completely and unequivocally, and all who identify themselves with it in any way whatever. One questioner insisted, you may recall, that nothing creative could come from hate. The reply made it clear that if hate resulted in just one person striking back instead of submitting to police brutality, it brought a new society that much closer.

The essential point made by the meeting, it seems to me, was this: It is not a matter of whether we agree with every point of program or of policy which you put forward. We disagree with some of your views just as people within your organization or within ours disagree on specific points of policy. What we all have to understand is that the policies of Negro organizations do not have to pass muster with anyone but the masses of Negroes themselves. No one else has any right to stand in judgment. And our basic pmnt of agreement and support is, first, that the Negro movement is and should be led by Negroes, and, second, that the actual struggle itself places the Negro movement in fundamental opposition to capitalist society and spearheads the fight for socialism.

Let me thank you again for your participation in our meeting and express the hope that the opportunity may arise for us to collaborate again in the future.

Fraternally yours,
Martin Glaberman

* * * *

Oct. 14th, 1963

My dear Marty,

This is in reply to your letter to Luke Tripp. I notice some sentences in it to which I wish to draw your attention. As long as you see what I am getting at, there will be no need for me to polemicize with you or to go into it at length. In the paragraph before the last you say,

"What we all have to understand is that the policies of Negro organizations do not have to pass muster with anyone but the masses of Negroes themselves."

That is simply not true. A massive movement like the Negro movement is bound to consider the effect of whatever it says upon others besides Negroes. The point is of course that Negroes have to take their positions and not be concerned about "pleasing" or "not pleasing" sections of the white population. No doubt you are aware of that. But the phrasing could be misinterpreted and it is as well that we make that clear at this time when the false implications of what is a genuine Negro desire for independence are in fact making headway. You go on to say,

"No one else has any right to stand in judgment."

That is simply untrue. Everyone has every right to stand in judgment. Then comes a final sentence which not only contradicts what has been said before but contains a first-class error of its own.

"And our basic point of agreement and support is, first, that the Negro movement is and should be led by Negroes, and, second, that the actual struggle itself places the Negro movement in fundamental opposition to capitalist society and spearheads the fight for socialism."

That the Negro movement should be led by Negroes is of course a new stage of the struggle which has enormous implications for Negro independence. But when you go on to say that "the actual struggle itself places the Negro movement in fundamental opposition to capitalist society," that is true but I don't like your saying that in that way because that is not what is essential at the present moment. We can say that in a certain way in our analysis that we publish in our own name of our analysis of capitalist society. But I am pretty sure that it is incorrect, in fact very wrong to make this a part of a letter to a leader of the Negro struggle. And what is worse, you go on to say, the struggle "spearheads the fight for socialism." My dear Marty, it does nothing of the kind. That is not only a mistake in the approach to the Negro people, but is a very serious theoretical error. Don't mind my calling it error. I know that you know differently. But you above all especially today have to be careful. The 1948 resolution and speech state with great precision and I assure you with deep roots in the theory and history of our movement precisely what the Negro struggle can and I have no doubt will do. But it does not "spearhead" the fight for socialism. I go into this in some detail first because it is not a private letter and secondly because it shows more than ever the urgent necessity of your discussing the question and placing down in ordered form what is the attitude of a Marxist and a revolutionary socialist to this remarkable struggle. Unless you all do this, this kind of thing is bound to happen.

Yours as ever,

* * * *

August 31, 1964

Dear J,

. . .

The question of the white working class and the Negro struggle is a crucial one and I added a section on it to the document, which you have. The basic thing, it seems to me, is to get away from this subjective business of educating workers against prejudice. The alliance between Negroes and whites is not founded on the views but on the objective conditions of life of both sections of the working class. What we have to (and can) demonstrate is not that white workers are pro-Negro or can be taught to be pro-Negro or that they can be won over to support the Negro movement (although that will undoubtedly happen on particular questions) but that the white workers are revolutionary, that they are struggling against this society and for a new society and that therefore they will have to join with the Negroes against the common enemy. The Northern coalition of classes before the Civil War is a valuable example: Negroes, farmers, industrial capitalists, sections of the working class united, not on their view of the Negro but in the struggle against a common enemy. And, of course, that coalition was much more unstable and temporary than the inevitable one between the working class and the Negroes. This is something which no one sees (although John Lewis of SNCC seems to come close) and the best of them cannot get beyond the need to win over whites to the struggle because the Negroes are a minority and need allies. The social democrats in the Negro movement (Randolph, Bayard Rustin) can't overcome that limitation and find that by pushing for an alliance with labor they appear as compromisers and Uncle Toms.

With very best wishes,

* * * *

11 Sept. 64

My dear Marty,

I am making a public reply to one section of your letter of Aug. 31. It seems to me that at this late stage you are still fighting the question of the subjective attitude of white workers to Negroes (and vice versa) and similar irrelevancies. I cannot understand that after all these years of Marxism and all that we have been saying and teaching that this question is a question which you seem to be taking up as if it is something new in the organization.

Let me say with the utmost finality. There is no question, absolutely none whatever, for a Marxist of what is the subjective attitude of white workers and white people to Negroes. It was your business to begin by making clear that this was our position. I feel depressed at having to do it but I want to draw your attention to Lenin in March 1917. He admitted freely that the workers still had belief in the new bourgeois government. He put forward his programme, All Power to the Soviets. He said, the workers don't believe in all power to the soviets, they believe in the bourgeois government; therefore our business is: "Patiently explain." He didn't end his programme and policies with this. He began that way. He said, this is the objective situation. This is the necessary move that the classes will be compelled to follow and this is the line that we put forward.

From the very start that is the position that must be the centre of what we have to say. And if at this stage you have to be convincing the membership that it is not the subjective attitude of whites to Negroes that will be decisive, then it is obvious that we have not got in our own minds what is our special independent contribution to the whole business and to which everything else that we do is subordinate.

I can't go on with this any more. I suggest that you publish the section of your letter which deals with this as a preliminary to my reply. I want to end with the following. I have found in Marxists in general and particularly in American Marxists that they accept the doctrines in theory and devote their attention to it in practice. But over and over again you will see in some of the most devoted Marxists that there is a little piece that they keep for themselves to which Marxism does not apply; yes, they are completely Marxists, but in regard to this they are going to keep an independent opinion. I may add first that this special piece that they keep to themselves which is usually the beginning of their ruin could quite often be exactly something like this on the Negro question.

So then I suggest that you print at once for the membership and friends your extract and this letter. And if it is not fully understood by anybody, let them write to me, and I will clear up this matter once and for all. I shall reply to your letter in full later.


Martin Glaberman was managing editor of Correspondence, editor of Speak Out, and chairman of Facing Reality; he has long been a collaborator with C. L. R. James.

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