Marxism in the U.S.A.
from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by Paul Buhle
Summer 1981

The claim that C. L. R. James is a major contributor to revolutionary thought, not only as regards Pan-Africanism but every major aspect of the Marxist legacy, may seem even now exaggerated or mistaken. He has been no demigod of the younger generations like Herbert Marcuse, has no European intellectual reputation on the scale of a Sartre, his books do not even sell so briskly as those of his bete noir from decades ago, Belgian Trotskyist Ernest Mandel. When I approached a leading American Left book publisher in 1970 with a proposal for a C. L. R. James anthology, the editor politely suggested to me that the author's work could gain attention "on Black subjects only." That has been an all-too-characteristic response. Yet I am persuaded that if civilization survives the threat of nuclear annihilation another quarter century, James will be considered one of the few truly creative Marxists from the 1930's to the 1950's, perhaps alone in his masterful synthesis of world history, philosophy, government, mass life and popular culture. The retrenchment of revolutionary forces through much of the era, the growth of new conditions which caught Party leaders and theoreticians confused and wrongheaded, partly accounts for James's current obscurity. The problem of an emergent alternative beyond Stalinism and Trotskyism, beyond Welfare State and One-Party State in every part of the globe, offers the rest of the explanation. The sometimes recondite vocabulary and secluded political context of James's American writings must no longer blind us to the larger significance of what he undertook.

James has, first, 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 1920's and today. Anderson's Considerations on Western Marxism names Lukacs, Korsch, Gramsci, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Della Volpe, Lefebvre, Adorno, Sartre, Goldmann, Althusser and Colletti as those key thinkers who have reshaped the conception of what Marxism is and what it can do. Only Gramsci and Korsch might be remotely considered activists, and their theoretical work mostly took place after they had been removed by prison or exile from the center of the fray. Anderson might have included E. P. Thompson or Raymond Williams; he certainly should have included W. E. B. DuBois. But his schema has a certain logic as the internalization of political defeat, the return to exegetics, to philosophic and aesthetic mediations upon Marxist theory as an end in itself.1 Missing is an aggressive statement of politics, the working class and its allies as they move through these largely disastrous decades, and of their interrelations with the movements of the Third World. That was quite beyond most such thinkers, as it has been beyond the functionaries high and low of the Socialist, Communist and Anarchist movements in Europe and America who piled formula upon formula without adding greatly to what the generations of Marx and Lenin had set out.

Secondly, James has been outside the dialogue among the political Left's power-brokers for nearly all these years because of his insistence upon two points: the continuing revolutionary potentiality of the working class, and the historic obsolescence of the Vanguard Party as known in Lenin's time. Had he declined either half of this proposition, he might have garnered interest in a New Left which repudiated class along with Party, or in a post-New Left Leninism which returned to the Vanguard out of pessimism about the self-organizing capacity of its intended constituency. As far back as the mid-1940's, one of James's sharpest critics complained that he could not comprehend the organizing role of the Vanguard and therefore exaggerated "the utter collapse of capitalism" in order to promote "the spontaneous character of the rise of working class consciousness and the working class struggle, not merely against capitalism as such, but above all, for such a conscious goal as Socialism."2 Between James's views and those of neo- Vanguardism, or James's views and Social Democratic reformism there can be no final reconciliation, any more than the political movements presuming working class disintegration and obsolescence could have any comfortable agreement with James.

The misapprehension of James' position, the sincere but mistaken reference to it as "Syndicalist" or "Anarchist" in its treatment of Party and State, throws into relief the third and greatest problem. For the essential question of politics as such has been, for James, not merely the form of intervention but the content inevitably replete with the heritage of Western thought and world culture, the full range of talents and energies that ordinary people bring to the revolutionary struggle, and the corruption that traditional political institutions (including those of the Left) have suffered. In an age of pessimism, even the statement of a teleology which brings forward the proletariat as outcome of a vast historical process seems anarchistic — so far has "Western Marxism" fallen. Socialism has been for James concretely, personally and theoretically what it has been only in general or rhetorical terms for the rest of formal Marxist thought: a question of civilization.

This inestimable contribution can be analyzed in a number of ways. Here I will stress the revolutionary problematic most puzzling in the world, for a number of reasons, to Marxist thought: the American scene. Most highly developed of industrial capitalist nations, behemoth of the twentieth century, it has never (and contrary to all orthodox Marxist anticipations) rendered up a European-style mass workers' party, never a Third World variety of all-encompassing political organization, remained impervious for the most part to the very texture of formal Marxism. Yet it has — in all modesty for any national claims — produced again and again political, social and cultural movements that surprised revolutionaries and others the world over, supplied heroic personalities, slogans and songs carried to every section of struggling humanity. Sometimes its labor insurgencies, most recently the CIO, have showed the way forward. The distance between Marxist political expectation and reality has surely been one of unprecedented proportions. James's contribution has spanned that gap imperfectly, to be sure, but with so much energy and insight that we have yet to measure his work's significance. He accomplished this by comparing European Marxism and West Indian Nationalism to the American situation, hardly satisfying those who carried the familiar banners or successfully reaching that massive majority outside the Left political discussion altogether. But the traces are there, and the impact has already been felt in subtle ways.

James could make a unique theoretical contribution because of his own talents and effort, of course, but also because he arrived in a key moment and stood in a special place among those on the American scene. From the late 1930's to the 1950's the political forces of the Left exhausted themselves, lost their following as the immigrant generations aged and no group of workers took their place. From the first years of the CIO to the post- War strikes to the 1950's wildcats, and from the Black labor activity and Harlem demonstrations of the 1930's-40's to the monumental Civil Rights outbreak of the 1950's, mass movements had gone beyond the leadership that the Left had expected to provide. Meanwhile, and unlike so many other promising intellectuals from the 1930's, James was not to be overwhelmed by Hitler's rampage, Stalin's crimes and the failure of an immediate revolution after the Second World War. Historian of colonialism, James had seen greater slaughters, even, than the Holocaust of the Jews, civilizations exterminated and abolished from memory, peoples suffering incalculably from poverty and self-hatred pick themselves up and fight to throw off the oppressor. He stepped out of West Indian and British political life so confident about the colonial revolt and the character of working class solidarity that he instinctively looked beyond the weakness of the Left to the mobilized forces themselves. Having no illusions about the Soviet Union or Stalinism, moreover, he had no hopes in that quarter to lose. He saw the revolutionary process with fresh eyes.

But James's resilience, adaptability and creative energies are not a matter of race and formal politics only. He remarks in Beyond A Boundary that when Trotsky assailed sports as a mere distraction from the class struggle, James knew the thesis to be wrong.3 Like the American Communists of the 1930's-40's who, in some of their finest moments, fought for the integration of professional baseball, cheered with Harlem to the profoundly political exhilaration of Joe Louis's ring victories, James recognized the ways in which popular life had in some measure displaced or replaced the literal political intensity of Europe. If he turned to Hegel and the deepest roots of Marxian thought — in tune with Whitman's proclamation of that giant as the "most American philosopher" — James did so because his background and experiences drove him to reevaluate the revolutionary process as a whole. Here, where the roads of race and class, popular life, culture and practice cross, is James’s American accomplishment.


We can appreciate this better in light of the American Marxism that had existed for some three generations when James came onto the scene. No brief sketch will do justice to a subject that James noted as utterly unique and whose analysis he looked upon as a task that should have fallen on other shoulders than his own. A highlighting of some prominent features permits, however, a sense of the crises that James alone addressed directly, in theoretical and practical terms, systematically as his circumstances allowed.

Marxism in the U.S. had been in the first instance an immigrant sensibility. The reason is not mysterious. The internal strength of collective class self-identification, of tenacity across periods of defeat and isolation, for generations belonged foremost to those who brought with them a heritage of centuries and a set of beliefs and practices which bound up daily habits in a coherent unity. The proletariat stood as unifying element, but the success of the Left combined small businessmen, professionals, family members and all conscientious supporters of the ethnic group and of its homeland's best interests. Socialists, later Communists offered a mediation by which the immigrant could accept the oppressive, discriminatory, chaotic and frightening American reality as transitory, international revolution and a common brotherhood of working peoples as immanent truth of real progress.

The same immigrant radicalisms, singly or together, could not by themselves transform America. Only in some industries did their nationalities hold a commanding position. Outside the industrial Northeast, the Midwest and pockets of strength elsewhere, they remained alien to the nation. Many did not or could not vote, much less challenge the power of the two-party system. At a still deeper level, they had to compromise the internal dynamics of their movements with the possibilities imposed by the economic system and the waves of labor radicalism, the objective opportunities for alliance with non-proletarian groups (e.g., farmers) and with the contours of the international revolutionary movements. To hold onto their strength and to confront wider America required more than skill and tenacity, a real sense of what a minority radical movement can do.1

The clues were many, but ambiguous. How to balance internationalist aims with desire for influence within an often racist, xenophobic, exclusive male labor movement? This was not a matter of mere opportunism. Frequently, the very movements which seemed to catch the threads of an impulse beyond that of European labor (like the Knights of Labor, the Populists, Woman Suffrage and Black movements) had the least conscious ideological affinity to Marxism, claimed to organize themselves on non-class lines and aim at something more "American" than Socialist. The immigrant communities repeatedly played a decisive role in the struggle for labor advance. But they found their recruits outside their own ranks only in a scattering of intellectuals, political and labor leaders, and shortlived mass constituencies. At times and places this combination nearly dominated American intellectual and cultural life, and promised to help lead the labor movement to a New Jerusalem. Still, something had never connected in the European sense. And Marxism as formal doctrine remained a curious mixture of fumbling exegesis, rote learning, and creative leaps which never quite found a spot to land.5

There have been instructive exceptions. W. E. B. DuBois's Black Reconstruction, written only two years before James's The Black Jacobins, is one of the classic works of modern revolutionary thought. Perhaps the key methodological truth of the study is that DuBois brought to Marxism a decisive view of American history, a sense of the U.S. experience in world terms, that the perspectives of Marx and Lenin helped DuBois to clarify and articulate. DuBois seems not to have been greatly influenced by other American Marxists. But he stood in a tradition of those who sought to measure the "abstract internationalism" (or a blind eye turned to any distinctions among the proletariat) against the reality of race and ethnic diversity, European Marxist orthodoxy against a more fluid and adaptive sense of history and practice.6 In a subtle and complex way, this alternative conception had also been a key to the questions of the State and of Culture some time before James came onto the scene.

Twenty years earlier, the rise of mass strikes on an unprecedented scale, the aggressive State intervention of Woodrow Wilson's administration and the prospect of World Revolution coming out of the First World War had inspired a real (if diffuse and little-remembered) theoretical breakthrough. Translator of Anti-Dόhring, theorist of the IWW and perhaps the deepest philosophical thinker of the Socialist movement, Austin Lewis, came to concentrate his attentions upon the fierce struggle within the working class. The unskilled, foreign-born and unorganized proletariat had until the strike waves of 1909-13 and 1915-19 been under the whip-hand of the native-born, skilled AFL member. Through mass actions, they asserted their own leadership. Now Lewis foresaw the future in the single metaphor of the Mexican-American workers in Southern California (for whom he provided legal counsel): lacking any union emblem for a Labor Day parade banner, they had emblazoned the simple slogan, "WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE." Likewise their counterparts among the Eastern European immigrant workers in the new-built factories of heavy industry, brought together by the conditions of production, signified for Lewis the development of a truly modern revolutionary movement. Not the battle against feudal remnants still carried on in Europe; not the backstairs resistance of the fading American petty-bourgeoisie against monopolism that had dominated American reform and Socialist political mentality; but the machine proletariat in Marx's terms, on its own turf, learning the lessons that only mass production could teach.7

Lewis's contemporary, William English Walling — a founder of the NAACP's forerunner, the Niagara Movement, and for a time also a propagandistic supporter of the IWW — saw the other side of the equation. The State, manipulating the heterogeneity of the workforce to draw strength and definition at the moment of ascending monopoly capital, would increasingly tend to pull the petty-bourgeoisie, the new white collar worker and the surviving labor aristocrat into a formation which unified behind the imperialistic war effort and continued ruthless exploitation of the basic industrial worker.8

Intuitively, and without theoretical elaboration in classic Marxist terms, Lewis, Walling and a handful of others had guessed at the leap Lenin proposed in Imperialism: to explain both the basis for opportunism in the labor movement, and the possibilities of a revolutionary outbreak that began from the bottom of the workforce and swept away the accumulating State apparatus. Louis Fraina, first American Communist ideologue and popularizer of the Russian Revolution for an American Left audience, added an element that might be seen best in the U.S. Drawn to the examination of mass cultural life even as the Russian events unfolded, Fraina proposed that the dance styles, which grew out of Black music and provided the immigrant working class youth measures of freedom in the great metropolitan ballrooms, had in themselves an important contribution to make to the revolutionary process. As ordinary working people found the means to express themselves creatively, collectively across the Old World boundaries, they emancipated themselves for a higher level of consciousness. And — he might have added with his bohemian counterparts in other sections of the Left cultural movement — they came to appreciate at some levels that the Black contribution would become ever more apparent and essential.9

These few writers, looking to their own experience and a partial re-evaluation of Marxist basics, had come a long way toward the perceptions that James broadened into theoretical understanding. Between themselves and him lay twenty years of Left retreat to home base in the immigrant ghettoes, international complications, and a slow but extraordinarily painful learning process in the complexities of American life. The Garvey Movement (and the directives of the Comintern) clarified the Black experience as central to the U.S., past and future, industrial, social and political. Trade union work showed the levels of contradictions by which downgraded craft workers often led in the unionizing effort, and the industrial union leadership could actually use the available government mechanisms (as the garment workers had already in the First World War) to gain recognition. Meanwhile the vital, continuing immigrant radicalism demonstrated the tenacious self-identification of militants who remained firm in their basic racial or ethnic differences beyond the factory gates.

The irony of American Communism is that these lessons soaked in, became mass initiatives rather than slogans and good intentions, as the Communists entered the New Deal coalition. Anti-Fascism, the international Popular Front and the atmosphere of progressive democracy enabled sections of the Left to do what the revolutionaries who launched American Communism could not have imagined: to help develop "Mass Action" (i.e., the sitdown strikes), guide radical popular culture (Woody Guthrie, the public music concerts From Spirituals to Swing, a Black showcase in 1937, to Socialism in Swing, a Young Communist League spectacle two years later), ardent support of the most downtrodden sectors of labor into mechanisms for advancing Left interests within a State Capitalist regime.10

This turnabout, and the steady disintegration of the strategy from 1939, left radicals of all kinds flatfooted. Marxist theory had become among Communists even more than their rather casual Socialist predecessors a system of political selfjustification; strategy a patchwork thing with hardly anything in common but general notions of class. The sharp breaks from the Second International parliamentarist expectations before World War I, from the primitivist Third International insurrectionism of the early 1920's, had been put aside, repudiated, but never seen as necessary or logical stages in the revolutionary process. In short, nothing had prepared Marxists for the crisis of the Second World War and after. The development of a dual labor market, the erosion of the first- and second-generation immigrant base of the Left, the advance of cultural questions toward the center of the stage in the post-war working class — these were for the Left a catastrophe hidden only by the more obvious catastrophe of Cold War. Something had come to an end, without the Marxists ever coming to terms with what had been in motion. Enter C. L. R. James.


James set foot upon the American scene just as the old ways reached a climactic end to their development. From the "Roosevelt Recession" of 1937 to "Doctor Win the War" and the Truman administration, the ugly side of the welfare state revealed itself step-by-step, no transition to Socialism but a more sophisticated (and potentially more vicious) stage of Capitalist hegemony. Although the Communist Party reached its numerical peak of 80,000 during wartime, it had become a virtual agent of State Capitalism in Russia and America, as its bitter opposition to A. Philip Randolph's planned March On Washington, its avid support of the No Strike Pledge and of the Minneapolis Trotskyists' prosecution by the government all attested. Interlocked with the Red Army invasion of postwar Eastern Europe — "Revolution from the Tank Turret" carried out with the imprisonment or murder of opposing radical and democratic forces as if no other form of liberation were now imaginable — the Communist direction showed something more than "betrayal" had taken place. The Party's ethnic and race following, which had in a certain sense compensated for its limited cadre outside the leadership of industrial unions, drifted away. Whatever its future, American radicalism would be something very different from what it had been. James' genius was to perceive this entire political process as a natural and inevitable one, the outgrowth of newer phases of Capitalism, and to locate from within the mass of population its dialectical opposite, seeds of a new life within the shell of the old.11

The "Negro Question," conceived in the broadest terms, can be seen as the illuminating insight that directed James to a fresh perspective. It had been the analysis of the Black masses in the West Indies that first gave a political focus to his wide-ranging intellectual interests, helped him not only to write The Case for West Indian Self-Government and The Black Jacobins but also sharpened his critique of Stalinism in World Revolution. The inextricability of the international influence upon any radical prospects, the ability of Lenin to see beyond the Party to the potentials of mass stirrings and in turn to use the Party for the fulfillment of mass democratic prospects, the Communist perception that masses revolt on slogans and for concrete ends rather than from some abstract ideal — all these carried into James's observations of American Blacks. Within a year or so of his American residence, he had outlined a program which confronted not only the Left's handling of the Black Question per se but also hinted strongly at a very different orientation on a spectrum of strategic matters. Out of these, theoretical ramifications would be seen very soon.12

James's "Preliminary Notes on the Negro Question" struck at the base of the white Left's previous approach. He insisted that Trotskyists support the "formation of an organization to rally Negroes, which would be reformist at the start, but which would develop at once into militancy." Not an organization with strings pulled by the white Left, as even the best of the Communist "front" organizations turned out to be in moments of political stress; but rather one outside formal socialist ranks, beyond manipulation as a recruiting ground, demanding no specific socialist politics as condition for membership. In short: an organization with the autonomy that had never been granted ethnic, racial or other entities within the Left; a fundamental breach of Leninist (or even Second International) concepts of discipline in the name of self-organization. This, and James's opposition to the slogan of Black (territorial) Self-Determination, proved sticking points with Trotsky, who engaged James in dialogue at Coycoyan in 1939. James wanted revolutionaries to suggest tactics and specific struggles, to aid the formation of a movement, but to remove their hand from the lever and to support the ultimate goals Blacks themselves raised up — including Self- Determination only if they deemed this desirable to emancipation in a multi-racial American order. Organization versus spontaneity? In part, but in larger part, Europe versus America.13

One could draw a straight line from James's observations of Garveyism in his 1938 History of the Negro Revolt to the culmination of his decade-long wrangling with American Trotskyists in the groundbreaking 1947 conference document, "The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the U.S." The high estimation of Garvey's impact James based not on formal Back-to-Africa politics but rather on the sense of pride, racial and international solidarity against centuries of oppression that Garvey aroused. What James called the "social service attitude" of the Left could never stoke the "fires that smolder in the Negro world" and showed themselves vividly in social life:

Let us not forget that in the Negro people, there sleep and are now awakening passions of a violence exceeding, perhaps, as far as these things can be compared, anything among the tremendous forces that capitalism has created. Anyone who knows them, who knows their history, is able to talk to them intimately, watches them in their churches, reads their press with a discerning eye, must recognize that although their social force may not be able to compare with the social force of a corresponding number of organized workers, the hatred of bourgeois society and the readiness to destroy it when the opportunity should present itself, rests among them to a degree greater than in any other section of the population in the United States.14

Through that perception, moreover, James could follow and extend DuBois in turning the concept of American history around. Blacks had, with their allies the white Abolitionists, forced the bourgeoisie toward Civil War. Only by their emancipation could that struggle have been won, and the South truly reconstructed. Only through their success could a Populist movement have restrained an advancing Capitalism. And only by their actual advance could the CIO come into its own. With broadening, deepening relevance to the revolutionary prospect, the independent Black movement precipitated the political forces of Socialism.

No American radical had gone so far, and none would carry these ideas further until the 1960's. That James's views became gospel for the orthodox Trotskyist movement is a minor (although interesting) concern, with indirect links to white Left recognition of Malcolm X and the early "Black Power" slogans. More important, James had set himself against Communist fundamentals in a precise fashion, without renouncing revolutionary intention, Leninist legacy, or direct political involvement.

James's perception of the CIO struggle in a wholly unique fashion, his analysis of the Communists' support for bureaucratic tendencies within the labor movement, extended the insight into the process of revolutionary transformation and the limitations of the existing Marxist comprehension. With a small group of collaborators inside the Trotskyist Workers Party, James began to insist that — contrary to the perceptions that cut across other differences among the American Left — the working class was not backward by true Marxist standards. Like the keen observer of early CIO strikes, Louis Adamic, who pinpointed in the militant workers the most democratic impulse in the nation, James recognized the instinctual grasping for the Universal of Socialism — not a change in the form of property but the very negation of the dominant social relations. "More political party than trade union," he was to say later, the CIO embodied the response to the foremost challenge that modern capitalist industry ever set before its exploited.15

The system of sweated labor pioneered by Ford evinced a totalitarian economic mentality, scientifically rationalized production with closer inter-capitalist relations and the intervention of the State as mediator. This marked the culmination of industrial and political development over the centuries, and unchallenged, would signify the subordination of every democratic possibility to the demands of capital. But intertwined with that development, at every step, had been elements of resistance, from the battles of the weavers in the medieval cities to the actions of the ranks in Cromwell's Army, to the revolt of the masses in the French Revolution to the rise of the Paris Commune and finally the Soviets in Russia. True to Marx, James had seen the proletariat as the embodiment of the revolutionary prospect. Even his San Domingo slaves of the nineteenth century, "working and living together in gangs of hundreds on the huge sugar-factories . . . were closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at that time, and [their] rising was, therefore, a thoroughly prepared and organized mass movement."16 (My emphasis.) Not prepared by some external agent, but by the conditions of life and work, with a natural leadership thrown up in self-conscious striving for a better life. The modern class struggle pressed home the ultimate proletarian goals, abolition of value production and abolition of hierarchies invested through the division of mental and manual labor. Like Austin Lewis a generation earlier observing the mass strikes of unskilled foreignborn workers, James looked at the early, dynamic stages of CIO industrial unionism and declared the shop-floor struggle to be "Socialism . . . the only Socialism."17

And still, the weight of institutions loomed heavier than ever upon the proletarian impulse. As Walling had seen the earliest stages of State Capitalism taking on craft workers as ballast against the unskilled proletariat, James analyzed the next stage as the decisive unfolding of State Capitalism. In the U.S., the working class had moved forward to institutionalize its power through the unions. But because circumstances had not grown desperate enough or the progressive forces strong enough for revolutionary change, the net result had been the creation of a new intermediary stratum, the labor bureaucracy. That the functionaries were often Communists signaled to James the new level of internal contractions within the system, generating a political mood which re-established at the new level the essential dichotomy of rulers and ruled.

This symmetry bespoke a weighty analysis, indeed. James had observed in World Revolution that Stalin intuitively chose to rely upon the Party bureaucracy or even the bourgeoisie to carry out the interests of the Russian State, as Lenin had chosen the masses in creative moments to override both. As James and his collaborators began to perceive through study of the Russian scene, Stalin was a knave but no fool. He had correctly understood the objective formation of a new power base in the State bureaucracy itself, perverse extension of Lenin's insights in Imperialism. Dramatic change, at least in the West, no longer served a Third International which had, like the Second International before it, been transformed from revolutionary agency to the special interest group of a particular strata. American Communist union leaders who banked the fires of resistance through crackdowns on wildcats and subtler measures like the dues check-off, who thought in terms of industrial rationalization and international consumer marketing alongside their corporate opposite num bers, constituted the "American bureaucracy carried to its ultimate and logical conclusion," State Capitalist functionaries-in-progress. Their willingness to compromise the integrity of the proletarian impulse indicated no necessary corruption or personal gain, but the hankering after a higher logic. They had repudiated private Capitalism without believing that the classic proletariat of Karl Marx could in the foreseeable future rule itself.18

In later years, James sought to penetrate still further the logic that ruled Communist parties and kept the unquestionably idealistic ranks in a curious stasis between radical and liberal perspectives. "Stalinism is a concrete truth . . . a necessary, an inevitable form of development of the labor movement," he argued by 1951, no distortion of history (in the final sense) but the working out of a logic inherent in the uneven pace of world revolution.19 The world was divided into two camps, the moreso after the Second World War. And yet despite the futility of Trotskyist panegyrics against Communist misleadership, despite the rubble of war and growing fears among non- Communists that revolutionary options had become almost unthinkable, James insisted that a promising stage had been reached.

"The one-party state is the bourgeois attempt to respond to the contemporary necessity for the fusion and transcendence of nation, class, party, state," James argued boldly.20 The increasing concentration of social and economic power in a few hands, even in the once politically diffuse democracies, pointed in the same direction. When the society as a whole increasingly perceived the forces of production (the working class) to be essentially social and not merely economic, the working class stood objectively closer than ever to cutting the Gordian knot. The old categories that had held fast since the beginnings of Capitalism, the mysterious origin of the commodity in workers' labor-power on the one hand and the supposed autonomy of party and state on the other, lost their essential definitions. As Engels had predicted in Anti-Dόhring, the last major text of the Marxian founding fathers, "concealed within" the very contradictions of this more highly organized Capital were "the technical conditions that form the elements of the solution." Working class elements themselves — and not merely their Socialist or Communist political representatives — had become (in Engels' words) "the invading Socialist Society" at the doorstep of the world order.21

Although hardly more than an outline of a world-view, this meditation of James compressed an extraordinary vision of socialism's place in world history into a current political position. As James explained in a 1947 position paper, "Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity," the philosophic position of Hegel that stood behind Marxism had been no more than a recognition of the human effort to resolve the contradiction between the "Abstract Universality" (equality, oneness in God's eyes) of the original Christian promise and concrete necessity. Hegel recounted — albeit in idealistic form — the stages of negation through which this struggle had to pass. Marxism gave this understanding, in turn, a material base and a political outlook. Not Rationalism, which had served the intermediate classes at every moment of bourgeois revolution, raising up the education, articulate-ness and supposed intelligence of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie against the "backwardness," the "irrationality" of the masses. But the freed expression "by the proletarian millions of their world-historical universality, no longer empirical but completely self-conscious . . . the total mobilization of all forces in society. That and nothing else can rebuild the vast wreck which is the modern world."22

So, too, was the prospect altered of what Marxism had meant and would mean to the prospects for Socialism. When James's little group published the earliest translations from Marx's 1844 Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts, they sought to identify the sense of alienation, below the more obvious poverty and exploitation, that every modern working person suffers. "Be his wages high or low," as Marx wrote, that alienation remained fundamentally intolerable. Lenin had, in his finest moments, recognized the limitation in any change of property form as such. Trotskyism, the closest thing to a revolutionary succession, carried over the Party form without that awareness and unwittingly returned to what Marx had blasted as the "Vulgar Communism" of mistaking transcendence of private property for real socialist social relations. Now the Marxist group, if not to fall upon the same pointless contest to become the "real" Vanguard, had to take up the deeper purpose of demonstrating to the masses of people the power of their own creativity, "the socialism that exists in the population, the resentment, the desire to overturn and get rid of the tremendous burdens by which capitalism is crushing the people."23 Or there would be no Marxism, no Socialist or Communist movement, worthy of consideration at all. From the young Marx laboring under Hegelian influence to the final Socialist impetus, the circle would be closed by Marxists who had come to grips with the world around them. The revolutionary movement would become explicitly what it had been implicitly, the amalgam of every progressive impulse in the history of the species, the vindication of humanity not for any external end (not even "Progress") but for its own sake.

Did James delude himself or disguise for political reasons the extent to which this constituted a break from all that historic Marxism (since, at least, the young Marx) had been? In one specific sense, yes. "Trotsky declared that the proletariat does not grow under world capitalism and declines in culture. This is absolutely false,"24 James wrote in 1949. One may find hints in this or that Marxist literary commentary about the existence of a "Cultural Question." Never by the orthodox Marxists of the First, Second or Third Internationals, not even during the drive for a "Proletarian Culture" in the U.S.S.R. and abroad from the late 1920's to the mid-1930's was the proposition of culture in itself put forward as a basis for the revolutionary transition. Yet, understood in the broadest sense, it was the glue for James's philosophical, economic and political perspectives, his observation of workers' lives as a whole, their articulated and ill-expressed subjectivity the disproof of their supposed "backwardness." When he argued in his own last major theoretical document before his deportation that Captain Ahab of Moby Dick was the consummate bureaucrat ("abstract intellect, abstract science, abstract technology, alive, but blank, serving no human purpose") while the crew constituted the indestructible working class embracing risk, Nature and spontaneity, James placed the task of the true revolutionary to understand that cultural dichotomy above all and to choose Life over the promise of Power. Marxism at its best had implied this difference all along; but almost never had the cultural logic become ground for a real Communism.25

In another, quite intimately related sense, James had stated the basic propositions of an American Socialism which had never been the text of the formal Marxist parties. For James had cracked the nut of radicalism's relation with the racial, ethnic, social and cultural forces which had never fit into the smaller Marxism but nonetheless directed the potentialities of the revolutionary movement. The force of Blacks upon American political life seems in retrospect an almost obvious insight, but the implication that they arrived in politics under their own steam and brought Socialism upon the centerstage stood outside all conventional wisdom. The struggle within the class struggle that this interpretation implied defied the best of the Communists' "Black and White, Unite and Fight" perspective. And it was the logical outcome of the conflict between American and foreign-born, skilled and unskilled which, as Austin Lewis had shrewdly perceived, reflected the final vestiges of a small-property tradition (translated into skill as a form of property) that reached back centuries against the totality of modern manufacture. The resolution to this conflict stood ultimately beyond the adjustments that a stateregulated Capital could make to the condition of the wage-earner.

There was much to this American radicalism that James did not and could not see from the secluded corner of the Trotskyist movement, isolated from other great elements of American reform. The significance of the ethnic strains, which had provided the immigrant with the taste of the Socialist future in the warmth of family and class ties, James glimpsed from afar. Not until the mid-1940's did he begin to write about that force which stood coequal with Blacks in the Abolitionist movement, which bolstered ethnic radicalisms and contributed in large part the moral sensibility, the grassroots impetus to native Socialism: the women's movement. That the struggle (as James put it) against "an authority which inculcated the authoritarian character of the society as a whole" within the family circle might have an importance hardly less than that of the struggle for emancipated labor — this was a leap too far in one direction, too precise in totality for James's central conceptions.26 Here as in other areas like the profound effect of religious moralisms, or the unfolding of a radical aesthetic, one must say that the great questions of American Socialism received only an abstract answer at James's hands. But he achieved no small thing. The path he illuminated broadens out to a wide road that passes through valley and dale of theory and practice, the high mountain passes of profoundest human hope and the dark cities of toil and trouble. James has made his contribution to American radicalism, as a variant of the European experience. But foremost he has since the onset of his career placed international responsibilities upon the agenda, shown them inevitable as the connections between capitalism and the labor market worldwide. If he has returned Marxist theory from the darkness of the exegetical lumber rooms, it is because he has seen the working out of the deepest schema in the lives of ordinary people across the globe.


Many of the same themes reached a wide reading public, first in a pessimistic, then more hopeful and again more pessimistic vein. The rife alienation that James and his collaborators perceived in American life, if one can believe Albert Camus, grew out of the detective novel into the entire Existentialist philosophy. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, building upon themes that James's friend Richard Wright had developed earlier, pointed up what James had written about Communists in Harlem — but without proposing any solutions. Slowly, over generations, the Hegelianism of the Young Marx played a role in the revival of another Left, as did the vision of Corporate Liberalism (a general approximation of State Capitalism and Rationalist totality). By the late 1960's, the connection between Culture and Radicalism had become an allpervasive topic of discussion and not only within the Left, Culture recognized as a powerful agent if not by any means coherently perceived. And in the time that has followed, the congruence of social history and radical commitment has been made abundantly evident, indeed become the Marxist scholarly commitment of hundreds who emerged with university training from the 1960's: a vision of ordinary people in the U.S. and everywhere, searching urgently for means to remake the quality of their existence. The New Left, the Women's Movement, above all the Black movement seemed at points to be expressing in political logic that insightful kernel James had opened up in his venture beyond orthodox Leninism. And the turn toward the working class by the early 1970's carried along his imperatives, to relocate the blue collar source of a future soviet.27

James's specific contribution and the totality of his view, with the partial exception of that emphasis upon Black initiative and selfactivity, seemed however to have been lost on the cutting room floor. Part of the rationale surely resides in the groupuscule character of James's earlier efforts, publication and language so restricted by the Trotskyist context that twenty years hence the confused Fourth Internationalists James singled out for critique took the aspect of ghosts from some vanished political dynasty. And his books were, aside from the Black Jacobins, for all practical purposes physically unobtainable.

There is also a deeper reason that goes back to the conflicts of the 1940's. When James redressed Trotsky's estimation of proletarian physical diminution and spiritual decline under later Capitalism, he militantly defended the "thesis of Marx that in the very crisis of capitalism the proletariat is ... prepared socially for its tasks, by the very mechanisms of capitalist production itself."28 A few years after World War II, every avowed radical movement, whatever its formal ideology, shared Trotsky's pessimism. Stalinism and Social Democracy in particular had gone over to the belief that armies, bombs, political maneuver and foreign policy rather than the working class would rule the fate of the world. In James's own Workers' Party, the thesis of "Retrogression," as one key writer put it, placed "a question mark over the ability of the proletariat to reassemble a revolutionary leadership to take power before it is overtaken and destroyed by the disintegrative tendency of capitalist civilization of which threatening atomic war is the most potent force."29 Against this defeatism every instinct of James rebelled. But his voice cried into the wind.

By and large — with the exception of some rather brief political periods and some groups — the fundamental pessimism as regards the working class has never lifted. Indeed, one can say that it has permeated the best as well as the worst of political writing on the Left, from the philosophy of Herbert Marcuse to the social economics of Michael Harrington to the cultural ruminations of Ishmael Reed. When today a noticeably undoctrinaire Socialist writer looks to the possible futures of "a semi-corporatist liberalism," "a technocratic, authoritarian, neo-conservatism," or (in the best case) a "radical-democratic liberalism with populist elements," he cites as his future-looking guide the same Daniel Bell who James leveled against in 1949 for substituting technical for human solutions, and for excluding the the proletariat is prepared socially for its tasks by the very mechanisms of capitalist production itself. Socialist possibility altogether.30 Even at the mundane level of tactics, many of James's complaints — that Marxist response to a widespread strike vacillated between complaints against labor's backwardness and assertions that it was not backward but needed the leadership of a (still unformed) Vanguard — have not been essentially outdated in thirty years.

The obscurity of James's contributions, beyond the problems of verbiage and context, can be summarized in the proposition that Marxists have not yet reconciled themselves with the subjectivity of the revolutionary subject. Whether this be the locus classicus proletariat is not even the essential matter. James has often glimpsed moments when the peasantry, entering into a transition to the modern order, can take the leadership of the whole social matrix. And he stressed that in the outbreaks of the future in the industrialized nations, students, women and other selfdefined groups will represent themselves in the councils of transformation. Meanwhile, among the Marxist political groups, hardly even the most "spontaneist" have become seriously interested in popular life as a whole, beyond the factory gates, save to deplore consumerism, to place "real" (i.e., economic) class struggle against such delusions, to cite a Leftwing (generally Socialist Realist) artist here and there who has supposedly captured the palpitating dynamics of contemporary conflict. Only among the smallest minority have the (once) widely accepted notions of Black proletarian combativity been linked with a concept of that as lever for the rest of the working class and broader society, means for insight about the cultural particularities and possibilities across the demographic map. James, be it recalled, never elicited guilt from white workers; he made it clear that for them (and the rest of the nation) to accept Black equality in the fullest sense meant an acceptance of dramatic change in the whole social order. Meanwhile, as the world revolutionary process has continued to accelerate, things have remained in a stasis for two generations: Socialists committed to one version or another of the State, with its perpetuation of mental versus manual labor; and Communists waiting for the working class to join some kind of Communist Party en masse. Bypassed or in the future, James's contributions have never seemed quite timely.

James's perspective defies empirical proof, in the sense that nothing but Barbarism or Socialism can finally demonstrate such political conclusions. During World War II, James presciently referred to "Socialism and Barbarism," alive at the same moment, battling toward a finish that has only been postponed these forty years. But there is something more that James wrote from a deep sense of history and which the Left, the intelligentsia as a whole, has been unable or unwilling to absorb:

We do not idealize the workers. . . But the very bourgeois society which has produced its most gifted body of thinkers and artists has also given birth to a proletariat which instinctively demanded the application to itself of every value which the philosophers and the various classes they represented had demanded throughout the ages. . . . Spinoza and Kant would stand aghast at what the average worker takes for granted today. But he does not demand them as an individual or in the primitive manner as the early Christian did.. .. These are the values of modern civilization. They are embodied in the very web and texture of the lives of the masses of the people. Never were such precious values so resolutely held as necessary to complete living by so substantial and so powerful a section of society. Socialism means simply the complete extension and fulfillment of these values in the life of the individual.31

This is even more than the prophets had foreseen, since the continuation of class society nourished a variety of liberational forces that might have been anticipated on the morrow of the Revolution. Yet it is also the ancient dream of Utopia realized.

To James, who early saw the human truth behind the civilized falsehoods about his West Indian people's capacities, this promise has never been a matter of dogma or blind faith. "We live our daily lives in the upper reaches and derivative superstructures of Marxism," he wrote in 1943. "We are not academicians and must perforce spend most of our time there. But the foundations and lower floors are huge unexplored buildings which we enter if at all in solitude and leave in silence. They have been shrines too long. We need to throw them open, to ourselves and to the public. . . ,"32 Perhaps no Marxist has dug deeper into the subsoil of the Socialist heritage, from its distant origins to the philosophic foundation stones to the fructifying columns and arches which have been considered the holiest of holy additions. From the colonial background of the West Indies, from metropolitan London, from Harlem to Detroit to Africa, James has felt the confidence in the basic capacities and desires of plain people justified. "The unending murders, the destruction of peoples, the bestial passions, the sadism, the cruelties and the lusts, all the manifestations of barbarism . . . are unparalleled in history. But this barbarism exists only because nothing else can suppress the readiness for sacrifice, the democratic instincts and creative power of the great masses of people,"33 James has written. The task of revolutionaries, to build upon those perceptions, those desires, has been often and sadly disappointed. But nothing short of nuclear holocaust encompassing the whole planet can obliterate the revolutionary option.

Paul Buhle was a founding editor of Radical America and is director of the Oral History of the American Left at the Tamiment Institute, New York University.


1. Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London, 1976).[return to text]

2. Albert Gates, "Politics in the Stratosphere," New International, IX (November 1943), page 311.[return to text]

3. C. L. R. James, Beyond A Boundary (London, 1963 ed.), page 151.[return to text]

4. See my essay, "Jews and American Communism: The Cultural Question," Radical History Review No. 23 (Spring 1980).[return to text]

5. I have explored this in my dissertation, "Marxism in the U.S., 1900- 1940," University of Wisconsin, 1975, now being revised for publication.[return to text]

6. See Paul Richards, "W. E. B. DuBois and American Social History: Evolution of a Marxist," Radical America, IV (November 1970).[return to text]

7. Lewis's writings are scattered through The New Review and other publications. His most incisive single text is The Militant Proletariat (Chicago, 1911).[return to text]

8. Waiting's major works were Socialism As It Is (New York, 1912), The Larger Aspects of Socialism (New York, 1913), and Progressivism — And After (New York, 1914).[return to text]

9. This "Cultural Question" is explored at length in my forthcoming Literature and the Multitude (New York, 1981). See the collage of Fraina's essays from Modern Dance magazine in Cultural Correspondence, Nos. 6-7 (Spring 1978).[return to text]

10. See my essay, "Jews and American Communism."[return to text]

11. This view of the 1940's CP is argued best in a special number of Radical America on the 1940's, IX (July-August 1975), and most especially in Stan Weir's reminiscence, "American Labor on the Defensive: A 1940's Odyssey."[return to text]

12. My thinking has been influenced by an unpublished paper, David N. Lyon, "C. L. R. James and the Negro Question in American Marxism," whose author we have been unable to locate to request permission for the essay's publication. James explained the origins of his historical analysis in Letters on Organization (Detroit, mimeographed, 1962), page 12.[return to text]

13. The discussion has been reprinted in Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination (New York, 1970 ed.).[return to text]

14. James's resolution is now most accessible in The Future in the Present (Westport, 1977), quotation from pages 126-27.[return to text]

15. Louis Adamic, My America (New York, 1938). James's quotation from Notes on Dialectics (Detroit, 1971 ed.), page 188.[return to text]

16. C. L. R. James, History of the Pan-African Revolt (Washington, 1969 ed.), pages 5-6.[return to text]

17. A separate essay would be required to trace James's evolution from the early 1940's; the evidence is abundant in The New International and in the Bulletin of the Johnson-Forrest Tendency (available in the Raya Dunayevskaya Papers).[return to text]

18. C. L. R. James, State Capitalism and World Revolution (Detroit, 1969 ed. from original 1950 publication), page 42. Like a number of other documents from the time, this work was in fact a collaboration with Grace Lee (now Grace Boggs) and Raya Dunayevskaya. See also C. L. R. James, The Invading Socialist Society (Detroit, 1972, from 1947 ed.), coauthored by Lee and Dunayevskaya.[return to text]

19. Notes On Dialectics, page 22.[return to text]

20. Ibid., page 192.[return to text]

21. The Invading Socialist Society, page 62; see Frederick Engels, Anti-Dόhring (Moscow, 1969), pages 328, 331.[return to text]

22. Reprinted as C. L. R. James, Dialectic and History: An Introduction (Cambridge, 1972).[return to text]

23. Best articulated in C. L. R. James, Perspectives and Proposals (Detroit, mimeographed, 1966), page 39.[return to text]

24. State Capitalism and World Revolution, page 34.[return to text]

25. C. L. R. James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (New York, 1953), page 14.[return to text]

26. Reprinted (from an unfinished work on women) in Selma James, "The American Family: Decay and Rebirth," Radical America, IV (February 1970).[return to text]

27. Expressed in Radical America of the early 1970's: see, e.g., my essays borrowing upon James, "Marxism in the U.S.: 39 Propositions," V (September- October 1971) and "The Eclipse of the New Left: Some Notes," VI (July-August 1972).[return to text]

28. State Capitalism and World Revolution, page 34.[return to text]

29. Ernest Erber, "The Class Nature of the Polish State," New International, XI (August 1947), page 178.[return to text]

30. David Plotke, "The United States in Transition: Toward a New Order?" Socialist Review, No. 54 (November- December 1980).[return to text]

31. C. L. R. James, "Laski, St. Paul and Stalin," reprinted into The Future in the Present, page 100.[return to text]

32. C. L. R. James, "Production for the Sake of Production — A Reply to Carter," Workers' Party Bulletin, No. 2 (April 1943) in Raya Dunayevskaya Papers.[return to text]

33. The Invading Socialist Society, page 14.[return to text]

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