Philosophy and Culture
Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by Dave Wagner
Summer 1981

Toward the end of his 1947 essay,. "Dialectical Materialism and Fate of Humanity," C. L. R. James says something very simple and very remarkable:

The dialectician [i.e., the serious philosopher] is often seriously thrown back by the fact that the great masses of workers do not seem to think in a way that corresponds to these ideas. He should remember that the number who thought of socialist revolution in Russia in February 1917 was pitifully few. There is no record of one single republican in France of July 14, 1789. How many of the Founding Fathers advocated independence in 1776? The anticipation of these ideas accumulate and then under suitable conditions explode into a new quality. But with the masses the matter goes deeper. They do not think as intellectuals do, and this intellectuals must understand.

I have always taken this as a rebuke and a consolation.

On the one hand, James’s insight can serve as a tombstone for the New Left, an epitaph both for those who withdrew into theory and sealed the tomb after them with the declaration that theory was all that remained of practice; equally for those who impatiently — and, as they sometimes correctly imagined, heroically — stepped forward to "accept" the leadership of history before being ground down by it. That's the rebuke.

The consolation, of course, is the assertion that for the masses "the matter goes deeper." Despite the repeated failure of American intellectuals to make decisive interventions into the historical experience of the masses in recent history (even when conditions seemed suitable for an "explosion," in James's term), the process continues in the daily experience of ordinary people. Hope is not absent.

James's use of the metaphor of "explosion" is contained and expanded in another more modern and equally Hegelian metaphor: that history at points reaches a "critical mass" in which "suitable conditions" bring together the power of critical thought with the objective situation of the mass of humanity. (Yes, it's only a metaphor, but it's been turned on the lathe of history.)

So it seems intellectuals must accept their ambiguous relationship with History, frustrating as that may be. Most philosophers would have let the matter rest at the point, but not James. In the late 1940's we find him delivering a series of letters on Hegel's Science of Logic to his working class following in Detroit. It is one of the finest introductions to Hegel ever written. The conversational tone, always one of the benchmarks of James's genius and key to his ability to tie philosophy to daily life (the culture of the masses), was never more graciously put to use.

"Hegel," he told the Detroit readers, "is going to make a tremendous organization and analysis of thoughts, categories, etc. But he takes time out to say, and we will forget this at our own peril, that categories, the forms of logic, in Desire, Will, etc., are human feelings and actions." (James's emphasis) History, in other words, is the animation of muscle and bone by hope and desire.

In James's writings there is a wholeness that suggests itself in each part. And so we have the flesh and blood masses in his own novel, Minty Alley, in which. James as an intellectual says good-bye to the experience (but not the understanding) of the masses in his farewell to the spontaneous, beautiful, wonderfully vindictive and wholly human Maisie:

Maisie had disappeared, but suddenly there was a shout from a few of the people who had crept into the yard to witness the disturbance. She had slipped through the window at the back. By the time Haynes [James?] reached round he could just catch a glimpse of her walking up Victoria Street, bareheaded, her head and neck still plastered with mud from Mrs. Rouse's tumble, and a small crowd walking behind her. Gone. And gone for good.

The glimpse of Maisie in this account is the glimpse of daily life in Hegel's categories, a free play of perception that gives James more sheer range than any other modern dialectician who has dared to live and write as a whole person.

I've been dealing with some of the more obscure of James's works here, and I can't help but conclude with a reference to one of the most obscure — but one that gave me a boost in literary matters I will never forget.

Somewhere on the flip side of James's 33-rpm recording of a lecture comparing and contrasting Melville and Shakespeare, James observes that all the Bard's histories are concerned with one theme: the impossibility of being a king.

With that, the key to at least a third of Shakespeare fell into our hands. Of course! No matter how serious, sincere (in that romantic preoccupation) or accomplished a human personality may be, it i incapable of the inhumanity of kinghood. There is too much to reconcile. To write about the great est kings in their fullest glory is an immanent critique of the existence of kings. History, after all, works through the daily activity of off members of the species. Kings are finally going to be left behind.

As, of course, in the Jamesian view, are intellectuals to whom the Maisies of the world are lost. In James we have the hope of finding them — and ourselves — again.

Dave Wagner, a longtime activist in the Newspaper Guild, is an editorial writer for a Wisconsin daily paper.

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