from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by Stanley Weir
I have visited with C. L. R. James only a handful of times in the last thirty-three years. I knew him best during and in the period immediately following World War II. Early in the war I was taken to his cold water tenement room in uptown Manhattan to be introduced to him. He was surrounded by piles of newspapers and magazines from around the world and was involved in reading and annotating articles from them as we entered. He was ill, but had just finished a draft of an article on the national liberation movement in Western Europe. Just feet away, Grace Lee Boggs was in the process of typing it at high speed. I was a merchant seaman at the time, twenty-one, and only months earlier had been recruited to the Workers' Party. In large part, the meeting and ensuing discussion caused me to make New York my home port for extended periods.
James had been in this country only a few years when the war broke out. After having led the formation of the Trotskyist movement in England he had felt, it was my impression, the need to be in a major industrial society which contained a significant Black population. Immediately upon his arrival he involved himself in the bi-racial Southeast Missouri sharecroppers' strike. At the same time the Trotskyists here were in deep debate on the nature of the Russian State. James, like Max Shachtman, James Burnham, James Carter and Martin Abern, was unable to believe that Russia was any longer a workers' state in any form, "degenerated" or otherwise. The division of Poland and the invasion of Finland at Stalin's command had finally polarized the debate. A split in the movement occurred in which many of the intellectuals and youth left the orthodox Trotskyist group (Socialist Workers Party) of James P. Cannon and formed the Workers' Party. They were dubbed "Shachtman-ites," but C. L. R. played an important part in the formation of the new group, the only sizeable Marxist organization in America to refuse political support of the War. Like Shachtman, James believed that it was impossible to defeat the forces of fascism from a capitalist base. It was felt that such an effort and war could only end in a devastation which would increase the degree of totalitarian rule world wide. Instead the Workers' Party raised the idea of the Third Camp, maintaining that to continue to raise the concept of an independent socialist alternative to the policies of both Washington and the Kremlin was a necessity. But unlike Shachtman, James felt that Russia in no way represented a separate though reactionary or "bureaucratic collectivist" alternative to both socialism and capitalism. While he agreed with the Shachtman position in many ways, James pointed to the nature of social relations in Russian production and insisted that a form of "state capitalism" was the result. For all factional tendencies, James's included, the Workers' Party provided a valuable base for the generation and testing of alternative ideas. While only six hundred in number, as compared to the Communist Party which contained the overwhelming majority of the left, the Workers' Party provided basis for practical development of theory. Most of its membership was employed in heavy industry. Its weekly newspaper, Labor Action, circulated in the tens of thousands. In nearly every branch there were people who influenced or led in the formation of progressive union caucuses that were trying to keep the employers from using the war effort as an excuse for taking back gains made by workers during the '30's. In turn, this automatically had them play a prominent role in rallying resistance to the Communist Party's super-conservative policies inside unions and Black communities. Many thousands of rank and filers whose struggles had until recently been led by the Communists faced a leadership vacuum as entry into the war progressed. Suddenly, the Communists made all-out attempts to put unions on record for a wartime and post-war "No Strike Pledge," "National Labor Conscription," and "A Return to Piecework." Furthermore, they sought to postpone efforts to obtain a Fair Employment Practices Act for the war's duration. By default, responsibility for leadership was in large part placed on those who opposed the Communists from a radical and not conservative position. The ground was laid for an alliance between militant rank and filers and socialists who were to the left of the Communists. C. L. R. James, among others, did not side-step.
By 1942, C. L. R. James had formed a total faction inside the Workers' Party. This development was inevitable and necessary for survival on the part of any grouping with significant differences from the majority. While the Workers' Party was consciously structured with specific democratic practice guarantees to avoid the development of bureaucracy. We were still operating on an interpretation of Lenin's vanguard party concept. The presence of James's grouping of workers and intellectuals, among others, operationally maximized those guarantees.
Trotsky's evaluation of the objective situation going into the Second World War had been that the end of the conflict would see the disintegration of Stalinism in Russia and the outbreak of further revolutions in Europe. This did not happen. Even by mid-war, it became clear that the displacement of working class forces in Europe had become so total that there were no more critical mass groupings to win over. The rank-and-file associations that had been hidden strengths were displaced, rearranged, even atomized. New conditions were an aid to organization from the top down only. Each expansion of Russian control in Europe, moreover, brought the roundup and disappearance of Trotskyists. There would be no quick recouping of the Russian Revolution or any revolution in Western Europe.
The Shachtman leadership, having lost the basis for any success in the Third Camp perspective for the foreseeable future, in major part lost its perspective. The goal became "to hold on," waiting for a break. James did not share the pessimism and was accused of romanticism. Not long after the War, he led his group back into the Socialist Workers Party. But this re-association was to have short life. The Bolshevik success in the 1917 revolution against the Tsar had shown that small groups could grow into mass parties almost overnight. We had been operating as if that was a permanent condition. It could now be seen that periods of this sort are temporary, that longer-range views are necessary and that attempts to adapt the Bolshevik vanguard party model to all societies under all conditions results in a form of elitism. On the agenda was the need for the formation of tendencies whose function would be the development of theory for socialist experiment that could be both revolutionary and democratic — in relation to a new epoch. The going was to be hard for all.
In less than two years after joining the Socialist Workers Party, it became necessary for James to lead his group out again in a try at going-it-alone. By the 1950's the organization suffered two internal splits. After continued government harassment of James during the McCarthy period, he was forced to return to England. Within a few years and despite heroic efforts, in effect, the group dissolved.
None of the above experiences caused C. L. R. James to give up a life design based on opposition to oppression. It was native to him regardless of changing political circumstances. Splits, for example, are an experience which often have devastating effects on the participants of both sides. To survive them takes a degree of objectivity. James understood that political-organizational divorce is often what people must do when they find it necessary to test new ideas. But this goes only a little way to explain why James has continued to be a major presence in the resistance community of the world.
It has always seemed to me that the strength of C. L. R. was somehow tied up in his self-respect and consequent ability to have faith in the strengths of others. In the Workers' Party, for example, when the demoralization began to raise a tendency which felt that the "problems" of Blacks might somehow be resolved without a socialist revolution, James countered without ambiguity. More, he put forth the idea that to survive and build for a new and integrated society. Black Americans would need to form their own separate struggle organizations, a development that would come and of which he had no fear.
James was the first and only leader in the entire Trotskyist movement, or any socialist movement, from whom I heard discussion of the special form of workers' control which develops in every workplace naturally and informally. He knew of the existence of informal cultures and that they were the basis from which to broach the entire question of workers' control.
In a somewhat abstract discussion within the Workers' Party in about 1946, James wrote a document containing a sentence which went something like the following: "It is not impossible to conceive there could be workers' councils within the United States in two years." His opponents crowed that this was proof of a deep-seated romanticism overriding all his expectations for American workers and Blacks. If his prediction was firm, time-table intended, he was clearly mistaken. But that does not take away the fact that his methodology and approach were absolutely correct. I feel sure that he had not read any of the literature that has come out of the Hawthorne experiments, but he listened to workers. For me, he introduced the ideas which demonstrated the value of what is done socially from below on the job to get out production and to survive. All differences recede behind that, and I, like many others, am deeply indebted.
It wasn't all just politics. In my early twenties, C. L. R. was (and remains) one of the most attractive personalities I had ever met. In fact, in the 1940's he was one of the few leaders that I knew in any movement who from childhood had experienced real social adjustment. A teenage star in cricket, the major sport of Trinidad at the time, he had early developed an ease which allowed him to relate without difficulty in almost any social stratum.
I particularly appreciated the enthusiasm with which he ate good food and drank good booze, his eagerness and insight when evaluating moving pictures, and, at a time were both single, his ability to initiate discussions with attractive women without formal introduction. To mind springs a late supper in the Village at Connie's Calypso Restaurant after seeing "The Glass Key" starring Alan Ladd. Our table companions had never heard cinema analysis used so effectively to relate the depths of alienation in our society, but I knew as I switched attention momentarily from them, to myself, and back to James, neither had I.
Stanley Weir is currently co-publisher of Miles & Weir Books, with its Singlejack Series of workers' literature.