Limitations of spontaneity

Julian Alford reviews Caliban’s freedom - the early political thought of CLR James by Anthony Bogues (Pluto Press, pp224)

This book on the “early” political thought of CLR James covers the most interesting part of James’ career. Bogues traces James’ political itinerary from an ambivalent intellectual formation as a middle-class black Trinidadian within Britain’s colonial education system, to his conversion to Trotskyism in 1934 and his final repudiation of Leninism in the 1950s.

In this period James wrote a stunning history of the San Domingo slave revolt (The Black Jacobins in 1938), met Trotsky in Coyoacán where the ‘Old Man’ sought to impress upon his American cadres the importance of a serious orientation to the struggles of the racially oppressed black masses. In 1940 James broke with the Socialist Workers Party (US) over the ‘Russian Question’ and joined Max Shachtman’s Workers Party, co-founding the state capitalist Johnson-Forest tendency (James and Dunayevskaya), before parting company with the WP and briefly re-joining the fold of the SWP in 1948.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the mass struggles of the US working class shaped James’ heterodox Marxism with its distinctive emphasis on proletarian self-activity and inspired the Johnson-Forest tendency’s ‘return to Hegel’ and the early Marx (the group was the first to translate Manx’s l844 Economic and philosophical manuscripts and Lenin’s 1914-15 Hegel notebooks into English).

Focusing on the rise of Fordism and the process of class formation, James pioneered the critique of a common tendency to abstract the capitalist labour process and technology from the relation between capital and wage-labour.

Yet, however politically and theoretically salutary the reaffirmation of proletarian subjectivity was, it is an overweening claim to suggest James “opened the door to redefining the entire architecture of 20th century Marxism.”

Indeed, as the US geared up for the Cold War in post-war years and its ideologues developed the concept of totalitarianism conjoining the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany, something of the less salutary pressures of the period became apparent as many of James’ erstwhile Workers’ Party comrades adapted to the union machines in pursuit of the chimera of the Labor Party while slowly retreating from ‘third campism’ on the basis that US imperialism was the ‘lesser evil’.

In this context, rejecting Leninism as irrelevant to North America could hardly conceal the profound isolation of revolutionaries from a working class immunised by the Cold War. Bogues fails to critically examine the limitations of an emphasis on working class spontaneity which revealed James’ position to be a regression from Leninism.

Also, though James’ rejection of the ‘objectivism’ of much Trotskyism was important, the claim that James’ dismissal of the inevitability of socialism and the possibility of barbarism in some way marked a novel insight is extraordinary given its currency in the Workers Party and its famous source in Marx and Luxemburg

Walter Benjamin wrote a remarkable critique of the Second and Third International’s evolutionary, bourgeois concept of progress and a productivist embrace of the protestant work ethic. A rejection of the idea that the working class would inevitably inherit the future was united to a re-assertion of the proletarian revolution’s (‘the brake on the locomotive of history’) radical break with bourgeois society and the catastrophe of historical time.

In fact, if retrieval of a neglected Marxist is the stated intent, Bogues’ real object is recuperation in the service of underwriting black or cultural nationalism’s claim to theoretical territorial autonomy in the still, to be sure, precarious space it has won in the academy.

Bogues account of the relation between racism and Marxism (inappropriately treated as a canon after the fashion of literature) is a travesty and treats James’ development as a struggle within the Western cultural tradition (including ‘Eurocentric’ Marxism) to articulate the resistance of the colonised adversarial other. Hence a tendency to treat James’ Marxism as a curious period mannerism which he struggled to shake off.

In this banal vein, Bogues dismisses Marx as Eurocentric because he described slaves in north America as ‘uncivilised’ in a letter. Despite open support for both the North in the US Civil War and the cause of ‘Negro emancipation’, Marx’s texts are tacitly dismissed as an archive of ‘bad faith’ while Marx is burdened with having been a “civilisation monger” (the epithet is Engels’ and the occasion was support for the Chinese ‘coolies’ resistance to European imperialism).

Yet the dual character of historical materialism meant Marx was both capitalism’s greatest critic and its greatest admirer. Marx denounced capitalism for its exploitation, oppression, barbarism and hypocrisy, while also insisting that capitalism was a necessary advance on pre-bourgeois modes of production because it provided the indispensable basis of human emancipation - ie, communism.

On this score, while noting Marx’s oeuvre is studded with the occasional Eurocentric remark, Aijaz Ahmad (In theory, London, 1992) provides the most judicious summary of the dual nature of Marx’s positions on the historical role of capitalism and colonial oppression in relation to his journalism on India in the 1850s.

On the one hand, British imperialism was seen as an “unconscious tool” liquidating an old civilisation resting on a static communal mode of production which had been built upon the back-breaking, anonymous toil of tens of millions of “hindoos”. Yet, on the other hand, Marx looked to India’s liberation from colonialism, either by social revolution in Britain or by its revolutionary overthrow by the populace of India itself. Ahmad concludes that Marx’s position on India put him far to the left of the major 19th century Indian reformers, not to speak of Gandhi’s Congress Party when it was founded.

Similarly, Bogues implies James’ focus on racism and the self-activity of the oppressed had few precedents and, in fact brushed against the grain of the Marxist tradition (though Bogues grudgingly acknowledges Lenin’s writings on imperialism and self-determination).

Certainly it is true that Marxism’s insistence on the structural primacy of exploitation vis-à-vis oppression has often been translated into the reductive argument that racism, say, is an obfuscation of the fundamental antagonism between capital and labour and a diversion from the real struggle. So there is a tendency to treat racism as merely epiphenomenal rather than a real material force, with the corollary that some Marxists regard their role as simply propagandising the white and black working class until consciousness is in conformity with the ‘underlying’ basis of class society.

This is not the substantive Marxist position, yet it is the circle of caricature Bogues continually turns in. Whatever, the balance sheet of James’ contribution to the revolutionary Marxist tradition, Bogues’ poorly written, schematic book fails to provide the critical appraisal James deserves.

Julian Alford