Econ-Atrocity {special History of Thought series} C.L.R. James: The Future in the Present

By Geert Dhondt, Staff Economist

Madness surrounds all of us. Luckily the world is full of contradictions. While capitalism, barbarism and madness might seem all around us, so is its opposite, its negation. Thus, if we look hard enough we can recognize the new society in the present and we will be able to see the emergence of revolutionary possibilities. In the U.S., C.L.R. James was one of the first to clearly articulate the importance of independent Black struggles in creating these openings.

C.L.R. James was born in 1901 in Trinidad. In 1932 he left Trinidad for England where he immersed himself in the Pan-African and Trotskyist movements and worked as a cricket reporter. In 1938, on Trotsky’s request, he came to the U.S. to reinvigorate the American Trotskyist movement. By the time James was deported in 1952, he had broken with Trotsky’s conception of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state and developed instead a critique of state capitalism; he had broken with Lenin’s conception of the vanguard party and emphasized a different role for Marxist organizations and intellectuals; he also developed an important analysis of the role of independent Black struggle.

While James remained an admirer of Lenin until his death in 1989, he rejected Lenin’s famous doctrine on the revolutionary party. James rejected the vanguard party through his experience of working in many struggles including the independence movement in Trinidad and the struggles of Blacks in the South and in Detroit auto plants. These independent Black struggles did not need a vanguard party. Similarly this analysis is extended to other sections of the working class, which are autonomous from capital and their official organizations including the party and the unions. Out of the self-activity of the working class will grow these new forms of organization, the self-government of workers’ councils. James thought the independent Marxist organization should not lead, but learn from the masses and instead organize and examine, interpret and report on the day-to-day activity of the working class. Marxists should look for the
revolutionary openings and of course participate and interact with these struggles.

The Negro Question presented itself as this revolutionary possibility in the U.S. Blacks in the U.S., James argued, can by their agitation initiate and create the conditions for revolution by bringing the proletariat to the scene. “Small groups, nations, nationalities, themselves powerless against imperialism, nevertheless can act as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli which will bring on the scene the real fundamental force against capitalism-the socialist proletariat.” Blacks play this role in the U.S.-James in the 1940s before the Civil Rights Movement transformed the world-and still play this role today.

The madness of capitalism surrounds all of us and will conquer us unless we destroy it. The future society is visible in the present and intellectuals should write about these possibilities to nurture and participate in the growth of revolutionary struggle. In a time when authoritarian Marxism failed, the lessons taught by C.L.R. James and other autonomist Marxists, such as Anton Pannekoek and Karl Korsh, who have also focused on the need for working class self-activity to foster a “new society” to be led by workers councils rather than political parties or pseudo-representative lackeys, must be revisited if we are to establish new and truly revolutionary praxis.

For Further Reading:

James, C.L.R. Modern Politics. Bewick/ed, 1960.

James, C.L.R. Facing Reality: The New Society, Where to Look for it, How to Bring it Closer. Correspondence, 1958.

James, C.L.R. Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In. University Press of New England, 2001[1952].

McLemee, Scott (ed.). C.L.R. James On The Negro Question. University of Mississippi Press, 1996.

Cleaver, Harry. Reading Capital Politically. AK Press, 2000. Texas Archives of Autonomist Marxism.

Midnight Notes.

Race Traitor.

C.L.R. James Institute.

C.L.R. James Archive.

(c) 2004 Center for Popular Economics

Econ-Atrocities are a periodic publication of the Center for Popular Economics. They are the work of their authors and reflect their author’s opinions and analyses. CPE does not necessarily endorse any particular idea expressed in these articles.