Monday, January 15, 2018

CLR James, Socialism, Racism and Revolution

We share this commentary as a contribution to the discussions FFWP is having on the strategy and tactics of the struggle against racism and the approach of socialists in general. Admin

by Joel Schor Sailors Union of the Pacific, also affiliated ILWU

CLR James has been recognized by many from different political tendencies and outlooks as a profound thinker and fierce fighter on behalf of black people and the oppressed the world over.  Born in Trinidad under British rule as a Crown Colony, he was a teenage Cricket star, was active in the British Trotskyist movement up to the mid 1930's, before he emigrated to the United States and becoming part of the Socialist Workers Party SWP up to WWII. He lived his last thirty years in Britain from the 1950's forming what he termed an independent Marxist grouping. 

Like Franz Fannon, James came from the tradition of radical black West Indians inspired by the revolutions against despotism in the 18th Century. Notably in San Domingo - Haiti 1804- and in general the era of uprisings, naval mutinies, and slave rebellions in the Atlantic and Caribbean of the latter part of that century preceding the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the imperialist scramble for Africa, and the British colonization of India. This era of mercantile and naval war amongst the imperialist powers - Britain, France, Spain, and Holland -  was fought over trade routes and colonial territory for spices, sugar, and slave trading. 
Active in the Socialist and Labor movement of the 1930‘s in the United States, James emphasized the strong symbiosis between the black and proletarian revolutions. Under the pen name J. R. Johnson, James met with Trotsky in 1939 in Mexico and developed a program which was accepted by the SWP on the Black or Negro question in the United States. Basically the program had already been laid out by Lenin in 1917 writing on the National Question in relation to the 1905 revolution against the Tsar and the 1916 Irish uprising. However, CLR James felt the Trotskyists in the United States to have been reluctant to put this program into practice.

While the Communist Party's characterization of the Trotskyists as "Social Fascists" was extreme and possibly ultra-left, the Trotskyists were in fact shying away from involving themselves in a more pro-active manner with the struggles of black people in many instances. It was his assessment that while the SWP was not actively doing harm, they were also not taking up the opportunities available to bring about a more powerful black and general workers fight back to racism and capitalist exploitation. As an example, on the West Coast in the maritime industry the Trotskysists, then a faction inside the Socialist Party USA, took up the position of craft union “autonomy”  advocated by the Sailors Union in its fight with the Longshore Union in their joint struggles and jurisdictional squabbles.

While the Trotskyists saw themselves as upholding the principle of rank and file democracy, in many ways they ended playing left cover for a union leadership which looked the other way to racist practices within their organization. What CLR James proposed to the newly formed SWP in 1939 was that independent black struggles for democratic rights, for economic equality, self determination should all be considered as important to Socialists as the proletarian struggle itself, and also that the rank and file workers movements then coming about in maritime, steel, auto, and transport which all involved increasing numbers of blacks migrating into industrial areas from the South, were  themselves dependent on the independent black movements. 

In a document titled Revolution and the Negro, James looks at several key historical revolutions in European and American history and the involvement of black people. In the American Civil War, there was the underground railroad which defied the fugitive slave law of 1850, and at the same time the British working class demanding an end to slavery the world over just as it had been abolished entirely in the colonies and trade by 1807.An interesting account of the British workers and the American Civil War can be found in Philip Foner's British Labor and the American Civil War

The combined anti-war and slavery position of Gladstone and Karl Marx in Britain pressured Lincoln to make this demand to end slavery prescient in order to keep Europe out, despite the fact the position of Lincoln and the British Torry PM on the war were merely to appease the protectionist Northern Industrial class against the free trade Southern Agriculturalists. In the French Revolution where the ideals of  "Liberty, Fraternity, Equality" were proclaimed in 1792, a slave revolt had just ocured a year before on the island of San Domingo. In 1798 four years after France had banned slavery in its colonies the mulattos of the French West Indies overcame recent British invasions of those islands, and in San Domingo an independent nation was established which fought off an attempt of Napoleon to re-take the island and becoming Haiti in 1804. James pointed out that anti-colonial movements throughout the world sought the aid of the black revolutionaries from the West Indies including Simon Bolivar who traveled to Haiti several times. Also the role of blacks in the American colonies war of independence who's first casualty was a black man by the name of Crispus Attucks.
A few years after the formation of the SWP in America, James along with Max Schactman formed the Workers Party which proposed that the Soviet Union should not even be given critical support after the invasion of Finland and the division of Poland in 1941. While Schactman proclaimed the Soviet Union as bureaucratic collectivist, James had characterized it as "state capitalist" at that time. They continued as two factions within the Workers Party until after WWII when James split from Schactman and lead his group back into the SWP. After the series of betrayals by New Deal Democrats in the US and Labour politicians in Britain after WWII as well as the failed predictions of Trotsky for workers revolutions to come about in the European Countries, James re-newed his call on the SWP to consider the independent struggles of blacks as symbiotic and part of the proletarian struggle. James states at that time;

Those who believe that the Negro question is in reality, purely and simply, or to a decisive extent, merely a class question, they pointed out with glee to the tremendous growth of the Negro personnel in the organized labor movement. It grew in a few years from three hundred thousand to one million; it is now one and a half million. But to their surprise, instead of this lessening and weakening the struggle of the independent Negro movement, the more the Negroes went into the labor movement, the more capitalism incorporated them into industry, the more they were accepted in the union movement, it is during that period, since 1940, that the independent mass movement has broken out with a force greater than it has ever been before. ( Report to the 13th Convention of the SWP The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the US in 1948 given by comrade J. Meyers).

James writes of how the strikes at Ford's Rouge River assembly plant in 1941 consisted of a great number of blacks despite the fact that Ford had been trying to paternalistically appease blacks, proclaiming that at least he hired them and gave them a chance out of poverty. He writes of subsequent housing struggles in Detroit lead by black women in 1943, and how a local CIO leader running for office was forced to take up their cause in order to save losing face to reactionaries who accused him of being a "Negro Lover".  

Whatever this CIO labor leader's attitude was towards this fight for public housing, he had to recognize this struggle as blacks were a growing part of his constituency and he could not seem to be weak against the accusatory whip of the counter-revolution. These were times, of course when the labor movement was on the rise and it could have a more direct effect on struggles like this. In the early 1950's the SWP had internal splits, CLR James left that organization, returned to London and proclaimed himself and a group of friends to be an independent Marxist current. The labor movement in the United States had been purged of radicals over the last decade like Ferdinand Smith of the National Maritime Union who was targeted with the help of his former allies and comrades and deported back to his native Jamaica. There were the Smith Act trials of 1951 against radicals such as Al Richmond who's mother had spent time in a Czarist prison for organizing resistance before the revolution and moved to San Francisco with the family. Senator Joseph McCarthy lead the second Red Scare into many institutions of society such as Hollywood, academia, and the defense Industry. 
In 1967 CLR James gave a talk Black Power  to an unnamed organization in Britain where he spoke of the movement spurred on by Stokely Carmichael - also a native Trinidadian - who had been active as a leading member of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee SNCC working alongside Martin Luther King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. At the time of James' talk in Britain, Stokely had just become a fugitive of justice under J. Edgar Hoovers Counterintelligence program and had his passport revoked while overseas. It would just be another year until the King the assassination and the rise of the Black Panther Party would take off in the urban areas of the United States. 

In this talk James mentions several writers who he believed influenced the progress of the black struggle including Franz Fannon, Marcus Garvey, and W. E Dubois. They wrote of National Liberation against local elites in the third world, world consciousness of the African people in diaspora, and the morally destructive influence of slavery on civilization as a whole. James also spoke of his changing views and activism in the socialist movement from the 1930's to the time he was now speaking in the late1960's. In breaking with what he called "the premises of Trotskyism" in 1951, James stated that he went back to the fundamental premises of Lenin on the National Question and what Socialist Revolution therefore was. He quoted Lenin on the National Question during this point of the talk;

The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything else than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all oppressed and discontented elements. Sections of the petty bourgeoise and of the backward workers will inevitably participate in it - without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible- and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weakness and errors. But objectively they will attack capital, and the objective truth of a heterogeneous and discordant, motley and outwardly incohesive, mass struggle, will be able to unite and direct it, to capture power, to seize the banks, to expropriate the trusts (hated by all, though for different reasons) and introduce other bourgeoisie and the victory of socialism, which however, will by no means immediately "purge" itself of petty-bourgeois slag. (Lennin on the National Question)     

 CLR James ended that address to the British audience by stating he felt there had been no stronger voice raised for Socialism in the United States than Stokely Carmichael at that time in 1967. Whether you agree or not with this assessment, the transformation of CLR James's thought and activism in the Trotskyist movement is interesting. It is possible he intended to break with the practice of Democratic Centralism, yet I am not sure this is clear or even the intention. Certainly CLR James recognized that the practice of Trotskyists had serious flaws and certainly repudiated the Stalinist approach on the Negro Question in the 1930's of advocating a separate state for blacks in America. The mistakes made by the Socialist movement of his time were seemingly strategic and of the moment but they became much more he pointed out. James was without doubt a tireless advocate on behalf of the proletarian revolution who realized the dialectic of quantity becoming quality throughout his life. A multi-faceted person, he was also a historian of the Caribbean writing the Black Jacobins on the Haitian Revolution and a few works of fiction notably Mariners, Renegades and Castaways. We would all do well to understand CLR James and the complexity of his contribution to Socialism better.

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