CLR James, critical theory, and the dialectic

The writings of the Trinidadian Marxist and revolutionary Cyril Lionel Robert James contain some of the noblest reflections on human freedom ever put to page. Obviously the present author does not agree with all of James’ arguments, especially those concerning national self-determination as a step toward global emancipation. Eventually this mistaken belief led him to extend his “critical support” to Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Mao Tse-Tung’s China, as Matthew Quest has amply shown for Insurgent Notes. Nevertheless, there is much to be gained from reading the works of James.

Postcolonial theorists in particular would do well to learn from his appreciation of the universal achievements of capitalist modernity. “I denounce European colonialism,” he wrote in 1980. “But I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilization.” Similarly, James always insisted that “the race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics.” He stressed in his landmark study of The Black Jacobins that “to think of imperialism in terms of race would be disastrous.” Whiteboy academic Chris Taylor, who blogs under the handle Of C.L.R. James, ought to take note.

James might well be denounced as a “class reductionist” these days for his 1960 speech before an audience in Trinidad. “The great problem of the United States,” he declared, “with all due respect to the color of the majority of my audience, is not the ‘negro question’… If the question of workers’ independent political organization were solved, the ‘negro question’ would be solved. As long as this is not solved the ‘negro question’ will never be solved.” From first to last, James remained a Marxist in his strict emphasis on the primacy of working-class autonomy.

Even as the yoke of colonial oppression was finally being lifted, in 1958, he maintained: “We are breaking the old connections, and have to establish new ones… Let us not repel [onlookers] by showing them that we are governed by the same narrow nationalist and particularist conceptions which have caused so much mischief in Europe and elsewhere… Help [from the rest of the world] is precious and, far from being a purely economic question, is a social and political necessity. Industrial expansion is not merely a question of material forces but of human relations.”

Zimbabwe is only the latest example of a failed postcolonial state. Apart from a few stray tankies like Caleb Maupin — who somehow still contends that Mugabe was not a dictator, despite having ruled the country for 37 years straight — not too many tears have been shed on account of the African leader’s sudden downfall. No one, except for brazen racists and white nationalists, longs for a return to colonial times or the restoration of Rhodesia. Yet Zimbabwe is proof that underdevelopment was not solely due to colonialism. The once-rich nation has plummeted into poverty over the past couple decades.

Moreover, I feel vindicated by James’ skepticism toward cultural studies programs. Jewish studies, to speak only of the discipline that’s grown up around my culture of origin, have always seemed to me a colossal waste of time. “I do not know, as a Marxist, black studies as such,” James told students in 1968, “but simply the struggle of people against tyranny and oppression in a certain social and political setting [capitalism]. During the last two hundred years, in particular, it’s impossible to separate black studies from white studies in any theoretical point of view.”

Regardless, enough from me already. You can download the following works by James by clicking on the links below:

  1. At the Rendezvous of Victory: Selected Writings, 1931-1981
  2. The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies (1932)
  3. Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History; A Play in Three Acts (1934-1936)
  4. World Revolution, 1917-1936 (1937)
  5. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution (1938)
  6. On the “Negro Question” (1939-1950)
  7. “Historical Retrogression or Socialist Revolution?” (1946)
  8. with Raya Dunayevskaya, A New Notion: The Invading Socialist Society and Every Cook Can Govern (1947, 1956)
  9. Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin (1948)
  10. with Grace Lee Boggs and Raya Dunayevskaya, State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950)
  11. Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1952)
  12. The Nobbie Stories for Children and Adults (1953-1956)
  13. Modern Politics (1960)
  14. Beyond a Boundary (1963)
  15. Marxism for Our Times: On Revolutionary Organization (1963-1981)
  16. “Wilson Harris andthe Existentialist Doctrine” (1965)
  17. Lectures on The Black Jacobins (1970)
  18. with Grace Lee and Cornelius Castoriadis, Facing Reality (1974)

And you can download the following pieces of secondary literature:

  1. Louise Cripps, C.L.R. James: Memories and Commentaries (1997)
  2. Aldon Lynn Nielsen, C.L.R. James: A Critical Introduction (1997)
  3. Frank Rosengarten, Urbane Revolutionary: C.L.R. James and the Struggle for a New Society (2008)
  4. Ornette D. Clennon, The Polemics of C.L.R. James and Contemporary Black Activism (2017)
  5. Beyond Boundaries: C.L.R. James and Postnational Studies (2006)
  6. C.L.R. James’ Caribbean (1992)
  7. The Black Jacobins Reader (2017)
  8. Christian Høgsbjerg, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (2014)

What follows is an exploration of the affinities between James and the Frankfurt School critical theorist Theodor Adorno, written by the Italian Marxist Enzo Traverso as part of his new book Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory (2016). Continue reading