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

Revisionism revisited: Ernst Nolte and Domenico Losurdo on the age of extremes

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“Revisionism” — Revisionismus, révisionnisme, ревизионизм — is a word of relatively recent vintage. Most etymologies date its origin to around 1903, when the revisionist dispute befell German Social Democracy. Its meaning has remained more or less constant since then: the term denotes an effort to revise or otherwise reenvision some prior doctrine or established consensus. Already in its short career, however, revisionism has managed to amass a range of historical referents. Given this polysemic quality, a bit of disentanglement seems in order to sort out the different phenomena it signifies.

Ernst Nolte’s death late last week, at the age of 93, offers a unique opportunity for such reflection. The controversial historian rose to international prominence, or at least achieved a certain notoriety, during the mid-1980s as part of the “historians’ quarrel” [Historikerstreit]. Beginning with an address he delivered in Munich in June 1980, entitled “Between Historical Legend and Revisionism?”, Nolte sought to place the Nazi genocide within the context of a global civil war [Weltbürgerkrieg] that lasted from the October Revolution in 1917 to the fall of Berlin in May 1945. He framed it as an unfortunate (but understandable) response to the horrific violence unleashed by the Bolsheviks in Russia:

Auschwitz was not primarily a result of traditional antisemitism, and not just one more case of “genocide.” It was a fear-borne reaction to acts of annihilation that took place during the Russian Revolution. While the fact that it was more irrational, terrible, and repulsive than its precursor provides a foundation for the notion of singularity, none of this alters that the so-called [!!!] annihilation of the Jews by the Third Reich was a reaction or a distorted copy and not a first act or an original.

Six years later, in the editorial that sparked the controversy, Nolte again posed the question: “Did the National Socialists or Hitler perhaps commit an ‘Asiatic’ deed merely because they considered themselves potential victims of an ‘Asiatic’ deed? Wasn’t the Gulag Archipelago primary to Auschwitz?” For Nolte, “the Bolsheviks’ murder of an entire class was the logical and factual prius of the ‘racial murder’ of National Socialism…” Yet, despite these supposed mitigating circumstances, Germany alone was trapped in “a past that will not pass.” Twisting the knife, he added, “talk about ‘the guilt of the Germans’ blithely overlooks the similarity to the talk about ‘the guilt of the Jews,’ which was a main argument of the National Socialists.” Predictably, Nolte’s provocations led to an uproar, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was flooded with angry letters.

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Jürgen Habermas was among those who sent a reply the summer of 1986. Immediately, this added a great deal of weight to the debate. At the time, Habermas was at the height of his powers, by far the country’s best-known intellectual. Heir apparent to Theodor Adorno, he represented the “second generation” of Frankfurt School critical theory. Nolte had been a follower of Martin Heidegger, the (in)famous Nazi philosopher against whom Adorno had tirelessly polemicized, so the ghosts of the Doktorväter were close at hand. This was evident from the outset, as Habermas inveighed against the apologetic tendencies at work “in what Nolte, the student of Heidegger, calls his ‘philosophical writing of history’.” Even statements downplaying the relevance of these forebears tacitly invoked their authority, as for example when Habermas declared that “it is not a matter of Popper versus Adorno, nor of scholarly differences of opinion, nor about questions of freedom from value judgments [Wertfreiheit]. Rather, it is about the public use of history.” Driving this point home, a few pages down, he reiterated: “After 1945… we read [Martin] Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and Hans Freyer, even Ernst Jünger, differently than before 1933.”

Looking back at this exchange now thirty years on, one wonders whether this is not the crux of the matter. Can an event be historicized without diminishing its singularity? Or does the very act of contextualization thereby render it mundane? Is it possible to simultaneously “comprehend and condemn,” as Christian Meier suggested in the title of his contribution to the debate? To compare two distinct objects is to relate them, if not relativize them as such. Hans Mommsen objected to claims made by Nolte and his attack dog, Joachim Fest, on the grounds that they surreptitiously aimed at “relativizing” Nazism through its comparison with Bolshevism. By insisting on their comparability, or “the permissibility of certain comparisons” (as Nolte put it), all talk of singularity swiftly goes out the window. François Furet, revisionist historian of the French Revolution and unabashed admirer of his German counterpart, one of Nolte’s greatest merits was to have “quickly gone beyond the prohibition against putting Bolshevism and Nazism in the same bag.” Paul Ricoeur noted in Memory, History, Forgetting, just a year before his death, “this massive use of comparison settles the fate of singularity or uniqueness, since this alone permits the identification of differences… As soon as the critical debate has been widened in this way, Nolte expects it will allow this past ‘to pass’ like any other and be appropriated.” Continue reading