While C.L.R. James (“Johnson”) (1901-1989) has become an academic fashion in the U.S. in the past 15 years (1), and is widely known in Britain and in the Caribbean, his name evokes little recognition in most of continental Europe except perhaps as the author of the classic history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938). Raya Dunayevskaya (“Forest”) (1910-1987), intimately associated with James from ca. 1940 until 1955, is still less known, aside from translations of her books Marxism and Freedom, Philosophy and Revolution, and Rosa Luxemburg. Least known of all is Grace Lee Boggs, (1915- ), a Chinese-American woman who was the third founder and theoretician of what came to be known as the “Johnson-Forest tendency” of the Workers’ Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party in the U.S., a tendency whose influence has rippled far beyond its original small forces within two American Trotskyist groups before, during and after World War II.
During the high phase of the consolidation of the Stalinist counter-revolution in the Soviet Union, the international “left opposition” around Trotsky had more influence in the United States than in any other advanced capitalist country. As events in the 1930’s accelerated toward a seemingly inevitable Second World War, and as fascism, Stalinism and then Nazi occupation wiped out or forced underground or into exile the small groups of the international left opposition in most of Europe, the American Trotskyist movement, while small in size (with probably no more than 2,000 militants in 1938) had managed to play a role all out of proportion to its numbers in such major struggles as the Toledo Auto-Lite and Minneapolis Teamsters strikes of 1934, and to attract a nucleus of important intellectuals such as those animating the early Partisan Review(2). The Stalin-Hitler Pact of 1939 created almost as much of a crisis in the international Trotskyist milieu as among the much larger Stalinist parties and their fellow travelers. By the late 1930’s, around the world, small minorities of Trotskyists began to reject Trotsky’s characterization of the Soviet Union as a “degenerated workers’ state”, and its programmatic corollary, the “unconditional defense of the U.S.S.R.” in the coming war. Among these figures were the remarkable Greek revolutionary Agis Stinas(3) (mentor of Cornelius Castoriadis), Max Shachtman, C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya. These tensions led to a bitter 1939-1940 faction fight in the main American Trotskyist organization (the Socialist Workers Party) and in 1940 Shachtman, James and Dunayevskaya found themselves in the newly-formed Workers Party(4). All three agreed that a newly-constituted ruling class had destroyed the Soviet Union’s proletarian character, (though they differed among themselves on its precise nature) and that the nationalized property, planning and state monopoly of foreign trade which were for the Trotskyists the remaining “gains of the revolution”, were merely mechanisms of a system of class exploitation. The Workers Party had its peak influence during World War II, with roughly 1,000 members, many of them working in war industries, where they participated in wildcat strikes and were at the forefront of the struggle against the infamous “no strike pledge” adopted by the AFofL, the CIO (5) and the American Communist Party in 1942 and maintained until the end of the war.
C.L.R. James was born in Trinidad (still a British colony in 1901) into a middle-class family of modest means. He acquired a solid education, read widely (he always insisted that Thackeray had been as important for him as Marx (6)) and was an accomplished cricket player. Above and beyond his later activities as a Marxist revolutionary, he was in the course of his life a novelist, a sports writer, an actor(7) and a friend of such black American writers as Richard Wright and James Baldwin. He left Trinidad for England in 1932, where he became a well-known public agitator for the Independent Labour Party. He became a Trotskyist, and went to the U.S. in 1938, where he remained until his expulsion from the country in 1953. In the Trotskyist movement and later on its edges, James wrote many of his important political books, apart from Facing Reality (1958): World Revolution, 1917-1936 (1937), The Black Jacobins (1938), Notes on Dialectics (1948; published 1980) and (with Raya Dunayevskaya) State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950)(8). (The cynical and historically ignorant post-modernists who have posthumously transformed James into an academic cultural icon carefully “erase”–to use the in-group jargon they throw around so pretentiously– all of those books except for The Black Jacobins, whose “master narrative” dialectic between Haitian slaves and French sans-culottes is similarly “silenced”.)
Raya Dunayevskaya was born in the Ukraine in 1910 but came to in the U.S. in 1920 and managed to be expelled for Trotskyism from the American Communist Party at age 14. She briefly was Trotsky’s secretary in 1937. One of her earliest independent contributions after the 1940 break with Trotsky was a series of articles (1944) demonstrating the capitalist nature of the Soviet economy (in the previous year Soviet economists had themselves announced that the operation of the law of value was a permanent feature of “socialism”).
Grace Lee, finally, (who later married the black community activist and auto worker militant James Boggs) was born in 1915 to a middle-class Chinese-American family. In the late 1930’s, she became a political activist while getting a PhD in philosophy, studying Kant and Hegel in German. She discovered the Workers Party shortly after its creation in 1940 and quickly gravitated to James and Dunayevskaya’s minority faction. Approaching 90, she remains politically active in Detroit(9).
It is important to keep in mind the climate of rapidly-evolving world crisis in which the Johnson-Forest tendency was developing and attempting to break new ground. The majority in the Workers Party, around Shachtman (10) and James Burnham (11), used a version of Bruno Rizzi’s theory of “bureaucratic collectivism”(12) (a new managerial mode of production unforeseen by Marx) to characterize the class nature of the U.S.S.R., rather than the state capitalist analysis of James, Dunayevskaya and Lee. But the minority’s discontent with the Workers Party majority was no mere semantic dispute and went well beyond the “Russian question”. In spite of the Shachtmanites’ break with Trotsky, they retained the kind of atheoretical pragmatism and philistine agnosticism which Trotsky had discerned in them in his last book In Defense of Marxism (1940)(13). The Johnson-Forest tendency was heading in another direction, around a radically innovative recovery of the Hegelian backdrop to Marx which would influence James’s and Dunayevskaya’s later contributions (14), both in their 15-year collaboration and after their 1955 split.
In 1943 the Workers Party participated in the series of wildcat strikes that shook the American auto industry in Detroit (15), at the same time that the United Mine Workers under John L. Lewis were waging a long illegal strike in the Appalachian coal fields. These strikes were major challenges to the wartime “no strike pledge” and the coal strike earned Lewis the opprobrium of the American Communist Party as a “Hitlerite agent”. But for Johnson-Forest, the wartime wildcats as well as the massive postwar strike wave of 1945-1946 spurred them to look for a deeper conceptualization of working-class self-activity in Marxian theory. Dunayevskaya’s knowledge of Russian gave her access to Lenin’s 1914 Philosophical Notebooks (16) (almost unknown at the time in the English-speaking world) and Lee’s knowledge of German opened the way to Hegel’s Logic and to the almost-unknown 1844 Manuscripts of Marx. It is highly significant, and little recognized, that the first English-language translation of the latter texts, which played such an important role in the Marxist renaissance of the 1950’s and 1960’s, initially appeared in the press of the Johnson- Forest tendency in 1947. Such preoccupations were of little interest to the “hard-headed” Shachtmanite majority of the Workers Party. Much as the collapse of the German SPD in 1914 had led Lenin to the intense study of Hegel’s Logic in order to understand the debacle of Kautskyite orthodoxy, the wartime and postwar insurgency of American workers pushed Johnson-Forest to question the limits of Workers Party orthodoxy. Hegel’s philosophy was and is, after all, what Alexander Herzen called the “algebra of revolution”. No revolutionary current in the world, in those years, took as seriously as Johnson-Forest the idea that “philosophy must become proletarian”. The self-activity of the wildcatting workers led James, Dunayevskaya and Lee to the philosophical expression of self-activity in Hegel’s thought.
In the final period before his assassination in 1940, Trotsky had predicted a new world revolutionary wave following the Second World War, similar to the world events of 1917-1921. (He also said that if the Stalinist bureaucracy survived the war, it would be necessary to rethink his assertion of the proletarian character of the U.S.S.R., a challenge that his orthodox Trotskyist followers never took up.) All Trotsky-influenced currents, and not merely in the U.S., took the prediction of a postwar world revolution as writ, and went into crisis when the revolution did not materialize. Their disgruntlement with the Shachtmanite majority led Johnson-Forest in 1947 to rejoin the SWP. They remained there until 1950, exiting with the book co-authored by James and Dunayevskaya, State Capitalism and World Revolution. In the three years Johnson-Forest remained in the SWP, James also participated in party discussions on the American “Negro question” (as it was then called), arguing for support for separate struggles of blacks as having the potential to ignite the entire U.S. political situation, as they in fact did in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Johnson-Forest were animated again by the remarkable strikes in the Appalachian coalfields of 1949-1951, the first wildcats against automation (17). Dunayevskaya (then living in Pittsburgh) organized a study group of striking miners around basic texts of Marx and the new Hegelian insights about self-activity. (It was also during the coalfield strikes that the tensions first surfaced between Dunayevskaya and James that resulted in their split in 1955.)(18)
James had already used an extended stay in Nevada in 1948 to write Notes on Dialectics (only published in 1980, and James’s favorite among his books). In this work, James got onto paper what he had taken from the wartime and postwar strikes as well as the recovery of Hegel they inspired. The main historical thread is a study of the role of the petty bourgeoisie from the English revolution of the 1640’s to the French Revolution (1789-1794) to the triumph of Stalinism; built around this historical narrative are extended quotes from, and commentaries on, Hegel’s Logic. One can argue about how cogent the quotes are for James’s historical demonstration, but it is a remarkable tour de force showing the evolution of the petty bourgeoisie from radical democracy in the English case to the proto-Stalinist rule of the Jacobins (complete with a brief managed economy during the Terror, uncannily anticipating Stalinism) to, finally, Stalinism. (Here, James emphasizes the large influx of Menshevik militants and theory into the Stalinist party apparatus, in which the petty bourgeoisie so to speak “comes to its concept”.)(19)
Once out of the SWP, Johnson-Forest founded for the first time their own organization, Correspondence. But the tensions that had surfaced in the 1949-1951 coalfield wildcats pointed to a split, which took place in 1955. Through his theoretical and political work of the late 1940’s, James had come to the conclusion that the revolutionary party was no longer needed (as it had been before 1917) because its truths had been absorbed in the masses (in 1956, as Facing Reality states clearly, he would see the Hungarian Revolution as confirmation of this). He was not sure what would replace it. Dunayevskaya had agreed that the Leninist vanguard party was outdated, but felt, in contrast to James, the need for some kind of revolutionary organization. In 1953, James was deported from the U.S. to Britain, and the polemic continued. The split was consummated in 1955, when Dunayevskaya and her faction founded the group News and Letters (still in existence). Grace Lee remained with the Johnsonites, who founded a newsletter based in Detroit called Facing Reality. When Lee moved away from the group in the early 1960’s, the continuity of the Johnsonite tradition was maintained by Martin Glaberman (20) until his death in 2001. (There are a number of accounts of the reasons for the split, some of them relatively apolitical, such as a personality clash between James and Dunayevskaya. Whatever the case, the two factions did later evolve in quite different directions.)
1955 was also the year of the first big postwar UAW wildcat, a watershed event in the American working class movement touching off a series of wildcat strikes which only grew in intensity until 1973. Similar developments in France, such as the Nantes aerospace wildcat of the same year, were theorized by the French group Socialisme ou Barbarie, which had also broken with Trotskyism in the late 1940’s, and which was animated by such figures as Cornelius Castordiadis, Claude Lefort and Daniel Mothe. (“S ou B”, as it was popularly known, had been publishing material on the new forms of struggle in the U.S, from its earliest issues.) Contacts between Johnson-Forest and Socialisme ou Barbarie date from the late 1940’s.
The 1945-1946 period in the U.S. witnessed the last major strike wave called by the official CIO leadership, and the last one in which the leadership still felt capable of controlling the ranks. In the turmoil of the postwar “return to normalcy”, with 20 million discharged military personnel and armaments workers about to rejoin the civilian work force in a situation widely anticipated as a probable return to 1930’s depression conditions, the strikes were an attempt to take back terrain lost during the unions’ enforcement of the wartime no-strike pledge. From that point onward, above all centered in the United Auto Workers (UAW), the CIO “flagship” union, the famous “postwar settlement” evolved in which the tradeoff was wage and benefits increases offered by management, and promoted by the Reuther (21) leadership of the UAW, in exchange for total management hegemony over shop floor conditions in the plants. The depth of the 1955 UAW wildcat, in answer to another such contract touted by Reuther, was the American auto worker’s response to this arrangement. It was to the great credit of James and Lee to sense the importance of this development in its proper terms and to theorize it in their book Facing Reality, bringing it into relationship with similar developments in Britain and in France. These insights about worker self-activity were seemingly confirmed in spades the following year by the Hungarian Revolution.
To fully appreciate the overall context inspiring Facing Reality, a brief overview of the evolving international situation is imperative. When working-class revolution failed to materialize in the immediate postwar period, a deep demoralization had overtaken most of the small revolutionary milieu in Europe and the U.S. The onset of the Cold War took a further toll, and Third World War seemed likely to many. Instead of Trotsky’s prophecy of revolution, Stalinism had extended itself to Eastern Europe, China and Korea. Among militants who did not simply abandon working-class politics, official Trotskyists grappled with the problem of how to relate to these new “workers’ states” created not by revolution but by the Red Army, or by peasant armies. (One international Trotskyist current animated by Michel Pablo (22) predicted centuries of Stalinist hegemony, and argued that Trotskyists would have to survive these centuries by clandestinely infiltrating the large Stalinist parties.) Pablo’s theory had no sooner been articulated when it was refuted by the East Berlin worker uprising of 1953, but that revolt was quickly crushed. In this climate, Johnson-Forest, and (after the 1955 split) the separate Facing Reality and and News and Letters groups, had the advantage, based on their insights into the wartime and postwar wildcats, of seeing a new historical moment open up to which both Stalinists and orthodox Trotskyists were blind, the moment of autonomous working-class self-activity outside and against political parties and unions that would continue for nearly two decades. These insights had their limits, as the following text will argue, but they seemed of intoxicating clarity when the Hungarian workers, with no vanguard party in sight, established a Republic of Workers’ Councils in the fall of 1956. 1956, of course, was also the year of Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Party Congress, of Polish worker ferment in Poznan, and of the humiliation of Britain and France in the Suez crisis in the Middle East. The conjugation of these three events were a thaw announcing an upward curve of struggle into the mid-1970’s (23). It was this insight, with its strengths and weaknesses, which made Facing Reality a classic.
By the time he co-authored Facing Reality with Lee and Castoriadis (24), James had concluded that the task of revolutionaries was, in contrast to Lenin’s time, to “recognize and record” the advance of the “new society” within the old. His view was at antipodes from the formulations of the early Lenin in What Is To Be Done? (1903), according to which revolutionary intellectuals bring class consciousness to workers, the latter being incapable of going beyond trade-union consciousness without such an intervention. (Lenin repudiated this view after the 1905 revolution in Russia.) James argued later that Lenin himself had “recognized and recorded” the Russian soviets of 1905, and that the task of revolutionaries in the present was similarly to recognize forms of struggle and organization, and to provide a press in which the tensions of the present could be argued out among different currents of workers.
What follows, then, is my sense of a “balance sheet”, written in 2002, of the successes and failures of the approach presented in Facing Reality.
1 The new academic “James industry” since the 1980’s has produced a number of works on James, of varying quality: F. Dhondy, C.L.R. James, London 2001; A. Bogues, Caliban’s Freedom: the early political thought of C.L.R. James. Chicago 1997; P. Buhle, C.L.R. James: The artist as revolutionary, London/New York 1988; K. Worcester, West Indian politics and cricket: C.L.R. James and Trinidad, 1958-1963 (San German, Puerto Rico, 1982) C.L.R,. James and the American Century, 1938-1953 (San German, Puerto Rico, 1986) and C.L.R. James: A Political Biography (Albany, 1996).. Cf. also A.L. Nielsen, , C.L.R. James: A Critical Overview (Albany, 1997). For introductory texts on James, other perspectives, and links to further information, see the web site of the C.L.R. James Institute, http://www.clrjamesinstitute.org
2 An exceptional number of important post-1945 American intellectuals and writers passed through one or more variants of Trotskyism, including Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, ,Norman Mailer, Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, James T. Farrell,, Mary McCarthy, and James Burnham.. One account of this development is Alan Wald, The New York Intellectuals, Chapel Hill, 1987.
3 Stinas’s story, and a portrait of the Greek revolutionary milieu of the 1920’s and 1930’s from which he emerged, is presented in his autobiography (French translation): A. Stinas, Mémoires: un revolutionnaire dans la Grece du XXe siecle, Montreuil, 1990.
4 Grace Lee Boggs had been a political activist and a philosophy student impressed with Kant and Hegel (whom she read in German) in the late 1930’s. She joined the Workers Party in 1940 and quickly found her way to the James-Dunayevskaya faction.
5 The American Federal of Labor (AF of L) and the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) fused to become the AFL-CIO only in 1955.
6 James’s autobiography is Beyond a Boundary (1963; New York 1983)
7 James wrote a play, Toussaint L’Ouverture, based on The Black Jacobins and alternated in the leading role with the singer Paul Robeson.
8 Three of these works were subsequently reprinted: Black Jacobins (New York, 1963); World Revolution, 1917-1936 (Atlantic Highlands 1993), and (with Raya Dunayevsakaya) State Capitalism and World Revolution (Chicago 1986). Notes on Dialectics was published in London in 1980.
9 Her memoir Living for Change (Minneapolis, 1998) is most valuable both for a portrait of the Johnson-Forest tendency and the life of Workers’ Party and Socialist Workers Party in the 1940’s.
10 Shachtman’s life is recounted in Peter Drucker: Max Shachtman and his Left. Atlantic Highlands 1994.
11 Burnham broke with the Workers’ Party almost immediately after the 1940 split. He used Rizzi’s ideas for his own break with Marxism in The Managerial Revolution (1940; Bloomington 1966). Burnham moved to the Cold War anti-communist right wing and was hailed in 1980 as the intellectual architect of the “Reagan revolution” by Ronald Reagan himself. Burnham’s story is told in George Nash The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America (1976; New York, 1999).
12 Bruno Rizzi’s book The Bureaucratization of the World first appeared in Italian in 1938. The most recent edition is London and New York 1985. Rizzi was a highly ambiguous figure who broke with Trotskyism as the book was being published and embraced fascism. He saw “bureaucratic collectivism” as an inevitable worldwide stage of history, manifested in the American New Deal, Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, which the working class should embrace as progressive relative to capitalism. Shachtman borrowed the concept of bureaucratic collectivism without embracing Rizzi’s other views, seeing bureaucratic collectivism rather as a world-historical rival to socialism and not as inevitable. Shachtman (1903-1972) never abandoned this view, but after World War II began moving to the right, becoming a right-wing Social Democrat and supporting the U.S. war in Vietnam as a legitimate struggle against bureaucratic collectivism.
13 L. Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism (New York 1940; 1973) is a collection of Trotsky’s polemics against the Burnham-Shachtman faction of the SWP leading up to the split.
14 Dunayevskaya’s main books are Marxism and Freedom (1958; Sussex, N.J., 1982); Philosophy and Revolution (1982; New York 1989); Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (Urbana 1991); German translation 1998.
15 Martin Glaberman, Wartime Strikes. (Detroit 1980) is an account of these strikes.
16 The Philosophical Notebooks are vol. 38 of the standard English-language complete works of Lenin (Moscow, 1960-1972). Kevin Anderson, a member of the contemporary Dunayevskaya group, has described this turn in Lenin’s understanding of Marx in Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism: A Critical Study, Urbana and Chicago (1995).
17 Peter Hudis, a current member of the Dunayevskaya group News and Letters, tells the story of the evolution of James, Dunayevskaya and Lee during these strikes in Historical Materialism, No. 11/4 (2003), pp. 275-288.
18 In a letter of James dated Sept. 17, 1951, and quoted in Hudis op. cit., p. 283, James characterized Dunayevskaya’s strategy for intervention in the strike as a “proposal to send leaders down there to edit and organize and generally to lead like SWP leaders”.
19 One of James’s main polemical targets in Notes on Dialectics is the Trotskyist interpretation of Stalinism as a force that “betrays” the working class. James shows Stalinism as part of a worldwide transformation in the direction of state capitalism:
“Whatever their social origin, whatever their subjective motives, the fact remains that stalinism finds this caste of labor leaders all over the world, in China, in Korea, in Spain, in Brazil, everywhere, intellectuals, labor leaders, workers who rise–the caste grows, changes composition, but it remains as an entity. It faces death, undergoes torture, finds energy, ingenuity, devotion, establishes a tradition, maintains it, develops it, commits the greatest crimes with a boldness and confidence that can only come from men who are certain of their historic mission.”
“As I think over Trotsky’s writings I can see this sequence of cause and effect in an endless chain. This happened, then the other, thenthe stalinist bureaucracy did this; then; and so he keeps up an endless series of explanations, fascinating, brilliant, full of insight and illumination, to crash into his catastrophic blunders at the end… We, on the other hand, who show that stalinist cause could create the mighty worldwide effect because it elicited class forces hostile to the proletariat and inherent in capitalist society at this stage in its development, we restore to the proletarian struggle the historical struggle of the classes with social roots. We finish away with the demoralizing, in fact self-destroying, theory that everything would have been all right, but for the intervention of stalinist corruption.” (ibid.)
20 Shortly before his own death, Glaberman edited a collection of James’s writings: C.L.R. James. Marxism for Our Times: C.L.R. James on Revolution Organization. Jackson, 1999.
21 Walter Reuther was a leader of the UAW from its inception in 1936, and undisputed leader after 1945 until his death in 1970. (James somewere called the UAW under Reuther an “American one-party state in the wings”.) For an excessively laudatory biography of Reuther, cf. Nelson Lichtenstein, Walter Reuther. The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit (Urbana 1997). One corrective to Lichtenstein is Glaberman’s review of the book, “Walter Reuther: ‘Social Unionist’” in Monthly Review, vol. 48, no. 6, available on-line at http://www.monthlyreview/1196glab.htm
22 An account of Pablo’s impact on international Trotskyism is in Christophe Nick, Les trotskystes, Paris 2001.
23 This period ended with the worker upsurges in Portugal and Spain in 1974-1976, and with the “creeping May” in Italy through 1977. On the latter, cf. Nanni Balestrini, L’orda d’oro, Milan 1997.
24 Castoriadis was apparently quite angry that his contribution to the book was changed without his consent. For details on this, cf. Kent Worcester’s 1996 political biography of James, pp. 139-142.