C.L.R. James: A Revolutionary Vision for the 20th Century

by Anna Grimshaw


The purpose of James's trip to America was to address audiences on the political situation in Europe as war approached; and to be a major contributor to the work of the Trotskyist movement on the black question. These topics formed the basis of the nationwide speaking tour which James embarked upon shortly after his arrival in November 1938. It was towards the end of his exhausting schedule, at a meeting in Los Angeles, that James first met Constance Webb. Almost immediately he began his correspondence with her. The first letters from Mexico--evocative, witty and brimming with lively observations of character--were a vivid reminder of James's early aspirations as a novelist; the later exchanges, beginning in 1943, were more intense, indeed passionate, as James sought to break free from the confines of his European background. Something powerful had been unlocked by his experience of America. He sought to articulate it through his exchanges with Constance; and the exploration of the differences between them in background, race, gender and age became a creative force behind their remarkable relationship.

James's correspondence, beginning in 1939 and continuing for over a decade, constitutes a profound meditation on human life. The synthesis he was seeking, the full and free integration of his own personality within the context of his love for a woman, he recognised as a general need among people in the modern world. Consciously employing the dialectical method, James examined the relationship between chance and necessity within his own life. But his letters showed, too, how far he could extend his analysis, from the very personal details of self-discovery to some of the most fundamental questions concerning the future of humanity. At the centre, however, was Constance, the young American woman, who grasped instinctively the connections between those facets of human experience which he had to work hard to bring into an active relationship.

The question of human creativity, the central theme of the letters, not only enabled James to make a direct connection with Constance Webb, particularly through his encouragement of her writing of poetry; but, at the same time, it took him to the heart of the civilization process itself. The developed historical perspective which James brought to bear on the understanding of this process led him to highlight what was distinctive in Constance's creative work. He recognised it as the expression of the experiences of a twentieth century American woman. He saw Constance as a product of the most conscious age in human history; growing up with material advantages unknown to her European counterparts and taking for granted, as the property of everyone, some of the most advanced political ideas known to mankind. Her poetry reflected this. But it also, inescapably at its core, gave expression to the conflict which raged through modern society, nowhere more intensely than in America--the conflict between her highly developed sense of her own unique personality and the form of society which dissipated or stifled all creative energy.

These exchanges with Constance Webb, during the 1940s, cannot be considered apart from the very ambitious project--to understand American society on its own terms--which James had set himself soon after his arrival in the United States. His approach was to see America as a civilization in its own right. But he saw, too, that it contained within its essential features the key to the future of civilization as a whole. For almost a decade James pursued this project privately, while being deeply immersed in more conventional political work which arose through his involvement in the Trotskyist movement. These two areas of his life were kept separate, indeed they often appeared to be in conflict; but the connections between them were profound and released, in James, an explosion of intellectual creativity.

The doubts concerning Trotsky's method and analysis which James had begun to articulate in his work on history were thrown into sharp relief by the crisis posed to the revolutionary movement by the signing, in 1940, of the Hitler-Stalin pact. This raised again--now with great political urgency--the question of the nature of the Soviet Union and whether it could still be defended as a revolutionary society, albeit one with serious flaws. James was plunged into what he later described as "one of the most extreme and difficult crises of my political life."4

In order to clarify his position, James embarked on a serious study of the Russian revolution and the development of the Workers' State. Quickly, though, he found himself drawn deeply into questions of philosophy and method, for, as he recognised, "it was not a question of what Russia was, although that was a subordinate question. It was a question of what was the type of Marxism which led to one conclusion and the type of Marxism which led to the other."5

Much of James's work was carried out with a small handful of collaborators in a group which became known as the Johnson Forest Tendency. Two of his closest associates were women--Grace Lee, a philosophy Ph.D. and Raya Dunayevskaya, Trotsky's former secretary whose expertise was the Soviet Union.6 Between them they pooled their different linguistic skills and intellectual training to undertake a comprehensive study of modern history and the dialectic.

In one of his letters to Constance Webb, James gave a valuable picture of their collective working method:

We are at Rae's (Raya Dunayevskaya). Grace, Rae, I and another friend. We have just worked out the basis for the defence of Germany--pointing out its great contribution to civilization in the past and the necessity of its incorporation into the Europe of today--a serious contribution--the only contribution I fear that will be made to any serious understanding of the problem of Germany. It is going to be fine. As we talked I felt very very pleased. One person writes but in the world in which we live all serious contributions have to be collective; the unification of all phases of life make it impossible for a single mind to grasp it in all its aspects. Although one mind may unify, the contributory material and ideas must come from all sources and types of mind. . . . The best mind is the one so basically sound in analytical approach and capacity to absorb, imagination to fuse, that he makes a totality of all these diverse streams.7

Towards the end of the 1940s the members of the Johnson Forest Tendency began to publish the results of their intense collaborative exercise. The lengthy essay, Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity (1947) was James's attempt to sort out some of the muddles in Trotskyist thinking--in particular the problem of thought and its relationship to the dynamic of history. He was seeking to clarify the dialectical method--the process by which, what Hegel called "the abstract universal" becomes concrete; and to demonstrate, through its use as a methodological tool, the progressive movement of society. It is one of the very few places, too, that James offered a definition of socialism--the complete expression of democracy--mindful as he always was of its distortion through identification with Stalinism.

This article preceded the much more detailed discussion of method in the documents James wrote from Nevada (Notes on Dialectics, 1948). Nevertheless, it covers much of the same ground and its essay form makes more accessible some of the ideas which were critical in James's definition of a new and independent Marxist position.

With tremendous verve and historical sweep, James sets out to trace the development of mankind--the objectification of the subject, the search for completeness, integration, universality. At the centre of his analysis stood the Russian revolution, for it opened a window on this process. It represented an advanced stage in this historical movement; and yet it was still imperfect, not fully realised. Indeed, as James's dialectical method exposed, its very imperfections called forth a response which in its negativity matched the concrete achievements of October 1917:

It is the creative power, the democratic desires, the expansion of the human personality, the record of human achievement that was the Russian revolution. It is these which have called forth the violence, the atrocities, the state organised as Murder Incorporated. Only such violence could have repressed democracy.

For James, however, Stalinist Russia expressed in the most extreme form the contradictions which ran throughout modern society, as the increasing power and self-knowledge of ordinary people came up against enhanced powers of rule from above in the form of bureaucratic structures.

James was aware of these tensions all around him in the United States. It was to be seen nowhere more clearly than in the contradictory position of blacks, their integration and segregation, within American society.

James's work on history and the dialectic thus cannot be separated from his more active engagement with contemporary political questions within the United States. It was difficult, however, for him to play a prominent part in the Johnson Forest Tendency's organisational work, for he had overstayed the limit on his US visa and, after 1940, was forced to operate largely underground. But James continued to write on the race question, developing his understanding of the revolutionary history of America's black population and establishing the independence and vitality of the struggle for basic democratic rights. Not only did James understand the immense political significance of these struggles for America as a whole, for its black communities exposed some of its deepest and most intense contradictions; but he saw too that America's blacks provided the link with the millions of colonial peoples worldwide, struggling to throw off the shackles of imperialist rule. James's statement to the Trotskyist movement, The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the USA (1948) revealed the clarity with which he understood the political questions it posed; but, at the same time, his interpretation presented to the orthodox Left some of the same difficulties as his earlier work on the San Domingo slave uprising. It was, and remains, a remarkably prescient document.

What James's theoretical and activist work taught him above all was the speed of historical movement. The problem became one of thought. Following Hegel, James contrasted the operation of dialectical thinking, creative reason, with the static categories of understanding which he identified as the fundamental flaw in the Trotskyist method itself. For James, it was revealed most clearly in Trotsky's approach to the nature of the Soviet Union.

The Class Struggle (1950) was an important statement on this question. In putting forward the theory of state capitalism, James and his associates in the Johnson Forest Tendency offered a set of conceptual tools inseparable from the dynamic of historical development, that is, one which matched the development of capitalism itself. In contrast, they concluded that Trotsky and his followers, trapped within the sterile Stalin-Trotsky debate, had separated their understanding of the Soviet Union from the more general movement of modern history, failing thereby to root the analysis of bureaucracy in an understanding of the stage capitalism had reached worldwide.

According to James, the contradictions of the Workers' State were still to be found in the process of production. Nationalisation had transferred the struggle between capital and labour to the level of the state, a characteristic of advanced capitalist systems everywhere, including the United States. In the case of the Soviet Union, however, the Party had become fused with the state.

Having reached this position, James and his associates broke with the notion of the Party as the revolutionary vanguard. The logical development of their analysis was to see that the next decisive stage in history would be the overthrow of the party itself, the emergence of the people against the structures of bureaucratic rule.

Cumulatively then the philosophical and political conclusions which James reached during his American years made his severance from the Trotskyist movement inevitable. Through his work on history and the dialectic and his engagement with pressing political questions in the United States, particularly the black question, James had identified serious problems in Trotskyist ideas and method. Furthermore he had defined a new position with respect to the nature of the Soviet Union and the role of the vanguard party.

James's commitment to revolutionary Marxism, however, remained unshakeable. He recognised, though, that the tradition in the twentieth century had become distorted and obscured through the bitter struggle between Trotsky and Stalin; and in establishing the foundations of his new, independent Marxist position, James traced his ideas directly from the work of Lenin.

James's fifteen-year stay in the United States is widely acknowledged to have produced his most important work. He often said so himself. Undoubtedly, the documents he wrote as a member of the Johnson Forest Tendency constitute a major contribution to the theory and practice of Marxism, extending the tradition to incorporate the distinctive features of the world in which James lived. But they represent more than this. They made possible the original work which came in the following years.

The year 1950 was a watershed for James. He felt palpably his freedom from the narrow questions of revolutionary politics which had, for so many years, absorbed his energies. At the same time his intellectual confidence was secure, rooted as it was in his mastery of the philosophical foundations of his Marxist perspective. It was reflected in the breadth and urgency of James's later writings; and in his exploration of new questions--questions of art, culture and aesthetics. Although in some ways he was returning to the themes of his early years, his approach was deeply marked by the new and original conception of political life which he had developed by the end of his stay in the United States. It had been shaped decisively by the conditions of the New World. At the centre of this vision was his recognition of the creative energies of ordinary men and women and their critical place in modern history as the force for humanity. If the conventional political work James had carried out in the Johnson Forest Tendency had brought him to this point, it was, above all, his experience of living in America which changed and moulded his mature perspective on the world.

What James had discovered in the New World was that the question he considered to lie at the heart of the civilization process itself--the relationship between individual freedom and social life--was most starkly posed. He understood the movement of the modern world to be one of increasing integration. The growing interconnectedness of things through the expansion of communications, the centralisation of capital, the accumulation of knowledge, the breakdown of national boundaries, was mirrored, in his view, by the increasing sophistication and awareness of the human subject. But never before had the individual personality been so fragmented and restricted in the realisation of its creative capacities. James uncovered in America an intense desire among people to bring the separate facets of human experience into an active relationship, to express their full and free individuality within new and expanded conceptions of social life. This was "the struggle for happiness."

James was conscious of the struggle within his own life, for he, too, was seeking integration. It found striking expression in the handwritten note to Constance Webb which James attached to the back of his essay, Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity. He wrote:

This is the man who loves you. I took up dialectic five years ago. I knew a lot of things before and I was able to master it. I know a lot of things about loving you. I am only just beginning to apply them. I can master that with the greatest rapidity--just give me a hand. I feel all sorts of new powers, freedoms etc. surging in me. You released so many of my constrictions. . . . We will live. This is our new world--where there is no distinction between political and personal any more.

Unfortunately for James the distinction was etched deeply in his personality. It had been reinforced over many years by his involvement in the revolutionary movement, particularly by the difficult conditions under which he had carried out his definitive political work while in America.

Through his relationship with Constance Webb, however, James had begun to understand the logic of his life's course--his struggle against the limits of European bourgeois society, his commitment to the revolutionary movement; and his recognition that in its turn this very movement had confined him and separated essential aspects of his being.

By the late 1940s the tensions between his political role in the Johnson Forest Tendency and his personal commitment to a shared life with Constance Webb were almost tearing him apart. He knew that his future work would take him in new directions; and he felt, acutely, the expansion of his creative powers as he made the leap from Europe to America and shook himself free, at last, from the confines of intellectual and political discourse. His work on American civilization was an attempt to give expression to this newly found freedom.8

James began to draft his manuscript, American Civilization (originally entitled Notes on American Civilization) in 1949. Many of the ideas he had already explored in his private correspondence with Constance Webb; but it was his decisive break with the European tradition (what he called "old bourgeois civilization", with its oppositions between art and culture, intellectuals and the people, politics and everyday life) which enabled him to fuse the different elements--history, literature, popular art and detailed observations of daily life--into a dense work of startling originality. James was seeking to grasp the whole at a particular moment in history; and yet, at the same time, the movement of the narrative, the shift from established literary sources to the lives of ordinary men and women, reflected his understanding of the general dynamic of history. In short, he aimed to distill the universal progress of civilization into a specific contrast between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The culture of the intellectuals was giving way to the emergence of the people as the animating force of history.

James's work on American civilization thus contained two parts, bridged by a long chapter on the popular arts. The first half of the manuscript was dominated by a critical reading of the work of Whitman and Melville. Just as James himself had broken with the European forms, so too, he believed, had these two nineteenth-century American writers; and he understood the innovative style and substance of their creative work to give expression to the currents of the new democracy. But in exploring the themes which lay at the centre of their writing, particularly the relationship between individual and society, James was seeking to cast light on the crisis facing modern America. It was his contention that its essential features were anticipated in the work of Whitman and Melville.

Both writers had been witness to the beginning of the modern phase in America's history marked by the Civil War. The old frontier spirit of the early settlers had given way to the new individualism of the captains of industry; and the steady appropriation of the ethos of freedom in the name of market expansion had gone hand in hand with the subjection of the mass of workers to an oppressive economic and social structure. It was here that James located the creative work of Whitman and Melville, observing: "The greatest writers seem to be those who come at the climax of one age, but this is because the new age has grown up inside the old and they are watching both."

The reading James offered of Whitman's poetry highlighted its celebration of individuality. But at the same time James uncovered, too, the intense desire of “this singer of loneliness” for social connection. He argued that if Whitman failed to resolve the contradiction between individual and society in the themes and substance of his poetry, his development of a new form, free verse ("a chant to be sung by millions of men") became the link with his community of fellow Americans.

According to James, Melville from the beginning placed his characters within a social setting. He recognised that the individualism Whitman celebrated, in its extreme forms, threatened to bring about the destruction of society itself. James drew attention to Melville's originality as an artist in his creation of the character Ahab: "Such characters come once in many centuries and are as rare as men who found new religions, philosophers who revolutionize human thinking, and statesmen who create new political forms."9 This new departure mirrored, for James, Whitman's formal poetic innovation, as both writers, sensitive to the dynamics of a changing world and seeking to give expression to its essential movement, found themselves pushed to the limits of their creative imagination.

But, in arguing for the contemporary significance of Whitman and Melville, the insight they offered into the postwar world, James took great care to stress that they were not writers of "political treatises." His interest was in their distinctive artistic personality. Furthermore, he was attempting to develop a method of criticism which would enable him to expose, through an analysis of creative work itself, hidden currents at work in society and history.

James took this approach further in his book on American civilization. He placed a discussion of the popular arts--soap operas, Hollywood films, detective novels--at the centre of his understanding of modern society; and he used it as the bridge into the lives of the American people. Previously, the presence of ordinary men and women had been glimpsed only through the filter of the intellectual tradition; now, he argued, in the area of popular culture their creative role in the civilization process was for the first time fully revealed.

In a long, passionately argued letter to Bell, James illuminates the ideas and method he was seeking to develop in his work on America. Central was his broad conception of artistic work, his refusal to separate modern popular forms from “high art.” James was now tackling the question he had already explored in his correspondence with Constance Webb and which he believed to be critical in the development of humanity, namely the relationship between creativity and democracy.

Conscious of the disdain of the European intellectuals for American culture, James argued for the recognition of America's distinctive contribution to the understanding of civilization. It was his view that American society represented a new stage, its people highly developed and conscious of themselves as never before in history but confronting, in every part of their lives, from the workplace to the most intimate personal relations, the oppressive weight of society. For James the popular arts were something new. They were the expression of what was unique about America in the movement of world society as a whole. He believed that only the mass art forms could encompass all the complexities of modern life, anticipating a future in which art and life were in a close, active, and evolving relationship. They were the powerful symbol of both the triumph and the crisis of the modern world, for they revealed the enormous creative potential inherent in modern society at the same time as they laid bare the tremendous conflicts raging at the core of social life.

James's letter to Bell was part of a series of exchanges he initiated at the same time with other critics. These documents form an integral part of the ambitious project on which he was now embarked. Its first full articulation was American Civilization.

The unifying theme which ran throughout the 1950 manuscript, pulling together the disparate parts, was the opposition between democracy and totalitarianism. James was acutely conscious of the particular historical moment which was moulding the next phase of his work. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, as the superpowers faced each other across a ruined Europe and the rhetoric of individual freedom versus state repression reflected the bitter struggle being waged within America itself, James planned a series of books. His concern was no less than the conditions of survival of civilization itself. In a narrow, personal sense, too, James was acutely conscious of the critical moment in his own life as he fought to avoid deportation from the United States.

The integrated vision which inspired his extraordinary manuscript on America emerged then from James's profound grasp of his own sense of history. It was an experience he felt to his core. But the creative synthesis he achieved and expressed in American Civilization was tragically short-lived, for the battle raging within James, between his life as a revolutionary in a small political organisation and his need for a fully integrated life, was one he eventually lost. His marriage to Constance Webb foundered and his fight to avoid deportation pulled him back into the old forms of political life.10

James's understanding of Melville lay at the centre of his work on America. James's 1950 text as a whole, both in its vision of humanity and in its method, was strongly reminiscent of Melville's finest novel, Moby Dick.11 Later James made his debt to Melville more explicit. He turned his drafted chapter on the nineteenth-century writers into a full-length critical study of Moby Dick; and the book, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (1953), became the basis of James's political campaign to avoid deportation from the United States.

[End of Part Two]
(c) 1991 Anna Grimshaw


This essay was originally published in booklet form (comprising pp. 9-43) by The C.L.R. James Institute and Cultural Correspondence, New York, in co-operation with Smyrna Press, April 1991. 44 pp. ISBN 0918266-30-0.

It became the Introduction (pp. 1-22, notes pp. 418-419) to The C.L.R. James Reader, edited by Anna Grimshaw (Oxford, UK; Cambridge, USA: Blackwell, 1992).

Reprinted by special permission of Anna Grimshaw and The C.L.R. James Institute, Jim Murray, Director, 505 West End Avenue #15C, New York, NY 10024.

Web page prepared by Ralph Dumain, Librarian/Archivist, 8 October 2000.

Web page (c) 2000 The C.L.R. James Institute. All rights reserved. This text may not be published, reprinted, or reproduced without the express written consent of The C.L.R. James Institute.

(Uploaded 9 October 2000)

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