Letters to the Editors, on C.L.R. James

— Marty Glaberman; Alex LoCascio

GRANT FARRED, IN his article “C.L.R. James’ Postcolonial Thinking” (ATC 90), is so involved with post-modernist jargon that he neglects to point out that the United States embargo of Haiti for over half a century (until after the Civil War), joined by the European powers, was the main factor in causing Haiti to decline from the richest colony in the world before the revolution to the poorest country in the world.

Was it Dessalines [the post-revolutionary military dictator —ed.] or American imperialism that ultimately prevented Haiti from establishing a modern democracy?

It is hard to understand the distorted logic of Farred’s claim that James’ first fifteen years in America (Farred totally ignores the second fifteen years) “contract[ed] James’ view of the world and narrow[ed] the focus of his struggle.”

This was a period when James and his collaborators produced a study of the nature of the Soviet Union and the stage of world capitalism in State Capitalism and World Revolution; wrote a study of dialectics and the working class (Notes on Dialectics) in which he predicted in abstract form the Hungarian Revolution of 1956; retained his ties to the Pan-African movement (he arranged for Kwame Nkrumah to go to London to be taken under the wing of George Padmore); continued to develop his views on the independent validity of Black struggles; and much more. Most commentators think that those fifteen years were the most productive of his life. —Martin Glaberman, Detroit, MI

I WELCOME ANY attempt at giving wider exposure to the most significant, relevant, and uniquely contemporary socialist thinker C.L.R. James. But Grant Farred’s essay on “CLR James’ Postcolonial Thinking” (ATC 90) hardly seems likely to render James’ distinct current of Marxism interesting to a new generation of radicals. (Why can’t people write without once using words like “paradigm,” “hermeneutic” and “metatext”?).

It’s also just plain wrong. First off, Farred knocks James for failing to draw conclusions from Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolutionand James’ own Black Jacobins about the nature of “postcolonial” states and the “death of the postcolonial project.” I’ll leave it to literary theorists to puzzle over the impotence of Touissant’s “modernity” in the face of Dessalines’ act of renaming (huh?).

In plain English, Farred appears charging James with failing to foresee the tendency of anti-imperialist revolutions of the 20th century to degenerate into third-worldist variants of Stalinism.

Farred attributes this degeneration in the 18th century Haitian case to, variously, Dessalines’ “abandonment of Enlightenment precepts,” Touissant’s own “faith in modernity” and Dessalines’ own “brutality” in dealing with the white plantocracy. Yet if Farred himself would consult Trotsky as he advises James to do, he’d find that there exist some fairly simple historical explanations for the degeneration of the Haitian revolution, remarkably parallel to the causes that gave rise to Stalinism in Russia.

Those causes are the intransigence of Western colonial (in the case of Haiti) and imperialist (in the case of Russia) powers in the face of the newly liberated states; the ensuing economic blockades and military interventions by same; the failure of revolutions abroad to help consolidate domestic revolutionary gains (Thermidor and then Bonapartism in Haiti’s case, the treachery of international Social Democracy in crushing the German revolution in Russia’s); and the crisis of domestic revolutionary leadership in the face of these international pressures.

Earnest Marxists can disagree about the nature of Stalinism or its exact causes. Some libertarian socialists are prone to also pointing out disturbing tendencies or nuances in Bolshevism that contained the seeds of Stalinism (cf. Farber or Liebman). James himself, in State Capitalism and World Revolution, sees Stalinism as “an organic product of the mode of capitalism at this stage,” and a “necessary and inevitable form of the development of the labor movement.”

James therefore situates Stalinism in a unique historical conjuncture where the trade union bureaucracy and upper echelons of revolutionary leadership recognized the historical obsolescence of capitalism but failed to recognize workers capacity for self-government. I myself am prone to accepting some combination of all these explanations, in addition to the thesis advanced by Loren Goldner that Stalinism served as a substitutionist means of completing the bourgeois revolution in ”backward” countries. (See Communism is the Material Human Community: Amadeo Bordiga Today, available from Collective Action Notes at P.O. Box 22962, Baltimore, MD 21203.

Thus all Marxists can disagree on the exact causes of the failure of this or that revolution, but all of these disagreements are rooted in the interpretation of historical conditions, not lamentations for the failures of “Enlightenment.”

Yet more baffling is Farred’s contention that during James’ sojourn in the United States he gave primacy to American questions, and more particularly, the so-called “Negro question,” at the expense of contemporary anti-imperialist movements. Thus it takes the form of accusing James of “losing the threads” of his argument, of failing to set Mississippi laborers in “conversation” (Ugh!) with the San Domingan slaves.

The end result is an attempt to separate James’ “American Years” from the rest of his political career, rather than recognizing the continuity that exists between James’ work in the United States and his subsequent involvement in the fight for West-Indian confederation and beyond. Farred unjustifiably reduces James with his backhanded compliment about the “great deal of valuable radical work” he did in the United States despite his “reduced political vision.”

Isn’t it natural that thinkers choose to concentrate on different questions during different points in their intellectual trajectories? And that James, as an intellectual participating in a collective socialist project during his American stay, would naturally be preoccupied with questions that had some bearing upon his political work in the Socialist Workers Party, Workers Party and (later) Correspondence?

At the time James was waging a battle against orthodox Trotskyism and what he saw as outmoded conceptions of revolutionary organization in the face of contemporary conditions. All of his major works in this period, from State Capitalism and World Revolution to Facing Reality (both collaborative efforts, incidentally), must be considered in this context. To say that he neglected the colonial question during this period, simply because he didn’t focus on it enough for Grant Farred’s liking, makes no sense. —Alex LoCascio, Detroit, MI

ATC 92, May-June 2001