The World of CLR James: His Unfragmented Vision by James D Young.


Reviewed by David Black

As a "biography" this book says as much about its author as it does about its subject. The subject is CLR James and "his significance for a genuine grassroots global radicalism in the late 1990s and beyond". In the author's assessment, "no one contributed so much to a comprehensive, all-round critique of global capitalism in the 20th Century as CLR James".

But the approach throughout is to measure James's political positions and insights against those of Dr J.D. Young himself, left Scottish nationalist historian and critic of Western (and especially English) "cultural imperialism". How James measures up to this task is beyond the scope of this review, which will concentrate on Young's assessment of one of the critics of James's discussed in the book: Raya Dunayevskaya. Her collaboration with James as a socialist activist in the USA lasted from 1941-54.

Young recognises the importance of Dunayevkaya, but because Young thinks all of "classical marxism" is “universalist”, "eurocentric" and "racist"; and because Dunayevskaya counterposed the "marxism of Marx" to the eurocentrism of much of "post-Marx marxism", Young regards her as an enemy.

The first attack comes in chapter one, where Young "complements" James for being "a much more complicated person than his American co-thinker, Raya Dunayevskaya, who repeatedly asserted that the biography of any socialist was the impersonal 'biography of an idea'".

As “proof” of this, Young quotes from Adrienne Rich's introduction to Dunayevskaya's book on Rosa Luxemburg. Rich quotes Dunayevskaya:

"'I came from Russia in 1917, and the ghettoes of Chicago, where I first saw a Black person... I was illiterate. You know, you're born in a border town - there's a revolution, there's a counter-revolution, there's anti-semitism - you know nothing, but experience a lot... That is, you don't know that you're a revolutionary, but you are opposed to everything'."

Amazingly, Young takes this to mean that in Dunayevskaya's opinion there has to be "an inherent impersonality in any socialists's biography" – Young’s words, not hers. And when Dunayevskaya says that "It isn't personal whatsovever! If you live when an idea is born , it does not make any difference where you are", Young takes that to mean: "For Dunayevskaya working people and socialists were objectively, in the phrase of the Scottish socialist novelist, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, 'history's instruments'."

In fact Dunayevkaya never spoke of working people as "history's instruments"; and Gibbon was referring to how the stalinists, not he, saw working class militants. To attribute the phrase to Dunayevskaya is simply a smear and Young has read enough of her writings to know that her theory and practice were always counterposed to those who would reduce real human beings to abstraction for political/economic purposes. Dunayevskaya, as Young makes clear in some of the better passages of this book was, from the age of 13, totally dedicated to the cause of proletarian marxism and racial equality. But because she took herself so seriously as a theoretician, she couldn't see why any aspect of her life, apart from what was relevant to her work, should be of any concern to biographers. Therefore, the only biography she projected for herself was the "biography of an idea".

Racism and Marxism

Young sees it as part of his mission to expose racism on the "classical marxist Left" as something inherent and unremitting. On the US trotskyists in the mid-1940s, he says:
"Unlike the James who was protected from some of the worst manifestations of racist abuse by not having to earn his crust on the factory floor, the experiences of the African-American worker Matthew Ward were very different. In his autobiography Indignant Heart Matthew Ward recounted the emotional pain he had undergone at the hands of Stalinist Howard Fast, the novelist, and of the Trotskyists..."

Young then grudging slips in the fact that 'Ward' "became a follower of Dunayevskaya". What he doesn't say is that "Matthew Ward", was Charles Denby, the editor of the marxist-humanist paper News and Letters (founded by Dunayevskaya and her comrades after the break with James), from 1955 until his death in 1983. Nor does Young mention that Denby, under his own name, brought the book up to date in 1980. Denby's autobiography is anything but "the [impersonal] biography of an idea" he would "expect" from a marxist-humanist – though it certainly is a biography of an idea.

On the history of left racism, Young takes up Dunayevskaya's criticism of Rosa Luxemburg on the Boer War. Luxemburg, she points out, described "concretely how the war between the Boers and the English" was fought "on the backs of the negroes", without drawing "any conclusions about the black Africans being a revolutionary force". But in Young’s judgement, "the whole of the Western labour movement accepted the classical (19th century) view of the progressive role of imperialism..."; so therefore the question shouldn’t even be dicussed!

In order to implicate Marx in the racism of "classical marxism", Young quotes Peter Fryer (who contributes a forward to Young's book) as saying that on the question of slavery in the US Marx "seems to have believed that abolition of slavery was possible only after the slaves had to some degree acquired the slave-owners culture and language."

It would be more accurate to say that Marx thought the abolition of slavery was possible only after the slaves "had to some degree acquired" the slave-owners guns, followed by their land. It isn't that Young (or Fryer) are ignorant of Marx's writings on the US Civil War. It's just that they prefer to appear to be ignorant because they are incapable of writing honestly and objectively about the history of Marx's marxism.

"Personal" matters.

In the chapters on James's years in the US (1938-54) Young dips in to the now published personal letters from James to his wife, Constance Webb in the late-1940s. Whilst sparing us much the detail, Young makes some rather grundyish judgements about James's "faults of character", presumptiously declaring that "from beginning to end James's relationships with women were utterly disastrous". The main purpose of the sleaze is however, to belittle Dunayevskaya. To do this Young extracts a letter from James in 1947 to Webb before their marriage claiming that Dunayevkaya is "in love" with him "but does everything to hide it" and that whenever he is "sitting and talking easily to anyone" she "always found some urgent political issue that needed settling at once - that could not wait. Sometimes I had to be very firm." In truth, Raya tended to see all of her political activity as urgent. Also, Young ought to know that after thirty years of the womens movement, the days are long gone when such statements by male politicos about women who they want to be "firm" with can be seriously taken at face value. The fact is that in 1941, Dunayevskaya, who was ten years younger than James, had already spent twenty years in the revolutionary movement; but James had only been in the movement since the early 1930s. In a whole number of fields, she was way ahead of him. As quoted by Young, James thought that he "dominated" the tendency; but clearly that was wishful thinking on his part.

But Young has a serious "political" purpose in mind. He sees the issues of James's political break with Dunayevskaya seven years later, in 1954, as personal, rather than because of philosophical difference arising in the tendency debates on James 1948 Notes on Dialectics and Dunayevskaya's translation in 1949 of Lenin's Hegel Notebooks. Peter Hudis points out, as quoted by Young, that in the 1951 farewell statement of the Johnson-Forest tendency (James was Johnson, Forest Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee the third co-leader) to the US trotskyist party (SWP) "humanism was explicitly rejected". In the JFT discussions however, Dunayevskaya was highlighting how the US miners resisting the introduction of "man-killing" machinery were raising questions of what kind of work people should do. This led her to the working out of an explicitly Marxist-humanist statement.

The Split

Dunayevskaya, quoted by Young, says of the 3-way James-Dunayevskaya-Lee correspondence (June 8 1976 letter to R Challinor):
"It was this correspondence, subjectively, and the death of Stalin [1953], objectively, which lead to my letters on the Absolute Idea as signifying a movement from practice which was itself a form of theory, and which is the challenge Marxists must meet if they're to reinstate marxism for their own age. Thus ended the Johnson-Forest Tendency, as James was not only busy instead with literature, specifically Melville's Moby Dick, and at the same time his departure for England, which left me alone to face McCarthyism and the listings."

Young quotes another letter in which Dunayevskaya says "Johnson broke up the Johnson-Forest tendency the very moment it was listed [by HUAC] (and this gave the first appreciation of how how serious were the differences...)" and has the gall to complain that making "serious charges" in "private correspondence without giving James the chance to defend himself did not constitute socialist-humanist behaviour." But by this page (213) Young has forgotten what he put in p186: that Anna Gemshaw "asserted that James wanted to get out of active politics by relaunch[ing] himself as a writer in a very general sense" and that tensions between his "political role" and his marriage "were also tearing him apart". So if anything, Young's vague musings about the "personal" nature of the JFT split are misdirected, if not irrelevant.

Young also implies – but doesn’t demonstrate - that Dunayevskaya's differences with James were on the question of literature as well as "personal" matters. But if he had read a bit more of Adrienne Rich's foreward to Rosa Luxemburg, Womans Liberation and Marx's Philosophy of Revolution, he would have found that it contradicts his ludicrous statement that "the 'old bolshevik' in Dunayevskaya prevented her from appreciating imaginative literature". As Rich says, Dunayevskaya "praises Wuthering Heights, Room of One's Own, the Three Marias of the New Portugese Letters, the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and Audrey Lorde". In any case, doesn't it occur to Young that the Dunayevskaya-Rich dialogue was based on their "appreciating" each other as writers?

From Dialectics to Bonapartism

In his old age in 1983, James said in the New Statesman that he thought his Notes on Dialectics was his most important book, but Young barely mentions it. This might explain why he can make no sense whatever of the split with Dunayevskaya or of James's post-JFT positions, such as what Young refers to as "James's sometimes very uncritical admiration of Third World dictators", namely Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong and Kwame Nkrumah - though Young fails to see that the issue here is James's degeneration into Bonapartism.
On the question of Mao, even when Young thinks he is being generous to marxist-humanism he blows it, by saying "by 1973 Dunayevskaya was rubbishing Mao's place in history". Wrong again. She rubbished Mao Zedong along with rest of the stalinists in 'Marxism and Freedom' fifteen years earlier in 1958.

James, in Notes on Dialectics (1948) brilliantly uses Hegel’s argument against Kantianism to expose the fixed determinations and categories of Trotskyism in its failure to understand the class nature of the USSR. The Johnson-Forrest group argued that what made Stalinism in 1939 different to the 2nd International betrayers of 1914 could only be grasped by grounding the category of State-capitalism in the dialectic of Labour and Capital, as set out in the categories of Marx’s Capital. No wonder, James said, all of Trotsky’s predictions for World War turned out wrong. On the "Hegelian" aspect of Lenin's State and Revolution, James saw that Lenin propounded a new universal in calling for population "to a man" to run production and the state. In 1972 Dunayevskaya wrote on the importance of James's study of Hegel:
"the only (and it is an achievement, the only one James can chalk up) 'working out' is the recognition that Lenin's slogan, 'to a man', was the new Universal".

In James’s view, the experience of stalinism meant that the problem for the movement had become how to negate the vanguard party; spontaneous conscious actions by the masses, already organised in fighting form in their workplaces, would negate all the abstract universals that previous revolutions had thrown up. But James then threw out the concept of mediation. As he and Grace Lee put in Facing Reality (1958) on their philosophy: "the organisation will not seek to propogate it, nor to convince men of it, but to use it so as the more quickly and clearly to recognize how it is concretely expressed in the lives and struggles of the people".

Believing that socialism was "inherent in the masses", James argued that only role left for revolutionaries was to tell anyone who didn’t know it that this was so. In reality however, the history of latter part of the 20th century indicates that in the absence of a renewed Socialist Idea, spontaneous movements which define themselves as negations of unfreedom, demand to be "taken over" by those who can convince the masses that they can win for them the mediations to achieve freedom. This process, as has been seen in the "Self-Limiting Revolutions" of Eastern Europe and in the stage-ism that triumphed in South Africa, has often resulted in new and not-so-new forms of oppression and exploitation for all but a self-enriching minority (especially former communists), who now spout "pluralism" and the "free" market.

Young's incomprehension over "James's sometimes very uncritical admiration of Third World dictators" arises from his inability to see that dictators and would-be-dictators do not always see huge movements of the revolutionised masses as bad news. Organisation and Spontaneity are not in themselves absolute opposites. The problem today is not about structures and abstract organisational form; of say, simply counterposing decentralisation to the vanguard party. We need a Left that can demonstrate an historic right to exist and face up to new and diverse challenges. The working out of a philosophy of revolution becomes essential for any renewed struggle for socialism and avoiding the trap of retrogression that much of the so-called "Left" is now in.

As Peter Hudis has put it, "instead of presenting a form of organization, or a mediator, as the determinant, [Dunayevskaya] projects the need for dialectic mediation, which each generation must work out anew for itself".

David Black 1999

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