A Critical Reminiscence
from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by James and Grace Lee Boggs
When most American radicals think about a revolution in the United States, they visualize the oppressed masses, workers, Blacks, women, rising up to sweep away the bourgeoisie and institute a new socialist society. So preoccupied are they with the social forces — which are necessary for any revolution — that they lose sight of the role which revolutionary theoreticians must play in creating the new, different and challenging ideas without which no mass uprising can go beyond rebellion to revolution. Or they believe that the last word on revolution was written by Marx and Engels in 19th century Europe or Lenin and Trotsky in 20th century Russia.
From the moment that C. L. R. James came to the United States via Europe in 1938, he was recognized by the leaders of the Trotskyite organization as a revolutionary intellectual who could inject new life into a radical movement bogged down in sectarian disputes around "the Russian Question." Born in Trinidad, that peculiar crossroads of Europe, the Western Hemisphere and Africa, he brought with him not only a tremendous knowledge of European civilization going back thousands of years but a passionate belief in the contribution that Black people must make to their own liberation and can make to the advancement of all humanity.
Challenging the rigid and dogmatic ideas of revolution which were held by all tendencies in the socialist movement, he insisted that the Black movement has independent validity, not only as an expression of the hopes and aspirations of Black Americans but as a catalyst for the American revolution. So it must not be subordinated to the struggles of the workers against the bosses. The whole concept of class struggle, he said, had to be enlarged and enriched by the values which have been created by civilization down through the years. The second American revolution, he said, will have to be grounded in the unique historical development of capitalism and racism in this country.
James was always trying to reconcile the two strands of the French Revolution and the American revolution which have shaped the modern age. Like Marx, he saw the French revolution as a prototype, but at the same time he sensed the unique quality of the American experience. Since the Russian Revolution there have been continuing struggles and splits inside the U.S. radical movement around the "exceptional" character of the American revolution. Because of his unique background, James brought a new and exciting breadth to this struggle.
Projecting the American revolution and the American working class as the heir to all the achievements of Western civilization, he inspired a few of us, known as "thre Johnson-Forest Tendency" first inside the Workers Party and then inside the Socialist Workers Party, to fantastic studies. We struggled to understand Marx in the light of European history and civilization, reading Capital side by side with Hegel's Logic in order to get a sense of dialectical and historical materialism. We explored the world of Shakespeare, of Beethoven, of Melville, Hawthorne and the Abolitionists, of Marcus Garvey and Pan-Africanism.
At the same time most of us worked in the plant, struggling to squeeze every ounce of revolutionary significance out of what American workers were saying and doing.
While he was here, C. L. R. James had a real feeling for the American revolution, but when he left the country in 1953 he became a cosmopolite. In the United States, although he had been to some extent underground, he had in the Johnson- Forest Tendency an organization, a base, of Americans of very different types: Blacks, workers, youth, women, middle class professionals and intellectuals. All of us were passionately concerned with the American revolution, although we had some very idealistic views about American workers derived from reading Marx. After 1953, James no longer had the challenge of the United States, which had never failed to excite him. He went to Trinidad, formed a group based on class struggle being the answer to everything, and left. It seemed as though he was experimenting. His lectures on the West Indies were brilliant but they lacked the feeling for the American revolution which had been fed by the passions of those of us in the organization who were very much a part of his life and of whose life he was also very much a part.
In the years to come historians of radical politics will be examining and re-examining James's lifelong contributions to revolutionary politics mainly because of his identification with Pan-Africanism. Some will accuse him of having been too close to western civilization to appreciate the role which that civilization played in the systematic underdevelopment of the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Others will proclaim him as one of the great architects of Pan-Africanism and the African struggle against colonialism. Those of us who were so close to him in the '40's and early '50's will always remember him for introducing us to revolutionary ideas and politics on such a high level. We will honor him also for challenging us to grapple with the contradictions of our country and with the perspectives of an American revolution. That he did not or could not see himself assuming the responsibility for creating an American revolutionary organization can be traced, in part, to his belief in spontaneity. But it also had to do with the fact that his only roots were in Trinidad, which was too limited an arena for his fantastic talents. As we continue to struggle to build the organization necessary to lead the second American revolution, we will treasure the lessons we learned from him and particularly the drive that he instilled in us to be always asking ourselves, "What else do we have to do to go beyond?"
Grace Lee Boggs was, along with Raya Dunayevskaya, a major collaborator on several of James's works; James Boggs was editor of Correspondence, later author of The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker's Notebook, among other books. They are now active in the National Organization for an American Revolution.