from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by Paul Lawrence Berman
C. L. R. James's Facing Reality had a considerable impact ten years ago on certain intellectual-minded circles of the New Left, and looking back, it is easy to see why. In the early 1970's the New Left had entered its Leninist phase and at the same time had begun to disintegrate. Quite a few of us thought these two developments had something to do with one another. Leninism, we thought, at least in the form in which we encountered it, was leading the Movement to doom and disaster. No sooner would a group of student Leftists, or Black militants, or Puerto Rican activists, start waving around volumes from the Little Lenin Library than they would proclaim themselves to be the secret of world revolution, or anyway would claim to know what the secret was. And soon they would plunge into a ghastly cycle of intolerance, dogmatism, splits, bloody purges, and ultimately, of course, despair. Perhaps Lenin was not to blame for this — perhaps he was rolling in his crypt. But many of us suspected that in crucial ways he was, in fact, responsible. Those Little Lenin editions were not doing anyone any good.
Only what theoretical alternative was there? The New Left, rich in numbers and courage, was dirt-poor in knowledge, theory, and experience. By the early '70's the presence of an older, presumably wiser generation of radicals had virtually disappeared from Movement ranks. A hodge-podge of priests, nuns, and earnest professors exercised what passed for leadership. The old-line socialists, called "democratic," had long ago indignantly repudiated the younger generation. The Old Left groupuscules showed an alarming tendency to horrify anyone who saw them in action. Various middle-aged radicals were looking to 19-year-olds for leadership. If ever a movement resembled a decapitated chicken, it was the American New Left in the age of President Nixon.
Many of us, in this circumstance, searched among the classic anarchist writings for a useful alternative. Anarchism had a direct appeal. Like Leninism, it cried out unrestrainedly against injustice and oppression. It was four-square for social revolution, four-square for the victims of exploitation. At the same time it offered a view of radical action and of a self-managed, libertarian socialist future that was much closer than conventional Leninism to the feelings and instincts that had originally impelled many of us into the movement. We liked anarchism's skeptical nature. We liked the fact that it criticized the state and that it contravened the standard Marxist- Leninist argument for a left-wing dictatorship (Marx's and Lenin's subtler views played little part in these New Left debates). And we appreciated anarchism's compatibility with the egalitarian and anti-authoritarian thrust of feminism in that period. Anarchism consequently underwent a boom: all but a handful of the anarchist classics came back into print; numerous anthologies, including one I assembled, received general distribution. And yet the classic anarchist texts did not solve our dilemmas either — this was immediately obvious.
It was Paul Buhle and Radical America who introduced James's Facing Reality into the (mostly student) milieu in which this anarchist-Leninist debate was being conducted. James had written the book in 1958 in a period when he himself and his comrades were struggling out of the "vanguard" fallacies of the old orthodox Trotskyist movement. The book impressed us with what we felt was its authentically proletarian outlook. By this I mean that James never mistook an ideological assumption for a real-life worker. On what to think about the Soviet Union, for instance, he was able to sweep away the torturous uncertainties of the traditional Left by noting that for real workers, life under Communism lacked even the primitive rights workers enjoy in democratic capitalist societies. He was full of practical suggestions for socialist activity that were decidedly different from the shoddy manipulations that many of us associated with "vanguard" politics. He advised socialists to provide workers with accurate information, so that workers could make their own decisions. The socialists should help workers express themselves, which is different from preaching at them. Of course the socialists should preserve and develop socialist theory. And they should put forth their own views, in his words, "as a contribution to that democratic interchange and confrontation of opinion which is the very life-blood of socialist society."
This last point about democratic interchange and confrontation of opinion was especially important. It seemed to many of us that a certain — I do not hesitate to use the word — totalitarian impulse had become part of the standard ideological baggage of the Left. A large number of militants were afraid of public debates within their own ranks, and were unable to distinguish between dissension and chaos. In the papers and journals put out by the various organized sects, you would almost never see views that the party leaders disagreed with. To disagree was to condemn, and many an honest radical seemed to consider it his duty to protect his own comrades from the virus of incorrect opinion. James did not share this conception.
His most original advice to socialists was to keep an eagle eye on the changing forms and contents of workers' struggles in order to identify what about these struggles reveals the existence already, before a revolution, of a socialist society in embryo. The truly "urgent task," to borrow Lenin's phrase, is in short that of "visualizing the content of socialism." By this James did not mean Utopian dreaming but instead sharp observation of the here-andnow of workers' activity where the "facts of the future" (someone else's phrase, not James's) are also facts of the present. To illustrate what he meant by this, James pointed to the Hungarian revolution of 1956. The workers' councils that arose there, he concluded, showed what historical stage of development the international working class had reached, and showed that democratic workers' councils, not the all-powerful state, is the fundamental form of authentic socialism.
Now, not once in any of this, nor in any of his other works, did he acknowledge that these views had anything in common with classical anarchism. He has always called himself, in spite of everything, a Leninist —.though I think that even some of his most fervent admirers will admit privately that James's definition of Leninism is a bit idiosyncratic, not shared by 99.99% of the rest of the world that calls itself Leninist. As to anarchism, in all of his writings he condemns it forcefully. But I must say, James's forcefulness on this point reminds me of nothing so much as Rosa Luxemburg's similar forcefulness in the opening pages of The Mass Strike — an instance of protesting too much. For without question, Facing Reality expresses some anarchist ideas.
"The whole world today lives in the shadow of the state power," the book begins. "This state power is an ever-present self-perpetuating body over and above society. It transforms the human personality into a mass of economic needs to be satisfied by decimal points of economic progress. It robs everyone of initiative and clogs the free development of society. This state power, by whatever name it is called, One-Party State or Welfare State, destroys all pretense of government by the people, of the people. All that remains is government for the people.
"Against this monster, people all over the world, and particularly ordinary working people in factories, mines, fields, and offices, are rebelling every day in ways of their own invention. ..."
A brilliant beginning to the book, in my opinion, but also a not unfamiliar line of thought. A moment ago I referred to the author of the phrase about the facts of the future existing within the facts of the present. That author was Bakunin, and I think that anyone who has read Dolgoff's or Lehning's editions of Bakunin's writings will recognize a Bakuninist resonance to James's anti-state proletarianism.
Those of us who noticed this in the early '70's felt quite excited by our discovery. Surely here, we thought, in James's careful social analysis was the argument that would show the foolish Leninists of the time the error of their ways. Reading on, though, the thought also began to dawn that here too was the book that would show those of us who were drawn to anarchism the error of our own ways, For if there was a Bakuninist resonance to James's book — and there is — there was also much more, James had improved on anarchism His book was a theoretical advance.
The book improved on anarchism in the first case simply by being modern. Modern anarchist thinkers existed, of course, Paul Goodman and Murray Bookchin prominent among them — neither of whom was without a following or without intelligent things to say. But these modern anarchists by anc large paid scant attention to industrial workers or the problems of the working class in general, and slighted the historic role of class conflict Serious anarchist thinking on industrial organization and class struggle hadn't been done since the collapse of Spanish syndicalism in the 1930's. James made up this lack in our view, and in this respect alone this book was bound to have an impact.
Facing Reality improved on anarchism in another respect too however — improved, if that is the word, on it by being, in the end not really an anarchist book at all, For although James's conclusions and choice of topics were plainly in the anarchist mode; and though he articulated a visionary sense of socialist potential that was fully acceptable to anyone with a fondness for Bakunin — nevertheless his method of analysis was not that of anarchism. Perhaps it is misleading to speak of an anarchist methodology at all. Anarchism as an intellectual tradition has insights — lots of insights, lots of true ones — but no particular method of analysis that Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Rocker, etc. can be said to have shared. Anarchist thinkers who have come after them have thus had no established system of analysis to fall back on, and have all too often substituted for system a rote repeating of the old insights, thereby reducing insight to dogma.
James, in Facing Reality, on the other hand, was by no means a dogmatist of the anarchist type. He was an observer, an analyst, above all a dialectician, able to see the sweep of history, the meaning behind the confusion of conflicting and misleading ideologies. That is, he was a true Marxist, philosophically (if not politically in the conventional sense), and on the basis of this was able to liberate libertarianism — to separate out the core of useful anarchist insights from the doctrinaire insistences that for many years have crippled anarchist activity. He was too attached to the flesh-and-blood events of the world around him to cling to musty old doctrine. James used his respect for working people to argue, for instance, that the allegiance of American workers to the Democratic Party is not altogether stupid. Right or wrong (and I happen to believe he is right), this was a point that an outand- out anarchist, who might agree with James on everything else, cannot even consider without shooting himself in the doctrinal foot.
James had managed, in brief, to restate the theory of socialism in a way that recognized the validity of major libertarian insights and yet still preserved, through its reliance on Marxist dialectical and historical methodology, suppleness and solidity of mind. No mean achievement.
Certainly he is not the only thinker in recent decades to come up with a version of socialism that wittingly or unwittingly incorporates elements of anarchism within a larger Marxist framework. Theory along such lines is a main current of the modern period. In the United States the groups around Root and Branch and Telos magazine have in my opinion been particularly effective at this — though I realize any number of people would gladly clobber me with a baseball bat for thinking such a thought. Perhaps the most profound exemplar of this modern theoretical tendency, and the thinker most like James in adhering absolutely to Marxist orthodoxy in philosophic matters, is the Yugoslav philosopher Mihailo Markovic, whose main concern has been to contrast the official Communist Marxism with the writings of Marx himself, which Markovic reveals have a libertarian content.
It should be mentioned that Facing Reality is not exactly the best known of works. There have been several editions since it was first published, each, it seems, obscure and harder to find than the last. At one point three or four years ago, some labor militants who were comrades of mine in New York were passing it hand to hand in xerox. The book does not deserve this obscurity. It is passionate, logical, original, practical, visionary, inspiring, instructive, and (rarest of rarities among books of socialist theory) knowledgeable about the United States. I would say that, for the American Left in this last quarter century, this book, Facing Reality, is our underground classic.
Paul Lawrence Berman is a book critic for the Village Voice.