James Early, Ethelbert Miller and Noel Ignatin with C.L.R. James
Urgent Tasks No. 12
The following has been excerpted from two interviews of C. L. R. James, the first by James Early and Ethelbert Miller in October 1980 and the second by Noel Ignatin and Paul Buhle in January 1981. The interview was transcribed and edited by Paul Buhle.
Q. What would you say your greatest contributions have been?
A. My contributions have been, number one, to clarify and extend the heritage of Marx and Lenin. And number two, to explain and expand the idea of what constitutes the new society.
Q. What do you believe is your most important work?
A. Notes On Dialectics, at the present time, particularly after the events in Poland. I wouldn't have said so before. Now it is important to understand that Poland is no accident but part of revolutionary working class developments as foreseen by Marx and Lenin and Mao.
I would like to quote the following from Notes On Dialectics: "When a revolution takes place in Italy, it will mean that the victorious party will within a few days of the victory number in all probability some six or seven million workers alone — all organized labor. There are two million already, and those in the unions who follow the Communist party are even more. We have a similar situation in France. The Communist party in the only advanced country in Eastern Europe made one in every three a member of the Party."
It was clear to me in 1948 that the future development of parties would not be the development of parties as in the Second International, with some leaders in parliament and unions, but a massive upheaval foreshadowed by the Fascist parties, of millions of people. To talk about the new revolutionary movement as Vanguard Parties was nonsense. I said six or seven million for Italy. I underestimated. There are now ten million in Poland. I am confident that Poland would also have given Lenin no trouble. Lenin knew that the InInternational would face disaster in the coming War, and new parties would rise up. The kind of development he had in mind — like Marx and Engels — was like what happened in Poland. I was confident that kind of party was coming, in 1948. Marx had seen it in 1848, had studied it.
Thus Marx says in the Eighteenth Brumaire:
Proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them, recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out:
Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
Here is the rose, here dance!
Marx makes it clear that all sorts of things will happen until the time when there is nothing to do for workers but to take over. That's why Marx says the workers will do what they have to do. This statement was written in 1851 and he never returned to it again. He had made it clear. He knew that in 1789 France in general had gone democratic. The Constituent Assembly had been created by the people themselves. Later on, he had the case of the Paris Commune: that was the dictatorship of the proletariat, its own working existence.
Lenin said not the Party was essential but three things: the country in turmoil, the advanced class, that advanced class in conflict with a ruling class that does not know what to do. Under these conditions, insurrection becomes an art. What was going to make the Revolution? Not the party, Lenin said: the soviets. Mao concluded there were two things in his own life that mattered, throwing the Japanese out of China and the Cultural Revolution, which aimed to make the proletariat and peasantry rather than the party the masters of the State. Marx, Lenin and Mao were all trying to point out that something new had appeared, and that is what is important.
It happened in Hungary. When the ruling party members heard there was a revolution going on, some of them went out to join it! That is most comic to me. It happened again in France, in 1968. The only thing that saved DeGaulle was the Communist party. Now Poland is decisive. It shows a mass upheaval, a tempest, an earthquake, just the events Marx and Lenin had in mind.
Q. Does the small party have any role?
A. Marx wrote in the Critique of the Gotha Program, you must understand that the unity of the working class does not depend upon the International Workingmen's Association. You can't make it depend on that organization. I had this out with Trotsky. I said, why is it that the working class movement in France is rising but the Trotsky-ist movement is going down and down? He said, well, there's no correspondence between the rise of the movement and the rise of the party. He said a few more things but I didn't pay any attention. And I worked it out afterward. There was no need for that kind of party anymore. If you had been trying to form a Vanguard Party in Poland this year, or in Hungary in 1956, you would have been stranded. As Lenin saw from the Soviets: a new Universal has been reached.
Of course, the small group can help the workers. It is doing so in Poland today. But they must help, not go around trying to tell people that the Revolution depends upon realizing them as leaders.
Q. What is the importance of Euro-Communism?
A. No one can tell what will happen to Euro-Communist parties. It depends upon the revolutionary movement. Euro-Communism will split, go with the revolution or not be powerful enough and form neo- Stalinist parties. My whole thesis is that these Communist parties are parties, not tools of the Kremlin as Trotsky said (i.e., everything was going well but the Stalinists made a mess of it — a purely subjective idea). Communist parties are part of the development of the capitalist society, a part that knows the old capitalism cannot continue but is afraid of the proletariat, so joins up with something larger. Once Socialist parties belonged to the Second International, which failed; then Communists belonged to the Third International; and now these Euro- Communist parties have a foot in both camps, the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.; they play both sides. Only what took place in Poland can solve that.
Q. You have said that you are a Marxist, a Leninist and a Black man. What is the special relation of these identities?
A. I am a Black man in the sense that Blacks are maltreated in the world up to this day, as no section of society is maltreated. And part of the maltreatment is the discrediting of the great achievements made in the building of civilization very formation of Culture in Africa. In that respect I am a Black man number one, because I am against what they have done and are still doing to us; and number two, I have something to say about the new society to be built because have a tremendous part in that which they have sought to discredit.
Q. In this light particularly. There any work that you wish you would have had the opportunity to write, but did not?
A. If I had remained in the U.S., I would have written a serious study of the Negro Question. Then I would have prepared for what happened in the 1960's. Of course it was no surprise to me.
Q. And the significance of a new edition of Black Jacobins, as you work on your autobiography?
A. That this book, written in 1938, is still eagerly sought in 1980 is an extraordinary event. The autobiography is all my life, since I was six years old, a life of books and looking at the world from an intellectual point of view: personal, political and intellectual. Since I have come to the Caribbean, a great deal of my time has been spent in seeing how much I failed to understand when I was young and my whole life was toward European literature, European sociology. Now I'm beginning to see and it is helping me to write.