Meeting in Chicago
from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by Noel Ignatin
I first encountered C. L. R. James and his ideas in 1968, when I attended, on the invitation of my friend Ken Lawrence, a public meeting on the south side of Chicago at which James was the principal speaker. It was his first speaking tour following his readmission to the country after fourteen years away, and his comrades were happy and proud to be able to introduce him to the public. I myself was a Stalinist at the time, with several important reservations.
The first thing that impressed me about James, and made me want to listen carefully and find out more about him, was his style, which showed a mastery of his subject matter and a conviction that the ideas he was expressing were fresh and important. His topic that night was the self-activity of the working class, and he took for his text the next to last chapter of volume I of Capital, with its familiar words about the new mode of production, which has "sprung up and flourished along with, and under" the old. Familiar, yes, but how new was the reading he gave to them! Out of this chapter he drew a vision of the working class striving inexorably toward the socialist society, not out of loyalty to this or that political program but out of its position in capitalist society. In the question period, someone challenged James's notion of the inevitability of socialism, and asked about state repression, "like the case of the tsar, who jailed the revolutionaries and used military force to suppress the movement." It was not a set-up question, although it might as well have been.
"You could hardly have picked a better example for my point," James said, with a chuckle. "The tsar had a large army, the tsar had a huge police force and a lot of prisons and (here James's accent grew stronger — that West Indian speech, most pleasing to the ear of all the tongues spoken on this green earth) . . . and wh' hoppened to de tsar?"
The second thing that impressed me about James was the complete absence of condescension on his part, his total unwillingness to play down to his audience. This was important to me, who came from a tradition that had produced more than a few "popularizers" whose translations were far inferior to the originals. James's talk was, as anyone who has ever read him knows, filled with concrete references, made to illustrate his point: clarify, yes; simplify, he would not do. He was dealing with difficult ideas (not so difficult, perhaps, but obscured by generations of "simplifiers") and he seemed to be saying, I will explain this as clearly as I can, but you must make some effort too. It revealed an attitude toward people that I admired.
I had always been uneasy with the vague anti-intellectualism that prevailed among the Stalinists. Certain things I knew, for instance, that many of Shakespeare's characters were more real to me than people I passed daily in the street. What could be the role of culture in a movement which seemed to welcome intellectuals so long as they confined themselves to grinding out defenses of the party line (in the manner of Herbert Aptheker) but which placed them under immediate suspicion for their "doubtful" class background should they dare to advance a new idea? Was "culture" to be merely a private indulgence, tolerable if it didn't detract too much from the "real" movement? James, without sinking for a moment into academicism, exemplified a different view, which I sensed when I first heard him speak and which later became manifest to me when I read his book on Herman Melville. Here was a man, James, an extremely close observer of the details of working class life, who argued straightforwardly that the struggle for the new society was a struggle between different philosophies as they are lived out. The role of the "thinker" was to make the ordinary citizen conscious of the process of which he or she was a part. And in Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, an essay which will live as long as Moby Dick itself, James shows how one great artist was able to present, in personified form, the central conflicts of his age. Taken purely as literary criticism, Mariners' is a masterpiece worthy of the novel it examines; it contains the most lucid explanation of the creative process to be found in the entire body of writing about literature. But it is more than that; it is a devastating blow to both academicism and anti-intellectualism, the presentation of a world view that links thought and action. To me it meant a great deal.
What was to be my attitude toward my own country? Like many U.S. revolutionaries I faced a conflict, between my feelings of shame at the crimes committed by U.S. imperialism and allowed by the American people, and my own ties to this country, to its people, land, history, and traditions. (It is a conflict peculiar to revolutionaries; by no means all socialists suffer from it.) In Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity, James wrote of "the unending murders, the destruction of peoples, the bestial passions, the sadism, the cruelties and the lusts, all the manifestations of barbarism." And then he added, "But this barbarism exists only because nothing else can suppress the readiness for sacrifice, the democratic instincts and creative power of the great masses of people." It was as if the writer had reached out, placed his hand on my shoulder and spoken those words directly to me. Of course they did not make the conflict go away; that would not have been proper. But they opened the door to a new concept of citizenship, one that allowed room for neither facile apologetics nor masochistic self-hatred. Curious that this gift should come from one who was himself not a native of the U.S. and who was officially denied the citizenship which he at one point sought. It is testimony to the universality of James's Marxism, that is to say, Marxism.
I come from a family of intellectuals. When I left the university to work in industry, I was driven not by the whip of hunger but by the desire to associate myself as closely as possible with the revolutionary class of our age. I am acutely aware of the distinction and it is my conviction, after twenty years, that no individual who joins the proletariat for any reason but externally imposed necessity can ever acquire the instinctive responses of a worker (an outcome not necessarily desirable), although some may approach fairly close. I felt from the beginning that I had something to learn from the workers. That is a fairly commonplace notion on the Left, particularly among those who have been influenced by the Chinese Communist Party. But what to learn? The response of most Left groups to that question was that intellectuals should become "steeled" by contact with the oppressed. Upon further inquiry, "getting steeled" was soon revealed to mean learning how to suffer stoically. Now, that was one thing I didn't want to learn. It was James who provided an answer that met the needs both of my intuitive strivings and of reason. By repeatedly explaining and demonstrating the proposition (found in Marx but later obliterated by those who did such general violence to his, and Lenin's, teachings) that the new society comes into existence underneath and alongside the old, that the working class is not a "mass," open to socialist ideas, but is instead the revolutionary class in the literal meaning of the word, that its autonomous activities constitute socialism and that there is no other socialism, James gave me a point on which to keep my eyes fixed and transformed the hours I spent at work from a time of "misery, agony of toil, slavery," etc. into something . . . far more interesting. (I should mention that James was able to get my ear on this point in large part because of Marty Glaberman's old pamphlet Punching Out, which was of course a product of James's group. People with whom I worked and to whom I showed the pamphlet invariably responded in a way that showed it had touched them more deeply than the average Left tract, a fact which made no small impression on me. I figured that a group that could produce such a pamphlet — there are perhaps only a handful that compare with it today, thirty years later — deserved a serious hearing. I should also like to add that it was only several years later that I came across similar ideas in reading Gramsci, who writes, "The socialist State already exists potentially in the institutions of social life characteristic of the exploited working class.")
"Humble" is not a word one would apply to C. L. R. James; not for him the modest cough and lowered eyes. Yet when I finally met him for a face-to-face talk several years ago, his reaction, on learning what I did for -a living, was to express regret that he had never had the opportunity to work in largescale industry. I naturally replied that his writings had been extremely helpful to me in interpreting my own experiences there. He said, "Yes, people have told me that, but I am still sorry I never had the chance to experience it directly." All in all, one of the two most remarkable people it has ever been my privilege to see up close. (The other was Willie Mays, also the best in the world at his chosen occupation.)
Noel Ignatin is a member of Sojourner Truth Organization and editor of Urgent Tasks.