CLR James & the end of Trotskyism

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Sun Aug 6 10:20:35 MDT 1995


I agree that Wald's article series on the end of Trotskyism was
far too superficial.  But I do think that Trotskyism is dead as a
doornail.  The author does not specify exactly what is implicated
in returning to the study of Marx, but I agree that studying Marx
is often much more illuminating than studying Marxism.

So where did Trotskyism go wrong?  Well, the first thing to look
at is the paradox between some brilliant theoretical analyses and
actual crackpot politics.  Never has any movement produced such
brilliant thinkers and such a passel of pathetic nuts in practical
action.  Trotskyists weren't always nutty, but I am thinking of
some sad politics since the '50s.  Some say Trotskyism died in
World War II.

Another problem is that Trotskyism cannot be translated into
action at any time other than severe world crisis when the whole
system is in collapse, as in the 1930s.  A total analysis cannot
be translated into a total revolution except in such severe
crisis, and Trotskyists don't seem to understand much about what
kind of politics to pursue in "non-revolutionary" situations.

A decisive problem is the inward-turning consequences of
party-centrism, a disease that goes back to Trotsky himself.  The
obsession with revolutionary leadership.  A party, a party, and
once again a party.  Bullshit, bullshit, and once again bullshit.
Already in the 1940s Cannon was paralyzed with this kind of
thinking.

It is not true that nobody within the movement did any fundamental
rethinking.  To begin with, there is the Johnson-Forest Tendency
led by C.L.R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee Boggs.  They
rethought the foundations of Marxism back in the 1940s.  Their
work has either been dismissed or worshipped, but it has hardly
begun to be studied.  Of course this tendency was a practical
failure back in the '50s, too, but sometimes movements die and
their ideas get picked up a generation later.  Johnson-Forest
studied everything from Hegel to early Marx to Capital to workers'
self-activity to black history to the problems of blacks, women,
and youth.  James himself added to that the study of literature
and popular culture.

These ideas are beginning to be taken up now outside of the
context of the Caribbean, and now that James's American writings
are getting published, people in the Caribbean will learn things
about James they never knew.  Outside of the English-speaking
world, James has had some influence in certain circles in France
and Italy, but by and large he remains unknown.

A peculiarity of James's politics outside of the Caribbean is that
it seems to take root in specific locales rather than nation-wide.
This is a matter for study, also.

The Johnson-Forest Tendency left the Trotskyist movement in 1951
convinced that it was irredeemable.  I agree.  It's hopeless.
Let's do an autopsy to see what valuable knowledge can be gained
to help the living.


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