CLJ James and Workers Councils

Ralph Dumain rdumain at
Tue Aug 22 16:44:08 MDT 1995

Chris, thanks for your thoughtful response.

>James's position above appears clear and obviously insufficient.
>It would appear to be economist and or perhaps anarchist, giving
>no attention to the state.

Coincidentally, I engaged in a private dialogue yesterday with
someone on this very subject.  I'll reproduce part of that
dialogue here.  The ">" remarks belong to someone else, the rest
are mine.


>I think he lost it on the organizational question after Hungary.
>The spontaneism he demonstrates, with Grace Lee Boggs, in
>_Facing Reality_ is dead wrong, imho.

I do believe James was highly unrealistic in FACING REALITY.  I'm
not sure I would label the problem spontaneism.  Often this aspect
of James is grossly underanalyzed.  James was always concerned
with the problem of leadership, and he does analyze the emergence
of leaders out of spontaneous movements.  James continued to
believe that vanguard parties were still relevant for
non-industrial societies, but had become obsolete in highly
industrialized societies where workers could organize themselves
far faster and more effectively than a traditional party could
organize over a painful span of years.

However, James's model of revolution and direct democracy --
workers councils -- strikes me as extremely simplistic for a
highly complex society, for the western bourgeois democracies at
any rate.  The basic idea was that the new society existed in the
germ of the old -- shopfloor self-organization -- and one had to
water those seeds and make them grow until they took over the
whole society.  It was a clever idea especially given the
senescence of vanguard parties, but grossly unrealistic, as should
be obvious from the course of history.

>Unfortunately, Raya had him dead beat on this one,

How so exactly?  I just remember her quote: if it is agreed that
the socialist society exists, one need never face reality.  She
was right about this, but she herself wrote in her infamous 1953
letters on Hegel's Absolute she thought were so goddamn important:
"we have entered the new society".  One wonders how this could be
during the height of McCarthyism.

>Also, this later writings were rarely as tightly structured or
>argued as his earlier.

I take it you mean his political writings?  Well, I think he was
always a better historical writer than an analyst of contemporary

>Sometimes (and it's been a while since I read, for example, his
>book on Ghana) there were sweeping generalizations and
>accompanying huge holes. That's something you'd *never* find in
>_The Black Jacobins_,

Do you think the problem begins with his later writings?  How
about his political positions taken in the 1940s -- the United
Socialist States of Europe and so on?  Many thought he was an
unrealistic ultraleftist nut then.


As you can see, I do not engage in uncritical hero worship of
James.  The time for that is past, I hope.  Serious analyses are
beginning to appear, and many areas remain untouched.

James is admired and studied by many anarchists for many reasons,
because of the obvious affinities and probably because anarchists
are so theoretically deficient they need a Marxist to help them
analyze the world.  James was no anarchist in spite of the
affinities.  Also, I think his so-called "spontaneism" requires
closer analysis.  As for "economism", I'm not sure how that fits.
James's "Fordism", however, has been discussed, and you can well
imagine what that is given his assumptions about organized
workers.  Yes, not to take into account the functioning of the
state, the complex functions of social organization other that
production, or the problem of imperialism, strike me as grossly
naive.  However, James had one important insight, something that
Marcuse lacked, and that he never lost sight of the fundamental
dissatisfaction in the workplace and in modern life as a whole
that indicated the limits of capital's totalizaling and co-opting

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