James, workers councils, parties

Chris Burford cburford at gn.apc.org
Thu Aug 24 07:54:27 MDT 1995


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


And thank you for your thoughtful reply. It certainly helps
when we can see shortfalls in marxists we previously admired and can
discuss the problems constructively.

Your comments give the possibility of an overview of CLR James
which I find interesting. They could have wider applications.

>From my rather brief reading of "Modern Politics", I can see the
point you make in the passage above about the dissatisfaction in
the workplace. He comes over as a trenchant moral critic of modern
failures of society.

The point you make about his interest in leadership, I also find
particularly interesting. I think it is clear that at least for a time
he was interested in the ideal of the workers councils in Hungary.
By an association of ideas this led me to think of the Civic Movement
in East Germany just before the fall of the wall. Writers and poets were
associated with this. "Wir sind das Volk", We are the People, was a
moving cry on the demonstrations, that marked the fall of the east
German regime.

The Civic Movement definitely had the ideal that there should be a
middle way between capitalism and "socialism". They wanted a confederation
not a federation with West Germany. But the power of the West German
political parties, swept over them. The established parties decisively
won the vote, and unification went ahead.

I sense a chemistry in the communication between James and the audience
in the series of lectures in 1960 that form "Modern Politics". It is
fine spoken English. The warm feedback from the audience is especially
noted. The dramatic significance of these lectures can be imagined.

James seems to sense that he is a leader, but does not follow it through.
Shortly after, Dr Eric Williams, banned the distribution of the book in
Trinidad, and James went into voluntary exile, so I understand. The leader
who had the power of the party, won over the leader who had the
moral authority.

I sense that perhaps James's interests in worker's councils was among
other things about the possibility of direct communication between leaders
and led, untrammeled by all the compromises and deceit of a complex
political process.

This list has given many examples of people who had ideals about a
particular party, then were deeply disillusioned about its internal

It seems we cannot do away with organised parties. In many ways however
the mass and the vanguard political parties have been a feature that
has existed only over the last hundred years, and have changed
substantially with changes in the means of communication.

Perhaps the question of parties and of leadership needs to be discussed
by marxists more directly. [And I see from receiving the latest marxism-
digest it is!] Did James have anything more to say about leadership?

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