dialectics, marx, cec.etc.

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Thu Mar 9 11:30:32 MST 1995

Santiago Colas writes:

>I'm new on the list, not sure what has already gone down on this
>topic but what about CLR James' _NOtes on Dialectics_?

What an irony!  C.L.R. James is my real focus of study these days,
but I didn't write a word about him.  Why not?  Aside from the
uniqueness of his take on dialectics, I didn't think James was so
relevant to the questions we were treating here of the character
of dialectical contradiction, dialectical logic, formal logic,
etc.  So let me say a few words now about James.

James's notion of dialectics is inspired very much by Hegel, and
his use of it is not so much to define the nature of
contradiction, but to explicate the logic of historical

Curiously, James sometimes names his philosophy "dialectical
materialism", though his real concerns are different from what
usually goes under this rubric.  See the manifesto of his
philosophical standpoint, "Dialectical materialism and the fate of
humanity" (1947) reprinted in THE C.L.R. JAMES READER (Blackwell,
1992).  James cites Engels unabashedly and is not afraid to use
the term "materialism" or "dialectical materialism" in spite of
his own Hegelian brand of Marxism.  James personally avoids the
dialectics of nature while not condemning the subject to
perdition.  (See his forward to R.S. Bhagavan's INTRODUCTION TO
THE PHILOSOPHY OF MARXISM.  PART 1.)  Overall, this means that
James is not interested in the silly dichotomies of humanistic vs.
scientific Marxism fraudulently perpetrated by the ilk of Alvin
Gouldner and all hucksters of the two marxisms.  No wonder that
James is ignored in all accounts of "Western Marxism".

I have a transcript of part of James's 1971 speech on dialectics
at Rutgers University.  In that speech he explains what the term
dialectics, bandied about incomprehensibly by various black power
advocates, means to him.  He cautions that not all of Engels'
examples of the dialectics of nature are trustworthy, and one
should be wary.  James's own interest in dialectics is to explain
the logic of historical development, and the bulk of his
fascinating speech deals with his notion of "ideality", ie. how a
given force in history (eg. political democracy, state capitalism)
appears first as an unrealizable notion of social organization in
embryo, and then in a subsequent revolutionary epoch serves as the
actual, material point of departure of social development.

Now, how about NOTES ON DIALECTICS (1948, published in book form
about 1980)?  Near the end of the book James applies dialectics to
the logical development of the English and French revolutions as
he does elsewhere, but his innovation here is primarily to explain
the historical logic of the labor movement, and how each
historical stage of the labor movement gets co-opted and
incorporated into the capitalist system.  The final historical
task of the workers is to destroy all bureaucracies and take into
direct control the administration of society, uprooting all trade
union bureaucracies and communist parties.

Regarding Hegel, James contrasts the notions of Understanding and
Reason, and accuses Trotskyism of getting stuck in Synthetic
Cognition or the categories of the Understanding.  Getting stuck
means treating a particular historical conjuncture as a fixed
universal and applying it to subsequent developments when the
content of those categories has changed and moved on.  Preparing
his own break with Trotskyism, James accuses Trotsky of getting
stuck in the Understanding of 1917, of not being able to
understand the developments of the 1930s, of getting so hung up on
the statification of property he could not see Stalin's USSR as
state capitalism, and of treating the vanguard party as a fixed
universal, missing its dialectical relationship to the spontaneous
mass movement, and insisting on a historical role for the party
that has now become obsolete.

There is much more, but I am rather rusty on NOTES ON DIALECTICS,
so this will have to do for an introduction.

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