Getting CLR James wrong

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Feb 26 07:37:20 MST 2001

[Letter sent to Against the Current editors by Alex LoCascio, a Marxism
list alumnus and all-round great guy. It is a critique of a talk given at
last year's American Trotskyism conference that left me so addled and
drowsy by the first five minutes, that I could not even work up the steam
to answer him during the discussion period.]


Something weird happened to my January/February issue of Against the
Current.  Apparently some smart-ass from Social Text got past the printer,
and instead of the usual mix of plain-English analytical articles and lucid
reportage I've come to expect from ATC, inserted Grant Farred's dense,
unreadable, and frankly bizarre PoMotista truffle, "C.LR. James'
Postcolonial Thinking."

I usually welcome any attempt at giving wider exposure to this most
significant, relevant, and uniquely contemporary socialist thinker.  But
Farred's blather-fest is not just a case study in how to render James'
distinct current of Marxism completely uninteresting to a new generation of
radicals (I suppose the phrase "Duke University literature program" didn't
set off alarms in the editors' heads like it usually does for me).  It's
also just plain wrong.

I'll try not to succumb to the temptation to take cheap shots at Farred's
pretentious verbiage (just what the hell is so "evocative" about the phrase
"Johnson-Forest Tendency," and why can't people write something without
once using words like "paradigm," "hermeneutic," and "metatext?"). Instead,
let's concentrate on what I think, beneath all that loquacity, are his
actual points.

First off, Farred knocks James for failing to draw conclusions from
Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution and James' own Black Jacobins
about the nature of "postcolonial" states and the "death of the
postcolonial project."  I'll leave it to literary "theorists" to scratch
their heads about the impotence of Touissant's "modernity" in the face of
Dessalines' "act of renaming" (huh?).  In plain English, Farred is charging
James with failing to prognosticate the tendency of anti-imperialist
revolutions of the 20th century to degenerate into third-worldist variants
of Stalinism.

Farred attributes this degeneration in the 18th century Haitian case to,
variously, Dessalines' "abandonment of Enlightenment precepts," Touissant's
own "faith in modernity" (Get off the fence, Grant.  Either modernity/the
Enlightenment is responsible for the revolution's degeneration, or it
ain't), and Dessalines' own "brutality" in dealing with the white plantocracy.

This is, to put it politely, horse shit.  If Farred himself would bother to
read Trotsky, as he advises James to do, he'd find that there exist some
fairly simple historical explanations for the degeneration of the Haitian
revolution, remarkably similar to the causes that gave rise to Stalinism in
Russia.  Those are:  the intransigence of Western colonial (in the case of
Haiti) and imperialist (in the case of Russia) powers in the face of the
newly liberated states; the ensuing economic blockades and military
interventions by same; the failure of revolutions abroad to help
consolidate domestic revolutionary gains (Thermidor and then Bonapartism in
Haiti's case, the treachery of international Social Democracy in crushing
the German revolution in Russia's); and the crisis of domestic
revolutionary leadership in the face of these international pressures.

Farred's no-longer-fashionable PoMo pessimism about the failure of the
"Enlightenment project" reminds me of the ahistorical attempts by
contemporary "historians" to attribute the totalitarian horrors of the
likes of Stalin or Hitler to psychological factors or questions of birth
order rather than concrete historical conditions.

Earnest Marxists can disagree about the nature of Stalinism or its exact
causes.  Some libertarian socialists are prone to also pointing out
disturbing tendencies or nuances in Bolshevism that contained the seeds of
Stalinism (cf. Farber or Liebman).  James himself, in State Capitalism and
World Revolution, sees Stalinism as "an organic product of the mode of
capitalism at this stage," and a "necessary and inevitable form of the
development of the labor movement. " James therefore situates Stalinism in
a unique historical conjuncture where the trade union bureaucracy and upper
echelons of revolutionary leadership recognized the historical obsolescence
of capitalism but failed to recognize workers capacity for self-government.
 I myself am prone to accepting some combination of all these explanations,
in addition to the thesis advanced by Loren Goldner that Stalinism served
as a substitutionist means of completing the bourgeois revolution in
"backward" countries.  (See Communism is the Material Human Community:
Amadeo Bordiga Today, available from Collective Action Notes at P.O. Box
22962, Baltimore, MD 21203 or online at

The point is, all Marxists can disagree on the exact causes of the failure
of this or that revolution, but all of these disagreements are rooted in
the interpretation of historical conditions, not grandiloquent laments for
the failures of "Enlightenment" or other hoity-toity nonsense.

Easier to dispense with, yet more baffling, is Farred's lame-ass contention
that during James' sojourn in the United States he gave primacy to American
questions, and more particularly, the so-called "Negro question," at the
expense of contemporary anti-imperialist movements.  This reminds me of
attempts by French Stalinists such as Althusser to assert an
"epistemological break" between the "Young Marx" and the "Later Marx."  In
Farred's case it takes the form of accusing James of "losing the threads"
of his argument, of failing to set Mississippi laborers in "conversation"
(Ugh!) with the San Domingan slaves.  The end result is an attempt to
excise James' "American Years" from the rest of his political career,
rather than recognizing the continuity that exists between James' work in
the United States and his subsequent involvement in the fight for
West-Indian confederation and beyond.  Worse yet, Farred does James a
disservice with his backhanded complement about the "great deal of valuable
radical work" he did in the United States despite his "reduced political

Does it ever occur to Farred that thinkers choose to concentrate on
different questions during different points in their intellectual
trajectories? That perhaps James, as an intellectual participating in a
collective socialist project during his American stay, would naturally be
preoccupied with questions that had some bearing upon his political work in
the SWP, WP, and (later) Correspondence?

One can only write so much in a lifetime, and at the time James was
preoccupied with waging a battle against orthodox Trotskyism and what he
saw as outmoded conceptions of revolutionary organization in the face of
contemporary conditions.  All of his major works in this period, from State
Capitalism and World Revolution to Facing Reality (both collaborative
efforts, incidentally), must be considered in this context.  To say that he
neglected the colonial question during this period simply because he didn't
focus on it enough for Grant Farred's liking is just plain silly.

I realize ATC's venerable editors probably felt compelled to publish
something in the wake of the NY Trotskyism Conference, but this crap?  And
in the Centennial year of James' birth, no less!  Might I advise you that
next time you consult Scott McLemee, Martin Glaberman, Seymour Faber, or
others with a firmer grasp of the legacy of the Johnson-Forest tendency?

Yours in struggle,

Alex LoCascio Detroit

Louis Proyect
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