Starry-eyed about C L R James

Submitted by martin on 1 July, 1996 - 9:03

James D Young (Workers' Liberty 32) is too starry-eyed about C L R James.

James wrote a few good books - The Black Jacobins, World Revolution, and, so people who might know tell me, Beyond A Boundary, the one about cricket.

But as a political thinker or activists there is - aside perhaps from his working organising sharecroppers in the American Deep South: or is that story a myth, like so much else? - not much to be said for him and a lot to be said against him.

It is forgotten now, but in the 40s James and his faction - the so-called Johnson-Forest tendency, then part of the Shachtmanite Workers' Party - were trail-blazing pioneers in developing the irrationalism and personality cultism and mysticism that later came to dominated much of the so-called "orthodox Trotskyism".

In political terms, the nearest parallel, though not an entire one, that I can think of to their way of seeing the world would be the British Healyites of the late 60s. Not, of course, the savagely bureaucratic Healy "party" regime, which was special to itself and had no parallel anywhere in or near the Trotskyist movement.

The manner of these mystical "state capitalists" rejoining the SWP USA in 1947 was very odd, and the manner of their leaving it in 1951, after three years of virtual silence, downright loony. (There is much documentation about all this).

They propounded the notion that socialism, the future, was somehow "invading" the present. James, mysteriously, then became a high dignitary in Eric Williams's movement, Trinidad's governing party, before going off on his travels once again.

In London he developed a cult around himself as one of the venerable fathers of black nationalism. Some of it spread to the white media: he did not seem to take offence at the patronising manner and substance of much of it.

There was, I think, always - certainly from the 40s - a big element of the charlatan-prophet about C L R James. After Trotsky's death, his contribution to Trotskyism, the revolutionary Marxism of our epoch, was essentially poisonous. He should be soberly assessed, not romanticised. Almost everything James had to teach this, and future, generations of revolutionary socialists come to us in the form of things not to do.

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