C.L.R. James: Organizing in the U.S.A., 1938-1953 - Grace Lee Boggs

1940's - Grace Lee Boggs with C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya.

Grace Lee Boggs on her formidable years with the Johnson-Forest Tendency and CLR James.
From a conference on the intellectual legacies of C.L.R. James held at Wellesley College in April 1991.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on April 7, 2023

In 1962 C.L.R. James and I went our separate ways, 1 but I shall always cherish the years we worked together because it was during that period that my philosophy of revolution as a great leap forward in the evolution of the human race began to take shape. My aim here is to recapture for others some of the special magic of that period.

I first met CLR in 1941 in Chicago where I had gone to start life afresh in the heart of America after nine years in the ivory tower of the university. When we met, I had already decided to become a revolutionist, which based on what had attracted me in the first place to the Workers Party, I thought would mean chiefly day-to-day organizing in the black community. However, the moment CLR discovered that I had studied Hegel and could read German, he had me translating Capital for him and comparing its structure with Hegel's Logic. In 1942 I moved back to New York, and for the next eighteen years (even after CLR left the United States in 1953), we were constantly working together on one project or another. In 1954 I spent the spring in London mostly working on The People of Kenya Speak for Themselves by Mbiyu Koinange, and in 1957 I came to England again to work on Facing Reality and the book on Nkrumah.

One of CLR's great gifts was that he could detect the special abilities and interests of individuals and encourage them to use these to enrich the revolutionary struggle. That is one of the main reasons why the few dozen of us in the Johnson-Forest Tendency, as we were known, were able to write so much on so many subjects.

For example, Raya Dunayevskaya, or Freddie Forest as she was known at the time, was a powerful and determined woman, born in Russia and raised in the United States, with little formal education but with a passion for theory. She had been a Trotskyite since the early 1930s and had learned Russian so that she could go to Mexico and become Trotsky's secretary. But it was not until CLR came along that she was able to develop her theoretical powers, specializing in the analysis of Russia in the light of Marx's philosophy. In those days, most radical women worked at secretarial jobs so that their men could become full-time party functionaries.

Filomena Daddario, the daughter of Italian immigrants, her father and brothers were sanitation workers, sold records in a music shop. She had a marvelous ear for popular lyrics and a love for the spoken word. So CLR introduced her to Shakespeare, and before long, she was reciting and interpreting Shakespeare to popular audiences.

Selma Weinstein, later Selma James, was a young mother who from her life in the plant and at home had developed insight into the subtle forms that male domination takes in the United States. She was encouraged to write the pamphlet A Woman's Place with Filomena.

Phil Singer, a young General Motors worker, was always talking about the frustrations of the rank-and-file worker in the plant. CLR proposed that he keep a journal of his observations, and portions were subsequently published in The American Worker by Paul Romano and Ria Stone (as I was known at that time).

Si Owen's stories of his life as a black worker from the South were edited into the paperback Indignant Heart by Constance Webb James who went on to write the first full-length study of Richard Wright.

Willie Gorman, an intellectual with a Talmudic background and a flair for sweeping historical generalizations, was assigned to write and speak on the antislavery movement and the Civil War.

Freddy and Lyman Paine were a couple with whom CLR developed an especially close association. Freddy had been working and organizing in the plant since she was fifteen; Lyman was a Harvard-educated architect, one of whose ancestors had signed the Declaration of Independence. Together they had a genius for hosting small gatherings where people from many different walks of life could eat, drink, hold far-reaching conversations, and listen to the music of Beethoven and Louis Armstrong. So their house at 629 Hudson Street became the kind of center that every political group needs where revolutionary politics and culture flowed naturally into one another.

Most of his friends and admirers today find it difficult to understand how CLR, who had already made a name for himself as the author of The Black Jacobins and as a cricket correspondent when he came to the United States in 1938, was content to spend the next fifteen years living and working in obscurity inside the small Trotskyite parties, writing and speaking under pseudonyms like J. R. Johnson and A.A.B. My own view is that these were the happiest and most productive years of his long and extraordinarily productive life.

In New York in those days there were a lot of radical intellectuals who had been forced to leave Europe because of the rise of Hitler. As far as they were concerned, Americans had no culture, and American workers were especially backward because they had never formed a Social Democratic or mass labor party. So most of them huddled together like exiles, completely alienated from the American people.

When CLR arrived in the United States, he had already studied and internalized the most important achievements of European civilization. But as a black man, a colonial, and a Marxist, he also knew that European barbarism had not just begun with Hitler. In the United States, he found his mind expanding as it had never been able to do in Trinidad or in England. Like Tocqueville in the 1830s and D. H. Lawrence in the 1920s, he was fascinated by the energy and exuberance of the American people, the disdain of the ordinary man and woman for all authority, and the pride of every citizen in his or her distinctive personality while constantly seeking association and community with others. As a result, he soon came to believe, as Thomas Paine had believed in the 1770s, that an American revolution in our time could become a beacon to the whole world.

In the Johnson-Forest Tendency, CLR was able to work intimately with a representative sample of the new human forces that were emerging in the United States. Black, white, Asian and chicano, workers and intellectuals, living on the East Coast, the West Coast, and in the Midwest, we embodied the rich ethnic, social, and regional diversity of the country, except that our group did not include any Native Americans or anyone living in the South at the time. Most of us worked in the plant during the war years. Most of us had also joined the radical movement because we wanted to make a second American revolution that to us at the time meant chiefly encouraging the independent struggles of blacks for first-class citizenship and the struggles of rank-and-file workers for more human relationships inside the plant as the foundation of a new mode of production. So, although the Johnson-Forest Tendency was originally organized around the Russian question, we took the position that Russia was state capitalist, the focus of our struggles soon shifted to what in these days were called The Negro Question and The American Question.

CLR had the ability not only to teach but also to learn from grassroots people. An excellent example of this is the little pamphlet Down with Starvation Wages in Southeast Missouri that he put together from what the sharecroppers themselves said about why they had decided to go on strike.2 He could hold forth on a multitude of subjects, but he could also listen patiently to what people said and give it back with enlarged meaning. As Freddy Paine used to say, he would pick your brains and then make a whole philosophical magillah out of it. So he learned from us how Americans thought and felt; and in turn, because of his familiarity with European culture and the independence movements in the West Indies and Africa, he was able to satisfy our hunger for an enlarged view of the one world that was emerging during World War II.

The 1930s and 1940s were a very special period in American history. The confidence of the workers in the economic royalists had been so shaken by the Great Depression that as soon as industrial production began to pick up in the middle 1930s, workers in auto, steel, rubber and mining created the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organization), a new form of organization within which workers of all categories and all races were brought together in one union. The weapon they had forged to create the CIO was the sit-in, a new method of struggle invented by American workers. The sit-ins were so effective because they built the working force within the plant into a solid wall of opposition to the company. At the same time, they created inside the plant a vast political school in which workers discussed and argued questions that had hitherto been completely outside their sphere and learned things about their history and their potential or what we would today call their identity.

With the founding of the CIO, people all over the country felt that a new day had dawned not only for the average working man and woman but for the entire nation. Workers and those sympathetic to their struggle sang Solidarity Forever with more fervor than they sang the national anthem. The union label in one's clothing became a symbol of the brotherhood of the oppressed. Even the identification badge issued by the company became a badge of distinction that workers wore proudly to community functions, including church services, the way that you might wear the flag of your country in your lapel. To get a job in the plant and to join the union was to become a part of a new world in the making.

In 1940 there were still 11 million unemployed Americans. But as production expanded for World War II and as millions were inducted into the armed forces, virtually anyone could get a job in the plant. At first blacks were excluded; but after hundreds of thousands of blacks threatened to march on Washington under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, the Roosevelt administration had been forced to issue Executive Order 8802 making nondiscrimination in hiring a condition for getting defense contracts.

As a result, throughout World War II there was a new blend of Americans in the factories: women and men, blacks, whites and chicanos, hillbillies, farmers, intellectuals and radicals, each with their own view of what was going on in the world. Again the plant was like a vast school with people from all different backgrounds exchanging stories of where they had come from, how they viewed their lives, discussing issues, borrowing and lending books, going bowling and drinking together after work. Because the company was guaranteed profits after costs, through what were known as Cost-Plus contracts, management did not bear down on workers to produce and was in fact notoriously wasteful and inefficient. Thus, for example, workers in Michigan would think nothing of bringing in a deer during the hunting season and roasting it right in the plant for all to enjoy. In the factory where I worked in New York we held Black History discussions during our coffee breaks, straggling back to our benches long after the bell had rung. Because the demand for workers was so great, you could quit one job in the morning and be hired into another in the afternoon.

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, the labor leadership had given the Roosevelt administration a No-Strike Pledge. But as workers began to feel the pinch of high prices and commodity shortages, they also became increasingly resentful of the huge profits the companies were making. In the early years of the war, workers had felt it was their patriotic duty to keep producing for the men at the front. But as the war in Europe came to an end and some layoffs began to take place, workers felt freer to act out their hostility to management. As a result, in 1944 and 1945 a wave of wildcat strikes swept the country. Marty Glaberman has written a whole book, Wartime Strikes, about these struggles.

In 1945 and 1946 there was also a new consciousness among the men and women returning from the armed services. During the war 14 million Americans, irrespective of their former occupations, had found themselves assigned to a variety of functions not only in combat but in transport, ordnance, hospitals and offices. A farm boy had been transformed into a signal corps specialist; a clerk in a shoe store had become a combat medic among whose responsibilities was the administration of morphine or plasma to the wounded in accordance with his on-the-spot judgment of the nature of their injuries and the possibilities of their recovery. All this had been the routine experience of every enlisted man. And equally routine had been the expendability of any one of them.

Blacks had also been radicalized by their wartime experiences. Throughout the war, blacks had reminded Americans of the hypocrisy of fighting for democracy abroad while denying it at home. The issuance of Executive Order 8802 in response to the threat of a mass March on Washington had made blacks aware of the power of their independent struggle. By World War II, most blacks were pro-union; but during the war, they had also learned that on the local level the union tended to accommodate itself to the racism of white workers. So after the war, black auto workers in Detroit were looking around for radical political organizations that would attack racism on a more fundamental level. In the South, black veterans were refusing to go to the back of the bus, initiating a process that would culminate in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56.

At the same time, in popular magazines, business consultants were worrying publicly, not only whether peacetime capitalism could provide jobs for 60 million workers, but also how workers who had shown themselves so hostile to any external discipline could be depended on to operate the new advanced machinery that would be introduced into industry after the war. Some were even saying that, instead of the beasts of burden and unskilled machine hands of the past, the new technology would require all-round educated men and women.

For those of us in the Johnson-Forest Tendency, who had originally studied Marx's Capital in order to understand what was going on in production within Soviet Russia, it seemed that everything Marx had said in Capital was now becoming a reality in the United States. In the creation of the CIO and the wave of wartime strikes defying the government, management, and the labor leadership, we were witnessing the revolt that Marx had anticipated of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers and disciplined, united and organized by the very mechanism of the process of production itself. 3 The anxieties of the bourgeoisie about the productivity of the workers demonstrated to us how prophetic Marx had been when he wrote that Modern Industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detailworker of today, crippled by lifelong repetition of the one and same trivial operation, and thus reduced to a fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labors, ready to face any changes of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.4 We were confident that in post-World War II America all the contradictions that Marx had analyzed in Capital would explode. As we wrote in our resolution on the American Question in 1946, No revolutionary can deny the possibility that two years from today the American proletariat could cover the nation with Soviets or their equivalent in a nation-wide strike against the bourgeoisie.

To the majority within the Workers Party what we were saying was romantic idealism; politics in the stratosphere, they called it. Most of the leaders of the party had been attracted to the revolutionary movement, not because of the American struggle, but because of the Russian Revolution. Socialism to them meant chiefly the nationalization of property and planned production because that is what the workers state in Russia had established. As Hegel would say, they had made a particular, a finite determination, into a universal. Or in the more modern language of Thomas Kuhn, their minds were stuck in a paradigm which had once been useful for explaining certain aspects of reality but which was now creating more contradictions than it was resolving.5 The bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian workers state had also created in them a deep despair which kept them from responding wholeheartedly to the spontaneous combativity of rank and file workers. The result was that they really felt more at home with the labor leadership.

This was not just a theoretical question. For example, when the war with Japan came to an end in August 1945, I was working in a small plant in Brooklyn where the local union officers were members of the Workers Party. When we returned to work following the two-day celebration of V-J Day, we were told by management that we should all go home. Everyone had anticipated the layoff, but that did not make it any more palatable. So workers responded enthusiastically to the proposal made by me and another comrade, also a Johnsonite, that we should refuse to leave. For three hours we stayed in the plant, talking about how wrong it was for management to have the power to lay us off after all the work we had done for the war and about how we should be organizing and mobilizing to take over the plants and reconvert them to peacetime production.

Meanwhile, the union officers, who were supposed to be our comrades, were nowhere to be found. Later we learned that they were working out with management an orderly way for us to pick up our checks so that we could be persuaded to leave the plant.

It was this kind of contradiction that made it increasingly difficult for us to remain, first, in the Workers Party and later in the Socialist Workers Party, and that led to our decision in 1951 to set out on our own to publish Correspondence, a. paper written by and for rank-and-file workers, blacks, women, and youth. The first editor of Correspondence was Johnny Zupan, a Ford worker who was always asking philosophical questions. In the fall of 1952, in order to prepare for the publication of Correspondence we organized a special school in which blacks, rank-and-file workers, women, and young people were the teachers while the intellectuals listened or played the role of full fountain pens. This was a very important school for all of us politically. It also meant a lot to me personally because it was at this school that I met James Boggs whom I later married, settling in Detroit, which has been my home ever since.

As it turned out, the next great movement in the United States was not the rank-and-file workers movement but the black movement. Nevertheless, the theoretical work we accomplished during the 1940s and 1950s will remain a rich resource for future generations of revolutionists.

When you are confident that you are creating the future, you look for allies not only in the present but in the past. So we read and reread practically everything that Marx ever wrote, looking for support for our position that the concern of every revolutionist worthy of the name must be not property relationships or just higher wages or more efficient plans but the liberation of the natural and acquired powers of human beings, or, as Hegel put it, not Substance but Subject. You can imagine our joy, therefore, when we discovered Marx's 1844 Economic-Philosophical essays which, I am proud to say, we were the first to publish in English translation.

We did the same with Lenin. In the Philosophical Notebooks, which Lenin kept of his study of Hegel in 1915, we discovered why, particularly in periods of deep crisis in any movement, organization, or society, revolutionists must be able to think dialectically. That is, we must recognize that things are always changing, that the contradictions inherent to everything are bound to develop and become antagonistic, so that ideas, paradigms or strategies that were progressive at one point turn into their opposite. This means that in times of crisis, revolutionary leaders must have the audacity to create new ideas, paradigms or strategies that represent sharp breaks with what they themselves had previously believed. It was because Lenin had internalized this dialectical method of thinking that he was able in 1917 to reconceptualize Socialism as a society in which every cook can govern and thus imbue the Russian workers and peasants with the confidence necessary to take power in October. That is why, also, in the last years of his life, Lenin kept warning the Bolsheviks that it was Communist vanity for them to believe that the apparatus they had built to seize power and to win the civil war could keep the workers state from being overtaken by bureaucracy. The only salvation for the revolution, he insisted, was for the party to encourage the initiative and enlist the participation of non-party workers and peasants, especially women, in the day-to-day, protracted, unglamorous work of managing production and inspecting and checking the activities of all government officials. Such participation, Lenin believed, would begin to create in practice new social ties, a new labor discipline, a new organization of labor, and/or a new culture.

In our studies of the great revolutions of the past we identified with the deepest layers of the society who have driven the revolution forward. Thus, we decided that our spiritual ancestors in the English revolution of the seventeenth century were not Cromwell and Ireton but John Lilburne and Richard Overton who expressed the democratic aspirations of urban artisans and yeoman farmers. In the French Revolution, we identified not with Robespierre and the Jacobins but with Jacques Roux, Theophile Leclerc, and Jean Varlet who lived among the sans-culottes and helped them to organize in order to fight for price controls and other concrete needs of the masses. In mid-nineteenth century America, we identified with the slaves whose revolts and escapes made compromise impossible between the industrial bourgeoisie and the Southern plantocracy, thus making the Civil War and their own eventual emancipation inevitable.

We read and reread the works of Melville, and we went to see again and again the stage and movie versions of Hamlet, Henry V, and King Lear. In the process, we developed a greater appreciation of the power of the creative imagination to uncover contradictions of a complexity and at a depth which the logical understanding can never reach.

Our energy was fantastic. Recently I leafed through the hundreds of letters and documents that we wrote in that period and that are accessible in the Dunayevskaya and Glaberman collections in the Labor Archives of Wayne State University in Detroit. Frankly, even I was astonished at the amount that we wrote and the boldness with which we took on established historians and literary critics. We would spend an afternoon or evening together working and talking and eating, and then we would go home and write voluminous letters to one another extending or enlarging on what we had discussed, sending these around to members of our group in barely legible copies.

No wonder that in those days people used to say that in any gathering you could tell a Johnsonite by the enthusiasm, and energy we exuded. Our very eyes were stars because CLR had helped us rediscover America and the world, and because in the Johnson-Forest Tendency we had created a unique political community, a fellowship of revolutionary intellectuals and grassroots people united by a common goal, the unleashing of the creative energies of those at the bottom of our society.