Striving for Clarity and Influence: The Political Legacy of CLR James - Selma James

Selma James and CLR James

The best introduction to CLR James and related organizations.

Selma James joined the Johnson-Forest Tendency when she was about 15 years old in 1945. In 1956, she married CLR James and they remained together nearly 25 years. Here is her firsthand account of CLR and how their organizations worked.

We highly encourage you to purchase her collections of writings Sex, Race, and Class from PM Press.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on April 5, 2023


It was in the stillness of a seaside suburb that could be heard most clearly and insistently the booming of Franco’s heavy artillery, the rattle of Stalin’s firing squads and the fierce shrill turmoil of the revolutionary movement striving for clarity and influence. Such is our age and this book is of it, with something of the fever and the fret. Nor does the writer regret it. The book is the history of a revolution and written under different circumstances it would have been a different but not necessarily a better book.1

—CLR James, 1938

In 2001, I was invited to address the conference: CLR James Centennial Anniversary: A Tribute to the Fight for Social Revolution. This was a chance to finally speak about his political legacy as I had known it.

CLR had been involved in Marxist organizations from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s, when the Johnson-Forest Tendency which he had founded was disbanded. Those who now wanted to be associated with or at least cite some of his ideas and insights while not stepping beyond establishment boundaries often found his involvement with “small Marxist organizations” an encumbrance. It was often more convenient in the mushrooming CLR James industry for most of his political history to be dismissed as either a detour in an otherwise brilliant career or the foibles of a genius.

I used this centenary conference, first, to prevent the man who had educated or even introduced many people like me to the Marxist movement, from becoming either a cultural guru or a Pan-Africanist disconnected from class struggle. Secondly, I wanted to begin, only begin, to claim finally what some of us consider his substantial political and organizational contribution to the movement.

The conference was in Detroit, once the great Motown, center of the car industry, the heart of industrial unions, and with a radical tradition. Now it was almost a ghost town, but I knew many of those attending the conference had more than a passing interest in CLR’s history in the Marxist Left. The terms and organizations I would mention were not unfamiliar to most of them, so detailed explanations would be unnecessary.

It is worth remembering that those who oppose capitalism and all its ways and works when no crowds are in the street must work hard to maintain and enhance that opposition, and prepare for those crowds to appear, as inevitably they must. That fundamentally is what CLR was doing in Marxist organizations.

Politics, if it is fuelled by a great will to change the world, rather than by personal ambition, offers a chance to know the world, and to be more self-conscious of the actual life you are living, rather than being taken over by what you are told you should feel, about yourself and others: a chance, in other words, to live an authentic life. Such politics are a unique enrichment, not a sacrifice. CLR’s decades in the Marxist movement shaped—gave a framework, depth, and breadth to—all he did. Years later his work was praised by academics, the literati, critics of many types. But the connection between this acclaimed body of work and his political engagement was rarely even mentioned.

I want to thank first of all my dear comrade and friend Nettie Kravitz. She recommended to Martin Glaberman, another dear comrade and friend, that I speak, and he recommended that the organizers invite me.

I have to ask before beginning: what is the use of a conference like this? We work hard (we women work especially hard) and we have to decide what it is we are going to do with our precious hours. Is this conference serving a serious purpose? To examine what CLR James found out about how we can organize against those who rule, exploit and impose genocide upon us must be worthwhile. I think CLR has something to tell young people especially who want to avoid the mistakes of the movement in the past, and I’ll try to say some of what that is.

Finally, James became famous for his cultural analyses. But you know, appreciating and understanding Shakespeare by itself does nothing for the revolution; nor does cricket by itself. We do him a great injustice if we consider CLR’s extraordinary abilities in literature and the arts (including sport) and even as a historian, in a political and organizational vacuum. We don’t see how much his work in the so-called cultural sphere was shaped by his committed, collective political work that for most of his adult life was his central concern. Everything he did aimed to strengthen the anticapitalist movement in its “striving for clarity and influence.” Yet his political and organizational life has often been dismissed as a distraction. In fact, from the 1930s his life was centered on politics. So it is worth exploring that history, and what it produced, which some of us believe was a unique and vital contribution.

For me (and at least a few others who knew his work firsthand), CLR created two masterworks—others may think more, but certainly two. One of them was The Black Jacobins and I’m gratified to see that you have been honoring that masterpiece in this series of lectures.

The second masterwork was the Johnson-Forest Tendency which aimed to create another kind of Marxist organization.

Political organizations that aim to overthrow capitalism are not usually taken seriously enough to be considered as creations, let alone masterworks. Most of us think of organizations as glittering promises, which turn out to be cons. They betray their members and sometimes millions of others as well. Johnson-Forest was based on a root-and-branch critique of the Left and its role within the working-class movement, and offered an organizational reorientation.

CLR went to England from Trinidad in 1932 and had become politically active there both in the anti-imperialist movement and in Trotskyism, the Marxist movement which was anti-Stalinist. Though naturally sympathetic to each other, these two movements were quite separate. CLR related how in London’s Hyde Park Corner, where political debates raged, he would step down from speaking on the Pan African podium and step onto the Trotskyist podium.

In 1938, CLR left England for the United States, a country where the divisions of class leaned much less on ancestry and much more directly on the cash nexus. It was different from, and less hidebound, than Europe at that time. Different too was the fact that race replaced imperialism as the dominant political issue after class per se: London, capital of the British Empire, was also capital of anti-imperialism, the movement on which the sun never set—like the Empire itself. He was naturally sponsored by the Socialist Workers Party, the U.S. wing of international Trotskyism, of which he was a member in England. They had invited him on a speaking tour.

Not long after, in 1940, a rift appeared in U.S. Trotskyism, precipitated by Stalin’s nonaggression pact with Hitler.2 This made a debate on the nature of the Soviet Union unavoidable: could it make deals with Hitler and still be a workers’ State, as Trotsky and the Socialist Workers Party claimed; could the international working class still be asked to defend the Soviet Union? Or was it a new formation, some kind of “bureaucratic collectivist” society (neither capitalist nor workers’ State), as the minority, which wanted to split from the SWP claimed?

The crisis for CLR was that he agreed with neither of these, a minority of one within Trostkyism. In CLR’s view, the Soviet Union was State-capitalist. The working class, which in 1917 had made the revolution, had put this State in power, and it still claimed to represent that class. But though production was nationalized, the Soviet State organized merciless exploitation, imposed forced labor, and murdered millions, beginning with those who had been points of reference in the revolution.

Those who were against defense of the Soviet Union in the war in Europe, a large minority, split from the SWP and Leon Trotsky, leader with Lenin of the revolution. CLR was part of this minority, which split and formed the Workers Party. But those with whom he left were hostile to Marxism; they were in this basic respect more alien to him than those he was leaving behind.

CLR knew that this crisis in Trotskyism and in his own political life required a deeper study of Marxism. (He was still relatively new to the movement, though he had rapidly become an international point of reference in it.) He often said that at that point he considered returning to England, where he had a network of friends and comrades with whom he could work, but there were some dedicated movement people in the United States who agreed with his State-capitalist position, and who offered to work with him if he would stay. Together they would reexamine Marxism: study not only Marx and Lenin but also Hegel whose dialectical method was the indispensable foundation of Marxism.

CLR also had to work out what were the implications of this State-capitalist analysis: what did it mean that the working-class movement got to this point, where the State it had itself created had become a capitalist dictatorship against it? For Trotsky, the fact that the economy was nationalized ensured it was a workers’ State. He had become trapped in a previous moment when nationalization had meant workers’ power. He could not see the new content in the old word. (Years of debate hardly changed Trotskyist minds, though CLR believed that Trotsky would have changed his position, if he had lived.)

CLR built a core in the course of doing this study of Marxism, and then little by little a distinct tendency—not, as was traditional, a faction, implying endless political debates. The tendency formed quietly but steadily within a party, which was hostile to all it stood for. While Grace Chin Lee (now Boggs) helped with the study of Hegel and Marx, sometimes translating from the original German, Rae (Raya Dunayevskaya), a Russian speaker, did research on the Soviet economy. She demystified the Stalinist claim that workers in the Soviet Union were not exploited, and that the contradictions of capitalism didn’t apply there. I remember, for example, that Rae discredited the Soviet claim that unemployment—without which capitalism could not discipline labor—had been eliminated; she worked out how the industrial reserve army was hidden from view (dispersed into the countryside where they were invisible to Soviet economists), but always available to function as a discipline on the employed, and of course on the entire working class—the same as it did in every other part of the capitalist world. This was one instance showing that all the fundamentals of capitalist exploitation were in operation in the Soviet Union, nationalized or not.

For the Johnson-Forest Tendency (CLR’s party name was J.R. Johnson and Rae’s was Freddy Forest), this State-capitalist analysis of the Soviet Union characterized not merely the Soviet State but the new stage of world capitalism. The Soviet revolution had put the State in charge of production, and it had used its nationalized economic structure to leap ahead in capitalist development on the backs of the working class. But only the Soviet beginnings of the State were exceptional: capitalism in other countries was also moving towards more centralized economic planning by the State.

The workers’ State had turned against those who at great cost to themselves had put it in power. And in a similar way trade unions and labor parties, which had been created as class weapons through bitter struggle, were now integral to the management of the working class. Governments expected them to “control their members.”

Stalinism, Johnson-Forest claimed, was an extreme form of a general phenomenon: the new way the State organized in response to working-class rebellion. We were faced not merely with capital and its management, but with the capitalist management of our own organizations. This was a new political reality—the struggle against capitalism took the form of a struggle within and against the very organizations we had created to overcome capitalism, as much in the United States as in the USSR. This may be more familiar now, but it was new then; it took years before this was widely accepted—or even considered—by the movement.

That view of the crisis in working-class organization was the angry conclusion of workers in Detroit and other industrial centers. They had won union recognition by sit-in strikes and confrontations with the armed National Guard. They were evaluating their enormous struggle at the same time that Johnson-Forest was working out its independent politics. Johnson-Forest had moved its national center from New York to Detroit to shift its milieu from the hothouse of Left intellectualism to that of those industrial workers and their families—not to raise their consciousness but to raise ours. CLR, a great listener, spent hours hearing what (often Black) workers from the auto plants would tell him about how and what they had won in the great sit-down strikes against Ford and General Motors, and that now their daily struggle was to get the union to defend them against the company and its production speedup which was draining their lives away. Through the contract with the company, its rules, and the growing bureaucracy to enforce them, they were losing whatever control of production their great struggle had won.

The Left had the view imported from Europe that U.S. workers were backward; we had not formed a mass labor party as workers in Europe had done. But Johnson-Forest urged the party to “Americanize Bolshevism”: to show how Marxism was relevant to the United States. We were premised on the day-to-day spontaneous rebellion which was persistent but “unorganized,” in production as well as in the community. That form of struggle had to be our starting point—even where there were labor parties!

Johnson-Forest explored the U.S. experience of revolution: CLR and one or two others studied the Civil War—the Second American Revolution—as a context for organizing in the United States. This gave Johnsonites a Marxist grounding in antiracism. At one point CLR gave us a class in slavery and the Civil War (of course in private homes, without the knowledge of the Workers Party). And since the women’s suffrage movement (mainly but not exclusively white) had its roots in the Abolitionist movement, some of our women studied abolition and the birth of feminism.

Johnsonism was different in every way from both sides of the split in Trotskyism. In the course of destroying the workers’ State, Stalinism had corrupted the working-class movement. The study of Marx and Lenin and of Hegel had led to uncovering a reading of Marx where the revolution was dependent on the self-activity of the working class, not on the leadership of a vanguard party. This was a Marx free of Stalinist influence. The Marxist Left had ceased to base itself on working-class self-activity and had substituted the dependence on the vanguard party for the active, creative participation of all the exploited. This had the widest possible implications politically and organizationally. Johnson-Forest aimed to express in political perspective and in organizational structure the revolutionary impulse and self-activity of working-class people, beginning in the most advanced and most powerful capitalist country. We cannot go into all its implications here. But the immediate question that CLR in his boldness began to address is: what kind of an organization do you build which encourages rather than discourages self-activity?

Having established the principle that working-class self-activity was the heart of the revolution, CLR and his core began with their own members. It was the job of the leadership, as part of maintaining and developing the organization’s political focus, to help uncover and develop the talents and autonomy of members. This was never quite stated like this (as far as I know), but it was assumed. And it was new.

In 1947, Johnson-Forest tried to get the two wings of Trotskyism together again. By then, Trotsky was dead, murdered by a Stalinist agent. The differences between the parties, which had caused the 1940 split were more pronounced. But for neither was what had happened in the Soviet Union an illumination of the struggle generally, as it was for us. Neither claimed their position on the Soviet Union had any particular relevance to what we should be doing or saying where we worked and lived, or how we should organize. Like Humpty-Dumpty, they could not be put together again.

Trying not to go it alone, which risked the sectarianism that can come so easily from isolation, Johnson-Forest rejoined the SWP, which at least claimed to be Marxist, and which at that time spoke about “The Coming American Revolution.”

By then, there were seventy Johnsonites. Seventy people scattered across a very big country—not a lot. But the leader was a Black man, an immigrant from the West Indies and a historian; his two closest colleagues were women, one a Russian immigrant, the other first generation Chinese-American. Much of the membership worked in industry including those who had begun life in the middle class. We were multiracial. We were confident. We felt we were “going somewhere,” individually and collectively; with history rather than against it; building not a vanguard party so we could one day be the State, but a movement; antiracist and also antisexist; respectful of the people we worked and lived with, rather than imagining ourselves an elite amongst the backward. Those of us who were working-class least thought that our neighbors or the people we worked alongside, needed us to lead them as those in Left parties seemed to think. Rather, we saw ourselves as uncovering and helping to articulate the infinite variety of ways grassroots people expressed its rebellion.

Before we reentered the SWP, we took three months of independence and reflection outside of any party, what we called the Interim Period. We republished our key documents, a way of ending debate on political differences while ensuring that our politics wouldn’t vanish from sight: if anyone wanted to know, the documents were available. We published a bulletin experimenting with the kinds of articles we might write or get our networks to write for a future working-class newspaper. All this was a terrific training: the Interim Period broke with the Left tradition of endless debate as the major political activity.
The most significant document of the Interim Period was The Balance Sheet. On the surface, it breaks only with the Workers Party, which we had just walked away from. In reality, in breaking with the vanguard party on which all of Trotskyism was based, it broke with Trotskyism.

CLR begins by distinguishing Trotskyism from Trotsky whose handling of the 1940 split “represented the climax of his great contributions to the international movement.” (The proposals of Trotsky to try to keep the movement together were extraordinarily generous and broadminded.) Trotsky, he says, had called the split “unprincipled” and CLR with hindsight agrees. “The split was the most unprincipled split in the history of Bolshevism.” He had split to go with the anti-Marxists. He goes on to say:

The leaders of the present Johnson-Forest Minority took part in all this, and we therefore are qualified to speak…we have a political responsibility to our own past, to the faction which we lead, to the party and to all at home and abroad who are concerned with our movement. We have that responsibility and here discharge it, not only for the past but for the future. The split was a betrayal of our movement.

This is how a serious organization educates its members: the leadership publicly begs pardon for its mistakes, which are usually big ones, since they tend to have big responsibilities. Reading this now, one can’t help but be struck by the standards the best of the movement once had, and must have again.
But the document’s most important innovation is to analyze the composition, the social layers in Left organizations, and what this must mean for political and organizational direction.

The Workers Party had claimed that it could not unify because the SWP was undemocratic. CLR lists the shallow and self-indulgent case they make for this, and then gives us a completely different conception of democracy and the enormous barriers to achieving it; it is a class orientation:

The W.P. leaders…believe that their party is a genuinely democratic party. Everybody can express his views, nobody is “suppressed.” In reality…it is politically the most bureaucratic conceivable. The party, apart from the leadership, consists of three layers, a layer of party stalwarts—people who have been in the party for years, cannot think of existence outside of the party, and have the attitude, my party, right or wrong… They maintain the party. It is their party in more senses than they think. Despite their devotion the best negative thing that could happen to the party is that these elements should leave in a body. The second layer consists of a younger grouping with similar political ideas as the above but anxious to build the party… Some of them, misguided as they were, did striking work in the unions in New York, Buffalo, and Los Angeles. They do not know what to do next. Finally there are the men who had some leadership in the labor movement and were looking for help, as they saw it—help in the union struggle; genuine proletarian types, Negroes, the youth, eager for knowledge and enthusiastic for the revolution. A party is a whole, a totality, but the leadership must reflect the vanguard of the party. Now the social vanguard of the party is the third element, the least vocal, the least educated in Marxism, the most diffident in expressing themselves among the fast-talking layers above, but revolutionary, sensitive to the movement of the proletariat, and potentially great recruiters, once they clarify themselves. These represent the mass outside.

While beginning as a description of the Workers Party, he is clearly describing Left parties generally. The party reproduced the class hierarchy within it; and was not conscious of it as the enemy within. Then he returns to the WP: “It is precisely here that the WP shows the most bureaucratic tendencies. It has never understood the third layer, never listened to them, never learnt anything from them… Its conception of the relationship of the leadership to the party is only a purer distillation of what it thinks is the relationship between the party and the masses.”

This description of the political organization (including his own) was the analysis of State-capitalism applied to organization. State capitalism was the way capital planned its economic and political domination against the rebellion, the creativity, the energy, of the population. Your organization becomes the vehicle for their plan. Simplistic babble about democracy dissolves into dust once you face this hierarchy of layers, which must be organized against.
There has been little will to explore CLR’s charge of conservatism within so-called revolutionary organizations. When we asked him where this concept of layers had come from, he always referred us to Lenin. He never said where exactly, but he did quote one precedent. Trotsky, arguing against the split in 1940, had reported Lenin’s view of his own party with which he, Trotsky, clearly agreed: “We underestimate the revolutionary movement in the working masses… At the beginning of 1917 Lenin said that the party is ten times more revolutionary than the CC [central committee] and the masses a hundred times more revolutionary than the ranks of the party.”

By presuming that the third layer is the vanguard, this analysis confronts the repression of working-class self-activity even within its own anticapitalist organizations. The instruments of that repression are immediately present. Almost invisibly—because it is so common, so taken for granted—those with more formal education, skills, social power, etc., dominate. This hierarchy is not an act of will but the “objective situation.” Johnsonites regularly used this phrase. It was a materialist reading of reality. With the best will in the world, the capitalist hierarchy is reproduced against the grassroots with the whole force of capitalist society behind it. To undermine, let alone defeat it, requires far more than voting or democratic rules.

(It was not until the 1960s and the birth first of the Black movement and then of the women’s and other movements attacking the social hierarchy that this subtle and not so subtle domination was noticed, categorized and massively opposed.)

The concept of the three layers was first articulated by CLR in this 1947 document. The definitions were refined as they were applied within Johnson-Forest. Those who had had some official posts, for example in trade unions, were clearly no longer third layer. A pamphlet called Union Committeemen and Wildcat Strikes showed how a dedicated militant on the lowest rung of union officialdom, taken from the assembly line to deal with workers’ grievances against the company, was rapidly corrupted by this relatively minor (but far from trivial) elevation.3

The question was: what was to be done about it? How was this hierarchy, often invisible but real and constant, to be undermined?

At the end of the Interim Period, Johnson-Forest returned to the other wing of Trotskyism to try to keep the movement together. It was not possible then to attempt to build the kind of organization we wanted. We kept our heads down, did our work, and avoided political discussions.

Four years later, in 1951, we left Trotskyism altogether. This time it was a principled split; the political direction towards which we were impelled could no longer submit to an increasingly alien politics.

CLR wrote one last document: The Balance Sheet Completed—Ten Years of American Trotskyism. It begins: “‘Johnson-Forest’ has now made its final and complete break with what the Fourth International [the Trotskyist international] of today stands for.” He spells out what was fairly obvious, that the 1947 Balance Sheet was a critique not only of the WP, but of Trotskyism as a whole.

We left because we were nonaligned: we veered neither toward the support for Stalinism of the SWP which still considered the Soviet Union a workers’ State, and which by then claimed that the Red Army had brought socialism to Eastern Europe; nor toward the WP’s anti-Stalinism which by then seemed closer to the State Department than to working-class opposition. (Not many years later, shockingly but not surprisingly, the WP dissolved into the Democratic Party and its leadership supported the Vietnam War.)

The Balance Sheet Completed made the case for this final break with Trotskyism. The most exciting of its four sections is called The Life of the Party. Quoting the passages above about the third layer, it goes on to make the case that the break had to take place because our membership was unable to develop within the SWP. It was not theoretical differences that provoked the break, but the political and organizational consequences of these differences.
In The Balance Sheet Completed, CLR takes the sectors one at a time.

First “the rank and file worker…native proletarians, white and Negro, men and women… These are the ones who lead the wildcat strikes, symptomatic of the revolt against the bureaucracy. They are not seeking to build caucuses to win posts in unions. They have not joined the party to substitute a good union apparatus for a bad one. They are seeking primarily a revolutionary socialist organization.”

Then “The Negroes”:

All politics in the United States are expressed most sharply in the Negro question… The party is not politically educated on the Negro question. The task of the party leaders was to do for the Negroes in the United States what Marx had done in general for the proletariat—establish its role in the transformation of society. It is on this we live. The party did not get it, the Negroes did not get it. The consequence is many painful and some very shameful conflicts.

Followed by “The Women”:

In Los Angeles, one of our younger comrades, without experience, got interested in the woman question.4 Trained by Johnson-Forest, she without any guidance, went straight to the heart of the question, the proletarian woman. With help from friends inside and outside the party, she sketched out the elements of a theory… Immediately there is a crisis. The S.W.P. does not know anything else about women in the modern world than to tell them that they will gain personal freedom in the party, that imperialism means war, and that their men will be taken away—as characteristic a piece of male chauvinism as you can find.

And finally “Youth”:

On the youth question as on the Negro question, the S.W.P. is blinded by its fear and impotence before the aspirations of those layers of the revolutionary masses who are seeking in the revolutionary party to fortify their instinctive hostility to bourgeois society, their conceptions of a new society and their readiness to work for it.

Exciting, yes, despite outdated language, but a terrible time to have made that leap to independence. It was 1951, and the cold war and McCarthyism were upon us: phones tapped, mail interfered with, visits from the FBI. Some of us lost our jobs (I lost mine), and some were blacklisted (my sister’s husband didn’t have steady employment for years). When you are under attack some people rise to the occasion but others begin to waver and are tempted to blame the movement rather than the State for difficulties, related or not. Nevertheless, our leadership helped keep us focused.

How did the theory of the third layer shape our now independent organization? We began by putting out a newspaper which everyone, including in our networks, was involved in writing for, editing or commenting on. It had a Women’s page, a Negro page, and a Youth page, which were written and edited not only for those sectors but by them.

By the 1960s, in the United States and elsewhere, underground newspapers mushroomed; all popular, many of them political, where different sectors spoke their minds.

In some ways they resembled what we were trying to do a decade before: to express the real lives and struggles of the people we were organizing with as well as our own. There were many things we got wrong and didn’t know how to do until the movement burst out in the 1960s, but the attempt trained us to concentrate not on recruiting but on involving the public.

Perhaps the most startling Johnson-Forest innovation was the school for the third layer. The leaders were to sit down and learn from us. If I remember rightly, for two or three hours a day for two weeks, two groups of six or eight of us, mixed by race, gender, age, etc., met to discuss with the leadership (but not CLR—he had just been released from immigration detention on Ellis Island and was far from well) and tell them what we thought. What were the topics? I can’t remember, though there are two reports, one from each group, which can be dug out.

Every evening after the school CLR would ask how I had got on. One evening I said I didn’t agree with Rae, and had told her so. He said, “Well, tomorrow when you go back you will raise the question again.”

Next day I did what he said and made my point, but everybody else in the school was against me. I argued but lost. I didn’t know what else to do. That night I had to tell him that I had had to let the school move to the next discussion because I was a minority of one. “Look here,” he said, “the Russian workers have guns trained against them; that’s why they don’t talk. What’s your excuse?”

Then I understood what the school was about. It was to train us to stand up to our own leaders. It was to train third layer people who are not used to it to express their point of view to those who are “educated” or in other ways more socially powerful, whether or not other third layer people joined us. I think a number of us found our voice. I certainly did.

My close friend Filomena Daddario, also a factory worker, was in the other group, and we compared notes. Her partner was a brainy intellectual, and she had told the school: “The intellectuals talk about working-class instincts. Intellectuals also have instincts. But they’re the wrong ones!”

She was about twenty-four years old when she ran for mayor of Oakland, California, to represent us, and to test our ideas and the way we were articulating them. She went about addressing all kinds of organizations. She said she was for socialism and for the rights of workers and of Negroes and of women and of youth—during McCarthyism. Of five candidates, remarkably, she came third. Filomena was a fine speaker, and Oakland is a special city with a socialist history. But Johnson-Forest was also special.

(Of course the second layer wasn’t always happy not to be in front and in charge and there were tensions and confrontations, and resentments. But we had CLR on our side—no small matter—and we had to learn to deal with it. But that is another story.)

A form of Johnson-Forest lasted into the 1960s, but the onslaught of the McCarthy witch-hunt including the loss of CLR (forced to leave the United States in 1953) undermined us. Its experience and its ideas continue to be enormously useful to the younger people who hear of them, more every day.

It has been noted that CLR was an early advocate of Black autonomy. He didn’t have a problem with women’s autonomy either. In Los Angeles, three of us (all housewives) met informally as a women’s group from about 1949. But even before that, a resolution I put forward that all the men had to learn to type, was passed unanimously. (Women used to do all the typing in all kinds of organizations.)

How, when others fought to keep the autonomy of women and of people of color, etc., out of their organization? The theory of the third layer is a key. He assumed that, once we were not promoting separatism—a competition with other sectors—what each sector wanted was what the class needed; we were exposing and confronting previously unacknowledged ways in which capitalism exploits, divides, and represses the working class.

But there were other reasons. First, CLR was not threatened by autonomy because his leadership did not depend on having all the answers; it also depended on eliciting answers from others, third layer members first of all. Second, he was himself part of the Black movement; he had urged the Left to accept “the independent validity of the Negro struggle.” How could he be against the autonomy of other sectors?

Bearing in mind that the third layer orientation challenged the capitalist hierarchy from the bottom up, we must look again at the work CLR did with Herman Melville, for example. He set out to wrest great literature from the special preserve of intellectuals. He was determined to demonstrate that third layer people could have in some respects a more profound grasp than intellectuals of what great writers set out to describe. But the work had first to be demystified and made accessible. That was the job of leadership.

CLR’s analysis of Melville had another purpose as well: it was a way, he said, of getting out of the “holes and corners” into which the Left in the United States had allowed itself to be pushed. Even while fighting his deportation case in 1952, he was speaking at universities about Melville’s portrait of the multiracial, multinational working class on the whaling ship, which was a factory, and of the mad, self-indulgent Ahabs who dominated and manipulated them, ruling most of the world. Melville—and Shakespeare, and Milton, etc.—were vehicles that allowed him to make his politics despite McCarthyism.

Finally, State Capitalism and World Revolution, written in 1950, contains this short but stunning paragraph, which blew me away when I first read it:

The first sentence of [Trotsky’s] Transitional Program states that the crisis of the revolution is the crisis of revolutionary leadership. This is the reiterated theme.

Exactly the opposite is the case. It is the crisis of the self-mobilization of the proletariat.

If we have to sum up in a few words the political clarity of CLR James (alias J.R. Johnson), these are as good as any. While the Left since the death of Lenin thought that the revolution’s success was up to them, CLR’s point was that it was up to us, including where necessary against them. We had not sufficiently mobilized ourselves, as was absolutely necessary, to take our movement into our own hands, to make it impossible for any of us to be once removed from our own revolution.

The organizations in which this work was done were small, but their impact was not. The departure from the norm of Left politics that CLR initiated had wide rippling effects. Even when there was no public recognition, and he wasn’t even invited to speak, ideas seemed to have a way of disseminating themselves.5 We would hear that he was spoken of in intellectual, academic, and political circles. Johnson-Forest entered the bones and muscle of the movement and, updated, has shaped the Wages for Housework corner of the movement.

Answers there have been none to CLR’s often-quoted question in Beyond a Boundary: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” The question implies the answer: Not a lot. We can in turn ask: What do they know of CLR James who know little or nothing of his extraordinarily productive life in the Marxist movement? That question implies a similar answer.

I am grateful to my son Sam Weinstein who helped me recall some of the history in the rewriting of this speech. He grew up and was politically educated in Johnson-Forest. Sam is referred to in Beyond a Boundary as “the son of our house”; he and CLR were very close.

  • 1The Black Jacobins, Preface to the 1st edition (New York: Vintage Books, 1963, 1989), xi.
  • 2And within a month Poland had been invaded by both Germany and the USSR, to be followed shortly after by the Soviets stationing troops in the Baltic countries and invading Finland—as it later turned out, all part of the Hitler-Stalin Pact.
  • 3Martin Glaberman, Correspondence 2, no. 9 (1955).
  • 4I was the “younger comrade.” One of the party leaders in Los Angeles was a woman. She believed that sexual liberation was the priority for women. I was silently outraged by this self-indulgent trivializing of the enormity of what women were up against.
  • 5The Left in the UK rarely wanted this famed orator on their platforms in the 1950s and most of the 1960s. And Beyond a Boundary could not at first find a publisher. Some of it of course was racism. How much is anyone’s guess.