On C.L.R. James' Notes on Dialectics

A review by Raya Dunayevskaya of a work by CLR James.

Submitted by libcom on July 26, 2005

I typed James' "Notes on the Dialectic" back in 1948. At that time I thought it was "great," but to think that some who claim to write "not explanations" of the dialectic, but "directly the dialectic itself" (1) would consider that out of the past two critical decades, nothing had emerged that would demand he rewrite it, is surely stagnant thinking, especially when one has ended on something so far from reality as: "The Stalinists are over-running China. They aim at Burma, Korea, the Malay States, Indonesia, Indo-China and India." (p. 226)

The structure of these 226 pages is very lopsided, indeed. Thus, no less than 65 pages are devoted to the Prefaces of Hegel's Science of Logic, but the whole Doctrine of Being rates a mere 7 1/2 pages. The Doctrine of Essence (pp. 74-118) would seem to have gotten a more serious treatment, except that a reading of it shows that James began skipping as soon as he reached Ground (which is barely Section One, much less Sections Two and Three). Nevertheless, since we do here have the advantage that the references are to historic periods--not only 1948, USA, but roaming throughout the world from the English Revolution of 1640-48 through the Great French Revolution, and down to "today," at which point the author sends us on a "Leninist Interlude" (p.98) which is followed as soon as he ends with Essence (p.118) by continuing into "Leninism and the Notion" (p.134)--we can at least get to know what James thinks.

OK, that is a great number of pages and contains a serious study of Lenin. But that analysis is strictly political. The author obviously did not know Lenin's Philosophic Notebooks. Here is how he refers to them. (p.99) "I remember on my journeys between Missouri and New York, stopping at Washington and R[aya] calling out an at-sight translation from Lenin's Russian notes, and my scribbling them down. I still have the notebook. I got plenty, but not nearly enough."

That certainly is true. The only two quotations James refers to are the ones Lenin writes on "Leap" against gradualness, and his excitement about the dialectic as "Movement and self-movement" (wrongly attributed by James to the remarks in the Doctrine of Essence whereas Lenin had made these conclusions long before he battled with the Doctrine of Essence.) This is no simplistic matter about "quotations." The point is that the one "leap" James makes is in the Doctrine of Essence, and so in love is he with Hegel's profound analysis of Contradiction that even in the "1971 edition" (2) he has the third Observation by Hegel retyped as "Appendix." But, as James keeps repeating over and over again, that was not "the new" for our age, for our Tendency; (3) his task was supposed to be to work out the Doctrine of the Notion. But the only (and it is the achievement, the only one James can chalk up) "working out" is the recognition that Lenin's slogan, "to a man," was the new Universal.

But what does he do with the doctrine of the Notion and, on that which he specified as his goal, that is, the relationship between spontaneity and organization? Well, first, he says, "We have to get hold of the Notion of the Absolute Idea, before we can see this relation between organization and spontaneity in its concrete truth." (p.119) Then (pp.119-150), where he is supposed to develop the matter, we get no further than a heavy reliance on Engels' Dialectics of Nature: "Engels has what is in my modest opinion a very satisfying passage on the judgment." (p.121) He barely reaches further than just the categories themselves: Universal, Particular, Individual. As usual, just as he comes to a difficult passage in Hegel, he departs to the Particular, in this case Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution.

Unfortunately, though he achieves something by "applying" the fixed particular to Trotsky's theory of nationalized property=socialism, he seems to be able to do nothing at all with his theory of permanent revolution. Indeed, he now claims that the peasantry is the revolutionary force, which he discovered. Yet, as we can see from these Notes, back in 1948, he leaves out entirely that critical question, the role of the peasantry on which Trotsky was most assuredly always wrong. But what he claims in 1971 was the furthest from his mind in 1948.

As for Hegel himself on the Doctrine of the Notion, he hardly goes beyond that first chapter (p.256 to be exact) (4).He had taken so many interludes on politics, without answering his question "What We Shall Do," at which point he does define Trotsky as "Synthetic Cognition" (pp.157-162). At that point it would appear, we will deal with Absolute Idea, if not with all that comes between p.256 and p.466. But here we have an abundance of quotations with hardly anything "direct" from James, unless by "directly" James meant quoting Hegel directly. Well and good! But the misplaced paean of praise to Engels hardly shows James knows much about the Absolute Idea, for it is buttressed by: "Engels has summed it up once and for all, despite all that modern philosophers write: the fundamental distinction in philosophy is the primacy of materialism/ being, or idealism/knowing." (pp.162-63)

Is that all? And if that is all on the dialectic, then what about James' own goal about spontaneity and organization? "The Party is the knowing of the proletariat as being. Without the party the proletariat knows nothing." (p.172) That sounds absolutely unbelievable in view of the fact that the whole section is, rightly, devoted to the expose of the degeneracy of the party and the need for spontaneity, always greatly praised. How, then, can such hyperboles (so characteristic of James) commit so fantastic a contradiction as to claim that "Without the party the proletariat knows nothing"? I'm afraid you will have to ask him. Just such nonsensical formulations pepper the "book," and, if you should call this to his attention, he'll find the exact opposite on some other page to quote, not the least of which is the sudden and endless diversion to the English Revolution of 1640-48, then to France 1789-93 where, believe it or not, he says the embryo of state-capitalism was born!

I must now get back to why I referred to your letter as a strange one, why James would hardly appreciate my "advice," as you put it, and why, in 1948, I did consider the Notes "great." It was, as James does admit on p.135 "en famille"; it served as stimulus to "ourselves" getting down to Hegel. I, for example, promptly got down to translating Lenin's Philosophic Notebooks in written form. I am that half of Johnson-Forest that founded the state-capitalist Tendency in the U.S. that never once separated the economic analysis of the new stage of world capitalism from its opposite, the stage of workers' revolt, and thus presented it as a dialectic unity of the concept of world revolution. Grace Lee (Ria Stone) was the third in the trio of leadership. She did not occupy a formal post of leader in the SWP, but her name did appear on some Tendency documents, and, in any case, she was the only one who had a formal philosophic degree and carried on a personal correspondence with Johnson, and criticized his Notes on the Dialectic as "academician."

The third step in that digging into Hegel followed in 1948-50 between James, Lee and myself, this time on a much more precise level, section by section in Hegel's Science of Logic and its relevance for our age. It stopped in 1950 when, on the one hand, it all helped in formulating State Capitalism and World Revolution,* and, on the other hand, the General Strike of Miners was on. I proceeded to West Virginia to participate in it. (My reports on that strike and role of women were published in The Militant, and then, as interviews with miners battling Automation before ever that word was invented, they became pivotal to the final chapter of Marxism and Freedom, "Automation and the New Humanism.")(5)

Finally, in 1953, when Stalin died, I was elated enough to break down the Absolute Idea as the movement from practice to theory and a new society. That was six weeks before the historic June 17 East German Revolution. These letters of May 12 and May 20 (included in the Labor Archives of Wayne State University, where the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection is deposited, as written, not as rewritten by James some two decades after the events) so excited Grace that, with her usual hyperboles, she wrote that what Lenin's Philosophic Notebooks achieved in 1914, the May 12 and 20 letters on the Absolute Idea would do for the Movement in 1953. That was the beginning of the end of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, although the actual break-up occurred after the government decided to make the listing...(6)

Yours, Raya

*(ADDENDUM written July, 1972--RD)

James had twice reproduced State-Capitalism and World Revolution, once in England in 1956, to which was attached a group of names that had absolutely nothing to do with its writing, much less its state-capitalist theory and the second time, in the 1960's under his own name, which, for the C.L.R. James of 1972 remains the fundamental document. Now, supposing, for the sake of argument, we had said nothing about the fact that it was not a personal, but a Tendency document, and had not made a point about the fact that Facing Reality (7) did not logically flow from it, but, in truth, was produced only after Johnson and Forest went their separate ways; supposing, furthermore, that we also would not have called attention to the fact that before "the third" 1967 document on the peasantry could be published, what had remained of the "Johnsonites" had undergone still another split, this time with Grace Lee; and supposing, finally, we allowed James to forget the not-so-accidental break with his co-founder--how could all that possiby explain 1) the reproduction of the Tendency's 1950 document, State Capitalism and World Revolution "as is" as if the subsequent two critical decades had produced nothing new in the theory of state-capitalism; and 2) how could it possibly absolve James of the conspiracy of silence, not only around Marxism and Freedom, but about the fact that the majority of the Tendency who had worked out that document he is so proud to keep reproducing had broken with him, to establish the Marxist-Humanist paper edited by a Black production worker, the Black auto worker whose autobiography (Indignant Heart) (8) signalled the beginning of that new dimension that made it possible, finally, to be totally independent of Trotskyism? In a word, State Capitalism and World Revolution is old hat not only in the sense that it was written in 1950, but in the more fundamental sense that it was argued within a Trotskyist framework, since the Tendency was then still part of the SWP.

1. James had written to O'Neill: "I take the liberty of sending you a work of my own...a study of the dialectic of Hegel, not explanations of the dialectic but directly the dialectic itself...I regret to say that it is the only direct study of the dialectic that I know...I am concerned with trying to find out what qualified people think of my book and the possibility of normal publication."

2. James called what had been mimeographed by "Friends of Facing Reality" in 1971 a "second edition" of his 1948 work

3. C.L.R. James (J.R. Johnson) and Raya Dunayevskaya (Freddie Forest) had co-founded an opposition State-Capitalist Tendency within the American Trotskyist movement, which was named the Johnson-Forest Tendency in December 1945.

4. James' reference in his "Notes" are to Hegel's, Science of Logic, translated by Johnston and Struthers, Vol. II.

5. For a full discussion of the events of 1949-50, see The Coal Miners' General Strike of 1949-50 and the Birth of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S., published by News and Letters in 1984.

6. In December 1954, at the height of McCarthyism, Johnson-Forest were placed on the Attorney General's subversive list. For more on this period see 25 Years of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S., pp.1-4.

7. Facing Reality, by Grace C. Lee, Pierre Chaulieu and J.R. Johnson, came off the press in 1958.

8. In 1978, this 1952 autobiography of Charles Denby appeared as Part I of Indignant Heart: A Black Worker's Journal, in Part II of which Denby continued his life story after he became editor of the Marxist-Humanist journal, News & Letters.