Most of my political friends are disappointed with my current politics. The ones on the left think I’ve become a neoconservative, abandoning my younger anti-war sentiment. Over on the right they are impatiently waiting for me to give up on Marx and socialism. In the centre they chastise me for espousing a pie-in-the-sky radicalism.
Guilty, on all counts.
On the other hand, there is a great deal of continuity between today and where I was at forty years ago.
For most of my adult life I’ve believed in a school of revolutionary socialism that had already lost most of its adherents by the time I discovered it. I was a teenager when I started reading the works of CLR James, and his associates. James was born in Trinidad, in 1901. The first book of his that I read was The Black Jacobins, a history of the Haitian Revolution at the end of the 18th century, the only successful slave rebellion.
When James moved to London he became a leader within Trotsky’s Fourth International, and then broke from the old Bolshevik’s movement to establish his own Marxist organization, taking some of the brightest and most able with him.
Their arguments with the other Marxists were in two areas. They disagreed about the nature of the Soviet Union, saying that it was not socialist at all, but a form of state capitalism. And they believed there was no longer any need for a vanguard party to lead the working classes.
They saw revolution as a spontaneous process, one that could be understood, but not guided, by Marx’s historical materialism.
I still think they were on to something. But their timing was off. Not only did they believe Marx about socialism being necessary and inevitable, they thought it was imminent. And caught up in their enthusiasm, so did I.
Given the tumultuous and so often horrific events of those times, it was easy to believe that capitalism needed to be replaced, asap. And there were signs, like the Hungarian revolution of 1956, that showed a new order was breaking through.
While I wanted this revolution, I didn’t become a revolutionary, or join a revolutionary organization. There wasn’t one. James’s small group went through a couple of splits and eventually foundered. I met several people who had once belonged to the Detroit chapter, and struck up a long relationship with Marty Glaberman, who kept much of their work in print, through his Bewicked Press. I was able to help Marty, and his fellow sociologist Seymour Faber, by writing and talking about my experiences as an assembly line worker, which they used in some of their own publications. Did a bit of proof reading for them too. And they got me to read a lot of Marx, and Hegel, and even some Lenin.
At the same time I was a social activist, first as a student leader and then in the area of gay rights, and the fight against AIDS. That too was also inspired by James, who believed in the independent validity of liberation movements, even though they were limited by being a part of the ongoing bourgeois revolution.
When the Soviet Union fell and Russia and China went explicitly capitalist, the followers of James thought their perspective had been vindicated. They were right, but it didn’t matter.
I used to think socialist revolution was possible within five years. Now I joke that it is at least five years away. More likely 50, or even 150. I thought then that it would take a violent armed coup. Indeed one reason for thinking it was imminent was that so many workers had fought in wars, knew how to use weapons, and in the US at least, had easy access to them. Yet while holding this view I was marching in anti-war demonstrations on both sides of the border.
Now I hope when that revolution comes it is a peaceful democratic series of events. That is the only way I can imagine it being successful. That, and it taking place only after we’ve exhausted most if not all of the reforms possible under the current system.
Indeed, since the turn of the century I’ve come around to a more nuanced view of capitalism as well. Yes it’s the apex of class struggle, but it’s also the adolescence of humanity. I don’t believe it can last forever, because all growth spurts come to an end. Socialism is when we mature as a species.
Eventually money will be replaced by a fairer system of exchange, and the ownership of land and large capital resources will belong to those who directly use them and consume them. Civil society will expand and replace the state.
But I am not concerned right now with what socialism might look like, nor even with finding signs of what James called the Future in the Present. What I am worried about is what the present has to offer the future, ie. the current state of democracy.
I have two reforms in that regard that I like to argue about. Crazy as they may seem, I think it’s possible they both may actually happen in the coming decades.
1. We need to abolish the political party systems that have corrupted how we run elections and write laws and supervise our governments. The only loyalty a politician should have should be to his or her constituents. I got this idea when we republished Every Cook Can Govern, as the first step on the road back to direct democracy.
2. While it’s too soon for a world government, we here in the New World should take heed from the experiment in Europe. Canada and Mexico should join with our big brother in the middle and form a United States of North America. (That would be the pie-in-the-sky stuff.) South America should do the same. James had similar ambitions for the Federation of the West Indies. Diane Francis is already calling for a Canada-US merger. I think we need Mexico too, and they need us.
In addition to advocating democratic reforms, I’m also just trying to understand what’s happening with technology and markets, innovation and competition. Reading a lot of Hayek these days, and Horace Dediu.
Even though I turned away from violent revolution it is true that I joined with both the neoconservatives and the “decent left” in supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for humanitarian reasons. Marx himself supported Lincoln and the North in the American Civil war. War, always evil, is still sometimes necessary. And I no longer think it is prudent to avoid the small wars, when they might prevent far larger conflagrations. This is another area where I think James et al made a serious error, misjudging the nature of the 2nd world war. They should have paid more attention to Orwell, and even Churchill.
The colonialism that James fought is dead. Those of his followers, and others on the left, who oppose nation building from the perspective of the old anti-imperialism, haven’t kept up with the times, and have ended up supporting new forms of fascism instead.
I have even changed my mind, somewhat, on Vietnam. It was an unnecessary war, and the great achievement of the anti-war movement was ending the draft. But now I think Congress was wrong, at the end of that conflict, to abandon the South Vietnamese. Likewise, the return of isolationism in the US today is not going to make the world a safer place.
Even righteous wars are full of atrocity and outrageous suffering. The American Civil War ended with Sherman’s campaign of terror, burning and pillaging the South.
And giving your support to the leadership of a nation state can come back to haunt you. CLR James was more than once betrayed by former students and colleagues, who took control of the liberated states in Africa and the Caribbean. In the 1960s he reversed himself on Mao’s China, giving his support to a regime that, as we learned later, had just been responsible for the worst famine in the 20th century.
Marty was bewildered by James’ endorsement of a totalitarian leader. But Marty hadn’t been very happy a decade earlier when James wrote the last chapter of Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, as a petition for US citizenship. It didn’t work; James was expelled during the height of McCarthyism.
After 9/11 Marty was quoted in the Detroit media, like many other leftists, decrying the US as the most terrorist country in the world. We had a falling out over that, as I told him that might be, but that like Marx and James I also saw the US as the best hope the world has for a better future. Sometimes, Marty replied, even the best of us are wrong.
I finally met James when he came to give a talk at the University of Windsor, around about 1975. I’m told he was an impressive speaker, but I was late getting to the event itself. James had forgotten his passport, and I had been sent to retrieve it, back at his apartment in Washington, DC, where he was once again being allowed to live.
We did get a few hours to talk before he had to leave, and we ended up arguing, of all things, about science fiction, a genre of writing of which he disapproved. This was a big mistake I told him, if he really wanted to understand American culture in the 2nd half of the 20th century. We found common ground in our mutual appreciation of the film Dog Day Afternoon. He told me I was always welcome to come visit him, and I intended to, but he moved back to Britain a few years later.
Some writing by CLR James: