Loren Goldner on CLR James and Revolutionary Organization

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by Will


2352918199_2acbb8cd22_mOne of the purposes of this blog is to discuss revolutionary organization.  This phrase, conception, and type of organization have become very unpopular amongst American radicals and progressives today.  What was once seen as a viable alternative for hundreds of thousands of people has now become a flickering candle in the wind.  Why is this the case?  While this post will not go into the history of how this has happened, this post hopes to engage this question on the terms of how the Johnson-Forest Tendency rethought this question in light of the new political realities of the post-WWII era.  They advanced new ways of thinking about organization, politics, and revolution, that can contribute much to new discussions today that are going on and need to continue. At the same time, their advance had some profound weaknesses as well which Goldner discusses.  While these weaknesses are very real, it still leaves the question of what alternatives there are if the vanguard party is dead and at the same time Facing Reality’s proposition of organization has failed as well.

I am posting two pieces by Loren Goldner. The first is a basic overview of the tendency. It will help contextualize the period they were in, provide a little autobiographical information on the authors, and in more broader terms explain what they were trying to do.


The second piece is Loren Goldner’s re-reading of Facing Reality.  Goldner is attempting to look at this work, which was a product of a unique moment in capitalism.  I have broken down Loren Goldner’s essay into key points with occasional commentary.  Each of these points can be further explored in our discussion in the upcoming days.


Here are some introductory thoughts:

1. Facing Reality has workerist excesses at times.  LG defines it as “The book focuses almost exclusively (with the exception of Hungary) on workers’ struggles and power on the shop floor, and is therefore (rightly) open to the charge of workerism, an excessive point-of-production focus, with elements that seem at times almost syndicalist.”  This is one of the reasons why James could not explain why such powerful shop floor self-activity did not result in revolution and how the neo-liberal offensive broke its back.

2. Facing Reality argues that the vanguard party was an acceptable model for the Russian Revolution, but will not fit the social and political realities of a world dominated by the state and the vanguard Stalinist-Communist parties.

3. The existence of state-capitalism is proof of the immensely violent and oppressive forces needed to keep working class revolution from exploding. The implication is literally that revolution can happen any moment. “The period of transition to socialism is the present period.” (Facing Reality 99)

4. Related to the existence of state-capitalism/ one party state is that millions of workers in the world are going through a common collective experience which prepares them for revolutionary struggle which breaks the need for a vanguard party to lead them.  State-Capitalist development has provided the workers with skills to run the new society, has exposed them to cultural and scientific developments to create a richer new society.

5. Facing Reality makes a distinction from vanguardist leadership and non-vangaurdist leadership.  This is particularly important in light of the influence of Hegel and Lenin on their organization.  This approach also maintains that some type of leadership is a must for the working class and revolution.

6. Automation was not just a technical innovation by the capitalists, but it also opened up political doors for a post-capitalist or post-scarcity society, meaning enough was being produced in the world, where workers did not have to toil in the factories all day.  They could participate in all levels of society.

7. The “new society” is present in the old and that the former has to squeeze out/ fight the old for the new to break out of the old. Goldner puts it well, “socialism consists in nothing more or less than pushing aside all aspects of the official society that hold them back, up to the formation of a Republic of Workers Councils.” This an important part of reading the contradictory self-activity not just in politics, but also in culture, sports, social life etc. Again, this could not be done without a basic and dialectical understanding of Hegel.

This is seen as the contradictory approach of paying just as much attention to what workers do in contrast to what they say.  Goldner points this out in a good story, “Paradigmatic for this formulation is Marty Glaberman’s experience of the 1943 Detroit auto wildcats against the no-strike pledge, carried out by workers who were often Roosevelt (and sometimes even Wilkie) supporters, and who just before had even voted for the no-strike pledge at a UAW convention.”

8.  Self-reflexivity is Loren Goldner’s way of saying self-movement or perhaps self-activity.  Self-reflexivity is the paradigm shift, which took place from the early 20th century struggles to the post-WWII struggles.  More precisely, the consequence for the working class was the difference between acted upon by vanguard parties to one which was the working class was the leader of its own self-emancipation.  The difference is terms of being an object to being transformed into a subject.

Goldner also makes a philosophical point relating the “Marxism” of the early 20th century to scientist and middle class inheritances and interpretations from Enlightenment rationalist thought.  Philosophical dimensions of Enlightenment thought which Goldner is reaching for, is the object-subject split seen in the divisions between an enlightened set of professionals in the form of liberalism and “Marxism.”  These currents treated the working class as objects, which had to be reformed or acted upon. This culminated most clearly in terms of state-capitalism (including Russia and its satellites) around the world where people’s lives were planned in every detail.

9. Facing Reality wrestles with the automation occurring in the mid-west.  They particularly focus on the car industry as a bell weather of a future form of capitalism.  While Facing Reality understood the problem of unemployment created by automation, they did not understand that capitalism had the potential for re-composition in terms of relocating industries, creating service sector jobs, and there rise of FIRE jobs (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate).  In other words, Facing Reality can be accused of not being able to predict the defeat of such powerful working class self-activity.  To be fair to Facing Reality, this defeat was a historic one which would have been difficult to foresee by even the sharpest of revolutionaries.

10. A major component of Facing Reality is to rethink what type of revolutionary organization is needed taking into account the new developments of the post Russian Revolution and WWII era.  Their understanding of organization is directly tied to this assessment, laid out in points 1 through 9.  There cannot be a separation from the political analyses from the organizational solution imagined by Facing Reality. It is clear that Facing Reality wants to break with the philosophical, organizational, and political underpinnings of the Trotskyit sects which populated the American left.  How do they attempt to do this is very important.

Goldner says, “They argue that the great masses of people today have ideas similar to those of the Marxist organization but in their own form; hence the need to “recognize and record.”  A few more minor points are included in that workers need information about the past and access culture and science which point to the end of the old society.  In a nutshell this sums up their organizational conclusions.

11. Bordigist critique of “immediatism” which is a “workplace centered view of the working class.”  So revolution becomes the liberation of workers only in terms of workers which has limitations.  Seeing revolution only in such terms replicates the narrowness of capitalism itself which divides the working class into isolated factories.  A new conception of being needs to be born which poses a more universal idea of being or identity. In other words revolution is an upheaval not only at the point of production, but an upheaval of all aspects of life ranging from movies and literature to family and friendship to architecture and public space.

12. Facing Reality also understood working class self-activity in different terms from Trotskyist organizations.  They did not see workers voting for Democrats or the Labor Party in Britain in terms of false consciousness.  They overturned conventional explanation of this behavior and instead said that workers use channels of official society when they need them and discard them when they are no longer helpful.  This relationship pushes the limits of official society, potentially breaking it down as the channels are overloaded with the self-activity of the working class.

Loren Goldner asks how this approach to reading the self-activity of the working class understand workers voting for George Wallance and Ronald Reagan? Workers supporting anti-immigrant parties in Europe? Workers calling for protectionism? Etc etc.  Would Facing Reality fight for a different position or would it just let the Marxist newspaper turn into a forum where these perspectives might dominate? If they did step in, would the premise of record and recognize be violated?

13. Facing Reality writes, “What is the difference today between theory and practice, between theory for the intellectuals and theory for the masses? There is none.”  This means that the working class is ready to face all questions of the day on the highest levels.  This is tied to Facing Reality’s understanding of the relationship to capitalism, development, and modernity.  Incidentally this will get James in immense trouble when looking at revolutions and the question of direct democracy in the Third World.

14. Facing Reality writes, “The vanguard organization substituted political theory and an internal political life for the human responses and sensitivities of its members to ordinary people. It has now become very difficult for them to go back into the stream of the community.”

This is an important development pointing to the degeneration of revolutionary organization and what type of community it can give to its membership.  Facing Reality believes that vanguard organizations are too narrow to reflect the rich development of working class life, culture, and politics.

15. Goldner captures an important tension or ambiguity which is never elaborated in depth in Facing Reality.  On the one hand Facing Reality argues that their newspaper should be a forum for the views of workers.  Later on, they say that the Marxist organization has its own position and must fight for it.   This is surprising because most of the book is dedicated to the fact that the working class has achieved a new level of total self-activity to the point that revolutionary organization only needs to record and recognize their thought.  If this is the case, why does a Marxist organization need its own independent views.  Won’t the views of the Marxist organization already match up with the views of working class?

Loren Goldner’s questions expose the contradictions, “What is then this “own position” around which the Marxist organization “will have to stand firm”? Such a shift in focus seems to jump off the page; it is never mentioned before or after in the text. Stand firm around what? Does the Marxist organization then have something special to say that is NOT expressed by the conflicting viewpoints of workers? And if this is a newspaper “by workers, not for workers”, just who is supposed to articulate this? And does this not constitute some “theory” different from the “practice” of the masses of people at some point?”

To boil the question down to its fundamental point would be to ask if an interventionist revolutionary organization is necessary today? And if so, what is the relationship between revolutionary organization and mass activity?

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3 thoughts on “Loren Goldner on CLR James and Revolutionary Organization”

  1. When talking about revolutions and direct democracy in the third world, you say, “Incidentally this will get James in immense trouble when looking at revolutions and the question of direct democracy in the Third World.”

    Could you expand on this a little bit? I can see it having two meanings. On the one hand, it could refer to the “trouble” he gets into with Eric Williams after the two of them break over Williams’ accommodation with the U.S. On the other, you could be referring to the “theoretical” trouble James gets into when he starts being soft on revolutions in the Third World at the time, and not subjecting him to the same kinds of withering criticisms he did for Soviet society under state capitalism.

    At the same time, it’s not necessarily an either/or, where the trouble is only one of these and you have to choose. Both were a different kind of trouble, one for being consistent politically, no matter the costs, the other for being inconsistent politically and accommodating certain regimes.

  2. Hi Mikey

    James got in trouble with Williams in my take because of his theoretical misunderstandings. So I agree with you that the trouble is not an either or choice between being politically consistent in a theoretical sense and being consistent in terms of what regimes he chose to favor. From CLR’s writings on Nkrumah, Gandhi, to Eric Williams (to name some) we see a disposition to highlight middle class mass party organizations even though there was working class and peasant support for these organizations. James basically fell into supporting mass based left-nationalist parties in the third world and calling for direct democracy in the advanced capitalist countries. This is astonishing considering CLR’s and JFT’s perspectives on direct democracy!

    But more specifically to James and Marxism we see the tie-up of modernity, capitalism, progress, and direct democracy. For James and Marx (barring his writings on the Russian villages which are the only discussions I am aware of where Marx lays out the possibility of leaping over capitalist development to reach communism) they are tied together. What I am trying to get at is that capitalist development is intricately tied to the possibilities of direct democracy for both thinkers. There is an important essay waiting to be written about Facing Reality along such lines, but that will have to wait. So mass middle-class parties became the defacto organization and left-nationalism politics for James because the working class was too weak to lead a socialist revolution. I have not seen James take up the question of permanent revolution from the angle of the “third world” and what implications that might have in terms of leaping over the capitalist development. This appears to be a big weakness on James’s part. Instead of James falling in the camp of “socialism in one country”, he implicitly argued for socialism in the advanced capitalist countries only. My last point is that this has devastating consequences for the majority of the world population which is people of color. That James failed to see he condemned so many people of color to the horrors of state-capitalist development is pretty disappointing to say the least.

  3. It seems that the analysis of state capitalism and the Third World (and particularly China) manifested unevenly across JFT and Correspondence. Whereas James was consistently thorough in his conceptions of Stalinism, its satellite nations, and Welfare State Capitalism (a half-way house to totalitarianism and the One Party State as written in Facing Reality) all as an obstacle to the self-government of the working class, he vacillated when it came to the Chinese Revolution and the CCP. At times he saw it in its Stalinist reality yet at other times revered Mao for his apparent attack on the bureaucracy (missing the obvious fact that he WAS the bureaucracy). Dunayevskaya, at least upon breaking with Correspondence to form News and Letters, was the most consistent in her attack of Mao and the CCP as the embodiment of State Capitalism. Grace Lee Boggs seemed to drift to the right after splitting from Correspondence coming under the influence of the Maoist current within the New Left, extolling in her collaborative book “Conversations in Maine” the New Man and the need for some variation of a cultural revolution as a prerequisite for revolutionary change (or even as revolutionary change itself).

    In Andrew Salkey’s book, “Havana Journal,” you see James in Cuba following the 1959 revolution tailing and glorifying Castro with the disclaimer that in the West there is no longer any need for a Leninist vanguard party. It seems that as much as James had broken from conventional Marxism, he still failed to move beyond certain stagist or Menshevik conceptions that inhibited him from seeing the full possibilities for self-government in the colonies. In fact, he was attacked by V.S. Naipaul (in the form of one of his novels, I believe) for running around the Third World looking for the next dictator to convince of his historical mission (though Naipaul has been seen at times as a mouthpiece for British imperialism). Caribbean groups that were influenced by James were, from what I understand, trying to rectify his conception of the self-movement of the proletariat to apply universally. So where James took an equivocal stance on China as state capitalist, in the Third World the objective possibilities for a self-governing working class or peasantry apparently did not exist and had to be led by a vanguard, hence his support for Nyerere, Nkrumah, and Castro.

    Nonetheless, James, Dunayevskaya, and Boggs went further than Tony Cliff in developing and adding content to the theory of State Capitalism. They saw it not as limited to the USSR but reflected in the tendency of the growth of capital itself. Where Cliff saw the USSR as state capitalist he did so only in its relation to the rest of the world and in the competition of the international market, not in its internal movement, not through the law of value which he denied existed inside the USSR. For JFT, the production of value was the basis for the theory itself. Through value production, workers were producing over and above what they were paid in wages, only the resulting profit wasn’t appropriated by a single capitalist, but by a state bureaucracy.

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