Letters to the Editors

Against the Current, No. 62, May/June 1996

Peter Drucker; Linda Gordon

PAUL LE BLANC’S “THE Marxism of CLR James” (ATC 60) was a fine appreciation of a socialist who has deservedly received considerable attention in recent years. There was only one paragraph that fell short of the piece’s otherwise high standard: the passage where Le Blanc briefly, and I think unfairly, compares James’ politics in the mid-1940s to those of the Workers Party majority around Max Shachtman.

1) I agree with Le Blanc that James’ approach to African-American struggle was more insightful than Shachtman’s. But Shachtman never wanted these struggles to be “subsumed under the general struggle of the working class.” He attacked the Socialist Party’s “color-blind” attitude as early as the 1930s, and the whole Workers Party in the 1940s fought for anti-racist action in the CIO.

2) James’ tendency did maintain that the U.S. working class was “far more radical” than the Workers Party majority thought–because it said that revolution would sweep Europe at war’s end and the United States would fall into a new Depression. Shachtman’s predictions of a “democratic interval” in Western Europe and a period of prosperity in the United States showed far greater realism.

At the same time Shachtman insisted in the late 1940s on the revolutionary character of the U.S. working class, writing after James had left the WP that it would “yet be the living vindication of Marxism.”

3) Shachtman worked at least as hard as James in 1945-47 for reunification of the WP and SWP, sticking to this position for weeks after James P. Cannon tuned his back on it in April 1947. In fact Shachtman said it was James’ decision to leave the WP for the SWP in July 1947 that finally turned the idea of reunification into “a bad joke.”

Appreciating James’ contributions no more requires justifying his 1947 split from the WP than it requires justifying his 1951 split from the SWP. His strengths were above all in history, literature and theory, not in practical politics. If a Trotskyist like Le Blanc can now appreciate James’ strengths and be understanding of his weaknesses, why not do the same for the revolutionary Shachtman of the 1940s, from whom we also have things to learn?

THANKS FOR REVIEWING my book, Pitied But Not Entitled (ATC 60). As to my understanding the role of collective action, I guess Amy Hanauer and I just disagree about that. Most historians think I exaggerate the importance of collective action! I think Amy may have missed my crucial point in the chapter on social movements: that while there were active movements for relief, old-age pensions and unemployment compensation, there wasn’t an active women’s movement or any group speaking for the needs of single mothers, who have become our main “welfare class” and who are treated terribly by our welfare state. The reason Piven and Cloward don’t notice that lack is because their work ignores women.

ATC 62, May-June 1996