Against the Current, No. 156, January/February 2012
From "Occupy" to ...
— The ATC Editors
A Convergence of Realities
— Malik Miah
Pushing Demands at OWS?
— Stephanie Luce
Fighting Back: Sotheby's and OWS
— an interview with David Martinez
The Oakland Port Shutdown
— Bill Balderston
Occupy and Detroit's Crisis
— Kim Hunter and Dianne Feeley
Detroit's Crisis -- Coming to You?
— David Finkel
"Solidarity" Beats Austerity
— Meleiza Figueroa and Julie Michelle Klinger
The Police Riot at OccupyCAL
— Rob Peters-Slaughter
An Education in Occupy
— Connor Elkington
Why I Stand with Occupy
— Elizabeth Roland
Where to Occupy Next?
— Antonio Venegas
Occupy Portland Regroups
— Johanna Brenner and Bill Resnick
Two Months in LA's Solidarity Park
— Vanessa Carlisle
Police Violence and Media Coverup
— Vanessa Carlisle
Occupy Isla Vista for the 99%
— E. Feng and J. Gamma
The Arab Spring, the West and Political Islam
— Hisham H. Ahmed
Egypt's Unfinished Revolution
— an interview with Atef Said
- Freedom Riders
France: The NPA in Crisis
— Jason Stanley
Mumia Faces Life in Prison
— Steve Bloom
- African-American History and Politics
C.L.R. James' Visionary Legacy
— Paul Ortiz
The Unknown Slave Rebellion
— Derrick Morrison
Roots of U.S. Capitalism
— Bruce Levine
The Debate at Halle
— E. Haberkern
Hitler's Bestiary from the Inside
— Kathlene McDonald
How Laws Assault Queer People
— Susan Dirr and Tessa Echeverria
The CIA's Death Machine at Work
— Michael Löwy
I WOULD LIKE to begin with a quote that readers of Caribbean literature will instantly recognize. We start here because in order to understand the connection between Black History Month and revolution, we must explode the stifling separation between art and everyday life that bourgeois society everywhere seeks to impose on us:
“It is not often recognized that the major thrust of Caribbean literature in English rose from the soil of labor resistance in the 1930s. The expansion of social justice initiated by the labor struggle had a direct effect on liberating the imagination and restoring the confidence of men and women in the essential humanity of their simple lives. In the cultural history of the region, there is a direct connection between labor and literature.”(1) — George Lamming
Barely two decades after the proclaimed “End of History” with the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have witnessed events which demonstrate that our global economic system is untenable and indefensible. Capitalism’s episodes of recent failures and moral travesties are too numerous to list here but the list includes: the meltdown of the western financial sectors, global warming’s desiccation of sub-Saharan Africa, the escalation of American and European military aggression, and the unconscionable promotion of weapons sales in the Third World.
Closer to home, the Supreme Court has placed even more power in the hands of corporations. We see the grotesque regimentation of our children in schools designed to crush their spirits in the name of competition. Firms pay enormous bonuses to Wall Street CEOs who have been bailed out by public funds, at the same time that 63% of school teachers in the United States report that “they buy food for hungry students every month.” All of this boils down to an economic system where the accumulation of capital, and not the development of the individual, has betrayed the basic human instinct for freedom.
One difference between this economic crisis and earlier ones is that the bugbear of Soviet Communism is no longer there to serve as a useful excuse or salve for capitalism’s failures. Mikhail Gorbachev was recently quoted as saying that capitalism needs its own perestroika. It needs far more than that. This symposium takes place at a time when all over the world, at this very moment, people are meeting to discuss what happens next. One thing is clear: immense social change is on the horizon.
Black History, Art and Revolution
The holding of this symposium in conjunction with the commemoration of Black History Month is fitting. In many ways, the world that we live in began in 1791. Our modernity was rooted in the rich soil of the northern plains of the nation we now call Haiti. In the midst of the French Revolution, tens of thousands of enslaved Africans rose up in a calculated effort to abolish slavery forever in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. The establishment of Haiti as the first free republic in the Americas set in motion events which would help lead to the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821), the wars of liberation in Latin America, the U.S. Civil War, and the abolition of slavery in the Western Hemisphere.
To paraphrase W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the greatest dramas of the modern era has been the revolt of peoples of African descent against the brutal caste and racial systems designed to crush their humanity. In the United States, the northern pro-slavery movement, based as it was in the School of Theology at Yale University was no match for the pro-freedom movement anchored by William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and many others.
The cultural achievements of enslaved African Americans in the Americas, are equally important. As Professor Sterling Stuckey reminds us, “We know that the slaves dominated the arts as surely as they dominated the cultivation of tobacco and cotton. Despite the leisure that slave labor afforded slave masters, not a single art form of which the world has taken notice was created by the master class in the New World.”(2)
The blues and jazz, rooted in specific struggles and social conditions in slavery and segregation, have become America’s universal art forms. How this occurred is beyond the scope of this lecture, but C.L.R. James describes the process: “What I am saying is that the greatest artists of our day have been people who somehow have found themselves in circumstances in which they did not write or work for the educated intellectual public, as all these other writers do, but found themselves compelled to appeal to the ordinary citizen.”
I was reminded of James’ insight recently in Indianola, Mississippi at the opening of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. The museum screened a documentary film that covered one of King’s musical tours in Eastern Europe. When the filmmaker asked a group of Polish citizens why they were lining up by the thousands for the opportunity to watch the “King of the Blues” they responded: “We don’t understand English, or much of the lyrics; however, we feel that he is singing directly to us.” This, brothers and sisters, is a form of communication more powerful than all forms of social media combined. When we study and learn its source we come closer to understanding how revolutionary movements might sweep the world in the next decades.
Intellectual Foundations and Revolutionary Optimism
C.L.R. James was a product of the African Diaspora. He was the consummate revolutionary and, I believe, by far the most important Marxist for the 21st century. He lived a very long life. James was born in Trinidad in 1901, and he died in 1989. He suffered grievous setbacks. His former pupil Eric Williams, the first prime minister of independent Trinidad, placed him under house arrest and banned his books.
In spite of this, James never became cynical. Like the beloved historian Howard Zinn, James was an optimist to the end. Late in life, he would tell younger activists born in the latter part of the 20th century how much he admired their timing. The 21st century, James said, was going to be the century of Revolution.
C.L.R. James was part of an intellectual movement of peoples that has produced the most far-reaching radical intellectual tradition of the past several centuries. James understood himself to be part of this lineage which included David Walker, Nanny, Queen of the Maroons, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Paul Robeson, and countless others.
James was also a great admirer of the best of the European traditions, and was fond of telling listeners that,“Thackeray, not Marx, bears the greatest responsibility for me.” Indeed, James relates that his movement into socialism was facilitated by reading European literature as a young colonial school child in Trinidad.
When James arrived in England in the 1930s, he recognized that the crushing poverty that Charles Dickens wrote about in the 1850s was just as prevalent nearly a century later. Before he ever read Marx, James understood that capitalism was incapable of solving its own contradictions. When C.L.R. said that the 21st century was going to be the century of revolution, he meant that this century would also be the final century of capitalism.
James maintained his revolutionary optimism because he believed in the capacity of ordinary people to do extraordinary things. He witnessed farm laborers and oil workers in Trinidad shake the British Empire to its very foundations during the West Indian General Strike of 1937. He preached tirelessly of the ways that workers councils in battered Hungary were bringing forth the new society until Soviet tanks crushed their achievement in 1956.
James’ blueprint of revolution was based on people’s ideas expressed through their experiences in struggle. He believed that this process was illustrated in the Hungarian Revolution. Workers used their experiences in production to begin building a democratic society. He states:
“The secret of the workers’ councils is this. From the very start of the Hungarian revolution, these shop-floor organizations of the workers demonstrated such conscious mastery of the needs, processes, and inter-relations of production, that they did not have to exercise any domination over people. That mastery is the only basis of political power against the bureaucratic state. It is the very essence of any government which is to be based upon general consent and not on force. The administration of things by the workers’ councils established a basic coherence in society and from this coherence they derived automatically their right to govern.”(3)
The Meaning of the Haitian Revolution
James’ monograph on the Haitian Revolution is one of the greatest historical works in the English language. Published in 1938, it is read today by students in scores of different languages. Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution is a model of comparative revolutionary movements. The book provided a powerful example as well as cautionary tale for 20th century anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
In Black Jacobins James analyzes the only successful slave revolution in history, the 15-year struggle of enslaved Africans of Haiti (or Saint-Domingue as the French called it) to win their freedom. The Haitian Revolution, an African revolution in the Americas, was made possible by the French Revolution; it resulted in the first free republic of the Western Hemisphere.
The central historical question that C.L.R. James seeks to answer is this: how did enslaved Africans transform themselves from quaking in fear at the sight of a single white man to carrying out a successful revolution? The odds that this struggle would succeed were one-in-a-million.
Europe was divided on many issues in the 1790s, but the imperialists were united on the question of needing to crush this dangerous “contagion of liberty” as Europeans called Haiti. The ex-slave regiments of Saint-Domingue fought, and defeated in turn, armies of the Spanish, British and French empires. In an effort to restore slavery, Napoleon Bonaparte’s generals tortured and executed tens of thousands of Haitian freedom fighters.
The narrative style of Black Jacobins is unmistakably Shakespearean and tragic: “When Chevalier, a black chief, hesitated at the sight of the scaffold, his wife shamed him. ‘You do not know how sweet it is to die for liberty!’ And refusing herself to be hanged by the executioner, she took the rope and hanged herself….To her daughters going to execution with her, another woman gave courage. ‘Be glad you will not be the mothers of slaves.’”(4)
The African regiments, shoeless, often armed only with sticks and rocks, faced Europe’s finest cavalry, artillery and infantry battalions. These former slaves went into battle singing: “We’ll string up the aristocrats! Despotism will die, Liberty will triumph.” “We will win, we will win, we will win.”
Five decades after the war, a French military observer recalled: “’But what men these blacks are! How they fight and how they die!…The more they fell, the greater seemed to be the courage of the rest…I have seen a solid column, torn by grape-shot from four pieces of cannon, advance without making a retrograde step. The more they fell, the greater seemed to be the courage of the rest. They advanced singing, for the Negro sings everywhere, makes songs on everything.”
Time and again, James’ thoughtful interpretation of his experiences, and his Marxist historical method, allowed him to see revolutionary openings that others — including most Marxists! — missed. In the 1980 forward to Black Jacobins, he tells us that:
“…my West Indian experiences and my study of Marxism had made me see what had eluded many previous writers, that it was the slaves who had made the Revolution. Many of the slave leaders to the end were unable to read or write. And in the archives you can see reports (and admirable reports they are) in which the officer who made it traces his name in ink over a pencil draft prepared for him.” [James: 2001, xvi]
Please understand what James is saying. He tells us that the revolution, the struggle of people to create the new society, is being invented by and fought for by the illiterate alongside the educated, in a new kind of alliance that had never before been seen. There are no experts directing the masses. Solidarity, not leadership, is the true lifeblood of building a movement.
Toussaint L’Ouverture was a privileged, highly literate house slave whose first act when the revolution came was to ship his owners off to safety — and yet he became the greatest revolutionary general of the era. But James reminds us repeatedly that “It was the San Domingo masses that saved him [Toussaint]…” from his worst mistakes. Insofar as Toussaint keeps in touch with the aspirations of the poorest of the poor he succeeds; when he loses touch with his base he fails. This was James’ warning to modern, anti-colonial movements and it is more true than ever before.
Philip Vera Cruz stated the case equally well: “Leadership, I feel, is only incidental to the movement. The movement should be the most important thing. If the leader becomes the most important part of the movement, then you won’t have a movement after the leader is gone. The movement must go beyond its leaders. It must be something that is continuous, with goals and ideals that the leadership can build upon.”(5)
Even after General Bonaparte removed Toussaint from the war through treacherous means, the Saint-Domingue masses prevailed. Napoleon’s anguished field commander wrote: “It is not enough to have taken away Toussaint, there are 2,000 leaders to be taken away.” This was the central meaning of the Haitian Revolution.
Social movements and revolutions create openings and paradoxes that scholars are never able to predict. This was equally true in the modern civil rights movement where the people that Dr. King referred to as the “Ph.Ds and the no D’s” created similar alliances in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party — the most important independent political party in American history.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was built brick by brick by sharecroppers and ministers, Yankee college students and dispossessed tenants. It grew so powerful, and produced such a brilliant leader in the person of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, that the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, was forced to intervene in order to stamp it out. If you want clues on how to build an independent political party today, study the various labor parties of the 1930s, examine the People’s Party of the 1890s, all of which hold important lessons. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party surpassed all of them in its ability to mobilize poor people for action.(6)
White People and Black History
C.L.R.’s native Trinidad and Tobago is the only nation in the western hemisphere that commemorates the abolition of slavery as a national Emancipation Day of celebration and remembrance on August 1st every year. Local communities, as depicted in Trinidadian writer Earl Lovelace’s unforgettable novel Salt, have created their own traditions and events. On Friday, July 31, 2009 my wife and I were invited by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe to attend the 9th annual Emancipation Dinner sponsored by the National Association for the Empowerment of African People in Macoya.
The evening was glorious. The president as well as the prime minister of the republic both attended. The famed Eastern Youth Chorale performed a stunning medley of the old slave spirituals capped by James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known in the United States as the Negro National Anthem. The evening’s speakers invoked the importance of Karl Marx, Angela Davis, Marcus Garvey, Amy Garvey, and many others in the long struggle for self-emancipation of the working classes. Neither the prime minister nor the president flinched at the sound of Marx or Marcus. (This was Trinidad, after all, not the United States.)
The following day, we traveled to Port of Spain to watch the Kambule Emancipation Day Parade, an enormous march of people celebrating Emancipation. Along the way, marchers stopped to commemorate the victims of British colonialism and they offered prayers and libations to their ancestors who endured centuries of slavery and colonialism.
Out of this gathering of tens of thousands of black people during the day I counted perhaps ten white faces. It made me wonder: why do white people from all over the world travel to Trinidad in order to celebrate Carnival, and not Emancipation Day? When will white people in the western hemisphere come to understand that they too were enormous beneficiaries of the abolition of slavery? Too many white people in the United States as well as in Latin America do not understand that many of the rights they take for granted were won by centuries of Black struggle in the Americas.
There are exceptions to this. I taught a course last summer at the University of Florida where my students interviewed African American elders who shared insights about their experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South. The following observation, made by one of the white students in a journal entry, may not appear to be revolutionary on the surface; however, this student grasped the essential character of incipient solidarity — which is a necessary step on the road to building a social movement across lines of race and culture:
“As a History Minor, I would not necessarily have considered the Civil Rights Movement to be a main area of interest — but that being said, I must say that this course has resonated with me in a way that my other history courses have not been able to. Perhaps — in fact I’m sure that — this has to do with the personal nature, and the truly wonderful opportunity to interview someone like Dr. [Mildred] Hill-Lubin. It has been history with a pulse. It has been paradigm shifting, and a reaffirmation that while the world is not a perfect place, the level of equality that I do enjoy, is inseparably linked to the African American struggle for equality.”
Social Action and Studying
C.L.R. James was a voracious reader and researcher. One of his former students recalled that every time a new book on an important topic came out, James would purchase ten copies to distribute to his students. (Needless to say, he did not die a wealthy man.) James relentlessly joined book learning with the transformative power of social movements to change consciousness.
In 1941, not long after James published The Black Jacobins, he traveled to the Missouri Boot Heel to take part in an eleven-week sharecropper and day laborer’s strike.(7) Landowners from Missouri to Mississippi were using the political leverage granted them by the federal government’s New Deal in agriculture to mechanize their operations and evict their tenants. “For such is capitalism,” C.L.R. James noted, “that cotton is plowed under while millions go naked.”
In conversations with sharecroppers and their families, the Trinidadian revolutionary found that the experience of their 1939 Roadside Demonstration had taught southern Missouri croppers that social advances only came about through community organization. (“Everything now starts from the demonstration. They [the sharecroppers] think in terms of it.”) Impressed with the resourcefulness of the men and women he interviewed, C.L.R. James wrote that the Boot Heel sharecroppers were among the most intellectually advanced workers he had encountered in his world travels.
From these and other experiences, James developed one of his great insights: “The more active the people are, the more active government can be.” This theory draws us away from the seductive (and illusory) power of the academic leftist, the NGO or the “advocate” to lead changes and it drives us back towards the people who, to paraphrase Howard Thurman, “live with their backs up against the wall.”
James developed his conception of politics, of the new society, of Marxism, from intense study, teaching — please note here the importance of teaching — and participation in some of the pivotal revolutionary and anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century. James’ later writings and speeches are so provocative, so powerful, because he developed his ideas in close contact with workers, activists, and students.
C.L.R. could be imperious, but he knew how to listen. This is why the younger activists of the New Left embraced him as one of their own. I’ve talked with many people who were directly influenced by James and they all confirm this point. Some of the most important intellectuals of recent decades were either students of James or read his work carefully. One thinks here of novelists such as Caryl Phillips, Wilson Harris and George Lamming, or historians and social theorists including Paul Buhle, Charles Payne, David Roediger, Sylvia Wynter and Stuart Hall.
James did not work out his conception of politics as an individual. He developed his most important ideas in study groups, small Marxist organizations, with his students, as well as in work with trade unionists, especially his beloved Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union of Trinidad.
James believed in the importance of education, but he did not believe that the educated classes would lead the next revolution. What they needed to learn was the centrality of self-activity. His signature statement on this point requires full quotation:
“Politics is an activity. It is not a lecture room where the people are supposed to listen to all the Government has done for them. It is not a struggle over function, how much the government gets and how much the people get. It is not a play in which the applause of the audience (the election) ensures five years of further employment for the more attractive performers. Politics is an activity, everybody, government and people. It is not an activity that is shared, divided up, it is a reciprocal activity only in appearance.
“The more active the people are, the more active the government can be. But you cannot teach the people to govern. That is the especial stupidity of the Colonial Office. The most successful fighters against colonialism and establishers of independence, Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Banda, Makarios, were not taught by the Colonial Office. They were the teachers of the Colonial Office, and their universities were jails to which their masters sent them. You cannot appoint ‘the people’ overnight to this committee or that board. But you encourage them, you insist that they practice self-government, that is to say, to govern themselves, in their own organizations.”(8)
In 1970, C.L.R. James traveled to the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, Georgia to give a series of public lectures on the making of The Black Jacobins. As Derrick White’s forthcoming manuscript on the IBW will demonstrate, this organization was a radical think tank devoted to making Black Studies materials and insights available to communities and movement activists outside of academia.
James, then 69 years old, faced an audience of younger African Americans, many of them active in the Black Power movement. He spoke glowingly of a book published three years before The Black Jacobins: W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America. He opened his text and carefully read Dr. Du Bois’ words to his audience:
“The most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history is the transportation of ten million human beings out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new-found Eldorado of the West. They descended into Hell; and in the third century they arose from the dead, in the finest effort to achieve democracy for the working millions which this world had ever seen. It was a tragedy that beggared the Greek; it was an upheaval of humanity like the Reformation and the French Revolution.
“Yet we are blind and led by the blind. We discern in it no part of our labor movement; no part of our industrial triumph; no part of our religious experience. Before the dumb eyes of ten generations of ten million children, it is made mockery of and spit upon; a degradation of the eternal mother; a sneer at human effort; with aspiration and art deliberately and elaborately distorted.
“And why? Because in a day when the human mind aspired to a science of human action, a history and psychology of the mighty effort of the mightiest century, we fell under the leadership of those who would compromise with truth in the past in order to make peace in the present and guide policy in the future.” (Black Reconstruction, 72)
Next, C.L.R. asked his audience a question that I want us to grapple with today: “I have to ask you the question, though I don’t expect answers. Did you ever think that the attempt of the black people in the Civil War to attempt democracy was the finest effort to achieve democracy that the world had ever seen? Don’t answer, I know you have it. You have to grapple with that.”(9)
Today, the way in which we respond to James’s question will help to determine the approach we take to the study of history and to the possibilities of the revolutionary transformation of the Americas. James alerts us to the fact that Dr. Du Bois has created—through the study of black history—a blueprint for understanding the emergence of democracy, the labor movement, and the industrial revolution.
Origins of the General Strike
James believed that Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction illustrated a historical truth about the birth of the modern world even more effectively than his own Black Jacobins. He instructs his Atlanta audience thusly:
“This is what I want you to bear in mind. Number one: The wealth that enabled society to make the big transition [to revolution] was rooted in the slave trade, slavery, and the industries that came from it. And, secondly, in the struggle by which the bourgeois established the political and social structure of this new form in the very front line, fighting as well as anybody else and better than most, in France in the French revolutionary war, and the American Civil War, were the ex-slaves.”
What James liked about Black Reconstruction is the fact that Du Bois places the struggle of African Americans for emancipation on a world stage. Du Bois stated, against centuries of white supremacy, that what African Americans attempted to do in the midst of the American Civil War and the aftermath of Reconstruction was “the finest effort to achieve democracy for the working millions which this world had ever seen.”
James asks us to learn from the struggle of enslaved people to achieve freedom. If we believe that we have nothing to learn from unlettered, illiterate people we will miss James’ provocation: “Did you ever think that the attempt of the black people in the Civil War to attempt democracy was the finest effort to achieve democracy that the world had ever seen? Don’t answer…”
Parenthetically, let us acknowledge that once again the idea is gaining ground that the Civil War was not about slavery. No, it was not — not until African Americans found a way to force the U.S. government to make the Civil War become a war about slavery. Until you come to grips with this point you understand nothing about the central event in U.S. history. (Nor do you understand the transformative power of mass action today!)
There are not many good Hollywood films about African Americans in the Civil War. Now, most of us watch a movie like Glory and don’t see the revolution happening any time soon. That is not the purpose of the movie (although the dialogue between Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington is instructive). In the magical world of Hollywood, African Americans exist to become objects of white charity and uplift. At its worst, Glory falls prey to the old, standard Hollywood elitism. At its best, Glory implicitly (and only implicitly) communicates the indisputable truth that African Americans saved the Union from complete destruction at the hands of the Confederate States of America.
In James’ mind, Black Reconstruction was an invaluable Marxist case study because it connects the self-activity of formerly-enslaved black workers with the clash of the contending armies and the great decision-makers at the apex of the conflict. James asserts that Black Reconstruction is a necessary blueprint to understanding the revolutionary arc of the war:
“Without the blacks the war would not have been won. What I want to emphasize is that it was not only that the blacks brought their forces into the Northern army and gave labour. It was that the policies that they followed instinctively were the policies ultimately that Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet had to use in order to win the war. That is something entirely new in historical writing. I wonder if you understand it? I doubt it! You will in time, if you work hard at it.”
James argues that Black Reconstruction is Marxist historical method par excellence: “The policy by which Abraham Lincoln mobilized the blacks and the way in which they were mobilized against the South came from the instinctive action of the masses of the slaves. The only men I know, two men, have written about politics in that way. They are Marx and Lenin.”
C.L.R. James was deported from the United States in 1953 and only won the right to return in the late 1960s. After a popular teaching stint in the United States, James retired to [Brixton] London. In his final years he entertained many visitors including Edward W. Said, E.P. Thompson, Wole Soyinka and an endless stream of younger radicals from all over the world. He died in 1989.
His comrades from Trinidad brought his body home and he was buried and eulogized by the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union, one of the most militant trade unions in the western hemisphere. The oil workers adopted this son of the Trinidadian middle class as one of their own. After years of deportation, persecution, and exile, the marginalized intellectual had finally come home.
James had worked with the union for several decades but, in spite of his enormous stature, never attempted to “lead” them. Leadership was their job. James’ most pointed advice to the oil workers was this: “When the time comes for you to seize the power, you won’t need anyone to tell you. You will take it.”
Think about what this statement means in the context of Marxism: “When the time comes for you to seize the power, you won’t need anyone to tell you. You will take it.” That, my friends, is revolutionary thinking in action. It was hard-won insight, and James developed it in part through his study and engagement with the struggles of Black and oppressed people throughout the world. This is very different than an intellectual saying that John Sweeney, Andy Stern or Richard Trumka have the vision to lead the American working class out of the ditch that it has been in for the last several decades.
If I have done my job effectively, I have dissuaded you from the idea that a single speaker can ever teach a lesson titled “What it Takes to Be a Revolutionary.” This is a profoundly cooperative process. It is taking place all over the world in activities which, by themselves, do not seem revolutionary, but which pave the way towards the new society. We see it in student solidarity work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. We even see it in student efforts to make their campuses “sweat shop free.”
We also caught a glimpse of the new society on May 1, 2006 when Latino/a workers initiated one of the largest work stoppages in the history of the Americas. Migrant laborers and immigrants from every continent on earth united in protest against immigration restriction measures that threatened their families, their livelihoods, and their dignity.
These solidarity actions provide a critical glimpse of the Latino working class, their struggles and aspirations as well as a reminder of their centrality to the life of the nation. Latino workers shut down major sectors of the U.S. economy, including meat packing, garment manufacturing, port transportation, and food service in many parts of the country.(10)
C.L.R. James would have been thrilled at this startling display of workers’ self-activity. I believe that James would have both learned from this struggle as well as participated in it intensively — much as he did with the Missouri sharecroppers in 1941.
In closing, I urge you to read, study, and participate.
Sources for Further Study:
Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854; reprint Oxford University Press, 2008).
W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (1935; reprint Meridian Books, 1965).
C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938; reprint Penguin Group, 2001).
C. L.R. James, “Revolution and the Negro,” in Scott McLemee and Paul Le Blanc (eds), C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings of C.L.R. James, (Humanity Books, 2008), 939-949.
George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile (1960; reprint University of Michigan Press, 1991).
Conrad Lynn, There is a Fountain: The Autobiography of a Civil Rights Lawyer (Lawrence Hill & Co., 1979).
Earl Lovelace, Salt: A Novel (1996; reprint Persea Books, 2004).
Scott McLemee, C.L.R. James on the ‘Negro Question’ (University Press of Mississippi, 1996).
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organiziing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (University of California Press, 2007).
Caryl Phillips, A New World Order: Essays (Vintage, 2002).
David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Duke University Press, 2004).
William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1847-1848; reprint Public Domain Books, 1996).
Derrick E. White, The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s (University Press of Florida, 2011).
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January/February 2012, ATC 156