CLR James and State Capitalism

by Walter Daum

Prepared text of talk at CLR James panel
at Socialist Scholars Conference, New York, April 2, 1994.

My comrades and I in the LRP share a unique relation to the Johnson-Forest Tendency of the 1940’s: like them, we are both Trotskyists and “state capitalists” in our analysis of Stalinism. (We and they are almost alone worldwide in that combination.) That is the light in which I will examine James’s theory.

But first, it must be said that it is ironic that CLR James is being honored at this Socialist Scholars Conference. James was occasionally an academic by profession, but he was not an academic socialist: he was an active revolutionist, working to change the world. He would not have swallowed the pro-imperialist, Democratic party “socialism” that pervades these conferences: for example, the enthusiasm by its sponsors for one or another form of imperialist intervention in the Bosnian war.

Moreover, this panel is co-sponsored by Against the Current, the magazine of the Solidarity organization. In looking back over the writings of James and his group in the 1940’s, mostly in the press and internal bulletins of the Workers Party led by Max Shachtman, I could not help but be reminded of the attitude of James’s internal opponents. Many leaders of both DSA and Solidarity descend politically from those opponents, who considered “Johnson” a hopeless sectarian, a cult leader, a figure to be ridiculed. That is an additional irony.

Today, in contrast, as an outstanding Black intellectual (and safely dead), James runs the danger of being made into an icon to serve aims opposite to what he stood for as a revolutionary. All the more reason to treat his legacy thoroughly and critically, in the Marxist spirit he welcomed.

1. On state capitalism. The Johnson-Forest tendency in the 1940’s detailed the various capitalist forms (money, wages, profit, exchange according to value, etc.) that are visible in the USSR, and that were admitted in the early 1940’s by the Stalinist authorities. This they interpreted as the operation of the law of value. With this information and a careful reading of Marx and Engels (and Lenin) on capitalist centralization and statification, they established the possibility that a statified economy could be capitalist.

This was an immense contribution. It distinguishes the Johnson-Forest theory from other state capitalist theories, such as those of Tony Cliff and Paul Mattick, which deny that the law of value applies inherently under Stalinism (but only through external pressure). It was a great loss to the working class, which underwent great defeats during and after the second world war, that the Trotskyist movement did not learn from the ideas of Johnson-Forest.

The momentous events of 1989-91 to the present in East Europe and the ex-Soviet Union sharply substantiate the theory of state capitalism and confirm fundamental teachings of Marxism. It was working-class resistance, notably the massive Polish workers’ upheaval of 1980-81, that undermined the confidence of the Stalinist ruling classes and destroyed their hold over society. This showed once again the centrality of the proletariat for social progress in the present epoch. James, who always concentrated on the actions and ideas of working people, would have understood this very well.

Moreover, the workers’ struggle was triggered by the Stalinists’ drive to intensify exploitation, a drive stemming from the underlying laws of motion of the capitalist system discovered by Marx. As James understood, these laws applied to the Stalinist capitalist states of the East as well as to the “normal” capitalist societies of the West.

Further, the privatization schemes keep the bosses in place, running their old factories, etc. which shows that the destatification of today was already inherent in the Stalinism of yesterday.

One Trotskyist paper recently ran a headline proclaiming, “As prices rise and scarcity reigns, capitalist restoration stalls in Russia.” James and his co-thinkers knew 50 years ago that rising prices and reigning scarcity are a capitalist disease. They are hardly evidence that a more progressive society, a workers’ state, exists and that capitalism is being stalled.

Workers dealt the hated Stalinist system decisive blows in 1989. But the masses’ achievements were usurped by forces drawn from the Stalinists themselves and from bourgeois elements that decaying Stalinism had nourished. In 1991, the aborted coup in the USSR, a dispute over the pace of bourgeoisification, completed the cycle of political revolutions – that is, takeovers that preserved the capitalistic extraction of surplus value while giving a share of state power to a growing, openly bourgeois wing of the ruling class.

For the defenders of freedom-through-capitalism, the events since 1989 not only prove the “socialist experiment” a failure. They also claim that Marxism, with its optimism about human nature and the proletariat, has been decisively refuted. James would have spoken trenchantly about such superficial analyses.

2. Now for the weaknesses of the Johnson-Forest theory. Despite showing the possibility of statified capitalism, they did not adequately prove historically that capitalist society existed in Soviet Russia. They sketched the idea that a ruling class had been created out of the state bureaucracy, but James in particular concentrates so heavily on labor relations in production that he downplays other key political aspects of the question.

Most importantly, Johnson-Forest did not prove that an existing workers’ state had been destroyed, and they overlooked the significance of this fact. They wrote as if the simple existence of wage-labor proves that a capitalist state exists. For example, James in April 1941:

“In Russia the proletariat is a class of wage-laborers.... This predominance of wage labor makes the means of production capital.... The bureaucracy then becomes what Marx always insisted the capitalist class is, merely the representative, the agent, the personification, the incarnation of capital.”

Dunayevskaya wrote similarly. Of course, a workers’ state, especially one as economically backward and internationally isolated as the early USSR, would exhibit a predominance of wage labor (as well as more primitive forms of agricultural labor). It remains to show theoretically and historically that the Soviet workers’ state turned into its opposite. It cannot be assumed.

3. The resulting Stalinist system, based on the overthrow of a workers’ state, was hampered by its proletarian shell (because the remaining gains of the workers prevented the system from being efficiently exploitative). Not seeing this, Johnson-Forest could not see Stalinism as the weak link of world imperialism, a particularly inefficient and backward form of capitalism.

[Dunayevskaya’s followers suggest that she foresaw from the start the inevitable collapse of Soviet state capitalism. But in fact James and Dunayevskaya simply noted the inevitability of crises under Stalinist rule because any capitalist society was doomed to crises.]

That is because Johnson-Forest missed the significance of fully statified property. They saw it as a logical capitalist form, the culmination of tendencies within capitalist economy (an argument first made by Bukharin). They overlooked, as Engels had already pointed out, that with state property under capitalism, either the statified property or capitalism would collapse. Johnson-Forest did not see that the Stalinists would have to give up such statification in order to fully enter the world capitalist market. In fact, they vehemently denied that the Stalinist bureaucracy embodied any tendency toward the restoration of private property in the USSR.

In fact, growing bourgeoisification, under the threat of working-class revolt, was the long-term trend that eventually led to the collapse of Stalinism under economic crisis. The current flight from state ownership, in the West as well as the East, reflects the fact that state property embodies remnants of working-class gains; it hinders the all-out exploitation the bosses need. It must eventually be abandoned, in order to destroy workers’ gains and break up the united working-class struggle against the ruling class.

Thus Johnson-Forest misread the world-historical fate of Stalinist state capitalism. They saw it as the wave of the capitalist future, since all the bourgeois powers were heading in that direction. They failed to see that the high degree of centralization achieved by the USSR was only possible as an achievement of the workers’ state: for them, Stalinism was Americanism carried to its logical conclusion.

That logic was a retreat, because James had written in his early documents that capitalist planning was inherently limited, and therefore so was the Stalinist variety. They should have seen that statified property is a proletarian property form – a necessity for the proletariat to construct socialism, but a two-edged sword in the hands of capitalist rulers.

Hence, despite some accurate criticisms of Trotsky’s theory, James and Johnson-Forest (along with the Shachtmanites and some pro-Stalinist Trotskyists) derided Trotsky’s insight into Stalinism’s tendency towards restoration of private property. (That it took the consolidation of class rule and 50 years of tumultuous history reveals the flaw in Trotsky’s theory, but that is another subject.) Despite his powerful insistence on dialectics, James missed the import of Trotsky’s understanding that a workers’ state is not a finished category but a society in transition, in motion.

4. Understanding the workers’ state was necessary from another angle. For Lenin, the essential character of a workers’ state is its advance of workers’ consciousness, to prepare the working class as a whole to rule. That is what is true in James’ emphasis that what is necessary is “an entirely new organization of labor within the process of production itself.”

But the new organization of the proletariat must be not only in production; it must operate throughout society, especially in the state. Advanced consciousness is embodied in the working-class revolutionary party, whose aim is to lead the working class in every sphere of social struggle, political and economic. Johnson-Forest’s theoretical downplaying of the role of working-class consciousness is linked to the fact that they abandoned the idea of building a vanguard party.

Specifically, Johnson-Forest rejected Trotsky’s conclusion that the fundamental crisis of our epoch is that of proletarian leadership. They counterposed “the crisis of the self-mobilization of the proletariat.” In contrast, Marx held that capitalism forces the proletariat into action, into self-mobilization; it takes a communist party of workers to accurately point the way forward.

To their credit, James and his co-thinkers regarded the working-class as inherently revolutionary. But they seemed to overlook the vast differences in time and scale of consciousness between layers of the working class, and therefore came to deny the need for the most advanced layers, the “vanguard,” to organize and lead.

In the historic changes in East Europe, the corruption of Marxism and of the very idea of a revolutionary party prevented the working class from re-creating Bolshevik parties in time to lead the revolutions to socialist conclusions. This the James of 1950 onward would not have understood.

5. Today the underlying drives of capitalism are moving toward a far deeper confrontation and polarization than in the time of the Johnson-Forest Tendency. In the post-Stalinist states, bourgeoisification is not proceeding easily. Workers do not look favorably on the prospect of rampant inflation and mass unemployment that the “Western model” has opened up for them. Mass strikes still prove in practice the working class’s potential to overcome the growth of rabid nationalism. The workers of the East may well form part of the vanguard of a massive class explosion that will shake the world once again.

In South Africa, another area James had high hopes in, there are also very promising events. Militant black workers are looking for alternatives to the compromises made by the ANC. Many are calling for a new workers’ party. They are becoming a genuine vanguard. What is needed is a revolutionary workers’ party, since blacks will never be liberated in a capitalist South Africa.

Upheaval and confrontation are inevitable; a successful revolutionary conclusion is not. The creation of a world party of proletarian revolution, a genuine Fourth International, is essential to lead the working classes against exploitation in all its forms and disguises.

For James and his cothinkers, the rejection of the revolutionary party left an enormous vacuum. James eventually replaced the party in his strategy for social change by the “able and sensitive” ruler who interprets “the general will of the people” for their own good. From this it is but a short road to his enthusiasm at various times for Eric Williams, Nkrumah, Nyerere, Castro, Mao and Kenneth Kaunda. Even at one point, Franklin Roosevelt, who he thought was thinking of breaking from the Democrats. (Even at this low point in his political thought, James was a step better than the DSA.)

It has been said that James opposed the vanguard party only for the industrialized countries, where workers are organized in production, but that he maintained the idea for the underdeveloped countries. Yes, but there the “party” became a vehicle for the “sensitive” leader, not the party of the masses themselves. Likewise, James’ praise for Nyerere’s alleged building of a socialist state could not have come from someone still grounded in the Marxist theory of socialism and the workers’ state.

James’ career illustrates Lenin’s point that even the most innocuous errors in theory can, in the right circumstances, lead to political disasters. As a Trotskyist, James lived through some of the most difficult times for Marxist revolutionaries. Our task is to learn from both his advances and his mistakes.