C.L.R. James’s Conflicted Intellectual Legacies on Mao Tse Tung’s China

Insurgent Notes is happy to publish another highly original article by Matthew Quest, this one on the evolution of C.L.R. James’s thoughts about Maoism. The article uses the term “national liberation” in a way we find somewhat at odds with the critiques we have previously published of the term; we however feel that this small disagreement fades into significance set against the overall thrust of the article, with which we are in strong agreement.

C.L.R. James’s perspectives on the Chinese Revolution, like his analysis of the Third World broadly, were distinguished by shifting emphases on race and class. James’s outlook also was a complicated response to a regime many imagined as progressive for a claim to cultivate the popular will, fight bureaucracy, and oppose the empire of capital.

James’s intellectual legacies on Mao Tse Tung’s China were conflicted to the extent that for many years he rejected these propositions in published writings distinguished by a standard of direct democracy and workers self-management. Then in his elder years he began to discard these libertarian socialist principles in his assessment of China’s history and politics, and retreated to a re-evaluation of state capitalism in China. Where previously state capitalism was a reactionary social formation blocking the self-directed liberating activity of Chinese toilers, Mao’s state capitalism later for James, primarily in informal debates, oral history transcripts, and organizational correspondence not part of the public record, became an attempt to complete China’s national liberation struggle.

Before the 1960s, the centrality of the workers councils and general strikes in Chinese insurgencies of 1925–1927 in Shanghai, Canton, and Wuhan frame an unfavorable view of both Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Tse Tung as representatives of national liberation. Alert as James was to self-organized forms of freedom among urban settings and industrial labor, the idea that the Chinese Revolution of 1949 was uniquely peasant-based was received as a distortion and mystification of state repression. In such class based perspectives, James was intolerant of any focus on Mao or other aspiring progressive rulers as embodying the independent cultural contributions of peripheral nations to an alternative capitalist modernity. For most of his career, there was no acknowledgement by James that the aspiration to a one-party state or welfare state could be valid in any sector of the world. Their roles in crushing directly democratic expressions of labor’s self-emancipation were decisive for evaluating such regimes. However, during his first American years (1938–1953), James also began to exhibit another simultaneous perspective: the Chinese struggle for national liberation as a whole informed anti-racist struggles by African Americans, and might potentially encourage anti-imperialist perspectives among American workers. Later, James made tentative steps to place China as part of Asia’s and the Third World’s cultural contribution to democratizing world civilization. In the decade between the publication of Modern Politics (1960) and the disbanding of the Facing Reality group (1970), this tension between direct democracy and national liberation in James’s China analysis surfaced as a festering conflict among James’s closest associates.

James viewed Mao Tse Tung’s “One Hundred Flowers Bloom,” (1956–1957), the “Great Leap Forward” (1958–1960) and “Cultural Revolution” campaigns (1966–1971) as failing to truly fight the bureaucracy of Chinese society, where labor’s autonomy was prioritized in his analysis. Mao’s contempt for directly democratic expressions, as opposed to populist ones that were perceived as initiated from within his own position in the bureaucracy, and his contempt for James’s beloved Hungarian Revolution of 1956 were crucial in these assessments.

Nevertheless, intermittently in the 1960s, James began to eschew direct democracy as a primary framework for evaluating national liberation in China. Revising his view found in Facing Reality (1958), James admitted he was mistaken in the past to take the stance that the Chinese Revolution did not yet fully convey its self-governing potential. For a while, James waited for Chinese workers to tear down the state, which in his view, only claimed to be communist, in a direct democratic revolt. But by 1964, James had, in personal recollections among friends, begun to reflect on the Chinese working class as just as self-governing as any other in the world under a nation-state. On that basis, James reconsidered the presumed modernity of the Chinese people, and felt compelled to re-evaluate China’s weight in smashing the colonial order in the world.

Increasingly, James moved away from analyzing China on the basis of wage labor and capital relations as he did in State Capitalism and World Revolution, where China’s state capitalist regime obstructed workers self-management. Instead he began to tentatively imply that state capitalism in China was an incomplete social revolution against empire where a progressive ruling class was still aspiring to completely break those particular shackles. In the epoch of Black Power and Third World Marxism, James rarely wished to draw lines of steel in public between the national bourgeoisie in post-colonial state power and the self-management of the working classes. China came to strongly represent the silences and contours of an awkward intellectual legacy.

James was not known for extensive commentary on the Chinese Revolution, although he did display an early and thorough interest during his first British years (1932–1938). He admitted when he wrote World Revolution (1937), the first anti-Stalinist account of the Communist International in the English language, that despite original rhetorical flourishes and a muted, but already emerging libertarian socialist view which foreshadowed his later break with the Trotskyist movement, he borrowed much from Leon Trotsky’s own writings.[1] This collection has writings by Trotsky on China from 1925–1940. Further, he was inspired, as was Trotsky, by both the first draft of Harold Isaacs’s The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (1938) (which James was instrumental in getting published by Frederic Warburg[2]), and Andre Malraux’s two novels about the Chinese Revolution, The Conquerors (1928) and Man’s Fate (1933).[3] James followed with interest the evolution toward Cold War loyalties of Isaacs and Malraux through their turn toward a more right-wing social democracy, even as he commends them for their historical contributions for helping to chronicle the Chinese Revolution.[4]

In World Revolution, James, in his chapter “Stalin Ruins the Chinese Revolution,” reproduced the epic terms of debate culminating in the split among the Communist International between Stalin and Trotsky. After offering a brief outline of Chinese political economy, suggesting that pre-capitalist dynamics were confronted with the modernizing and oppressive influences of Japanese and British imperialism, James discussed the politics of the Kuo Min Tang (KMT), the nationalist “people’s party” led by Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek. Following Trotsky’s interpretation of Leninist policy outlined earlier in this book, James argued that the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was mistakenly enacting Stalin’s policies by encouraging the CCP to subordinate itself to the nationalist forces, which included both landlords and warlords. The KMT would be instrumental in smashing strikes and land seizures by workers and peasants in Canton, Wuhan, and Shanghai.[5] But let us examine the dynamics of direct democracy and dual power a little closer than James first conveyed them in World Revolution.

In May–June 1925 protests by striking Chinese workers, locked out from a Japanese owned textile factory, amid widespread protest against foreign occupation, prompted the Japanese and British military to fire on a growing number of rebellious crowds. News of the atrocities compelled solidarity protests to erupt across the nation. More deaths at foreign hands would result.

As a revolutionary situation distinguished by dual power developed, the creation of popular councils by workers and students began to increase in several areas, particularly in Shanghai of 1925 where there was a general strike but also in a series of solidarity strikes in Canton, Wuhan, and Hong Kong. Agitation increased in the countryside with the growth of militant peasant associations. The self-organized masses moved to take over the city of Shanghai with the support of local CCP cadres. From late 1926 to early 1927 a series of general strikes were organized in Shanghai closing textile factories, docks, municipal services, public transport and commercial centers, cutting telephone and power lines. Police stations were seized and railway stations were occupied.

Unfortunately, when nationalist forces marched into the city, workers and students were disarmed. Conciliatory gestures were made to the local foreigners and capitalists, and the CCP began looking the other way while, Chiang Kai Shek’s army, business owners, paramilitary groups, and warlords began attacking and killing union members. Similar developments occurred in Wuhan (May 1927) and Canton (December 1927).[6] After 1927, laborers and students increasingly came under the administration of the Chinese Communist Party.[7] What must not be forgotten insisted James, following Harold Isaacs, was the workers of Shanghai were encouraged by Moscow-affiliated Communist leaders to believe that when Chiang Kai Shek’s army arrived, the Nationalist troops would support their independent labor action and liberate the oppressed. This was supposed to be a new stage of world revolution—in hindsight the arrival of the anti-colonial revolution.[8] Yet Stalin, and his advisors in China, like Borodin, believed that a vision of national liberation should be propagated that taught that those who opposed capitalism should subordinate themselves to the national bourgeoisie. The anti-class struggle perspectives of Sun Yat-sen and Chaing Kai Shek were not to be criticized. Stalinists in China criticized what they believed were the excesses of independent labor action that might disturb the KMT leadership.[9] James in contrast emphasized a historical lesson.

At this juncture, national liberation was based on millions of toilers seeking a way out of the unbearable circumstances of the interplay of imperialist war, civil war, and colonial war. A small clash about workplace conditions or a local dispute about injustice could become a detonator for colonial freedom. The fear of foreign intervention, though always present, could be overcome. Yet nothing could unite revolutionary China, than seeing the Chinese ruling class, yesterday patriotic devotees of their country, attacking the Chinese working class more than the hated forces of empire. James believed, as with the Spanish Civil War, that a bourgeois-democratic regime in a peripheral economy with an advanced proletariat was unfeasible where popular committees of labor desired to directly govern.[10]

One of the weaknesses of James’s World Revolution was that while it foreshadows aspects of his libertarian socialist viewpoint to come, it still had vanguard preoccupations with building a proper party and leadership. He had not yet arrived at a critique of Stalinism with an analysis of working class self-activity, which could overcome a government or party bureaucracy that claimed to be progressive. Instead, this earlier James seemed to be criticizing Chinese leaders, Moscow-oriented communists but also nationalists, who appeared to be revolutionary for a time, for not propagating class struggle. James admitted he respected Sun Yat-Sen somewhat, though he did “not, in the Bolshevik manner organize a party based on a single class.”

His reorganized Kuomintang [included] a few big capitalists, the national bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, and workers and peasants. His program promised the nine hour day to one, high tariffs to another, reduction of rents to a third, land from the state for landless peasants and tenant-holders, the right of self-determination for the various nationalities, democracy, all lumped together under one term—Socialism. A determined revolutionary and undoubtedly a great leader, even at the end of his life, he was only able to leave to his party a program that Ramsay MacDonald could have drawn up for him without any difficulty in half-an-hour.[11]

Ramsay MacDonald was the right-wing social-democratic leader of the British Labour Party who had little trouble collaborating with the bodyguards of capital among the British Tories. In a humorous rhetorical flourish, James equates Sun Yat Sen’s leadership of his party with interclass cooperation that promises both the rich and poor autonomy and economic empowerment.

In a 1937 editorial James penned for the British Trotskyist newspaper Fight, he challenges the image of Chiang Kai Shek in Stalinist literature and popular culture:

A cartoon in the Soviet newspaper “Isvestia” shows a little Japanese officer trying to ride a Chinese coolie and getting an unexpected knock on the nose. From this it…appear[s]…the Chinese coolies are bestirring themselves, that the great liberation war against foreign imperialism has started. [We] read about his oriental serenity, his romantic marriage, his age, height, weight, and calculating brain. How he reads his bible everyday and how he alone, inspired by his English educated wife and the ten commandments, is leading the Chinese proletariat and peasantry to the promised land… Undoubtedly Chiang Kai Shek is a great man. He is recognized as such by the international financiers.[12]

If Chiang Kai-Shek ultimately allied himself with the American bloc of capitalist power, it would be imprecise to leave the impression he was always friendly to all bankers and industrialists in China for in the aftermath of the April 1927 coup against independent labor, Chiang launched a terror campaign against the wealthy of Shanghai.[13]

Still this passage by James suggests an intermingling of themes we shall be considering: race, modernity, the opposition to empire, and the struggle for socialism. It would appear that James intended to confront Oriental stereotypes and Western chauvinisms even as he accepted the term “coolie,” a racially derogatory word for Asian labor he would be familiar with from the Caribbean. James was rarely fond of viewing, in his first British and American years, the personalities of national liberation leaders, regardless of their less than stellar disposition toward their own working classes, being elevated uncritically as representatives of peripheral nations’ contribution to world civilization. But he would find a way to allow historical events in China, with muted contours, to function as a type of inspiration in his first American years (1938–1953).

While James does not see anything liberating in the political economy of the Chinese Revolution during his first American years, he does imagine that the Chinese national liberation struggle as a whole, and its many waves, have symbolic value for anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggles. James’s writings in this regard demonstrate a desire to give a global perspective on African American and working class struggle in the USA.

In 1939, in an essay entitled “Revolution and the Negro,” he saw parallel developments in slave revolts in the Antebellum American South and the Taipeng Rebellion in China.[14] James argued a year later in a review of Richard Wright’s Native Son that Bigger Thomas’s rebellion appeared on a global scale as part of a constellation of forces which included the Long March in the China of 1936.[15] In a 1944 sketch outlining the international tasks of American labor, American workers are seen as distinct from their trade union hierarchy. James points to the soviets and general strikes of European revolutions as well as the events of 1925–1927 and 1936 in “backward China” as inspiration for possible insurrections of the future.[16] Finally in a narrative called “The American People in One World” James asserts: “Every Chinese knows it is impossible to have great class struggles in China without provoking the intervention of American imperialism.” It is not clear from his other writings in this period that all Chinese are preoccupied with such concerns. Nevertheless, James illustrates how class struggle at home can check “American adventure[s],” and argues that while the Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s was not aided and thus failed, more contemporary American imperial maneuvers “in Formosa” (now Taiwan), where Chiang Kai Shek retreated when Mao Tse Tung came to power, could be thwarted with direct action at home.[17]

Analyzing the shifting perceptions of Asians in popular magazines and Hollywood films, James sensed a decline of the “yellow peril” theme as the preoccupation with Japanese loyalty during World War II changed priorities to concerns about Mao Tse Tung and China during the Cold War. James highlighted an increasing amount of interracial relationships and marriages between whites and Asians in the narratives of contemporary film, and suggested that these newly visible tropes are meant to win over Asian loyalty in the Cold War. Thus there was a shift in racial attitudes by the state and in popular culture.[18]

A multi-cultural outlook was struggling to be born in American popular culture out from under the dominant assumptions of white racism. Yet, this new vista was bogged down by Henry Luce’s “American Century” idea. If the United States did not present itself transparently as the policeman of the world, under the premise of the free market, human rights, and development, instead there was a new identity of benevolent patron of the world through the framework that Christina Klein has called a “Cold War Orientalism.”

James was aware of the imperial maneuvers of Henry Luce’s Time-Life publications, in his reading of Luce’s strategic use of China during the Cold War to shift American foreign policy. Yet he partially misunderstood transformations of the “yellow peril” as it was represented in films of that historical moment. Themes of integration and interracial relationships could suggest a gendered representation: that “Oriental” Asia was feminine and submissive to the “white male” West. It could also be imagined, by anti-racist and feminist movie audiences, taking James’s sensibility a step further, that Asian women had a subtle anti-colonial power over Europe and the United States.[19]

Nevertheless, James did assert how the state and some aspects of popular culture, in the age of decolonization, were now willing to embrace non-Western peoples, provided they resisted the Soviet Union and were perceived to be anti-communist. This development would quickly characterize changes in the United States under pressure from the African American movement, and foreshadowed aspects of post-civil rights America.

By the end of James’s first American years he had consolidated the direct democratic implications of his evolving state capitalist analysis. James would extend his analysis of state-capitalism outside of the United States and Western Europe, critiquing the limitations of Trotskyist methodology as applied to the Third World in general, and China specifically.[20] These perspectives cannot easily be combined with a strain of racial vindication though it has implications for his anti-colonialism.

While hoping for a better regime in the Soviet Union, the Trotskyists looked toward emerging communist states, such as Yugoslavia and China, as regimes yet autonomous of Stalin’s Russia. Where the Trotskyists held that both nation-states were progressive, because they were independent of Moscow and had nationalized property, James explained that the Yugoslavian and Chinese ruling classes simply demonstrated the desire and ability to exploit their own working classes and peasants without interference from Stalin.[21] James underlined in another crucial document, The Balance Sheet Completed (1951):

The [Socialist Workers Party] is obsessed with speculation as to Mao’s and Tito’s future intentions. That is the path to ruination, not for Mao and Tito, who don’t have to bother with such foolishness, but for the S.W.P. Mao and Tito can switch from Russian to Western imperialism without batting an eyelash. They are rulers of states and administrators of the proletariat.[22]

In 1950–1951, fundamental social relations for James, in class struggle and anti-colonial terms, have not changed in either country. Like Yugoslavia, where the party and the state were “subordinating the workers to the petty-bourgeois intellectuals and administrators,” James underscores a similar process taking place in China.

In contrast, from his publication of Facing Reality (1958) to Modern Politics (1960), James showed some friction within his methods for evaluating China. Facing Reality was written in response to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet Union. Hungary was the most recent, and spectacular confirmation of his direct democratic politics. For two months, workers and students rose up creating popular councils, committees, and militias to run production in factories, and take over offices of government, and university campuses.

At first it seemed Moscow would capitulate, however, amidst the speculation Soviet tanks and troops rolled into the country and crushed the militias and councils, returning the country to Moscow’s communist affiliate party.[23] Nevertheless, for a brief period, the uprising broke the hold of state capitalism, whether Eastern or Western, and as such, provided a glimpse of the future of a revolutionary upheaval.

“Experience under the bureaucratic leadership of the Party or its Plan, the revolution from the very beginning seized power in the process of production and from there organized the political power. The workers councils did not look to governments to carry out their demands.”[24] And it was this historical experience that for James widely characterized “the whole world.”[25] James, after the Hungarian events, is patiently waiting for spontaneous labor action to emancipate China from Mao’s hierarchal regime.

It is notable for our purposes that Mao Tse Tung, in his “Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People,” expressed in the chapter “Can Bad Things Be Turned Into Good Things?” that the Hungarian Uprising was “a bad thing.” Mao explained: “Everybody knows that the Hungarian incident was not a good thing. But it too had a dual character. Because our Hungarian comrades [in state power] took proper action in the course of the incident, what was a bad thing eventually turned into a good one. Hungary is now more consolidated than ever, and all the other countries in the socialist camp have learned a lesson.”[26]

Mao, as dialectician, sees the contradiction in Hungary as the mistaken desire by working people to directly govern society. James’s inconsistencies on China, especially in observing Mao’s stance on Hungary, are less about evaluating race and colonialism versus class struggles. Instead they reach to the heart of a conflict between his direct democratic perspectives and his Leninism. Before the 1960s the former would win out in his outlook on China. But James did not see a conflict between his direct democratic and his Leninist tendencies. This tension could be particularly obscured in how James used and taught dialectical method.

For Mao, popular uprisings were a warning sign that the state had become bureaucratic and had to be reformed, just as the population had to be brought back under control. From a certain vantage, this could have been seen as favorable by James. Mao was seeking to observe working class dynamics in the world. Mao could be reforming state power, per a construction of Lenin which C.L.R. might identify based on the self-activity of ordinary people.

Mao was popularizing all over the world a type of dialectical analysis that resolved contradictions, which he saw emanating from ordinary people, in the state’s favor. This would soon be a part of presenting his Chinese one-party state in the forefront of a battle against “revisionism” embodied by the Soviet Union and other regimes claiming to be socialist. On a global scale this led activists to look toward hierarchal regimes, instead of the self-organization of labor, to fight capitalism and colonialism.

James later wanted Kwame Nkrumah, who saw his state as non-aligned, to interpret the popular will of Ghana in a similar fashion, if with less repression, and praised Julius Nyerere in Tanzania for doing so. As with Lenin and Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti, James tolerated state repression and constructs it as partially accidental, if the state appeared to desire to reform its bureaucratic outlook and subsequently retrain its eye on the masses’ popular desires. Yet in the appendix to Modern Politics, James observed an instinct toward direct democracy in China, inspired by questions about what really happened in Hungary, which seeks to overthrow Mao’s state. At this juncture, James sides with that perceived spirit.[27]

Mao’s “Hundred Flowers Bloom” policy was born in the shadow of Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, and the Hungarian events. Attempting to partially assess the lesson of the Hungarian uprising, Mao temporarily reversed the policy of censorship, and encouraged open political discussion and criticism of the Party and conditions in China in a series of historic speeches.[28]

James could have viewed Mao’s approach as an attempt to tend to the popular will like Rousseau. It would seem Mao was importantly not like James’s Rousseau, an aspiring founder of a polity who advised on the terms of a social contract, and then honorably walked away and let someone else govern. Yet Mao could also be read, mistakenly of course for he was the personification of the authoritarian state, as the philosopher who doesn’t govern—for Zhou En Lai was the premier for many years while he was chairman of the party.[29] James’s approach to Mao in the late 1950s and early 1960s can best be summed up as recorded in his talk “Perspectives and Proposals”:

The chief thing I remember about Mao Tse Tung is a resolution: one day he said: “let one hundred flowers bloom.” Everybody must have talked. Forty-three days after he put everybody who bloomed in jail. What kind of mentality, what kind of thinking is that?[30]

The one-party state as an overseer and not a liberator was also to inform a series of articles written by James’s comrade Grace Lee Boggs in their newspaper Correspondence, on China in 1961, in the aftermath of the “Hundred Flowers Bloom” and the “Great Leap Forward” period.[31] The Great Leap Forward was a policy whose aim was to increase production in the countryside in order to support China’s industrial growth. Nearly all of China’s peasants were organized into large rural communes and urban based party cadres were encouraged to go to the countryside.[32] One might imagine from this Jamesian outlook of Grace Lee Boggs that the Great Leap Forward would be seen as a partial success. If direct democracy grows out of the “modern” workplace, bringing industrial production such as iron smelting to the countryside, however unprofitable, this might inspire rural communities toward popular self-management. Their reading of Karl Marx’s Capital seemed to suggest that a more authoritarian centralized production process, while socialists should not encourage capitalists to take such initiatives, inevitably pushes working people toward mutual aid and self-government—even if toilers rebel against value production itself. But both C.L.R. James and Grace Lee Boggs, at this juncture, were not fond of the Chinese state’s organization of a centralization of economic production.[33] China’s state capitalism was extracting surplus value under a coercive labor regime.

Writing in Correspondence about the Great Leap Forward, Grace Lee Boggs argued that “in 1958 the Chinese Communists, determined to squeeze the capital needed for rapid industrialization out of the hides of the peasants, decided to organize the whole rural population into communes. By bringing every aspect of the personal lives and property of the peasantry under party control, the Communists thought it could militarize peasant labor.”[34] However, Boggs noted, as a result of peasant resistance, the state had to abandon the process, concluding that “the most effective anti-Communists are those who have had a taste of Communism.[35]

For James, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, through the Hundred Flowers Bloom and Great Leap Forward campaigns, it was the 1925–1927 period in revolutionary China, and the potential for such self-organized forms of freedom by Chinese labor, that set the tone for his analysis of reoccurring conflict inside the country. While acknowledging the Chinese masses largely supported the party and army of Mao Tse Tung at this juncture, despite criticism from below, he insisted the Chinese masses had not in this period “yet come independently upon the stage as the Russian people did in 1905 and then in 1917”—that is, in a victorious direct democratic uprising. However, James claimed, “They will.”[36]

The idea that Mao’s party bureaucracy, state capitalist plans, and the secret police could control the minds of hundreds of millions of people was mistaken. Chinese history, for C.L.R. James on the eve of the emergence of the Third World, demonstrated an instinct toward popular self-management that would eventually ignite a free society.[37]

C.L.R. James on China in the 1960s and 1970s

Illustrating changes in his worldview on China, in a letter to Martin Glaberman on December 3, 1962, James stated, “the only place where Marxism has had any success is in Communist China, and there it was an original doctrine, created by Mao Tse Tung on an entirely new basis out of the reach of official Stalinism.”[38] Coming out of the blue, this letter was a shocker for Glaberman, who was James’s comrade for almost a quarter-century and maintained with him for many years that state capitalism was an obstruction to workers’ self-emancipation all over the world. This would appear to be a rejection of James’s analysis of China in World Revolution and in his State Capitalism and World Revolution. Political perspectives should evolve over time with new knowledge and awareness. But James’s methodologies were not improving on this question.

James’s fluctuations on China in letters to Glaberman would be frequent over the next decade. On January 7, 1963, James explained that the debate over the Sino-Soviet split was not unlike the dilemma between Trotsky and Stalin. Trotsky felt that the working classes, never able to hold on to a revolution where they were permanently sovereign, begin to be fooled by the Stalinist one-party state of the Russians. James appeared to see clearly, at this moment, that both Trotsky and Mao in backhanded ways, offered new vanguard party formulations presenting themselves as the new progressive ruling elite to believe in, thereby from another angle encouraging the “great masses of the working classes” to be dominated by the “conception of the two blocs.” Thus the Russian and Chinese regimes are seen by everyday people worldwide as “the opposition to imperialists and capitalists whom they knew for hundreds of years and whose crimes and mistakes had sunk into their bones.” James further explains his position: “[There] is taking place a split between these two forces, Russia and China… It is not a split between counter-revolutionary and opportunist Russia and revolutionary China. It is no more than a split between two branches of the bureaucracy of the bloc.” According to James, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party are not revolutionary at this particular moment. “This is a bureaucracy defending itself… In this Russia vs. China business in which China is masquerading all over the place as the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary wing of what everybody calls ‘the socialist states,’ it is vital, a necessary part of a Marxist movement in the United States to be able to show and to explain what is really taking place.”[39]

James’s contradictory positions on China crop up within one month of each other. He contends that Mao made a new breakthrough in communist doctrine. On the other, he felt that the only distinction to be made was that Mao represented a not-at-all-new struggle among Cold War “blocs” of aspiring bureaucracies and progressive ruling classes to rule over everyday people. Critical to emphasize here, though, is the fact that James refused to publicly criticize Maoism, even as he insisted his small revolutionary organization must expose the limits of the national bourgeoisie who claim to be progressive, given emerging political trends in the world.

This contradiction in James’s political thought would lead to the disbanding of the Facing Reality group, the final manifestation of the Johnson-Forest Tendency. James’s political economy had begun to change. Instead of state capitalism, where wage labor’s revolt against value production functions in “one world,” James increasingly divided his conception of state capitalism. Still obstructing direct democracy breaking out in modern industrial nations, in the Third World it is now imagined as attempting to break the vestiges of the colonial order but on terms of the late transition from feudalism to capitalism.

C.L.R. James, Martin Glaberman, George Rawick, and William Gorman attempted to write an updated political statement subsequent to Facing Reality, the document previously co-written with Grace Lee and Cornelius Castoriadis.[40] The Gathering Forces (1967) was never published for public consumption, though edited sections were published by Paul Buhle, in 1971 in his magazine Radical America. A major reason why it was not published was, indeed, the fact that James’s comrades could not agree with his stance on Mao and China.

In The Gathering Forces, James revised his view of the Russian Revolution on the fiftieth anniversary of the event, casting it primarily as a peasant movement in a backward society, which Stalin crushed. “At the very same time, in the turn from the port cities of Shanghai and Canton to the peasantry in the interior that took place in 1927–28, the Chinese Communist Party made its own turn—but in an opposite direction.” This direction appeared ambiguous, since consensus in the Facing Reality group was unreachable.

Emphasizing the independent self-activity of the masses under Mao’s leadership, James nevertheless accepted the conventional wisdom of the time that the Chinese Revolution contributed something unique to civilization, with a peasant-based revolution that was “successful,” and was thus not crushed by authoritarian means. He embraced the historical erasure on one level of urban working class revolt in such places as Shanghai which he had previously defended for decades as central to a proper analysis of the Chinese Revolution.[41] This is part of an overall trajectory that argues for the Chinese Revolution’s contributions to world civilization instead of specifying or suggesting strategies and tactics of socialist revolution (or criticism of them). A survey of “Asian power” informed by China, among other nations, is exemplary of this trend in his thinking. James became enamored with logic eliding distinctions among Asians, where all aspiring modernizing statecraft and economic activity in peripheral nations became the embodiment of progress.[42] He even began to put forward ideas akin to Third World Marxism. Arguing for Asia’s special contribution to world politics as ambiguously economic production on its own nation-states’ terms, even valorizing Maoist China’s discovery of atomic capacity; James suggested a tension between the relative autonomy of elites in state power as equivalent to the rise and realization of everyday people’s potential.

Crucially, something more was needed from James at the height of the Cultural Revolution campaign in China. This was a difficult historical moment for James to assess given the tension between his Leninism and his direct democracy. Raising the Paris Commune of 1871 as a banner, and fomenting attacks on intellectuals whose conceptions of art and reason were labeled as old and enemies of the people, Mao’s wing of the state bureaucracy stirred up a movement of Red Guards which in hindsight got out of control. Public humiliation, torture, show trials, and forced prison labor transcended a genuine egalitarian sentiment from below in response to Mao’s populism. Calls for nationalization and attacks on landlords led to attacks on the corner merchant and poor peasant farmer selling vegetables. There was a sense that the class collaboration that distinguished Mao’s rise to power would now be purified by attacks on centrists and liberals not merely the remnants of feudal culture.

Often it was difficult to tell whether the masses were really seizing direct democratic power or whether party leaders were instigating “radical” uprisings against one section of the state bureaucracy to secure the dominance of another layer. Popular committees, instigated by sincere Red Guards, were often blunted into a “three way alliance” with the army and CCP members who had been found after all to have the “correct” line. Mao came into conflict with his own wife Jiang Qing, who had openly declared that people with professional leadership titles should be “smashed in pieces.” Mao responded leadership was necessary, the integrity of which lies in the content of their politics. Zhou En Lai had to quell a popular tendency to fight bureaucracy within the army. There was an evolving policing of urban youth into rural re-education camps among the peasantry under the premise of “consciousness raising.”[43] There were in the midst of this national cloud of dust real libertarian labor formations that emerged. Perhaps the most memorable was the Shengwulian (the Federation of the Provincial Proletariat based in Hunan Province). This direct democratic formation broke out from below while the Cultural Revolution was meant to be stage managed from above. Paying tactical deference to Mao in theory, their manifesto “Whither China,” took seriously the appeal to revolutionary France to popularly govern through a great commune. The CCP in response, in an attempt to restore centralism of the one-party state, attacked such developments as “the anarchist” theory of “many centers.” There was a clear attempt in Mao’s Cultural Revolution to suppress or co-opt the spontaneous rebellion of industrial labor and youth. This was difficult to see when even the Hunan-based Shengwulian, accused of “anarchism” by K’ang Sheng (an associate of what later became the Gang of Four), attacked Chou En Lai as “a capitalist roader,” but tried to quote Mao, sometimes ambivalently, against his own state. In response to the specter of popular self-management, all factions of the Chinese one-party state, despite differing statements at times, functioned in unison when their power was threatened.[44]

Marty Glaberman argued with James to decisively intervene in the debate in the United States and the world on the political meaning of events in China to no avail. Writing a new draft preface to their State Capitalism & World Revolution—which was never published—and centering their previous critique of Mao’s China, Glaberman updated it in light of what he perceived as the emerging dangerous popularity of the Three Worlds Theory. Glaberman wanted the Facing Reality group to oppose publicly placing faith or remaining agnostic in a people of color led state bureaucracy. This is merely the application of James’s most revolutionary instincts on China and the Third World, which he repeatedly advised the Facing Reality group should be publicly known since James began writing letters and offering perspectives to shape the small revolutionary organization after its split with James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs in 1962. It is worth considering the nuances of these final exchanges on China between James and Glaberman.

In an April 16, 1968, letter to Glaberman, James criticized the new draft preface to State Capitalism & World Revolution. Suggesting what Glaberman has to say about labor is now only relevant to “the advanced countries” (James’s italics), he takes issue with a political analysis that he does not “think need[s] to be stated so absolutely.”[45] James challenged Glaberman to not emphasize so much that Mao “consciously excluded the proletariat.” Apparently, “to say that directives by Mao himself instructed workers to remain at work and not to think of participating in the revolution is not the same as ‘consciously excluded.’ ” James thought such phrasing was too “militant” and should be edited out. James then quarreled with Glaberman’s characterization of the Chinese Revolution under Mao “as a bourgeois revolution of the most thorough type.” James sensed there was something wrong with underscoring “bourgeois” but says: “I don’t want to argue this with you.”[46]

What James really objected to was Glaberman’s awareness that “the proletarian socialist revolution was replaced by the bourgeois national revolution [my italics].” James argued instead that their document should now view Maoist China in Leninist terms as approaching “the complete state capitalist revolution.”[47] This was not the libertarian socialist or syndicalist interpretation critical of state capitalist regimes they had shared in 1950 as the basis for their global perspectives of social revolution from below. James instead wielded his later incarnation of Lenin, the Third World statesman of a peripheral nation, who would be lucky to administer a state capitalist regime under the control of a progressive ruling class. Peculiarly, James’s Lenin, has on one level, a subtle mandate to smash independent labor action. This is the same Lenin which James places in conversation with Ghana, Tanzania, and Haiti.

For James, Mao was not attempting to destroy what was left of Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalist movement, as Glaberman held, but rather to complete it. Klaus Mehnert, in discussing Shengwulian’s marshaling of Lenin’s last writings, where Lenin characterized the Bolshevik state as deformed, also quarreled with K’ang Sheng’s assessment of these purported “anarchists” who strived to quote Lenin (and Mao) against the Chinese one-party state. Sheng believed properly, in contrast to Mehnert, who rightfully wished to defend Shengwulian, that Lenin’s critique of the Russian state in his last writings were not a call for uprising against his own regime.[48]

Of course the state that Mao and Sheng represented did deserve to be overthrown by the self-emancipating Chinese people. The Shengwulian popular formation should have been defended. We must recall clearly that Sheng not only denounced the Shengwulian movement, but was the leader of the police and military suppression of it.

Maintaining that Mao had created the bureaucratic structure that imperiled its completion, and at the same time thinking that Mao was trying to fight bureaucratic degeneration which he observed in Russia (but which for Mao justified the smashing of the Hungarian Revolt), James believed that what Glaberman proposed was “a very unusual view” in 1968. Glaberman argued that the proletariat resisted the Cultural Revolution, and that the latter was directed against what remained of the nationalist revolution.[49] Yet it appeared James’s view was the one that was muddled and untenable in light of Shengwulian. Glaberman’s perspective as a whole actually spoke to the conflicting tendencies present in James’s history and politics.

In another letter, this one dated May 20, 1968, James tells Glaberman, “I accept everything you say about China (except one thing).” Revealing the tensions between them James explained: “The only thing that really startled me in your letter was the statement that if we weren’t going to deal with China it would be better not to have a document at all.” Observing world events, now those of a libertarian socialist quality in the labor and student revolts in France of 1968, James was “convinced that we are in a revolutionary situation (although as Lenin always insisted, that does not necessarily produce the revolution).”[50]

In the final analysis, despite many twists and turns, we can see that C.L.R. James’s views on Maoist China were consistent with and amplify three contours in his political thought: first, the double meaning he gives to state capitalism; second, the dual legacy of Lenin (both revolutionary socialist who initially advocates “all power to the soviets” and proto–Third World nationalist–progressive–capitalist politician); and third, the rise and fall of directly democratic rebellions of labor, from expressions of popular self-management from below seen as the pinnacle of national liberation and socialist revolution to merely a revolutionary situation which can be negated by a fateful embrace of the state.

Martin Glaberman, in a 1967 editorial in the Facing Reality group’s journal Speak Out, called “Upheaval in China,” and a pamphlet called Mao As Dialectician (1968) marshaled C.L.R. James’s Notes on Dialectics and the meaning of the Hungarian Revolution to illustrate that Mao manipulated the Red Guards and the youth of China generally, dislocating their lives whether in rural areas or universities, to purge the army and party to consolidate his continued rule. He re-affirmed James’s claim in Facing Reality that the decisive direct democratic revolt against China’s one-party state had not truly arrived.[51] In June 1989, when James was being buried in Trinidad, the events of Tiananmen Square broke out. Glaberman was hopeful James’s intellectual legacies of direct democracy and national liberation would historically be reconciled in the final showdown for state capitalist China.[52] That one party state, authoritarian as ever, shorn of its charisma and populist claims, still stands—now on the authority of being an industrial power that has placed the United States in a dependent relationship through a trade deficit.

Glaberman never succeeded in convincing James to endorse a vision of workers self-management in contrast with Mao’s state capitalist regime as the public platform of their group in later years.[53] This was a great historical opportunity missed. Perhaps only James, among the most libertarian socialist figures of the Marxist movement and the Third World, with his tremendous body of critical work on the state and political economy, in a period where attacks on the Eurocentric past of Marxism were increasingly prevalent, could have raised criticism of Maoist China and clarified national liberation, anti-racism, and workers self-management as synonymous. On the lower frequencies, in the archive of primary and neglected sources of James’s intellectual legacies, including the debates, that body of work is ready to be explored and may contribute to such a re-evaluation in the future.

  1. [1] Les Evans and Russell Block, eds., Leon Trotsky on China, introduction by Peng-Shu-Tse (1976).
  2. [2] For evidence of C.L.R. James’s influence with Warburg leading to the original publication see Paul Collin, (Harold Isaacs), “The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution: An Essay On The Different Editions of That Work,” Revolutionary History, 2.4, Spring 1990, pp. 1–9; Frederic Warburg, An Occupation for Gentlemen (1959), p. 214; Kent Worcester, C.L.R. James: A Political Biography (1996).
  3. [3] For two very different collections of essays discussing Malraux see R.W.B. Lewis, ed., Malraux (1964); Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Interpretations: Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate (1988). Ironically, the latter text (which covers more than Man’s Fate) seems to be colored more by the Cold War than the former produced at its height.
  4. [4] See C.L.R. James (G.F. Eckstein), “New Recruits for Norman Thomas’ Campaign,” The Militant, May 17, 1948; C.L.R. James (G.F. Eckstein), “Malraux, With Aid of ‘Times,’ Slanders Trotskyism,” The Militant, March 1, 1948.
  5. [5] World Revolution, pp. 229–268.
  6. [6] Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China (1999), second edition, pp. 332–341.
  7. [7] Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution (1991), p. 288.
  8. [8] Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (1961), second revised edition, pp. 156–174.
  9. [9] See Maurice Meisner, “Stalinism in the History of the Chinese Communist Party,” in Aril Dirlik et al., eds., Critical Perspectives on Mao Zedong’s Thought (1997). Arif Dirlik et. al. eds. Atlantic Highlands, NJ:Humanities Press, 1997.184–206. Meisner points out that Mao’s famous “Hunan Report” (1927), which valorized the peasantry, was published at the same time that Chiang Kai Shek’s counter-revolution confined the aspiring Communist revolution to the rural areas.
  10. [10] C.L.R. James, World Revolution, pp. 238, 242–243.
  11. [11] Ibid., p. 233. Of course, it was questionable whether the Bolsheviks ever did organize their party based on one single class. Perhaps, if we accept the party at their word, they organized in the interest of the working class. But this should not be confused with the class composition of the party. At many points in this study it is questioned whether the party always acted in the best interests of the working class.
  12. [12] C.L.R. James (Anonymous), “China Fights—For Whom,” Fight, 1.10, September 1937, p. 1. See the collected volume of this publication, Staffan Lindhe, ed., Fight: Facsimile Edition of British Trotskyist Journals of the 1930s (1999).
  13. [13] Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, p. 342.
  14. [14] C.L.R. James, “Revolution and the Negro,” in C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings, 1939–1949, Scott McLemee and Paul Le Blanc, eds. (1994), p. 83.
  15. [15] C.L.R. James, “Native Son and Revolution,” in C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings, 1939–1949, p. 91.
  16. [16] C.L.R. James, “In the International Tradition: Tasks Ahead for American Labor,” in C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings, 1939–1949, p. 162.
  17. [17] C.L.R. James, “The American People in One World,” in C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings, 1939–1949, pp. 174–176.
  18. [18] C.L.R. James (G.F. Eckstein), “Karl Marx and Henry Luce,” Fourth International 9.2, March–April 1948, pp. 40–49; C.L.R. James, Modern Politics (1973), p. 125.
  19. [19] See Gina Marcetti, Romance and the ‘Yellow Peril’ (1993), and Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism (2003).
  20. [20] For a more comprehensive state-capitalist analysis of China than what was offered in James’s State Capitalism & World Revolution, see Cajo Brendel’s Theses on the Chinese Revolution (1974).
  21. [21] C.L.R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Grace Lee, State Capitalism & World Revolution (1986), pp. 78–105.
  22. [22] C.L.R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Balance Sheet Completed, Raya Dunayevskaya Papers, Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University. Detroit, Michigan, 1951, p. 8.
  23. [23] While the Hungarian Revolution’s main events were in October–November 1956, studies argue dynamics of these events extend as far as a year later. See Melvin Lasky, ed., The Hungarian Revolution (1957); Andy Anderson, Hungary ’56 (1976); Terry Cox, ed., Hungary 1956—Forty Years On (1997).
  24. [24] Facing Reality, p. 8.
  25. [25] Ibid., p. 20.
  26. [26] Mao Tse Tung, February 27, 1957, “Can Bad Things Be Turned Into Good Things?” in Selected Works of Mao Tse Tung (1977), volume 5, p. 416.
  27. [27] Modern Politics, pp. 162–167.
  28. [28] Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, pp. 539–543.
  29. [29] For the purposes of this study of James, the nuances of Rousseau’s concept of the social contract and his methods of cultivating the popular will by a philosopher disinterested in personally rising to state power must be kept in mind. However, we must also recall that while Mao seems to have studied Rousseau, “the citizen of Geneva” who inspired the French Revolution, Rousseau was among the European political thinkers, who had an Orientalist outlook, and saw China as backward and beyond reason and true liberty. See Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, pp. 134, 293.
  30. [30] C.L.R. James, 1963, “Perspectives and Proposals,” in Marxism for Our Times: C.L.R. James on Revolutionary Organization, Martin Glaberman, ed. (1999), p. 165.
  31. [31] Grace C. Lee, “The Best-Laid Plans in Communist China,” Correspondence, July 1, 1961, p. 3.
  32. [32] Spence, p. 578.
  33. [33] I wish to thank Robert G. Lee, professor of American Studies and Asian American Studies at Brown University, for critical discussion leading to this reflection.
  34. [34] “The Best-Laid Plans in Communist China,” Correspondence, p. 3.
  35. [35] Ibid., p. 3. Grace Lee Boggs subsequently transitioned to a politics partially inspired by Maoism and thus has desired to minimize in her autobiographical memoir her previous adherence to a more critical approach to Maoist China that she had from at least 1944–1961. It is not historically accurate to suggest, as Boggs had done in her memoir, that (1) because both Boggs and Mao are of Chinese descent, and aspired to be philosophers, (2) and that there was a greater affinity, enhanced soon after writing this article in Correspondence, when Mao’s works became more widely available in the United States. Instead Boggs felt the need to discard the meaning of direct democracy and Hungary to embrace a more state-centered socialist perspective on a world scale. See Grace Lee Boggs, Living For Change (1998), pp. 193–195.
  36. [36] Facing Reality, pp. 79–80.
  37. [37] Ibid., p. 80.
  38. [38] C.L.R. James, Letter to Martin Glaberman, December 3, 1962, “Letters On Organization,” in Marxism for Our Times, pp. 70–71.
  39. [39] C.L.R. James, Letter to Martin Glaberman, pp. 97–98.
  40. [40] Facing Reality (1958) the publication should not be confused with the subsequent organization named Facing Reality. Grace Lee Boggs co-wrote the document but split from C.L.R. James, taking the organization correspondence, and the newspaper with the same name with her in 1962. Her split led to the formation of the Facing Reality group led by James and Martin Glaberman.
  41. [41] C.L.R. James, 1967, The Gathering Forces, George Rawick Papers, Western Manuscripts Archive, University of Missouri, St. Louis, pp. 22–23.
  42. [42] Ibid., pp. 41–42.
  43. [43] Spence, pp. 574–586.
  44. [44] See Klaus Mehnert, ed., Peking and the New Left: At Home and Abroad, Chinese Research Monograph No. 4 (1969). This collection includes “Whither China,” two other Shengwulian documents, and K’ang Sheng’s attack on Shengwulian and the CCP’s assessment of their challenge to authority as “anarchist.”
  45. [45] C.L.R. James, Letter to Martin Glaberman, April 16, 1968, p. 1.
  46. [46] Ibid.
  47. [47] Ibid.
  48. [48] Mehnert, pp. 22–23.
  49. [49] C.L.R. James, Letter to Martin Glaberman, April 16, 1968, p. 2.
  50. [50] C.L.R. James, Letter to Martin Glaberman, May 20, 1968, p. 1.
  51. [51] See Martin Glaberman, “Upheaval in China,” Speak Out, January 1967, p. 3; Martin Glaberman, 1968, Mao As Dialectician (1971).
  52. [52] Martin Glaberman, “C.L.R. James: A Recollection,” in C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism, p. 52.
  53. [53] Martin Glaberman, Letter to Paul Buhle, June 18, 1970; Martin Glaberman, “Draft Introduction to State Capitalism & World Revolution” (1967), Martin Glaberman Collection, Walter Reuther Labor Archive, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI. This manuscript was prepared for the third edition of State Capitalism & World Revolution, which was published in 1969. This edition’s published “Preface” has no remnants of the discussion of Maoist China to be found in this manuscript.


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. bob mcglynn,

    state capitalist talk is nonsense/ahistorical/trivializing/demeaning to those who live/lived under Communism.
    everyone from marx/engels to aristotle to weber, hegel, wittfogel, bahro and most from Communist nations into 21st century (except 3 anarchists!) use asiatic mode of production/asiatic/oriental despotisms/semi-asiatic (lenin et al) talk (AMP’s) that were despotic/bureaurocratic/managerial/terroristic to describe east/mid east (not just, like incas, aztecs…) and many began to see Communism with HISTORICAL links to AMP either born with it or fictisiously/imperialistically graphed onto them- lenin began to worry later in life that the russian ghost of past would reappear…bolshekivs talked about amp from ’25 till ’31 and concluded “it didnt exist” as amp’s had obvious classes the state and working masses and looked too much like Communism that was supposed to be class free…marx/engels never concluded their study of amp cuz it may have looked too much like their version of communism or hadta work on das capital perhaps.
    state capitalist talk is defining Communism thru a western capitalist, imperial lens- don’t grapht onto others what oppresses us- what capitalism that may exist under stalinism is just nuts and bolts and is perhaps just industrial methods- the amp qualities are uppermost.
    too many academics talk about this so it never hits the streets of the ‘left’- i’m gonna do it (working class, not an academic) when i finish research in future- it’s now 7-15…see ya when all hell breaks loose among anarchists etc…
    how about using the term ‘state collectivist’ for Communism instead of arcane language?

    bob mcglynn, US, bobnenwogb@aol.com


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