Excerpt, Noel Ignatiev's Blog

Introduction to CLR James, Modern Politics


Modern Politics consists of a series of lectures C.L.R. James delivered in 1960 at the Adult Education Center in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad.[1] During his twenty-five-year absence from his native land, James had become known to a few in the radical movement as the founder and leader of a distinctive current of Marxism and more widely as a writer on sports, history, philosophy and culture, and had been recognized as one of the pioneers of West Indian independence.[2] The lectures are a survey of Western Civilization. Why did James, a black man who knew the crimes of the West firsthand, speaking to a mostly black audience of colonials, choose to lecture on Western Civilization?

James is seeking to explain the meaning of Socialism. For him, Socialism is complete democracy. Therefore, he begins the first lecture with democracy in the ancient Greek city-state. He tells us why: “because I could not do without it.” The Greeks invented direct democracy.[3]

From Greece he goes to Rome and the Revelations of St. John. He says he chose John because he was a colonial subject of Rome. John had a sense of historic sweep, and in his vision of God’s Kingdom he was addressing the questions that occupied the Greeks, above all the relation of the individual and the collective.

From the ancient world James moves to the city-states of the Middle Ages and to the class struggles that tore them apart. He talks about the English Civil War and the birth of a new form of government, representative democracy,[4] citing Shakespeare, “the great dramatist of individual character,” as an example of the emerging spirit. (James referred to Shakespeare frequently in his works; a series of lectures on Shakespeare he delivered on the BBC has been lost.) He takes up philosophy and the Age of Reason, and Rousseau’s repudiation of that way of thinking and of representative government. After touching on the American and French Revolutions, he ends the lecture by defining the problem he will be addressing: “Much of our study of modern politics is going to be concerned with this tremendous battle to find a form of government which reproduces, on a more highly developed economic level, the relationship between the individual and the community that was established so wonderfully in the Greek City-State.”

            The classics of the West have shaped the modern world. The European Renaissance was a moment of world-historic significance, and the great works of antiquity were sources of it. It is impossible to deny these facts. However, to accept a genealogy in which “ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution” and so forth is misleading.[5]

The ancient Greeks traced their culture back to Egypt.[6] Egypt drew upon the Upper Nile (modern Sudan). The Book of Genesis came from Mesopotamia; according to the Biblical account, Abraham was an Iraqi shepherd. During the Hellenistic age, Greece faced east, not west; Alexander the Great conquered Persia, and Persia conquered Alexander. Christian doctrine drew heavily on notions that were circulating widely in the Eastern Mediterranean, including matings between gods and humans, virgin birth, the Messiah, resurrection and afterlife.[7]

Following the “fall” of Rome, Byzantium and the Islamic world preserved the works of the Greeks and Romans and kept alive the classical traditions of humanism and scientific inquiry. Islam was influenced by East and West.

Cultures are not products of separate regions isolated from each other.

Settled agriculture, urban life, patriarchal religion and the state were born in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley around 7000 BCE. The first literary object to emerge from Britain that anyone from anywhere else would take any interest in was Beowulf, c. 1000 CE. In other words, about eight thousand years elapsed between the birth of what is called civilization and anything of literary value from Britain, three thousand miles away. Yet that vast gap in time and space did not prevent the inhabitants of Britain from going on to lead the world in producing works from Chaucer to Jane Austen and beyond that illuminated the human condition everywhere. Nor has it stopped them from asserting their ownership of literary works they had no direct hand in producing.

And that is as it should be. Everything created by human beings anywhere is and ought to be the property of all human beings everywhere. I used to know a poet who called Milton black. On being asked why, she replied, “Well, I’m black and I like him.”

            C.L.R. James would have agreed with her. (He refers to Paradise Lost in these lectures, comparing it to the Revelations of St. John.)


Class struggle is a constant theme in the lectures. Whether talking about fifteenth-century Flemish city-states or twentieth-century Detroit, James stresses the class struggle as the force that drives history. When I met James, he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I worked in a factory. He said he regretted that he had never had the opportunity to do that. I naturally replied that his writings had helped me make sense of my own experience. Yes, he said, people have told me that, but I still wish I had experienced it directly. In order to illustrate James’ world view and as partial repayment for what he taught me I shall here recount some things I saw in twenty-three years as a worker in industry.

I once had a job operating a horizontal boring mill in a plant that manufactured punch presses, machine tools and die sets. My job was to bore holes and mill contours on large—often 6’ x 8’—steel slabs to be made into die sets to customers’ specifications. The mill was an old-fashioned, manually controlled machine, well built and originally quite expensive, capable of turning out high-quality work.

The plant operated on an incentive-pay system: each job was time-rated for the machine on which it was to be performed, and the operator received a bonus for all he or she managed to produce above the eight-hour norm. Jobs varied, but the bonus could account for as much a half a worker’s total wage.

In order to be fair to the employees on the bonus system—and the company was nothing if not fair—it was necessary to make allowance for the time spent outside of direct production, sharpening tools, loading parts on the machine (including waiting for the overhead crane when it was occupied elsewhere), filling the coolant tank and so forth. The allowances were recorded through red computer-coded cards punched in a clock.

When I started on the job, one of the veteran operators called me aside and explained the system. “You see those red cards?” he asked, pointing at the rack where they were stacked. “If the company won’t give you a raise, you take those red cards and give yourself a raise. That’s what they’re for.”

I took his advice and studied hard and soon became sufficiently adept with the red cards to assure myself several hours’ bonus most days. I remember one of the operators asking me what I considered the most valuable tool in my box. I held up a pencil.

To lower costs the company installed a new tape-controlled mill, able to do more or less the same work as the one I was on in about half the time. They then reset the standards, reducing the time allotted for all jobs, even those still being sent to the old machine. Our bonuses evaporated.

There were three of us on the horizontal mill, one on each shift. We petitioned for a return to the old rates. The company denied our petition. With the new rates, the most we could turn out, even with intense effort and trouble-free operation, was six hours’ production. Why should we strain ourselves to make the same hourly rate we could make by coasting? We slowed down.

            As I recall, our slowdown was undertaken without a single meeting among the three of us. (Our different shifts meant we were never all together, although each of us saw the other two every day.) One of us—I no longer remember who—simply announced one day to the operator coming after him, “I’m fed up with this. I gave them an hour and a half tonight and that’s all I’m doing from now on.” The next operator followed his lead, and it became standard practice on reporting for work to inquire of the departing operator how much he had turned out and to do the same or less. After a few weeks we had established our own norm, around three quarters of an hour each shift.

            Of course the company did not like what was going on, but without assigning a foreman to observe each of us full-time, how were they to know when a tool burned up and needed replacing or how long the operator needed to wait for a new one to be ground when the tool crib was out of the required tool or when the coolant in the machine needed replenishing or when the crane was occupied or out of order or the crane operator was on break—or any of the mysteries of a horizontal boring mill operator’s life, each faithfully recorded on a red card and entered into the computer that never lies?

            Things went along for a while with us pretending to work and the company pretending to pay us, until one day the general foreman announced that since production on the horizontal mill was so low the company was eliminating one of the three operators. Since I was the newest, the ax would fall on me. I was offered a choice: I could take a layoff or I could retrain on the tape-controlled machine. I chose the latter and was soon third-shift operator. The other two horizontal mill operators continued their slowdown without me. Shortly afterward, the company transferred them to another department and sold the machine for a fraction of its cost to a salvage company.

            The episode was a small example of Marx’s observation that the class struggle led either to a revolutionary reconstitution of the society or the common ruin of the contending classes. The three of us had destroyed that horizontal mill just as effectively as if we had taken a torch and sledgehammer to it. Although it remained physically intact and capable of performing the tasks for which it had been designed and built, it no longer existed as capital, the only form of value in a capitalist society.


The Tractor Works of the International Harvester Company was located across the street from the McCormick Reaper Works, the original plant of the Harvester Company and scene of the eight-hour-day strike of 1886 that led to the May First holiday. In 1940, when the CIO finally forced Harvester to recognize it as the bargaining agent, Lucy Parsons—labor organizer and widow of Albert Parsons, martyred in 1886—declared to assembled workers, “Now I know my husband didn’t die in vain.”

            One of the products of the plant was earth-moving tractors. (Although foremen insisted that the proper term for that type of tractor was the generic “crawler,” the workers perversely referred to them as “Caterpillars.”) One of the customers was the government, which used them to fill bomb craters in Vietnam. The standard joke was that the soldiers drove them into the craters and shoveled dirt on top of them.

By 1968 the inmates were running the asylum. Wishing to recover the ability to plan production, Harvester launched a campaign against absenteeism, beginning by seeking to fire the worst offenders. They called in the chairman of the union grievance committee and showed him the record of one especially flagrant case showing seventeen dates over the span of a year.

“Why you bastards,” yelled the committeeman, “you want to fire this guy and he’s only missed seventeen days, and you don’t even know what kind of problems he’s been having…” and so on.

“Hold on, Bill,” replied the personnel director. “These aren’t the days he missed. These are the days he came to work last year.”

What everyone in the plant knew, which never came out in the hearing, was that the guy had started up an ice cream parlor on the outside and was spending all his time there, hanging onto his job at Harvester for the health insurance. The most Harvester could get was a thirty-day suspension—like throwing Br’er Rabbit in the briar patch.


When I started in the steel mills, I was astonished at the extent to which the workers there had established control over the workday. In part, the power of the workers was a consequence of the way steel was produced: once the iron ore, coke and limestone are in the furnace, they can’t be drilled, or assembled, or stacked up, or any of the other things done on assembly lines. The technique is not the whole story, however, because the steel companies were always trying to combine jobs to make people work during the slack time dictated by the furnaces. The workers resisted them at every turn: In 1959 there was a three-month strike over job descriptions, just the visible tip of the ongoing war. At Harvester’s subsidiary, Wisconsin Steel, the management tried for several years to replace the system whereby workers picked up their time cards at the mill entrance and handed them in to the foremen in their work areas to one in which they punched in at the entrance. The workers responded with several strikes, which appeared a mystery—why should people care where they hand in their cards? Talking to the workers revealed that many of them had private arrangements with their foremen which allowed them to hand in their cards and then disappear for the rest of their shift. Having to hand in their time cards at the entrance to plant guards they did not know would have interfered with these arrangements.

I remember at U.S. Steel a foreman once came into a shanty where a bunch of maintenance workers were sitting around, some drinking coffee, some playing cards, some snoozing, and asked two of them to go out and see about a certain piece of equipment that was broken.

“Can’t you see I’m busy?” said one of them as he picked up the cards for the next deal.

“We’ll get it when the rain stops,” said another.

The foreman exited, apparently satisfied that he had got the most he could from that group at that moment. Of course that situation prevailed among maintenance more than production workers, and the line between them partly corresponded to the color line—but not entirely. I once asked a fellow worker, a black woman, why there were so few wildcat strikes in the steel mill compared to a nearby auto plant well known for their frequency. Without hesitating she said, “It’s because people here are always on strike.”[8]

Her answer stood out against the attitude of one of the more prominent left-wing trade unionists in the Calumet area, whom I visited shortly after I began work in the mill. I asked him about the movement of workers in the industry.

“What movement?” he replied. “There is no movement.”

 I knew that in his mill the workers in some departments were making their rates in half a shift and spending the other half in the tavern nearby. I asked him about it. “That’s not a movement,” he said. “They’ve been doing that for years. It doesn’t mean anything.”

To him “movement” meant the number of workers who attended union meetings, voted for the resolutions introduced by his caucus and supported his slate at election time. The accumulation of shop-floor battles that had ripped half the day out of the hands of capital was not part of the class struggle as it existed in his mind.

C.L.R. James taught me to see otherwise. So did Marx, who devoted a chapter in Capital to the struggle over the length of the working day. Of all the dogmas that hold sway among leftists, the most widespread and pernicious is the dogma of the backwardness of the working class. To adhere to it is to reject Marxism root and branch, for Marxism holds that the capitalist system revolutionizes the forces of production and that the working class is foremost among the forces of production.


A black woman I worked with told me that when she first started in a new position at the plant as a crane operator she got no help from the others in the department, all white men. Contrary to their usual practice, whenever she was on the crane they would hook up the loads so that they were hard to move, and in general did what they could to make her job more difficult than necessary. After a few weeks she called them all together and delivered a speech: “Listen, you motherfuckers, I’m not asking for special consideration. I just want to be respected as a crane operator. I’ve got rent to pay and babies to feed just like you, so I don’t care what you do, you’re not running me out of here.”

They changed their attitudes and became totally cooperative. Let no one think the victory was hers alone: she was a harbinger of the new society, a “fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labors, ready to face any change of production, to whom the different social functions [s]he performs are but so many modes of giving free scope to


own natural and acquired powers” (from Capital, Chapter 15, Volume I,the only passage James quoted from Marx in these six lectures).

James’ revolutionary optimism was inspired and sustained by his deep appreciation for the kinds of experiences I have recounted. Those experiences were hallmarks of the period when large numbers of workers were brought together in factories and where they had the opportunity, and took it, to impose some control over their work circumstances, taking advantage of the cover provided by a union and contract. Today, in the United States, the ability of workers to assert that kind of control in a single workplace is diminished. The situation may be different in India and China.


If James teaches us anything, he teaches us to look. I knew a radical in 1969 who took a job as a truck driver and after a few weeks reported that the chances of collective action among truck drivers was slim since their work dictated that they be isolated as individuals instead of being brought together in large concentrations. Then someone invented the CB radio, and the result was a national wildcat strike of owner-operators. In part out of fear of working-class strength, capital broke up or greatly reduced in size the large centers of proletarian concentration, the River Rouges, the Gary Works, the FIAT Mirafiori works. Yet in pursuit of its own need to coordinate production (including research) and distribution on a world scale, capital gave us the internet, with the result that a man who sets himself on fire in Tunisia in protest against high prices touches off a wave of struggle that topples a government in Egypt, which in turn serves as an example to people in Madison, Wisconsin, which inspires the Occupy movement (which seems to have gone into fatal decline, to be surely followed by new struggles).

James has been criticized for failing to acknowledge or explain defeats in the class struggle. Like any person engaged in serious day-to-day politics, he found it necessary to take into account and adapt to setbacks.[9] But his overall outlook led him to seek out the future in the present. In this respect he brings to mind the Abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who declared in a speech following John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, “What is defeat? Nothing but education—nothing but the first step to something better”—and was proven right within a few years.


It was James’ custom to speak without notes, and there is every reason to believe that he delivered these lectures that way (although they may have been edited later for publication). He was able to do so because he had thoroughly mastered his subject matter. Like a great athlete who pulls off amazing feats on the court, his mastery was due to the countless hours he put in off the court or the lectern. In Modern Politics James stresses that philosophy must become proletarian, which is to be understood as the need for philosophers to embrace the proletariat and the proletariat to embrace philosophy. Whatever our disappointments and difficulties at the moment, his wisdom needs to be reaffirmed. Not long ago I took part in a two-person panel at a conference of mostly young activists. The panel was set up as a debate, and each of us circulated well in advance a five-page essay we believed would help the discussion. When my turn came to speak, I asked that those who had not read the essays refrain from speaking in the discussion that would follow our opening remarks. I do not know how many of those who spoke had read the material we circulated, and I had no way of enforcing my request. Afterwards, one person, who had not spoken, came up to me and said she was offended, saying she felt “disempowered” by my request that she not take part. I replied that I had not asked her not to take part, merely not to speak, and that she was welcome to listen. My reply made no difference. I later learned that others shared her feelings; anti-intellectualism is widespread in radical circles, infecting many dedicated activists. I asked myself, what would C.L.R. James (or Malcolm X) have said?


James devotes part of the final lecture to what he calls “the undying vision,” a survey of works of art he believes point the way toward the future. He names D.W. Griffith, Chaplin and Picasso. All of them, he argues, were shaped by the need to serve a popular audience. Elsewhere he had said the same about the Greeks and Shakespeare. One of my teachers in high school, Dr. Gordon, told us that if we had gone up to someone on the street in London in 1605 and asked the names of the best poets, the answer would have been Marlowe or Donne or Jonson. If we had asked about Shakespeare, our informant would have slapped his upper leg and said, Will Shakespeare—why, he’s the best playwright in town! Theater was seen as popular entertainment, not serious literature. Dr. Gordon would have shared James’s view. If Shakespeare were alive today he would be writing for the movies.


James concludes, “Anyone who tries to prevent you from knowing, from learning anything, is an enemy, an enemy of freedom, of equality, of democracy.” His words were prophetic: Scarcely were the lectures published in book form than Prime Minister Williams ordered the books suppressed, placing them under guard in a warehouse in Port of Spain. In his Introduction to the 1973 edition of Modern Politics (included in this volume), Martin Glaberman provides the context; I won’t repeat what he wrote. James left Trinidad. Later, when he reentered the country, Williams placed him under house arrest. Thus James joined the long and honorable list of those who were locked up for what they wrote.


One turns to C.L.R. James for many reasons. If pressed I would say Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In is my favorite among his works. Yet for comprehensiveness, integration of history, philosophy, culture, politics and method, as an introduction to Marxism and socialism for new readers, Modern Politics is in first place. John Bracey, who was part of the group that brought James back to the States in 1967, tells of the time James called his attention to a football game on television: “Look at that, Bracey,” he said, “black people beating up white people on TV—capitalism is doomed.” It is hard to imagine an anecdote that captures and brings together so many different facets of C.L.R. James. Modern Politics is that story elaborated over six lectures.

[1] I am grateful to Geert Dhondt and John Garvey for their suggestions.

[2] A fuller outline of James’s life and thought can be found in my introduction to A New Notion (PM Press, 2010).

[3] James explores this subject at greater length in “Every Cook Can Govern,” reprinted in A New Notion: Two Works by C.L.R. James (Oakland: PM Press, 2010).

[4] Ellen Meiksins Wood traces the devolution from direct to representative democracy in Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). She makes no reference to James.

[5] Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982) p. 5.

[6] See Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987).

[7] For more on this, see Archibald Robertson, The Origins of Christianity (New York: International Publishers, 1954), and the classic Foundations of Christianity: A Study in Christian Origins by Karl Kautsky (New York: Monthly Review, 1972).

[8] She made another comment I wish to record: “I’ve been in prison, I’ve been in a mental hospital, and I’ve been at U.S. Steel. As far as I’m concerned, this is the strangest of them all: in those other places people knew something was wrong, and around here people think that what they do is normal.”

[9] In a little-known address he delivered in London in 1967 on the death of Che Guevara, James predicted that if the capitalist system continued on the path of destroying the material elements of civilization, rendering impossible traditional means of struggle, then guerrilla warfare could become the only method open.

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