On CLR James and Hegel’s Dialectic

David Black

Summary: Based on a talk to the ‘No Peace in the Park: Psychedelic Bolshevik Day School‘, 17 June 2017, Norfolk Heritage Park, Sheffield – slightly expanded in light of discussion — Editors

CLR James was born in Trinidad in 1901 and died in Brixton, London in 1989. He is celebrated as the author of Black Jacobins, a history of the slave revolt led by Toussaint Louverture which began in the French colony of Saint Domingue (Haiti) in 1791 — the first successful (and only successful) slave revolt in history. In France itself, the revolutionary National Convention led by Maximilien Robespierre voted to abolish slavery in 1794. But in 1802 Napoleon Bonaparte ordered an invasion of Haiti to re-establish colonial rule and revoke the Jacobin anti-slavery decree. Toussaint, who continued to defy Napoleon, was betrayed by his former comrades and died in a French prison in 1803. Toussaint’s historical legacy is that he raised an important question that CLR James was very activated by: are the universal human rights coming out of the Enlightenment and French Revolution truly universal? – or just white, male and European.

In England, in the 1930s, James became a political activist and joined the Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialist League. In 1938 he relocated to the USA. After the assassination of Trotsky in 1940, James rethought the ‘Russian Question’ and decided that Russia was state-capitalist, rather than any sort of degenerated workers’ state (as Trotsky had argued). By a strange coincidence Raya Dunayevskaya, formerly Trotsky’s secretary, came up with the same conclusion about the state of the USSR –  separately, but at almost exactly the same time. Together, they founded the Johnson-Forest Tendency within the US Workers Party (JR Johnson was CLR James; Freddie Forest was Raya Dunayevskaya). A third leader of the tendency was Grace Lee Boggs.

In 1948, CLR James made a study of Hegel’s Science of Logic, in the form of a 250-page mimeograph for internal discussion within the Johnson-Forest Tendency (it was eventually published in book form in 1980). Why Hegel? Why then? At the time Dunayevskaya was translating Lenin’s Hegel Notebooks of 1914.  Lenin, when he realized that the Second International has collapsed into patriotic nationalism with the onset of the First World War, spent three months in the Geneva library studying Hegel’s Science of Logic. The highpoints of Lenin’s Hegel Notebooks are more speculative than conclusive. One of them was to question whether the diremption between idealism and materialism advocated by Engels ran the danger of falling into a crude materialism that ignored the creativity of subjectivity and reduced human consciousness to a Feuerbachian reflection of ‘matter in motion’.

Hegel begins his 900-page masterpiece with the movement of philosophical categories: Being, Nothing and Becoming. If you determine that you and your experiences are something (like in ‘I think, therefore I am’), you are also determining that you and your experiences are not something else. This is what Raya Dunayevskaya calls the ‘Power of Negativity’. Hegel’s Logic tells us – as an inescapable fact of life – that we come from nothing, but we are always trying to become something. This is true for us as individuals, from the day we are born; true for the development of philosophical Logic itself from the Ancient Greeks to the Enlightenment; and true for historical movements.

The young Marx argued that the proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing. It is this historical movement of becoming that James was primarily concerned with. The proletariat and capital are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have the one without the other. Therefore, the proletariat, in uprooting commodification and value production, and abolishing the class-divisions of society, abolishes itself in the act of building a new society based on human needs, rather than the needs of any class or ideology.

Raya Dunayevskaya examined the second book of Hegel’s Science of Logic which is called the Doctrine of Essence. The philosophical categories Hegel introduces here are Quality, Quantity and Measure. Bearing in mind that Hegel always begins with the Ancient Greeks when introducing a category, Dunayevskaya, while conceding that myriad interpretations are possible, speculates that Quality is the One, and the One is the King. Quantity is the Many, i.e., the People. What is the Quality of the King? He has power over everyone else. But if the King is seen a dangerous tyrant, then the relation between Quality and Quantity – between the King and his subjects – between the One and the Many – is exposed as illusory being. In Hegel’s terms, the Essence has become separated from Appearance. The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Protagoras argued that ‘Man is the measure of everything’. But if the King is no longer seen as the measure of the whole society, he is kicked out and democracy is founded by the Many. The new measurement of Quality becomes the well being of the free citizens (the slaves in Ancient Greece don’t count unfortunately).

History moves on. Democracy, overcome in Greece by imperialism, then forgotten under feudalism, returns at a new higher level with the English Revolution of the 17th century. It is defeated, but it comes back: first with the American Revolution of 1776, then with the French Revolution of 1789. In England the Chartist movement appears at a time (the 1830s) when the proletariat is embroiled in a new stage of capitalist development, involving employment of children in mines and factories, incarceration of hard working families in workhouses, suppression of free speech, etc., etc. The Chartist movement struggles to win democracy, but does not succeed and collapses. However, in 1850 George Julian Harney, editor of the Chartist paper, the Red Republican, serialises Helen Macfarlane’s English translation of the Communist Manifesto, which points the way forward to a future generation of radicals. A few years later, in 1864, Marx launches the First International, headquartered in London. It’s quite successful, but when the Paris Commune happens in 1871, the British trade union leaders refuse to support it. The First International collapses into nothing. But, again, not quite. Marx describes the Paris Commune as the organisational form of the new society. When the collapse of the Second International in 1914 is followed by the Russian Revolution of 1917 Lenin argues that the Soviets, which like the Commune, have sprung up spontaneously, are the organisational form of the new society.

For CLR James in 1948, both social democracy and the Comintern have become deadly enemies of the proletariat because they have become representations of capital. Social democracy represents a section of the proletariat – the skilled workers – who have been incorporated by monopoly capital; stalinism represents the petite bourgeois, technocratic new class of state capitalism. So, James argues, with the millions of workers organised by western European Stalinist parties or, as in England and America, by the trade unions (which are led by social democrats) there is nothing Left to organise. The existing organisations are enemies of true socialism. CLR James therefore counterposes spontaneous class struggle to organisation.

Later, in the 1950s James throws out any concept of organized mediation in the world of class struggle. As he and Grace Lee Boggs put in 1958 (Facing Reality): ‘the organization will not seek to propagate it [socialism], nor to convince men of it, but to use it so as the more quickly and clearly to recognize how it is concretely expressed in the lives and struggles of the people’. Believing socialism to be ‘inherent in the masses’, James argues that the only role left for revolutionaries is to tell anyone who didn’t know it that this is so.

And he was wrong. Years later Dunayevskaya draws attention to Poland and Iran in 1979-80. In both countries the mass movements seem to have a tremendous spontaneous creativity with the necessary ingredients for social transformation, including women’s movements and workers councils. And yet both movements are easily taken over: in one case by Catholic reactionaries and in the other by Islamic fundamentalists. In both instances the question of What Happens After is absent, even amongst the radical Left. Marx’s description of capital in the Grundrisse as ‘the all-dominating economic power of bourgeois society’ shows that if capital remains and relations of labor at the point of production remain unchanged, then political decision-making will necessarily operate within the limits capital imposes.

Hegel ends the Logic with the category of the ‘Absolute’, in which, according to the more simple-minded ‘dialectical materialists’, the ‘World Spirit’ of history achieves its god-like apotheosis and resolves all of the contradictions, courtesy of the State. Some argue that Hegel’s Logic represents the logic of capital, i.e., the logic of a self-moving form: a quasi-subject constantly dominating and absorbing everything that is other to it, especially nature and more especially human nature. However, Peter Hudis argues that, even granted Hegel’s Logic represents the logic of capital it does not necessarily follow that Hegel’s philosophy represents the value-form:

‘The logic of capital presents us with a system imbued with such internal instability that capital intimates a realm beyond capital wherein [in Marx’s words] ‘human power is its own end’. Likewise, Hegel’s Logic is traversed by an internal duality: the absolute contradiction between the Theoretical and Practical Idea.” [Peter Hudis, The Death of the Death of the Subject, Historical Materialism, vol 12-3.]

Marx’s describes capitalist production as ‘for production’s sake’, which is riven by the absolute contradiction between: 1) the drive to increase productivity by reducing the proportion of living labor, and 2) the reproductive drive to increase surplus value, which is wholly dependent on living labor.

As Marx liked to point out, it wasn’t he or Engels who ‘invented’ the idea of ‘communism’. Thomas Muntzer, the leader of the 16th century Peasant Rebellion in Germany, had coined the slogan ‘Omnia sunt communia’ (everything should belong to everyone). In the French Revolution, Gracchus Babeuf’s ‘Conspiracy of Equals’ took the Jacobin idea of democracy further in challenging capitalist power and private property.

How does discontent spill over into Revolution? As Hegel puts it, no doubt with the French Revolution in mind:

‘When external actuality is altered by the activity of the objective notion and its determination therewith sublated, by that very fact the merely phenomenal reality, the external determinability and worthlessness, are removed from that actuality’. [Science of Logic, p465]

So under feudalism, there are the subjective forces of the Enlightenment which are opposed to the rottenness of the Ancien Regime – the Encyclopaedists, artists, economists, journalists, lawyers, and scientists CLR James mentions in Notes of Dialectics – and then suddenly, almost out of nothing, the Idea of freedom grips the masses and the revolution becomes as unstoppable as a hurricane. In Hegel’s terms this takes the form of an ‘objective notion’; it has become the General Will that the potential of revolutionary change is actually more real thanthe merely phenomenal reality, the external determinability and worthlessness’. ‘The fact IS, BEFORE it exists’. The King has no clothes. Neither has the Tsar. That’s why perhaps, Lenin, in his Hegel Notebooks, drew the conclusion that it was impossible to grasp Marx’s Capital without a thorough study of Hegel’s Logic. In the age of the Spectacle-Commodity, to use Guy Debord’s term (and he was no ‘Leninist’), that may now be truer than ever.


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