CLR James and the Struggle for Black Liberation

Socialism 2015

July 02, 2015

C.L.R. James’s “A Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States”—first presented as a speech in 1948 and published by the ISO in a pamphlet in 1980—remains a classic Marxist analysis of the movement for African-American liberation. Summing up his conclusions after ten years of political activity, historical research, and theoretical labor while living in the United States, it is rightly understood as one of his major works. Certainly the FBI thought so: Its file on James included a thorough summary of “The Revolutionary Answer….,” used as part of the effort to deport him at the height of McCarthyism.

But it was not James’s last word on the subject. In 1957, one of his visitors in London was a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. A mutual friend shared “The Revolutionary Answer” to Malcolm X. By the mid-1960s, James was discussing the strategy and tactics of the Black Power movement with Stokely Carmichael (among many others) and posing challenging questions to the first generation of African-American studies programs. And in the final years before his death in 1989, he recognized and celebrated the emergence of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Ntozake Shange as authors who “have taken Black women and put them right in the front of American literature.”

My talk will begin with a summing up of the major points James made in his 1948 speech, putting it in the context of earlier Marxist attempts to understand the place of African-Americans in U.S. society and history. But the majority of the session will consider James’s ideas about interventions within the liberation struggle over the remaining years of his life, drawing on his major writings and speeches but also on his journalism and letters to comrades.

Those with time to prepare for the session should read “The Revolutionary Answer,” which is available online at the Marxist Internet Archive. It also appeared in ISR issue 85, with my introduction.

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