“African Labor in the World Community” – CLR James’ Political Economy

On CLR James’ 122nd Anniversary, Matthew Quest celebrates his intervention in global freedom movements by placing his radical political economy in conversation with the African world and the African continent. He argues that CLR James offers a different and better understanding of capital, the state, and the role of the working class than most Pan-African and socialist thinkers on the continent and the diaspora of the 1940s-70s and today. James developed a radical perspective centred on the self-emancipation of the working masses that strives not to reform capitalism but to abolish it. 
By Matthew Quest

It is impossible to discuss CLR James (1901-1989) and his economics without underscoring it was a product of his politics first, that wished to bring the new society closer (not a sovereign nation-state in the world system). While James’s economics has profound contemporary implications, we must also remember it was clarified in specific historical contexts in the twentieth century.

Placing James’s political economy in conversation with the African world, and the African continent specifically, requires recalling his interventions in global freedom movements. His underground theorizing is still outside the main currents of recording his legacies and the Black radical tradition. If radical critiques of political economy reject many of the normative frameworks of economics in the name of pursuing some form of equality and sovereignty for peripheral nations, James calls into question what radical views of economics are. Not simply James’s ideals but the creative conflicts within his legacies help us to inquire more deeply.

The best way to remind us of this proposition is to underline what the critique of neo-liberalism means today. Overwhelmingly, it means a critique of one form of capitalism, not opposition to capitalism as a whole. Neo-liberalism is said to be economics based on finance capital and a retreat from industrial production and infrastructural maintenance. While industry has largely migrated from the center to the periphery in the last 30-50 years; the critique of neo-liberalism is largely the same in imperial centers and peripheries. This flawed challenge is a product of the fusion of New Deal/Keynesian and anti-colonial economics.

Failure of the Critique of Neo-Liberalism Rooted in New Deal and Anti-Colonial Economics

Most who desire a Green New Deal (and/or those who cheer on contemporary China) wish to be partners with industrial capital in building and maintaining roads and bridges, water and electrical systems and wish for the development of free or low-cost public housing, healthcare, and education. This means a certain type of state planned intervention, whether it be the one-party state or aspiring welfare state, in the economy. The critique of neoliberalism seeks to enhance both the profits of capitalists and the creation of good-paying, perhaps unionized, jobs. The apparent challenge to neo-liberalism wants the lion to lay down with the lamb.

The critique of neoliberalism is not for the abolition of capitalism but looks for a renaissance in national development where capital is a partner with progressives and labor is politically subordinate. Progressivism by definition is a permanent evasion that exists between propertied liberalism and content-less socialism.

James, a left-libertarian and autonomous Marxist, opposed most frameworks of progressive economics and politics. He was informed by an original interpretation of the intersection of Hegel, Marx, and Lenin. Most anti-colonial economics relies on a certain reading of Lenin’s Imperialism that James does not share. James offers a reading of Lenin’s last writings to advise peripheral statesmen. That does not add to his insurgent legacies. The idea that banks or monopoly trusts can be “good” or “bad,” from the perspective of working-class self-emancipation, is not sustainable.

A Pan-African and Independent Socialist

CLR James, author of The Black Jacobins, the classic history of the Haitian Revolution, is recalled as a Pan-African and independent socialist. A colleague and critic of anti-colonial politicians and activists (Trinidad’s George Padmore, Eric Williams, and Stokely Carmichael, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, and Guyana’s Walter Rodney) James’s political economy was fundamentally different than his associates. While there are apparent moments of unity, especially around how the empire of capital underdeveloped Africa and the Caribbean through slavery and colonialism, or how federation might help enhance peripheral nation’s sovereignty, James was distinctive. He saw the state, party politics, democracy, and the working class in contrast to Pan-African and Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy.

The Black radical tradition, after experimenting with European radicalism and socialism, never developed its own independent political economy. As a left-libertarian and autonomous Marxist, James founded his own doctrine with comrades in the Johnson-Forest Tendency of American Trotskyism (1942-1951). These included Raya Dunayevskaya, Grace Lee Boggs, Martin Glaberman, and Selma James.

His mature politics benefited from the journey but was finally a rupture with the Trotskyist movement; this produced small American Marxist collectives, the Correspondence group (1951-1961) and the Facing Reality group (1962-1970). These politics could be summed up as advocating direct democracy, workers’ self-management, the autonomy of Blacks, the colonized, and women, and rebellion against totalitarian bureaucracy.

Before the age of Third World national liberation struggles, most of James’s original economics was expressed in The Invading Socialist Society (1947) and State Capitalism & World Revolution (1950). Facing Reality (1958) also illustrated some aspects of his political economy. These small booklets anticipated problems with general staples of Third World political economy before such theories consolidated themselves. Beginning with a critique of the Soviet Union, James started to develop a political economy for the whole world. While he saw the one-party state and welfare state differently, Stalinist Russia, FDR’s New Deal, Fabian Britain, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy all had something in common. Not simply centralized state planning but a militant hostility to labor’s self-emancipation.

For James, there is a connection between state planning and repression of toilers, and he in no way subscribes to classical liberal market economics. We must remember that James’s mature political economy was worked out not just in response to Russia but Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal welfare state, and its repression of self-directed action during the CIO labor movement.

While James recognized differences between imperial centers and peripheral colonized territories, he did not formulate his economics consistent with anti-colonial nationalist values that assumed there were competing blocs of capital in the world, richer and poorer nations, some being progressive and others reactionary. Instead, James, always with the social motion of independent labor in mind, was analyzing political economy from the approach of how workers and farmers could arrive at their own authority.

From Ethiopia solidarity (1935-1941) to Kenya solidarity (1952-1961), James’s anti-colonialism at first informally and formally functioned toward harmony with a view of labor’s self-emancipation. However, his approach to African political economy started to change when expressing solidarity with Ghana (1957-1966) and Tanzania (1969-1974). His view of state capitalism changed, and his approach to labor’s self-emancipation could disappear and reappear, when analyzing these later struggles. Before we criticize James for his concern for labor’s self-emancipation retreating and advancing, we must inquire whether African or Third World political economy-centred labor’s self-emancipation is foundational to his approach.

James started from the premise that capitalism should be abolished and that the self-organization and self-emancipation of the working class was central to such a process. Nations do not produce wealth, except in perhaps classical liberal and welfare state economics. Workers at the point of production and distribution, even where technology and machinery minimize mass labor, produce and distribute all necessities of life (i.e. food, shelter, healthcare).

His only novel Minty Alley (1936), about women who are cooks, caregivers and servants living in Caribbean barrack yard life, explained how even those who had little to no wages and lived under feudal-capitalist conditions, took steps to stop and start social and economic production. Peripheral toilers, even house servants, could informally strike, despite not having trade union organizations or regular workplaces outside the home. Women toilers in the periphery navigated patriarchy and capitalism.

The following are concise original premises of James’s thought that clash with most progressive or socialist understandings of political economy:

  1. Through an analysis of Stalinist Russia as first a fascist, and then a state capitalist society, James concludes through a close reading of wage relations, incentive pay, and nationalized property, that the law of value functioned in Russian society. This means it is was an exploitative capitalist society, despite its state planning and nationalized property, not a socialist society. Following this conclusion, one could make this analysis of any nation-state and its political economy.
  2. There is no progressive or dual character of government bureaucracy. From 1939-1979, James intermittently expressed openly that the idea of national self-determination in anti-colonialism was a fraud that didn’t take seriously popular self-reliance. His experiences from Ethiopia solidarity to Tanzania solidarity revealed this to him.
  3. A police state cannot be the defender of the proletariat and its economic gains – there are no other kinds of states. That is what states do, they are monopolies of the means of coercion (prisons, military, police, intelligence agencies). Both the one-party state and the welfare state need to be abolished. In pursuit of growth, they transform human needs into decimal points of economic progress. National debts, stock markets, prices of commodities, human rights and development indices may go up or down, but these cannot measure an aspiring revolutionary socialist society rather they are measures of capital accumulation, hierarchies of social classes, and alienation of labor.
  4. The revolt against capitalism is not for more jobs, goods, and services. It is the revolt against value production itself – if we are opposed to wage labor and capital relations, we don’t seek more opportunities for the aspiring capital accumulators, jobs for workers, and development of the poor, prison reform, and homeless shelters. (This is a political economy that sustains social stratification in the name of national development). Such “reforms” are only conceded in insurgent situations where regimes seek to reconvert their hierarchies and domination to greater mystification.
  5. Administrative rationalism is a bourgeois philosophy: socialist planning cannot escape the logic of growth, profits and property relations. Redistribution is absurd, as workers produce and distribute everything already. In fields, factories and workshops, on trucks, docks, sea-going vessels, trains, and planes. If workers as a result of repression and miseducation don’t consistently act in their own interests, they don’t need an elite class of experts to do it for them.
  6. Using Yugoslavia and early Communist China as examples, James believed that post-World War II anti-colonial nationalism in peripheral societies, and their economics, obscures that the only capital they will be allowed to administer is the lives of the local toilers. This is the primary way they will extract capital, through ordinary people’s hides.
  7. Nationalized property or public property is not inherently better than private property. The public or nation at the grassroots has no direct power to use and organize these resources as they wish. Everyday people must invade, occupy, and control both to have direct self-governing power.
  8. If vanguards are valid and have a right to exist, they cannot be a self-declared special class transcending time. They can be at the forefront of the next development of political thought for a specific period of time as recognized by ordinary people. One doesn’t declare oneself “the vanguard.” Rather vanguards, small revolutionary organizations and cadre circles, can have one legitimate task, propagating the destruction of bureaucracy and hierarchy.
  9. Professionals need to be abolished as the embodiment of culture and government. Otherwise, what may be termed economic democracy is not marked by direct majority rule of workers and farmers. There is a basic continuity between James’s theorizing of this principle, it transcends his first American years (1947-1958) and what he expressed at the Havana Cultural Congress in 1968 and his speech “Toward the Seventh Pan African Congress” he gave in Senegal in 1975.
  10. Post-War War II society will not see a fundamental redivision of colonies. Rather, through the World Bank/IMF and the State Department U.S. imperialism is striving to integrate the national economies of other countries into their own. These include both European countries and African, Asian and Latin American countries. This will be carried out through finance capital and the military-industrial complex. This observation was not a lament with a request for more fair banking and trade relations. This was a conclusion that justified the need to organize a world revolution. Coupled with this was the idea that there was no crisis of state leadership or vanguard parties. What was required was the direct self-mobilization of toilers to place tasks of politics and government in their own hands. At his most vivid, James believed ordinary citizens could carry out economic planning, judicial affairs, and foreign relations – all the tasks most political thinkers, even radical ones, associate with professionals and elites.
James’s Core Economic Principles and those of African and Third World Political Economy

Now, we should begin to see that the core economics of George Padmore, Eric Williams, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Stokely Carmichael, and Walter Rodney are very similar, and clash with CLR James’s sensibilities. James’s colleagues’ shared principles of political economy may be summarized like this.

  1. Whether Pan-African socialists are advocates of the one-party state or welfare state, or see retreats or contradictions in the Soviet Union in terms of its anti-colonial advocacy, most view Russia as primarily an aspiring independent political economy or block of capital whose dilemmas anti-colonial nationalists identify with, and appreciate. Russia, like China and Cuba, or post-independence Ghana or Tanzania is trying to navigate a peripheral nation’s development through a hostile world system.
  2. Most socialist-informed anti-colonial nationalists divide their aspiring middle classes and native business sectors between those who are self-aggrandizing and those who are patriotic to the “socialist” state. This means they posit some measure of heroism for aspiring capital accumulators. This is consistent with the nationalist theorizing of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.
  3. State capitalism is seen as progressive where it is perceived as breaking up the former plantation or colonial economy. These economics seek peaceful coexistence not wars of liberation against imperial powers. “Peace” means the right of peripheral rulers to manage their own nation’s material resources, subordinate their labourers and extract profits from them, and compete with other nation-states to illustrate which regime can best develop their nation.
  4. Anti-colonial economics shifts the goal of socialist economics from rejecting wage labor and capital relations to accumulating national capital. In anti-colonial economics, the role of workers and farmers is to produce heroically in a disciplined fashion to the state plan. Their labor organization should be state-controlled and not organized strike actions that undermine national security or national production which are seen as virtually the same.
  5. Where it has a sociological view of class formation and inquires if a bourgeoisie (be the capital possessed high or low) and a proletariat (be wages high or low) really exist in most peripheral territories, anti-colonial economics subtly supports domination. This is the basis for coalition politics around hierarchical regimes that administer subordinate lives.
  6. Anti-colonial economics is overwhelmingly hostile to class struggle. Sometimes, it falsely presents professional and bureaucratic objections to larger blocs of capital in the world and desires to delink from imperial centers, as a type of class struggle. Still, the call for “people-centered movements” (if this means everyday people) acknowledges that aspiring rulers and capital accumulators are part of the anti-colonial front.
  7. Anti-colonial economics while informed by Marxism, is also informed by classical liberal and Keynesian economics. It is concerned with unfair trade and banking relations, brain drains (its professional classes migrating to imperial centers – its contempt for indigenous knowledge is the other side of this), and lack of research and development in science and technology. Its search for rational capitalism is the last refuge of the aspiring African bourgeoisie that we are conveniently told as a social class does not exist. Their aspirations and desires to be peers with other capitalists in the world have real consequences for the repression of commoners.

The Double Value of State Capitalist Political Economy 

CLR James helps us to see there are conflicting tendencies within state capitalist political economy. Yet, James’s state capitalist analysis had a double value. It most often rejected state capitalism as hostile to independent labor; on occasion, it accepted that it could contribute to breaking up the former plantation or colonial economy. However, his second stance evolved with the emerging currents of anti-colonial economics that evolved later, as summed up by Trinidad’s Lloyd Best, Jamaica’s Norman Girvan, Guyana’s Clive Thomas, Egypt’s Samir Amin, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, and Tanzania’s A.M. Babu.

In The Black Jacobins (1938) there is a critical discourse on J.B. Colbert’s Mercantilism or state capitalist economics that placed France at the center and Haiti in its periphery during the era of the slave trade. In some ways, this is a kindred spirit to Eric Williams’s Capitalism & Slavery (1944) which had similar concerns with Britain’s approach to capitalism and its colonies. However, James’s critique of Williams’s book is it didn’t understand the social motion of toilers that wishes to govern themselves.

While both British and French imperialists could be criticized as denying peripheral nations free trade and opportunities for their own indigenous capitalist development, the irony is the preferred “radical” political economy for self-determination in the Global South (the search for independence under capitalism) is state capitalism. And if, since the 1970s, and certainly after the 1990s Africa and the Global South retreated from state capitalism, today China and Venezuela’s example has many cheerleading this political economy again.

However, we have to keep in mind that state capitalism, whether as a measure of national sovereignty or the repression of workers’ and farmers’ autonomy, is a fruitful means of analyzing any nation’s political economy. For the United States, the great propagandist for democracy as defined by liberal markets has been a state capitalist society for most of its history, with stronger and retreating tendencies. This could be measured in its approach to both central banking and industrialism.

Toussaint L’Ouverture, as depicted not endorsed by James, exhibited the treachery of the emerging post-colonial economy, when in the name of pursuing Haitian independence, he restored the plantation economy, transformed the ex-slaves into wage-earners, and had his Black army attack them with the lash. This was to subordinate Black labor to the perceived need to sustain profits, property relations, and the accumulation of wealth. This was a major characteristic of not merely the first Third World national liberation struggle but everyone subsequently that lived by Marxism to greater and lesser degrees. State capitalist economics exists at the fault line of national liberation and labor’s self-emancipation. There is no heralded or contemporary radical political economy concerned about this post-civil rights, post-colonial perennial problem.

The People of Kenya Speak for themselves

CLR James and Grace Lee Boggs helped write Mbiyu Koinange’s The People of Kenya Speak for Themselves (1955) which was part of a global Kenya solidarity project rarely remarked upon. This pamphlet centered on Kikuyu peasants and women specifically doing their own economic planning, in building independent schools in the rural areas. This pamphlet was meant to counter dehumanizing anti-Mau Mau (Land and Freedom Army) propaganda by the British colonizer. It was consistent with how James saw unsung African rebellions that took on an ethnic, gendered, or religious form as of equivalent value to more modern labor strikes on the African continent. How many observe how Kenyan peasant farmers and women organize their resources to build a school and view this as political economy? And yet if the state gathered taxes and talked of planning, distributing, or appropriating capital to build schools this would be more acceptable to many.

Gathering Capital to Defeat Capital in Ghana?

Yet James was not always focused on everyday people on the African continent when thinking about economics. Consistent with his speeches on the Caribbean federation (1959-1960), his speech to the Conventional People’s Party in Ghana in 1960, and the years he advised Eric Williams’s Trinidad and Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana governments, James could function like an advisor to the nation-state on economic planning.

As recorded in Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (1977), James once suggested that Ghana must tell the global community that it seeks to gather as much capital as it can so it can overthrow the relations of capital in their country. This on the surface seems absurd and inconsistent with his own original formulations on political economy. But this is actually how the main currents of anti-colonial economics often see things.

James also critiqued Nkrumah’s Ghana for his state capitalist planning that tried too hard to catch up with modern industrial societies, such as the Akosombo Dam Project, and therefore created an environment of austerity around Ghana toilers. While James wrote about Ghana’s toilers’ role in the anti-colonial revolution, he did not recognize and record their revolt against Nkrumah, particularly the general strike of 1961, in his post-colonial criticism. This is consistent with his retreating into the silences in the main currents of African and Third World political economy in this era.

Class Contradictions in Ujamaa Socialist Tanzania  

As of 1964, there is evidence that CLR James thought Julius Nyerere was a shallow politician. But from 1969-1974 James started to make a global alliance with Nyerere to forge the Sixth Pan African Congress in Dar es Salaam, where he was a mentor to African American and Caribbean younger activists.

James was impressed with Nyerere’s stance that socialism was not racialism. This was significant when young Pan-Africanists were concerned that Marxism or the pursuit of socialism was a white ideology. James after discussing with Nyerere also was impressed that the Tanzanian leader understood that while he nationalized much property in his country, this was insufficient to empower ordinary people.

Still, Nyerere was unclear about what to do next. James’ Nyerere appeared to challenge professionals and the formally educated and wished to center the rural peasant-farmer as the embodiment of African socialism. Yet while there were autonomous ujamaa villages for a time in the Ruvuma district near the Mozambique southern border, Nyerere allowed these to be repressed and then transformed this model into a state plan for compulsory villagization that bulldozed African villagers’ modest homes so they might be arranged into centralized communities in the name of national development.

In James’s A History of Pan African Revolt, he analyzes Nyerere’s TANU Party’s Arusha Declaration of 1967. This manifesto suggests that no party or government leader can do the following things: live by two or more salaries, live by rent, direct a privately owned business or own shares in a privately owned business. That every party and government leader must be a peasant or worker.

James elevated Nyerere’s projection as superior to anything Aristotle, Plato, Marx, or Rousseau ever said. It was also a projection that in no way was implemented in real life. However, as guidelines for measuring what may be radical (or not) about a political economy, it was fascinating. And no standards of radical political economy today can compete with these measures.

Is it Efficient for Every Party and Government Leader to be an African Peasant or Worker? 

Perhaps contradictorily, James’ Nyerere also suggested that Tanzania’s politics and economics should be flexible, efficient, and solve real-world problems. Was the elimination of landlords charging rent not a real problem for poor people? Were political leaders living by two or more salaries and collaborating with corporate hierarchies, not a burden? Should there be some other type of political leadership or directors of the economy besides peasants and workers?

We must remember that the contemporary critique of neoliberalism wants badly an alliance with industrial capital, and in no way advocates the direct self-government of toilers.

Now, in the movement for the Sixth Pan African Congress, especially at an organizing meeting in Kent, Ohio, the contradictions of working with the Tanzania government, especially its diplomatic core, threw up dynamic tensions. Tanzania was defining global solidarity with Africa as mobilizing science and technology aid for Africa as facilitated by formally educated professionals.

African American activists Modibo Kadalie and Kimathi Mohammed (both had taken part in the networks around Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers), were inspired by James’ anti-vanguardist politics. With these ideas, they challenged Courtland Cox, the Caribbean-American leading organizer of the 6PAC and former SNCC member based in Washington D.C.

Kadalie and Mohammed, based on their understanding of CLR James’ A History of Pan African Revolt, argued that the 6PAC approach to science and technology aid was elitist. That it was obvious that African miners, mechanics, market-women, peasant-farmers, and mid-wives could directly govern and had the skills required to self-manage African political economies. Cox by parliamentary manoeuvre found a means to avoid this contestation. But James was at the meeting also, and to Kadalie and Mohammed’s great disappointment, he did not support their stance. At this moment James was a fellow traveller of Nyerere’s state.

African Labor in the World Community

In obscure archives can be found a rare paper by James, “African Labor in the World Community,” an analysis focused on Ujamaa Tanzania. James explained in this projection that the world, especially those in imperial centers, may be surprised to know that Tanzania’s toilers wish to govern their own workplaces. This is consistent, James said, with the most advanced disposition of labor found all over the world. And yet Nyerere’s government insists Tanzania’s toilers are not ready to govern themselves and run the nation’s economy. James underlining the contradiction did not take a definitive stance.

After James boycotted the 6PAC, as a result of Nyerere’s Tanzania, Michael Manley’s Jamaica, and Forbes Burnham’s Guyana conspiring to ban the Caribbean activist delegations, especially those that advocated direct democracy and workers’ self-management, he along with Issa Shivji and Walter Rodney, began to admit to the world community that the self-organization of independent labor was repressed in Tanzania.

James’s notions of African labor are not simply radical politics that went unfulfilled. At the very least they are superior to the most advanced approaches to African and Global South political economy today. There is something about even radical political economy, that in the name of science, reason, and administrative efficiency, fears and trembles before the idea that African labor might directly govern society. At the very least this exposes a new measure for evaluating what is “radical” political economy.

Matthew Quest has taught African, African American and Caribbean History at universities including Georgia State University in Atlanta, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He is known as a scholar of the legacies of CLR James.


  1. Glad to see that, from the start, Matthew Quest argues that simple denunciation of “neo-Liberalism” does not in itself constitute a radical direct-democratic stance.

    In my paper, “The Theme of ‘The Rising Tide of Insignificancy’ in the Work of Cornelius Castoriadis,” delivered or translated/presented/published in English, French, German, Italian, Korean, and Spanish and now available at kaloskaisophos.org/f.pdf, I discuss how CLR James’s former collaborator Cornelius Castoriadis also relativized a critique that focuses exclusively or central on “neo-Liberalism:”
    “What an understanding of capitalism as an imaginary institution of society shows—when one takes into account the dual institution of modernity and the hypertrophically destructive ‘crisis of social imaginary significations’ it is now undergoing—is that there is no return to the status quo ante, nor is it (yet) plausible to believe that we are now living in a totally economic society, impenetrable to contestation and operating solely according to its own ‘logic.’ The danger of taking Neoliberalism at face value is that, in gullibly accepting its premisses, we may be ‘taken in’ by them, thereby noticing neither its incoherency nor its self-destructive tendencies (which can then be exploited for social change, but only through a renewal of the project of autonomy) nor its more mundane ‘real objectives” (a radical redistribution of wealth via an imposition of the money norm that is, however, self-undermining). One is even tempted to say that there is an objective concurrence among equally dogmatic and farfetched and superannuated ideologies, the ‘market fundamentalists’ of Neoliberalism dourly telling us that ‘there is no alternative’ coinciding with a hopeful “return to Marx” that would conjure away all that has intervened since 1848 or 1867 and deliver us an automatically guaranteed future.”


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