Black Struggle and the New Society: An interview with C.L.R. James

Federal City College — Faculty — C.L.R. James, 1975.

Across three Saturdays in June, 1977, the New York Amsterdam News ran an extended interview with CLR James. At the time, James was seventy-six years old and teaching at the University of the District of Columbia. The interview, conducted by Amsterdam News feature writer Dawad Wayne Phillip, covered the question of Caribbean Federation, the importance of literature to politics, anti-colonialism in Africa, and the dilemmas of Black struggle in the United States in the wake of Black Power and the Civil Rights movement. James’s responses provide not only an incredible anatomy of Black politics in the 1970s, but a remarkably prescient reading of our contemporary present.

While we have retitled the interview “Black Struggle and the New Society,” we reprint all three parts of the original unchanged but for a few minor copy edits.

Part I: Saturday, June 4, 1977

AMSTERDAM NEWS:Dr. James, presently what projects are you involved with?

C.L. R. JAMES:I am involved, number one, in teaching at the University of the District of Columbia and in various other places in the United States. At the same time, I am preparing, practically and ideologically, my autobiography which a lot of people are looking forward to.

One of the many projects you are involved with is a paper.

I am doing a paper that the University of the West Indies asked me to do, more or less on the West Indies from say 1945 to the present day. I am working on that with great care, and with an immense amount of satisfaction. I have made it clear that I am going to say exactly what I think. This, the political necessity demands.

What would be the primary focus of the paper?

I will tell you what my thoughts are. I have long believed, that the future of the Caribbean is, as a Federation of all the islands beginning with Cuba. There must be a total federation. That is the basis of my thoughts at present. I don’t believe that any of those islands, large or small, can do it by itself.

You mentioned “beginning with Cuba.” Would such a Federation use Cuba as the model?

I would not say that the model would be Cuba. Except, in this respect: I do not expect that such a Federation would take place unless there were complete changes in the government of the Caribbean. The kind of government I am thinking of, is the kind that (Jamaican Prime Minister) Manley has proposed; where, the economic resources of the Caribbean; are in the hands of the Caribbean people.

To more understand the idea of a unified bloc could we say that CARIFTA and CARICOM, are roads in that direction? Or is this contradictory to what you are saying?

There is no contradiction. They are roads in that direction: going at the rate of one mile an hour. They are not headed for any Federation with control of their resources. I am not speaking of joining together. I mean a total change in the relations of control and ownership of the resources. I don’t see that in CARIFTA, or CARICOM or any of the Caris.

What then would be the radical step in the formation of such a Federation?

The radical step would be, in my opinion, what Manley has said in his speech to his own conference—“That Jamaica,” he said, “is not for sale.” That, to me, is as good a basis for the whole of the Caribbean as any there could be. If the whole of the Caribbean today were saying what Manley has said and were seeking ways and means to create a Federation that I believe would be the basis for what I have in mind.

But this is not taking place throughout the remainder of the Caribbean?

No. It is not taking place in the Caribbean at all. Mr. Manley, with a real tremendous amount of courage, and with great political clarity, has stated that – for the Jamaica people—this is the way we have to go. And the Jamaican people have responded splendidly. I believe that that kind of request, and that kind of response throughout the Caribbean, could—within a few years—be the basis of this Caribbean Federation. Cuba has already gone the road. And Manley is showing that he is ready to go. He isn’t going to go the same way as Cuba. I don’t expect that. These islands have different pasts; and they have different national structures. But the idea of total control of resources, and the Federation of all your resources with the view toward a Caribbean whole; that, I believe, is what is to be the future.

What about Burnham’s role in Guyana?

I would like to say this: Mr. Burnham in Guyana is doing a great number of things which the other Caribbean countries are not doing. It would appear—from here—that he is really taking the steps that are necessary. Personally, however, I am very skeptical when it comes to any real transformation in Guyana, at the hands of Mr. Burnham. But that is a personal view. From my personal experience of him, I haven’t the confidence in what he is doing; as I have of what Mr. Manley has said.

It seems then, that what you are in the process of expressing would have to come through the formation of a new left-throughout the Caribbean, working in a co-operative sense toward that unit?

Now wait a minute. I am anxious that I get myself away from what you call a left. Mr. Manley is not a leftist. Mr. Manley has a program and a policy. (Cheddi) Jagan has been a leftist in Guyana all the time but he has never said, or put forward ideas, and appealed to the people, with the clarity, force and simplicity that Manley has done.

So I am cautious about this left. Manley has said what is necessary to do; and he has put it to the people, and the people have responded. That is not a left. That is a new policy. That is a policy for Jamaica, and, I hope, for the whole Federation… which means a transfer of the actual relations into relations that are new. These ideas are entirely new.

This idea then—the Manley proposal in the context of present multinational interests in the Caribbean—would appear headed for the strongest types of opposition…

The movement is up against a strong opposition. Any country, which seeks to change the relationships and transfer wealth, and the control of wealth, is always up against a strong opposition. That is nothing new. Once you begin to do that sort of thing you are aware that is what you are going to face.

There is only one possible means of resisting it—and that is—the gaining of the support of the mass of the population. If a political leader has the mass of the population behind him, and behind a real political objective, which is made clear to the masses and to the people abroad—nobody is going to intervene.

Part II: Saturday, June 11, 1977 

“It is clear that the idea of an egalitarian society, in which, the aim of the government is not merely welfare—in the superficial sense—but the total reorganisation of the economy, in the interest of the mass of the population, is today a universal concept. I will venture a prophecy, which, is always a stupid thing to do. But the man who is not ready to be stupid at times, is a stupid man. Now if Manley of Jamaica succeeds—and he will succeed if the others come to his assistance—the whole of the Caribbean will go his way in time. If he fails; then we could look forward autocratic, dictatorial and oppressive governments throughout the Caribbean.”—C.L.R. James

AMSTERDAM NEWS: Do you see the direction of Jamaica being taken elsewhere in the Caribbean?

JAMES:Yes. And of this, I have been assured by people in the Caribbean that it is widespread throughout. I am told—and you will tell me—that in Trinidad the workers who work in the sugar estates, plant the crops and draw the money; when the time comes to reap, they go out and burn down the fields. They do the same in Barbados. They do the same in Jamaica. 

The trouble is they have reached the stage where they do not wish the sugar economies to dominate the islands. It means a total rejection of the sugar economy. Many advanced economists have told me—as you will find in the appendix to my book Black Jacobins—that, the future of the Caribbean depends on getting rid of the sugar economy.

In Trinidad, where the main source of revenue is not on sugar, but oil, what is the hindrance toward a worker’s cooperative?

There is no hindrance in Trinidad. I can only tell you that the need for a reorganisation of the Trinidad economy was written in letters of blood across the sky in 1970. Either the people were playing the fool or they were showing that they wanted to wreck the old economy and have something new.

What are your thoughts on the Trinidad elections of 1976?

The elections of 1976 must be seen in relation to the elections of 1970. In 1970, the population showed that it rejected the parliamentary system completely. But no one came with a replacement. They haven’t put before the people a concrete proposal for a new type of political economy and organization.

I have only to confess to you—that those of us watching from the outside, believed that the outbreak would come first in Jamaica. But you can never tell these things—they do not work mathematically but psychologically. As it did, it came first in Trinidad.

The Trinidad uprising skyrocketed the movement for change in the Caribbean…

Yes. And that could only come about because it was deeply seated. Otherwise, people don’t move to the extent that they did in Trinidad. It meant that the need for change had penetrated very deeply. Even the army was ready to go. That means an advanced stage of degeneration in the existing regime.

There are claims of internal bickerings in the ULF [United Labor Front], in Trinidad; that efforts by party-leader, Basdeo Panday, to create a multiracial party, seem only to be a gesture by a political leader…

Panday has only been in the legislature five or six months. Give him five or six years. You can’t judge him by what he does in five months; that is not a serious method of approach to a political situation. If Panday began badly—with this tremendous vote of the East Indian population—remember those politicians have been playing Africans versus Indians, for 20 years. It is a difficult thing to manage. But it has to be tackled. Panday shows he is serious by the persons he appointed to the senate. That was the first gesture to let the Black people know—we want to be multi-racial. You are not going to get rid of 20 years of manipulation, by those parties, through six months of activity.

How do you view the ULF, which supports a socialistic ideology, while at the same time works through the Parliamentary process?

That depends now. Can anybody be asked to put forward a more socialistically inclined proposal than Manley? If the ULF, after a time, is able to verbalize itself and get the support of the Trinidad people that then is the way I hope it would go. But they would have to aim and work at that.

Taking a look now at the arts in the Caribbean: what do you feel is incumbent on the artists and creative people in the effort to crystalise this new vision of Caribbean society.

There are people like (George) Lamming, Vidia Naipaul, and Wilson Harris—three of the most remarkable writers of the day. The business of the politicians and the population in the Caribbean is to create a condition whereby these men could return home and write for them. Not abroad—writing for a foreign audience about the situation in the Caribbean. That is a bad situation.

In England you will find in the educational system, especially in London, that West Indians form a fundamental part of that constituency, in education and medicine. If they could go to an advanced country like Britain and take part from top to bottom, there is nothing that they cannot do in the Caribbean. The day of people coming from abroad, believing that they are bringing western civilization to the Caribbean, is over.

How do you view the press treatment on Africa and particularly Uganda’s Amin?

You have to expect that when you are going into a change in the social structure of your country, you must be ready for those inside and those outside of the country—especially those with great media opportunities on the outside—to attack you. Now, it happens that Amin is behaving in a way that every now and then, you find extraordinary freaks—inside of a revolutionary upheaval—behaving. That is very unsatisfactory. But I am glad to say, the Black African press and leaders themselves, are attacking Amin and making the people in Africa recognize that Amin has nothing for then. There is nothing but an obstacle in the way of the African development.

There is not going to be seen in the foreign press what is required for a proper understanding, not only of the Caribbean, but of the entire Third World.

Here in the U.S. we are fed these distortions, often without a base to refute.

Refutations are taking place. It isn’t what it ought to be; but that is our fault. If the press isn’t doing what it ought to do then we ought to take it on ourselves to go ahead and organise. In addition—I take my own case—I am all over the place. I can’t say no. The urge is so great.

Part III: Saturday, June 18, 1977

AMSTERDAM NEWS: What are your views on the Cuban presence in Africa?

C. L. R. JAMES:It is to be seen as the military period in the continuation of a tremendous West Indian presence in Africa, a presence which has included important figures like Franz Fanon, Aime Cesare and George Padmore. Nobody did more than George Padmore to initiate the struggle for African emancipation; together with Kwame Nkrumah. I did my share. The historical work which posed the African revolution was “Black Jacobins”. I function with them all the time. At the same time that Cuba was sending its soldiers to fight against what Britain and the United States were doing from the North, and what South Africa was doing from the South; while those soldiers were sent there from the Caribbean, at the same time, I was taken to Africa to open the Black Writers Conference.

Shifting our focus to America, how do you view the present Black struggle here in the United States? Where do you see it going?

It is the most difficult situation of Black people among all the Black struggles. Nevertheless, ever since Montgomery, Alabama, the Blacks have come forward and made tremendous impact on the consciousness of the American people. Martin Luther King was not merely advancing the Black cause but lifting the entire civilization of the United States to a higher pitch. That was recognized all over the world. King got shot—we believe—because he has started to raise the question of the Vietnam War.

Are we seeing those victories won through the struggles of the 60’s now being eradicated?

They are not. Two things are happening. Number one: after the tremendous outbursts of Black power and civil rights Blacks gained certain advances and certain qualifications. But they realize that it is not sufficient, so that, a great thinking is being worked out at the present time as to what is to be done now. That is the process of every revolution. 

In France, they said, “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” and two years after they cut off the king’s head. You know, there is the tremendous outburst and then there is the retirement. The outbursts merely made clear the situation. But it has gone further. American Blacks are now working out what is the next stage.

Now, two things have been shown and they are most important. Number one: They put Carter where he is. People must look at these things in the way that they should. The South always kept on the concept of the Civil War but Carter—a man from Georgia, a peanut farmer—has brought the South back into the American condominium.

The South is no longer outside of the American society. And the Blacks did that. That is an historical event of tremendous importance. It has brought the Blacks closer to the American community.

Number two: The “Roots” question. The films were not good, but 130 million people looked at them which meant that the whites today have realized, for the first time in their history, that they have to understand what these Black people are, where they came from, and what their concerns are.

No political figure in the United States is going to take part in politics without being aware that there is a Black community in the United States with whom he has to get himself right. At the same time, Black intellectuals are working out what is to take the place of racialism and nationalism. The big debate is taking place between racialism, nationalism and Marxism. Having found that the civil rights era was not sufficient, they are seeking a new way.

What do you see as the future? What in your view is the best road?

I wouldn’t say what is the best road. Because they have to find that themselves. But this I am certain of: America is in a state of crisis. Fundamental changes must be made. And I cannot imagine fundamental changes taking place in the American society without Black leaders right in the front taking part in the re-structure of an advanced American society. That has been demonstrated ever since Montgomery, Alabama. They are not going to be pushed aside. They are going to be in the front of whatever is taking place. And when the victory is won, they are not going to be pushed out again.

The Black Panther Party was a tremendous stage of the African struggle here. They were defeated. But that is an experience that is being considered now: why did we fail? And so on.

Another thing, they are putting Black mayors in city after city. In important cities in the United States a Black mayor is there. In Los Angeles, in Atlanta, (which is the real capital of the South), in Detroit (the manufacturing capital of the country), in Newark and now a man is applying to be major of New York.

This does not mean that they are doing very much, but whites are saying, let us give them a chance. They have ability. Maybe they will do something. If they do not do very much, the Black people will be able to see that it is not a Black man who will help them, but a man with a policy.

A great political experience is being undertaken and understood now. I can’t understand people who think that nothing is happening in the United States. The country is moving but not romantically. Ten years ago, it moved. But now it is absorbing what has happened and seeking ways and means to carry it further.

How do you see this new society being forged beginning with the urban conditions?

Whites have gone out to the suburbs and have left the inner cities which are being inhabited and often governed by Blacks. That is so in city after city. Three-fifths of the inner-cities, of a hundred cities in the United States, are governed by Blacks which means that is absolutely impossible for them to make any fundamental changes in the structure of the American city, without incorporating the Blacks into it. That is a geographical question.

But what of the fact that when capital leaves the urban setting, it takes industry with it. It takes the wares with it, and invariably, leaves the inner-city hollow of any life.

Not of any life. The taxation etc., goes out to the suburb. But the government has to do something. The centers of government are in the heart of the cities and they are surrounded by the Black population.

What I am saying is this: if they are going to make any attempt—as they have to—to reorganize, and to bring those cities back to some sort of consistency and possibility, they cannot leave out the Blacks.

Is the tendency of more state control and participation in the urban situation, replacing private capital, to be the trend of the future?

That is not in the urban cities alone. There is taking place in America, a transference of finance, and other abilities, from the North-East coast. Money has gone into the South. And they have built factories there for the manufacture of military materials.

The financial and structural strength which was in the North-East has shifted down to the South, to the West and South-West. The whole thing is changing. The economy has to be reorganized. If the whites have gone to the suburbs, they have to reorganize the central cities too. This must be taken on a scale, and as such, less and less will the Blacks be second class citizens.

Additional interviews with James can be found on: CLR James: Conversations and Interviews, 1938-1989. Additional interviews on The Public Archive can be found here.

Image: Federal City College — Faculty — C.L.R. James, 1975. Learning Resources Division. University Archives Collection, University of the District of Columbia. Washington, DC. Description: C.L.R. James (1901-1989) taught humanities at FCC between 1972 and 1980. James was a prominent Afro-Trinidian journalist, socialist theorist, and writer.

Transcription and copy-editing by Jessica Newby, Department of African American Studies, UCLA.

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