'Johnsonism' Winds Down

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Från Paul Buhles C.L.R. James. The artist as revolutionary (Verso, 1988), s. 119-123.

'Johnsonism' Winds Down

The trajectory of his collective political work continued the unintended substitution of the aesthetic for the political, until the end of the little Johnson-Forest movement had been reached. Without James on hand (fervent and directive as his letters continued to be for a decade of more, Johnsonism drifted on an uncertain course, sometimes striking out in genuinely new directions, sometimes falling back upon the basic syndicalism of the Trotskyist factory group. Their paper, Correspondence, at first a weekly, then semi-monthly and still later a monthly tabloid, sought to straddle these realities and to offer readers their own forum on passing events of the day. It certainly attempted the old message of factory-centred struggle. But as editorial board member Grace Boggs recalls, only a certain type of worker responded. The angry auto worker who spoke through the paper (usually via an amaneusis, in the style James developed in Missouri) was extremly likely to be a Black man who had come into the factory without the full benefits from or nostalgia for the early years of unionism.

When resentment turned into wildcat strikes, Correspondence presciently recognized the importance of the struggle. Indeed, the Johnsonites probably recognized and interpreted the importance of the wildcat before any other element of the American Left. Likewise at the level of daily life, Correspondence captured the working-class responce to I Love Lucy or to the World Series better than anyone else on the Left. This accomplishment could be described almost as the mirror opposite of the aesthete, increasingly conservative Partisan Review, which had all the national prestige Correspondence lacked. (To continue the contrast: members of the Partisan Review editorial group signed on with the CIA-linked American Committee for Cultural Freedom, while the Johnsonites took the rap of being officially listed as a subversive organization. This writer, facing the army induction process, compulsively noted his literary appearance in still-proscribed 'Johnsonite' publications. The Army awarded him a reprieve from Vietnam.) But perhaps it is better to see Correspondence, by this time, as essentially a gaze at the hidden worlds of Detroit's boom years.

James and his fellow leaders affixed upon this journalism a rather mechanical political structure and an increasingly doubtful teleology. He was to say later that the group knew what it did not want – another version of Vanguardism – but it could not develop what it wanted instead. The very title had come from a 1920s Comintern experiment, 'Correspondence', intended to mobilize worker-writers from the depths of proletarian life. The experience had not been particularly successful at the time, and faced the same problems thirty years later. Lenin's 1920 distinction of three Bolshevik layers – old Bolsheviks at the first layer, trade unionists at the second layer and the rank-and-file at the third layer – now became the source of an effort in public meetings to subject first and second to the expostulations of the third. At such an apolitical moment as the early 1950s the result increasingly tended toward the rambling and diffuse. Other complaints could also be heard, centring on styles of leadership. Veterans of the group complained later of artificial 'campaigns' created by leaders to generate excitement and of widespread demoralization; of a decentralization into local committees of correspondence that never really emerged, leaving the editorial-political centre in control despite anti-vanguard disclaimers; and most damningly, of the leadership-perpetrated illusion of a self-sustaining publication, with all that implied, when actually the paper scraped by on a hefty financial subsidy. In short, the Johnson-Forest group had been no worse in its personal relations and internal functions than other left-wing organizations, but not much better either.

Perhaps the uncertainty, or the build-up frustrations, or simply James's forced departure, precipitated a major division of forces. Raya Dunayevskaya, chafing at a difference of views over strategies of collective political survival amid McCarthyism, and perhaps chafing at her secondary position in the group as well, departed with roughly half of the little following to establish a rival newspaper (News and Letters), an official ideology (later styled 'Marxism-Humanism'), and a demi-organization. More syndicalist and less culturally-inclined, it nonetheless became the most thoroughly feminist-spirited Left tendency until the arrival of the Women's Liberation Movement.

The succeeding James group continued to attempt to listen, as other Left groups now retreating into insularity had never formally set themselves to listen, to the marginal corners of the mass and to the voices long unheard on the Left. A pamphlet such as Artie Cuts Out (1953), about a runaway teenager from a blue collar home, might not be a literary classic but it captured something that the sociological studies of restless youth missed entirely: the subjectivity dramatized by Rebel Without a Cause and experienced by the runaways themselves as a new sense of renegation from American society. A Woman's Place (1953) offered a stunning statement of equivalent alienation, fifteen years ahead of its time.

According to a young activist on the group's margins, the group evolved over the 1950s into a politically marginal but personally and intellectually helpful educational circle. In public lectures and personal contacts, its leaders would urge upon the next generation of emerging local militants an appealing internationalism, a non-dogmatic Marxism and a keen understanding of race-class dynamics. Toward the end of the 1960s, they would make a crucial contribution to the Marxist training of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers' leaders at the apex of an important class-race fusion. In the meantime, they impressed upon their listeners the Jamesian lessons of personal development, understanding of culture, and faith in the undying potentiality of mass movements across the world.


Correspondence itself continued in a downward slide. With the early 1960s rise of what would later be called Black Power, the primary editors of the paper (Grace Lee Boggs and her husband, brilliant autodidact Black autoworker James Boggs), along with the group's financial angel and several of its most active members, abandoned the group. James issued in pamphlet form a heartfelt personal protest against the 'destruction of a workers' paper'. Ironically, James Boggs (who would publish his fullest statement as The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker's Notebook) already reached closer than James's loyal followers to the spirit of the 1960s, when Correspondence under the Boggs' tutelage had one last creative surge – in tune with local Black poets and writers – before crashing upon the shoals of declining energies and political differences.

As the old class struggle wound down, another set of conflicts (albeit more vague and apparently trajectoryless) would arise in their place. James and his followers had been astoundingly prescient in their critique of Marxist group activity; they suffered because, unlike their former comrades gone mainstream to the centres of power, they could not tie their critique to a new form of social activity. The abstraction showed.