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Modern Politics

Modern Politics

by C. L. R. James, Noel Ignatiev (Introduction)

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Back in print for the first time in 30 years, this volume provides a brilliant and accessible summation of the ideas of left Marxist giant C. L. R. James. Originally delivered in 1960 as a series of lectures in his native Trinidad, James’s wide-ranging erudition and enduring relevance are powerfully displayed. From his analysis of revolutionary history and


Back in print for the first time in 30 years, this volume provides a brilliant and accessible summation of the ideas of left Marxist giant C. L. R. James. Originally delivered in 1960 as a series of lectures in his native Trinidad, James’s wide-ranging erudition and enduring relevance are powerfully displayed. From his analysis of revolutionary history and the role of literature, art, and culture in society to an interrogation of the ideas and philosophy of such thinkers as Rousseau, Lenin, and Trotsky, this is a magnificent tour de force from a critically engaged thinker at the height of his powers. Still relevant to politics today and an essential introduction to an important body of work, the ideas of C. L. R. James remain as necessary and illuminating for this century as they have for the last.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"C. L. R. James has a special place in the history of Third World revolutionary movements. He combines Caribbean nationalism, Black radicalism, a once Trotskyist blend of revolutionary anti-imperialism, and the European classic tradition in an individual and potent mix. A mine of richness and variety."  —Times Educational Supplement

"Modern Politics is a quality introduction to Marxism by a major theorist. Although clearly not a work of academic scholarship, James’ heavily textured approach to Marxism and its social context is refined and enjoyable." —Michael Lazarus, Marx & Philosophy Review of Books

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PM Press
Publication date:
Charles H. Kerr Library Series
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.40(d)

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Modern Politics

By C.L.R. James

PM Press

Copyright © 2013 PM Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-890-6


Monday, 8th August, 1960


I am about to speak on a subject which is as difficult as it is possible to be, particularly to be treated in a series of public lectures. Nevertheless, when the subject was first broached to me, I welcomed it, because whatever the difficulties — and those you will share with me, to some degree — the West Indies are, in the near future, going to enter into the great big world outside as an independent force. Despite the difficulties in the way, I think we should not miss any opportunity to investigate, from every possible point of view, the realities and probabilities of the world of which we shall soon be a constituent part. It is with that in view that I shall speak this evening and in the rest of the lectures.

I will not disguise from you that I have a particular point of view. I am a Marxist. However, my Marxism — there are always different styles of any particular doctrine that is so widespread as Marxism is — my Marxism has little connection with the Marxism that people in Communist China and Communist Russia and various other territories profess. That you will see as I develop my ideas. But I want to make something quite clear: I am not here in order to propagandize you, that is to say, to make you accept or believe certain ideas. I am not here to agitate you, that is to say, to get you to take certain actions. I am speaking here from the point of view of exposition; I am explaining a point of view. It is inevitable, where serious matters as these are concerned, that I shall speak about people and things to whom I am opposed, if not with too much energy — I shall try to restrain that — but certainly with a certain amount of scorn and contempt which they, in their turn, in my position, would not hesitate to apply to me. (laughter) But inasmuch as this is a series of lectures — and it is knowledge rather than action which guides this forum here — I propose as far as possible (and some of the points on which I shall take a position are very difficult indeed, and I am aware of the strength of the opposing arguments), I shall try for the sake of a rounded position to let you know what are the solid arguments against the views that I am putting forward.

I do not propose to be impartial. Any public lecturer on politics who says he is impartial is either an idiot or a traitor. You cannot be impartial in matters of this kind; but you can present a rounded point of view, and at question time and discussion time, I will be quite willing, not only willing, but will welcome any fairly consistent point of view which is opposed to the point of view I hold.

You will have noticed that I have got five points, more or less, in every lecture. Now every lecture is to last for about seventy-five minutes, not more, and I hope less. Five points mean at best fifteen minutes on each, fifteen minutes or a little less, because there must be a little introduction, and there must be, perhaps, a little conclusion. So when I say Point No. 1, Plato, Aristotle and the Greek City-State, it is clear that I intend no elaborate analysis either of the facts or any ideas which we can draw from them. I want to make that clear. I select the Greek City-State because I could not do without it; and I take Plato and Aristotle to make one or two references to establish certain fundamental premises; and from these premises I will draw as time goes on. But I mention these first because I say they are necessary; and secondly because after all what we are aiming at here is the expansion of ideas and the development of interest; and this will guide you to some of the things that I am saying and enable you, if you are students, either to refresh your memory, or if you are just beginning, to follow up when you leave here.

What We Owe to Ancient Greece

Now I begin with the Greek City-States. The Greek City-States were a group of states centered around the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean; they had some colonies further out, but those are not so important. The largest of them was certainly Athens; and the number of citizens in Athens was perhaps forty or fifty thousand. They had a number of slaves, but the legitimate citizens might be about forty or fifty thousand people. They were also quite poor; the land was not good. In an island like Barbados, I believe there is more wealth and material goods accumulated today than existed in all the Greek City-States added together. Yet these states, with Athens at the head, formed, in my opinion, the most remarkable of all the various civilizations of which we have record in history, including our own. In politics, in ethics, in science, in philosophy, in epic poetry, in tragic drama, in comic drama, in sculpture, in medicine, in science, they laid the foundations of Western civilization. And it is not only that we today rest upon their achievements. It is far more wonderful than that. If today you want to study politics, it is not because Aristotle and Plato began the great discussion, not at all; in order to tackle politics today, fundamentally, you have to read them for the questions that they pose and the way that they pose them; they are not superseded at all.

Now what were the reasons for the strength of this remarkable exhibition of civic, social and political organization? These questions are still disputed. I can select only two. They are, for me, the most important, and also they are the most important for this series of lectures. The first is that in the great days of the City-State of Athens in particular, the Athenians rejected representative government and followed a pattern of direct democracy.

I am going to make this as vivid as possible.

How Direct Democracy Worked

Athens was divided into ten tribes or divisions, and every month they selected by lot a certain number of men from each division. (You put names in a hat and pull them out. I don't know the particular method by which they chose.) And these went into the government offices and governed the state for that month. They required two things of him: (1) that he had fought in the wars; and (2) that he had paid his taxes; also, I think, that his family, his old parents were properly seen after. They did not ask whether you could read or you could write. I would suspect that a great number of them were illiterate. At the end of that period they went out and another set came in, chosen in the same way. It wasn't that they didn't know about representative government; they had had representative government and they rejected it in favor of this system of direct democracy. Now if you went — I will not be local — but if you went to some foreign country and told the leaders there, the mayor and councilors, that their city could be governed by just taking any thirty people, by putting names in a hat and choosing these, our modern rulers would fall apart. They would consider that that was absolutely impossible, if they were not students; if they were, they would be a little bit more careful because they would have the Greeks in their minds; and I believe they would be quite right. I doubt if you could take thirty or forty people today from anywhere and put them into some government, however small it might be, and ask them to run it. It is not because government is so difficult. The idea that a little municipality, as we have them all over the world today, would have more difficult and complex problems than the city of Athens is quite absurd. It is that people have lost the habit of looking at government and one another in that way. It isn't in their minds at all. To the Greeks, after centuries of experiment with political methods, it was a natural procedure; it lasted for two hundred years, and that was the government which produced what we live on intellectually to this day.

The Relation of the Greek to His Government

The second point that I wish to make flows from that one, and it is this: In my opinion the greatest strength of the Greek government, the Greek ancient democracy, was that it achieved a balance between the individual and the community that was never achieved before or since. That is one of the fundamental problems of politics: what is the relation of the individual, his rights, his liberties, his freedom, his possibilities of progress to the community in which he lives as a part? And nowhere, as far as I know, was this so finely achieved, this balance so beautifully managed, as between the individual citizen and the City-State of ancient Greece.

Now, I mention Plato and Aristotle. They both detested the City-State. They were very learned men, and naturally they disapproved of government by all sorts of persons picked up by chance. Nevertheless, when Plato had the opportunity to live in Athens, when the reaction had established a dictatorship, he had the grace to say that, after all, he didn't like any of them, but the democracy was better than a dictatorship. And Aristotle said that there were governments of democracy and of oligarchy and aristocracy — and none of them was very good, was absolutely perfect — but on the whole the least bad of them was a bad democracy, and, therefore, he gave his support also to this extreme democracy.

Plato and Aristotle, however, owe their great reputations to the penetration that they showed in analyzing the problems of government. I will have to leave to you to work out the particular aspects you wish to tackle. But today it is recognized that if they were able to penetrate so deeply into fundamental problems and to write so freely and develop their ideas, it was not due only to their extraordinary ability. (Aristotle is perhaps one of the three ablest men I have any knowledge of.) It was because of the state which they analyzed, and in all their analyses they were constantly seeking how to improve the City-State; and the penetration of their work, its range, its vitality, up to today, is due to the fact that the state that they lived in and that they examined was of this remarkable character. It was not perfect, but it was of such a type that it posed all the fundamental questions, and so solved them that it enabled these philosophers to write as they have written.

The next section that I propose to deal with this evening is Rome, and I have put next to Rome, St. John of Revelations. The devil can quote Scripture for his purpose but Scripture is Scripture, and I am prepared to use it. (laughter)

Great Rome and Little Athens

Rome is important for us for various reasons; one of them is the contrast with Athens. Athens at its best was small — you go down to the Oval and you watch cricket down there, about thirty thousand people — that was about the number of citizens in Athens in its best days. The Romans were different. That was the greatest empire the world has ever seen without a doubt, because it occupied the whole of the known world. Whatever the Romans didn't rule was barbarism — remote places; nobody could get there. They certainly have left a great influence in various parts of Europe, but, nevertheless, on the whole, their influence in the world is much less than that of little scrappy Athens. They left a great heritage of law. In any case the point I wish to make is that it is not size, it is not strength, it is not power; it is what you do with what you have that matters. And Greece showed that you can have very little and still achieve the things which stand out as among the greatest achievements of humanity. (applause)

Rome fell, collapsed, became a laughing stock among all the backward barbarians whom it had ruled. And I take St. John of Revelations for one reason: he was a colonial. He was a Jew whose country was ruled by the Romans; and he was anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist. If you want to read about anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism, take the Bible and read the last Book, that is the Revelations of St. John. John called them such a set of fornicators, whoremongers, Sodomites, corruptors — every conceivable piece of abuse that you could find — you will see there what he said about those Romans. He didn't like them. If he wrote like that today in any ordinary colony they would arrest him, not, perhaps, for sedition, but certainly for — what is the phrase? — disrespect or something? Violent and obscene language.

St. John's Vision of a Harmonious Society

He says that Rome is to be destroyed; and he means destroyed. He is not speaking metaphorically. He said that the Heavens are going to open and that Christ is going to come with mighty armies; and he even chose the place of the battle, Armageddon. There the great battle is going to be fought; and the Romans are going to be beaten, defeated, ruined, and there is going to be such a slaughter that before the armies of Christ come down, somebody is going to come out and call all the birds of the air, the vultures, corbeaux, and the rest of them, so that when the battle is over they can eat up all the dead bodies.

He says Babylon is fallen — that great city. He had some respect for his own hide. He wouldn't write Rome; he said it was Babylon, but everybody knew whom he meant.

What is important for us, however, is that two aspects of political life at critical moments appear in his work. Number one: he had a historical sweep. He said that there had been four monarchies. I cannot remember exactly. I think one was the Macedonians, another was the Egyptians, another one was the Assyrians and so forth. But he said the Romans were the last; and then would come the Kingdom of God on earth. You see, he had a sense of historical development. His was the fifth monarchy. There had been four monarchies, and the fifth monarchy would be the Kingdom of God on earth.

And then he said something else. In his own way he was concerned with the same problems that Plato and Aristotle and all the serious thinkers were concerned with. He said there would be a new world after the Romans had been defeated, and everybody would be happy. He said there would be no sea. In other words, the problem of crossing the sea was giving that generation a lot of trouble, so the new world would have no sea — God would see about that — so you could move about as you please. He says, again, the fruits of the earth would bear every month; it is those that we have which bear every twelve months; his was to be every month. There would always be plenty to eat. And he says that the lion and the lamb would lie down in peace.

If I have said a few things about him which would give you an idea that he was not a very great writer, it is because I am trying to point out certain aspects of his works. I personally have, over the years, found that, as a religious poem — because that is what it is, though it was based on fact — it can stand comparison with Milton's Paradise Lost, and, by and large, if I had to choose one — which Heaven forbid I will ever have to do — I think I would take St. John; and not because he is anti-imperialist, but because of the strength of his vision, his grasp of fundamentals, and his kinship, despite the peculiar form that he used, with great philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. He was dominated by the vision of a peaceful and harmonious society.

The City-States of the Middle Ages

The next group I have chosen is the City-States of the Middle Ages, particularly in Italy and Flanders. Now again we have the extraordinary spectacle of City-States — Genoa, Florence, Siena, Pisa, Padua, Rome; a number of them in Spain; but the ones I want to speak about particularly are in Flanders: Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, and various others of the kind — City-States.

They were of a type different from the City-States of Greece, whence their troubles began, but whence, also, arose their glory — those in Ghent and in Flanders. Those in northern Italy, particularly Florence, practiced a type of capitalism; that is to say, they assembled workers (who had neither property nor land) in factories, and with a co-operative type of labor, produced goods, for the most part textiles. The wealth that they produced, particularly in comparison with the standards of wealth of the countries around them, was beyond belief. The moment you have this collection of men doing co-operative labor according to a fixed plan — which is essentially what capitalism is; a fixed plan inside the factory, at any rate — there you have possibilities of wealth that no previous type of economy was ever able to manage. Whereas the City-States of Greece were extremely poor in material wealth, the City States of the Middle Ages were extremely wealthy, particularly those in northern Italy and in Flanders. Antwerp was the port of the City-States of Flanders, and they say five hundred ships came in there every day; and however small they were, five hundred ships every day is a great number of ships indeed! The rulers in Ghent and in particular in Bruges were men so wealthy — the mayors of those cities — that they sent embassies to kings, received embassies; had fleets and armies of their own, and treated with the rulers of France and England and the rest on equal terms, although they lived and ruled only in a single city.


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Meet the Author

C. L. R. James was a historian and political activist who was considered a major figure in Pan-Africanism and a leader in developing a democratic, revolutionary, and internationalist current within Marxism. He is the author of The Black Jacobins, A History of Pan-African Revolt, A New Notion: Two Works by C. L. R. James, Sex, Race and Class—The Perspective of Winning, and You Don’t Play with Revolution. Noel Ignatiev is a historian and history professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. He is the author of How the Irish Became White and the cofounder and coeditor of the journal Race Traitor. He lives in Boston.

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