Only Connect

3 young CLR(1)


This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the Sum­mer 1981 issue of  Urgent Tasks (Num­ber 12), the main jour­nal of the Sojourner Truth Orga­ni­za­tion, a Chicago-based rev­o­lu­tion­ary col­lec­tive active from the late-1960s through the 1980s. They drew inspi­ra­tion from the likes of C.L.R. James, W.E.B. Du Bois, Anto­nio Gram­sci, and from the­o­ret­i­cal-polit­i­cal cur­rents such as Ital­ian work­erism. The dig­i­tal archive of the Sojourner Truth Orga­ni­za­tion, a fan­tas­tic resource that con­tains many of their pam­phlets, shop leaflets, nearly-com­plete runs of their the­o­ret­i­cal reviews, and more, can be accessed here



“In our neigh­bor­hood, we were feel­ing that we were with the oth­ers, with the Ethiopi­ans, with the Span­ish,” said Mar­gitt, a rank-and-file mil­i­tant woman in the Po Val­ley, Italy, as she recalled the mid- 1930’s.1 More or less at the time when Mar­gitt and her com­rades were debat­ing the burn­ing issues of those years and print­ing ille­gal leaflets in the base­ment of her house, C. L. R. James heard George Pad­more knock­ing at the door one night in 1934, on his last jour­ney back from Moscow.2 The re-estab­lish­ment of har­mo­nious rela­tions between Stalin and “the grand democ­ra­cies” had left no room for those like Pad­more who had devoted all their energies to build an inter­na­tion­al­ism com­pre­hend­ing anti-colo­nial strug­gles.

The dawn of this cen­tury was a strange time to be born at: too late to be part of the first world war gen­er­a­tion, too early to be part of the sec­ond world war gen­er­a­tion. In between lay the vast gulf of the 1920’s and 1930’s, with the pro­fu­sion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary activ­i­ties in the name and for the sake of social­ism in one coun­try. That ded­i­ca­tion burned out a large part of a gen­er­a­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who would more often iden­tify with for­eign lands than with their native grounds as poten­tial cru­cibles for deep social change. Born at the begin­ning of this cen­tury, C. L. R. James was among the few intel­lec­tu­als of his gen­er­a­tion who avoided the easy trap of trans­fer­ring alle­giance to dis­tant Cen­tral Com­mit­tees. In the orga­ni­za­tion of the African Bureau and in the agi­ta­tion and pro­pa­ganda against the Ital­ian inva­sion of Ethiopia, in pro­ject­ing the long tra­jec­tory of the Caribbean fight against impe­rial dom­i­na­tion into the future, and in forc­ing a new debate on “the Negro ques­tion” in the United States, he was able to link the self-activ­ity of the pro­le­tariat in the indus­tri­al­ized coun­tries with the self-activ­ity of the pro­le­tariat in the col­o­nized coun­tries.


“We want a decent wage. If we get it, we will work. If we don’t get it we will not work…We may have to die for democ­racy in Java or in Ice­land. We can die for 30c an hour here first.“3 In the late spring of 1942 so demanded a pam­phlet that C. L. R. James wrote under the dic­ta­tion of the pro­tag­o­nists of the share­crop­pers’ strike in South­east Mis­souri. It was an early exam­ple of the resis­tance to the no-strike pledge, a few months ahead of the United Mine Work­ers wild­cats that would set the pace to the col­lapse of the tight reg­i­men­ta­tion of the work­ing class that the U.S. state and the union bureau­cracy intended to enforce through­out the war and post­war recon­ver­sion. A few months later also, in Feb­ru­ary-March 1943, the work­ing class in Turin struck pro­duc­tion on a scale that had been unheard of in fas­cist-dom­i­nated con­ti­nen­tal Europe. The work­ers in Turin took action against the most vicious war machine that had ever con­fronted an urban pro­le­tariat in the West. Today no his­to­rian would dis­pute the notion that those strikes decided the fall of Ital­ian fas­cism in July 1943. The con­se­quences were far-reach­ing:

The first eye­wit­ness accounts from Ger­many on Berlin’s reac­tion to the fall of Ital­ian fas­cism reveal that the Reich cap­i­tal expe­ri­enced its most trou­ble­some day since Adolph Hitler assumed power…Numerous Ital­ian metal work­ers in the Siemens-Schuck­ert plant took the lead in the Mon­day pause to cel­e­brate the news, just announced by the Reich radio, singing the Inter­na­tionale. Their Ger­man fel­low-work­ers joined in…In the after­noon ille­gal tracts appeared as from nowhere.… In the work­ing men [sic] slums in Wed­ding and Moabit such inscrip­tions abounded as “Hitler dead, Berlin stays red.“4

It was the sign of the tragic clash between the poten­tial of human lib­er­a­tion inher­ent in such revolts as in South­east Mis­souri, Turin and Berlin on the one hand and the iron cage of the Yalta dik­tat on the other that inspired small groups of Marx­ists through­out the world to res­cue the uni­ver­sal expe­ri­ence of the pro­le­tariat dur­ing and after world war two from the fangs of the cold war­riors in the whole range of their livid col­ors. The con­ver­gence of the self-activ­ity of the masses against exploita­tion with the con­tri­bu­tion of ded­i­cated intel­lec­tu­als in legit­imiz­ing such self-activ­ity took unique fea­tures in the United States in the 1940’s and 1950’s under the lead­er­ship of C. L. R. James, but was not a trait unique to the United States in those years. For those like me who dis­cov­ered Marx­ism later, jour­nals such as Labor Action and Cor­re­spon­dence pro­vided a glimpse into the debates of those years. What is less eas­ily per­ceiv­able today is the inten­sity of their reflec­tion and antic­i­pa­tion of future devel­op­ments, their set­ting an exam­ple of agi­ta­tion and pro­pa­ganda to other coun­tries and other groups, their bold­ness in siz­ing up the con­di­tions of the work­ing class in the U.S. and else­where in light of work­ing class needs, and not of ossi­fied bureau­cra­cies:

The pro­duc­tive sys­tem of the United States cre­ated the basis of the Negro sit­u­a­tion and it is the pro­duc­tive sys­tem which is cre­at­ing the basis of its solu­tion. It is the mass pro­duc­tion indus­tries which have within recent years placed whites and Negroes together on a basis of equal­ity in that most fun­da­men­tal social sphere — the process of pro­duc­tive labor.5

And in antic­i­pa­tion of Mont­gomery, Alabama:

When you get on a bus, do you know how it feels to be told to go to the back when there are plenty of seats in front?6


The Berlin work­ers’ revolt of 1953 and the Hun­gar­ian Rev­o­lu­tion of 1956 did not take the most alert par­tic­i­pants to post­war pro­le­tar­ian pol­i­tics by sur­prise. What the work­ers in Budapest had accom­plished for all of those who had stuck to resis­tance against state and cor­po­rate exploita­tion was now clear: the dis­sent­ing voices in the Euro­pean left and through­out the world could now be lis­tened to while the most bru­tal traits of Stal­in­ism were retreat­ing to the back­ground. This was the time when tiny groups and indi­vid­u­als in South­ern Europe dis­cov­ered and read “the Amer­i­can com­rades” — two words that at long last it was pos­si­ble to put together again — “the Amer­i­can com­rades” who con­tributed to Social­isme ou Bar­barie. It was a time when dis­cus­sion started about Danilo Mon­taldi’s trans­la­tion into Ital­ian of Paul Romano’s The Amer­i­can Worker and Daniel Mothe’s Jour­nal d’un Ouvrier. The con­di­tions of the work­ing class looked strik­ingly sim­i­lar through­out the so-called First World — and, we argued at that time, it could not be dis­sim­i­lar in the Sec­ond World. State cap­i­tal­ism was a liv­ing cat­e­gory whereby we could relate in sol­i­dar­ity to the peo­ple who were bear­ing the brunt of the oppo­si­tion to “actu­ated social­ism.”

The spring of 1968 may have been a dif­fi­cult sea­son for what would later be known as the Ital­ian extra-par­lia­men­tary left, but after the April strikes at Fiat the bat­tle for an alliance between work­ers and stu­dents became pos­si­ble to both sides. Now on a mass basis, this alliance was still devel­op­ing along the pat­tern worked out in Detroit in the 1940’s. C. L. R. James was at the cen­ter of the con­fer­ence on lib­er­a­tion in Lon­don in the sum­mer of 1967, once again ahead of the Euro­pean events that would unfold months later at an accel­er­at­ing speed from France. Hav­ing been a pro­tag­o­nist in the strug­gle for the demise of colo­nial­ism, it was now pos­si­ble for him to rebuild the bridge between dif­fer­ent sec­tions of the pro­le­tariat in the First World and the Third World by look­ing at the Black move­ment in the United States as the main ref­er­ence point. McCarthy­ism had dealt its sharpest blow when it had suc­ceeded in expelling C. L. R. James from the United States. It was the Black move­ment of the late 1960’s that brought him back, and it was that move­ment that pro­vided inspi­ra­tion and guid­ance to groups and indi­vid­u­als in Europe. The first inter­view abroad to the League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Work­ers was pub­lished in Potere Operaio around the same time when Black Jacobins appeared in an Ital­ian trans­la­tion. The pub­li­ca­tion of Black Jacobins led to some rad­i­cal rethink­ing not only of world his­tory and world accu­mu­la­tion but also of the very notion of impe­ri­al­ism, class, and social for­ma­tion. The inter­view of the League to Potere Operaio led to more than the well-known slo­gan of Potere Operaio: “Turin, Detroit, Togli­at­ti­grad, class strug­gle will win.” It sig­nalled the death knell of the iso­lated within the nar­row con­fines of the offi­cial left’s “Ital­ian road to social­ism.”

“Only con­nect,” open­ing up chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion inter­na­tion­ally, this is at least as urgently on the Ital­ian agenda in the 1980’s as it was in the early 1960’s — in spite of a new dimen­sion of mas­sive arrests, author­i­tar­ian threats, and attempts to atom­ize col­lec­tive inter­ests. “Only con­nect” remains the work­ing class keynote. It spells the name of C. L. R. James.

  1. Danilo Mon­taldi, Mil­i­tanti politici di base (Ein­audi, Torino, 1971), 171. It is hoped that this book, as well as other works by Danilo Mon­taldi, can be pub­lished in Eng­lish soon. A young par­tic­i­pant in the Resis­tance in Cre­mona, Mon­taldi became the bridge-man between Social­isme ou Bar­barie and its inter­con­ti­nen­tal ram­i­fi­ca­tions on the one hand and the Ital­ian non-Stal­in­ist groups on the left of the Ital­ian CP and SP on the other. Of him it can be said that nobody in post-WWII Italy lis­tened more care­fully than he did to the voice of the Po Val­ley pro­le­tariat and shared more com­mu­nally polit­i­cal expe­ri­ences and orga­ni­za­tional skills. He died in 1975. The only work of his that stud­ies an elite was pub­lished shortly before his death: Sag­gio sulla politico del PCI, 1919-1970 (Quaderni Pia­cen­tini, Pia­cenza). 

  2. The Stal­in­ist con­dem­na­tion of Pad­more is to be found in Green­wood, “A Betrayer of the Negro Lib­er­a­tion Strug­gle,” Inprekorr (Eng­lish edi­tion), No. 37 (June 29, 1934), 968. Who­ever believes that “dur­ing the twen­ti­eth cen­tury the pres­tige of the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion and its sub­se­quent con­sol­i­da­tion of state power long guar­an­teed the hege­mony of the Stal­in­ist Third Inter­na­tional over rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies through­out the world” (Eugene D. Gen­ovese, From Rebel­lion to Rev­o­lu­tion [Louisiana State Uni­ver­sity Press, Baton Rouge and Lon­don. 1979], 125) would be well advised to re-exam­ine the his­tory of Pan-African­ism as well as other anti-colo­nial move­ments after the Stal­in­ist alliance with “the grand democ­ra­cies.” 

  3. C. L. R. James, The Future in the Present: Selected Writ­ings of C.L.R. James (West­port, CT: Lawrence Hill & Co., 1980). 

  4. New York Times, July 31, 1943, 1, in a cor­re­spon­dence from Stock­holm that was based on Swedish businessmen’s direct report from Berlin. 

  5. J. R. John­son [C. L. R. James], “One Tenth of the Nation,” Labor Action, Octo­ber 21, 1946, 2. 

  6. J. R. John­son [C. L. R. James], “One Tenth of the Nation,” Labor Action, Decem­ber 23, 1946, 2. 

Author of the article

is a veteran Italian activist who lectures on international migrations at the University of Padua. He was a co-editor of the journal altreragioni as well as Primo maggio. His publications include Migranti nella tempesta (Verona: Ombre corte, 2003) and "The Transgression of a Laborer: Malcolm X in the Wilderness of America," Radical History Review, no. 55 (1993). He is co- editor, with Devi Sacchetto, of Un arcipelago produttivo. Migranti e imprenditori tra Italia e Romania (Rome: Carocci, 2007) and a contributor to Pier Paolo Poggio (ed.), Comunismi eretici. Vol. 3 (Milan: Jaca Book, 2013).