Sunday, February 17, 2008

American Civilization

Title: American Civilization (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993; but written in 1950)

Author: Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901-1989), Marxist scholar from Trinidad. Through his life, which was lived in T&T, London, and America, CLR James engaged with various strands of Marxism (while he repudiated Stalinism). He was integral to the anti-colonial movement, and wrote on such subjects as A History of Negro Revolt (1938) and The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Rebellion (1938). He also wrote on dialectics, Melville, and cricket. Throughout his writing, he engaged with the theme that constitutes most of American Civilization's concerns: how should the individual human live within a system that continually seeks to dehumanize?

My review: Throughout this book, James sets up a series of dichotomies between civilization and barbarism (which he sees as regimes which, like Stalinism, decline to develop the potential of individuals); people and monopolies; freedom and slavery; and democracy and oligarchy. He never uses the word "Marxism," perhaps partially because he's trying to write this book to convince authorities to let him stay in the US even though his visa has expired, but partially perhaps because he's invested in the idea of finding a way forward that's not constrained by a particular ideology?

The history of America, he says, is the history of individualism: first, from 1776 through the middle of the nineteenth c, an individualism that finds expression; then, from the middle of the nineteenth c onward, an individualism that either gets perverted into monomania (as in Melville's Ahab, a character James sees as prescient) or gets subverted by the capitalist system. People in America, James thinks, are unhappy, and have been unhappy ever since the mid-nineteenth c, because secretly deep-down they recognize that the ideals of individualism and happiness have been hopelessly submerged by the realities of capitalism.

James says that America's lack of truly significant cultural production is due to these conditions. The writers of the American Renaissance mostly failed at expressing this thought, because they were the first to try to express the question of the relationship of the totally free individual to his/her society. This left them with exhilarating possibilities but a sense of formlessness (see Whitman). The mass culture of the forties and fifties is an example, for James, of the degree to which the mind of the masses has become sad and upset at the state of things - if the mass culture is an expression of the mind of the people, as James says it is, then the movies of the forties and fifties betray a deep fear at the state of society.

The connection between this mass culture and the state of mind of the American "negro" (as he says) is that the realization that society is not what it says that it is is a quintessentially American one - the frustration of the black American at the continual failure of white America to live up to its rhetoric. Similarly, American women are in despair because they are now responsible for creating, out of the home, the one site where society lives up to its promise.

James calls for the abolition of what he sees as the bankrupt intelligentsia, the training of workers in both technical and intellectual realms, and factory ownership by workers. Only by advancing this collective well-being, he argues, can the individual be truly well.

(A quote from James on the status of the intelligentsia, as epitomized by the scientist: "The most miserable of all are the scientists. They are slaves if ever there were any, mutinous and rebellious sometimes in words, but slaves. They make atomic discoveries and bombs and then go home and cry. When Germany was defeated, the contending powers each captured where he could, some of the most highly developed and trained scientists, the most highly developed and trained minds the world has ever known, and put them to work in Moscow or Washington. They work, do as they are told, find what they are told to find, like any laborer at a dollar an hour. And in free America, if any one of them dared to defy the authorities and declare he would have nothing to do with a bomb which would kill a quarter of a million people, the whole machinery of politics and propaganda would set to roll and leave him utterly crushed. He would probably find it impossible to continue scientific work at all. And yet, the real dilemma is in his own mind, he does not know whether he ought to or not. The Journal of the Atomic Scientists is one of the most pathetic publications in the world." [262])

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