Friday, June 09, 2006

A Review of C.L.R. James' American Civilization

Okay, you opened this link, I imagine, because you relate with hip-hop as music and culture, but you don’t know who the hell C.L.R. James was and what his relation to hip-hop is and you want an immediately satisfactory answer. If you bear with me, just for a minute, maybe I can make this relation understandable, concrete, valid, and relevant.

I’ll attempt to keep your interest by stating an absolute. If it weren’t for the West Indies, hip-hop would never have been. How could this be, you ask? Because of the mobile DJ movement which began in Jamaica in the 1940s with personalities like Coxsonne Dodd and Prince Buster. These DJs would drive around Kingston and other parts of Jamaica blasting native Ska music from their sound systems. It began as a viable means for folks to socialize and hear new music.

When many West Indians, Jamaicans included, began to migrate to the States, many settled in New York City. These newly arrived foreigners assimilated into their new lives, and American blacks and Latinos assimilated to theirs. (If you want to dig further, you should read Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop.)

James was a native of Trinidad in the West Indies were this culture started and he spent a great deal of his mature years in the States. This was approximately between the years 1938-1953, right along the same time as the DJ movement is developing in Jamaica.

Cool. Now we have a partial relation established. Are you still with me? Aight, let’s continue beyond loose association.

James, during the last few years of his stint here, spent some time writing a manuscript which he then called NOTES ON AMERICAN CIVILIZATION. In this manuscript he outlays his ideas on the American struggle for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; the mantra all Americans are familiar with from primary school forward. I'll attempt a summation of his contribution and, hopefully, it will become concretely relevant to all hip-hop heads and exactly why they should read the book AMERICAN CIVILIZATION.

The struggle for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a struggle which is not complete or motionless, but always in conflict. Throughout history, and America is no exception in this case, we develop art and culture which relate to the degree and level of struggle of the corresponding period. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, our unique, American fashion, reaches higher stages in relation to the particular struggles of American people. Whether these struggles take the form of women’s suffrage, eight-hour workdays, civil rights, emancipation, reconstruction, etc., a form of culture develops which gives expression to these seemingly disparate internal struggles within various sections of the working class, for they are all class struggles.

For example, the struggle for emancipation among black slaves beget a culture and music which reflects that particular struggle. The struggles of industrial workers in the 1930s beget a respective art which gave it context and relevancy. The Black Power movement developed a language, culture, and art unlike any other time in history.

The struggle of our period is as diverse as ever in history. The working class of the 21st century is in a struggle with itself to eliminate homophobia, socially and institutionally, to grant amnesty to our Latino immigrant brothers and sisters coming to our country to lend their culture of struggle and so we may lend our forms to them, to redefine the meaning of class in a deproletarianized, that is deindustrialized, non-factory worker society where service workers and cube slaves are developing a culture of resistance of their very own, to engage in struggle with the various sections of the Right who are largely winning the hearts and mind of American people, etc., etc., etc.

What medium of expression more clearly reflects this struggle than hip-hop? Where in the country does racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, politics, and class life more acutely find context than our hip-hop culture? This is it, dear readers. This is why James is relevant. If you have made it this far, my hope is that you have made the leaps in consciousness I have recently went through when reading this book.

Think you can hang for an added dose? Dope! I knew I could count on you! Hang on readers, this might get a bit abstract.

James writes in AMERICAN CIVILIZATION about the “universality” of culture in modern society; about the potentials modern society sets in motion for an integration of work life and cultural life. Up to our time, there was such a separation between production; the aspects of life which satisfies human needs, and artistic life; the way people express their particular form and level of production.

He saw the limitations of film; while they satisfied the mass desire for individuality and a break of the “mechanization”, the routinization, if you will, and sameness of life in factories—which up til the past twenty years or so, was the main form of American production—they did not fulfill the degree of universality that, he says, the drama of ancient Greece fulfilled for its age.

However, he acknowledges that while the drama of ancient Greece had a larger degree of universality, that the American film, radio, comic strip, television of the mid-20th century is creating the possibility for a medium which more intensely amalgamates, mixes, and integrates, work and cultural life in a much more democratic and accessible fashion and which does not limit itself to the most elementary of desires of human beings today. Hip-hop more accurately conveys the level of humankind’s “dislocation” in society, their disgust with the mundane routine of Monday-Friday or whatever shift they work, their boring sex life, and lack of excitement in general, etc.

Because of his expulsion from the country in 1953 due to McCarthyism, he was not able to write the book. His manuscript was finally released in 1993, nearly five years after his death in 1989.

James never wrote about hip-hop, partially because when he died hip-hop had not reached the level of development we have 17 years later. Not to say that hip-hop had not reached a beautiful summit in the late 80s, but maybe he was just too old then to continue writing, or maybe he just didn’t know about it. Hell, I don’t know, but I do know had he had the time, he would have seen, quite possibly, that hip-hop was the fulfillment of all his work. And, since I write from the perspective of hip-hop, I write on C.L.R. James and his relation to it. Congratulations, you made it, dog. Now go buy that shit.

I welcome any historical, bibliographical, etc. corrections and of course any and all criticisms. Peace.


  1. Bravo!!
    I think that this is one of the most informative and developed pieces that you hve written! I see James work in motion when reading this piece, with only the few things from his works that i have read. The comparison with the degrees that tie it together with Hip Hop and what we have seen this socially develop into, i think that you are right on target...Bravo!!!

  2. On a biographical note, I believe James was living in Britain when he died. I doubt hip-hop was large in the UK in the mid 80s so that might explain a complete lack of commentary on hip hop from James.

    That said, there would be no doubt that James would be interested. (In fact, for some reason I have a vague feeling that I have read another piece on James and hip hop somewhere else. I could be wrong though...) There are accounts of James sitting atthe back of the Appollo Theater in Harlem entranced with what he thought was the revolutionary potential and energy of organic black cultural forms. While I would not want to speculate too much, there is little doubt in my mind that he might hold the same sort of fascination with hip-hop.

    By the way, when you finish American Civilization there are a number of critical works by historians and literary critics about James that are interesting to read. Some are much better than others and I cannot remember off hand which works were the best, but if you are interested I can look through my notes on James and give you some recommendations...

  3. Jeremy,

    Thanks for your comments. You're right that he was in England at that time. He was there until he passed.

    I have finished American Civilization, and I've started the Black Jacobins. Marxism For Our Times was the first book of his I had read.

    I am currently archiving literature by the Sojourner Truth Organization who were highly influenced by James works. They had a quarterly journal they published in the late 70s and early 80s called Urgent Tasks. Issue 12 was a special dedicated to James which featured a host of radical writers and practitioners. I have a couple pieces from there up now, one from Paul Buhle who wrote a book on James and one from Walter Rodney.

    You can access it at Tell me more about yourself.


  4. I found the reference in my notes. This is what I wrote in an early draft of my paper (I cannot find my final draft):

    For James, however, the revolutionary potential for black Americans was not only present in their propensity towards a movement of massive protest, but also in daily—what may be labeled proletariate—black culture. A regular visitor at Harlem’s Apollo theater, James took note of what he percieved to be a latent revolutionary spirit that existed within the collective energy the dancers he studied so closely (perhaps as he did the working class barrack yard women of Trinidad before writing Mintey Alley). (Negro question xxxiii) James summed up the latent revolutionary potential that he percieved in black culture, social organization, and political organizing in an essay titled “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Question,” written in 1948 near the end of his stay in America. Once again arguing the importance for Marxists to support what amounted to black nationalistic political organizing, James underscored the revolutionary potential such an organization might bring out:

    Anyone who knows them, who knows their history, is able to talk to them intamately, watches thema at their own theaters, watches them at their dances, watches them in their churches, reads their press with a discerning eye, must recognize that although their social force may not be able to compare witth the social force of a corresponsding number of organized workers, the hatred of bourgeois society and the readiness to destroy it when the opportunit should present itself, rests amont them to a degree greater than in any other section of the population. Negro ?uestion 146-147

    Yeah, I've been over to the Soujurner Truth site, I haven't really explored much though.

    I would definitely check out the Walter Rodney piece, I have not read much by him but he is on point in what I have read.

    Me? What is there to know? I am a high school history teacher who is moving to Atlanta in a week. I like soccer and basketball and James Baldwin. I found your site through a former professor (Lester Spence,, definitely check him out). I thought your piece on hip-hop conservatives was really good. So I stop back in occassionally. Then I saw your piece on James, and cause James is one of my favorites of all time, I figured I had to say whatsup.

    So...what is up?

  5. James was living in Brixton, a section of London that at the time of his death was home to at least one large dance/hip hop club. In summer of 1988 or 1989 Jazzy B, leader of the Soul II Soul "collective", guest DJed at the club (Ice House?). I was part of a VH1 crew doing a "rockumentary" on Jazzie and Soul II Soul.

  6. C.L.R. James is an interesting figure fa sho. Among many other things, his thought was a major influence for Kwame Nkrumah.

  7. Dry correction - somewhere in there you identify "deproletarianisation" with "deindustrialisation". The proletariat, in Marxist theory (something James claimed some allegiance to for most of his political life), is everybody separated from the means of production (ie, who don't own it). It's not just big blokes with hammers in a factory, but teachers, lower-level office workers, the unemployed, housewives/husbands etc.

    In fact, the recent period has seen considerable proletarianisation - because jobs such as teaching, nursing and the like, which used to get the teacher or nurse quite well off enough to own some means of production (a few shares in this and that, a second house to rent etc), have gotten a lot worse paid and more precarious.

    Not to say that the shipping of factory production off all over the place from the imperialist centres isn't significant in other ways. But still.

  8. Jim,

    Thanks for your post man.

    Yeah, you're right about the confusing of the two. I wasn't even sure it was there until I went back and checked. Bear in mind that it's been over two years since I wrote this piece.

    Deindustrialization doesn't really suffice to describe this process either. Really, the export of (finance) capital is typified by imperialism and monopoly capitalism. So it isn't a new phase of capital that we saw take place in the U.S. in the 1970s because the process had long been in motion since the beginning of the 20th century.

    What I think began in the 1970s is not only the export of capital, but a fresh round of primitive accumulation that hasn't ceased since. This has meant attacks on State infrastructure as a way to exponentially increase the value of capital after a period of sustained setbacks by the black movements of the 1960s.

    And I agree with your further generalization of what the working class is (which can only be a process of becoming). It's been folks like C.L.R. and Selma James (who I can tell you've read) who gave weight to the break from the bullshit "purity" of the white skilled industrial worker and that have revealed the authenticity of the working class in its own deepening subjectivity, as Lenin saw among the Third World and unskilled in 1914.

    But, if you're gonna get me on a technicality, I'm afraid I gotta return the favor. :)

    A house and minuscule shares in a company's stock hardly counts as means of production. A house does not yield any value, unlike instruments and raw materials which transfer (emphasize transfer as they do not create new value) their value into the finished product and constitute a portion of the finished product's value.

    A house is a subject of production to which cement, brick, wood and instruments of production (all means of production) are incorporated and which yield their independent values into the final value of the house.

    But we still have not gotten to what the real source of the value of the house is, which is abstract labor time congealed into the house. The house does contain the values of the raw materials and portions of the wear and tear of the instruments of production into it, but it value that is only transferred. Labor itself is the source.

    Of course, the "value" of a home does change with the value of the surrounding area, but this is bullshit fictitious capital (and what is pushing us towards collapse in the States).

    And while a worker might own a few shares of a company's stock, she bears no sway over the investment function of the company, has no decision over the fate of a community who will be displaced when land is needed or that of her co-workers who will be laid off when the value of the stock falls significantly, nor is able to influence prices as only the powerful trusts have the capacity to do.

    No harm done, though. Thanks for the correction and DEFINITELY thanks for reading.


  9. Jim,

    I've been thinking about my comment I just left. And while I still agree with your point about the confusing of deproletarianization with deindustrialization, the former is still applicable for many folks in the U.S., especially people of color.

    Jeff Chang writes on p. 13 in Can't Stop, Won't Stop, that "if blues culture had developed under the conditions of oppressive, forced labor, hip-hop culture would arise from the conditions of no work."

    I think I've tended to seriously undervalue and play down how unemployment as well as the lumpenization of a section of the American working class has surfaced aesthetically through hip-hop and in this sense has been perhaps more significant than service work themes.

    The imagery and thematic of the hustler and gangster is not just a glorification and a reinvention of the hustler of old, but rather is a social existence that is given expression in hip-hop.

    Perhaps it can be said that the hip-hop generation is a break with the American Gangster/Omar style of principled criminal life, but a complete degeneration of the old lumpen values.

    I think C.L.R., were he alive, would be taking up these themes quite aggressively. It certainly warrants much more attention on D&HHP.

    LBoogie, when are we gonna see that American Gangster blog?