Live Interview on C.L.R. James with Ralph Dumain
on KPFA’s “Living Room”


C.S. Soong hosts the daily public affairs program Living Room on KPFA-FM in Berkeley, the flagship station of the Pacifica radio network. Living Room airs from noon to 1 pm Pacific Time each weekday via KPFA to most of Northern and Central California and worldwide on KPFA’s website. Mr. Soong hosts the Monday through Wednesday editions. The show typically features in-depth interviews on matters of left theory and activism. Recent broadcasts can be heard or downloaded from the Living Room web site. Past programs are also archived on the KPFA-FM site.

(Please note that the name of the program and the site have been changed to Against the Grain. Sound files of recent programs can be accessed from there. Eventually, as programs accumulate, the sound file of the James program will be removed and the program will be listed on the Program Archives page, accessible at the bottom of the home page.— 6 March 2004)

The thought of C.L.R. James was featured on the program of Wednesday 21 January 2004. The program consisted of two taped lectures and a live interview with me. The advertisement for the program reads:

He's been called a giant of post-Empire black thinking, but C.L.R. James explored matters that went far beyond race. Born in Trinidad in 1901, James grew up to formulate ideas on class, culture and freedom that continue to influence many progressives today. James associate Terisa Turner, Lincoln Van Sluytman of the Brecht Forum, and Ralph Dumain of the C.L.R. James Institute reflect on James's legacy.

At the Marxism and the World Stage conference held in Amherst, Massachusetts this past November, Mr. Soong taped Terisa Turner and Lincoln van Sluytman (of the Brecht Forum) talking about C.L.R. James. Those talks were edited and broadcast on this program. They cover the familiar ground of James's basic ideas on Marxism, race, class, and gender and their influence on student radicalism, in the first instance, and on James's work on the Caribbean and racism in the second.

The entire program can be heard on and downloaded from the Living Room Archives [link defunct, 2019] on the KPFA site (or from Against the Grain, for the time being— 6 March 2004). CDs can also be ordered. The first 5 minutes 48 secs of the sound file on the web site consist of the day's news and opening theme. My interview begins at 38 minutes, 10 seconds. On my CD version, my interview begins 33:28 minutes into the program and continues to the 51-minute mark.

My segment of the program is now available on this site. The sound file is in mp3 format, the file size is 9.83 MB, and the listening time is 17:10. Click here:

C.S. Soong live interview with R. Dumain

I dedicated this program to Jim Murray, who died six months ago as of the date of the interview.

I focused exclusively on James's American period (1938-1953) and the intellectual work of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, as best I could do in the 15 minutes left to me to improvise.

I briefly mentioned James's discussions with Trotsky and his prophetic view of the ‘Negro Question’, i.e. the black struggle as the vanguard of the revolutionization of American society. Mostly I concentrated on the efforts of the Johnson-Forest Tendency (JFT) to rethink the foundations of Marxism in light of the failures of Stalinism and Trotskyism and the need to ‘Americanize Bolshevism’, emphasizing what was original in the efforts of these obscure uncredentialed autodidacts in studying Hegel, Marx's Capital, abolitionism and the Civil War, and also their pioneering role in the use and translation of some of Marx’s 1844 manuscripts. I alluded to the state capitalist perspective but mostly discussed their focus on the alienation of the worker in the labor process and the workplace, the emphasis on workers' self-organization, the obsolescence of the vanguard party concept, and the emphasis on James's view of the unpredictable and sudden spurts of spontaneous mass action that would supplant the role of vanguardists.

Unfortunately, I did not have time to discuss James’s American Civilization or James’s cultural and literary criticism, the very point at which he transcended the limitations of all his comrades. However, I did get to squeeze in James's view of the bankruptcy of intellectuals at the end of the 1940s and the obsolescence of any creative role they could play in the social division of labor. This is the point at which I diverged from the usual line on James. I gave a capsule description of Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In, focusing on James's criticism of Ishmael, (the narrator of Moby Dick,) the educated intellectual who goes slumming to join the workers but remains conflicted about his temptation to submit to authority. Most importantly, I made a statement embodying my opposition to the entire James world, claiming that Mariners is not understood by James scholars and will not be understood for decades to come, because it implicitly condemns the bulk of its readers—the intellectuals of the left.

In my concluding statement I claimed that a changed relationship to James and to James's work as an object of study is needed for the 21st century. James should not be treated as an icon or seen as a leader, but as a way of learning how to analyze the world around us. The perspective presented by the first two speakers represents a certain historical stage of development, but a different perspective is needed for the 21st century. I expanded briefly on my statement that “people cannot face James honestly because they can not be honest about who they are.” This means that people will never be able to grasp James at the deepest level without confronting not only the abuses perpetrated by the ruling classes of the world, but also the abuses of power perpetrated within the left and the academy. Ultimately, they will have to face up to the lust for power and the need to submit to authority, within their own souls, or they will never understand James.

Those who can read between the lines will know exactly what I'm talking about. If you even suspect that I might be referring to you, rest assured that I am.


Note: This web page with this interview—my segment of this radio program—was originally uploaded to The C.L.R. James Institute site (now for the moment defunct, but available at at archive.org) 2 March 2004, revised 6 March 2004. I have a CD of the entire program, but the program is apparently not available on the sites mentioned above. — RD, 29 October 2019

©2004, 2019 Ralph Dumain


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Uploaded 29 October 2019

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