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A Dead End of History? C. L. R. James and the Problem-Space of American Trotskyism

Peter Conroy

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In the view of many who lived through it, World War II undermined the plausibility of historical teleology. At the same time, however, the emergence of the Cold War in the 1940s and 1950s intensified the temptations of teleology, leading many to suggest—explicitly or implicitly—that Soviet-style communism or American-style capitalism represented “the end of history.” How did writers and intellectuals navigate this seemingly contradictory situation? This article explores that question by looking at what it calls “the problem-space” of American Trotskyism, and, in particular, at the work of C. L. R. James. To begin with, it reconstructs a series of questions that preoccupied Trotskyist intellectuals in the United States. Then it demonstrates how James tried to resolve them in collaboration with figures like Grace Lee Boggs and Raya Dunayevskaya. Finally, it uses James’s Notes on Dialectics (1948) to interpret his two major single-authored studies of American culture and society: "American Civilization" (written around 1950) and "Mariners, Renegades and Castaways" (1953). It argues that in these texts James developed not only a philosophy but also a poetics of history, which was designed to help workers around the world to overcome the bad choice between two ends of history.

Key Words: U.S.-American hegemony; Marxism; C. L. R. James; Herman Melville; end of history

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