Marxism and Black Liberation: The Work of Raya Dunayevskaya

Unidentified event attended by, left to right, Claudia Jones, Paul Robeson, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Eslanda (Essie) Robeson, and unidentified couple, aprx. 1959 (Courtesy of the Schomburg Center).

Marxism, which played a role in Black Liberation ideas in the decades immediately after the Russian Revolution, and again during the Civil Rights/Black Power Movements of the 1960s and 1970s, seems to be absent in much of the discourse of Black Lives Matter. Yet, the ideas of Karl Marx keep returning to our world as capitalism experiences crisis upon crisis, and a new generation is interested in exploring the possibilities of socialism,  especially as it relates to Black Liberation today. One major problem to overcome in discussing Marxism today is the contradictory history of Marxism post-Marx. This is particularly true of the totalitarian practice of “actually existing socialism” in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China as well as the very checkered history of the Communist Party in the United States in regards to the question of Afro-American liberation.

It is here where the ideas of the Marxist-Humanist philosopher-revolutionary Raya Dunayevskaya (1910-1987) might be of some assistance. In the 1940s, Dunayevskaya, used Marx’s economic categories to analyze Russia under Stalin as not a communist (Marxist) society, but as a state-capitalist one. At the same time, she firmly aligned with the independent struggles of Afro-American workers, whom she had termed “Negroes in the Revolution.” Dunayevskaya’s critical analysis of the relation between Black and red (Black Liberation and revolutionary Marxism) drew upon Marx’s writings on the Black Question at the time of the Civil War in the United States to develop a unique approach to Marxist thought and practice. 

Unlike the vast majority of American Marxists and socialists of the mid-twentieth century who subordinated the “Negro Question” to the class question, Dunayevskaya insisted along with C.L.R. James that the dimensions of class and race were inextricably related in American history, and they needed to be worked out in unison for a future American revolution.

Dunayevskaya and James co-founded the State-Capitalist Tendency in American Trotskyism, which critiqued the majority Trotskyist position of the time that subordinated the race question to the class question. In striving to forge a dialectical unity of Marxism and Black Liberation, Dunayevskaya sought to renew Marx’s Marxism for her time. Her relation to Black Liberation—what she saw as “the vanguard role of Black masses in challenging American Civilization through their freedom struggles”—was crucial to her working out and practicing Marxist-Humanism, a philosophy of permanent revolution.

Dunayevskaya pointed to what influenced Marx in the United States in the period leading to the outbreak of the Civil War—the Abolitionists’ writings and actions, the ongoing slave revolts, John Brown at Harpers Ferry—and expressed this as “the American roots of Marxism” in her 1958 publication, Marxism and Freedom. For Dunayevskaya, any serious Marxist analysis of the class question in America could not be considered separate from the Black question. The Montgomery Bus Boycott in December 1955 proved a particularly compelling event for Dunayevskaya. She pointed to the participants being “in continuous session: daily there are small meetings three times weekly, mass meetings; at all times the new relationships” and that “the decision is always their own.”  Impressed by the work of the activists who sustained the boycott, Dunayevskaya called it a “model of organization.” Dunayevskaya concluded that the greatest aspect of this “spontaneous organization was its own working existence,” echoing Marx’s description of the 1871 Paris Commune.

Responding to the developing Civil Rights Movement, she wrote her most comprehensive statement on Black Liberation as the book American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1963. For her, “vanguard” was not the vanguard party, but the self-activity of masses from below. It was a Black and Labor history study from slavery and the American Revolution to the Civil Rights Movement.

A subsequent edition would add the following paragraph in which Dunayevskaya affirmed Marx’s support of Black Liberation: 

Marx’s reference in the Ethnological Notebooks to the Australian aborigine as “the intelligent Black” (in sharp response to an ethnologist who had written dismissively of aboriginal thought) brought to a conclusion the dialectic he had unchained when he first broke from bourgeois society in the 1840s and objected to the use of the word, “Negro,” as if it were synonymous with the word, “slave.” By the 1850s, in the Grundrisse, he extended that sensitivity to the whole pre-capitalist world. By the 1860s, the Black dimension became, at one and the same time, not only pivotal in the abolition of slavery and victory of the North in the Civil War, but also to the restructuring of Capital itself. In a word, the often-quoted sentence: “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black skin it is branded,” far from being rhetoric, was the actual reality and the perspective for overcoming that reality. Marx reached, at every historic turning point, for a concluding point, not as an end but as a new jumping-off point, a new beginning, a new vision.

With this addition, Dunayevskaya sought to present a shorthand sweep of Marx’s view: 1.) He hit out against the nineteenth-century bourgeois view that “slave” and “Negro” were synonymous terms; 2.) he admired much within non-capitalist and pre-capitalist societies, refusing to designate them as “lower” or less than civilized; 3.) Marx presented what he saw as the dialectical relation between Black labor and white labor in the United States at the time of the Civil War; and 4.) Marx commented favorably upon Indigenous people. For Dunayevskaya, these represented not just important points to study in Marx’s work, but points to consider for humanity’s future liberation.

Dunayevskaya was not an armchair theoretician, but a practicing revolutionary. In 1955, she founded with colleagues a Marxist-Humanist organization, News and Letters Committees, and began a newspaper, News & Letters. The group was centered in Detroit, an autoworker and Black city. The paper broke ground in the revolutionary movement by having not an intellectual but a Black autoworker, Charles Denby, as its editor. 

Denby and Dunayevskaya collaborated on numerous projects in relation to worker and Black struggles. Among their projects was a Black/Red Conference called in Detroit with a Black working class and youth audience. She wanted to listen to the voices of Black youth, women, students and workers, and to present the philosophic ideas of Marxist-Humanist liberation to this audience, which she had been developing in her book, Philosophy and Revolution. For her, philosophic probing was inseparable from the mass movements from below and this was especially true of the Black Revolt. As chair of the conference, Denby stated: 

This is the first time that such a conference of black youth, black workers, black women and black intellectuals will have a chance to discuss with each other as well as with Marxist-Humanists, who lend the red coloration not only for the sake of color but for the sake of philosophy, a philosophy of liberation.                             

Selected writings of Raya Dunayevskaya and her News & Letters colleagues Charles Denby, John Alan and Ethyl Dunbar are presently in preparation. In the meantime, an exploration of Marx’s Marxism in relation to today’s Black Liberation struggle would substantially add to socialist conversations today.

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Eugene Gogol

Eugene Gogol is a Marxist-Humanist activist-writer. His books include The Concept of Other in Latin American Liberation and Raya Dunayevskaya: Philosopher of Marxist-Humanism.

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