From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Marxist-Humanist Archives
Revisiting 'Black Power,' Race and Class
by Raya Dunayevskaya, founder of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S.
Editor's Note: With the many debates today over the nature of the
relationship of race to class in U.S. society, we reprint
"'Black Power,' Race and Class," an
excerpt from the Marxist-Humanist Perspectives Thesis that Raya
Dunayevskaya presented to the September 1966 Convention of News and Letters
Committees (THE RAYA DUNAYEVSKAYA COLLECTION, 4040). It was originally
published in NEWS & LETTERS, January 1967, at the time when the debate over
Black Power was about to assume a most concrete form as Black mass revolt
erupted in Newark, N.J., the summer of 1967, followed by the Detroit
rebellion in which some segments of the white working class joined in. In
commemoration of the first African-American History Month of the 21st
century, we print this important battle of ideas, and encourage our readers
to join in by writing and emailing us their responses (email@example.com). The
footnotes are the editor's.
At the present crucial moment of world history, when the Third World of
underdeveloped countries has become the bone of contention, not only
between "East" and "West," but also within the so-called East, the
Sino-Soviet orbit, it is imperative that the Negro maintain his
independence from any state power, and its ideas. Presently, many of these
have jumped on the bandwagon of the "Black Power" slogan. It therefore must
be closely examined.
The SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] statement, which
evidently SNCC had been discussing for months before its publication by
others, is not outside of a certain philosophic framework, certain
principled tenets. In turning to these, we, of course, take the statement
at its face value when it declares: "These views should not be equated with
outside influence or outside agitation but should be viewed as the natural
process of growth and development within a movement; so that the move by
the Black militants and SNCC in this direction should be viewed as a turn
toward self-determination" (NEW YORK TIMES, Aug. 5, 1966).
At the same time, however, we know that ideas have a history of their own,
and a logic of their own, and we must follow each to its logical, bitter
end, including all its historic ramifications, not the least of which, both
for past and present, is the interrelationship between class and race.
RACE AND CLASS
There is no such suprahistorical abstraction as racism. In each historical
period it was something different. It was one thing during slavery, another
during Reconstruction, and quite something else today.
To maintain, as the new SNCC statement and its new chairman, Stokely
Carmichael,(1) do, that there is something called a "white psyche" and that
this "white psyche" is part of the white fear-guilt complex resulting from
the slave revolts," is but the reverse side of the same coin which standard
bourgeois white textbooks maintain: that it is not the exploitative class
that is keeping the Negro down, but that it is due to some sort of "stigma
of slavery." That, naturally, was not the intent of the SNCC statement, but
ideas have a logic of their own.
TO FURTHER INSIST THAT "WHATEVER THEIR POLITICAL PERSUASION," "ALL WHITES"
ARE "PART OF THE COLLECTIVE WHITE AMERICA" SO THAT THE U.S. HAS "180
MILLION RACISTS" IS TO BLUR THE CLASS LINE WHICH CUTS ACROSS THE RACE
DIVISIONS AS WELL AS TO MUFFLE THE PHILOSOPHY OF TOTAL FREEDOM WHICH HAS
CREATED A SECOND AMERICA. IN THIS, THE NEGRO HAS PLAYED A VANGUARD ROLE AND
IT IS THIS ROLE WE MUST SAVE FROM THE SNCC STATEMENT WHICH MEANS TO
SEPARATE "ALL BLACKS" FROM "ALL WHITES"-AND THUS ENDS UP BY FLYING IN THE
FACE OF HOW THE NEGRO SHAPED THE COURSE OF THE SECOND AMERICA.
The truth is this. DESPITE the ruling Bourbon South's economic power with
its Simon Legrees, DESPITE its political power in the halls of Congress
ruling the North, despite THEIR "fear complex" (I know nothing of any
"guilt complex"; none of them had sufficient of that to do anything about
it-but regarding their FEAR of Negro revolt they did plenty in the South,
in the North, in Congress, and in the Supreme Court)-despite ALL these
powers, the Bourbon South not only failed to brainwash all the people, but
a very important section was inspired by the slave revolts, JUST THOSE
SLAVE REVOLTS WHICH SNCC THINKS ALL FEARED, , to organize the most
remarkable organization this country had ever seen. I am referring, of
course, to the Abolitionists.
NEGRO AND WHITE UNITY-1830-65
It was no coincidence that in 1831, the year of the greatest slave revolt,
Nat Turner's, a white New England Abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison,
founded the LIBERATOR.
It was no accident that the Negro runaway slaves, the white Abolitionists
and Negro freedmen gathered together, determined to resolve the problem of
slavery, not by founding a colony abroad, but right here at home.
And it was neither accidental nor a mean achievement that these males had a
different view of voteless women than that which was then prevalent, and
the suffragette movement also arose out of this most remarkable
organization of uncompromising freedom fighters that PREDATED THE ORIGIN OF
BOLSHEVISM BY 80 YEARS.
NOR WAS IT "AN OVERNIGHT AFFAIR." IT LASTED FOR THREE LONG DECADES, UNTIL
THEY IMPELLED THE CIVIL WAR, AND DURING ALL THOSE 30 YEARS, IN SLAVE-RIDDEN
AMERICA, THESE REMARKABLE INDIVIDUALS PRACTICED THESE HUMAN RELATIONS THAT
THEY ESPOUSED FOR THE COUNTRY AS A WHOLE. SO THAT WHEN, FINALLY, THE PATHS
OF THE ABOLITIONISTS AND KARL MARX CROSSED, THE AFFINITY OF HIS IDEAS AND
THEIRS SHOULD HAVE REVEALED HOW INDIGENOUS, HOW DEEP WERE THE AMERICAN
ROOTS OF MARXISM.
It is peculiar, indeed, that this page of history, so carefully hidden from
all standard white textbooks which, at best, treat the Abolitionists as a
tiny group of "fanatics" with no influence on the course of American
history, should also have been skipped over by Carmichael because it
doesn't fit into his conception that all whites have the same "psyche."
This does no harm to history because it has been LIVED.
It does a great deal of harm, however, to the SNCC philosophy which has
thereby deprived itself of the awareness of the DUALITY of historic
development, of the dialectic methodology which is born out of these
contradictions, and which had led Marx to see men's development as the
development of various stages of freedom. This is the methodology which
enabled Marx to make pivotal to his philosophy the vision that, just as man
develops THROUGH contradiction, so his "quest for universality" is most
intense WHEN people are most degraded.
Either SNCC has not the slightest conception of this world view of history.
Or they deliberately disregarded it, to continue with the logic of their
first false premise, that "all whites" have one "psyche" and "all Blacks"
another, and if ever the twain meet, it is always to the end that the
whites interfere with or pervert the Negro's self-organization.
PERVERTED PHILOSOPHY PERVERTS MOVEMENT
It is to that end that Stokely Carmichael, instead, singled out the
organization of the Niagara Movement, which he says was all Black and
great, until it was "perverted" by whites and merged into the then new
NAACP. Whatever the white liberal did in changing the direction of the
Niagara Movement as it became the NAACP, this was not grounded in either
their whiteness or their liberalism.
RATHER, IT HAD ITS ORIGIN IN THE THESIS OF DUBOIS HIMSELF, in his concept
that each nation, each race has its own "talented tenth," and that this
elite "brings" freedom to the mass. With such an underlying philosophy, the
Niagara Movement couldn't possibly get a mass following, no matter how
militant it was in its demands for full equality as against Booker T.
Washington's philosophy of "Cast down your bucket wherever you are."
It is true that by then (the turn of the century) racism had become
rampant, North and South, for, with America's plunge into imperialism in
1898, the other great pages in American history of Black and white
solidarity, including the greatest page within the South's
development-Populism-were fully expunged. It is true, also, that the only
rational voice came from the Negro. It isn't true, however, that the
failure of these movements to become mass movements was due to the whites
"taking over" the NAACP.
As against Carmichael's rewrite, here is how one of the leaders of the
Niagara Movement summed up this failure: "Štheir cause was just, their
motives pure, their goals noble and practical; but they were perhaps too
far removed from the masses to inspire them to action-too conscious of
their own privileged position as a Black eliteŠ " (Henry Lee Moon, BALANCE
OF POWER: THE NEGRO VOTE , p. 100).
Now, despite the fact that the word, Black, and not the word, white,
precedes the word, elite, this is A CLASS concept, a thoroughly BOURGEOIS
class concept, and it led to the isolation, self-imposed isolation of the
Black intellectual, from the Negro masses, and therefore from their
HOW CLASS SHOWS THROUGH
The only time this wasn't true, and Negroes by the millions organized
themselves and put an end to the myth that the Negro couldn't be organized
(and this was 1920, not 1966) to fight for his freedom in an all-Black
organization, was the Garvey Movement. The interference it ran into was
from the black "talented tenth." The most prominent of these, and the one
who appealed to the white power structure, particularly the Justice
Department, to deport Garvey was-DuBois!
Now DuBois was a great historian, one of the greatest this country has ever
had, white or Negro, and the only one who has made a great contribution to
the true history of BLACK RECONSTRUCTION. Unfortunately, however, his CLASS
(petty-bourgeois) character always showed.
THIS WAS SO WHEN HE ORGANIZED AN ALL-BLACK MOVEMENT, AND RETREATED. IT WAS
SO WHEN THE WEST INDIAN, MARCUS GARVEY, ORGANIZED AN ALL-BLACK MASS
MOVEMENT, AND DUBOIS ATTACKED HIM. IT WAS SO WHEN DUBOIS FOUGHT AGAINST THE
MARXISTS. AND IT REMAINED TRUE WHEN IN HIS OLD AGE, HE JOINED THE COMMUNIST
PARTY AND FOLLOWED THEIR AFRICAN LINE.
The point here is that, just as DuBois showed his class character in this
country, so did he show it on the world scene, especially in Africa. For,
while he appealed to still another white power structure-the United
Nations-to give Africa limited freedom, the African masses arose
spontaneously and changed the whole map of the world in less than a decade.
The point is that DuBois moved to Ghana after it became independent, that
is to say, only when STATE POWER was won. The point is that, as with ALL
intelligentsia, so with the Negro, there has always been a separation
between the elite and the mass.
NEGRO AND WHITE UNITY-1930s AND NOW
This was so not only as they organized themselves in nationalist movements,
but when they organized themselves, WITH WHITE LABOR, to reorganize the
whole industrial face of the nation through the CIO [Congress of Industrial
Organizations]. Considering George S. Schuyler's (2) present reactionary
stance, it is important to see how differently he spoke under the impact of
the CIO, as he lashed out against the established Negro leaders in 1937:
"Nowhere were the 'educated' classes cooperating with the unions to aid the
work of organization, save in a few notable instances and there only by one
or two individualsŠTheir desertion of the struggling Negro workers in this
crisis constitutes one of the most shameful chapters in our recent history.
The new position Negro labor has won in the past year has been gained in
spite of the old leadership. It has been won with new leadership; militant
young men and women from the ranks of labor and grizzled Black veterans of
the pick and shovel and the blast furnace" (CRISIS, November 1937).
You cannot reverse history. This integration into labor having been
achieved, the ones who will save the CIO from its degeneration, as we can
see by the new formation of Black caucuses for upgrading, for the end of
lily-white departments, against the bureaucracy in general, are the
workers. It will not be achieved by those who disregard the integration,
and themselves use college-type vocabulary, completely devoid of any sense
of class struggle. The great German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, had a phrase
for this type of thinking. He called it "self-determination applied
externally." That is, from above, not as it emerged from internal
THE NEGRO REVOLUTION OF THE 1960S THAT EMERGED FROM BELOW WAS FOR
INTEGRATION, NOT BECAUSE OF INTERFERENCE BY THE WHITES, BUT BECAUSE IT
AROSE SPONTANEOUSLY FROM BLACK YOUTH WHO WANTED IT. THE MUSLIMS WERE
COMPLETELY EXTERNAL TO THIS MOVEMENT, OUTSIDE OF IT. INDEED, TO GET BACK
INTO THE MAINSTREAM OF THE BLACK REVOLUTION, MALCOLM X FOUND HE HAD TO
BREAK FROM ELIJAH MUHAMMAD.
The development of SNCC to greater militancy, of necessity, had to involve
a break from white liberals-a break both from their money and their
policies, it is true. But the emphasis, if this is what SNCC meant to do,
should have been on the "liberalism" they opposed. Instead the emphasis was
put on "all whites," as a generalization, including even those who had
given their very lives for the movement.
And the trouble with generalizations is that they very often sow
only confusion, because each one reads into it his specific interpretation,
which may not be what you intended at all. There is no way to avoid confusion
except by being specific instead of general.
1. Stokely Carmichael was the chairman of SNCC from May 1966 to June 1967,
and is credited with popularizing the slogan "Black Power." With Charles V.
Hamilton, Carmichael wrote BLACK POWER: THE POLITICS OF LIBERATION IN
AMERICA (1967) in an effort to give theoretical expression to the new stage
of Black militancy. Carmichael later went into exile in Africa, after his
involvement with the Black Panther Party, and took the name Kwame Ture. He
died of cancer November 1998; see the in memoriam by Michael Flug in the
January-February 1999 issue of NEWS & LETTERS.
2. George S. Schuyler was a radical journalist for the Black PITTSBURGH
COURIER in the 1930s before he became politically conservative in the
period just preceding the Civil Rights Movement.