From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Marxist-Humanist Archives
Ramifications of Watts revolt
In light of the Cincinnati rebellion last month, we reprint Raya
Dunayevskaya's analysis of the 1965 uprising in the Watts section of Los
Angeles. She originally presented it in her "Perspectives" report to the
convention of News and Letters Committees, which was then developed and
published in the August-September 1965 issue of NEWS & LETTERS, reprinted
here. Both the report and the article can be found in the THE RAYA
DUNAYEVSKAYA COLLECTION, 3630 and 6754, respectively.
* * *
From all sides we are hearing a great deal these days about just how
"isolated" Watts was. What all the analysts fail to grasp is that the
Negroes in Watts gained their strength, not because they were isolated, but
because they acted COLLECTIVELY. It was a DISCIPLINED strength. Thus,
despite all talk against "Whitey" (and some beatings) not a single white
who happened into the area was shot at, excluding, of course, the cops, but
then these are the most hated representatives of the exploitative,
prejudiced, vicious power structure.
CLASS AND RACE
No, it was not the Negro who was isolated; it was the white power structure
that was isolated. And within the Negro population, it was the middle class
Negro, not the Negro mass, who stood isolated, even as it was the Negro
leadership, who, precisely because they were OUTSIDERS, felt isolated.
There is good reason, however, to be suspicious of the word "class" when it
becomes very nearly a cliche in an outpouring of analyses by bourgeois
ideologists. One is compelled to question the sudden embrace of "class"
analyses. It certainly was not the result of a conversion to Marxism. The
very opposite is the case. The sudden discovery of "class not race" as the
basic cause of Negro self-activity is only the latest manifestation of how
the vanquished always try to worm their way back in. When Karl Marx, after
the Paris Commune, was confronted with the situation that every conceivable
political tendency wanted to become part of the first Workingmen's
International Association, he wrote: "The old always tries to reconstitute
itself inside the new forms." And so it is with the present misuse of the
The Watts revolt was certainly and unmistakably a class question.
IT WAS EQUALLY A RACE QUESTION. IT WILL NOT DO TO TRY TO SEPARATE WHAT THE
ACTUAL EVENTS HAVE WELDED TOGETHER.
It was not for purposes of releasing the creativity of the masses--class and
race--that the class structure of society was suddenly "discovered." RATHER,
IT WAS AN ADVENTURISTIC ATTEMPT TO MAKE TO THE PEOPLE WHO WERE IN REVOLT
FORGET WHAT WAS NEW: THE SELF-DISCOVERY OF THEIR OWN CREATIVITY; THE
CONFIDENCE IN MASS POWER; THE DIFFERENTIATION FROM ALL OTHERS--THE NEGRO
MIDDLE CLASS AS WELL AS THE ABSENTEE LANDLORDS, THE ABSENTEE GROCERY OWNER
AS WELL AS THE SELF-APPOINTED BUT EQUALLY ABSENT LEADERS.
In a word, the new discoverers of the class basis of revolt aimed at
nothing less than to stop the mass search for new beginnings in leadership,
in action, in theory.
NEW BEGINNINGS IN THEORY
Yes, theory. Listen:
"We don't belong to any organization. We meet in the street and talk. When
it happened, we knew what we wanted and we knew what we would do about it.
We'll start all over again if we don't get it."
"We haven't lost a thing and now we know where it hurts Whitey."
"I would do it all over again even if my own house burns alongside Whitey's
store; my house was no good nohow."
"We have the power to upset the city, break it wide open. We got the power."
The revolt was both spontaneous and conscious of itself. Moreover, where,
in the revolt in Harlem, which likewise was spontaneous (although not as
thoroughgoing), Maoists at least tried to claim credit, in Watts they were
nowhere around. Nor were the Du Bois clubs. Nor, for that matter, were the
established civil rights organizations, although these, at least, showed
after the events.
Yes, the revolt was a stride toward theory. It ended one phase of activity
and began a new one. The new stage is far more fundamental than a question
of violence vs. non-violence as a method of struggle. The genuine leap was
not in the tactics of struggle but in the achievement of consciousness of
self, of being able to make generalizations like "we know now where Whitey
hurts" and thus to take the first step in the construction of universals
about a new society. But it is a first step only, and, though a gigantic
stride, it is not the end but a beginning. The point at issue now is not so
much what is next in activity, but what is next IN THOUGHT. WITHOUT BEING
ABLE TO MAKE WHAT PHILOSOPHERS CALL A CATEGORY OUT OF THEIR EXPERIENCE,
THAT IS TO SAY, TO BE ABLE TO CONCLUDE THAT IT IS NOT JUST AN EXPERIENCE,
BUT A STAGE IN COGNITION, IN IDEAS, THE EXPERIENCE ITSELF WILL NOT BECOME
PART OF AN EMERGING REVOLUTION EITHER IN FACT OR IN THOUGHT.
The experience otherwise can be taken over by others, by those who thirst
to lead, or perhaps I should say to "mislead," NOT because they are "bad
men," BUT BECAUSE THEY ARE MOVED BY FORCES READY TO SUBSTITUTE FOR THE
WORKERS' ACCUMULATION OF THEIR HISTORIC EXPERIENCE, ACTIONS THAT HAVE NO
RELATIONSHIP WHATEVER TO WHAT THE MASSES WANT, THEIR QUEST FOR
UNIVERSALITY, I.E. FOR TOTAL FREEDOM.
THE THIRST 'TO LEAD'
No doubt the established Negro leadership also wants to resume its role,
and it too is moved by an ideology which may very well end in an apology
for the status quo. But so long as the momentum of the struggle continues,
the movement can easily replace this leadership. It is not easy to bypass
the "radical" leaders, because they come out of the womb of one revolution
and still use its language.
THE OVERRIDING PURPOSE OF THOSE WHO THIRST TO LEAD IS TO MAKE SURE THAT THE
MASSES ARE AS MUCH AT THE DISPOSAL OF "THE PARTY" AS THE PROLETARIAT IS AT
THE DISPOSAL OF CAPITAL.
Earlier I spoke of my opposition to absentee leaders. Let me assure you
they are worse when they are present. And let me further assure you that,
in my analysis of these leaders, I used the words "the Party" advisedly.
This does not mean that all the intellectuals are Party men. I know very
well that many of them never belonged. But what is of the essence is not
whether one has a Party card, BUT WHETHER ONE IS FIRMLY GUIDED BY ITS DOGMA
THAT THE MASSES ARE BACKWARD AND IT IS THEREFORE NECESSARY "TO LEAD THEM."
Theory remains a prerogative of the leadership. In that way these
intellectuals bring into whatever organization they belong to, the
capitalistic division between mental and manual labor.
Instead of this, what is of the essence if we are to realize freedom, not
in a distant tomorrow, but in an approaching today, is an attitude that is
adamant against being rent asunder between theory and practice, and is
intent not only in demolishing the status quo, but in reconstructing
society. It is this which motivated our refusal to be in any way diverted
from participation in the Negro Revolution, why we state in our
Since the postwar strikes, that is to say, very nearly two decades, nothing
has happened on the American scene that can in any way compare with the
Negro Revolution that began in earnest with the 1960 sit-ins and has gained
momentum ever since. This is the most important development not only for an
American Revolution but also for world developments since it touches both
the basic relationship of a proletarian West to the East and a black
revolution's impact on, and relationship to, the Afro-Asian-Latin American
world. Therefore, to divert in any way from this development is,
Marxistically speaking, criminal.
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