Revolutionary life of Charles Denby
by Susan Van Gelder
The publication of a 40th anniversary edition of AMERICAN CIVILIZATION ON TRIAL by Raya Dunayevskaya and the long-awaited DIALECTICS OF BLACK FREEDOM STRUGGLES by John Alan reminds us, on the 20th anniversary of his death, how significant Charles Denby was to the development of Marxist-Humanist philosophy and its organization, News and Letters Committees. As Raya Dunayevskaya put it,
The 75 years of Charles Denby’s life are so full of class struggles, Black revolts, freedom movements that they not only illuminate the present, but cast a light even on the future… Listening to him, you felt you were witnessing an individual’s life that was somehow universal, and that touched you personally… The genius of Charles Denby lies in the fact that the story of his life--INDIGNANT HEART: A BLACK WORKER'S JOURNAL--is the history of workers’ struggles for freedom, his and all others the world over.(1)
A UNIQUE INDIVIDUAL
Charles Denby was a Black auto production worker who grew up in rural Alabama and came north to Detroit with many other young Black men in the 1920s to work in the auto factories. He became involved in race and class struggles and was recruited into the Trotskyist movement. He quickly discovered the increasing division between rank-and-file labor and the union bureaucracy and refused to become a part of the union leadership. During the 1950s he chose to work with Raya Dunayevskaya and remained with her through several organizational splits. Their experiences led him to accept editorship of NEWS & LETTERS when it was founded in 1955 because he "felt strongly that there was an imperative need for A NEW KIND of workers' paper" (emphasis added).(2) His column "Worker’s Journal" appeared on the front page of each issue until his death in 1983.
What does it mean to say "Workers as revolutionary thinkers?" First, Denby’s experiences as an African-American Southern farmer and autoworker had given him a desire for freedom that was total. He fought a life-long battle against the fragmentation of himself that capitalism forces upon us all. In Marxist-Humanism Denby helped develop a philosophy of liberation which in turn helped him develop and concretize his drive to be a full human being. Marxist-Humanism strives toward Marx’s vision of a society centered on human needs and capacities. Denby understood how alienating capitalist society is and how totally it must be uprooted for a better world to begin.
Denby’s writings, as he was the first to insist, reflect dialogues, discussions, debates with other workers. His was an individualism that always retained his awareness of connection to the mass movement, or as Hegel had put it, "individualism that lets nothing interfere with its universality, or freedom." In the pamphlet WORKERS BATTLE AUTOMATION written in 1960, Charles Denby is the primary author, but brought in other workers to tell their own stories and share their own views, often differing from his own, of automation in steel, light manufacturing, and even offices. This is indeed revolutionary in a society where workers are supposed to be ignorant and unwilling to think.
"A unique combination of worker and intellectual"-- this is not only a principle of Marxist-Humanist journalism and organization, but a description of Charles Denby himself. The stories of his life that make up his autobiography, INDIGNANT HEART: A BLACK WORKER'S JOURNAL are not abstract discussions about philosophy. Philosophy is present throughout.
In 1943 after returning South, Denby came to Detroit again to find a better-paying job in the auto factories:
Denby’s story reveals the persistence and depth of the racism even unionized workers confronted. It also points a direction for overcoming it: dialogue between white and Black workers that all with a stake in systemic racism strive so hard to prevent.
Denby continued to struggle against injustice in the shop, fighting for Black women workers to be given jobs in the sewing department. He insisted that there be no compromise on full integration, and that the Communist Party's support for the "no-strike pledge," which the government had convinced the union leadership to agree to in support of the war effort, would only hurt workers.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Denby continued to write about the increasing gap between the union bureaucracy and rank-and-file union members. Racism continued unremittingly and profoundly to drive a wedge between white and Black workers and limit their power to challenge the direction of the union leadership. Denby recounts his experiences with the Communist and Trotskyist parties during this period, where he sought for Blacks and all workers to be treated as full, thinking human beings.
He found that despite what was said, prejudice against African Americans persisted in the radical parties. He also became disillusioned with their vanguardist philosophy, that they were the ones to teach and lead the masses to revolution.
However he recognized a foundation for his own thinking and activities in Raya Dunayevskaya’s view of the central role of the Black masses in America, and in her concept, based on her study of Hegel’s Absolute Idea, that theory and practice are inseparable. In 1955 the Johnson-Forest Tendency, to which they both belonged, underwent a split. Co-leader C.L.R. James disagreed with Dunayevskaya and Denby on the need for a revolutionary organization to reconstitute dialectical thought for modern struggles.
A LIFE OF STRUGGLES
INDIGNANT HEART: A BLACK WORKER'S JOURNAL was first published in 1952. Part II was written in 1978 after Denby retired from the plant and had been editor of NEWS & LETTERS for 23 years. In this part Denby reflects not only his personal experiences but the whole breadth of experience he gained as a Marxist-Humanist. As John Alan expresses it in DIALECTICS OF BLACK FREEDOM STRUGGLES:
The difference between the two parts is remarkable. Some critics, incapable of recognizing workers as thinkers, believe Denby was "brainwashed" in News and Letters Committees. But read Denby’s speech at one of his local union meetings in 1962, and then still try to say that this man was brainwashed.
Alan underscores the importance of Charles Denby’s relationship to Raya Dunayevskaya:
Dunavevskaya recalled that Denby’s response to the news of Stalin’s death was in sharp contrast to others in the Johnson-Forest Tendency who felt that workers did not see any relation to their own lives:
On the 20-year anniversary of his death, Charles Denby is very much alive in the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism. His writings on Black opposition to militarism and the importance of Marx’s revolutionary ideas to the Black world (some are included in the new AMERICAN CIVILIZATION ON TRIAL) are important for all who oppose globalized capitalism today and wish to create new human foundations for society.
In the last year of his life Denby, though quite ill, was enthused by Raya Dunayevskaya’s new discoveries of Karl Marx’s writings on the Black world. He urged Dunayevskaya to develop this in her 1983 Introduction to the pamphlet. When completed, it showed the development of Marx’s understanding of Black oppression and that Marx saw overcoming it would lead to greater freedom for all of humanity.
He had concluded INDIGNANT HEART: A BLACK WORKER'S JOURNAL similarly:
1. Dunayevskaya, Raya, Afterword to INDIGNANT HEART: A BLACK WORKER'S JOURNAL. Wayne State University Press: Detroit, 1989. pp. 295-303
2. Ibid, p. 299.
3. Denby, Charles, INDIGNANT HEART, op. cit. pp. 87–88
4. Alan, John, DIALECTICS OF BLACK FREEDOM STRUGGLES. News & Letters: Chicago, 2003.
5. Denby, op. cit. pp. 255-257.
6. Alan, op. cit.
7. Dunayevskaya, op. cit. p. 297.
8. Denby, op. cit. p. 294.
Published by News and Letters Committees