NEWS & LETTERS, Jan-Feb 10, Black-Red Conference

NEWS & LETTERS, January-February 2010

From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya

From the Black-Red Conference:

Dialectics of the freedom movements

To mark both Black History Month and the Raya Dunayevskaya Centenary, we present excerpts of the lecture she gave on Jan. 12, 1969, at the Black-Red Conference in Detroit. As Charles Denby, author of Indignant Heart: A Black Workers' Journal put it in his opening remarks to the conference: "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." The entire lecture is included in The Power of Negativity, and can be found, together with Charles Denby's Welcome, excerpts from the six-hour discussion and motions, in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #4338-54. The footnotes were added by the editors.

Let's talk--not about the moon and the stars and the planets, and little homilies from outer space, as if we don't have enough trouble on this earth--but about what is a great deal more important: the people, especially the working people, especially the Black working people.

If the Administration thinks that because we have some astronaut heroes we will thereby forget about war, racism, poverty, and the world that needs some reshaping, we will have to tell it to him like it is. Because first and foremost is man and labor. It is not the moon that came down to look at us. It is we who went up to look at the moon. And the hardware that went into that is not only a problem of science. In fact, the reason you can go to the moon, but can't solve the housing problem right here in a little slum, is because you have always had, in class society, this division between science and life. And Marx saw long, long ago--some 130 years ago--that if you're going to have a different principle for life and for science, you will be living a lie.That is just what we have been living all these years. And there are reasons why there is this great division.

All of the history of mankind can be developed just on the history of labor. Even if we exclude science (which we can't), it would still be a fact that it is not only the hardware to go to the moon that labor has built. Labor has built the primary things on earth, which really make the world go around: food, shelter, clothing. Labor has built everything. But don't think that just because the working man has produced all of this, the only thing he can do is manual labor. That is what the capitalist wants you to think.

There is another kind of labor besides manual--mental activity. And this mental activity is not restricted to scientists or to other intellectuals. In fact, what they think generally comes from this movement from below. What is most important of all is that workers think their own thoughts. And the thoughts that workers think are the thoughts that move the world.

It is all summarized in one word: freedom. There is no such thing as thought that has any significance unless it is the thought of how to get freedom. All of man's history is various stages of the struggle for freedom. And though capitalism may be better than slavery, we still have a long way to go. So--first, we have labor as a manual activity; second, labor as a mental activity. What gets everything changed is thinking how and by what means you can move to freedom, and masses actively moving toward freedom.

Besides labor and thought, we have some colors that are not accidental which we should talk about today: Black and red. Black and red stand for the actual movement of society.

Let's start in 1831, Nat Turner's Revolt. That was the same year some whites in New England started a paper called The Liberator, stimulated by the movement of the slaves in the South. The coalescence of these two forces led finally to the Civil War. But that's not why I'm choosing 1831 for today's discussion. I'm choosing it for Nat Turner's Revolt--he tried to be free and he was hanged for it--and I'm choosing it because that was the year that a man named Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel died. He was a German philosopher who dealt only with thought in ivory towers, yet what Nat Turner did and thought is related to Hegel, though they were of course quite unknown to each other.

Last year a prize was given to a white Southerner for a book about Nat Turner--a horrible book. A lot of Black intellectuals got very angry and answered the author, [William] Styron. [1] Theirs is not a bad answer--but what is really great is Nat Turner's own Confessions. They were made to a white racist, and Turner stressed the fact that he had the right to fight for freedom. He had heard voices and they told him to do it. Now there was another revolt that took place at the same time, and the white rulers were sure that there had been a conspiracy. Turner denied it: "I see, sir, you doubt my word. But cannot you think the same idea which prompted me might prompt others as well as myself to this undertaking?"[2] Here is a supposedly unintelligent man, and he recognizes that as great as is his own struggle for freedom, it is impossible that he, though he heard the voices from heaven, thought of it alone. He is absolutely sure that the Spirit, meaning the objective movement for freedom, and the people fighting for freedom are the same thing.

How these two movements--objective and subjective, idea of freedom and people fighting for freedom--function together, is what we are going to be learning today. It is called dialectics. We will see how they come to jam up against each other, and coalesce or not coalesce, depending on whether you win or lose. And if we can find out what dialectics was when the Greeks established it, and what it was when Hegel established it, and what it is with Marx--we will know all there is to know about philosophy.

Dialectics originally meant "dialect" or talking--and the Greeks had a very high opinion of it if it was the philosophers who were doing the talking. They had the first democracy for the citizens, but not for the slave laborers. The idea was that if you, the philosopher, talked to someone, and he had an idea that opposed yours, and you then contemplated, you would finally come up with an idea that was totally different than either one originally was. And it is true that you get some movement that way, but because the talk that went on was the talk of only intellectuals, it was contemplation alone or the viewing of things, not the doing of anything.

What was different about it when Hegel got to reestablish it for our age? We had moved from 500 B.C., when there was a slave society, to 1789, when there was a French Revolution, the greatest revolution that had ever happened. And the people--the sans-culottes, the enragés, the indignant hearts--had something to say about things. They were saying they were glad they got rid of Louis XVI, but what did they get with the overthrow of the monarchy? Why was there still a distinction between "passive citizens" and "active citizens"--especially when the so-called "passive citizens" were the ones who were doing all the work? They wanted to know why they all shouldn't be able to discuss things.

This French Revolution was such a challenge to the people in the ivory towers, like Hegel, that he couldn't help reflecting it. So that when he began to talk about dialectic, it didn't mean only thoughts bumping up against each other, it meant action. It meant development through contradiction, the development of ideas, and of actual history, and of the class struggle. It was this development--not a process of adding up how many are here in this room and contrasting that with how many voted for [George] Wallace,[3] but of seeing what the people represent and how much motion they can get going when the idea of freedom inspires them--that is of the essence.

Nevertheless, since Hegel did restrict himself to ideas, even though his philosophy reflected actual history, something more was needed. When Nat Turner led his rebellion and Hegel died in 1831, Marx was 13 years old. He didn't know anything about either one of them. But 13 years later, in 1844, he created the greatest philosophy of freedom, Humanism. And he built it on the dialectic. But he said ideas don't float in air. There are people who have ideas. Marx included man himself, men who think, who struggle for freedom, who try to unite the idea of freedom with the actual struggle for freedom. He refused to bow either to capitalism or to communism. He said that in place of either the profit motive of capitalism, or the collective form of property of communism, the important thing was the self-development of man.

In creating this philosophy, he heard about and collaborated with the Abolitionists, Black and white, in this country who were struggling against slavery. Some so-called Marxists said, well, of course, they were against slavery--but the slaves just wanted the freedom to be exploited by the capitalist. The [so-called Marxists] thought they were much wiser because they wanted freedom from the capitalists, too. Marx showed them that they were crazy because freedom and thinking are always concrete. And in the actual dialectic of liberation--that is, in the actual relation of thought to act, in the actual development--you have to arouse and elicit from the population many, many forces. The greatest force is labor, but there are others, such as the youth, and in America the greatest of these other forces is the Black masses. Marx told the whites who thought they were superior because they were free: Look at you, you don't even have a national labor union--and you can't organize one because labor in the white skin cannot be free while labor in the Black skin is branded. This wasn't only "dialectics" or "philosophy." This was the way it was. We finally had the Civil War in the U.S., and the first national labor union came after that.[4]

It was by establishing labor as the center, and the unity of thought and practice as necessary, and by jamming up all these new ideas into a new philosophy of liberation that Marx was able to establish the First Workingmen's International....

* * *

Philosophy and Revolution has three parts. Part I is called "Why Hegel? Why Now?" and takes up the dialectic as the algebra of revolution, the methodology of what man has done in fighting for freedom. Once you get three things, you have the essence of it: 1) the dialectic--the actual development, through actual class struggle, through actual contradictions; 2) the right Subject--who is resolving these contradictions? Marx said it was the class force, but helped by other forces such as minorities, the Black people, and the youth; 3) how does this movement from below for freedom, from practice, unite with the movement that comes from theory? In other words, the relationship of theory to practice.

* * *

...[I]n becoming theoreticians, in creating a new philosophy by speaking for yourselves, you have to recognize that you speak, not as individuals (though the individual is very great) but as the new forces that are necessary--what Marx called the new passions for reconstructing society on totally new, truly human, beginnings.


1. See William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner (New York: Random House, 1967), and John Henrik Clarke (ed.), William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968).

2. For Nat Turner's confession, see Nat Turner, ed. by Eric Foner (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1971), pp. 37-55.

3. George Wallace, Alabama's segregationist governor, who ran a racist presidential campaign in 1968.

4. The first national labor union, the General Congress of Labor, was formed in Baltimore in August 1866.

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