OFFICIAL CALL FOR CONVENTION
to Work Out Marxist-Humanist Perspectives for 2023-2024
February 26, 2023
To All Members and Friends of News and Letters Committees
The brutal police murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis brought the character of U.S. “civilization” front and center once again. That twofold character encompasses the inhumanity of the act and the immediate attempt to cover it up, but also the outrage and protests. It has brought back to the forefront the systemic nature of not only police killings but the ingrained racism of this society. It has been pointed out that the “Memphis police department boasts that they have met all of the features of Campaign Zero’s #8CantWait” police reform program. Tyre Nichols was not saved by the reforms implemented after the revolt sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Whatever changes were made in city after city since 2020, the toll of over 1,000 people killed by police each year has continued and even rose last year to a new record of at least 1,176—which gave new energy to the voices saying that this flows from the very nature and mission of the police, so therefore only a fundamental transformation of society can stop the inhumanity.
The raw atmosphere is intensified by each new report of another atrocity, fatal or not: Anthony Lowe in Huntington Park, Calif.; Joe Frasure Jr. in Wyoming, Ohio; Chiewelthap Mariar in Guymon, Okla.; Keenan Anderson in Los Angeles; Jose Ortega Gutierrez in Hialeah, Fla.; Torence Jackson Jr. in Memphis; Damien Stewart in Chicago—all in the news since the death of Tyre Nichols on Jan. 10.
As Sylvia Askew, whose son Steven Askew was murdered by the Memphis police ten years ago, said: “It made me reflect on a system that has not changed.”
It is common these days to hear the statement that this kind of violence and terrorization is no exception but is what the police are designed to do. A recent analysis showed that more than one in 20 homicides in the U.S. are committed by the police.
The activist known as Tortuguita, or Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, was murdered in January by an interagency team of police because he was one of several people occupying a forest near Atlanta to protect a large part of it from destruction to make way for what they call Cop City. The state government laid charges of terrorism—but not against the killers, only against protesters, for most of whom they have zero evidence of any violence whatsoever.
The reactionaries, of course, are screaming about people who want to “defund the police.” They want to scare people with the specter of criminals who will rob and kill them if the police are not given every last power and indulgence. It is true that the police are not the only ones killing people, as seen in the astonishing and horrendous series of 48 mass shootings in the U.S. in January alone. That is dwarfed by the 40,000 gun deaths a year, half of them suicides. But this can only be properly understood if police violence and the other kinds of daily violence are recognized as two sides of the same coin. They are two complementary expressions of the ingrained violence of the social system we have the misfortune to live under. Obviously, this cannot be solved by hiring more police or giving them more powers, nor can it be solved through a few or many reforms, even if we did manage to find some that actually had some effect. The sickness of this society’s gun fetish and pervasive violence—from the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, to the yearly toll of thousands of suicides chalked up to despair, harassment, and oppression—is a sign of a society breaking down and hurtling inexorably to a transformation.
But that transformation could be driven from the top down in a way that preserves the class-based, racist, sexist, heterosexist hierarchy, and keeps humanity on a path to destruction from war or climate chaos—or the transformation could be “achieved from below, with working people taking destiny into their own hands, thereby allowing a dialectical relationship of subject and object to emanate from within the historic movement forward. Such a transformation of reality would mean that the concrete totality of all the challenges that face our age bursts forth into a new human dimension, and, therefore, a new social order” (as we put it in our 1963 Perspectives Report, “The Need to Transform Reality,” by Raya Dunayevskaya).
It is this violent, decaying system that is oozing fascism from every pore, whether it is the sadistic cops celebrating their soon-to-be-fatal beating of Tyre Nichols or the Florida governor’s assault on African American Studies. Laughably, the reactionaries tell the big lie that they are fighting indoctrination, when their aim is to indoctrinate. Their special hatred of Black Studies is that the Black dimension is linked with all freedom movements in U.S. history. In fact, Black America is central to U.S. and world history. It is liberation and liberatory movements that they wish to eliminate from history every bit as much as they wish to eliminate Black people and Black thought.
The opposite to that—and therefore the opposite to all the expressions of fascism, of counter-revolutionary anti-freedom, including police violence, attacks on LGBTQ people, and the bans on abortion which are attacks against women’s freedom and against the movements of women for liberation—is not only the restoration of true history but the actual freedom movements in unity with their universalization in thought, the philosophy of revolution in permanence.
The category of Black masses as Reason is inseparable from that philosophy’s development as Marxist-Humanism. It has been a central Marxist-Humanist category since the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, which Raya Dunayevskaya put on the level of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Paris Commune, declaring that the greatest thing about the boycott was “its own working existence.”
That was further developed in the pamphlet whose 60th anniversary we celebrate this year: American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard. As Dunayevskaya wrote at the time, “The methodology which made this possible is the dialectic in the present in which is inherent ‘the pull of the future.’” Like then, today’s movement is constantly mobbed by those who want to co-opt it, and even the most radical sounding “abolitionists” often end up projecting far less than the needed total reconstruction of society. The theory and Reason emanating from the movement from practice is often implicit and needs to be made explicit in order to overcome the ideological pull of capitalist society, which keeps projecting in theory and practice that there is no alternative.
Like then, “the play of power politics of capitalist states” threatens to disorient or derail freedom movements. That is certainly at work in Russia’s war against Ukraine. But here again, as the essay “Ukrainian Self-Determination and the Idea of Freedom” in the January-February issue of News & Letters shows, so is the movement for self-determination against imperialist invasion, which in itself reaches for the idea of freedom. The power of that idea, as philosophy of revolution, pervades the pull of the future that is inherent in the present and demands to be made explicit as a revolutionary force and subject. That is not automatic.
The same goes for the freedom movements ongoing in multiple countries, from Iran to China, from Peru to Israel and Palestine, from Burma to the labor strikes and organizing happening in Britain and the U.S., as well as recent labor strikes and hunger strikes in Alabama and Texas prisons. Everywhere movements are challenged by the specter of fascism, repression, disruption by the climate crisis and far-right xenophobic organizing to scapegoat climate migrants and other migrants, and the toll that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take while governments from the U.S. to China try to downplay its impact and portray it as a thing of the past.
The question that Dunayevskaya asked repeatedly remains: where will even the greatest movements from below lead so long as they lack a philosophy of revolution that would give these revolutionary struggles a direction? That cannot be reduced to the easy substitute of a blueprint for the new society, as if that is what Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program means. On the contrary, what it meant for Dunayevskaya in her last years was a multifaceted exploration of the dialectics of organization and philosophy.
Organizations that arise from the movements from practice, created spontaneously by masses in motion from below, are crucial for any social revolution to take place. At historic moments they have spawned creative new forms of organization like the variants of workers’ councils, shoras, or soviets seen in the Russian, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Iranian Revolutions in the 20th Century. And yet history shows that these forms of organization by themselves cannot ensure that the revolution will succeed and not go backwards. Any mass movement and any organization can regress and even transform into its opposite.
That applies not only to the movement from practice but to left groups, including communist, socialist or anarchist collectives, militias, or parties. Transformation into opposite has plagued as historic a phenomenon as the 1917 proletarian revolution in Russia, which changed into state-capitalist totalitarianism under Stalin; or as pathetic, but still dangerous, a contemporary phenomenon as much of the U.S. and European Left entering into a Red-Brown alliance, as in the Feb. 19 pro-Putin “Rage Against the War Machine” Washington, D.C., rally dominated by the far right but attended and endorsed by a number of prominent leftists.
That is why Marxist-Humanism has always brought to the center the question of what happens after the revolutionary conquest of power—not as something only in the far future but at the same time refusing to let that liberatory vision of the future be separated from the day after, the day of, and even before the revolution.
This historic problem cannot be solved by the right program, leadership, or even form of organization. It highlights the indispensability of the need for a philosophy of revolution, the need for the organization of thought and its demand to be embodied in organizations based on the movement from theory. This raises the question of “the objectivity of subjectivity,” or “the objectivity which explains their presence, as the objectivity explains the spontaneous outburst of the masses,” as Dunayevskaya put it in her June 1, 1987, presentation on the dialectics of organization and philosophy. Elsewhere, she had argued that
“While [forms of organization born out of spontaneity] are correct, as against the elitism and ossification of the party, the truth is that these forms also search for an organization different from their own in the sense that they want to be sure that there is a totality of theory and practice against the establishment of a power that has stopped dead with its conquest of state power—in short, altogether new beginnings….
“The question of ‘What happens after?’ gains crucial importance because of what it signals in self-development and self-flowering—‘revolution in permanence.’ No one knows what it is, or can touch it, or decide upon it before it appears. It is not the task that can be fulfilled in just one generation. That is why it remains so elusive, and why the abolition of the division between mental and manual labor sounds utopian. It has the future written all over it.”
The elements of the dialectics of organization and philosophy were part of Dunayevskaya’s thinking and writing from the beginning of Marxist-Humanism, what she called its philosophic moment.
Major changes in both the objective and subjective situation, including the impact that the pandemic, fascism, and war have had on social movements and on our organization, make it imperative to reinvigorate our efforts to comprehend, concretize, and practice the dialectics of organization and philosophy—and in that spirit to consider how to reorganize for the new situation.
At the heart of that discussion, which will be the focus of this year’s pre-Convention period, is that the task of this organization since its founding has always been taking responsibility for the Idea of Freedom, as concretized in the body of ideas of Marxist-Humanism. How to do that in changing circumstances—of our organization and of the world—is the ground of our discussion, be it on the direction and future of the archives, the newspaper, the website, the office at the Center, the organization.
Central to everything is how do we take responsibility for the Idea. The power of the Idea is what makes it possible and compelling to act as an organization of Marxist-Humanists. The point is, as always, how do we work to advance the Idea of Freedom with the aim of total liberation in life.
For that purpose we issue this Call for a national Convention on Memorial Day weekend. The outgoing National Editorial Board will meet online in Executive Session Friday evening, May 26. Beginning on Saturday morning, May 27, and running through Sunday, May 28, all sessions of the Convention will be open to members and to invited friends, who are given the same privileges to the floor for discussion.
With this Call begins a full 90 days of pre-Convention discussion. A draft Perspectives Thesis will be published in the May-June issue of News & Letters so that it can be discussed by members and friends, correspondents and critics, before the Convention. Articles for pre-Convention Discussion Bulletins must be submitted to the Center by Monday, May 1. Any articles after that date must be distributed online or through the mail by the contributor or their local. Discussion within our local committees and with all those we can reach is vital to preparation for our Convention and all our activities throughout the pre-Convention period.
—The Resident Editorial Board