From the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: From Black mass revolt to Freedom

July 1, 2020

From the July-August 2020 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: News and Letters Committees issued the pamphlet Black Mass Revolt in October 1967, following uprisings in Detroit and Newark. It was signed by the organization. Raya Dunayevskaya was the principal author of some parts, including the final Part V, “Where to Now?” which is excerpted here. The pamphlet can be found in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #3526.

“Has Whitey got the message?” asked one of the Black militants. “Have our own leaders? The system has got to go.”

We trust no one will, at this late stage, presume to ask that young militant whether he “really” meant the capitalist system as if, facing the aftermath of a raid on a blind pig [speakeasy] on 12th Street, Detroit, the youth was talking about a system to break the bank at Monte Carlo.

Prisoners from the 1967 Detroit rebellion, jammed into the brutally overcrowded Washtenaw County Jail. Photo by Wystan.

Now that a new page in the dialectics of liberation—its thought as well as its struggles—has been opened, the question is: where to now? The dynamism of the debates around the question of Black nationalism reveals that the new feature of class awareness distinguishes this Black nationalism both from that of the “Nation of Islam” and of “Black Christianity.” Heretofore the latter two differed from each other by their religious, rather than their class, nature. Now they must relate themselves to the Black nationalism that is conscious of its class character which, in turn, has relegated the question of violence vs. non-violence to secondary importance. Instead, the primary question has become one of future direction.

The significance of the Detroit revolt is that here “Burn, baby, burn” meant putting to the torch not only white but also some Black establishments. Not only that. The Black masses had here raised the question of the middle-class nature of their Black leaders.

It may satisfy some vain self-styled leaders to think they have but one problem, that of “civilizing whites.” But the Black masses know that the Black “intellectual vanguard” is the same flesh as all elites. Elitism, no matter what color, is blinded by the concept of the alleged backwardness of the masses. Because this has always been so, those masses have no illusions about leaders, no matter what their color, who are glib with words against whitey, but tongue-tied when it comes to passing on leadership tasks to the rank and file.

Here is what one who had attended the Black Power Conference in Newark had to say on the subject:

The Black Power Conference in Newark is another example of how the leadership looks at the masses of Black people. It was held in the rich business district of Newark, in the Episcopal Diocese house and two of the richest hotels there. Also, it cost $25 to attend, which put it out of the reach of the poor working-class Black man.

At first they didn’t even want to let Newark people in without paying. Then it came to light that it was just to let people blow off steam, but to keep the old leadership in the spotlight, that all the projects afterward would be decided on by leaders who would then tell those who attended what to do. We changed some of that, but not everything.

Ever since the rebellions in Harlem and Watts in 1964 and 1965, there has been a movement among the Black masses of America toward either total freedom or death. Harlem and Watts manifested the fact that the civil rights movement was dead; that the Black man in this country wanted more than just civil rights.

The Black people want Freedom and Self-Determination, which, in itself, means the total overthrow of this society—in other words, revolution, And that is just what it is called by the youth as well as by the old—the Revolution.

The name of Black Power caught on. We have pride in being Black. We see both young and old (but mainly the youth) taking an interest in Black art and culture. The fact that they are now supporting the Black artists and writers and studying their own history to find out about themselves points this out. They are calling each other brother and sister and literally meaning it.

But though the Black Power slogan is popular, it is not the name that the masses give to what they are doing. They have another name for it. It is Revolution.

The whole point against whitey is to get rid of the power structure, that is to say, the capitalist class system. Without tearing that out by its roots, no freedom is possible. Tokenism will not do. That must go. Far from creating jobs for the masses, or ridding the slums of rats, much less ridding them of the tenements themselves, or sending the poor Black man’s children to the universities from which one may reach Congress, the Senate and now even the Supreme Court, tokenism props up the status quo, “the system.”

Too many of the leaders who talk about Black Power mean only electoral power as if that would change the system. They talk about being the majority, or promise they “soon will be,” in the cities. But the masses down South, where they are the majority, know that voting doesn’t change anything very much. It isn’t only that whitey cheats them out of their majority—that they do expertly even when the Blacks do come and vote. But the greater truth still is this: so long as the “boss and Black” relationship remains, no vote can change their conditions of life.

So overpowering is that relationship of “boss to Black” that when the New Deal first came South, even the federal power had to bow to it. And it is even more true now that “neutral” mechanization—Automation—has taken over. Just consider the single fact that even in the state of Mississippi, in the 17 counties where most of the cotton is grown, no less than 75% of all cotton picking is done, not by human labor, but by machine. It is in the heart of the South, in the places where the Negro is still the majority, where there is actual starvation, actual infant mortality that compares with what it is in the most technologically underdeveloped countries like India—where the actual health conditions of the adult population in any village are comparable to those in Lowndes County, Alabama, or the Mississippi Delta.

It drives the masses from the farms to the cities, in the South as well as the North. But, though there is 65% urbanization among Negroes, this too solves no problems as unemployment follows the Negro wherever he goes. Of course, they have certain power, as the revolts in the cities have shown. But, unless one is strategically placed in industry, one cannot stop its wheels from turning and thus stop capitalism in its tracks.

A protester stands on a police car with a smashed windshield in St. Paul, Minnesota, May 28, 2020. Photo by Lorie Shaull.

To give any other impression by claiming that the organization of the ghettos is equivalent to the organization in the factories is only to sow disastrous illusions. The masses are right to reject these illusions, and, instead, try to find some solidarity with white labor—the white rank-and-file workers who do oppose management. Not only are they involved throughout the country in big strikes together, but the Black workers are right to use this as the reason for not isolating themselves from the white workers by lumping them in the same category as the whitey who is boss.

It may appear to the middle class Negro that it is only a question of working out “new lines of communication” with the masses to bring the “message” to them. But the Black masses refuse to blind themselves to the inherent faults of leaders—even the uncorrupted ones—who are under the illusion that they can get something for the masses within the system. The masses know that, by any name, these crumbs called “reforms” are, in fact, an acceptance of the system.

Nor are they about to accept a Sunday sermon as a “philosophy of history.” Just as Black nationalism didn’t change its class nature by moving from Elijah Muhammad’s “Nation of Islam” to the Christianity of a Black Jesus and a Black Madonna, so Black Power, exhilarating as that naturally is, will not mean tearing the system up by its roots unless it means mass power, working-class power. This is what a Black worker meant when he said, “I like to listen to Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael. I like to hear them lay it on the line to whitey. They talk it up good. But that doesn’t mean I’ll follow them. I have to see things change right here, first,” and he pointed to the production line.

Like the human force itself, theory, too, cannot be created out of thin air, no matter how many sermons some leaders and their publicists christen “a philosophy of history.” For a philosophy of liberation one must have a view of the movement of history. Theory has its own history, its own roots, its own dynamic. No greater page has been written in American history, for example, than the one by the Abolitionists. Their philosophy of history—to abolish slavery—was the greatest for its time and place.

But once that vision exhausted itself with the abolition of chattel slavery by Civil War, not even a Frederick Douglass, who saw the need for political struggles, nor a Wendell Phillips, who saw the need for a new force—white as well as Black labor—could extend the lifetime of the old philosophy of history.

The time had come, with the end of the Civil War, for a new philosophy of history based on a new, united labor force, and a new vision. This new vision was one of man himself who would be whole, ending once and for all the class division between manual and mental labor. Man himself would be that unity of body, heart and mind which could, by its mass movement, reshape the whole course of human history.

That is precisely the greatness of Karl Marx; he never separated mass movement from the underlying philosophy of freedom that would change, in its entirety, the whole course of human development. The very idea of theory was transformed from an intellectual exercise into a historic narrative which, precisely because it dealt with actions of masses who were doing their own thinking, became, at one and the same time, self-emancipation and historic Reason.

It will not do to speak of a “philosophy of history” as if that, to use an expression of Marx’s, is nothing more than “the evacuating motion” of the intellectual’s own head. Unless the philosophy arises out of a historic movement of masses struggling for total freedom, and the whole world is its stage, it can neither answer the urgency of our life and times, nor bear the seeds of the future forward movement of humanity. Because the Carmichaels understand this (but only in part), they are trying to associate “Black Power” with the struggles of the “Third World.” The advantage there is that this means the mellowing of the blackness, since there are many oppressed whites, yellows, and whatever other color the human is.

The trouble is that this “Third World” that is being associated with “Black Power” seems to be only that part of it which follows the “Communist line”—and that only at the moment when it is not revolutionary, but more racist than either nationalist or internationalist. At the same time, Carmichael is so preoccupied with “shortcuts to revolution” (guerrilla warfare) that he doesn’t even realize that, instead of a shortcut, he is holding on to a short circuit. But the revolution in America is not about to short circuit itself before it has ever gained sufficient momentum to achieve the goal of total freedom.

The advantage of all the talk of Black Power is its own dynamism, the fact that it is altogether too late now to turn it back to a talk among “leaders.” What some call the civil rights doldrums, and others call the fatal division within the Black nationalist movement, we, of News and Letters Committees, see as the organization of mass thought by the masses themselves. There is no substitute for this self-organization of thought, any more than there is a substitute for the self-emancipation of the masses. The task is too large, too vital, to be left to intellectuals, or even to a “cadre organization.” It has to be a mass activity.

At the same time, the very need for such mass participation will not tolerate mere waiting for “the day of revolution.” The need demands daily practice, daily laboring at the task of working out a new relationship of theory to practice. It is this which transforms the possibility of achieving a new unity of theory and practice into an actual adventure. . . .

The purpose of developing this unity of Black and white, of theory and practice, of national and international relations, is to construct the means by which the tearing up of the capitalist system by its roots would assure the reconstruction of society on totally new, truly human foundations—free from wars, racism, economic crises and the mutilation of human beings.

Toward this end, we invite you to join with us. The task that still remains to be done can be achieved only by spontaneous actions of the masses themselves. But no Great Walls separate spontaneity from organization. They, too, are related—as is thought to action. Any separation of one from the other would be fatal. The unifying cement for the two is the type of organization which includes the organization of one’s thought. That task, too, cannot be achieved without you. We invite you to join with us on the hard road to total freedom.

—News and Letters Committees

Marxist-Humanist Literature on the Black movement for freedom

All News and Letters Committees books and pamphlets takes up the Black struggle for freedom and that is the main theme of several.  Three of the many are:

Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal, by Charles Denby

Charles Denby’s autobiography is a testament to the struggle for freedom. In Part I, Denby recounts the hardships he endured growing up as a Black person in the rural South. He escapes to the North only to discover a more sophisticated form of racism and bondage. Part II, written 25 years later, chronicles his experiences in the mid-1950s as the Civil Rights Movement was about to explode.

We hear his stories as an active participant in all the mass struggles of the next two decades—from the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott to the 1967 uprising in Detroit whose history is echoed today in the mass demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd. He takes up the radical Black Caucuses in the Auto unions that followed the Detroit Rebellion, and his participation and understanding of Marxism and the Left and how it did, and did not, comprehend the depth of thought and action of the Black freedom movement.

American Civilization On Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard by Raya Dunayevskaya



1. Of Patriots, Scoundrels and Slave Masters

2. Compelling Issues at Stake

Part I. From the First through the Second American Revolution

1. Abolitionism, First Phase: From “Moral Suasion” to Harpers Ferry

2. Abolitionism, Second Phase: The Unfinished Revolution

Part II. The Still Unfinished Revolution

1. Northern Labor Struggles to Break Capital’s Stranglehold, 1877-1897

2. 1¼ Million Forgotten Negro Populists

Part III. Imperialism and Racism

1. Rise of Monopoly Capital

2. Plunge into Imperialism

3. Racism

4. New Awakening of Labor: The IWW

Part IV. Nationalism and Internationalism

1. The Negro Moves North

2. Garveyism vs. Talented Tenth

3. Marxism

Part V. From Depression through World War Two

1. The CIO Changes the Face of the Nation and Makes a Break in Black “Nationalism”

2. March on Washington Movement

3. The Communists Oppose the Independent Black Movement

Part VI. African-Americans as Touchstone of History

1. Black Urbanization

2. The Two-Way Road to African Revolutions

Part VII. Facing the Challenge: 1943-1963

1. The Self-Determination of People and Ideas

2. The New Voices We Heard

3. What We Stand For—Who We Are

Dialectics of Black Freedom Struggles:

Race, Philosophy, and the Needed American Revolution,

by John Alan


Preface by the National Editorial Board of News and Letters Committees

Ch. 1. Permanent War or “Revolution in Permanence”? The Continuing Challenge of Black Masses as Vanguard

Ch. 2. The Struggle for Civil Rights and the Limits of Political Emancipation

Ch. 3. Dialectics and Economics: The New Challenges Posed by Globalized Capital

Ch. 4. Prisoners Speak for Themselves—People of Color and the Prison Industrial Complex

Ch. 5. The Self-Determination of the Idea In the African-American Struggle for Freedom

Appendix: Grenada: Revolution and Counter- Revolution, by Raya Dunayevskaya

From chapter 3:

“Of all the movements and revolts that emerged in the 1990s against reconstructed capitalism, the most significant was the Los Angeles rebellion of 1992. Though set off by the acquittal of the police officers who had viciously beaten Rodney King, the revolt called into question the entire legacy of police abuse, judicial misconduct, unemployment, poverty, and alienated conditions of life and labor that have become so endemic to the development of today’s global capitalism.”

To order any of these books or pamphlets, click on cover image or title

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