From the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Racism, workers and freedom ideas

March 14, 2016

From the March-April 2016 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: At a time when Donald Trump’s appeal to racism and reaction, echoed by other prominent candidates and demagogues in the U.S. and Europe, has won support from a part of the working class, we print the June 11, 1968, letter by Raya Dunayevskaya. She was responding to the Scottish revolutionary Harry McShane’s newsletter, The Marxist-Humanist, which took up the Tory politician Enoch Powell’s racist speeches and their impact on the working class. The original letter is held in The Harry McShane Collection, National Museum of Labour History, Manchester, England. It was printed in the July 1968 issue of The Marxist-Humanist, which is included in The Raya Dunayevskaya Collection #4000, and in a bulletin of letters by Dunayevskaya from May-June 1968, #4092. All footnotes were added by the editors.

Dear Harry,

The June issue of The Marxist-Humanist just arrived and, if I may, I would like to explain why I consider the article on Powellism quite inadequate. Naturally, Marxist-Humanists “must spread the revolutionary message” and thereby win over the workers, including those who showed their own racist prejudices by coming out in support of the Tory Enoch Powell. But that hardly packs the concrete punch that Marx taught us to deliver when trade unionists take a reactionary position as they took in his day both on the Irish question and on the Paris Commune. Every British trade unionist who left the International Working Men’s Association because of its enthusiastic support of the Paris Commune, Marx excoriated and, in their place, put the name of a Communard. As far as the “Irish Question” is concerned—and this, as I shall show later, is not as far removed from the race question today as might appear on the surface—here is what Marx wrote:

Feb. 4 Chicago Teachers Union rally downtown for a fair contract. Photo: sarah-ji,

Feb. 4 Chicago Teachers Union rally downtown for a fair contract.
Photo: sarah-ji,

“The English working class…can never do anything decisive here in England until…it not only makes common cause with the Irish but actually takes the initiative in dissolving the Union established in 1801 and replacing it by a free federal relationship. And this must be done, not as a matter of sympathy with Ireland but as a demand made in the interests of the English proletariat. If not, the English people will remain tied to the leading-strings of the ruling classes.”

I should like to approach the question of race at the present moment by (1) showing the historic background of the National Question in general and the Negro Question in particular during World War I, and during the Russian Revolution; (2) by comparing Winston Churchill’s and Labor’s stand during World War II; and (3) by raising the question of the African Revolutions as the only challenge to the decrepit “West” of the Suez War and the totalitarian Communism of the “East,” which bloodily put down the Hungarian Freedom Fighters. It is time we faced the question that we are all products of the historic period in which we live, and that includes holding on to some of the ideas of the ruling class even when we fight exploitation.


You are well acquainted, I am sure, with the Marxist position on the National Question, that “in principle” most stood for the right of self-determination of nations, and yet once the Russian Revolution succeeded, some Bolsheviks opposed it as “a step backward.” V.I. Lenin, on the other hand, even before the Russian Revolution, insisted that “the dialectic of history and the dialectic of revolution” was such that the Easter Rebellion of the Irish played the vanguard role of bringing the proletarian revolution to the front of the historic stage. That is when Lenin was out of power, of course. He did not change when he was in power and Nikolai Bukharin then opposed giving some of the national minorities in Russia their freedom. On the contrary, he took issue with Bukharin both in content and even in the matter of language. Thus, when his co-leader dared bring in the question of the Hottentots [Khoikhoi], Lenin replied:

“When Comrade Bukharin said, ‘We can recognize this right in some cases,’ I even wrote down that he had included in the list the Hottentots, the Bushmen and the Indians. Hearing this enumeration, I thought, how is it that Comrade Bukharin has forgotten a small trifle, the Bashkirs? There are no Bushmen in Russia, nor have I heard that the Hottentots have laid claim to an autonomous republic, but we have Bashkirs, Kirghiz and a number of other peoples, and to these we cannot deny recognition. We cannot deny it to a single one of the peoples living within the boundaries of the former Russian Empire….

“Scratch some Communists and you will find Great-Russian chauvinists….

“The Bashkirs distrust the Great-Russians because the Great-Russians are more cultured and have utilized their culture to rob the Bashkirs. That is why the term Great-Russian is synonymous with the terms ‘oppressor,’ ‘rogue’ to Bashkirs in those remote places….

“The past keeps fast hold of us, grasps us with a thousand tentacles, and does not allow us to take a single forward step, or compels us to take these steps badly in the way we are taking them.”

Now, in contrast to Churchill, who had answered India’s demand for independence by the arrogant “I didn’t become the King’s Prime Minister to preside over the dismemberment of the Empire,” British labor correctly branded him for the imperialist and their own oppressor that he was. India gained its independence, as did the African colonies, during Labor’s reign. What has happened since then?


You, of course, know the answer better than I do: the Labor Government has made such a mess of the situation since their return to power—the unemployment, the wage freeze, the traveling in company with U.S. imperialism on the barbarous Vietnam War. All this, and more, has brought out the very worst features of racism, not only in the ruling class, but also in parts of the working class—as if the West Indian immigrant, the British citizen of Indian or Pakistani descent, or the African student had brought these misfortunes on the British working class.

It goes without saying that the exploitative classes love it when the working people of the world fight among themselves and so make the rule of their tormenters easier. My point, however, is that it is not enough to show that the capitalists have always lived by the principle “divide and rule.” We must tell the proletariat of the technologically developed world that they lived largely on the crumbs from the imperialist table, which was so well set because imperialism lived off the fat of the land from the technologically underdeveloped countries.

Marx showed the relationship between labor’s struggle for freedom and the fact that slavery was still in existence in Africa, in Asia, and the oppressed minorities within the developed country. This is why Marx hailed the British proletariat when they said that they would rather starve than perpetuate slavery on the other side of the Atlantic, i.e., in South USA. And this is why he called them a “bourgeoisified proletariat” when they moved away from that principle when it came to the establishment of a totally new form of society: the Paris Commune. He then moved away from the skilled workers to the unskilled, from the institutionalized workers to the unorganized, from what Lenin called the “aristocracy of labor” to what Marx called “deeper and lower into the masses,” to find the true revolutionary core who would stand, not just for reforms, but for revolution.

What has happened since the end of the 1950s when Great Britain embarked on its imperialist adventure in Suez, and Russia (with the help

To order Afro-Asian Revolutions by Raya Dunayevskaya, click here.

To order Nationalism, Communism, Marxist-Humanism and the Afro-Asian Revolutions by Raya Dunayevskaya, click here.

of China) on its destruction of the Hungarian Revolution, is the defeatism that always follows lost revolutions. Instead of looking down upon the “immigrants,” the British, the American and the East European ought to hail the birth of the new Third World, especially the African Revolutions. We should hail them for once again showing us the power of the ideas of freedom, and that the will to freedom, even when unarmed and facing the mightiest empires, can win.

The struggle for the minds of men is still the mightiest weapon of all. And now that the French proletariat and the French students have shown that these forces of freedom have not been destroyed in technologically advanced lands, it is all the more quintessential that the British proletariat rise up to its full height and, as their ancestors showed the way to the first Working Men’s International, so they should now pave a new road of world solidarity between themselves and all the “immigrants” of the world. The first step in that direction is the recognition of the fact that many of them have been repeating the reactionary ideas of their own exploiters.

Comradely yours,


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