From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: The vanguard role of Black masses in American freedom movements

March 18, 2023

From the March-April 2023 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: We are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the publication of the groundbreaking American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard, at the very time when right-wing forces are trying to prevent the teaching and discussion of the true history of the U.S. and especially the freedom movements that run through that history. Below we present a section from the introduction to the pamphlet’s first edition in May 1963. Written by Raya Dunayevskaya, the pamphlet was issued as a statement by the National Editorial Board of News and Letters Committees. Like the pamphlet as a whole, the section below speaks directly to the present situation. Some footnotes were added by the editors.

The Compelling Issue at Stake

American Civilization is identified in the consciousness of the world with three phases in the development of its history.

The first is the Declaration of Independence and the freedom of the thirteen American colonies from British Imperial rule.

The second is the Civil War.

The third is technology and world power which are presently being challenged by the country that broke America’s nuclear monopoly—Russia. So persistent, intense, continuous, and ever-present has been the self-activity of Blacks,[1] before and after the Civil War, before and after World War I, before, during and after World War II, that it has become the gauge by which American Civilization is judged. Thus, Little Rock reverberated around the world with the speed of Sputnik I, with which it shared world headlines in 1957,[2] and which gave the lie to American claims of superiority.

The Civil War remains the still unfinished revolution 100 years after, as the United States is losing the global struggle for the minds of men.

Black Union troops skirmishing in the U.S. Civil War in Dutch Gap, Virginia, 1864.

President Kennedy asked that this entire year, 1963, the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation, be devoted to its celebration. Cliches strutted out for ceremonial occasions cannot, however, hide today’s truth. Because the role of Black people remains the touchstone of American Civilization—and their struggle for equal rights today belies their existence—paeans of praise for the Emancipation Proclamation can neither whitewash the present sorry state of democracy in the United States, nor rewrite the history of the past. Abraham Lincoln would not have issued the Proclamation had the Southern secessionists not been winning the battles and the Blacks not been pounding down the doors of the Northern Armies demanding the right to fight.

By 1960, the year when no less than 16 new African nations gained their independence, the activities of the American Blacks had developed from the Montgomery, Alabama, Bus Boycott in 1956, the year of the Hungarian Revolution, to the Sit-ins, Wade-Ins, Dwell-Ins, North and South. In 1961 they reached a climax with the Freedom Rides to Mississippi. This self-activity has not only further impressed itself upon the world’s consciousness, but also reached back into white America’s consciousness. The result has been that even astronaut Walter Schirra’s 1962 spectacular six-orbital flight became subordinate to the courage of James Meredith’s entry into the University of Mississippi.

In a word, the new human dimension attained through an oppressed people’s genius in the struggle for freedom, nationally and internationally, rather than either scientific achievement, or an individual hero, became the measure of human beings in action and thought.


The vanguard role of an oppressed people has also put white labor in mass production to the test. And it has put a question mark over the continuous technological revolutions, brought to a climax with Automation and nuclear power. For, without an underlying philosophy, neither the machine revolutions nor the splitting of the atom can produce anything but fear—fear of unemployment in the one case and fear of war in the other.

As was evident by Black people’s attitude in World War II, nothing can stop them from being the bitterest enemy of the existing society. In the midst of the war, Blacks broke out in a series of demonstrations in Chicago, Detroit, New York as well as at army camps. Along with the miners’ general strike that same year, these were the first instances in United States history when both labor, white and Black, and Blacks as the discriminated-against minority, refused to call a halt either to the class struggle or the struggle for equal rights. Both forces challenged their own State as well as Communist propagandists who had declared the imperialist war to have become one of “national liberation” which demanded subordination to it of all other struggles.[3]

Fully to understand today’s activities—and that is the only meaningful way to celebrate the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation—we must turn to the roots in the past. This is not merely to put history aright. To know where one has been is one way of knowing where one is going. To be able to anticipate tomorrow one has to understand today. One example of the dual movement—the pull of the future on the present and its link to the past—is the relationship of the American Black people to the African Revolutions. Because it is easy enough to see that the United States Supreme Court which, in 1954, gave its decision on desegregation in schools is not the Court which, 100 years before, proclaimed the infamous Dred Scott decision,[4] there are those who degrade today’s self-activity of Black people. Instead, they credit Administration policy with changing the status of Black America.

They point to the Cold War and the need for America, in its contest with Russia, to win “the African mind.” There is no doubt that the Cold War influenced the decision of the Supreme Court. Neither is there any doubt that the African Revolutions were a boon to the Black American struggles. But this is no one-way road. It never has been. For decades, if not for centuries, the self-activity of Black Americans preceded and inspired the African Revolutions, its leaders as well as its ranks, its thoughts as well as its actions. The relationship is to and from Africa. It is a two-way road. This too we shall see more clearly as we return to the past. Because both the present and the future have their roots in a philosophy of liberation which gives action its direction, it becomes imperative that we discover the historic link between philosophy and action.


The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Aug. 28, 1963. The second edition of American Civilization on Trial was published to coincide with the March.

Despite the mountains of books on the Civil War, there is yet to be a definitive one on that subject. None is in prospect in capitalist America. Indeed, it is an impossibility so long as the activity of Black people in shaping American Civilization remains a blank in the minds of the academic historians. The bourgeois historian is blind not only to the role of Black people but to that of the white Abolitionists. Mainly unrecorded by all standard historians, and hermetically sealed off from their power of comprehension, lie three decades of Abolitionist struggle of whites and Blacks that preceded the Civil War and made that irrepressible conflict inevitable. Yet these are the decades when the crucible out of which the first great independent expression of American genius was forged.

The historians who dominate American scholarship have only passing references to the Abolitionist movement. Clearly no unbridgeable gulf separates this type of history writing from Russia’s infamous rewriting of its revolutionary history. Only Black historians such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and J. A. Rogers have done the painstaking research to set the record of American history straight by revealing Blacks’ great role in its making. With few exceptions, however, their work is ignored by the dominant white academicians. Literary historians, like Vernon L. Parrington in his Main Currents in American Thought, did, it is true, recognize that the soil which produced a Ralph Waldo Emerson produced also a William Lloyd Garrison.

Essayists like John Jay Chapman go a great deal further than Professor Parrington. He sides with the Abolitionists against the great literary writers comprising the Transcendentalists. “The Transcendentalists,” writes John Jay Chapman, “were sure of only one thing—that society as constituted was all wrong. The slavery question had shaken faith in the durability of the Republic. It was therefore adjudged a highly dangerous subject….Mum was the word…from Maine to Georgia.”

To this he contrasts William Lloyd Garrison’s ringing proclamation: “I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject [slavery] I do not wish to think, speak or write with moderation. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not capitulate—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD!”

In the 1921 preface to his biography of Garrison, Chapman boldly claims “that the history of the United States between 1800 and 1860 will someday be rewritten with this man as its central figure.” This certainly separates Chapman decisively from the established historians who “analyze” Abolitionism as if it comprised a small group of fanatics removed from the mainstream of American Civilization. Chapman certainly believed the Abolitionists to be the true molders of history. Such writing, however, remains a history of great men instead of great masses of “common men.”

The Abolitionists, however, saw themselves differently. The great New Englander, Wendell Phillips, was fully aware of the fact that not only Black leaders like Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman, but white Abolitionists like himself and even the founder of the Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison, were “so tall” because they stood on the shoulders of the actual mass movement of the enslaved following the North Star to freedom. Without the constant contact of the New England Abolitionists with the Black mass, enslaved and free, they would have been nothing—and no one admitted it more freely than these leaders themselves. The Abolitionists felt that strongly because they found what great literary figures like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville and Whitman did not find—the human force for the reconstruction of society.

This is what armed them 100 years ago, with a more accurate measure of “the Great Emanicipator” than most of today’s writers, though the latter write with hindsight. This is what gave the Abolitionists the foresight to see that the Civil War may be won on the battlefield but lost in the more fundamental problem of reconstructing the life of the country. This is what led Karl Marx to say that a speech by Wendell Phillips was of “greater importance than a battle bulletin.” This is what led the great Abolitionist, Phillips, after chattel slavery was ended, to come to the labor movement, vowing himself “willing to accept the final results of a principle so radical, such as the overthrow of the whole profit-making system, the extinction of all monopolies, the abolition of privileged classes…and best and grandest of all, the final obliteration of that foul stigma upon ‘our so-called Christian civilization, the poverty of the masses….”


The spontaneous affinity of ideas, the independent working out of the problems of the age as manifested in one’s own country, and the common Humanist goal made inevitable the crossing of the paths of Karl Marx and the Abolitionists.

Deep indeed are the American roots of Marxism. Since Marxism is not only in books but in the daily lives of people, one must, to grasp its American roots, do more than inhabit an ivory tower. Far, however, from heeding Wendell Phillips’ admonition that “Never again be ours the fastidious scholarship that shrinks from rude contact with the masses,” American intellectuals have so adamantly sought escape from reality that they have become more conservative than the politicians. To use another expression of the great Phillips, “There is a class among us so conservative, that they are afraid the roof will come down if you sweep the cobwebs.”

This characterizes our age most accurately. It applies just as appropriately to the end of the nineteenth century when the country turned from Populism to rampant racism because capitalism found it “simply liked the smell of empire.”[5] By then Phillips and Marx were long since dead. Fortunately, however, Marxism being a theory of liberation, its Humanism springs ever anew in today’s activities.[6]

[1].  The word “Negro,” which at the time of writing was considered the respectful term and not a slur, has been changed to “Black.” Also, gendered language that was typical of the time has been modified. —ed.

[2]. In 1957, white mobs and the state’s National Guard tried to block court-ordered desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., forcing President Eisenhower to call out troops to protect the nine Black students. —ed.

[3]The Negro and the Communist Party, by Wilson Record, University of N. Carolina, 1951, is a useful book on all the changes in the Communist Party line for the period of 1941-45. Many of the quotations here are obtained from that book.

[4].  The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision ruled that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. The 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision held that Black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” —ed.

[5]American Diplomacy, 1900-1950, by George F. Kennan.

[6].  For the Humanism of Marxism in its American setting see Marxism and Freedom by Raya Dunayevskaya.

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