From The Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Women as thinkers and revolutionaries

January 24, 2016

From the January-February 2016 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: In honor of Olga Domanski, we present half of her summary of the series of six lectures on “Women as Thinkers and as Revolutionaries” given by Raya Dunayevskaya in Fall, 1975, for the Wayne State University-University of Michigan University Courses in Adult Education. The full summary is published in Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution: Reaching for the Future by Raya Dunayevskaya, and is included in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #5363.

November 6, 1975

Dear Friends:

…The running theme throughout the entire series was the dual rhythm of revolution—as it is expressed in the movement from practice to theory AND the movement from theory to practice—seen in the movement of women throughout history. The lectures were thus the kind of extension of Philosophy and

Revolution that deepened it so greatly that Raya Dunayevskaya is now considering these as the framework of a whole new book….

First, let’s take the question of the fantastic amount of sheer “facts” Raya unearthed in her voluminous reading for the course. (The bibliography for the series is an education in itself—and she expanded it greatly at every lecture.) Never was it clearer to me what Hegel means when he describes facts as “emerging out of ground.” Think of the way Raya took both the “facts” that have been buried in the countless different books she read, and the facts that all of us have heard so often we may think we know them by heart, and presented them in so new a relationship with all the other facts of history and philosophy that something totally new is seen in them.

Take the two lectures on Working Women and on the Black Dimension. Raya traveled in the lecture on Working Women all the way from 1647 (when the first maids’ petition was handed to the British Parliament to demand “liberty every second Tuesday”) to our own period of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s (when she deals with the seamstress Rosa Parks who started the Black Revolution, the electrical worker Angela Terrano who talks about Automation in Marxism and Freedom, and the recent developments in the Coalition of Labor Union Women)—all to show how critical it is to grasp what comes from practice and from “gaining a mind of one’s own.”

Rosa Parks

As Raya puts it: though intellectuals may love the expression “in the beginning was the word,” the truth is that in the beginning was labor, the deed—and not just as source for someone else’s word, but as Subject.

Dunayevskaya takes us from the 17th century through the 18th, and we meet everyone from the indentured servants of the American Revolution to Mary Wollstonecraft—but she dwells on the 19th and 20th centuries because it is there that we have, finally, the mass movements as creative power.

THE FIRST GREAT WOMEN’S STRIKE in America of mill workers in 1824 and the climax in the First Female Reform Association in 1844, the 1848 revolutions in Europe and the Seneca Falls Convention in America, are all put in the historic framework not only of Karl Marx’s discovery of a new continent of thought, but of Flora Tristan’s call for a Workingman’s International that predated Marx’s call by two decades, to demonstrate that when the desire for freedom is this powerful, it is “in the air” everywhere at once, and the intellectual catches it in thought because so many workers have done it in deed for so many years before.

And the story does not stop there. We see what happens when the revolutions of 1848 are defeated. The counter-revolution takes its toll, but something new that has been born cannot be totally crushed, it still stirs underground—and it bursts forth in everything from the Taiping Rebellion in China to the Civil War in the U.S., only after which can the National Labor Union arise. This great bursting forth of the labor movement is not “impersonal”—we see it in the struggles of Augusta Lewis who helped to organize the first printers’ union when the Knights of Labor had 50,000 women members, and Clara Lemlich who called for the first general strike the East Coast ever saw, and Rose Schneiderman who organized 120,000 as a funeral for the 146 workers, mainly women, who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, not only to mourn but to express solidarity with the unorganized workers of 1911.

Or take the lecture on the Black Dimension, which Dunayevskaya presented as a good time to learn a new language—the language of thought, Black thought. She developed the concept of “time as the space for human development” by concentrating on specific historic turning points and what they meant.

It was because of their integral connection with each of these historic points that six Black men were brought into this lecture: Nat Turner, 1831; Frederick Douglass, 1848 and 1867; W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Claude McKay, 1919; and Frantz Fanon, the 1960s.

The theme throughout was the activity of Black women not only as bravery but as thought, and their story not only as suffering but as creativity, the creativity of new ideas and of new forms of struggle.

Thus, it was after Nat Turner’s hanging that the question to be answered was how to transcend the isolated slave revolts in order to end slavery, and the new form created was the Underground Railroad, of which the most famous conductor was Harriet Tubman. But when we hear of her in history, she is not presented as a thinker and a leader—of both men and women, both Blacks and whites.

IN THE SAME WAY when we hear of Sojourner Truth we hear of her courage, but not of her tremendous thought, or the philosophy she carried in her very name. Nor are we made aware that though it was a Black man, Frederick Douglass, who was the only one who would agree to chair the first meeting of the women to discuss their rights as women, by the time it came to 1867 even Douglass said that though he agreed “in principle” that the women should have the vote, it was not the time. It was then that Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth refused to accept his leadership, terming even the Black man “short-minded” and remaining with the white women in their struggles to the very end.

When we get to the 1880s and ’90s and the Blacks are supposedly free but have not got their 40 acres and a mule—they get instead the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings as the way of white civilization—a new stage begins. At the turn of the century W.E.B. Du Bois begins to fight against Booker T. Washington’s philosophy, and the Niagara Movement is organized. We do not hear of Ida B. Wells, a cofounder of the organization and editor of their publication—but it was she who separated from Du Bois because she thought the organization too mild.

Du Bois believed that every culture has its “talented tenth,” and it is the Black intellectuals who will bring freedom to the masses. Wells didn’t. And we will soon see how the talented tenth, in fact, worked against the masses.

We will see that just as the 19th century was a century of genius, the 20th century divides into two, not on the question of “genius” but on the question of nationalism and internationalism. The two Black men who enter history here are Marcus Garvey and Claude McKay. Garvey was a relatively uneducated West Indian and McKay was a poet, a Marxist, an internationalist. Like Du Bois he was an educated intellectual, but unlike Du Bois he recognized what Garvey represented—the Black pride expressed in nationalism and the creativity that saw six million Blacks flock to Garvey in 1919 when the KKK had blood flowing in the streets and everyone was saying the Blacks couldn’t be organized. Contrast that to Du Bois, who was so ashamed of Garvey and the “uneducated” ones that he actually tried to help the government deport Garvey.

Picket line of Black women tobacco workers striking in Richmond, Va., in 1937.

Picket line of Black women tobacco workers striking in Richmond, Va., in 1937.

How clear it is that literacy has nothing to do with creativity is shown in everything from the 1929 Aba Riots in Nigeria, when the Nigerian women the British tried to tax defeated not only British imperialism and their own chiefs, but created a solidarity among all the tribes, to the strike in North Carolina in 1937 when the Black tobacco workers were told by everyone that they couldn’t win—in the South, all women, and all Black—and thereupon organized themselves and won.

At every stage we have a history of the bravery and the thought and the philosophy of Black women—who have not hesitated, either, to break with their own Black men, whether it was Amy Jacques Garvey in 1919, who edited a woman’s page in the Negro World and, criticizing the Negro men as too halting, wrote “Mr. Black Man, watch your step!”—or whether it was the Black Panther women who challenged the Panther men when they were ready to give over the women’s time on an agenda to Herbert Aptheker.

The women who fill the 1960s are so great and so many it is impossible to begin to name them, but they stretch from Gloria Richardson, Daisy Bates, and Rosa Parks all the way to Joan Little. When we see, despite all this history, a book produced called Chronicles of Black Protest that does not include a single woman’s voice—not even Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth, who rate only a picture—it becomes clear why Doris Wright’s question—”When the time comes to put down the gun, will you shove a broom in my hands?”—is not a matter of putting a precondition on her activity for revolution, but a matter of posing the question of What Comes After? as the question we have to answer now.

It is again the relationship of theory to practice that is the red thread running through the lectures on Women Theorists Today and on Literature and Revolution….At the lecture on the Women Theorists  Today we were told from the start that we would be discovering what is meant by theory rooted in philosophy and “theory” which is not….

Which brings us, finally, to the very first lecture—and to the final one; the two are as intimately connected, I feel, as are the first and last chapters of Philosophy and Revolution. The very first lecture on Russia, 1917; Germany, 1919; Portugal, 1975, plunged us into revolution as act and as consciousness—but so tightly merged that each became something other than what it started out, as dialectics led the participants to great, new creativity. Raya took up 1917 as Revolution, 1919 as Counterrevolution, and 1975 as ongoing Revolution, which has yet to run its course….

It was this to which we returned again, directly, in the final lecture on Philosophy and Revolution, as we reviewed the double rhythm of the movement from practice to theory and from theory to practice, each of which is irreducible, and the unity of which is what, alone, creates something new.

We were shown 1789 as more important for us than 1776 because 1789 was against the enemy inside and created a new way of knowing. We were shown the

Mary Wallstonecraft

French Revolution as not only giving birth to Hegel’s great philosophy, but to everything from Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing in Britain to Beethoven’s music in Austria. We were introduced to Hegel’s categories in the Phenomenology of Mind and to the new alienations that Spirit is constantly experiencing.

We saw tragedy as facing the fact that one age is passing and another coming, and great literature as arriving when you have great crises in the objective world. We saw time as both the continuity of history and as the place for human development.

WE WERE FACED WITH WHY none of the women theorists have seen what has come from the movement from practice, and how it is philosophy that creates the humus for everything else. We reviewed the three most important Hegelian categories of Universal, Particular, and Individual, and saw Universal as what we are striving for, but as abstract; Particular as the first concretization; and Individual as the highest point of the concrete when you are actually living the new relations.

We saw 1968 as supposedly the highpoint of the New Left Revolution of the 1960s, but were confronted with recognizing that 1970 was the highpoint of the counterrevolution—not because of Kent State only, but far worse because of Jackson, Miss., and the break that came within the movement between white and Black. And we were able to see that this is what has also happened in the Women’s Liberation Movement, which has suffered from its own “fixed Particular.”

After Dunayevskaya went into Sartre’s male chauvinism with some amazing quotations from his works, we could understand that the fixed Particular for Simone de Beauvoir was Existentialism, just as for other women theorists it has turned out to be “party-to-lead” because they all consider women as backward. Their maternalism is worse than paternalism—and their direction is all away from the actual movement from below.

After the impact of these six tremendous lectures, the final paragraph of Philosophy and Revolution surely had a deeper meaning for all:

“Ours is the age that can meet the challenge of the times when we work out so new a relationship of theory to practice that the proof of the unity is in the Subject’s own self-development. Philosophy and revolution will first then liberate the innate talents of men and women who will become whole. Whether or not we recognize that this is the task history has ‘assigned’ to our epoch, it is a task that remains to be done.”…

Yours, Olga

One thought on “From The Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Women as thinkers and revolutionaries

  1. When Olga talks about Raya unearthing facts from History, and putting them in a totally new light, I can’t avoid thinking about Hegel’s “Phenomenology’s” last sentence: “Looked at from the side of [the Spirit] appearing in the form of contingency, is History; looked at from the side of [its] intellectually comprehended organization, it is the Science of the ways in which knowledge appears. Both together, or History (intellectually) comprehended […] are the reality, the truth, the certainty of [Spirit’s] throne.”

    It is, in first place, the movement from practice to theory, concretized by Dunayevskaya as the movement of revolutionary masses being itself a form of revolutionary theory: That is the “new light” she gives to historical events taken as granted by official History. Secondly, is the movement from theory to practice, understood as the responsibility of revolutionary intellectuals to be next to the masses, helping them to develop their movements to their full theoretical/practical expression.

    Olga ends this summary by saying: “The double rhythm of the movement from practice to theory and from theory to practice, each of which is irreducible, and the unity of which is what, alone, creates something new.”

    But there’s another fundamental topic in this summary: The profound philosophic ground we need for the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM). While not being separated from the whole movement for human liberation, the WLM can’t be equated with liberation in general, as shown historically by the fact that even revolutionary men (like Douglass, the Black men from the “Negro World” and the Black Panthers) haven’t been as revolutionary as women. At the same time, the WLM can’t get stuck in its own “fixed particulars”: Simone de Beauvoir’s Existentialism, the “party-to-lead,” men as the enemy, etc. Instead, it requires a total emancipatory philosophy, which can only be found in the dialectic movement from practice to theory and from theory to practice, as understood by Raya and Marxist-Humanism.

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