Race, class, gender and revolution: Gloria Joseph on the Centenary of Raya Dunayevskaya

August 14, 2010


Race, class, gender and revolution

by Gloria I. Joseph

Gloria I. Joseph is an educator and feminist. Her most recent book is On Time and In Step: Reunion on the Glory Road (Winds of Change Press, 2008).

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While perusing writings by Raya Dunayevskaya, I came across the following comment on her book, Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution:

“Raya’s writings are phenomenal yet so clear and logical. Phenomenal in the sense that race, class and gender are a given in her conceptual analysis of events. Simultaneously she shows the connectedness, the relationship of these events on a worldwide basis. Her writings are so lucid that old and new feminists can readily grasp the historical complexities of women’s liberation and revolution.… All races, all classes and genders will profit immensely from reading her works.”

At the conclusion of reading the comments, I realized that those were my words written in 1985 — and 25 years later, I find that comment as true today as it was then, and it will serve as a springboard for this article.

During my 20-plus years of college-level teaching, the effectiveness of my teaching can be in large part credited to usage of the perspicacious work/writings of Raya Dunayevskaya. A fundamental part of my teaching was utilization of the importance of the intermingling of disciplines, inspired by Raya Dunayevskaya.

Incidentally, the business of separating disciplines in academia is so retrograde that at times I think it is a conspiracy. How can you teach a discipline in strict isolation, without the incorporation of other disciplines? For example, in the classroom when you teach psychology you must incorporate sociology, geography, science, history, and you have to include race, class and sex for it to be wholesome and truly relevant. Moreover, it should be connected or related to events that are occurring throughout the world. These principles, learned from Raya Dunayevskaya, I utilized in my teaching, and they have served my students to an incredible degree in their ability to think analytically, critically, historically and in a global context.

This is extremely important since all present-day and historical events have a theoretical side that must be examined for its political intent and, under capitalism, for its exploitative dimensions.

Students must be made aware of this. When a situation, or a decision made by the government, organizations or corporations, made no sense in terms of benefiting humanity, I would advise my students to, “think profit, think money-making, think about who is benefiting from such a decision or program. And who is being victimized.” Invariably after such probing, answers would reveal and enlighten the students to the practice of exploitation, oppression and profit greed. In addition the class nature of the situation would come to light. And the dialectic — always, the use of the dialectic — in problem-solving.

My understanding of Dunayevskaya’s political and philosophical explanations and interpretation of essays and philosophical discourses of other theorists and historians — the way in which she clarified and deeply analyzed events — helped me to shape and formulate my teaching strategies. I was recognized as a master teacher as I probed the minds of my students, encouraging and supporting their efforts as they searched for ideological, theoretical chicanery, obfuscations in the literature and materials presented to them.

At this point I want to say that I am not a Marxist scholar and certainly do not want to give the impression that I am well-versed in the exceptional brilliance of Raya’s writings, her explanations, her interpretations, and her amazing ability to probe the meanings of the works of contemporary and late intellectuals. But what is so gratifying is, as I said previously, her ability to present her work in a manner that is useful and applicable to everyday worldly situations.

I have spoken about the lessons I’ve learned from Raya. Let me present an example of my conceptual explanation of a recent horrific event — the earthquake in Haiti, based on the inculcation of her work. I would initially place it in its historical sense by discussing slavery as an economic category. In doing so I would speak of Black masses as vanguard and here I quote from her American Civilization on Trial, “Black masses have continuously exposed the hollowness of the pompous, abstract proclamations of democratic ideals as they fought for genuine democracy and freedom in the face of actual oppression in the form of slavery and racism.”

From this standpoint I would embark on a discourse on the systematic destruction of Haiti and how two powerful nations, France and America, betrayed Haiti’s dream of freedom. In detail I would explain how the Haitians fought for their freedom and won.

I would include the following brief telling of Haiti’s democratic intentions to demonstrate their humanistic grounding and the callous nature of her enemies:

In their 1805 Independence Constitution it was stated that any person of African descent who arrived on its shores would be declared free, and a citizen of the republic. For the first time since the beginning of slavery, Blacks were the subjects of mass freedom and citizenship in a nation. The English, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Americans collaborated in denying Haiti access to world trade or financial aid and did nothing to help in the development of institutions basic to the survival of any nation. In 1825, the 21st anniversary of the revolution, Haiti was in the throes of economic bankruptcy, and called a summit to which the French government was invited. The French officials agreed to recognize the country as a sovereign nation at the expense of Haiti paying compensation and reparations. The economically depressed nation succumbed, agreeing to pay sums amounting to 150 million gold francs. This most vicious exploitation mercilessly bled Haiti until its last installment in 1947. France was beaten by Haiti on the battlefield and now felt redeemed for beating Haiti economically. At the 2001 UN Conference on Race in Durban, South Africa, the French government was strongly urged to repay the 150 million francs, approximately 21 billion U.S. dollars.

As dosastrous as the earthquake was, it pales in comparison to the hateful, spiteful destruction committed by powerful nations, hell-bent on revenge. Their greed and lack of humanitarianism reduced Haiti to the most impoverished state in the entire Caribbean. Haiti’s infrastructure, or lack of, contributed mightily to the crumbling of institutions physically and culturally. This would lead to a discussion on the role of political leaders in the nation of Haiti and again the U.S.’s role in controlling the political stage and selecting the stooges to play the leading roles.

In another category is the history of the eradication of the Haitian Creole pig population as a classic parable of globalization. Well adapted to Haiti’s climate, the pigs were at the heart of the peasant economy and played a key role in maintaining the fertility of the soil conditions. They were scavengers and could survive for three days without food. About 80% of rural households raised pigs, called “the peasant’s savings bank”; traditionally a pig was sold to pay for emergencies and special occasions (funerals, marriages, illnesses) and to pay for the children’s school fees and books. In 1982, international agencies assured Haiti’s peasants their pigs were sick and had to be killed (so that the illness would not spread to the countries in the north). All the Creole pigs were killed over a period of 13 months. The peasants were promised that their pigs would be replaced with a superior breed of pigs. Two years later the new pigs came from Iowa. They required clean drinking water, imported feed and the meat did not taste as good.

The new “superior breed” of pigs were a complete failure. It was a devastating decapitalization of the peasant economy. The Haitian peasantry has never recovered. My presentation demonstrates the method of discussion from an historical, humanistic point of view and its interconnectedness to world events. (The story on the Creole pigs came from Eyes of the Heart by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, pages 13-15.)

I would be remiss as a Black feminist if I neglected to include Raya’s influence in my thought concerning the theoretical aspects of women and revolution. I have taught the role of African and African-American women in their freedom struggles and I have taught about the resistance and revolt of white working-class women. Raya Dunayevskaya introduced me to the concept of women as “reason and revolutionary force.” In my teaching of women in revolutionary movements, I make it clear to my students that the actions of women in liberation struggles derive from their desire for a change, and to establish goals to be attained through their struggles. They look forward to the new beginnings to be gained through their struggles.

As the founder of SISA (Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa), I worked closely with two women’s self-help groups, the Zamani Soweto Sisters and the Maggie Magaba Trust. These groups, led by Ellen Kuzwayo, known as the unofficial mayor of Soweto, were outstanding examples of women as reason and force. Their work was concerned with developing skills to be utilized in a new South Africa while simultaneously resisting the sordid practice of apartheid.

During one of my visits to Johannesburg, Winnie Mandela explained that those active in the liberation struggles expected certain changes to occur. She spoke about the struggle for freedom being inseparable from the struggle for total human liberation; rebellions and revolts would continue unless there are visible changes in the lives of the oppressed. Ellen Kuzwayo and Winnie Mandela represent women as reason and force. I would also include their foremothers, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, and non-Black women the likes of Mother Jones, Annie Stein, Rosa Luxemburg , Emma Goldman and the Native American, Anna Mae Aquash.

In conclusion I extend my praises and deep appreciation of Raya Dunayevskaya for her valuable, thought-provoking, stimulating, analytical treatises couched in the beliefs of Marxist-Humanism. They have served me exceptionally well during my days in academia and they continue to serve me well in my everyday living.

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