The Black dimension and Women’s Liberation as revolutionary reason

March 18, 2013

From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya:

Editor’s note: For Women’s History Month, we present excerpts from “An Overview by Way of Introduction; the Black Dimension,” Chapter 6 of the book Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution. The chapter serves as an introduction and overview for the book’s Part Two, “The Women’s Liberation Movement as Revolutionary Force and Reason.” All footnotes are from the original; some have been omitted for space considerations.

Because it is our age which has forced upon the world consciousness the truth that Women’s Liberation is an Idea whose time has come, it is necessary to turn backward and forward in time as well as to look globally at this phenomenon. Neither the urgency of our time, nor space, will permit us to turn as far back as 1647, when the first Maids’ Petition to the British Parliament asked for “liberty every second Tuesday”; or even to Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” 1792. But we must begin with 1831, both because of its relevance to today, and because of the events that happened that year–in particular the greatest slave revolt in United States history, led by Nat Turner, who held that the idea of freedom is present in every slave so tempestuously that “the same idea prompted others as well as myself to this undertaking.” It was the same year that a Black woman, Maria Stewart, became the first American-born woman, white or Black, to speak publicly.

Here is what Maria Stewart said:

O ye daughters of Africa, awake! awake! arise! no longer sleep nor slumber but distinguish yourselves. Show forth to the world that ye are endowed with noble and exalted faculties…How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?…How long shall a mean set of men flatter us with their smiles, and enrich themselves with our hard earnings: their wives’ fingers sparkling with rings and they themselves laughing at our folly? [1]

When it comes to the question of woman, it was not only the voice of the working woman, or that of the Black dimension, that was not listened to. The same held true of the middle-class woman Margaret Fuller, whose intellect had been recognized as serious but who was still considered merely as a sort of “handmaiden” of the Transcendentalists.

Now that we have her full story, [2] it is clear that as a feminist she was an original, and that as an activist she was so far from the rarefied atmosphere of Brook Farm as to have become a participant in the 1848 Italian Revolution, where she took a partisan as her lover. Whether or not Vivian Gornick is correct in her conclusion that “had she lived, Margaret Fuller would have become one of the first important American Marxists,” [3] the point is that Margaret Fuller judged herself to “have become an enthusiastic Socialist.”[4]


Objectively, though the United States had experienced no social revolution in 1848, a revolution in women’s liberation did occur that year. The Woman’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y., disclosed a new force for revolution. Women throughout the world heard it. From St. Lazare prison in Paris, to which they had been sentenced for their activities in and after the revolution of 1848, Jeanne Deroin and Pauline Roland sent greetings in 1851 to the Second National Woman’s Rights Convention, held in Worcester, Mass. On behalf of that convention, Ernestine Rose declared: “After having heard the letter read from our poor incarcerated sisters of France, well might we exclaim, Alas, poor France! where is thy glory? where the glory of the Revolution of 1848?” [5]

The 1840s had been filled with revolutionary ideas as well as actual revolutions. Thus, in 1843, Flora Tristan was the first to call for a Workers’ International of men and women; in her book, Union Ouvrière, she stressed the need “to recognize the urgent necessity of giving to the women of the people an education, moral, intellectual and technical…[and] to recognize in principle, the equality of right between men and women as being the sole means of establishing Human Unity.” [6] The very next year, typhoid fever deprived us of this exciting utopian revolutionary. In that same year, however, 1844, Marx discovered a whole new continent of thought and of revolution, with his now-famous Humanist Essays.

It took a revolution–the Russian Revolution of November 1917–to dig out these 1844 Manuscripts from the musty, closed Second International archives. Once they were published, the shock of recognition was not just that they were great writings, but writings that disclosed so profound an Idea of Freedom that it transcended both time and place, that is to say, the Germany of the 1840s. The genius Marx could articulate such a philosophy of revolution, not because he was a prophet, but because he dived so deeply into human relations that he came up with this concept of Man/Woman:

The infinite degradation in which man exists for himself is expressed in this relation to the woman as the spoils and handmaiden of communal lust. For the secret of the relationship of man to man finds its unambiguous, definitive, open, obvious expression in the relationship of man to woman, and in this way the direct, natural relationship between the sexes. The direct, natural, necessary relationship of man to man is the relationship of man to woman…From the character of this relation it follows to what degree man as a species has become human… [7]

Which is why Marx concretized each human relationship as a “to be” instead of a “to have”: “Each of his human relations to the world–seeing, hearing, smell, taste, feeling, thought, perception, experience, wishing, activity, loving…in place of all the physical and spiritual senses, there is the sense of possession, which is the simple alienation of all these senses…The transcendence of private property is, therefore, the total freeing of all the human senses and attributes.” But for “the wealth of human needs [to] take the place of the wealth and poverty of political economy,” a total uprooting is needed.

The Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, when these Essays were published in Germany in 1932, perceived the pivotal point of philosophy, its integrality with actual revolution. He entitled his review “The Foundation of Historical Materialism,” [8] and traced how embedded in Marx’s philosophic critique was his theory of revolution. As he put it, “we are dealing with a philosophic critique of political economy and its philosophical foundation as a theory of revolution” (p. 3). Furthermore, Marcuse continued: “This does not mean that Hegel’s ‘method’ is transformed and taken over, put into a new context and brought to life. Rather, Marx goes back to the problems at the root of Hegel’s philosophy (which originally determined his method), independently appropriates their real content and thinks it through to a further stage” (p. 4). Marcuse devoted 45 pages to detail each of Marx’s Essays, and not only as philosophy but as practical and revolutionary analysis related to the whole human existence.

And yet…and yet…missing from Marcuse’s comprehensive analysis was any reference whatever to the Man/Woman relationship, which Marx made so central in the essay “Private Property and Communism.” That essay covered a great deal more than the two topics in the title. What was involved in Marx’s opposition to private property was very far removed from a question of “property.” Rather, as he made clear over and over again, his opposition to private property was due to the fact that it “completely negates the personality of man…”

And to make absolutely sure that his readers did not find still other ways of either fragmenting or “collectivizing” the individual, Marx ended the essay with a warning that “communism, as such, is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.”

Just as even a Herbert Marcuse missed hearing the crucial Man/Woman concept, so all too many Women’s Liberationists today do not perceive the Black dimension as Reason in our age. Those who deny today that the idea of revolution and that exciting Black dimension were both crucial in establishing the first Woman’s Rights Convention not only have forgotten that today’s Women’s Liberation Movement likewise arose out of the Black dimension, but have failed entirely to grasp what is the root of theory, its true beginning. Take something as simple as a name–that of Sojourner Truth–and compare it to what we today think of as an accomplishment when we use, not our husbands’ names, but our “maiden” names. When Isabella became free and wanted to throw away her slave name, she included her entire philosophy in her new name. It is true that she attributed to God the reason for her name, saying that when she wanted to have nothing to do with her slave past and asked God for advice as to a name, “He” told her to sojourn the world over and reveal the truth to the people. But the fact is that her name tells us more than just the fact that she had broken with male domination.

Or for that matter, consider how she silenced the clerics at the meeting who were booing her. She asked them, “Do you believe in Christ?” and added, did the clerics know where Christ came from? She proceeded to tell them: “from God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him!”

Naiveté? Then consider the “generalship” of a Harriet Tubman, be it as conductor of the Underground Railroad or in her activity behind the lines of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

These historic facts of a Harriet Tubman or a Sojourner Truth [9] are not the only manifestations of Black activity in and influence upon the early women’s rights struggle and the Civil War; thousands were involved. The turning point for American Black women was reached in 1867, after the Civil War, when even the most revolutionary Abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips, refused to collaborate with the women in their fight for suffrage on the grounds that this was “the Negro hour.” Sojourner Truth hit back at her own leader, Frederick Douglass, calling him “short-minded.” In that, Harriet Tubman joined. Not only did they separate from their Black male leaders and align with the white women, but it became clear that “short-minded” was more than an epithet. Rather, it was a new language–the language of thought–against those who would put any limitations to freedom….


…What illuminates the contributions both of an original character and of the masses in motion is the way those masses in motion uproot the old and create the new. Let us, therefore, turn to see it in two very different locales and historic periods.

Take Africa, whose history, especially as it concerns women, has hardly been touched. We are first now beginning–without knowing the full story, even now–to hear about one of the great events that happened in 1929, which entered Great Britain’s imperial history as the “Aba riots,” but which the Africans named “The Women’s War.” [10] This event, hidden from history, involved tens of thousands of Igbo women, who organized demonstrations in Calabar and Owerri provinces in southeastern Nigeria, against both British imperialism and their own African chiefs, whom they accused of carrying out the new British edict to tax women. These women, without any help from their own men, combined forces across tribal lines and began their protests, called “making war,” or “sitting on a man.” [11]

This was by no means an individual act, but a traditional Igbo way of expressing revolt; it involved masses of women, meeting at an agreed time and place (in this case the hut of the Warrant Chiefs), dancing, and singing scurrilous songs that detailed the women’s grievances and insulted the chiefs (including questioning their manhood) and banging on the men’s huts with the pestles they used for pounding yams. Traditionally, this might last all night and day until an apology came and the man mended his ways. In the 1929 Women’s War [12] it continued through November and December.

It was serious enough, and British imperialism feared it sufficiently to forget that women had not previously been fired on. This time they brought out the troops, murdering 50 women and wounding 50 others. The women, however, had won their point, and the taxes were not imposed. It was clear that, though the event had women leaders–Ikonia, Nwaunedie, Narigo–this grassroots leadership had emerged out of the collective action of Igbo women.

The greatest of all events were the March and November 1917 Russian Revolutions. We saw in the last chapter how very conscious Luxemburg was of those revolutions and how totally she practiced the principles of proletarian revolution in her call for the revolution in Germany. However, the last chapter did not describe in any detail the March Revolution, which was initiated by women. It was initiated, on International Women’s Day, against the advice of all tendencies–Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, Anarchists, Social-Revolutionaries. Those five days that toppled the mighty empire demonstrate that it is never just a question of leaders, no matter how great. Rather, it is masses in motion….

* * *

Having viewed the relationship of Man/Woman as Marx’s concept, integral to a philosophy of revolution; as it appears in the Women’s Liberation Movement, as revolutionary force and reason; and at different historic periods, we can see that it is not just a question of then and now–that is to say, of contrasting historic periods. Rather, time is now to be considered as Marx defined it: “Time is space for human development.”…



1. Bert James Loewenberg and Ruth Bogin, eds., Black Women in 19th Century American Life (University Park, Pa.: Penn State University Press, 1967).

2. Bell Gale Chevigny, The Woman and the Myth (Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1976). In Larzer Ziff’s profound study of classic American literature, Literary Democracy: The Declaration of Cultural Independence in America (New York: Viking Press, 1981), Ziff includes a chapter on Margaret Fuller (pp. 146-64) which deserves serious study. He first quotes Fuller’s statement in her 1845 work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century: “Let it not be said wherever there is energy or creative genius, ‘She has a masculine mind.'” He then develops his view of her “vigorous independence of mind” as inseparable from the fact that she had become a revolutionary in Italy and was returning to the United States “to work for the next revolution.” The chapter ends with: “Such exhilaration at attaching passion to intelligence, will to action, self to history, was on the ship with her when she arrived off Fire Island. Kindled in Europe, it was drowned within sight of the American strand.”

3. Vivian Gornick, Essays in Feminism (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 212.

4. Chevigny, The Woman and the Myth, p. 490.

5. Miriam Schneir, ed., Feminism (New York: Random House, 1972), p. 91.

6. G.D.H. Cole, A History of Socialist Thought, 5 vols. (London: Macmillan & Co., 1956), 1:186.

7. There have been several translations by now of the 1844 Manuscripts. The best known are those by Martin Milligan, Erich Fromm, T. Bottomore, and Loyd Easton and Kurt Guddat. I am using my own translation, however, which is the first one that was published in English, as an appendix to my Marxism and Freedom (New York: Twayne Pub., 1958). These essays are further discussed in chap. 9. Emphasis in original.

8. This 1932 essay by Herbert Marcuse first appeared in English translation in 1972 in Studies in Critical Philosophy (London: New Left Books). Pages cited in text following are to this edition.

9. See especially Earl Conrad, Harriet Tubman (New York: Paul S. Erikson, 1943), and Narrative of Sojourner Truth, an Ebony Classic (Chicago: Johnson Pub. Co., 1970).

10. See Judith Van Allen, “Aba Riots or Igbo Women’s War?” Ufahamu 6: no. 1 (1975). An elaborated version also appeared in Women in Africa, Nancy Hafkin and Edna Bay, eds. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1976).

11. An exciting historical “forerunner” of the practice of “sitting on a man” is found in Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks (p. 116), where Marx is summarizing Lewis Henry Morgan’s findings: “The women were the great power among the clans, as everywhere else. They did not hesitate when occasion required, ‘to knock off the horns,’ as it was technically called, from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of the warriors. The original nomination of the chiefs also always rested with them.

12. “Women’s War” is not as unusual a phenomenon as patriarchal histories would have us think, whether we are dealing with the dramatic fictional Greek Lysistrata or, as legend would have it in the land of Rosa Luxemburg’s birth, with the 1863 Polish revolt against tsarism, which was likewise referred to secretly as “Women’s War.” In the preface to her Comrade and Lover: Rosa Luxemburg’s Letters to Leo Jogiches (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1979), Elzbieta Ettinger refers to this 1863 revolt.

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