The Todayness of a Marxist-Humanist Classic: American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard

March 18, 2023

From the March-April 2023 issue of News & Letters

What Florida Gov. DeSantis and his ilk don’t want you to know as they ban Black history in schools: The true story of freedom movements in the U.S.


From the introduction to the 1970 edition

Click on photo to order

The eruptions throughout the length and breadth of this country, in the year 1967, were totally spontaneous, and spoke in much clearer terms than any of the leaders….The Black masses refused to be silenced. They proceeded to search for a total philosophy on their own….

It becomes imperative, therefore, that every freedom movement re-examine its past, and map out its future in direct relationship to the continuous, the ceaseless, the ever new Black revolts. This includes all:

From “A 1980s View of the Two-Way Road between the U.S. and Africa.”

It was in his last decade that Marx discovered still newer paths to revolution. Present day existing state-capitalisms calling themselves Communist, like Russia and China, have totally abandoned both the philosophy and the actuality of Marx’s “revolution in permanence.” Marx, on the other hand, began introducing fundamental changes in his greatest theoretical work, Capital, which disclosed his new perceptions of the possibility of a revolution in technologically underdeveloped lands before the technologically advanced West. Take the simple word “so-called” placed by Marx in the title of the final part of Capital: “The So-Called Primitive Accumulation of Capital.” Though that word has been disregarded by post-Marx Marxists, it touches the burning question of our day—the relationship of technologically advanced countries to the technologically underdeveloped Third World. What Marx was saying with that word, “so-called,” was that it simply wasn’t true that capitalism’s carving up of the Asian and African world characterized only the primitive stage of capitalism.

First edition of American Civilization on Trial

To further stress that technologically advanced capitalism has not at all left behind the so-called primitive stage of turning Africa into “a warren for hunting black skins” and forcing them into slavery in “civilized” countries….Marx added a whole new paragraph to the 1875 French edition of Capital, which showed that this continued outreach into imperialism “successively annexed extensive areas of the New World, Asia and Australia.”

Marx’s projection of the possibility of a revolution coming first in technologically underdeveloped lands achieved a new meaning for our age with the emergence of a whole new Third World, as well as new mass struggles and the birth of new revolutionary forces as reason. The Black dimension in the U.S. as well as in Africa showed that we had, indeed, reached a totally new movement from practice to theory that was itself a new form of theory. It was this new movement from practice—those new voices from below—which we heard, recorded, and dialectically developed. Those voices demanded that a new movement from theory be rooted in that movement from practice and become developed to the point of philosophy—a philosophy of world revolution….

American Civilization on Trial cast a new illumination on the two-way road between Africa and the U.S. via the West Indies by showing that what, to the capitalists, was the triangular trade of rum, molasses and slaves, was, to the Blacks, the ever-live triangular development of internationalism, masses in motion and ideas. This triangular development remains the dominant force to this day.

From Part VII: Facing the Challenge, 1943-1963

Mexican edition of American Civilization on Trial

The truth is old radicals are forever blind to the positive, the subjective new dimensions of any spontaneous struggle. Each struggle is fought out in separateness, and remains isolated. While the way to hell may be paved with Little Rocks, the way to a new society must have totally new foundations not alone in action but in thought….

The very people who played down the East European Revolts, from Stalin’s death, in 1953, through the Hungarian Revolution, in 1956, also played down the Black struggles from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in 1956, through the Freedom Rides, in 1961, to the current struggles in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. We, on the other hand, do not divide the underlying philosophy from participation in all these struggles.

Above all, we hold fast to the one-worldedness and the new Humanist thinking of all oppressed from the East German worker to the West Virginia miner; from the Hungarian revolutionary to the Montgomery Bus Boycotter; as well as from the North Carolina Sit-inner to the African Freedom Fighter. The elements of the new society, submerged the world over by the might of capital, are emerging in all sorts of unexpected and unrelated places. What is missing is the unity of these movements from practice with the movement from theory into an overall philosophy that can form the foundation of a totally new social order.

American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard
in the Archives of Marxist-Humanism: Selected items

Significance of the new pamphlet

  • Weekly Political Letter of April 13, 1963: “American Civilization on Trial as Statement of Our Views and as Basis for Follow-Up Studies and Articles” (reprinted in January 2013 N&L)
  • Facing the Challenge: Nationally and Internationally. Draft Resolution, July 1963 (#3251 in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, “Marxist-Humanism: A Half-Century of Its World Development”)
  • The Need to Transform Reality. Report by Raya Dunayevskaya to National Editorial Board Plenum, Sept. 1963 (#3279). This was excerpted in the Jan.-Feb. 2001 N&L, reposted at

The 1983 edition as a new projection, not only an update

Writings by Charles Denby on American Civilization on Trial

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *