From The Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Black masses, youth and the needed U.S. revolution: philosophy and reality

December 10, 2015

From the November-December issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: At a time when Black masses have once again put U.S. “civilization” on trial, and when retrogression in thought, including in the Left, remains a major barrier to revolutionary change, we present excerpts from “The Needed American Revolution: Philosophy and Reality,” Part IV of the July 1969 Draft Perspectives of News and Letters Committees, written by Raya Dunayevskaya under the title “World Crises and the Needed American Revolution” (#4365 in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, which is now online in its entirety at

With the sole exception of Marx and Engels, the possibilities of a social revolution in the U.S. have always been greatly underrated, if not totally disregarded. Presently the anti-Vietnam War movement is so total in its admiration of the daring life-and-death struggle the Vietnamese have and are carrying on against U.S. imperialism, that its own achievements are looked upon as aids of a very minor significance. There is no doubt, of course, that the greatest blow to U.S. imperialism has been and is being administered by the Vietnamese. But, while the anti-Vietnam War movement here is not the decisive force, there should be no doubt about its achievements. First is the expression of solidarity with the Vietnamese and against our own government. Secondly comes the compulsion of Lyndon B. Johnson to take himself out of the presidential race, and the decision of Richard Nixon to present himself as a veritable opponent of that war in order to be able to win the presidency. Thirdly is the refusal to consider the tokenism Nixon has decreed of “withdrawal” as anything but a fraud and the continuing pressure for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops.

Above all these concrete achievements stands the birth, as a result of this struggle and its participation in the Black revolution, of a whole new generation of radicals. The youth may have neither the force nor the proletarian cast of the Black rebels, but the 1960s have made it as different from the Joseph McCarthy-Barry Goldwater youth of the 1950s as earth is from the moon, though we are now landing on it.

BLACK MASS REVOLT, which has been a continuous phenomenon in America, has assumed an intensity in many new forms since its spontaneous modern rebirth in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-56, and youth sit-ins in 1960, and in organizations as varied as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Black Panthers. In the ghetto upheavals from Harlem, New York, to Oakland, Calif., from Watts in Los Angeles to the entire length and breadth of the U.S., the revolt goes on. By the present intensity as well as by its historic nature, it has disclosed the Achilles heel of corporate America. Thus, there is no Establishment claim, from affluence to democracy, from non-colonialism to education, much less from labor to housing, that Blacks have not been able to give the lie to—and gotten the world’s ear for the truth. Nor is it a question only of showing poverty amidst plenty. No one is going begging. Rather, it is a matter of displaying mass self-activity, mass creativity, and revolutionary will and daring even when allies from the majority whites are rare enough to come by.

July 31 march in Minneapolis to honor Sandra Bland and protest deaths of Black women in police custody. Photo credit: Fibonacci Blue

July 31 march in Minneapolis to honor Sandra Bland and protest deaths of Black women in police custody. Photo credit: Fibonacci Blue 20207475375/

Whether it be the Black revolution, the youth revolt, women’s liberation or the anti-Vietnam War movement, there is no doubt about the revolutionary forces actively working to uproot the old, the imperialist, the existing exploitative society. Even the white working class that is supposed to be “integrated” into the “system,” and surely is racist all too often—nevertheless, even it has shown new activity not only in strikes, but also in voting for Blacks, especially to union posts in those factories where Black caucuses were active. In a word, even white labor, skilled and unskilled, associated itself with Blacks as the genuine force against the labor bureaucracy.

WE’RE NOT TRYING to say that America is on the eve of a social revolution. What we are saying is that the U.S. economy is not free from crises, its politics is fought internally as well as externally by Third World liberation forces. Objectively, everything, from the nuclear arms economy to the runaway inflation; from the imperialist misadventures, both as far away as Vietnam and as near as Latin America, to the Vietnam War which the majority of the American people oppose; and from the erratic behavior of the stock market and creeping unemployment—not so creeping among Blacks, where there is no less than 20% unemployment among Black ghetto youth—speaks of a ripening objective situation of crisis.

At the same time, though the movement of revolt is always played down as a “tiny minority,” even such journals as Fortune have had to admit that the same surveys that show that Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) can count its members only in a few thousand, show it influences close to a million in all youth rebellions. And when it comes to the Black revolution, far from being able to attribute it all to “outside agitators,” there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that, despite the fact that the Black militant organizations hardly have mass memberships, there is no concrete event in the ghetto that doesn’t, in its spontaneity, involve the Blacks as a people.

NO, THE WEAKNESS of what is referred to as the “New Left” is not so much in numbers as in lack of a total philosophy. Just when the masses are in motion, the leaderships are in disarray. The recent split in SDS (which is by no means all negative, since many, in disgust, are moving to genuine Marxism) has shown them behaving in as unprincipled and, in thought, as retrogressionist a manner, as the PL’ers (Progressive Labor Party members) they were expelling. The positive, even in that, could be gleaned from the desire for “confrontations” with the Establishment. If they have nevertheless fallen under the spell of Maoist sloganizing—whether that be “power comes from the barrel of a gun,” or the abstractions of “dare to struggle, dare to win,” under the fatal illusion that all nuclear giants are “paper tigers” and therefore “to will revolution” was sufficient to have it—let us never forget that all these myth-makers, headed by Mao Zedong, may cast a seemingly unbreakable spell on the youth. But, even where unbreakable, a spell is only a spell, and cannot replace reality. What can break the spell is revolutionary philosophy that meets the challenge of reality.

Never was the task of philosophy more urgent. Never was the dialectics of liberation in reality so in need of a dialectical philosophy. Never was the break between theory and practice more ominous, and the need for a unity of philosophy and revolution more indispensable to the freedom struggles the world over. The needed American revolution is the one force that can unlock world revolution, and not only because the USA is the mightiest imperialism and its disintegration frees the forward movement of humanity, but because the revolutionary forces here are not merely subordinate to the Third World. Rather, they are facing a developing revolutionary situation and philosophic release.

“WHY HEGEL?” (that is, why dialectics?) “Why Now?”[1] (that is, why is it presently impermissible to separate philosophy and revolution?) reveals the need for philosophy if we are to achieve a revolution that will not sour, as every revolution, from the Russian through the Chinese to the African, has soured. Philosophy and Revolution discloses the obstacles that lie on the path to revolution, not only the dominance and militarization of U.S. imperialism, but also empiric thought that satisfies itself by naming a single imperialism as “Enemy No. 1,” refuses to look at the totality of the world crises, insists on seeing only the external enemies, thereby failing to discern the internal revolutionary forces in each country.

No one can seriously speak of American revolution unless it centers around the color Black. The failure to do so previously is precisely why the possibilities of American revolution were discounted. Even when radicals finally got to writing “theses” on the question of American revolution, they were invariably abstract. It wasn’t necessarily due only to U.S. might, financial and military, and now nuclear as well. Rather, it was due to two very different types of subjective factors. One was the blindness to the vanguard character of the Black masses in any developing revolutionary situation. The other was the self-declared vanguard party’s lack of a total philosophy.

Thus, during World War II when there was no doubt at all about the militancy of Negro revolt, when their mass outburst, in 1943, right in the midst of war, was equaled by only one section of the white proletariat, the miners, who went out on general strike, we had to fight, and fight hard, against the concept that the 1943 upheaval was but a variant of the defensive struggles against the Ku Klux Klan at the end of World War I. And when, in 1947, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) decided finally to write a thesis called nothing short of “The Coming American Revolution,” the Negro is not even mentioned as a revolutionary force. And when News & Letters started, and so did the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it was considered a “joke” that Marxism and Freedom had placed that event on the level of the Hungarian Revolution. The fact that the SWP now goes to the other extreme, and, as against a refusal to consider the Negro as a National Question, behaves as if Malcolm X had been a combination of Lenin and Trotsky, only shows that dialectics remains as strange to them in 1969 as in 1943 when, on the one hand, they failed to see the Blacks as Subject, and, on the other hand, saw neither the Stalinist break with the dialectical structure of Capital, nor the transformation into opposite of the Russian workers’ state into a state-capitalist society.

EMPIRICISM CHARACTERIZES THE U.S. LEFT, from SDS to the Black Panthers, however, not because that is central to “Anglo-Saxonism,” but because it is a world retrograde step in the new world stage of capitalism—state-capitalism, and the administrative mentality this produces even among revolutionaries. Not only do they think they can solve with “plans” what can only be solved by mass actions, and not only do they cling to elitist concepts in relationship to the proletariat whom they will “lead,” but, though youth, they also look down at youth who haven’t “signed up”—hence, SDS’s rapid reversal from its origins as a spontaneist, anti-vanguardist movement to its present elitism on ever narrower foundations. When we referred to retrogressionism appearing in thought, even among revolutionaries, at sharp turning points in history, we quoted Lenin on the horrors of war “suppressing thought,” which is the way the existing capitalism keeps its hold on the opponent movements, and not merely its own decayed ideology. Moreover, though under 30, they aren’t as “new” as they think. The fatal flaw in all U.S. radicalism, old and new, was the lack of dialectical thought accompanying the lack of comprehension of the

revolutionary forces at hand for the American revolution.

In a word, if the American Revolution, so needed to unlock the World Revolution, is to move from the possible, to the probable, to reality, we must know how to find new beginnings that are yet rooted in what Marx himself projected. News and Letters Committees, who first re-established the American and Humanist roots of Marxism, have, from the beginning, been active in the Black Revolution because it was both central to the American revolution and inseparable from the philosophy of revolution. This preparation to meet the challenge from below on both the theoretical and practical levels makes it now imperative that it be developed, in all its ramifications. This is why the Resident Editorial Board has put a deadline on the completion of Philosophy and Revolution in 1970. Along with it continues our immediate activities, again both in the class, Black and youth struggles themselves as well as on the philosophical level.

Thus, the projection of a pamphlet on Black Caucuses, such as the one at Mahwah.[2]

Thus, the growth of Marxist-Humanism, organizationally among the youth, has already made it possible to present a resolution on “Racism and Class” at the SDS convention, which clearly separated itself from both caucuses.[3] In the future months, the youth will no doubt continue to function both on the student level and in alliance with the proletariat, as well as part of the anti-Vietnam War movement….

The discussion on these concrete proposals will take place at the respective sessions [of the 1969 national gathering of News and Letters Committees]. Here they are mentioned only in order to exemplify the type of tasks Marxist-Humanists set themselves on the immediate level and which yet show that, far from being “the small coin of concrete questions,” concreteness is used in the full Hegelian-Marxian sense of comprehensive, total dimension that has gained reality.

[1] As published, Part I of Philosophy and Revolution was titled “Why Hegel? Why Now?”

[2] “Black Caucuses in the Unions” by Charles Denby is included as an appendix in American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard.

[3] “A Discussion of Racism and Class,” a resolution submitted to the 1969 national convention of SDS by 19 SDS members, is included in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #4582.

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