Revisiting 'black power', race and class

Submitted by libcom on July 26, 2005

Revisiting 'Black Power,' Race and Class

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from the Marxist-Humanist Perspectives Thesis that Raya Dunayevskaya presented to the September 1966 Convention of News and Letters Committees (THE RAYA DUNAYEVSKAYA COLLECTION, 4040). It was originally published in NEWS & LETTERS, January 1967, at the time when the debate over Black Power was about to assume a most concrete form as Black mass revolt erupted in Newark, N.J., the summer of 1967, followed by the Detroit rebellion in which some segments of the white working class joined in. The footnotes are the editor's.

by Raya Dunayevskaya, founder of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S.
At the present crucial moment of world history, when the Third World of underdeveloped countries has become the bone of contention, not only between "East" and "West," but also within the so-called East, the Sino-Soviet orbit, it is imperative that the Negro maintain his independence from any state power, and its ideas. Presently, many of these have jumped on the bandwagon of the "Black Power" slogan. It therefore must be closely examined.

The SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] statement, which evidently SNCC had been discussing for months before its publication by others, is not outside of a certain philosophic framework, certain principled tenets. In turning to these, we, of course, take the statement at its face value when it declares: "These views should not be equated with outside influence or outside agitation but should be viewed as the natural process of growth and development within a movement; so that the move by the Black militants and SNCC in this direction should be viewed as a turn toward self-determination" (NEW YORK TIMES, Aug. 5, 1966).

At the same time, however, we know that ideas have a history of their own, and a logic of their own, and we must follow each to its logical, bitter end, including all its historic ramifications, not the least of which, both for past and present, is the interrelationship between class and race.


There is no such suprahistorical abstraction as racism. In each historical period it was something different. It was one thing during slavery, another during Reconstruction, and quite something else today.

To maintain, as the new SNCC statement and its new chairman, Stokely Carmichael,(1) do, that there is something called a "white psyche" and that this "white psyche" is part of the white fear-guilt complex resulting from the slave revolts," is but the reverse side of the same coin which standard bourgeois white textbooks maintain: that it is not the exploitative class that is keeping the Negro down, but that it is due to some sort of "stigma of slavery." That, naturally, was not the intent of the SNCC statement, but ideas have a logic of their own.

TO FURTHER INSIST THAT "WHATEVER THEIR POLITICAL PERSUASION," "ALL WHITES" ARE "PART OF THE COLLECTIVE WHITE AMERICA" SO THAT THE U.S. HAS "180 MILLION RACISTS" IS TO BLUR THE CLASS LINE WHICH CUTS ACROSS THE RACE DIVISIONS AS WELL AS TO MUFFLE THE PHILOSOPHY OF TOTAL FREEDOM WHICH HAS CREATED A SECOND AMERICA. IN THIS, THE NEGRO HAS PLAYED A VANGUARD ROLE AND IT IS THIS ROLE WE MUST SAVE FROM THE SNCC STATEMENT WHICH MEANS TO SEPARATE "ALL BLACKS" FROM "ALL WHITES"-AND THUS ENDS UP BY FLYING IN THE FACE OF HOW THE NEGRO SHAPED THE COURSE OF THE SECOND AMERICA. The truth is this. DESPITE the ruling Bourbon South's economic power with its Simon Legrees, DESPITE its political power in the halls of Congress ruling the North, despite THEIR "fear complex" (I know nothing of any "guilt complex"; none of them had sufficient of that to do anything about it-but regarding their FEAR of Negro revolt they did plenty in the South, in the North, in Congress, and in the Supreme Court)-despite ALL these powers, the Bourbon South not only failed to brainwash all the people, but a very important section was inspired by the slave revolts, JUST THOSE SLAVE REVOLTS WHICH SNCC THINKS ALL FEARED, , to organize the most remarkable organization this country had ever seen. I am referring, of course, to the Abolitionists.


It was no coincidence that in 1831, the year of the greatest slave revolt, Nat Turner's, a white New England Abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, founded the LIBERATOR. It was no accident that the Negro runaway slaves, the white Abolitionists and Negro freedmen gathered together, determined to resolve the problem of slavery, not by founding a colony abroad, but right here at home. And it was neither accidental nor a mean achievement that these males had a different view of voteless women than that which was then prevalent, and the suffragette movement also arose out of this most remarkable organization of uncompromising freedom fighters that PREDATED THE ORIGIN OF BOLSHEVISM BY 80 YEARS. NOR WAS IT "AN OVERNIGHT AFFAIR." IT LASTED FOR THREE LONG DECADES, UNTIL THEY IMPELLED THE CIVIL WAR, AND DURING ALL THOSE 30 YEARS, IN SLAVE-RIDDEN AMERICA, THESE REMARKABLE INDIVIDUALS PRACTICED THESE HUMAN RELATIONS THAT THEY ESPOUSED FOR THE COUNTRY AS A WHOLE. SO THAT WHEN, FINALLY, THE PATHS OF THE ABOLITIONISTS AND KARL MARX CROSSED, THE AFFINITY OF HIS IDEAS AND THEIRS SHOULD HAVE REVEALED HOW INDIGENOUS, HOW DEEP WERE THE AMERICAN ROOTS OF MARXISM.

It is peculiar, indeed, that this page of history, so carefully hidden from all standard white textbooks which, at best, treat the Abolitionists as a tiny group of "fanatics" with no influence on the course of American history, should also have been skipped over by Carmichael because it doesn't fit into his conception that all whites have the same "psyche." This does no harm to history because it has been LIVED. It does a great deal of harm, however, to the SNCC philosophy which has thereby deprived itself of the awareness of the DUALITY of historic development, of the dialectic methodology which is born out of these contradictions, and which had led Marx to see men's development as the development of various stages of freedom. This is the methodology which enabled Marx to make pivotal to his philosophy the vision that, just as man develops THROUGH contradiction, so his "quest for universality" is most intense WHEN people are most degraded.

Either SNCC has not the slightest conception of this world view of history. Or they deliberately disregarded it, to continue with the logic of their first false premise, that "all whites" have one "psyche" and "all Blacks" another, and if ever the twain meet, it is always to the end that the whites interfere with or pervert the Negro's self-organization.


It is to that end that Stokely Carmichael, instead, singled out the organization of the Niagara Movement, which he says was all Black and great, until it was "perverted" by whites and merged into the then new NAACP. Whatever the white liberal did in changing the direction of the Niagara Movement as it became the NAACP, this was not grounded in either their whiteness or their liberalism. RATHER, IT HAD ITS ORIGIN IN THE THESIS OF DUBOIS HIMSELF, in his concept that each nation, each race has its own "talented tenth," and that this elite "brings" freedom to the mass. With such an underlying philosophy, the Niagara Movement couldn't possibly get a mass following, no matter how militant it was in its demands for full equality as against Booker T. Washington's philosophy of "Cast down your bucket wherever you are." It is true that by then (the turn of the century) racism had become rampant, North and South, for, with America's plunge into imperialism in 1898, the other great pages in American history of Black and white solidarity, including the greatest page within the South's development-Populism-were fully expunged. It is true, also, that the only rational voice came from the Negro. It isn't true, however, that the failure of these movements to become mass movements was due to the whites "taking over" the NAACP.

As against Carmichael's rewrite, here is how one of the leaders of the Niagara Movement summed up this failure: "Å their cause was just, their motives pure, their goals noble and practical; but they were perhaps too far removed from the masses to inspire them to action-too conscious of their own privileged position as a Black eliteÅ " (Henry Lee Moon, BALANCE OF POWER: THE NEGRO VOTE [1948], p. 100). Now, despite the fact that the word, Black, and not the word, white, precedes the word, elite, this is A CLASS concept, a thoroughly BOURGEOIS class concept, and it led to the isolation, self-imposed isolation of the Black intellectual, from the Negro masses, and therefore from their self-organization.


The only time this wasn't true, and Negroes by the millions organized themselves and put an end to the myth that the Negro couldn't be organized (and this was 1920, not 1966) to fight for his freedom in an all-Black organization, was the Garvey Movement. The interference it ran into was from the black "talented tenth." The most prominent of these, and the one who appealed to the white power structure, particularly the Justice Department, to deport Garvey was-DuBois! Now DuBois was a great historian, one of the greatest this country has ever had, white or Negro, and the only one who has made a great contribution to the true history of BLACK RECONSTRUCTION. Unfortunately, however, his CLASS (petty-bourgeois) character always showed. THIS WAS SO WHEN HE ORGANIZED AN ALL-BLACK MOVEMENT, AND RETREATED. IT WAS SO WHEN THE WEST INDIAN, MARCUS GARVEY, ORGANIZED AN ALL-BLACK MASS MOVEMENT, AND DUBOIS ATTACKED HIM. IT WAS SO WHEN DUBOIS FOUGHT AGAINST THE MARXISTS. AND IT REMAINED TRUE WHEN IN HIS OLD AGE, HE JOINED THE COMMUNIST PARTY AND FOLLOWED THEIR AFRICAN LINE.

The point here is that, just as DuBois showed his class character in this country, so did he show it on the world scene, especially in Africa. For, while he appealed to still another white power structure-the United Nations-to give Africa limited freedom, the African masses arose spontaneously and changed the whole map of the world in less than a decade. The point is that DuBois moved to Ghana after it became independent, that is to say, only when STATE POWER was won. The point is that, as with ALL intelligentsia, so with the Negro, there has always been a separation between the elite and the mass.


This was so not only as they organized themselves in nationalist movements, but when they organized themselves, WITH WHITE LABOR, to reorganize the whole industrial face of the nation through the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations]. Considering George S. Schuyler's (2) present reactionary stance, it is important to see how differently he spoke under the impact of the CIO, as he lashed out against the established Negro leaders in 1937: "Nowhere were the 'educated' classes cooperating with the unions to aid the work of organization, save in a few notable instances and there only by one or two individualsÅ Their desertion of the struggling Negro workers in this crisis constitutes one of the most shameful chapters in our recent history. The new position Negro labor has won in the past year has been gained in spite of the old leadership. It has been won with new leadership; militant young men and women from the ranks of labor and grizzled Black veterans of the pick and shovel and the blast furnace" (CRISIS, November 1937). You cannot reverse history. This integration into labor having been achieved, the ones who will save the CIO from its degeneration, as we can see by the new formation of Black caucuses for upgrading, for the end of lily-white departments, against the bureaucracy in general, are the workers. It will not be achieved by those who disregard the integration, and themselves use college-type vocabulary, completely devoid of any sense of class struggle. The great German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, had a phrase for this type of thinking. He called it "self-determination applied externally." That is, from above, not as it emerged from internal self-development.


The development of SNCC to greater militancy, of necessity, had to involve a break from white liberals-a break both from their money and their policies, it is true. But the emphasis, if this is what SNCC meant to do, should have been on the "liberalism" they opposed. Instead the emphasis was put on "all whites," as a generalization, including even those who had given their very lives for the movement.

And the trouble with generalizations is that they very often sow only confusion, because each one reads into it his specific interpretation, which may not be what you intended at all. There is no way to avoid confusion except by being specific instead of general.


1. Stokely Carmichael was the chairman of SNCC from May 1966 to June 1967, and is credited with popularizing the slogan "Black Power." With Charles V. Hamilton, Carmichael wrote BLACK POWER: THE POLITICS OF LIBERATION IN AMERICA (1967) in an effort to give theoretical expression to the new stage of Black militancy. Carmichael later went into exile in Africa, after his involvement with the Black Panther Party, and took the name Kwame Ture. He died of cancer November 1998; see the in memoriam by Michael Flug in the January-February 1999 issue of NEWS & LETTERS.

2. George S. Schuyler was a radical journalist for the Black PITTSBURGH COURIER in the 1930s before he became politically conservative in the period just preceding the Civil Rights Movement.