The Idea of Freedom in Black History

Submitted by libcom on July 26, 2005

The idea of freedom in Black history
by John Alan

A unique character of the body of ideas of Marxist-Humanism is that it has developed a considerable amount of material showing that the thoughts and activities of African-American masses in their long struggle for freedom in the U.S. are unseparated from the idea of freedom for our age.

This body of ideas, which is found in the Archives of Marxist-Humanism, THE RAYA DUNAYEVSKAYA COLLECTION-MARXIST-HUMANISM: A HALF-CENTURY OF ITS WORLD DEVELOPMENT, does not separate African-American movements from other struggles for freedom, whether it be for the rights of labor and women or against U.S. imperialism. In other words, Marxist-Humanism has uncovered how the African-American dimension has placed the WHOLE of American civilization on trial and found it guilty.

Today's globalized capitalism also means we cannot ignore the international dimension of the Black freedom struggle. In the 1983 Introduction to AMERICAN CIVILIZATION ON TRIAL [ACOT], Dunayevskaya recounted the points of affinity between her philosophy of Marxist-Humanism and Frantz Fanon, especially his focus on "the absolute" and what "philosophic thought teaches us..." (p. iv) Marxist-Humanism has done a great deal to show what philosophic thought teaches us about the African revolutions.


Dunayevskaya's PHILOSOPHY AND REVOLUTION revealed that "revolution in permanence" and "absolute negativity as new beginning" are the crucial philosophical concepts which brought the African revolutions to a crossroads. On the one hand the leaders, burdened with the consciousness of backwardness, chose the pathway of technological development and the world market, while the masses on the other hand wanted to create a totally new non-exploitative society.

When one reads about Dunayevskaya's trip to Africa in her political letters of the 1960s, which later became the foundation for chapter 7 of PHILOSOPHY AND REVOLUTION on "The African Revolutions and the World Economy," it becomes clear she was deeply involved in this conflict between the reasoning of masses and the thinking of the leaders. She discovered this division by going to meetings in the villages to hear the voices of the masses and by interviewing the leaders. She wrote in PHILOSOPHY AND REVOLUTION:

"Despite the instant mass mobilizations and the search for new humanist beginnings that would unite philosophy and revolution, theory and practice, which was by no means limited to intellectuals but was a need most urgently felt by the masses themselves, we must soberly face the present bleak reality. For just as these revolutions reshaped the map of Africa in less than a decade, they just as rapidly reached the crossroads. Thus, though the revolutions emerged from deep indigenous roots, without capital of any sort, and by their own force and passion and reason achieved their political emancipation, independent of the 'East' as well as the 'West,' after gaining power they did not remain quite so externally 'nonaligned.'" (p. 217)

The African masses began to suffer a new phase of exploitation and domination by world capitalism. Today, many see the bleakness of the reality Dunayevskaya spoke of in the 1960s. Our job is to make sure that what doesn't disappear is her sharp focus on the need for a philosophy of revolution which would OBJECTIFY THE IDEA OF FREEDOM in the reasoning of the African masses.


Dunayevskaya's philosophical and practical engagement in global freedom struggles cannot be separated from her 1953 philosophic breakthrough on Hegel's Absolute Idea as containing both a movement from practice and a movement from theory. It resulted in the breakup of the Johnson-Forest Tendency in 1955 and the birth of News and Letters Committees, a Marxist-Humanist organization.

Central to the 1953 breakthrough was "the philosophic capacity to recognize the genius of the masses from below in a way that records the movement from practice as itself a form of theory" (25 YEARS OF MARXIST-HUMANISM IN THE U.S., p. 5). To practice this principle, at our founding Charles Denby, a Black production worker, became the editor of NEWS & LETTERS and Dunayevskaya became chairperson of the Editorial Board.

This personification of a unity of practice and theory created an unusual kind of radical newspaper with the added dimension of race. It happened during a momentous time. Workers in the U.S. and behind the so-called iron curtain were spontaneously organizing and demanding new human relations both in production and in society as a whole.

The Marxist-Humanist Archives contain the history of these revolts from the workers' point of view, revealing that battles against automation were organized by rank-and-file workers outside of the bureaucratic structure of the union leadership. Black workers played a prominent role in those strikes both as activists and thinkers. Among them was Denby.

Dunayevskaya first met Denby in 1948 when he was well-known in Detroit as a leader of wildcat strikes. As she wrote in her moving In Memoriam to Denby in 1983, "The speech I heard him give on tenant farming in the South and factory work in the North was far from being a political speech. Listening to him, you felt you were witnessing an individual life that was somehow universal, and touched you personally."

Dunayevskaya recalled exciting moments when ideas were exchanged back and forth between her and Denby. What she described was nothing less than a CONCRETIZATION OF THE ABSOLUTE IDEA, the unity of the movement from theory with the movement from practice which is itself a form of theory. The unity created new directions in the thinking of both Dunayevskaya and Denby.

Denby told the story of the inhumanity of automation in pamphlets like WORKERS BATTLE AUTOMATION and in his Worker's Journal column in NEWS & LETTERS. He wrote many articles on race and class struggles inside and outside the auto plants. The range of his columns included stories about wildcat strikes, how the union bureaucracy participated in the writing of sell-out contracts, the relation between automation and unemployment in the Black communities and his own activity in the Civil Rights Movement. He wrote on the crucial dimension of race in America's freedom struggles and on the importance of philosophy to articulate the meaning of his own and the movements' activities. Today's activists would do well to RECONNECT with Denby's way of recollecting the meaning of the freedom struggles during his lifetime.


AMERICAN CIVILIZATION ON TRIAL is not a large document. The 1983 edition, which includes Denby's appendix "Black Caucuses in the Unions," is only 39 pages. In spite of its small size, ACOT is an original development of the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism.

When ACOT first appeared in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., stood at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D. C. and addressed 250,000 people. He told them that 100 years after Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans were still not free. He said: "The Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination, [still living] on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity." But he still had a dream "that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.'"

Now, if Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream has not materialized after 37 years, then racism needs to be recognized for what it is-a social manifestation of American capitalist society. Yes, racism has been modified by a century of mass movements, the enactment of civil rights laws and Supreme Court decisions, but, like classism, it cannot be uprooted apart from its social origin and development in American capitalist society.

This brings us back to ACOT and Marx's concept of "revolution in permanence"- that is, THE NEED TO NOT STOP AT POLITICAL EMANCIPATION.


The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that started spontaneously with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 had a historical connection with the 19th century Abolitionist Movement that ended chattel slavery. The Civil Rights Movement terminated President Hayes' infamous 1877 decision to stop Reconstruction and return absolute political and economic power to the former slave owners.

For the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, Marxist-Humanists decided not to let that history of revolution and counterrevolution remain outside of the new social consciousness. Yet there was no IMMEDIATE connection between the 19th century Abolitionists and the movements of the 1960s. A mediating connection was developed through a SPECIFICALLY MARXIST-HUMANIST RECOLLECTION of the development of the idea of freedom in the U.S.

For Dunayevskaya the objective power and presence of the idea of freedom is a UNIVERSAL which emerged in both the mind of a leader of a 19th century slave revolt, Nat Turner, as well as in the greatest dialectical philosopher, Hegel.

As important as the idea of freedom is, and has been in the development of this country, why is it that today you hardly hear it in the opposition to today's global capitalism? We hear a lot about inequality, unemployment, sweatshop jobs, the criminal (in)justice system, etc., but what happened to the vision of THE FULL AND FREE SELF-DEVELOPMENT OF THE HUMAN BEING?

How did that recollection in the tremendously condensed summary we call ACOT lead to our concept of the OBJECTIVITY OF THE FREEDOM IDEA?

Dunayevskaya saw the Black struggle as central to the whole American Revolution, i.e., as integral to every important historical breakthrough. As she wrote in 25 YEARS OF MARXIST-HUMANISM:

"Black masses [are] precisely because it's impossible to separate them from any part of American history. Black masses in motion were revealed as the touchstone of the whole of American development, whether one took 1776 as the point of departure and showed the Declaration of Independence in its true limited light, i.e., that it meant independence for whites only; or the 1830 Abolitionist movement when the white intellectuals did gain a new dimension by joining with the Blacks to carry on a 30-year struggle that culminated in a Civil War; whether one took America's plunge into imperialism with the 1898 Spanish-American War, when the Blacks were the first to establish an Anti-Imperialist League and demonstrate their affinity with Latin America; or whether one brought it all the way to 1963." (p. 11)

Our problem today is NOT that a new objective development of capitalism has made the vanguard character of the Black struggle to the whole American development an outmoded idea. As our Marxist-Humanist Perspectives Thesis for 2000-2001 puts it: "What can help bridge the gap between today's anti-globalization protests and the legacy of revolt born from the Los Angeles rebellion is the Marxist-Humanist concept of Black Masses as Vanguard of the American Revolution."


Dunayevskaya didn't consider the parallelism between Black and labor struggles as an insurmountable barrier. She wrote, "Only when these two great movements coalesce do we reach decisive turning points in U.S. development." This speaks to the need to bridge the gap between anti-globalists and those fighting the criminal (in)justice system today. What is needed to bridge that gap is the "unifying philosophy" of a "new Humanism" specifically "Marxist-Humanism."

We CAN'T find this unifying philosophy only in points of affinity with the mass movements. Even with someone as great as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Now movement, Dunayevskaya was not uncritical. She criticized Dr. King for making his great statement on the need for an "I-thou" relationship which doesn't "relegate persons to the status of things" into an "impersonal ethic rather than the living mass movement, the point of creative origin and forward march of humanity." She criticized the Freedom Now movement to the extent that it limited itself to "the immediate demands of segregation and not to the ultimate of total freedom from class society."

Yes, she praised the Garvey movement for proving that Black masses could organize themselves, but she critiqued that movement "because they didn't have a total philosophy and because they were so frustrated, where did it all end? 'Back to Africa.' It was fantastic. They were all Americans. This is where they had labored all their lives." This critique from her speech to the 1969 "Black/Red Conference" was part of an effort to get us to see DIALECTICS AS A DIMENSION OF THE COALESCENCE OF DIFFERENT FORCES.

Only by moving AWAY from dialectics as a crucial dimension of coalescence could it be suggested, as it was by some at one time, that the Million Man March of 1995, with its spirit of self-reliance and rehabilitation through moral virtue, could be a continuation of the negativity and reach for a different future signified by the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion.


From the start, Dunayevskaya saw that it was imperative that each of us "(1)...internalize AMERICAN CIVILIZATION ON TRIAL so that we can, at a moment's notice, make a comprehensive presentation of these views to outside groups and individuals; (2) it is equally important that we do not consider this pamphlet as a 'finished work,' but that we constantly expand it, reinterpret it, and bring it up to date."

This meant, as she put it in her 1983 Introduction to ACOT, that we cannot leave the present retrogression to the "factual stage alone" (p. i) including the new youth revolts that erupted then in Florida. Rather she pointed to the need for theory meeting those new voices to be "developed to the point of philosophy-a philosophy of world revolution." (p. iii) "The absolute challenge to our age," she wrote, "is the concretization of Marx's concept of 'revolution in permanence.'" (p. v)

In other words, the way Dunayevskaya felt ACOT needed to be re-created was not merely by bringing in new objective facts about the Black condition and the new revolts it engendered. Rather, the reality of our times demanded going into Marxist-Humanism itself as a re-creation of Marx's concept of revolution in permanence. What this means to me is that not only should we hold fast to great strides in the idea of freedom through moments of coalescence. Rather, we need to go further and realize that Dunayevskaya considered a projection of Marx's dialectic of self-development as itself a dimension that can facilitate the needed coalescence of revolutionary forces.

To make the underlying philosophy the active unifying agent is not an easy task, but it is a task we cannot shrink from because its soul is the revolution itself.

This came up recently when a group of us in the Bay Area went through Hegel's PHILOSOPHY OF MIND. A restatement of para. 575 (the syllogism Logic-Nature-Mind) might say: once Marxist-Humanism recognized all these movements from practice-like the Civil Rights Movement, the ghetto rebellions from the '60s to the '90s, the struggle for a new kind of labor, etc.; once it recognized these movements as MOMENTS of the power of the idea to shape reality, MIND HAS TO ASSERT ITSELF OUT OF THIS IMPLICIT IDEA WHICH IS WHAT HEGEL CALLS NATURE.

In para. 576 (the syllogism Nature-Mind-Logic) Mind itself presupposes Nature and "philosophy appears as a subjective cognition of which liberty is the aim and is itself the way to produce it." Here, through the movement from theory, each Particular movement articulates its Universal, which is the Universal of all movements, freedom.

In the final syllogism, para. 577, the act of creation of ourselves as human beings is no longer separated from our comprehension of ourselves through the recollection of our history and the recognition of the power of dialectics practiced every day and in every aspect of our lives. This Dunayevskaya called the new society and Marx "revolution in permanence." It is the task for our organization and for the revolution.