Raya Dunayevskaya and the Red-Black Atlantic

I’ve attached (below) a pre-copy edited version of a chapter on Raya Dunayevskaya from a forthcoming book, Revolutionary lives of the Red and Black Atlantic (Manchster University Press), edited by David Feathersone, Christian Høgsbjerg and Alan Rice. The chapter was co-written by Nigel Niles and myself.

The chapter focuses on Dunayevskaya’s theoretical and practical activity in which her Marxism (Red) intersected with her work on Black liberation (Black), with a particular focus on the trans-Atlantic dimension (so no reference to the Red-Black conference that she was involved in organising in 1969, and only a passing reference to American Civilization on Trial).

The narrative arc of the chapter follows her activity from her teenage years, to her break with Leon Trotsky and her formation of the Johnson-Forest Tendency (with CLR James and others), to her break with James and founding of News & Letters Committees and development of Marxist-Humanism.

The latter section discusses a few passages from her first major work Marxism and Freedom (1958), where she discussed the links between the revolts against slavery in the USA, (including John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and the Civil War), the campaign for the eight-hour day that arose in the wake of the Civil War and Marx’s transformation of his Critique of Political Economy into what became Capital.

Marxism and Freedom, first published in 1958 with a Preface by Herbert Marcuse

As we note in the chapter, Dunayevskaya argued that Marx:

through an application of dialectics, subjected the whole of classical political economy to profound criticism. This criticism, however, was academic because Marx was adopting the ‘ordinary procedure for an intellectual [which is] to study the history of other theories and to separate himself from them on their ground’. [Marxism & Freedom, 2000, p. 48] Marx, in the Critique, did lay bare the inner logic of the most theoretically rigorous attempts to understand the inner workings of capitalist society… This critical analysis, however, was remote because it was dealing with the work of the classical thinkers on their ground, as theory. In the 1860s Marx radically reworked the Critique to produce the work that we know as Capital… This reorganisation of the material, Dunayevskaya argued, was… a case of fusing a unity of theory and practice; of rooting an understanding of capitalism in the struggles of the working-class. When Marx moved the material on the history of theory to the appendices, Dunayevskaya suggested, he was simultaneously shifting his focus from political economy (theory) to the laws that govern capitalist production itself… The worker, the source of the capitalists’ profit, is both an objective, (a labourer who produces commodities), and subjective, (a living human being who thinks their own thoughts), factor in capitalist production… The slaves, in their struggle against slavery in the South, were showing that they thought their own thoughts and desired their own freedom. The American workers, in their struggle for an eight-hour day, were asserting their own interests, by attempting to place a limit on their exploitation by capital. It is these struggles that created a new dialectic, a struggle between Capital and Labour.

I think that the distinction between the application of dialectics and the creation of a new dialectic is crucial to understanding Dunayevskaya’s concept of ‘the movement from practice to theory, that is itself a form of theory’ (a concept that we attempt to (briefly) explain in our chapter).

The discussion of Marxism and Freedom is followed by a brief outline of Dunayevskaya’s engagement with liberation struggles in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s