Summary: Report to the July 2020 Interim Convention of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization, slightly updated — Editors
Ours is the age that can meet the challenge of the times when we work out so new a relationship of theory to practice that the proof of the unity is in the Subject’s own self-development. Philosophy and revolution will first then liberate the innate talents of men and women who will become whole. Whether or not we recognize that this is the task history has ‘assigned’, to our epoch, it is a task that remains to be done.
-Raya Dunayevskaya, 1973 in Philosophy & Revolution Chapter 9, “New Passions and New Forces The Black Dimension, The Anti-Vietnam War Youth, Rank-and-File Labor, Women’s Liberation”.
Over the past 10 years, we have seen the rise of authoritarianism, state repression and white supremacy across the globe. As always, Black, Indigenous people of color, youth, women, LGBTQ folks, and people with disabilities will often bear the brunt of these dehumanizing structures. Some of the structural issues Black and Brown populations are experiencing in the United States at this time, include over-policing, police brutality, gentrification of already under-resourced communities, depressed wages, lowered health outcomes, housing insecurity, mass incarceration to name a few.
Marxist-Humanism is a philosophy that engages with the totality of Marx’s work, posits that alienation is at the center of dehumanizing structures humans face under capital and embraces Marx’s philosophy of liberation. To analyze the current uprisings we must try to understand the dialectical relationship between the objective and subjective forces in these movements. This report will examine issues of race and gender from a United States based context. Because we are living through an unprecedented time, of a Black-led multi-racial movement, this report will primarily focus on United States-based Black and feminist movements.
THE MOVEMENTS OF BLACK MASSES
Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.
-Ruth Wilson Gilmore
Black Lives Matter and Related Movements
Each generation of revolutionaries must theorize, and act based on current conditions. Movements like Black Lives Matter have been at the forefront of not only fighting police violence, the incarceration of Black, Brown and Indigenous people, and an unjust immigration system, but have also taken on issues such as mental health, LGBTQ rights, and reproductive justice for folks of color. Moreover, the current Covid-19 pandemic has not revealed a “we’re in this together” moment as many in the bourgeoisie were claiming it would. In fact, this particular crisis has laid bare all of the inequities in our society as Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) find themselves disproportionately affected by this catastrophe. Indeed, the social and economic impacts of this crisis coupled with recent racist murders of Black folks is fueling the revolts we see as BIPOC, women, youth, the working class, immigrants and sexual minorities rise up against the domination of racialized and gendered capitalism.
Throughout this decade, the United States public has been forcefully confronted with what many communities of color have long understood, i.e. their bodies are considered disposable in this society. A 2015 study by the Harvard Public Health Review confirms this, revealing that Black men are three times more likely to have a fatal encounter with the police compared to white men. The same study also shows there’s been a sharp rise in these fatal incidents since the 1980s. The 2014 brutal murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown by police mobilized the Black masses to say, “I can’t breathe,” a reference to Garner’s last words as police manhandled him cutting off his circulation and “We have nothing to lose but our chains,” a phrase found in the Communist Manifesto but popularized by Assata Shakur in the 1970s. Today we repeat the same harrowing last words of George Floyd as he pleaded for his life and called out for his mother, while a police officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. “I can’t breathe” is now the cry of the streets as masses everywhere protest Mr. Floyd’s murder, racialized capitalism and state violence worldwide.
Public perception of the movement for Black lives and of systemic racism have shifted over the past 7 years. A July 2020 poll by Langer Research Associates reveals that 63% of U.S. Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement and 69% of the same group acknowledge that Black people and other racialized minorities face institutional racism within the criminal justice system. The response to the question of systemic racism has jumped 15 percentage points since 2014, the year the Black Lives Matter movement was born. This shift in consciousness for the masses does not necessarily translate into widespread desire for revolutionary change. At a time when confidence in law enforcement institutions is at a 30 year low (48% across the general population, 56% among whites and 19% among Blacks), the U.S. masses favor widespread police reforms over defunding or abolishing the police (Brennan, 2020). White U.S. citizens are less likely to support the defunding of the police department budgets and shifting resources to social programs (41% compared to 49% of the Hispanic and 70% of the Black population). And while the U.S. general population does not support the complete abolishment of policing as we know it (15% support from the general population BUT 33% for persons under 35 years old), the public is now having important conversations about the carceral state (Crabtree, 2020).
Taylor (2020) carefully examines the superficial display of solidarity we are witnessing from our public and private institutions. “At one level, the rapid, reflexive default to offering symbolic recognition of racism was quite typical. No other country engages in the cavernous nothingness of the fake apology as frequently as the United States.”. At the same time she acknowledges what other radical scholars have that the uprisings are a response to prolonged systemic inequities minorities suffer under racialized capital and that the emerging social movements are forcing everyone, including the left to engage seriously with issues around class, race, anti-blackness, crime, and state-sanctioned violence.
An important task for those in these movements is to offer a critical analysis of the role of looting and vandalism during protests. As Vicky Osterweil (2014) and others have noted, the media attempts to distinguish “good” protesters from “bad” ones and by doing so “reproduces racist and white supremacist ideologies, deeming some unworthy of our solidarity and protection, marking them, subtly, as legitimate targets of police violence. These days, the police, whose public-facing racism is much more manicured, if no less virulent, argue that ‘outside agitators’ engage in rioting and looting. Meanwhile, police will consistently praise ‘non-violent’ demonstrators, and claim that they want to keep thosedemonstrators safe.” In this current revolt, the “good” protesters can be seen marching during the day, chanting and expressing anger in a way that is only slightly unacceptable in civil society. The “bad” protesters are characterized by actions like looting, ignoring curfews, vandalism, mocking police officers, allowing their anger to spill over onto freeways by occupying them, and displaying generally antisocial behavior. Embracing the “good vs. bad” protester logic risks dividing movements and undermining the solidarity protesters might otherwise have. This logic also implies that those engaged in these acts don’t have agency and are not involved in conscious and tactical resistance. Furthermore, undermining the more violent aspects of a revolt underestimates the very visceral rage many are experiencing at this time. Organizers and activists should continuously push their demands forward and not fall into this logic, particularly at a time when we see the state making concessions and wide public condemnations of systemic racism. Conversations about non-community invaders should center on police and National Guard troops who are the true outside agitators as they’ve been deployed from other cities to repress communities. Moreover protesters can and have been using this moment to push forward a counter-narrative, using the language of looting, stealing and violence to confront the white supremacist settler-colonial project that is the United States, and making the case that exploitation under capitalism is actually the ultimate form of looting.
The current Black Lives Matter movement has been viewed as a form of race-based identity politics by some on the Marxist left who remain only interested in class-first solutions to the problems we experience under capitalism. These critics claim that these forms of identity politics undermine class solidarity for neoliberal reforms or for bourgeois individualisms. Understanding that the politics of recognition do not develop in a vacuum, Raya Dunayevskaya (1982) did not reject these politics wholesale, in fact she evokes Hegelian concepts in support saying, “it is clear that for the Black masses, Black consciousness, awareness of themselves as African-Americans with their dual history and special pride, is a drive toward wholeness. Far from being a separation from the objective, it means an end to the separation between objective and subjective. Not even the most elitist Black has quite the same arrogant attitude as the White intellectual toward the worker, not to mention the prisoner.” (1982:281)
Dunayevskaya recognizes something that scholars like Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2016) point to, that even the Black elites in the United States society cannot escape racialization. This is an important observation that the class-reductionists are usually not able to make. Their fear of being derailed from struggling against a global class war prevents them from understanding how comparatively little power Black and Brown elites hold in a racist society. They also fail to realize that even the bourgeois Black and Brown classes are willing to fight against racialized oppression and have historically done so. Indeed, almost all United States mainstream politicians of color at our present time are willing to proclaim, “Black Lives Matter.”
Concerning the issue of identity-first or race-based movements, Dunayevskaya (1982) also rejects the idea that Black self-development of subjectivity is bourgeois. Over the span of her career, she remains committed to the struggle against structural racism and its relationship to capital. She also follows the activities and self-development of people of color, particularly in relation to the Black dimension in the United States. Determined to always get to the root of racial domination, she was consistently willing to take the class-reductionist left as well as the Black bourgeois leadership to task. Dunayevskaya (1963) does more than champion the rights of racialized minorities or simply explain how their oppression is connected to a larger class war. Through her dialectical exploration of history, she is able to demonstrate that not only are the United States Black populations always on the forefront of liberation movements but that no system of domination can snuff out the human desire to be free. In American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard, she writes, “[the Black dimension] at each turning point in history, anticipates the next stage of development of labor in its relationship with capital. Because of his dual oppression, it could not be otherwise” (1963:81). To make this claim she analyzes the creativity of abolitionists through the slave revolts, Black anti-imperial resistances during the turn of the 20th century, Black labor battles of the reconstruction era, the courageous actions of the Little Rock Nine in their quest to desegregate schools and the Black wildcat Detroit strikes — notice that many of the struggles she highlights have no obvious or immediate class character. Dunayevskaya takes a special interest in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott asserting that this struggle was as relevant and radical as the Hungarian revolution that occurred the year after. She writes extensively on not only the relatedness of these movements but on the underlying humanism that propels them. Throughout her scholarship, Dunayevskaya observes that the Black masses at this time remain revolutionary, “contrary to the reports in the white press, Black America’s actual rejection of white capitalistic-imperialistic exploitation, with or without Black lackeys, is, all one and the same time, a time-bomb that is sure to explode, and a time for thinking and readying for action.” ( 1986:12)
Black Pain for White Witnesses
In a provocative essay Zoe Samudzi (2020) explores the question of why we watch videos of Black people being murdered or brutalized by state actors or white vigilantes. She asserts, “it serves usually, as a reinscription of white supremacy: a reification of the boundary between the white self and the black ‘others’ through a passive bystander witnessing and the enforcement of race through public violence.” In other words, it is possible to view these heinous acts over and over again, express concern, and share the videos for the purpose of awareness-raising without actually engaging in anti-racist praxis. If state violence is a mainstay of Black life, what awareness is there to raise? Why have the masses at this point not come to understand how violence functions under racial capitalism?
Samudzi also claims that “the killings, in a way, become a macabre method of marking social and political time” and an opportunity for white progressives and leftists to claim moral superiority over other white people because they experience sympathy by watching the horror and subsequently sharing them in a quest for justice (that as we’ve seen is rarely achieved). One other reason for the sharing of these videos is to convince the masses of the innocence of the victims. If Black people in this society by default are guilty, then there must be evidence of the opposite before the masses can demand justice for their murders. The families of state murder victims understand this and also often urge us not to look away from the dehumanization of their Black family members. What remains clear is that we will continue to witness violence against Black, Brown, Indigenous, non-male, queer and disabled folks until we fundamentally change social relations in our societies. We will continue to share and be horrified by the videos that capture this violence. One question we should ask is how to move mass passive white viewership from this place of witnessing to one of struggling for justice. Perhaps we are on the way there as the witnessing of George Floyd’s murder has become the impetus for the current uprising against state violence.
Women’s Movements and Abolition Feminisms
Let this (moment) radicalize you rather than lead you to despair.
We’ve seen tremendous activism and organizing of women (many of color) and queer folks over the past several years. In 2019, we witnessed Sara Nelson, the head of the flight attendants union call for a general strike after a government shutdown left TSA screeners, air traffic controllers, and customs agents unpaid for 35 days. This tactic has not been attempted in the United States for over 70 years! Although flight attendants are paid by the private airlines they work for, Nelson made a rousing speech calling for worker solidarity across all sectors, “Some would say the answer is for them to walk off the job. I say, ‘What are you willing to do?’ Their destiny is tied up with our destiny — and they don’t even have time to ask us for help. Don’t wait for an invitation. Get engaged, join or plan a rally, get on a picket line, organize sit-ins at lawmakers’ offices.” Perhaps Nelson like many have recognized, the current political and economic conditions have opened the door for these radical ideas to be broached and the masses are hungry for changes. She would go on to say, “I think what we’re seeing, with the teachers strikes, the hotel workers who took on Marriott and won, is that people are not willing to put up with it anymore. People are willing to do more to fight for their families because they have been pushed so far, and there has been so much productivity put on the backs of the American worker without any increases in wages.” When asked about her call for a general strike, she wondered, “What is the labor movement waiting for?”
While we have yet to observe a general strike, we cannot discount the strikes and other labor-related activities that have occurred over the past few years. Indeed, we’ve witnessed widespread teacher strikes in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, California and Colorado. These teacher strikes can be understood as both labor and feminist issues, considering that 77 % of all K-12 educators in the United States are female, and that the demands educators have been making address matters of social reproduction. As teachers during these strikes have demanded better pay and/or work conditions, they’ve also called for changes that socialist feminists everywhere have considered important for life-making. These include a demand to invest in counselors, librarians and mental health support for students, re-investment in after-school and early education programs for public education, access to quality education for working-class students, access to quality food in schools, and demands for the safety of children, and specifically, a halt to random searches and the policing of students.
One framework socialist feminists of color are rallying around particularly when it comes to issues of social reproduction, is that of abolitionist feminism (Lorber, 2018). Abolitionist feminism is an anti-capitalist framework with Marxist roots which seeks to not only dismantle the carceral state but project a new world. According to Maureen Mansfield (2018), “abolitionist feminism invites us to consider the world we want, and how to organize to build it. Seeking a world beyond cages, policing and surveillance, Abolitionist Feminism focuses our attention on developing stronger communities and bringing about gender, race and economic justice. It encourages us to consider our approach systemically and collectively rather than individually… Abolitionist Feminism asks us to consider the violence and harm caused by the state, as well as inter-personally, and seek alternative strategies for addressing these harms.”
While abolitionist frameworks are not new, we find new generations of feminists of color adopting these ideas. The abolitionist frameworks are indeed informing activists and theorists in this moment of civil unrest. When the Black Lives Matter movement launched in 2014, most calls for justice from even the leaders of the organization were reformist in nature. In this second wave of BLM activism, we are witnessing these demands change to have a more abolitionist character. The present-day abolitionist movements comprise of grassroots organizers, feminist collectives and scholars and is a very decentralized movement. Beyond the abolitionist frameworks that unite their work, the organizing principles are carried out in context-specific ways. By eschewing big party politics, vanguardism or hierarchical organizations, abolitionists have managed to be nimble and propose an abolitionist platform that meets current Black Lives Matter uprising. For example, the calls to #defundpolice and for #carenotcops were crafted quite thoughtfully. When abolitionists proposed these demands, they looked at actionable ways of approaching police abolition that had the potential to shrink the scope of policing, the size of the prison-industrial complex and to undermine the surveillance state. Defunding the police and investing public monies in services for communities that are most affected by the carceral system, creates the potential for new communities of care where societal ills are no longer addressed through either interpersonal or state violence.
By contrast, liberal reformers are calling for a police reform program known as #8cantwait. This platform proposes measures to combat police brutality that many states have tried with little success (e.g. banning chokeholds on arrest victims) to ones that are almost unenforceable (e.g. mandating police officers to use de-escalation techniques in their arresting practices). These proposals seek to make tweaks to a system that can not be accountable to itself and offers no generative community-based to address peoples’ material needs. But for the ongoing radical organizing of contemporary abolitionists, this framework would be accepted as the most progressive solution to the problems of state violence and police terror we face. So strong was the opposition to the #8cantwait program that its original framers have almost abandoned it and a collective of revolutionary abolitionists have released their own plan titled #8toabolition.
Abolitionist frameworks have the potential of upending all systems of domination and projecting new humanist alternatives. As famed abolitionist feminist Mariame Kaba says, “a big part of the abolitionist project… is unleashing people’s imaginations while getting concrete — so that we have to imagine while we build, always both.” Abolishing the carceral state would necessitate the abolishment of capitalism. The current abolitionist feminisms we are witnessing are advocating for a politic that goes beyond the redistribution of resources and instead proposes new human social relations that are not based on commodification and exploitation. This framework refuses to explore the “woman question,” “the race question” or the “prison/policing/surveillance abolition question” after the revolution but demands that it be theoretically worked on now. Time will tell if these and related movements can potentially uproot the capitalist mode of production and overcome the mental and manual division of labor that creates alienated human relations.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
We therefore now need to initiate the exploration of the new reconceptualized form of knowledge that would be called for by Fanon’s redefinition of being humanas that of skins (phylogeny/ontogeny) and masks (sociogeny). Therefore bios and mythoi. And notice! One major implication here: humanness is no longer a noun. Being human is a praxis.
At the current moment, we are facing a global pandemic and multiple historic political uprisings. How are we to identify and be in solidarity with the revolutionary subjects of our day? What kinds of organizations do we need at this time and what role can Marxist-Humanists play in articulating a theory of organization that meets this moment? It is abundantly clear that the masses are eschewing vanguardism and hierarchical organizations for smaller, more horizontal democratic female and queer-led models. As we theorize about organization, we should consider Dunayevskaya’s insights when asked to address the question of decentralization within the Womens’ liberation movement. She writes, “ the demand for small informal groups is not to be disregarded as if it were a question of not understanding the difference between small and large, and that large is better. Nor can this demand be answered in our bureaucratic age by attributing to Women’s liberation a deep-down belief in private property, petty home industry, and “of course” Mother Earth. Nothing of the kind. The demand for decentralization involves the two pivotal questions of the day; and, I might add, questions of tomorrow, because we are not going to have a successful revolution unless we do answer them. They are, first, the totality and the depth of the necessary uprooting of this exploitative, sexist, racist society. Second, the dual rhythm of revolution: not just the overthrow of the old, but the creation of the new: not just the reorganization of objective, material foundations but the release of subjective personal freedom, creativity, and talents. In a word, there must be such appreciation of the movement from below, from practice, that we can never again let theory and practice get separated. That is the cornerstone” (Dunayevskaya  1991:108)
Over the past two years we’ve explored matters of identity, intersectionality, and other politics of recognition in our theorizing around this issue. In the past I have suggested, “instead of becoming frustrated with the consciousness-raising and empowerment projects some identity-based movements have turned to, we should position ourselves to do the theoretical and practical labor required to be in critical solidarity with Black and Brown movements.” I have also proposed that these projects be taken on by theorizing around the psychic components of racialized and gendered oppression while seeking out ways to move incomplete articulations of intersectionality and emerging movements to a place of radical criticality. In addition, my fellow IMHO colleague Lilia Monzó (2019) asks us to move Dunayevskaya’s concept of Black masses as vanguard to what she calls women of color as vanguard, making a case that women of color subjects are currently the force and reason for revolution. Others in our organization like Peter Hudis (2019) propose developing an intersectional historical materialist framework that can theorize not only around Marxist concepts but also take on the issues of dehumanization produced by racialized and gendered domination under capitalism. These are important additions to Marxist-Humanist thought as much of the revolutionary movement work we see today is being led by Black, Brown and Indigenous women and queer folks in the United States who are wrestling with similar questions.
Dunayevskaya always had a long and dialectical view of history and would systematically relate capital’s latest crisis to mass movements and issues concerning people of color. She did so by developing Marxist-Humanism, a philosophy that reanimates the totality of Marx’s Marxism and that posits alienation at the heart of the dehumanization we suffer under capital. She remained situated in the struggles of the day, paying special attention to the activities of the Black dimension which she identified as historically being an important force for liberatory movement. Always working from Marx’s concept of revolution in permanence, she also posed the question “what comes next,” taking care to articulate the potential to produce new humanisms during each revolutionary struggle. As the Marxist left continues to struggle when it comes to issues of race and gender and as identity-based intersectional theories continue to be relevant we are also noticing a liberatory politics emerge from below as people try to make sense of their everyday experiences. Our task as revolutionaries is to project better alternatives that take the everyday material conditions of folks seriously, to be in critical solidarity with the revolutionary subjects of our day and to “recognize that there is a movement from practice — from the actual struggles of the day — to theory; and, second, to work out the method whereby the movement from theory can meet it.” (Dunayevskaya  2012:73)
Several excerpts of this report can be found in an upcoming book chapter titled, Raya Dunayevskaya on Race, Resistance and Revolutionary Humanism
8 Can’t Wait Platform: https://8cantwait.org/
8 to Abolition Platform: https://www.8toabolition.com/
Brenan, Megan. “Amid Pandemic, Confidence in Key U.S. Institutions Surges”. Gallup, August, 2020: https://news.gallup.com/poll/317135/amid-pandemic-confidence-key-institutions-surges.aspx
Crabtree, Steve. “Most Americans Say Policing Needs ‘Major Changes”. Gallup, July 2020: https://news.gallup.com/poll/315962/americans-say-policing-needs-major-changes.aspx
Duda, John. Towards the horizon of abolition: A conversation with Mariam. The Next System Project. 2017: https://thenextsystem.org/learn/stories/towards-horizon-abolition-conversation-mariame-kaba
Dunayevskaya, Raya.  2003. American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard. Chicago: News and Letters Publications.
Dunayevskaya, Raya. Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm.  2012. The Dunayevskaya-Marcuse Fromm Correspondence, 1954-1978: Dialogues on Hegel, Marx and Critical Theory, K. B. Anderson and R. Rockwell (Eds.). Maryland: Lexington.
Dunayevskaya, Raya.  2003. Philosophy and Revolution. Lanham: Lexington Books.
Dunayevskaya, Raya.  1991. Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s
Philosophy of Revolution. 2nd ed. Foreword by Adrienne Rich. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Dunayevskaya, Raya. “A Post-World War II View of Marx’s Humanism, 1843-83; Marxist-Humanism, 1950s-1980s,” News and Letters, 1986.
Grabar, Henry. What Workers Can Learn From “the Largest Lockout in U.S. History”
An interview with Sara Nelson, the flight attendant union head who called this week for a general strike. Slate, 2019.
Hudis, Peter. “How is an Intersectional Historical Materialism Possible?: The Dialectic of Race and Class Reconsidered”. Paper presented at. Toronto, April, 2019.
Krieger, Nancy et.al. “Trends in US deaths due to legal intervention among black and white men, age 15- 34 years, by county income level: 1960-2010”, Harvard Public Health Review, Vol. 3 Jan 2015.
Langer Research Associates. “63 Percent Support Black Lives Matter as Recognition of Discrimination Jumps”. July 21, 2020: https://www.langerresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/1214a3RaceandRights.pdf
Loewus, Liana. The Nation’s Teaching Force Is Still Mostly White and Female. Eduweek, 2017.
Lober, Brooke. “(re)Thinking Sex Positivity, Abolition Feminism, and the #MeToo Movement: Opportunity for a New Synthesis”. Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics, January 2018.
Mansfield, Maureen. “What is Abolitionist Feminism, and Why Does it Matter?”, The Progressive Policy Think Tank,2018. https://www.ippr.org/juncture-item/what-is-abolitionist-feminism-and-why-does-it-matter
McKittrick, Katherine. ed. Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
Monzó, Lilia D. 2019. A Revolutionary Subject: Pedagogy of Women of Color and Indigeneity. New York: Peter Lang.
Osterweil, Vicky 2014. In Defense of Looting. The New Inquiry: https://thenewinquiry.com/in-defense-of-looting/
Samudzi, Zoe. White Witness and the Contemporary Lynching, 2020: https://newrepublic.com/article/157734/white-witness-contemporary-lynching
Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. 2016. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Chicago: Haymarket.
Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. “We should still defund the police”. The New Yorker, August 14, 2020: https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/defund-the-police.
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Chris Aquino on September 8, 2020 at 9:57 pm
Wonderful references and piece!
Wonderful references and piece!