Fermenting Revolution: Anti-Racism and Broader Social Struggles

Josh Fattal

Summary: On Raya Dunayevskaya and C.L.R. James during the Johnson-Forest Tendency on anti-racism as a ferment for broader revolutionary struggles. First appeared in The Activist History Review on September 26, 2019 — Editors

Should we organize on the basis of race or class? Is race or class the primary source of oppression? These sorts of arguments, in one guise or another, have reached the point of exhaustion. “Both!” respond a set of intellectuals and activists who recognize that myriad systems of oppression require myriad responses. “Both” is an important knee-jerk response to the divisive ‘either-or’ mentality, and it usually comes from thinkers who recognize “the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking” – to use the words of the Combahee River Collective.[i] Yet, “both” remains a simple one-word answer. While it comes with the recognition of the inter-relationship of systems of oppression, it leaves unexplored a deeper understanding of the relationships between intersecting social movements.

This essay unpacks the mid-century theories expounded by Raya Dunayevskaya and her comrade C.L.R. James that anti-racist organizing provided a ferment for broader struggles for social justice. It is their contribution to a study of how social movements relate to one another. Their legacy has pervaded through myriad channels on the Left including that of the Combahee River Collective, who have been credited for stimulating intersectional analysis in the late seventies. Amidst debates about the merits of organizing around class versus that of race, gender, sexuality, or other categories of hierarchical social relations, re-visiting these mid-century theories sheds an important light on the complex interplay of anti-racist activism and broader movements in US history.

Foundational to Dunayevskaya and James’ theories was James’ study of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938), which showed how anti-imperial struggles radicalized the revolutionary struggle in France.[ii] His groundbreaking study also unearthed the dynamics that led to the uprising of enslaved Africans and how the struggle for emancipation sprouted within the context of other struggles. San Domingo in the eighteenth century was a tinderbox because the overwhelming majority of enslaved Africans were brutally over-worked, often until death while the colony held an economic value disproportionate to its size. It was then considered the jewel in the crown of France’s empire. When that little island fell from France’s hands after the slave revolt, Napoleon had no use for the whole Mississippi valley and he promptly sold “Louisiana” to Thomas Jefferson.

Before the enslaved masses lit the planter’s society on fire, it was class divisions within white colonial San Domingo that made the initial fissures public. As class divisions became politicized in mainland France in spring 1789 and especially after the Parisian masses stormed the streets in July, the language of liberté reached the ears of white colonials as well as free Blacks in the Caribbean stoking conflict with the wealthy planters. In this context of class and race struggle, the slave uprising began in 1791. In turn, in France, the question of color and then of slavery clarified the positions of the European revolutionaries as the Jacobins led the revolution into its most radical phase. James wrote, that what the “San Domingo masses begin,” the “Paris masses complete,” and even as the Jacobins fell in France, the Black Jacobins continued to radicalize on the island.[iii] If the historical study into the transatlantic revolutionary moment was to teach James anything it was that social struggles can incubate further social struggles and that the explosion of one of society’s contradictions can become contagious.

In the year after the publication of the Black Jacobins, James generalized what he uncovered in Haiti into a theory about the relationship between the Black revolt and anti-capitalism. As a deeply committed Marxist, he complicated Marx’s notion that “the history of all existing society is the history of class struggle.”[iv] James urged his readers to take stock of “the tremendous role played by Negroes in the transformation of Western civilization from feudalism to capitalism. It is only from this vantage-ground that we shall be able to appreciate (and prepare for) the still greater role they must of necessity play in the transition from capitalism to socialism.”[v] He argued that, as in Haiti, the Black rebellion announced deeper struggles like “lightnings announce the thunder.”[vi]

In that 1939 article “Revolution and the Negro,” James showed that the actions of Black revolutionaries across their diaspora, including those in Haiti, spawned wider movements that reshaped modern history. For James, it was this role of incubating, fermenting, and announcing a total social struggle that Black revolts seemed to signal. But the vectors of revolutionary movement were always multi-directional, multi-dimensional, and global. Black uprisings, he argued, developed synergistically with many movements of reform and revolution around the globe from Mexico to China, from Russia to France. In one example, slave revolts in Jamaica in 1831 hastened their own emancipation but also led to the rise of the “reformist British bourgeoisie” who then appeased the British working class. In turn, “Lincoln was also driven to abolition by the pressure of the British working class.”[vii]

Raya Dunayevskaya and C.L.R. James formed a Marxist faction together in 1941 in which they shared intimately in their intellectual journey to make sense of a world in upheaval. Grace Lee Boggs became the third leader in the faction, making it the most diverse leadership of any Marxist grouping in the United States. James was Black and from Trinidad. Dunayevskaya was a female Jewish immigrant from the Soviet Union. Grace Lee a second generation Chinese-America woman, a rarity at the time of her birth, 1915. They refused to simply play lip service to the “women question,” the “negro question,” and the “national question.”

Instead, they tried to make sense of how the movements were related, historically, theoretically, and in practice. In the mid-forties, Dunayevskaya wrote several articles and essays on the negro question asserting the importance of “recognizing that the Negro’s specific oppression would evoke a broad mass movement.”[viii] It was the struggle for Black freedom in the 1860s they believed that led to the labor struggles after the Civil War, achieving the eight-hour day in 1872 in NYC and a revolutionary upheaval in St. Louis and elsewhere in July 1877. Understanding the inter-relatedness of movements helped Dunayevskaya and James uncover buried historical material. James wrote in 1948 that “I remember telling Rae [Raya] one day, ‘Go and read Populism and search for an independent Negro movement. It ought to be there.’ She found it in a few hours, over a million Negroes, buried and forgotten.”[ix]

When they broke away from the Trotskyists in 1951, they identified four key vectors of social change to pay attention to: women, youth, Black, and worker. Their most popular pamphlet “A Woman’s Place” was written by James’ future wife Selma Weinstien in 1952, and Grace Lee’s husband James Boggs, an Alabama-born Black worker at Chrysler’s plant in Detroit, gained a national reputation with his thoughtful analysis of how labor activism led to automation which led to a strata of radicalized black unemployed ghetto residents whom he foresaw as the new vanguard.[x] In short, trying to knit together the relationships between the movements was a core process that they sought to understand.

Dunayevskaya continued to search out these connections in her first book, Marxism and Freedom (1958).[xi] Even for someone deeply dedicated to spontaneity, she recognized that it was impossible for a total upheaval to be launched at once—someone had to stick their neck out first. She cited Lenin’s metaphor of fermentation to understand the contagious nature – what one scholar has called the “eros effect” – of rebellion.[xii] She quoted Lenin on the connection between the Irish uprising of 1916 with the Russian one the following year, “‘The dialectics of history is such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part of one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real power against imperialism to come on the scene, namely, the socialist proletariat.’”[xiii] Such power of fermentation was the key to understanding the radical importance of such vectors of change. Writing of the Great French Revolution, Dunayevskaya explained, “As in every real peoples’ revolution, new strata of the population were awakened. This time it was the women who were to act first. When reveille was sounded, all of Paris was in the streets.”[xiv]

Without a doubt the catalyst to the generalized upheaval in the 1960s was the Black Freedom Movement. As with any moment of social upheaval, political tendencies revealed themselves over time. The Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Organization of Afro-American Unity, Congress of Racial Equality, the Black Panther Party and its factions, were all distinct. James and Dunayevskaya understood these schisms to be a natural development because every social upheaval will have various tendencies as people with different experiences enter the fray.

While their intellectual work at the time attended to these political differences, Dunayevskaya also explored how sparks of rebellion widened and deepened over time. In the fall of 1965, she offered a compelling narrative of the rapid radicalization of social unrest in pamphlet co-authored by the Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio.[xv] The growth of the southern civil rights campaign and the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 not only led to the radical disappointment of SNCC members at the Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City, which in turn led to radicals like Stokely Carmichael gaining positions at the head of the organization and articulating the need for “Black Power.” White radicals like Mario Savio also spent their summer in Mississippi and returned in the fall to universities. Savio led what became the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley campus. Savio reflected, “what occurred last semester gained its initial impetus from the very different involvements of what are mostly middle-class students in the struggles of the Negro people.”[xvi]

The Free Speech Movement encouraged students and youth across the nation and by March 1965, an anti-war teach-in movement made its way onto at least a dozen campuses and later onto national television. In April Students for a Democratic Society then launched the anti-war movement into Washington D.C. with a rally of twenty thousand people. In Dunayevskaya’s pamphlet, she traced the connections between the Black, student, and anti-war movements as they both radicalized and broadened their critiques of society. “It is, of course, true that it was contact with the Negro people that inspired the Berkeley revolt. It is, however, also true that the Berkeley revolt, followed by the teach-ins, in turn, changed the climate for free speech on the pivotal question of war and peace for the whole country.”[xvii]

Subsequent historian have further affirmed these connections as well as others. The revitalization of the women’s movement first occurred within SNCC and in small anarchist circles.[xviii] Palestinian solidarity incubated within SNCC pamphlets.[xix]  A revitalized labor movement in the seventies emerged from the youth and Black movements.[xx] Urban hippies spawned the back-to-the-land movement.[xxi] What James and Dunayevskaya continue to teach us is that of course we need to analyze the divergent tendencies between and within movements, and, of course, we need to organize along “both” – actually all – lines of oppressed identities. But, in order to think about solidarities, radical intellectuals also need to think about and to encourage specific movements to ferment into other realms of society.

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