American Civilization on Trial

From the March-April 2013 issue of News & Letters:

As Others See Us

American Civilization on Trial

Raya Dunayevskaya’s sublimely researched American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard (ACOT) deserves a place among the U.S.’s most honest historical treatises. This seminal work overlays Marxism and the struggle of the African American. It concludes that it is intrinsically human for any economically exploited people to self-appraise their worth. This process is not only dynamically held in permanence, but also one that globally connects the working classes.

Dunayevskaya’s work is also an exegesis of racism in the U.S. She notes racism’s dehumanizing pathos during times preceding the American Revolution, tracks its insanity preceding and following the American Civil War, and elucidates its destructive tendencies during the post-World War II labor movements. ACOT’s poignant reference to J. Edgar Hoover’s attack on the Civil Rights Movement leaders serves as the bookend to the American founding fathers’ rejection of language within its own Declaration of Independence that would have emancipated its African stepchildren. This evidentiary argument concludes that the stated American quest to secure global freedom is perpetually compromised by its rabid insistence that its darkly tanned offspring never enjoy the liberties that white men—even its liberal communists—take for granted.

ACOT’s tenets are seasoned in Marxism. In their dialectics, these tenets not only provide guideposts for understanding a nascent U.S. agricultural economy’s rise as the de facto world economic power, but also as a template for the peoples’ struggle in societies throughout the world to liberate themselves from exploitation. Dunayevskaya notes Marx’s view of pre-Civil War America as an economically unsophisticated and agrarian society. Marx, nonetheless, views the African in bondage as America’s most likely change agent. She writes that Marx defines the common struggles of African slaves and Russian serfs as the most important powers in changing the world’s economies. When examining its essence—that is to say the essential need for all of humanity to be free—people breach nationalistic constructs and unite in a common struggle. Whether the struggle in permanence takes place in Poland, France, England, Russia, or the U.S., it tends to dismantle the capitalist paradigm.

While ACOT masterfully captures the most important moments of U.S. history, it does not imagine African Americans’ labor as an excess in a post-industrial world. Dunayevskaya’s trajectory plots an improved African-American condition. The opposite proved true. After the first edition of ACOT was published, a high-flying U.S. economy began a nose dive. The manufacturing engine stalled. Industry jettisoned the sacrosanct annual wage increase. Tossed alongside it were jobs. African-American labor took the hardest hit. The vanguard of change woke to a bitter reality: its dizzying flight to digest more of the bourgeois construct, left it among the permanent class of the unemployable.

ACOT’s guidance still provides a path out of darkness. Dunayevskaya lays out the route for African Americans to reshape themselves into a vanguard for those in a revolutionary struggle. This potential is realized when African Americans retrace the path that got them on the road to liberation over 200 years ago. Moreover, just as the capitalist boss jettisoned them to save his own margins, African Americans jettison all points of separation with their brothers and sisters in Russia, Europe, and all points on the globe. They identify themselves as a bright spirit in a common, united, and permanent liberation struggle.

—Ibrahim

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