Feminist meets Raya
Several months ago I had the good fortune to “meet” Raya Dunayevskaya, read and study her and familiarize myself with her thought, which to me is valid and contemporary. This brought on a self-introspection, as someone coming from the women’s liberation movement. If someone were to say that studying Marxism serves to answer many questions, I would say that reading Marx calls into question modernity itself. Marxist philosophy can serve as a tool to clarify ideas and to not lose sight of a philosophy which I would call humanist. Marxist thought has been painted by many as ideology, but I want to stress its importance as a method of studying dialectics, both human and philosophic.
Dunayevskaya turned everything around completely. Before reading her, I considered Marxism as a near-doctrinaire ideology and to some point a boring one. But Dunayevskaya’s treatment of Marxism gives it a new spin and dynamic and her contribution becomes invaluable. Dunayevskaya is a clear example of a woman who absolutely was part of the Women’s Liberation Movement, whose thought is always in movement, constant transformation. As an essayist, philosopher, and writer she always combines two things: theory and practice. I could no longer theorize on the basis of opinions or abstractions, but instead on the basis of concrete realities in which we participate directly in order to bring about social change. Capitalism has deformed us in such a way that it attempts to erase all features of our humanity. Her interpretation seems indispensable now that we find ourselves in this century.
…Her teaching is an invitation to take responsibility that is historic and that brings us to an interpretation of reality in our own language which would also be part of an active memory and identity in the liberation and emancipatory struggles of people in all parts of the world.
–April 2010, Raquela Vázquez,
Mexican feminist, abortion rights activist
I am not a specialist in the thought of Raya Dunayevskaya. I studied Marxism and Freedom as well as Philosophy and Revolution in the 1970s but, save for the beautiful essay on Rosa Luxemburg that I found recently, I haven’t read Dunayevskaya since then. Nonetheless, I consider reading those books in my youth as part of my development and would like to make some comments on the impact that Raya had on some antiauthoritarian groups in Italy in the 1970s.
Why did we read her? Around the later years of the 1970s there arose in Italy a new cycle of social struggles in the universities and the factories. It grew out of the expression of a generation of post-war revolutionaries, which was outside of, and didn’t follow, the traditional Left parties. Amongst the rest of Europe Italy was peculiar in that this rebellion spread to workers as well.
We had to confront the Communist Party (CP). During the Cold War the CP took its role seriously as an enforcer of the Yalta Accords; the world was parceled into zones of influence and Italy “belonged” to the U.S. Italy was excluded from the geography of revolution. The CP was in total control of the social movements, using Stalinist methods. When we went to distribute literature outside of the factories, those that came to pummel us–and I don’t mean with rose petals–were the members of the Communist-led union, as well as CP militants who were given the task of reporting all independent expressions of dissent directly to the cops.
It became vital to us to align ourselves theoretically with arguments that would deepen our critique of Soviet Marxism and its Italian epigones. We read Marx, Korsch, Pannekoek, Castoriadis. We read the Situationists, Marcuse, and some anarchist writers, Bakunin, Woodcock, and Daniel Guerin in particular. One day a publication in English came in the mail, austere, but maybe a little less austere than our own publications. News & Letters came from Detroit and had lots of information on Black struggles. It grabbed our attention as we saw those struggles as some of the most advanced expressions of anticapitalist conflict in the whole world….
One of our goals was to steal Marx–who we admired but still held mixed feelings about–back from the death grip of the USSR and the Marxist-Leninist sects that were abundant at the time, particularly the Maoists. Raya’s critiques of Maoism and of Sartre–the most famous Maoist in the West–make up her finest philosophic work. We had a deep hatred of Sartre for the legitimacy he had lent to the Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolt in 1956….
It was in her writings that we found a way to elevate political positions to the level of theoretic and philosophic reflection, a reflection that in her impassioned defense of freedom and radical humanism hasn’t lost a relevance for our heartless and brutal age today.
I met Raya in person in 1978. There was at that time an important miners’ strike and an old Black militant member of News and Letters Committees told us Raya would be coming to Chicago to give a talk on the strike. There were a dozen of us at the talk, which was truly outrageous given the caliber of the speaker.
We were captivated by Raya. I remember her as small, but strong and energetic, moving and gesticulating behind the podium as only those who are truly great speakers do. She did not read from a prepared talk. She spoke in the way that the great worker-orators speak, and I had the same sensation while listening to her that I had many years later listening to Vlady, the son of Victor Serge; that is, the sensation of witnessing and connection with the great revolutionaries of the past.
We all went out to eat afterward and I limited myself to asking what she thought of Bordiga? “He didn’t understand Hegel,” Raya answered jokingly.
One hundred years after her birth, I will remember her as one of the most impassioned defenders of freedom of the 20th century.
–Claudio Albertini, excerpts from a talk at Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México
From La Jornada
Translator’s note: This article is from one of the largest progressive daily newspapers in Mexico, La Jornada. The full version appeared in the April 2 issue “El marxismo humanista de Raya Dunayevskaya.”
I recently read one of Dunayevskaya’s most important works–Philosophy and Revolution: From Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao–in which she elaborates her critical view of Marxism, which leads the reader to a deeper essential understanding of it. She is important for her contribution to the understanding of the transformative processes that take place in the real world, particularly Latin America….
Following the idea that theory can only be developed fully when it is based in the masses’ thoughts and activities, she stresses that for Marx the fundamental aspect was that human beings weren’t only Object, but Subject; not only shaped by history, but also history’s creators.
From this standpoint, Dunayevskaya makes a radical critique of vanguardism. Are the peasant and working masses creators of history, or do they merely need to take orders? Should the masses be passive observers the day after the revolution? In her condemnation of Stalinism she affirms that the vanguardist approach suffocates the spontaneity of the masses. When the state absorbs the unions and workers’ organizations as if they were state property, then the state Plan and the Party become fetishes that the workers are supposed to sacrifice their lives defending.
Dunayevskaya puts forward a different perspective founded in the self-developing Subject. She supported Lenin, who, in her view, considered the masses, proletarians, peasants, and even oppressed nationalities as self-developing Subjects. Lenin believed a new theoretical impulse was needed because, in his time, a new Subject was born: the self-determination of nations.
Dunayevskaya takes issue with Trotsky’s conception of the peasantry, which he considered neither a self-developing Subject nor even conceded them a national consciousness much less a socialist one. She maintained that the political initiative doesn’t belong exclusively and at all times to the working class. When the masses are seen as Subject, a revolution shouldn’t be analyzed as a question of leadership but as one of self-development. She asserts that Trotsky was too concerned with the question of “direction” and that he subordinated the self-developing Subject to it. This perspective–a useful one for analyzing Mexico’s indigenous peoples as self-developing Subjects–makes supremely interesting her critique of statism….
Her critique of Mao is devastating. He led China through a process of capitalist accumulation through state-capitalism in which the Party had a monopoly on correct thought. This resulted in a complete squandering of humans in bureaucracy and inefficiency. Retrogression is the word that sums up Mao’s thought…. She accuses him of turning his back on Vietnam, which was fighting a life or death struggle against U.S. imperialism. In China the dialectics of liberation was replaced by a capricious and arbitrary dogmatism, and by the simultaneous fetishizing of the Marxist-Leninist thought of Mao Zedong and of the worldwide revolution. “The dialectic revealed that the counterrevolution is in the bosom of the revolution.”
Dunayevskaya asserts that the essential character of spontaneity isn’t only inherent in the revolution but should continue its direction after the revolution, as well as cultural diversity, self-determination, and the formation of a non-state form of collectivity.
The reinterpretation of Marx and the revolutionary theory of Raya Dunayevskaya are of the highest strategic importance for the struggles for a socialist humanism, free and self-developed.
–Gilberto López y Rivas
A Marxist-Humanist view from Colombia
Much has been said about post-Marx Marxism and the different attempts at making real a new society. These attempts have ended up as disasters, as can be seen in the last decade of the 20th century with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the dismembering of the Eastern European Bloc. China as well can’t be let off the hook, where the decision to “modernize the economy” was made a government priority after Mao, and the human factor as being primary was abandoned by Maoism itself…
No Marxist intellectual has contributed as much to the clarification of the post-World War II events in those countries as Raya Dunayevskaya has in her interpretation of state-capitalism. Nor has anyone put forward an analysis as she has of the five-year plans in the then-newly formed Soviet Union. In light of the theory of value, she showed that social relations between people in the Soviet Union remained capitalist. She tackles this in Marxism and Freedom, which forms a part of her “trilogy of revolution.”
The richness of this book lies in its precise defining of capitalism as a production relation, and clarifies that the nationalization of companies is not socialism. Her commentaries on the Paris Commune praise to the skies that valuable revolutionary experience while at the same time taking into account its impact on Marx. She sees this impact reflected in changes to Capital, where Marx also develops his theory of value as a product of human labor. The references to the worker revolts in the Communist Bloc, as well as in the U.S. with the Black struggle for civil rights, affirm Dunayevskaya’s theory that “the movement from practice is itself a form of theory.” The book begins with a question that should always be the point of departure for revolutionary movements: “Can humanity be free?”
Another important aspect of Dunayevskaya’s legacy is her call to return to the roots of philosophy. Her immersion in Hegel allows her to relocate his thought in its proper place as the premise of Marxism. Her references to Lenin’s Philosophic Notebooks are valuable in showing him as a follower of the dialectic. The reinforcement of these foundations of thought will help revolutionaries clarify their role in history and work out Marxist theories. Dunayevskaya’s book Philosophy and Revolution: From Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao breathes new life into the study of negation, logic, and Hegelian thought. The relevance that is present is evidenced it its opening question: Why Hegel? Why now?…
Colombian revolutionaries should deepen their approach to Marxist-Humanism, which will allow them to recover within it the dignity of human beings.
(Translated from the Spanish by Brown Douglas)