On the Centenary of Raya Dunayevskaya: Marxist-Humanism as a new relationship of theory and practice

Following are my remarks on a panel at the Raya Dunayevskaya Centenary Celebration at Bluestockings Bookstore in New York City on September 22.

First, last, and always, Raya Dunayevskaya was a revolutionary. That’s what her life was all about: revolution, transforming the world to create a truly free society on new human foundations. And that is why Karl Marx was so important to her–he too was all about revolution, in life and in thought. Her involvement in the revolutionary movement inexorably led her into a deeper and deeper relationship with philosophy. Practice, revolutionary activity, is indispensable, and at the same time it is not enough if it is separated from thought, not only from theory, but from philosophy. And so, while never retreating from the struggles going on in life, she was compelled to dive deeper and deeper into thought, not only the debates of theoreticians alive at the time but the thought of the greatest thinkers, especially Marx and the philosophy Marx was rooted in, that of the great dialectical thinker G.W.F. Hegel. This led to her own original contribution with the development of the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism, and at the core of it is a new concept of the relationship of theory and practice. At the same time, thought to her was not limited to the great philosophers. Revolution is in the thinking as well as doing of those struggling for freedom, women, youth, labor, Blacks, Latinos, LGBTQ people. Her book Marxism and Freedom declared:

“There is nothing in thought–not even in the thought of a genius–that has not previously been in the activity of the common man.”

Anyone who wants to change the world comes up against the problem of the relationship of theory and practice, even if they aren’t aware of it. For one thing, you have to understand the nature of what you’re trying to change. Hegel had the most profound analysis of this in his “The Absolute Idea.”

Before Dunayevskaya, Marxists from Engels on had regarded Hegel’s Absolute as end of movement, end of history, theology, teleology, idealism, which had been labeled the enemy camp. But to Dunayevskaya this dialectic of theory and practice was not an abstruse ivory-tower discourse. It went to the heart of the nature of the world today, the stage of society. It begins with grasping the movement from practice that is itself a form of theory. Let’s roll the film back to explain that a bit.

In the late 1930s the standard Marxist understanding of the world was basically what Lenin had outlined as Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Trotsky’s thesis that the Russian Revolution had been betrayed and that Russia had become a “workers’ state, though degenerate” was a wrinkle that did not alter this basic outline. But Stalin’s involvement in destroying the Spanish Revolution raised questions in the minds of revolutionaries like Dunayevskaya, and his 1939 non-aggression pact with Hitler brought her to break with Trotsky. As she worked out her position on the Russian question, she concluded that–under Stalin’s purges, Plans, “collectivization” programs, hothouse industrialization and above all subjection of labor to the state–it had become state-capitalist, so it was wrong for socialists to call for the defense of Russia in an inter-imperialist war. That was the situation in 1941, when she came together with C.L.R. James to form the Johnson-Forest Tendency, which continued to develop the theory of state-capitalism, as not alone an analysis of the “Russian question” but a new world stage of capitalism. Just as Lenin had, on the basis of his study of Hegel’s dialectic, concluded that capitalism in his time had undergone a transformation into opposite from competitive capitalism to monopoly capitalism or imperialism, Dunayevskaya saw a new transformation into opposite from monopoly capitalism to state-capitalism.

At the same time, she made sure to analyze the new stage of capitalism together with its dialectical opposite, all the forces that arose to uproot it. That included workers such as the miners who went on strike in the midst of WWII; the uprisings in Warsaw; anti-colonial struggles; the youth; the women; and African Americans–so that beginning in the 1940s she championed an absolutely unique position within the Marxist movement on the validity of independent Black struggles. As early as 1950 she singled out women as one of the forces of revolution, as seen in the earliest piece in her Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution: Reaching for the Future.

The Johnson-Forest Tendency saw a total contradiction in the counter-revolution coming from within the revolution and transforming it into state-capitalist totalitarianism. Looking for a total answer to that total contradiction, they were drawn to Hegel’s dialectic, and how Marx and Lenin had been compelled to return to it to confront the realities of their times. And yet, the Johnson-Forest Tendency never embraced Marx’s Humanism. From the beginning of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, Dunayevskaya had been drawn to what she called Marx’s Humanist Essays, also known as his 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. But Humanism only figured as an object of attack in the Johnson-Forest Tendency’s most important documents, such as State Capitalism and World Revolution. So a third unique aspect of Dunayevskaya’s state-capitalist theory, which only became fully explicit after the birth of Marxist-Humanism, was her return to the Humanism of Marx.

So you see, hers was a theory of the nature of the epoch as being characterized by a new stage of capitalism that had become dominant in the world. And yet its development into the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism brought a new and deeper understanding of what characterized this new stage as state-capitalism’s dialectical opposite was seen not only as new forms of revolt but as a movement from practice that is itself a form of theory. I can’t take the time now to go into detail on the historic 1949-50 coal miners’ general strike that Dunayevskaya saw as pointing to new directions, as the miners asked what kind of labor a human being should do, and questioned what Marx called the division between mental and manual labor. Those kinds of questions showed that this movement from practice, the miners’ revolt, was not just a source of theory for theoreticians to work out; their activity and thinking was itself a form of theory. She saw it also in the demands for “bread and freedom” by the first uprisings against Communism in 1953 in East Germany and Siberia. By that year her activity with the workers’ struggles and her struggle with Hegel’s philosophy led to a new understanding of Hegel’s Absolutes. Above all, she saw in them a dual movement, from practice to theory and to the new society, and from theory to practice and to philosophy; and she saw the new society embedded in the Absolute, an abolition of the division between mental and manual labor, a totally new relationship between theory and practice.

From this she developed a comprehension of the nature of our epoch as “at one and the same time, a new stage of production–Automation–and a new stage of cognition.” If that is the stage we face, it has enormous implications. And I contend that that is precisely the epoch we are still in, that, for example, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attack on the twin towers no more ended the stage of cognition than they created a new stage of production that is not Automation. A revolutionary needs to listen to the voices from below, to hear the movement from practice as a form of theory. If you do that, then you can do the hard work of theory that can lead to what Dunayevskaya called “new ‘categories,’ a new way of thinking, a step forward in philosophic cognition.” But without that listening, the intellectual of this age gets lost and ends up seeing the masses as backward, and eventually winds up tailending some state power, actual or would-be, from the Bolivarian state of Hugo Chavez to Hezbollah. Even C.L.R. James ended up extolling the Army as a model of organization after the 1983 counter-revolution from within Grenada.

Indispensable as it is, hearing the movement from practice is only the beginning. A very important thing in this regard is how the form of News & Letters was worked out as a workers’ newspaper that combines voices from below with the articulation of a philosophy of revolution. After the new movements of the 1960s fell under the spell of activity, activity, activity, and leaving theory to be picked up en route, Dunayevskaya wrote her second book, Philosophy and Revolution, which dives deeply into Hegel’s dialectic, especially his absolutes, in and for themselves. At the heart of the book is “the dialectic of the Subject, the continuous process of becoming, the self-moving, self-active, self-transcending method of ‘absolute negativity.'” In the book we see how that plays out in actual revolutions from Africa to East Europe to the 1960s near-revolutions of the West, as well as in measuring the wrong directions taken by Trotsky, Mao, and Sartre’s Existentialism. Dunayevskaya never wrote abstract discourses. They were always alive with flesh and blood living history, freedom, revolution. Even the chapter on Hegel begins with the word “history” and the collapse of established Marxism at the onset of WWI, and its last few pages take up the revolutions of Hegel’s time, Marx’s, and ours.

I am not trying to sum up all of Dunayevskaya’s life and works but rather to give a taste of the meaning of her new discoveries on the relationship of theory and practice, without which there is no such thing as Marxist-Humanism even if the label is appropriated, and without which we can’t achieve revolution in permanence. I invite everyone to participate in our series on Dunayevskaya’s writings on Marx that is starting very soon. I want to read a little from our brochure to give you a sense of how that’s related to what we’re talking about tonight:

The grinding economic crisis, the ecological disasters from giant oil spills to extreme storms and droughts that give us a taste of climate change, endless wars, the specter of genocide from mass rapes in Congo to would-be Koran-burners in Florida and racist Tea Partiers across the U.S.—all point to a global capitalist system that is driving us to ruin. Resistance abounds, yet the missing link is a philosophy of revolution, which combines a vision of transcending capitalism and establishing a new human society, with philosophy as method for movements from below to find their way. That is why the thought of Karl Marx is so alive today, and why Marxist-Humanism’s re-creation of it for our time is so needed.

This series of discussions aims to address that need, and is part of our work of completing a new book of selected writings on Marx by Raya Dunayevskaya. She revealed Marx in a new way, from his Humanist Essays through Capital to his last works on non-capitalist societies and the Man/Woman relation. In doing so she returned to Hegel’s dialectic of negativity and Marx’s re-creation of that dialectic as a new humanism. She showed how they are crucial to organization and a future of human freedom. Elaborated over decades in confrontation with world events, movements and ideas, her philosophy developed as a whole body of ideas.

Participate in these discussions and become part of the work on the new book as a pathway to self-development as we engage the world situation and today’s battle of ideas for a new human society.

Each discussion focuses on one essay for the new collection, from each of its six Parts, coupled with readings by Marx, readings from the books that form our theoretical foundations, and recent articles from News & Letters or News and Letters Committees discussions; jammed up against readings from contrasting tendencies in the battle of ideas.

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