Film: “Raya Dunayevskaya: Biography of an Idea”
An info-review of a film about the founder of Marxist-Humanism
This new documentary illustrates many major ideas of the philosopher, activist, and feminist Raya Dunayevskaya, who developed Marxist-Humanism over much of the last century.
Click to view trailer:
(Pictures of her follow those of Marx in MHI’s masthead.) The film was written, directed, and produced earlier this year by Alex Fletcher, a student in the Whitney Independent Study Program. Fletcher encountered Dunayevskaya’s writings and shaped ideas in them for the screen during the 25th anniversary year of her death.
What amazes me about the film is both its fluency in rendering complex ideas visually interesting, and its emphasis on Dunayevskaya’s contemporary importance. At a time when workers and students around the globe are challenging economic crisis, permanent recession, and continuing racism and sexism—and capitalism itself––Dunayevskaya is gaining renewed attention. The film encapsulates some of the reasons why: people who are protesting their conditions are also turning to Marx, and in Dunayevskaya they find both interpretations of Marx and her own profound concepts from a century later, concepts such as the centrality of “masses as reason as well as force of revolution” and “what happens after a revolution?”
The title and content of the film flow from Dunayevskaya’s reluctance to talk about personal matters because, being a woman and lacking academic credentials, she had to fight her whole life to have her ideas taken seriously. She had a hard enough time presenting Marx’s humanism to a world dominated, on both the right and the left, by the lie that Stalinism was the same thing as Marxism. So when asked to talk about herself, she declared that “my biography is the biography of an idea.” And this was actually so, because, as the film describes it, there was no separation between her ideas and the way she lived her life.
The film includes biographical information, but it follows Dunayevskaya’s approach to biography by concentrating on her concepts, their development, and their current relevance. It does all of this primarily through discussions with three people who worked with her in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. There is also video footage from her talks, quotes from her writings, photos and news clippings, and a trip to her archives collection in Detroit.
We learn that Dunayevskaya was born in Ukraine in 1910 and came to the U.S. as a child, already steeped in the Russian Revolution. Here she fell in love with and joined movements of students, workers, and African Americans. As a Trotskyist activist in the 1920s and ‘30s, she participated in major strikes and demonstrations. In 1937, she went to Mexico to work with Leon Trotsky, the exiled co-leader of the Russian Revolution. At the time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939, she broke with him over the nature of the Soviet Union. Dunayevskaya became convinced that it was not a workers’ state––that it had “transformed into its opposite” and become part of a new, world-wide form of capitalism that she (and others) termed state-capitalism.
Back in the U.S., Dunayevskaya renewed her studies of Marx and Hegel, trying to work out the dialectic of revolution and counter-revolution that she believed had occurred in the Soviet Union. In the 1950s, she concluded that overcoming state-capitalism would require not only the self-activity of mass movements as opposed to vanguard parties, but also a new relationship of activity to theory and philosophy. Out of these ideas, she developed a concept of “a two-way movement from practice to theory and from theory to practice, reaching for philosophy.”
At the same time, Dunayevskaya engaged with the post-World War II workers’ and Third World national liberation struggles, and later with the African American Civil Rights and the Women’s Liberation Movements. By making explicit what was implicit in each mass movement’s words and actions, she elaborated the meaning of their theoretical contributions to the process of revolution.
For the rest of her life, she delved into the need for revolutions not to stop at overthrowing what exists, but to continue on to creating a new society. She developed this process philosophically from Hegel’s notion of “second negation,” which she spelled out first as “a dual movement of destruction of the old and creation of the new,” and later as a continuous process she called “absolute negativity as new beginning.”
Dunayevskaya published four books: Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 to Today; Philosophy and Revolution, from Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao; Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution; and Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution: Reaching for the Future. She also wrote American Civilization on Trial, Black Masses as Vanguard, and many other pamphlets, as well as thousands of newspaper articles and letters, many of them available in her archives. (See the Literature page of this site.)
The film contrasts the breadth of her philosophic and organizational perspectives to some of the narrower views that dominate the left today, such as “self-limiting revolution” and social democratic attempts to reform capitalism. People in the film discuss current left responses to the economic crisis, responses that tail-end Keynesianism or electoral politics or rely on spontaneity alone, with no active role for theory. These include some prominent views in Occupy Wall Street in New York, such as the view that people can and should act “as if” we were not dominated by capitalist relations.
Although the film contains only small tastes of Dunayevskaya’s body of work, it manages to present many of her ideas with eloquence, humor, and flair. Near the end, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry is narrated with a story that conveys her view of the process of history and what Dunayevskaya termed “intercommunication between the ages.” The scene imparts a touch of hope that Marx’ and Dunayevskaya’s ideas will continue to come alive in revolutionary periods.
The following quotation from Dunayevskaya is pertinent to what she envisioned and how she lived her life:
“I do know that there are certain creative moments in history when the objective movement and the subjective movement so coincide that the self-determination of ideas and the self- determination of masses readying for revolt explode. Something is in the air, and you catch it.”
This film shows how profoundly Dunayevskaya caught that “something” in her lifetime, and, I hope, will inspire others to continue the development of Marx’ and her philosophies.
– Anne Jaclard
The film-maker has generously allowed MHI to show this film. People anywhere who are interested in arranging a screening should contact MHI at firstname.lastname@example.org