Commemorating Raya Dunayevskaya, 1910-1987: Founder of Marxist-Humanism

by Travis Blute

Last month (9 June) marked the 30th anniversary of the death of Raya Dunayevskaya––possibly the greatest, but certainly one of the great, revolutionary thinkers of the 20th century. That is a big claim for a century that included Lenin, Trotsky and many other Marxists who were political giants with huge influence on the course of events in the last century. Dunayevskaya’s reputation does not match those of these leading figures, but I would suggest it deserves to do so––not for the sake of posterity, but as a basis in thought on which to work to overcome capitalism today. She produced four books, hundreds of articles and thousands of pages of archives. I am only going to touch on a small part of her work, concentrating on the early development of her philosophy which became Marxist-Humanism.

Dunayevskaya was born Rae Spiegel in 1910, in what is today’s Ukraine, then part of Russia. She emigrated with her family to the U.S. as a young girl.

The great insights that Dunayevskaya achieved stemmed from her correctly understanding what happened in the aftermath of the defining revolutionary event of the 20th century––the Russian Revolution of 1917. The outstanding theoretician of that revolution was Lenin. The new society was meant to be run by workers. Yet when Lenin died, in 1924, its degeneration was looming ever larger as a possible danger, but one not yet fully realised. It is in relation to the events of 1917 that the course of Marxism for the rest of the 20th century, and into the 21st century, was set. Stalin oversaw and justified the bureaucratisation of Soviet society under the pressure of contradictions that it was never able to overcome, while Stalin’s main rival for influence, Trotsky, was never able to acknowledge the reality of why the revolution had failed and how it had produced the phenomenon of Stalinism. Trotsky continued to defend the Soviet Union as a workers’ state that simply needed to be purged of its bureaucratic layers. The implications of this are massive, because the abomination that Soviet society became had to be defended or rejected on the grounds of whether it was an advance for human emancipation through workers’ control.

Dunayevskaya was in the major U.S. Trotskyist organisation, the Socialist Workers Party, when she went to work with Trotsky as his Russian secretary. Trotsky was in exile in Mexico from January1937 and Dunayevskaya met him there and started a correspondence with him from June 1937. In 1939, while she was still working with Trotsky, she met with the Caribbean-born Marxist, C. L. R. James, who was also in correspondence with Trotsky on the “Negro question”. Dunayevskaya was trying to organise meetings for James to speak in the southern U.S., where Jim Crow––the informal post-slavery discrimination against black people, was still very strong. Through James’ discussion of “the Negro question” (how to achieve black freedom and equality), and seeing the suspicion of most black people at the time toward white people, Dunayevskaya came to accept the importance of independent black self-organisation. While she had long seen the importance of fighting racism, she had to be persuaded of the need for independent black organisation as part of that struggle. The centrality of “the black dimension” became a major topic for Dunayevskaya from this period on, leading to many important works, including her 1963 pamphlet “American Civilisation On Trial: Black Masses As Vanguard”.

While working with Trotsky, she translated his writings into English, the main focus being on defending him, and the oppositionists to Stalin’s regime inside Russia, from the lies and misinformation being put out by the Soviet authorities. The turning point in Dunayevskaya’s relationship with Trotsky came in August 1939, when the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. The enormity of the Soviet Union coming to an accommodation with Hitler’s regime polarised opinion on the nature and status of the Soviet Union.

The question of whether to defend the Soviet Union as an advance over capitalism for the international working class caused splits within the anti-Stalinist left. Dunayevskaya was amongst those who rejected such a defence of the Soviet Union. She broke with Trotsky, who continued to defend the Soviet Union as a workers’ state. The Socialist Workers Party supported Trotsky’s defence of the Soviet Union, while those who rejected this position, like Dunayevskaya and James, split to form the Workers Party in April 1940.

The Workers Party, led by Max Schactman, had a majority that held a bureaucratic-collectivist position. They maintained that the Soviet Union was neither socialist nor capitalist, but a new type of formation altogether. A minority opposition to this, headed by Dunayevskaya, James, and Grace Lee Boggs, argued that the Soviet Union was a variant form of capitalism. This minority state-capitalist faction took the name Johnson-Forest Tendency (JFT), after James’ and Dunayevskaya’s party names.

Through her investigations into Soviet conditions, she came to develop a class analysis of the Soviet Union that was based on the fact that its relations of production were organised top down; the labour process was regulated by the workings of the machines, rather than by the workers, who remained malnourished. This hallmark of capitalism, where man is appendage to the machine rather than the machine serving man, meant that the Soviet Union, despite its nationalised property relations, was a type of capitalism. Even if there were no longer private capitalists, it was a state-capitalism, in which state functionaries, instead of management appointed by private owners of capital, oversaw the coerced labour process. Dunayevskaya followed Marx in insisting on the primacy of production relations, not property relations, as the most critical and essential feature of the capitalist mode of production.

The workers in Russia, in alliance with the mass of peasants, had made the revolution, but they had not managed to reorganise production relations, as would be required to move towards a classless society. Instead there was still a division between mental and manual labour, with the thinkers (or planners) directing the workers’ efforts. Dunayevskaya realised that most revolutionary thinkers had been so dazzled by Russia’s “success”––in removing the market as the mechanism by which labour-time was coordinated––that they had failed to penetrate below the surface to see something even more important. A plan that is not made by, and is not under the control of, the labourers themselves is not the basis for a new society as articulated in Marx’s revolutionary philosophy. A society with a plan imposed from above, in an otherwise capitalist world, would inevitably drag that society into adopting economic measures that mimicked those of the broader capitalist world.

Trotsky did recognise that it was impossible to have a socialist island in a capitalist sea. But he was unable (or unwilling) to draw out the implications of this for Russian society after its revolution was left isolated, due to the failures of revolutions elsewhere in Europe.

The Johnson-Forest Tendency continued as a faction within the Workers Party despite being unhappy with the majority’s accommodation to the trade union bureaucracy and reformism, until 1947 when the JFT left to rejoin the Socialist Workers Party. This lasted three years until 1950, when the JFT emerged as an independent organisation that later took the name Correspondence Publishing Committee. A difference in attitude to philosophy as part of the revolutionary process emerged between Dunayevskaya and James, and this was to be the ground on which their collaboration would end in 1955. When the tendency split after nearly 15 years, James was deported from the U.S. and went on to dabble with African nationalism and cultural Marxism, while Dunayevskaya went on to develop what she called Marxist-Humanism, the philosophy that our organisation takes its name from. She also established her own organisation, News and Letters Committees.

It was during her time as part of the JFT that Dunayevskaya first seriously studied Hegel, the greatest bourgeois philosopher of the Enlightenment, who had been an enormous influence on Marx’s thinking. It was Hegel’s dialectic that Dunayevskaya saw as a critically important means to challenge the theoretical degeneration in Marxist thought since the time of Marx. It was by going to the Hegelian roots of Marx’s revolutionary philosophy that Dunayevskaya was able to pose problems for the revolutionary movement in a new light:

·         How does one break down the separation between thinking and doing that capitalism, along with all previous class societies, is based upon?

·         What is the relation between the struggles of the masses to be free and Marx’s revolutionary philosophy?

·         How do we start the development that will allow us to fully overcome capitalism and create a classless society?

The JFT came to reject the idea of a vanguard party to lead the masses as articulated by Lenin in What Is To Be Done.

In 1953, Dunayevskaya was corresponding with her JFT co-leaders, Boggs and James, on Hegel’s work when she made a philosophical breakthrough on her reading of Hegel’s “Absolutes” as containing a conception of a two-way movement between theory and practice. This reading of Hegel, after already having engaged with Marx, took Dunayevskaya to a juncture similar to that reached by Lenin in 1914. Where Lenin was trying to get to grips with why the leadership of German Social Democracy had betrayed the cause of working-class internationalism, by supporting the imperialist war effort of their own country, Dunayevskaya was trying to explain what had happened to the Soviet Union––its transformation into the opposite of what was intended at the outset of the revolution. By delving into Hegel’s Absolutes, she grasped something fundamental about the nature of a dialectical reversal. Dunayevskaya’s explanation of what had happened to Marxist thought after Marx, and to the revolutionary movement, was developed into her first book (produced after the split in the JFT), Marxism and Freedom.

Like Marx before her, Dunayevskaya posed these questions in a fundamental philosophical manner, and at the same time rooted her answers in the specific conditions of struggle faced by people in her time. In addition, the coal miners’ strikes against automation in the U.S., between 1949 and 1952, further pushed Dunayevskaya to see workers not only as a source of revolutionary passion and force but also of revolutionary reason. Workers themselves had ideas that could be a contribution to revolutionary theory, if we were listening carefully to understand them. Striking miners were already asking questions that anticipated the future society: “What kind of work should a man do?”, “How shall we live?” Dunayevskaya regarded this as confirmation of her rejection of the Leninist concept of the vanguard party to lead the masses. She saw that, far from the workers needing to be persuaded by intellectuals in revolutionary left parties to embrace a revolutionary perspective, they were already posing, in embryo, the need for new conditions of working and living.

Dunayevskaya became the most forthright challenger of the notion that workers were backward and not receptive to revolutionary ideas. She did not think workers had all the ideas sufficient to allow them to transcend capitalism but, as long as capitalism exists, they are forced to try to overcome its limitations and its internal contradictions. Workers often see and speak of a system that continually tries to resolve its problems at their expense. And by “expense” I mean more than just monetary expense: the capitalist system robs the workers of all security and strips away their humanity, putting them at the mercy of forces outside their control. This is what it means to work for a boss, to a time set by machines, rather than work being a cooperatively directed effort of the producers themselves. Workers are bound to imagine what it would be to be free of this.

Dunayevskaya did not merely believe that workers had aspirations that pointed to, and indeed sometimes articulated the need for, a new society. She also went out of her way to find and listen to these “voices from below”, and discuss with them the draft chapters of Marxism and Freedom as well as Marx’s thought. She was keen to draw out the implications of what those struggling for freedom were ultimately reaching for. She saw the discussion of ideas by workers and other freedom fighters (blacks, women, youth) as part of a multi-linear movement that still needs theory, specifically Marx’s revolutionary philosophy. This revolutionary philosophy was not an optional extra if we ever want to achieve the total transformation of society and realisation of freedom for all.

Raya Dunayevskaya
Raya Dunayevskaya

Dunayevskaya also recognised that, in parallel with the workers’ struggles, black people and women were independently fighting for equality, and that they had impulses to freedom distinct from the economic struggle. Appreciation of these impulses to freedom needed to be made part of the process by which completely new human relations would be developed. According to Dunayevskaya, the anti-war activities of the youth, who were often middle-class college students, were another source of evolutionary passion and reason. These youth raised important questions, challenging and striving to overcome a society based on militarism and domination. She examined all struggles from the vantage point of the projected totally new society and asked what contribution any of these struggles might be making to realise this new society.

The most striking thing about Dunayevskaya’s work for me (coming from a vanguard-party background) is how it contrasts with that of the vanguardist-left mentality expressed in the small revolutionary parties. Where they considered their grasp of revolutionary theory to give them the critical role in leading the revolutionary movement, Dunayevskaya instead recognised that the role of the theoretician was to intellectually strip away the impediments that hinder the ability of freedom struggles to self-develop to their logical conclusion. A struggle for freedom is not a pure unadulterated movement but has pressures from both within and without the movement, which could divert it from its liberatory goal. Dunayevskaya’s guiding principle was to take Marx, as the philosopher of total revolution, and relate his ideas to the problems of her time. This was not a formulaic, uncritical application of Marx’s conclusions, formulated in specific conditions, to the very changed circumstances of her time. Rather she recreated his underlying approach for a new age.

An example of this was the manner in which she appropriated Marx’s Capital. In that book, he based everything on the antagonism between capitalists and workers, not because it was the only antagonism in capitalist society, but because it was the most central and important antagonism that everything else had to be understood in relation to. This is not the same as saying everything else can be reduced to the wage-labour–capital relationship. Instead it means that other aspects of our capitalist world must ultimately be related to the production relations. Dunayevskaya upheld Marx’s recognition that it is only through work that man makes the conditions of life, and that the separation of the worker from the means of production means that there is a fundamental antagonism that has to be overcome. As long as it has not been overcome, there is no real prospect of creating totally new human relations and thereby ending oppression. Dunayevskaya regarded the economic transformation as a necessary but not sufficient condition, a critical first step on the route to freedom for all.

Dunayevskaya not only grasped the need for the revolutionary transformation of production relations, but dealt with all denial of freedom as a violation of our human essence. People always dream of being free, and under capitalism are continually fighting not to be stripped of their human status and made just another means for the goal of capital accumulation. As long as working people are a means to “capital’s” ends, rather than their own ends, they will aspire to be free human beings. The freedom struggles of oppressed groups (most of whom are exploited as workers, too) are also, in a different way, striving to achieve their human dignity. Although Dunayevskaya saw Marx’s Capital as a central part of his total philosophy, and stood on the ground of its concepts to understand capitalist economy, this did not make her any kind of economic or class reductionist, as might be more fairly applied to many other post-Marx Marxists.

It was her understanding of Marx’s Marxism as humanism that made Dunayevskaya such an agile mind, rather than a dogmatist like many who call themselves Marxist. She always saw that the voices from below, of those who struggle for freedom, had to be listened to by the intellectuals––that their practice was itself a form of theory. However, their practice alone is not enough; the practical idea needs to be related to Marx’s revolutionary philosophical idea of a new society in order for both sides to develop. The practical idea rarely projects far beyond the currently existing conditions; and the philosophical idea of how things could be different is too abstract. They both need to relate to each other: theory and practical movement need to combine, so that the masses can achieve real freedom.

Dunayevskaya’s ideas deserve to be taken much more seriously, not for the sake of her reputation (although that is not unimportant), but primarily because she left such a rich body of ideas that need further development for our times. She made the split between Marx and “all post-Marx Marxists”, and used “post-Marx Marxists” as a pejorative. She did not simply return to Marx but theoretically recreated the dialectic of subject and object, of how people’s aspiration to live differently pointed to new possibilities for creating the conditions for their realisation. Despite her efforts and tireless commitment to building an organisation based on revolutionary philosophy, she never achieved it in a self-sustaining way during her lifetime, as proved by the subsequent degeneration of the News and Letters Committees after her death. That does not, however, exhaust the potential of Marxist-Humanist thought or of Marxist-Humanist organisation.

Marxist-Humanist Initiative is committed to continuing its work on the basis of Dunayevskaya’s ideas. Check out other articles, dealing with contemporary developments, on our website, and get in touch to find out more.

[Revised July 31, 2017, solely to remove two typos.]

1 Comment

  1. This is an excellent piece, very thorough and very clear. It illuminates the path of Dunayevskaya’s political journey and clarifies the way in which her work is both an organic and direct development on that of Marx.
    What strikes me most, however, is the implication of the enormous weight of her philosophic legacy. I think the author spotlights what is crucial when they write that “Dunayevskaya’s ideas deserve to be taken much more seriously… primarily because she left such a rich body of ideas that need further development for our times”.

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