From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Why Phenomenology? Why now?

From the January-February issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: Because of the urgency of the question of how to make new beginnings in such a reactionary world situation, we excerpt two of Dunayevskaya’s last philosophical writings, which confront “where to begin.” She saw this revisiting of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind as part of her work on dialectics of philosophy and organization, addressing “the imperativeness of that missing link, philosophy, both as challenge to post-Marx Marxists and as unique contribution of Marxist-Humanism….” The first piece was published in the May 8, 1987, issue of News & Letters. The second, dated April 3, 1987 (#10883 in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection), was not completed for publication.

Introduction to “Why Hegel’s Phenomenology? Why Now?”

The Spirit of the time, growing slowly and quietly ripe for the new form it is to assume, disintegrates one fragment after another of the structure of its previous world. That it is tottering to fall is indicated only by symptoms here and there. Frivolity and again ennui, which are spreading in the established order of things, the undefined foreboding of something unknown—all these betoken that there is something else approaching. This gradual crumbling to pieces, which did not alter the general look and aspect of the whole, is interrupted by the sunrise, which, in a flash and at a single stroke, brings to view the form and structure of the new world.

—Hegel, Preface to the Phenomenology of Mind

Hegel:MarxThe most difficult of all tasks that have confronted every generation of Marxists is to work out Marx’s Marxism for its age; the task has never been more difficult….We often like to quote that creatively great statement of Hegel about the “birth-time of History.” What is important to see is that the same paragraph that talks of the birth-time of history and a period of transition is likewise one that speaks about the period of darkness before the dawn.

That is what we all have had to suffer through—the darkness before the dawn. Hegel articulated both the darkness and the dawn in the very same paragraph lucidly enough. Yet, because this appears in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Mind, it looks as if it were written in anticipation of the book, whereas, in truth, the Preface was written after the whole work was completed; thus, we do not realize that the contradictory unity first became that translucent after the work was completed.

It never fails that, at momentous world historic turning points, it is very difficult to tell the difference between two types of twilight—whether one is first plunging into utter darkness or whether one has reached the end of a long night and is just at the moment before the dawn of a new day. In either case, the challenge to find the meaning—what Hegel called “the undefined foreboding of something unknown”—becomes a compulsion to dig for new beginnings, for a philosophy that would try to answer the question “where to begin?” This was the reason for a new revolutionary philosophy—the birth of the Hegelian dialectic—at the time the great French Revolution did not produce totally new beginnings in philosophy. It caused Hegel’s break with romanticism. His deep digging went, at one and the same time, backward to the origins of philosophy in Greece around 500 BC and forward as the French Revolution was followed by the Napoleonic era trying to dominate all of Europe.

In a word, the crucible of history shows that the forces of actual revolution producing revolutions in philosophy recur at historic turning points. Thus in the 11817808-protesters-crowd21840s, with the rise of a totally new revolutionary class—the “wretched of the earth,” the proletariat—Marx transformed Hegel’s revolution in philosophy into a philosophy of revolution. This founding of a new continent of thought and of revolution unchained the Hegelian dialectic, which Marx called “revolution in permanence.”

Just as the shock of the simultaneity of the outbreak of World War I and the collapse of established Marxism (the Second International) compelled Lenin to turn to Marx’s deep-rootedness in the Hegelian Dialectic, so it has become imperative to find that missing link of a philosophy of revolution in the post-World War II world.

A whole new world—a Third World—has been born. Just as the East European revolutionaries rose up against Communist totalitarianism from within that orbit, so the Third World arose against Western imperialism. This movement from practice that is itself a form of theory has been digging for ways to put an end to the separation between theory and practice. It is this movement that has rediscovered Marx’s early Humanist Essays, as well as the work of his final decade where Marx predicted, in his studies of pre-capitalist societies, that a revolution could come first in a technologically backward land rather than in the technologically advanced West. It has had to struggle under the whip of counter-revolution in a nuclearly-armed world.

Nowhere has this been more onerous than in the 1980s under the Reagan retrogressionism, which has been bent on turning the clock backward—whether that be on civil rights, labor, women’s liberation, youth and education or children. At the same time that there is this ideological pollution and the revolutionary struggle against it, even some bourgeois Hegel scholars who opposed the “subversion” of Hegel by Marx and by today’s Marxist-Humanists have had to admit: “If Hegel has not literally been to the barricades of strife-ridden cities, or explosive rural focos, he has been in the thick of current ideological combat.”

In its way, this, too, will help illuminate why we are publishing “Why Hegel’s Phenomenology? Why Now?”…

Why Phenomenology? Why Now? What is the Relationship either to Organization, or to Philosophy, Not Party?

On the road to discovery of a whole new continent of thought and revolution, in 1843-44, Marx, without any conscious concrete reach for any such Promethean vision, was nevertheless posing in his Doctoral Thesis the question of where to begin. As a Hegelian, he found himself in disagreement with his master (Hegel), not just on the analysis of the different views of Epicurus and Democritus on the philosophy of nature. Rather, he saw the grandiose system of Hegel failing to achieve a unity of reason and reality in the present (1840) period of crisis. Instead, there seemed to be a total diremption of two separate totalities; reason and reality confronted each other with hostility….

Marx’s answer was to turn to the dialectical method, stressing that “the practice of philosophy is itself theoretical. It is the critique that measures the individual existence by the essence, the particular reality by the Idea.” And that meant that the answer could only be found through a new beginning, in a totally new element. Marx found it in revolution, the very specific revolution which had both inspired and mystified Hegel—the great French Revolution—but he extended his hearing of the self-determination of the Idea to the sans-culottes.

Soon after the Doctoral Dissertation, Marx moved to break with capitalism as well as with the Young Hegelians, and on to the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” in 1844.

Marx wasn’t only critiquing Hegel, but the materialist Feuerbach, whom he had “followed” but who he now says was deficient, having not understood the greatest creative contribution of Hegel of all, and that was “the negation of the negation” as the most creative, not mysterious, but actual movement of history, which Hegel tried to shroud with abstractions by “dehumanizing,” that is to say, turning man into the abstraction of “self-consciousness.”

“The greatness of Hegel’s Phenomenology, and its final result—the dialectic of negativity as the moving and creating principle—lies in this: that Hegel comprehends the self-production of man as a process…grasps the essence of labor and conceives of objective man, true actual man, as the result of his own labor.”

But since it was in alienated form, it had to, just when it reached its highest point, Absolute Knowledge, undergo the Golgotha of the Spirit and perish….

Historic transcendence.

What is exciting about transcendence is that Marx credits Hegel with seeing it as what made him grasp objectivity and because he does that, though Hegel lives in an alienated world (and as a philosopher is the most alienated of all individuals) and uses the philosopher as the yardstick, nevertheless Hegel does not take the last step—boredom—but “arrives at an essence which is its very opposite, i.e., Nature.”

Stop. Do you realize how great that is? What a leap? It was not only for Marx clearing his road, his totally new continent of thought and of revolution, but ours? Well, just consider how far in advance it is even of Lenin. Nature is not Practice. And Nature is not Sartrean exteriority. Nature, says Marx, is true essence because you can’t separate Nature from Human Nature. And that is why he uses, not as a naturalist, “thoroughgoing Naturalism or Humanism” which would “first alone grasp the act of world history” and therefore have undergone the transcendence both of religion and thinghood, i.e., mediated by atheism and communism as the abolition of private property, and only then would there start “positive Humanism, beginning from itself.”

The fact that we cannot give an answer, a blueprint, does not absolve us from the task. It only makes it more difficult. What we are trying to do with this book-to-be is to make this task historically and philosophically so deeply-rooted that both we and all whom we can reach on the outside will be glad to journey these uncharted roads….

Marxist-Humanism: A Half-Century of Its World Development

Contains a wealth of material from 1923-1987, including:

1947-1951 — From the “Interim Period” to the Final Split from the Socialist Workers Party

Leon Trotsky: Letters, Conversations, Unpublished Documents

1959-1964 — The Emergence of a Third Afro-Asian, Latin American World and a New Generation of Revolutionaries Also in the U.S.

1964-1968 — As Against Decadent Capitalism on the Rampage, New Stages of Mass Revolt

Raya Dunayevskaya and Natalia Trotsky in Mexico, 1938

Raya Dunayevskaya and Natalia Trotsky in Mexico, 1938

1976-1978 — Forces of Revolution as Reason; Philosophy of Revolution as Force

1979-1981 — What is Philosophy? What is Revolution? How the Revolutions of Our Age Relate to Those Since Marx’s Age: Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution

1983-1985: From the Marx Centenary Year to Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution, and from Reagan’s Invasion of Grenada to Raya Dunayevskaya’s Work on “Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy”

Correspondence with: C.L.R. James, Adrienne Rich, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Natalia Trotsky, Nnamdi Azikwe, Tadayuki Tsushima, Sékou Touré and Maria Barreno

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