Marx's concept of praxis today
"War and Revolution" is the title of Raya Dunayevskaya's draft of her 1971 Perspectives report to News and Letters Committees. The yearly Perspectives thesis, and the draft that preceded it, constituted the philosophic, political, and organizational outlook and plans for the organization for the year ahead. In 1971, the completion of her second book, PHILOSOPHY AND REVOLUTION: FROM HEGEL TO SARTRE AND FROM MARX TO MAO, came during a growing mass movement to end the Vietnam war. Here we reprint excerpts, prepared for publication, from Part III, "Praxis, Responsibility of Intellectuals and Our Tasks." The original thesis can be found in THE RAYA DUNAYEVSKAYA COLLECTION, 4454-4471.
All serious struggles in a revolutionary movement have always taken place, not over "tactics," but over revolutionary perspectives. But the theoretic void in the Marxist movement since the death of Lenin--nearly a half-century ago--has been so great that one is tempted to believe that there has been a void in time itself. Those who claim the name of Marxism have let slip out of their minds, not only this half-century, but also the century and a half since Marx worked out his theory of proletarian revolution, his philosophy of liberation as a philosophy of human activity which is THE ABSOLUTE, DIALECTIC OPPOSITE OF THE ALIENATED LABOR to which capitalism consigned the working class.
Time does not, of course, stand still. Just as Nature does not like a vacuum, so the human mind rebels against a void, against a "forgetting" of THEORY, against a retrogression in history, both as "past" and present, and a stifling of what is first TO BE. Because of this elemental and compelling need from the MOVEMENT from practice itself, we must expose the current reduction of Marx's concept of PRAXIS to the "practice," i.e., the carrying out, by the rank and file, of the "theory," i.e., the Party line that the leadership, the intellectuals, have elaborated FOR them.
This is not a "translation" of the word praxis, it is a perversion. The fatal character of this MIS-interpretation of "praxis" is more relevant for our day than for that of Marx--when he was alive to work out a revolutionary alternative and thereby discover a whole new continent of theory--Historical Materialism. We must consider anew the historic period in which Marx lived AS HE SAW IT.
To this day, Marxists are shamefaced about Marx's alleged "glorification" of the proletariat, and do not accept his analysis of the revolt of the Silesian weavers of 1844 as having had a "conscious and theoretical character." Nevertheless, it was this, JUST THIS TYPE OF VISION, that led Marx to break, not only with exploitative bourgeois society, but also with "socialists," "communists," and academic materialists who could not do what "idealism" had done--develop "the ACTIVE side" (Marx's emphasis) of subjectivity.
Though the class nature of capitalist society is decisive, Marx did not limit his analysis of subjectivity to the difference between petty-bourgeois, egotistic subjectivity and proletarian, social subjectivity. Indeed, he insisted that "human activity itself" was "OBJECTIVE" (Marx's emphasis). Marx defined PRAXIS as "revolutionary, critical-practical activity." Put concisely, Marx's great discovery--Historical Materialism--illuminated the whole of society as well as its transformation.
As shapers of history, as "Subject," the workers were becoming whole men and women, achieving a synthesis of mental and manual labor, of theory and practice, of philosophy and revolution. Of course, it is what men DO that is decisive in history, but theory remains an active force because ideas are not abstractions. They have a dialectic of their own and are integral to praxis itself. Praxis has many forms and each and every one is dialectical--develops through contradiction. Thus, even when it is seen as no more than "material activity," i.e., alienated labor, it is this very alienation that produces the "quest for universality" so that class struggles at the point of production lead to political struggles and finally burst out as social revolution.
That these basics of the Marxism of Marx could be reduced to "the small coin of concrete questions," as Trotsky phrased it, speaks volumes about the administrative mentality of our state-capitalist age. Thus today's Trotskyists, along with the "New Left," follow Stalinism (be it Russian or Chinese or the "Structural" Althusser variety in France) with their endless discussion of "tactics." Their turning away from the Humanism of Marx, labeling it "pre-Marxist," speaks volumes about our age, but says nothing at all about its absolute dialectic opposite--the MOVEMENT FROM PRACTICE TO THEORY. It is as if revolutionary power does indeed come "out of the barrel of a gun" instead of the self-activity of the masses in elemental outburst.
They likewise disregard the very nearly continuous movement that began in the 1950s in East Europe and has since covered the globe. Yet this movement, not only as practice but as elements of theory, is far richer than its political expression in ANY EXISTING party "to lead," including those who are NOT tied to a state power and do throw around the word revolution with great abandon. Nowhere have theoreticians--I naturally do not mean petty-bourgeois intellectuals but those who claim the name of Marxism--met their HISTORIC responsibilities.
Everywhere, no matter where we look, the challenge from practice has not been met. Look at France in the near revolution of May 1968, or the U.S. of 1970-1971 where one million poured out in anti-war demonstrations, but was quiescent in the face of the "My Lais" committed against Blacks right here. Look at the "New Left" in Great Britain who are tied, not to an actual party, but only to a concept, or look at Japan, where back in 1960, far in advance of the mass outbursts in any of the technologically advanced countries, the youth proclaimed their opposition to the U.S. and to their own government, and did so in the face of opposition from Communism which wished to restrict the snake dancing mass revolt to protests only against the U.S. Or look at Africa, where a new Third World was born, or to Italy, where no less than two million workers joined the Communist Party in opposition to private capitalism. But Italy is now face to face with the rise of neo-fascism because neither private capitalism nor state capitalism could stop the economic crises and total decadence. Again, everywhere, the challenge from practice has not been met....
Intellectuals (and not only where state power and outright exploitation of labor practiced as in Russia and China, in East Europe and Cuba, but intellectuals of our state-capitalist age who do want to uproot capitalism as they see it and work for emancipation of labor) have completely and totally forgotten (because it is not ORGANIC to them as it is to labor) WHAT Marx meant by a class-less order. It is not just a dialectical "principle" which is at stake; it is a life and death struggle. It is what Hegel called "individualism that lets nothing interfere with its universalism," i.e., freedom, and Marx called labor's "quest for universality" which underlines alienated labor's struggle to abolish the old exploitative society, and creates a new, class-less one where "the freedom of the individual is the basis of the freedom for all."
It is for this [reason], and for no other reason, that Marx felt compelled to break with the bourgeoisie alsoon the very concept of what theory is. He saw theory coming from labor and only labor because labor is not only muscle but Reason. It is this which "disciplined" Marx. HISTORIC responsibilities of Marxist intellectuals BEGIN with listening to the masses, and not being caught in the delusion that it is the intellectual brain wave which produces theory. Once you CAN HEAR AND DO LISTEN to the voices from below as if your life depended on those voices--because it does--then, and only then, can you elaborate theory, NOT because you become a mere recording machine, BUT BECAUSE, HAVING RECORDED THESE VOICES, YOUR TASK, FAR FROM ENDING, HAS JUST BEGUN. THAT DEFINES NOT ONLY INTELLECTUAL RESPONSIBILITY BUT OUT TASKS, AND THE KEY WORK REMAINS PROJECTION--projection of Marxist-Humanist ideas.
First and foremost, of course, is the concretization of the Perspective [thesis] on "War and Revolution" in a manner which will determine not only our activities in the anti-Vietnam war movement, but in all class struggles, Black struggle, Women's Liberation, Chicano, Indian. The determinant for all activities as well as writings, talks as well as relations--ALL WITHOUT EXCEPTION--is the concept of social revolution. We must free our mind from thinking that this is exhausted in the anti-Vietnam war activity as if that is the equivalent of a social revolution. There is no equivalent when there is not uprooting of class relations in one's own country, no ending of racism, no making inseparable the forces of revolution from their Reason. And there can be no social revolution when one, like the Trotskyists, hang on to one or another group of state-capitalist societies calling themselves Communist.
Nor can there be a spontaneous, elemental mass uprising when one is concentrating on "shortcuts." No matter how great the martyrs like Che [Guevara] who "lead" it, there can be no social revolution when one substitutes himself for the masses, or when the METHOD used in the projection of ideas repeats the capitalistic division between mental and manual labor, with intellectual "prerogatives" blotting out workers' thoughts. One must practice theory by uniting the two DAILY in every struggle, in every human relation, be it Black and white, youth and adult, men and women, actual class struggle or merely the manner of writing them up so that the story itself projects philosophy and revolution. In a word every single act is the theoretic preparation for revolution the day BEFORE, the day OF and the day AFTER revolution. This must be done both within a national and international context....
Were it necessary to summarize the whole of [this] thesis in a single sentence, it would be that, just as philosophy and revolution are inseparable, so are thought and action from organization, for the organization of thought determines organizational life even as the concept of social revolution determines the final confrontation with exploitative capitalism and its barbaric wars at home and abroad. There can be no peace anywhere without a revolutionary uprooting of the old.
Published by News and Letters Committees