NEWS & LETTERS, October 2001

What is philosophy? What is revolution? What is anti-imperialism?

Editor's Note

The terrorist attacks last month, resulting in the deaths of thousands in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania precipitated a crisis in global politics as well as within the revolutionary Left. For that reason, we reprint excerpts of a "Political-Philosophic Letter" by Raya Dunayevskaya, written at the end of 1979 when Iranian pro-Khomeini activists had occupied the U.S. embassy and held its employees hostage. The title of her letter, a clarification of the historical goals of revolution, is included in full. Notes are the editor's. The original can be found in THE RAYA DUNAYEVSKAYA COLLECTION, 6004-12.

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"Not so Random Thoughts on: What is Philosophy? What is Revolution?
1789-1793; 1848-1850; 1914-1919; 1979"

December 17, 1979


It sounds so abstract, so easy to say, with Hegel, that philosophy is the "THINKING STUDY OF THINGS" (2).(1) It surely sounds oversimplified to say, at one and the same time, that "Nature has given everyone a faculty of thought. But thought is all that philosophy claims as the form proper to her process" (5). When however, you realize that this is the Introduction to the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences; that it was written after the French Revolution which made popular an actual "permanent revolution"-no revolution is ever its first act alone-you can begin, JUST BEGIN, to grasp the meaning of Hegel's expression, "second negativity." Furthermore, Hegel had not found articulation that easy UNTIL AFTER Phenomenology of Mind, UNTIL AFTER the Science of Logic, UNTIL AFTER he tried to SUMMARIZE all of his works, including the 2,500-year history of philosophy. Then, of course, you realize why, when Hegel is speaking of philosophy, it is not an abstraction, that even though he limits it to thought and not activity, he can conclude in that very same Introduction: 

"This divorce between idea and reality is a favorite device of the analytic understanding in particular. Yet strangely in contrast with this separatist tendency, its own dreams, half-truths though they are, appear to the understanding something true and real; it prides itself on the imperative 'ought' which it takes especial pleasure in prescribing on the field of politics. As if the world had waited on it to learn how it ought to be, and was not!" (6)

And that same paragraph further stresses that "the Idea is not so feeble as merely to have a right or an obligation to exist without actually existing."

When a new objective stage arose in 1844-48 which was proletarian, and not just semi-proletarian as with the enrages of the French Revolution, the young, new, revolutionary philosopher and activist, Marx, PRACTICED Hegel's Idea of freedom by realizing it in an outright revolution. He had told his young Hegelian friends who were becoming materialists: You cannot become a true NEW HUMANIST by turning your back on Hegel because he was both bourgeois and idealist and because he limited the revolution to a revolution in thought. The truth is that Hegel's dialectic was not just any idea, but the Idea of freedom, and must, therefore, first be realized in an actual MATERIAL way. We must be specific and shout out loud WHO the forces of revolution are. WHAT the Reason of revolution IS. And HOW we can achieve freedom. I, said Marx, say it is the proletariat, because they are AT THE POINT OF PRODUCTION where all things are created. I say that in issuing the challenge that will cause the whole capitalist world to tremble, we need to unfurl a totally new banner of philosophy as well as of revolution. And the philosophy of revolution now-that is, AFTER the bourgeoisie has betrayed us in this 1848-49 revolution and it is necessary to depend only on our own forces-must be "REVOLUTION IN PERMANENCE" (Address to the Communist League, 1850).

This revolution in permanence, he continued, is not the generality it was in 1789-93. This revolution in permanence is on the basis of these new forces of revolution, and this new philosophy of revolution I unfurled in the Communist Manifesto dealt with a total uprooting of the old, a total creation of the new, showing not only what we are against, but what we are for. In a word, even though we have now challenged not only the mode of production but also the form of the family and dug into the fundamental relationship of man/ woman, we must go further into the dialectics of revolution, that is, into "the dialectic of negativity as the moving and creating principle" of Hegelian philosophy (Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic, 1844).

Internationalism is not telling other nations what to do. It is solidarizing and fraternizing with those sent to shoot you-and having them turn their guns on their own officers. Finally, in very nearly the last work of Marx-the 1881 Preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto-that permanent revolution gets spelled out on a still higher level-that is, internationally as well as nationally. It is there that it is concretized as the relationship between technologically advanced and technologically backward countries-that is, that backward Russia could have its revolution ahead of "West Europe"-PROVIDED: 1) the revolution is accomplished within the context of European revolutions; and 2) the new forces, in this case the peasant communes, are never out of context of both internationalism AND dialectics of liberation. The Idea is the power BECAUSE it is concrete; it is total; it is multi-dimensional; and at no time is the Individual made just to tail end the State or "committee." Rather let us never forget the principle: "the Individual is the social entity" and society must never again be counter-posed to the Individual.(2) 


Marx had spent something like 45 volumes in expressing his thoughts, in participating in revolutions, in leaving a legacy that was the very opposite of an heirloom. Instead, the new continent of thought became the ground for all future revolutions that would be filled out anew with ever-richer concrete and with ever-greater forces-men, women, children of all colors, races, nations-until we finally have achieved that type of total revolution and that type of total uprooting. Surely no one was more prepared, was more serious, was more experienced to help create such a total revolution than those who had "made" the 1905 Revolution-Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky. And yet, and yet, and yet....

Comes World War I, and, the shock of the simultaneity of imperialist war and socialist betrayal3 is so overwhelming that one AND ONLY ONE-Lenin-said, if I could have been so misled and considered that betrayer, Kautsky, my teacher, something is altogether wrong with my way of thinking. And while I will not stop shouting "down with the war" [and] "turn the imperialist war into civil war," I will never again be satisfied with the "correct analysis" of a political situation without first digging into Hegelian dialectics. It could not have possibly been an accident that Marx, MARX'S MARXISM, was rooted in Hegel-and after having broken with that, he returned to develop Hegelian dialectics into the Marxian dialectic. And so this great revolutionary, Lenin, spent his days in the library studying Hegel's Science of Logic, and his evenings preparing for revolution,

What did Luxemburg and Trotsky do? They surely were as revolutionary as Lenin. They surely opposed the imperialist war. They surely were trying to prepare for revolution. But without that rudder of philosophy, what came out of it?.

THEORETICAL DIFFERENCES ARE NOT "LIQUIDATED" JUST BECAUSE, IN FACT, YOU ARE A REVOLUTIONARY. Quite the contrary. Once the heat of the battle dies, the deviations from Marxism first come to plague you.

The truth is that the theoretical difference reappears in a most horrible form EXACTLY WHEN THE NEXT NEW, OBJECTIVE SITUATION arises. You must then dig for new philosophic depth on the basis of the highest theoretic as well as practical point last reached. If instead you remain without a philosophic rudder, the supposedly "correct" political analysis becomes, if not outright COUNTER-revolution, definitely no more than tail-endism. That was true of Trotsky in 1905. It wasn't true in 1917 only because the one he then tail-ended was Lenin. But it became dangerously true in our era as all the opposition and great fights against Stalinism led only to tail-ending Stalin once World War II broke out.


Perhaps I shouldn't have asked only what is philosophy, what is revolution, but also what is anti-imperialism? Does the taking of low-level personnel from the U.S. embassy in Teheran and designating them as CIA agents shake up the American empire? The truth is that neither Khomeini nor those students could have helped Carter more in achieving higher popularity than that allegedly anti-imperialist act, thereby dulling the mass struggle against the U.S. Calling oneself a "follower of the Imam" does not constitute a revolutionary act, no matter how many times one repeats that this is anti-imperialism. Nor does self-flagellation constitute a revolutionary act, no matter how many times those who commit it call upon the revolutionary youth of the U.S. who had previously participated actively in the anti-Shah movement. That kind of pseudo anti-imperialism, such as the taking of hostages, opens no new stage of revolution. Rather it initiates a retreat from the original revolutionary perspective. It may give Khomeini a "red" coloration, and it surely helps him divert from the grave new contradictions in Iran itself, but it does nothing to solve the increasing crises since he came to power. The hardships on the masses intensify. The unemployment is greater. And so is inflation. As the Sheng Wu-lien found out, during Mao's Cultural Revolution which they at first heartily endorsed because they thought it meant the displacement of the bureaucracy: "The more things change, the more they remain the same."4

Concrete, in the Hegelian sense of the synthesis of diverse elements into a
concrete TOTALITY, would show that, by no means coincidentally, the
occupation of the embassy paralleled the completion of the COUNTER-revolutionary Constitution. Yes, the masses are anti-imperialist, but Marx didn't say that just because the masses were anti-feudal and the bourgeoisie was leading a revolution against feudalism, that therefore the masses should follow the bourgeoisie. Quite the contrary. He said: We were with the bourgeoisie in that first act of overthrowing feudalism, but now count us out. Not only that. It is high time to deepen and develop the STRICTLY proletarian tasks.

Luxemburg understood that very well and applied it not only in Russia in an actual revolution, but tried to bring that concept of pure class struggle to Germany. And yet, when a new objective stage arose-imperialism-and despite all her prescience of that exploitative stage, she did not work out a new unity of force and reason with new revolutionary forces, that is, the revolutionary nationalists fighting for self-determination. Lenin had to begin separating himself, not just from betrayers of the workers, but from revolutionaries who would not see the new concrete, whether that was a new revolutionary force in another country or his own. What he had learned from the Hegelian dialectic that made him so sharp against his own Bolshevik colleagues was that overthrow, first negativity, was not enough, that you must now see that counter-revolution can arise FROM WITHIN ITSELF.

Contrast this to what everyone from Trotskyists to [Libya's] Qaddafi is saying to blur those grave new contradictions within Iran, the diversion from what threatens civilization as we have known it-PREPARATION for atomic war. Qaddafi and Khomeini and [Pakistan's] General Zia may think the Middle East as they define it will be the graveyard of U.S. imperialism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just read, please, Oriana Falaci's interview with Khomeini and the one with Qaddafi (The New York Times, Dec. 16, 1979). Just listen to that demagogue, Qaddafi, try to take advantage of the fact that supposedly there is no government because there is no Parliament, and supposedly it's a collectivist society because it calls itself JAMAHIRIYA, which means "a command of the people." Is it they who decide everything? No, even the word "committee," unless [it is] revolutionary-and the word "revolutionary" means total uprooting-is not the equivalent of destiny being in the hands of the people, that is to say, with control of production in the hands of the workers. And so must the state be in their hands. To claim that there is no "government" because there is no Parliament; to claim that Khomeini and Qaddafi are "just one" is fantastic. When you come to that retrogressive a stage, even if you are a [Mao] who was once a revolutionary and did lead a national revolution, you have done nothing but spell out the new stage of state-capitalism.

What new retrogressive stage are we in now, when religion usurps also political power? First it was the "Little Red Book" of Mao. And now it's the "Little Green Book" of Qaddafi. And what part of the Koran will Khomeini embody in some brief sayings that all must repeat?

It is not a question that a leader must write 50 books, like Marx or Lenin-and I'm sure that Trotsky and Luxemburg wrote as many. It is a question of being serious about revolution and therefore the philosophy of revolution, and being responsible to history which means men and women shaping history. No, you cannot throw out philosophy, and indulge in sloganeering. Even a good bourgeois philosopher, at least in the stage when the bourgeoisie achieved its revolution, a good Lutheran like Hegel, who insisted all his life that he believed [in the divine], had to submit to
the dialectic drive of philosophy and subordinate religion to it. All his protestations notwithstanding-and "revealed religion" is pretty high in the sphere of the Absolute-nothing can change the fact that [religion] isn't the highest [stage in dialectics], and that philosophy is. Needless to say, that revolution in thought initiated by Hegelian dialectics was transformed by Marx's new continent of thought into reality. Ever since then, no revolution was successful THAT WASN'T GROUNDED in a philosophy of revolution.

Every generation of Marxists must work this out concretely for its own age. The fact that our age is in such a total crisis makes it all the more imperative that we tailend no state power.


1. Hegel, Science of Logic, in Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. Paragraph numbers in Hegel's text are in parentheses. Emphasis is Dunayevskaya's.

2. See Karl Marx, "Private Property and Communism," in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

3. The German Social Democracy and other Marxist parties of the Second International alligned themselves with the capitalist interests in each country when they went to war in 1914.

4. The Sheng Wu-Lian, formed in 1967 in Hunan province in China, in a guarded rejection of Mao's Thought, called for the creation of real communes modeled on the Paris Commune of 1871.

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