NEWS & LETTERS, May 2002 

From the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Marxist-Humanist Archives

May Day as a birthtime of history

Editor’s note

On the occasion of May Day we reproduce excerpts of a letter written by Raya Dunayevskaya on April 8, 1980. It  previews a talk she was to give on May 4, 1980 in commemoration of May Day and Marx’s birthday (May 5). The talk was given as she was completing her third major work—ROSA LUXEMBURG, WOMEN'S LIBERATION AND MARX'S PHILOSOPHY OF REVOLUTION. The full letter as well as the outline of her lecture can be found in THE RAYA DUNAYEVSKAYA COLLECTION, 6454-6456.

Our age has one advantage, that of knowing more of Marx's writing than did Rosa Luxemburg's age. We as Marxist-Humanists, again by drawing no distinction between "the young" and "the mature" Marx, made philosophy, economics and politics into a totality. The objective situation helped us since it was the period of a new type of revolution (Hungary 1956) against Communism's transformation into opposite, state-capitalism, thus creating a movement from practice to theory and compelling revolutionary theoreticians to constantly create anew.

Nevertheless we must never forget Hegel's warning about knowing something so well as to take it for granted: "In general, what is well known, precisely because it is well known, is not known. The most common mode of self-delusion and of creating illusions for others is, in knowledge, to presuppose something as being well known, and to accept it as such. Such knowledge, without being aware that this is happening, refuses to budge despite all discussion" (PHENOMENOLOGY OF MIND).

Take, for example, the fact that all of Marx's works have the word "critique" in them. We certainly know that from the time he was working with Arnold Ruge and trying to start a new magazine Marx wrote him in September 1843 that the purpose of the journal must be "the relentless critique of everything that exists.” But has "critique" been made the equivalent of “revolutionary" and "practical" as totally as it was with Marx, beginning with the ECONOMIC-PHILOSOPHIC MANUSCRIPTS which he completed the next year?

Those manuscripts didn't, after all, come to light for some 84 years. They needed nothing short of the November 1917 Russian Revolution to bring them out of the Second International's vaults, and another 38 years before a new generation of revolutionaries, rebelling against the new monstrosity of Russian state-capitalism, brought them onto this period's historic stage and thereby also to the English-speaking world.

Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since then, and while we have produced more of that whole new continent of thought Marx had discovered in 1844 than either the Old Left or the so-called New Left, it is first now that we are scheduling, at one and the same time, a new book AND projecting the transformation of NEWS & LETTERS into a theoretical as well as an activist organ.

So again I say the fact that "we know," and indeed "live by" the fact that Marx was a revolutionary does not yet mean grasping in full Marxism as a whole new continent of thought.

Luxemburg certainly was a revolutionary, and so was Lenin, and so was Trotsky, and even some Social-Democrats who later turned out to be counter-revolutionaries were revolutionaries when they first established the new, Second Marxist International. None of them saw it as a new continent of thought (except Lenin—who had to break with his philosophic past and have the world fall about him in the First World War before, by returning to Marx's deep-rootedness in Hegel, he recognized that not a single Marxist, himself included, had understood Marx's CAPITAL, especially its first chapter).

What I'm driving at is that, if you recognize Marx only as founder of a socialism and not as the founder of A new continent of thought, your ATTITUDE is such that of necessity you recognize also [Ferdinand] Lassalle as a founder.* As for Engels, who was also not only a founder but the only one capable of issuing Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital, didn't he also nevertheless first rush to issue his own ORIGIN OF THE FAMILY, PRIVATE PROPERTY AND THE STATE, as a "bequest" by Marx? And here was a man, a founder who knew that Marx was "one" and he was only "two"!

Let me try to stress that point from a different direction. That point is crucial...for the whole march of history to that point of unity of philosophy and revolution. For otherwise, we would always have a DUALITY—philosophy and revolution—instead of philosophy OF revolution.

Let me state first, on the question of Lassalle as a founder, that THAT type of attitude is exactly what led inexorably to the revolutionary, super-erudite scholar and author of the first (and still, unfortunately, one of the best) biographies of Marx—Franz Mehring—shutting all doors to any conception of what a new continent of thought Marxism was. Class struggle, yes; brilliant, yes; a founder, yes; but that shouldn't keep "the new generation" (I'm referring to August Bebel) from writing rather angrily about the "two old men in London" not really understanding "the new." The "new" Bebel was referring to was the need for a "unified Party" predominating over theoretical quibbling.

Reconsider this: 1) In 1875, the Lassalleans and the Eisenachists (supposedly full Marxists) are uniting to form a new party at Gotha. Lassalle is dead, but its program is fully Lassallean. 2) Marx and Engels hit the ceiling, want to disassociate themselves from that Party, but instead feel that the movement is so important that they should limit themselves to criticizing it in lengthy letters to the Eisenachists. 3) Marx writes "marginal notes" on that program; the CRITIQUE OF THE GOTHA PROGRAM is one of the greatest of the shorter historical political writings ever, but it doesn't get published. 4) Sixteen years pass, a new, mass, “genuinely Marxist Party" [the Second International] is headed by Karl Kautsky, Bebel, Eduard Bernstein—and they write a new program, the Erfurt Program. Engels is still alive and when he sees that program, he writes a critical letter and insists that Marx's CRITIQUE OF THE GOTHA PROGRAM  now be published. When they finally can resist no longer, they publish it with an editorial note which says that it is "a contribution to the discussion."

And that, dear youth and others, is what the whole International lived on until its total collapse in 1914. How much clearer would the road have been for all of us had we known Marx's analysis not only of the Lassalleans, but of his first meeting with Kautsky: "A small-minded mediocrity, too clever by half (he is only 26), industrious in a certain way, busies himself with statistics but does not derive anything intelligent from them, belonging by nature to the tribe of philistines" (Letter of Marx to his daughter Jenny, April 11, 1881).

The question, the serious question, is the attitude of the serious revolutionaries, serious in the sense of their acknowledging “orthodox Marxism"—could they also be just egotistic and "correctly" non-cultist regarding Marx when they acted that "independently"?

No, it's a great deal worse, for it was not only those who deviated but those who were "orthodox,” “sincere," and revolutionary. No wonder Lenin said there is no such thing as a "sincerometer." What made them believe otherwise is that they were not petty-bourgeois individualists. They "sincerely" believed they were REDUCING their own individuality to the Universal of socialism, as was “proven" by the fact that the most important thing for them was to "popularize Marx" AND "apply" it to the concrete situation as they saw it.

So it wasn't just that they didn't know the 1844 Manuscripts, or that their understanding of the 1850s and [Marx’s] CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY was inadequate because they didn't have the GRUNDRISSE, but that WHEN THEORY WAS SPELLED OUT IN ORGANIZATIONAL FORM, they felt free to disagree on "little" organizational questions.

Let's take another look at those 1844 MANUSCRIPTS and deal this time with a still newer generation of intellectuals that discovered them. One of the finest analyses of the 1844 MANUSCRIPTS was one of the first—Herbert Marcuse's—when it was finally published in Germany in 1932. The very title of his review essay, "The Foundation of Historical Materialism," shows that the young Marcuse, far from separating the early philosophical Marx from the mature economist, actually made the early work the foundation for Marxism and for aspects summarized in historical materialism. He certainly was also the one who saw revolution as inherent in the very first writings of Marx. This 45-page essay is quite comprehensive in the economic, political and philosophic aspects.

And yet there is not one single word of Marx's profundities on the Man/Woman relationship, though it's in the very same paragraph that Marx speaks against vulgar communism which is what Marcuse did recognize as central. Nor is it only a question that there was no movement from practice as a Women's Liberation Movement. Marx first had the vision and the philosophy and the "new humanism" which he declared was both a compelling need and had a revolutionary force.

Clearly, it isn't only the last few years of Marx's life when he was working on the Ethnological Notebooks that need to be brought back to life, to theory, and made into a challenge for our generation. For that matter, the very year, 1871, which supposedly every Marxist understood, and certainly always celebrated—the Paris Commune—remained nothing but a celebration. It wasn't until Lenin, on the eve of revolution, "rewrote"** The CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE as STATE AND REVOLUTION that the Paris Commune was studied seriously as both theory and practice, as well as foundation for new revolutions.

Let's not forget that to this day, the anarchists keep saying that Lenin wrote STATE AND REVOLUTION as pure demagogy whereas they followed the true intellectual forebearers of the Paris Commune—Proudhonists and Bakuninists. In a word, it is not only Lenin they oppose but Marx they slander as an alleged "statist" though the whole of The CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE , as the whole of STATE AND REVOLUTION, is directed to the destruction of the bourgeois state, to establishing "no state" but the commune form of existence, since, said Marx, the greatest achievement of the Paris Commune was "its own working existence."       

Marx's May 5 birthday follows by four days May 1. The two [dates] give that new continent of thought its American roots as well as its Black dimension. I hope we never consider as a cliché Marx's statement that "Labor in the white skin cannot be free so long as labor in the Black skin is branded." It was, after all, not only as an oppressed race that Marx embraced the Black dimension, but as that creative revolutionary force which opened a new epoch for the whole world. It is in this sense that this year's May celebration opens up a new stage for us both as the year of ROSA LUXEMBURG, WOMEN'S LIBERATION AND MARX'S PHILOSOPHY OF REVOLUTION and as the period of the transformation of N&L  into a 12-page theoretical as well as activist organ...


*Ferdinand Lassalle, founder of the first major workers’ party in Germany in the 1860s, was later denounced by Marx as “a future worker’s dictator.”—Editors.

**The so-called independent, erudite Marxists who think State and Revolution is no more than a "rewrite" of Marx's analysis of the Paris Commune should study very carefully how Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch, the very Marxists who did reintroduce dialectics as the indispensable revolutionary element in Marxism, nevertheless stopped short, far short, of identifying dialectics of the Idea with the dialectic of liberation; whereas Lenin went, directly FROM Hegel's SCIENCE OF LOGIC and its principle, that "man's cognition not only reflects the world but creates it," TO the National Question as the dialectic of history that would help transform the imperialist war into a civil war, and his very last Testament where he characterized Bukharin as not fully a Marxist because he did  not understand the dialectic.—RD

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