NEWS & LETTERS, March 2003

From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Marxist-Humanist Archives

The American roots of Marxism


To re-establish the American roots of Marxism constituted a goal of Raya Dunayevskaya's book, MARXISM AND FREEDOM, published in 1958. That year Dunayevskaya developed this theme in a presentation to an economic seminar at UCLA. We present excerpts here of her notes from that lecture, titled "Communism, Marxism and Liberty--The American Humanist Tradition." The notes have been edited for publication, and can be found in THE RAYA DUNAYEVSKAYA COLLECTION 12505–12514.

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This talk aims to relate Marx’s thinking to the historic aspects of American thought. I proceed on the assumption that this serious, scholarly audience has come to hear a dissenter’s point of view on the parallels and sharp divisions between the two. I understand this is predominantly an economic seminar and would therefore feel more at home in the economic and sociological aspects rather than in the purely philosophical ones. This is not to say, in the present period of world crisis when not only the fate of civilization but civilization itself is within the orbit of an intercontinental ballistic missile, that any of us can fail to question the deep human basis of all phenomena. As Marx explained his philosophy in the very first piece of writing at the time of his break from bourgeois society, A CONTRIBUTION TO THE CRITIQUE OF HEGEL’S PHILOSOPHY OF LAW, “To be radical is to grasp the matter by its root. The root of mankind is man himself."

The only Marxist root I consider genuine is the Abolitionist movement in America and that despite the fact that most of the Abolitionists did not even know Marx. What is of far greater importance is the spontaneous affinity of ideas, the independent working out of the problems of the age as manifested in one’s own country, and the common source--the Negro in America and his own activity in fighting for freedom.

The least known part of Marxism is its American roots. I’m not referring to any organization that called itself Marxist either in Marx’s own time or ours. Of many of those Marx said, “If this is Marxism, I’m not a Marxist.” He found he had to separate himself from the self-styled Marxists in America who tried to evade the whole issue of the Civil War by saying they were opposed to “all slavery, wage and chattel.” Marx was actively and unashamedly on the side of the North. The mass demonstrations in England which stopped the British government’s flirtations with the thought of entering on the side of the South and the role of The Workingman’s International Association, headed by Marx, is certainly an important manifestation of the relationship between the Marxist concept of freedom and the American.

The most glorious page in American history was written by the Abolitionists. Here is how one of their great leaders, Wendell Phillips, expressed the struggle between the North and the South:

By the South I mean a principle, and not a locality, an element of civil life, in 14 rebellious States. I mean an element which, like the days of Queen Mary and the Inquisition, cannot tolerate free speech, and punishes it with the stake. I mean the aristocracy of the skin, which considers the Declaration of Independence a sham and democracy a snare--which believes that one-third of the race is born booted and spurred, and the other two-thirds ready saddled for that third to ride. I mean a civilization which prohibits the Bible by statute to every sixth man of its community, and puts a matron in a felon’s cell for teaching a black sister to read. I mean the intellectual, social aristocratic South--the thing that manifests itself by barbarism and the bowie-knife, by bullying and lynch-law, by ignorance and idleness, by the claim of one man to own his brother....That South is to be annihilated. (Loud applause.) The totality of my common sense--or whatever you may call it--is this, all summed up in one word: This country will never know peace nor union until the South (using the word in the sense I have described) is annihilated, and the North is spread over it…Our struggle is between barbarism and civilization.

Wendell Phillips further spelled this out most concretely when he said that unless Blacks become the basis of Southern Reconstruction we might as well not have fought and won; we will retrogress to another form of barbarism.

The question of land and the peasant as the prerequisite for a successful revolution was brought home to us in the Civil War. Frederick Engels, Marx’s great collaborator, had written before, in this analysis of the Peasant Wars in Germany, that because the German Reformation in the 16th Century had betrayed the peasant revolts by not giving the peasants land, the country itself “disappeared for three centuries from the ranks of countries playing an independent part in history.” We still suffer from the incomplete revolution in the South where the Negro did not get his “40 acres and a mule.” (I hope everyone has read W.E.B. DuBois’ BLACK RECONSTRUCTION, one of the greatest contributions--and certainly the most original--to that period of America’s development yet hardly known because it was written by a Negro and supposedly for that reason was “prejudiced.” Many a so-called objective historian has yet even to see the problem, much less to analyze it profoundly.)

We must now proceed to the changes in Marx’s greatest theoretical work, CAPITAL, made under the impact of the decade of the 1860’s in general and the Civil War in the United States in particular...

Joseph Schumpeter considers Marx’s materialistic conception of history as nothing short of a work of genius, whereupon he complains that Marx overestimated the value of philosophy in general and of Hegelian methodology in particular. He proceeds to call Marx the most erudite of all economists and cannot contain his praise for Marx’s “idea of theory,” of being able to transform “historic narrative into historic reason”; whereupon he proceeds to dissect him as “economist” only and disregard entirely what made it possible to transform historic narrative into historic reason, or how Marx’s “idea” of theory evolved. He does this not maliciously or even consciously--it is impossible for an intellectual nowadays even when he admires another intellectual with whom he completely disagrees, to conceive of the fact that genius has any connection with common man’s activity. Marx, on the other hand, always felt the pulse of what he called “the spontaneous organization of the working class,” and never more so than when he worked on “theory.”

Marx had been working out his economic theories ever since 1844. By 1859 he finally published what he considered to be the first volume of CAPITAL, which he had called CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY. But he no sooner published it than he was dissatisfied with it. Under the impact of the Civil War he returned to the manuscripts and began a thorough overhaul, in structure and form particularly. The two most fundamental reorganizations occurred in 1863 and in 1866 and the work was then finally published in the form we have it today.

It was in 1866 that he added the section on "the Working Day," which will illuminate what Schumpeter calls “the idea” of theory and what I call the Humanism of Marxism or Marxism as a theory of liberation. It completed Marx’s transcendence of both classical political economy and Hegelian philosophy, the two main sources of his theory, and the creation of a new world view of history which was solidly based on the actual activity of man.

First, there was the relationship of the abolition of slavery to the struggle for the eight hour day. As Marx was to write in CAPITAL:

In the United States of North America, every independent movement for the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation that ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California. The General Congress of Labor at Baltimore (August 16, 1866) declared: ‘The first and great necessity of the present, to free the labor of this country from capitalistic slavery, is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working-day in all States of the American Union. We are resolved to put forth all our strength until this glorious result is attained.’

The workers having by their own “correct instinct” formulated a demand in almost the precise terms that Marx had worked so hard to present to the First International, the theoretician’s mind took wing. New categories were created, a step forward in philosophic cognition was made, and a new way of thinking resulted.

First came the shift from the history of theory to the history of production relations. In CRITIQUE, he stated his theory on commodities and money and then supplemented it with the other theories on that subject. In CAPITAL, he removed all other theories to the end of the work, Volume 4, and straightaway from the mentioning of the duality in the commodity between use-value and exchange-value moved over to the duality in labor itself, between abstract and concrete. After that he split the category of labor into labor standing for the function, the activity itself, and labor power, the mere ability to labor which the capitalist buys as a commodity according to the laws of exchange. This does not get transformed into the function itself until it belongs to the capitalist and the worker is made by him to produce a greater value than it itself is, or get fired after the day’s work. Marx is the only theoretical economist who entered the factory--and stayed there for the greater part of Volume I of CAPITAL analyzing the relations at the point of production.

In this part--“The Production of Absolute Surplus Value”--the section on "the Working Day" appears. The academic economists, who look upon these pages as “sob story stuff,” forget that society would have collapsed had the workers not fought for the shortening of the working day. Capitalism destroyed nine generations of spinners in only three generations. The humanism of CAPITAL gives it that profundity, that force and direction which made possible the prediction of monopolies and depressions.

Marx didn’t predict them because he was a prophet but because of two factors and two factors only: 1) he dialectically carried through to the end the economic laws of development of capitalist society and 2) having put the human being--the wage laborers--instead of the thing--wage labor--at the center of his theoretical world, Marx discerned in the struggles and new thinking the “new forces and new passions” for a new society. The winning of the shortening of the working day which Marx called “a veritable civil war” was finally the material basis for freedom.

Two principles are involved in the structural change in CAPITAL, one flowing from theory and one from practice. The philosophy of the shortening of the working day, which arose out of the actual class struggles, embraced all concepts inside and outside it. The thinking of the theoretician was thus constantly filled with more and more content, filled by workers’ struggles and workers’ thoughts....

The socialization of labor meant, in human terms, a great army of labor, united and disciplined by the very mechanism of labor and forced, in order to straighten their bent backs, to throw off not only capitalist oppression but put an end to class society, and reunite once and for all, in the human being himself, mental and manual labor so that the pre-history of society can end and humanity’s true history begin on the basis that the free development of each is the condition for the free and full development of all.

We need not merely to go back to the traditions of the Abolitionists but forward to a New Humanism comprehensive enough in theory, scope, logic and life to win the global struggle for the minds of men. And our country is rich enough in traditions of self-activity: from the Committees of Correspondence in colonial times that appeared just a big nuisance to the British authorities who awoke one day to find that these nuisances were, as Charles A. Beard put it, “The Engines of Revolution”; through the sit-downers of 1936 who transformed the industrial face of the nation; to the present kind of wildcats against the existing labor bureaucracy which demand a more fundamental answer to automation than either the economists, scientists, or labor leadership has yet seen.

I ask anyone to turn to books on automation which seriously treat man as if he were indeed a buildable machine and then follow John R. Commons’ advice and go seek out workers and talk to them and get their attitudes and you will see what I mean when I say that the new impulses are only to be gotten from the workers themselves and not from abstract theories of “automation is progress.”

The struggle for the minds of men--and our century is exactly that--cannot be won with hollow words of democracy. But so rich are the traditions of America, so uninhibited are the American workers by the preconceived notions of leaders, including those from their own labor ranks, that a new Humanism is evolving. They have no Labor Party to “lead” them or mislead them--and they have no awe of intellectuals like the French Existentialists. That does not mean they reject theory. On the contrary. There is a movement from practice to theory that is literally begging for a movement from theory to practice to meet it.

When these finally do meet--and I have no doubt of the meeting--it cannot be anything short of a New Humanism.

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