From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Marxist-Humanist Archives
The Philosophic Moment Marxist-Humanism
Then and Now: On the 50th anniversary of the 1953
'Letters on Hegel's Absolutes'
This May marks the 50th anniversary of the writing of
Raya Dunayevskaya's "Letters on Hegel's Absolutes"--the philosophic
breakthrough that led to the birth of Marxist-Humanism. As part of our
commemoration of this event, we are reprinting a 1987 commentary by Dunayevskaya
on these letters, in which she reexamined them in light of the effort to work
out a new relation between philosophy and organization. We also publish two
essays on her philosophic contribution, in this issue. Further discussion of
these issues will appear in subsequent issues of NEWS & LETTERS.
* * *
Editor's note: The following writing of Jan. 21, 1987,
entitled "Talking to Myself," was part of Dunayevskaya's
work-in-progress on a planned book on "Dialectics of Organization and
Philosophy." It appears in THE POWER OF NEGATIVITY: SELECTED WRITINGS ON
THE DIALECTIC IN HEGEL AND MARX (Lexington Books, 2002). The references to the
1953 Letters are as they appear in THE POWER OF NEGATIVITY. "SLII"
refers to Hegel's SCIENCE OF LOGIC, translated by Johnston & Struthers;
"SLM" refers to the newer translation by A.V. Miller.
* * *
The focus is on the May 12, 1953 letter on [Hegel's]
Absolute Idea. The point is to catch the dialectical flow of the
self-determination of the Idea, paragraph by paragraph.
Page 21(1) of the letter of May 12, 1953 calls attention
to p. 483 of Hegel's SCIENCE OF LOGIC [SLII, p. 483; SLM, p. 840-41], which
shows how the stage of "exteriorization" is also that of
intensification, i.e., "interiorization," i.e., objective
manifestation makes the inward extension more intense.
The paragraph on p. 21, which attacks impatience in
"an absolutely uncompromising Bolshevik" manner, I attribute to Hegel,
after which I quote from p. 484 of the SCIENCE OF LOGIC [SLII, p. 484; SLM, pp.
That impatience whose only wish is to go beyond the
determinant...to be immediately in the absolute, has nothing before it as object
of its cognition but the empty negative...or else would-be absolute, which is
imaginary because it is neither posited nor comprehended.
The dialectic flow of this quotation is in no way
related to the two names quoted in the preceding paragraph of the letter, but
even if said unconsciously, has everything to do with what I follow the Hegel
I am shaking all over for we have come to WHERE WE PART
FROM LENIN. I mentioned that, although in the APPROACH to the Absolute Idea
Lenin had mentioned that man's cognition not only reflects the objective world
but creates it, but that WITHIN THE CHAPTER he never developed it. Objective
world connections, materialism, dialectical materialism, it is true, but not the
object and subject as one fully developed.
Stop for a moment. Hold tightly to the fact that ever
since 1948-49, when I first translated Lenin's "Abstract of the SCIENCE OF
LOGIC," I have done nothing less than extol Lenin philosophically,
specifically on the SCIENCE OF LOGIC. There is no question about the fact that
it was Lenin who created the great divide in Marxism in 1914-17. Our present
CHANGED perception of Lenin's philosophic ambivalence shows here that I actually
did have some philosophic differences as far back as the early 1950s.
The fact is that it was not only Lenin who, by keeping
the PHILOSOPHIC NOTEBOOKS to himself, separated philosophy from politics. When
we broke politically with the concept of the vanguard party, we kept philosophy
and politics in two separate compartments.(2) What this 1953 Letter shows now is
that embedded in it was a sharper critique of Lenin's philosophic ambivalence
than shown in MARXISM AND FREEDOM. In 1953, on the other hand...I had stressed
that in the chapter on "The Idea of Cognition" Lenin had not
concretized the OBJECTIVITY of cognition.
Here I wish to introduce...a letter to me from Grace Lee
dated August 31, 1952. With her usual hyperbole, here is part of what she wrote
You have mastered Hegel. You write in your letter of
August 29 as you have never written before. Instead of that one-to-one
correspondence where you impose a movement on the LOGIC, you are now inside the
movement of the LOGIC, caught up in its rhythms. The number of people in the
world who can do that can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. You
are absolutely right in characterizing Herman's (Johnny Zupan)(3) search for the
party as the Logic of the "Idea of the Good"--which stands in its own
way and hence must in the end turn against itself.
We haven't found my letter of August 29, 1952, which
produced that enthusiasm a year before I broke through on the Absolute, but it
is clear from what she said on August 31 that I had evidently been writing on
the penultimate chapter from the SCIENCE OF LOGIC, "The Idea of
Cognition." She further points to that specific chapter because, very
clearly, I had been relating the [chapter on the] Idea of Cognition to the
concept of organization. What was facing the Johnson-Forest Tendency now that it
finally broke fully with Trotskyism was the question: What kind of organization
now? This took a most ominous turn as I was coming to a break with Johnsonism [C.L.R.
James], 1950-53. The specific objective event that precipitated the crisis in
1953 was Stalin's death.*
In March 1953 I felt very strongly that an incubus had
been lifted from the heads of the Russian and East European masses (evidently
also from my head) and that revolts were sure to happen. It was a very exciting
day in Detroit, both because the Black production worker Charles Denby, and the
head of the Youth, Ben, had independently thought that, no doubt, I wished to
write a political estimate of that world-shaking event; they volunteered to work
with me all night. When Denby appeared after his day at Chrysler he concretized
this further, laughing jubilantly and saying that what all the workers were
talking about, as the radio blared forth the news of Stalin's death, was:
"I've got just the person to take his place--my foreman." Denby asked
if I had that article I was always talking about on the great trade union debate
between Lenin and Trotsky in 1920 (on which I had been working since the 1940s).
Denby felt that the workers would now welcome such a revelation; he wished to
distribute it to them.(4)
Think of the unpleasant shock that then occurred when
Grace, who was in California and the responsible editor for the issue of the
mimeographed CORRESPONDENCE, felt that the lead article could not be on Stalin's
death, but on the "new" women around Selma [James] who disregarded the
blare from the radio announcing Stalin's death. Instead, they were exchanging
recipes for hamburgers. Not only was that idiotic suggestion floated, but she
undertook to censor my analysis on the significance of Stalin's death, so that
it too sounded not so world-shaking. Such an attitude towards a world event
produced such a struggle between me and Grace, that it actually affected the
whole Johnson-Forest Tendency.(5)
What was C.L.R. James's "solution" to the
crisis created by the different attitudes, both to Stalin's death and to the
tasks of a Marxist newspaper? It was typically Jamesian: I was judged to be
"politically" right, but nevertheless totally wrong because of my
sharp attack on Grace. Grace was judged to be "politically" wrong, but
absolutely right because she listened to the "new." After two months
of this type of meaningless, diversionary, empty "solution" to both
things happening in the objective world and attitudes to what are the tasks of a
Marxist newspaper to objective events, I asked for a week off, left Detroit for
Ann Arbor, and out of me poured those Letters of May 12 and 20 on the Absolute
Now then, because the dialectic flow in the present
singling out of p. 21 of the May 12, 1953 letter points also to the relevance of
looking at it with eyes of 1987, let me examine the new find, the 1952 letter
which shows I had made a plunge into the Idea of Cognition, especially on the
section "The Idea of the Good." Clearly I definitely had organization
in mind. This was not on the level of James and Grace and their dialectic of the
"Party," but on the question of dialectic "in and of
itself." While I do not remember where I raised the question that I wasn't
quite happy with Lenin's 16-point definition of the dialectic, I had called
attention to the fact that Lenin says its final two points (15 and 16) are
"EXAMPLES OF POINT 9."(6) This, I felt, was a step back from
proceeding with the Absolute Idea and returning to the Doctrine of Essence, Form
and Content specifically.
At the same time--and that's when I did get brave and
started arguing with Lenin as if he were right there--I began arguing with Lenin
because he had asked the readers to disregard the last half paragraph of the
chapter on the Absolute Idea while I insisted that had he suffered from
Stalinism for three long decades he would have seen the relevance of following
Hegel's Absolutes to the end. (This of course is taken up in the May 20, 1953
letter, where I deal with the three final syllogisms [of Hegel's PHILOSOPHY OF
MIND], but for the present what is compelling is to trace the many ways of the
development of the Self-Determination of the Idea.)
Here is how the May 12, 1953 letter manifested the
dialectical flow on p. 21: FROM exteriorization/interiorization it lapsed into a
would-be "absolute" which led Lenin to remain at the "approach
to," i.e., on the threshold of, the Absolute Idea. This is the reason why
Lenin preferred to let the Absolute Idea stop at NATURE (Practice), crediting
Hegel with "stretching a hand to materialism," instead of following
Hegel to the last part of that paragraph where Hegel insists that the Absolutes
had not been completed with the Absolute Idea, and must still go through the
PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE and PHILOSOPHY OF MIND before completion is reached with
Put another way, in place of any SELF-CRITICISM, or
OBJECTIVITY, Lenin left future generations without full illumination of what may
befall them--Stalinism. It is the generation that followed, our age that
suffered through those three decades of Stalinism, that had to face the reality
of what happens after. It is THIS point, THIS objectivity, THIS concreteness,
that emboldened me not to stop where Lenin stopped at the approach to the
Absolute Idea, but to follow Hegel to the PHILOSOPHY OF MIND. The Absolute
Method opened new doors already in the Absolute Idea, which Hegel defined as:
The pure Idea, in which the determinateness or reality
of the Notion is itself raised to the level of Notion, is an ABSOLUTE
LIBERATION, having no further immediate determination which is not equally
POSITED and equally Notion. Consequently there is no transition in this
freedom...The transition here therefore must rather be taken to mean that the
Idea freely releases itself.... [SLII, pp. 485-86; SLM, p. 843].
Now stand up and shout: "The Idea freely releases
itself." Shout this while a flashing light illuminates Reality and its
meaning, philosophy and revolution.
Instead of placing a "No Entrance" sign over
organization as "pure politics," we finally are in the process of
working out dialectics of philosophy AND organization.
* The same type of crisis as occurred in March-April
1953 over the Johnson-Forest Tendency's attitude to Stalin's death recurred with
the first issue of CORRESPONDENCE on October 3, 1953 for which I had written the
lead on the Beria Purge. Reexamining this in 1987, I realize that what looks
like the "Russian Question"--that same old Russian Question"
which caused the first break with Trotskyism at the approach of World War II and
reoccurred in 1950 on the Korean War--far from being on the "Russian
Question," was actually on the decisive question of war and revolution
which has always marked that new continent of thought and revolution of Marxism
from its birth. 1917 designated its move to the 20th century. It was Stalin's
counter-revolution that gave it a narrow nationalist stamp. Why the hell have
all of us been caught in that linguistic web? --RD
NOTES by the editors
1. This corresponds to the page number of the May 12,
1953 letter as found in THE POWER OF NEGATIVITY.
2. By 1950, James and Dunayevskaya had broken with the
concept of the vanguard party. Her view that the break stayed on a political
level, and did not reach directly into philosophy itself, is illustrated by
STATE-CAPITALISM AND WORLD REVOLUTION (1950), written by James in collaboration
with Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee.
3. Johnny Zupan, a Detroit auto worker, became the
editor of the tendency's newspaper, CORRESPONDENCE, upon its appearance in
printed form in 1953.
4. The article on the 1920 trade union debate in Russia,
"Then and Now," was published in the mimeographed CORRESPONDENCE in
1952, and can be found in THE RAYA DUNAYEVSKAYA COLLECTION, 2181-92. This
article became the basis of the chapter on the 1920 trade union debate in
MARXISM AND FREEDOM.
5. The debate around Dunayeskaya's analysis of Stalin's
death occupied the first several printed issues of CORRESPONDENCE, in October
and November 1953.
6. Points 15 and 16 of Lenin's 16-point definition of dialectic were "the struggle of content with form and conversely. The throwing off of the form, the transformation of the content" and "The transition of quantity into quality and vice versa." Point 9 was "not only the unity of opposites, but the transition of every determination, quality, feature, side, property, into every other (into its opposite)?" [LCW 38, p. 222]. In point 14 Lenin had gone further than this, in singling out "the negation of the negation."
Published by News and Letters Committees