NEWS & LETTERS, April - May 2008

From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya

Where to begin?

Theory and practice in a new relationship


In preparation for the Special Convention of News and Letters Committees, where we will confront the question of how to begin anew in today's situation, in which the needed new relationship between theory and practice is paramount, we print excerpts of Raya Dunayevskaya's presentation to the 1956 Founding Convention. The talk, titled "Theoretical and Practical Perspectives: Where to Begin," is included in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, microfilm # 2566.

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Marxism isn't an heirloom to be handed down as a keepsake for your grandchildren. It is either a method to help us realize freedom in our day, or it is nothing at all.

Our point of departure must be in the concrete stage of capitalist production itself. The crisis is in production. If you see it there, you can understand it everywhere else. If you do not see it there, you can understand it nowhere.

The totality of the crises in production today is twofold: 1) First is the role of capitalism. Just as the State Plan came out of the collapse of private capitalism, in face of the crash in 1929, so automation came as the capitalistic answer to the struggle over productivity in the post-war years. However, the crisis in production is now so total and of such a world scope, that there is nothing from atomic energy to automation that is not simultaneously the property of every industrial country, and with America and Russia both having the H-bomb, the world has reached an impasse that is nearly breathless. There is very little time differential nowadays between their theory and practice too, but while they can only live by hiding and there is no chance to hide, the working class wants to be heard and urges toward a unity with theory. The age of automation strives to be recorded in its proletarian impulse.

2) Second and most important is the role of labor in this, the age of automation, where the worker not only refuses to be a mere cog in the machine, nor take unemployment as a "natural" phenomenon, but on the contrary, raises the very basic question of the relationship of labor to life itself....

Ever since the 1929 crash which split the American mind as well as the world mind into two opposite poles, on the one hand the Planners, and on the other hand the self-activity of the workers, finding their own forms of organization as the CIO, the movement from practice to theory has developed to where it has now reached such intensity that it will not brook any separation on the part of the theoreticians. This is different than it was in 1941, when the state-capitalist tendency first arose.(1)

It was fine to write theses and to point out how the old parties were degenerating because they had neither correct theory nor were they based on their own rank and file.

But when it came to the simple question: what do we do now that we're independent; where do we begin now that nothing stands in the way of our meeting the proletariat on our grounds, how many different answers were blurted out? ...

The failure of Correspondence(2) is the failure to merge with the new impulses coming from automation although we were right there on the spot when it happened and could see even in the most concrete way where it all happened when the most automatized mine, the Consol, was precisely the first where workers began the great 1949-50 strike.

The theoreticians who thought they had prepared themselves sufficiently by the theory of state capitalism and workers revolt to receive new impulses had not the slightest conception that these impulses at this stage in this age of absolutes were not mere instinct, but thought itself and not just random thought but theory.


The indivisibility of the book and the paper(3) as the life of the organization, its foundation and its expression, is the answer to the question, where to begin. But this needs to be concretized. Take the book. How does it happen that we alone are doing it? What does the method in which we are doing it signify? That is to say, why did I feel inadequate to the task of doing it alone? Why did it have to become a collective venture, not only of our little group here, but of every worker and intellectual we could possibly reach? All of these questions can be answered simply by showing the significance of how much greater was the help of the workers than of the intellectuals, even our own intellectuals, in the accomplishment of this task. I repeat, the workers who had never read a word of Marxism, who had never even heard the name, gave more of themselves to this book than did our own intellectuals. It is a hard thing to grasp especially since we are all so well-meaning and so glibly repeat that Marxism is not in books but in the daily lives of people. What do we do after we say that? How many of us say the paper can't be "just" a forum for the workers and thereby once again introduce the division between Marxism and the worker.

On the other hand, follow one worker's reactions. When Pete says:

You know, I laid there this morning about quarter to six. I looked out the window. I said to myself, "You just got to get up there and go, whether you feel like it or not." I just said it to myself. I didn't even speak it to my wife. I just said to myself, "Now you call that a free man?"

He isn't saying I hate to get up and go to work, although that is a good enough thing to say--he is taking the word freedom from out of the clouds and making it the stuff of everyday life.

When Angela Terrano says work will have to be something entirely different, she is doing more than exuding a good working-class instinct. She is stating the philosophy and the concrete slogan, if you please, which must be the axis of a paper like News & Letters....

When Charles Denby writes about the changes in the shop which trace the evolution of the labor bureaucracy, and at the same time, says that the book will be the weapon in the class struggle, he is doing nothing less than what Marx himself did when he took political economy out of its intellectual sphere and made it both theory and weapon in the class struggle.

Compare this to the intellectual who does see the book as necessary, but fails to grasp the specific contribution that we and we alone are making in this restatement of Marxist fundamentals. The truth is, he has helped less in writing this book than the worker who is shy enough to think that only because he has never heard of Marx is the book new.


The truth is, the book is new and so are his feelings and aspirations because they are the feelings and thoughts and aspirations of the year 1956. Except in the most general sense, Marx could not have known them when he wrote.

We live in the age of absolutes. He did not.

The working class of today is far more advanced than the Parisian masses of 1871, although the latter established in the Paris Commune the first workers state in history and we have yet to establish the workers' state of our day....

The way to break down the division between worker and intellectual is to begin with the realization that in the book the intellectuals, even as the workers, have something new to learn. The intellectual can then spread the book far and wide in the full realization of the contribution we are making to fill the void in Marxism.

We are no elite, and we are not out to lead the masses. But we have a serious role to perform and no one else is doing it. Our point of departure is new. No one since Marx himself has done anything like it. We could not have been without Marx, but Marxism (I repeat) is not what Marx wrote in 1843 or 1883, but what it is today, 1956.

...The workers of this age will accept nothing less than a total view of every aspect before power, after power, and of every process on the way.

The young Marx said the task of the new journal should be to help the realization of the age. That is our task, with all the added complexities of the age of absolutes. Yet it can all be summed up in a simple sentence--clarifying workers politics in the book and in the paper as inseparables.

When Lenin, in 1900, wrote his article, "Where to Begin," and specified that beginning to be a newspaper, how many of his colleagues laughed and said, No, it should be an organization. Others said there should be only a newspaper, not an organization. Where others saw the two--newspaper and organization--as separates, Lenin saw them as inseparable.

It is easy to say today history has proven Lenin right. The point is what did you say as a contemporary of his when he said: This--a national newspaper--is where we begin.

...[T]hose of us who had worked out the significance of Stalin's death as the beginning of the end of totalitarianism, and were reinterpreting the movement of the Absolute Idea materialistically as the movement from practice to theory did have our fountain pens full and were ready to hear the new impulses and incorporate them immediately into the Marxism of our age, specifying that the two poles of the book would be Automation and the Absolute Idea....

The conviction that this is so does not arise from my telling you so. The inner conviction can arise only because of a certain attitude to the working people, the unshakeable confidence that there are workers struggling for a new society every day of their lives, that the world does not begin and end with you, but with them. That you have something to learn from them, does not mean that they do not have something to learn from you.

If you have this conviction, then you can engage in the struggle for the minds of men, and that is what our century is, the struggle for the minds of men. The struggle for the minds of men at the time when the tendency to the complete mechanization of men has reached its acutest point with automation. Just as it cannot be won with hollow slogans of democracy, so it cannot be won either with outworn concepts of vanguardism, or intellectual abdication.

It is precisely the totality of the world crisis that compels philosophy, a total outlook. The working class may not have created a new society yet, but they have undermined the old and smashed to smithereens all the old categories, believing neither in the rationality of the economic system, nor the political order.

The vanguard, on the other hand, has done nothing. It is stuck in the mud of old fixed categories, chief of which is the party to lead the masses. Where the worker begins with the question: what happens after the conquest of power? Are we always to be confronted with a new bureaucracy? Is it all to end in the one-party state, the so-called vanguard says: first do this, follow me. That workers have already heard from the capitalists who say: Look at the wonders of automation--tomorrow the new world, but now follow me.

Everyone is ready to lead. No one to listen. Yet this age of automation demands to be recorded as proletarian impulse. This is what News & Letters is doing. There is nothing but the intellectual sloth on the side of the vanguard parties.

What they all forget is that a new society is the human endeavor or it is nothing at all. It cannot be brought into the world either behind the backs or outside the minds of the people. It is the people who will conceive it. It is the people who will build it. Or it will not be built....

Marxism is in the everyday life of the workers, in their struggles and aspirations, their thoughts and experiences. The American worker has one advantage over his European brother: he is unencumbered by old radical political parties that have become bureaucratized--whether as the totalitarianism of Russia or the democratic one of the British Labor Party, Bevanites included--is more free, beginning with production and ease of communication and association with his fellow men, than any other working class on earth.

All we have to do is to have our ears attuned, our paper ready as platform for them and columns for us. We also have something to say.

This is not intellectual abdication. The new impulses can come only from those on whose backs all the oppression weighs. But once the theoretician has taken the impulse from the worker, his work does not end. His work first then begins. It is no small task to work out a new unity of theory and practice. It took Marx his whole lifetime. We are more fortunate than he and do not have to begin from the beginning. We have Marx to build on. We have the great divide in Marxism to absorb. We have the experience of more than three decades of working-class struggles since Lenin's death. And we have the present rich day to day struggles of the Negro masses. The movement from practice to theory cannot fail to meet the movement from theory to practice if we live our lives with the working class and have our ears open.

If the history of the past means nothing to you, remember that today also is history.... [A]ll that the knowledge of the past does is to lay the foundation for the present and infuse us with the confidence that this continuous thread from history is a sort of wireless communication that will first be decoded in our age which will see to it that the idea of workers freedom is not so feeble that it will not actually come to be in our day.


(1) The State-Capitalist Tendency was organized within the Workers Party by Raya Dunayevskaya, C.L.R. James and others to advance the position that Russia was a state capitalist society, rather than a workers state.

(2) From 1951 to 1955 the State-Capitalist Tendency became an independent organization, Correspondence Committees.

(3) "The book" referred to throughout is Dunayevskaya's Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 Until Today, completed in 1957, see ad this page. "The paper" is News & Letters.

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