NEWS & LETTERS, Dec 09, LÚvi-Strauss

NEWS & LETTERS, December 2009

From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya

Letter to the Youth:

LÚvi-Strauss and the battle of ideas

Editor's note: On the occasion of the death of Claude LÚvi-Strauss, we present excerpts of Dunayevskaya's "Letter to the Youth on the Needed Total Uprooting of the Old and the Creation of New Human Relations." The original, dated Aug. 13, 1983, can be found in The Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #7803.

* * *

Because of my deep confidence in the youth striving to be "thought-divers" (whether or not they are superb swimmers just by being young and strong), I'd like to appeal to you to dive into the battle of challenging post-Marx Marxism. That battle will reveal the much greater maturity of this historic period as against that of the generation of the 1960s. It is true that they were so massively active in that decade that 1968 had reached the threshold of a revolution. The fact, however, that it remained an unfinished act made it clear to the following generation that they had better probe deeply into how the lack of serious theory vitiated activism's goals. The idea that activity, activity, activity would absolve them from the hard labor of recreating Marx's theory of "revolution in permanence" for their age and that theory picked up "en route" would solve the totality of the economic-political-social crises, as well as end U.S. imperialism's war in Vietnam, ended in total failure.

Nevertheless, one of the most famous debates in that period was that between Jean-Paul Sartre and Claude LÚvi-Strauss (...accepted as gurus by the youth movement), as the 1960s generation continued to follow new philosophies like Existentialism and Structuralism, instead of trying to find the historic link of continuity with "old" Marxism. While LÚvi-Strauss critiqued Sartre's adherence to dialectics, holding that Structuralism required the analytic, empiric, scientific method, Sartre--since he, himself, was enamored with Structuralism and had as ahistorical an outlook as LÚvi-Strauss--could hardly win the argument for meaning as against LÚvi-Strauss's emphasis on non-meaning. Here is how LÚvi-Strauss put it:

"In my perspective, meaning is never the primary phenomenon; meaning is always reducible. In other words, behind all meaning there is a non-meaning, while the reverse is not the case. As far as I'm concerned, significance is always phenomenal." [1]

A profound critique of LÚvi-Strauss' Structuralism came, not from Existentialism, but from an independent Marxist anthropologist-dialectician, Stanley Diamond:

"The ethnologist is actually saying that he is not interested in meaning (significance), which he regards as merely (and always) phenomenal. For him, the primary phenomenon is not meaning, but the non-meaning which lies behind meaning and to which, he believes, meaning is reducible."[2]

The point is that the lifeblood of the Hegelian dialectic--when it is not diluted by Existentialism but seen in its essence as a ceaseless movement of becoming, disclosing the meaning of history--is exactly what saved Hegel from the Kantian, impenetrable "Thing-in-itself" and its absolute idealism. Though Hegel may have wanted to confine history to history of thought, the single dialectic which characterizes both objectivity and subjectivity moved Hegel to objective idealism. That single dialectic became the ground for Marx's dialectic of revolution.

It was this, just this, which led proletarians to accept dialectical development, not alone for its "dynamism" but for its meaning in historic confrontation. Contrast the non-Marxist, intellectualistic, abstract approach to dialectics with that of a Marxist-Humanist proletarian attitude--and consider that it was precisely on the question of phenomenology. That does not mean phenomenal but the science of phenomena, of experience. I am referring to Charles Denby, the editor of News & Letters and his favorite quotation from Hegel:

"Enlightenment upsets the household arrangements, which spirit carries out in the house of faith, by bringing in the goods and furnishings belonging to the world of the Here and Now."[3]

The whole point of Denby's interest in the Hegelian quotation was this: What does philosophy have to say on the relationship between reality and revolution? It was because he saw Hegel introducing reality into the critique of the Enlightenment that Denby's attraction to Hegelian dialectics deepened. He could then see that dialectical development signified the transformation of reality....

Please remember, dear Youth, as I appeal to you to engage in this battle of ideas, that it is not only the post-Marx Marxists we challenge but all alternatives to Marx's Marxism. Philosophy and Revolution critiqued not only revolutionaries like Mao and Trotsky, but also Sartre, the "Outsider Looking In." It is true that I deal with him there as Existentialist and I deal with the structuralist Communist intellectual guru, Louis Althusser, all too briefly, very nearly dismissing him in a few footnotes. I do not mention LÚvi-Strauss at all. Nevertheless, they represent the very same subject--Alternatives--that I began this letter with. Later I will contrast that to a true re-creation of Marxism for one's age. For us that began in 1953 with the breakthrough on the Absolute Idea. It will be easier, I believe, to dig deep into that if we look first at what we are familiar with--the Youth Revolt in this country, the Free Speech Movement burdened by American pragmatism.[4] Revolutionaries though they were, they certainly resisted philosophy of revolution. Though they had asked me to address them on Marx's Humanism, the interest was more on the subject of alienation than on philosophy of revolution.[5]

It was all most exciting when Mario Savio was released from jail at midnight and arrived at 2 a.m. in a spot several miles outside of Berkeley to hear me speak on Marx's Humanism. Though they were very interested in Humanism, and, indeed, related it to their own new lifestyles, Mario was the next day also going to meet Aptheker, because he had promised Bettina, who was also part of the Free Speech Movement, and he was open to "all ideas" and was not the least bit interested in any Party or organization.[6] In a word, the supposedly non-partyist, non-elitist, non-organizational person who was only for activism, activism, activism, did not see the contradiction in organizational form that lacked a philosophy of freedom and that form that was inseparable from a struggle for freedom, for revolution.

Permit me here to go back to 1953 to reexamine the process of working out, or seeing the emergence of, a new philosophic dimension. It is the year I first broke through on the Absolute Idea, removing its abstract, mystical veil and seeing it as not only a unity of theory and practice, but a totally new relationship of the two because a new historic beginning had been reached with this live movement from practice. This was the period we completely rejected both the designation of the youth as "the beat generation" and the pragmatic view of the epoch itself as "an end of ideology."[7]

The breakthrough on the Absolute Idea helped us to perceive a new generation of revolutionaries in that so-called "beat generation" who were rejecting a world they never made; and to see in the revolts in Latin America and Africa the emergence of a Third World. Indeed, toward the end of the 1950s, retrogression and McCarthyism in the U.S. notwithstanding, we declared it to be a totally new epoch: in production;[8] in political freedom battles, whether that be the new Black dimension in the Montgomery Bus Boycott or in the East European Freedom Fighters against Russian state-capitalism calling itself Communism; a new stage of cognition as the Hungarian Revolution highlighted it by bringing Marx's Humanist Essays onto the historic stage. The breakthrough on the Absolute Idea was not only on the movements from practice and from theory but also on ORGANIZATION, as we held that its dialectic would illuminate also the dialectic of the Party, as we had long since rejected "the party to lead" concept. We were here driven to go also to Hegel's Philosophy of Mind, and there, as we approached the three final syllogisms in Absolute Mind and trod on ground none had ever walked before, we felt that in place of a "dialectic of the party" we were, with Hegel's Self-Thinking Idea, with the masses' Self-Bringing Forth of Liberty, face to face with a new society. After all, Marx had unchained the dialectic as he had recreated the Absolute Method as a "revolution in permanence."...

In the mid-1970s we finally got to know Marx's Ethnological Notebooks which let us hear him think. By not being a work finished for the press, it compels us to work out, to labor at what Marx has only in notes. This is what we must all work at for our age. Here is why we so urgently need a new type of member and need to see ourselves as a new type of member, to continue the development of what Rosa Luxemburg, Women's Liberation, and Marx's Philosophy of Revolution, in completing the trilogy of revolution, has begun. In the process, let us not forget what that great revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, did for us, not only in letting us discover her unknown feminist dimension, but in posing the question of the relationship of spontaneity to organization so insightfully that, though she had not worked out the answers, she helped create an atmosphere that makes it impossible any longer to ignore all the ramifications of spontaneity.

Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program, when reread with the totality of Marx's Marxism--where we found the "new moments" Marx experienced on what we now call the Third World and the new forces of revolution as Reason, be it Women's Liberation, Black or youth--demanded a reexamination of all the great revolutionaries, especially Lenin and Luxemburg, who seemed to be so deeply divided on the question of organization. It was that reexamination in this year of the Marx centenary, in this nuclear world, in the imperative nature of the challenge to post-Marx Marxists, which would not let revolutionaries off scot-free of the organizational question.

The youth need also to dig into the first chapter of Part III of Rosa Luxemburg, Women's Liberation, and Marx's Philosophy of Revolution to grapple with the Promethean vision of the young Marx before he was a Marxist, when he was still a Prometheus Bound, when he was still a young Hegelian (1839-41) just filling in some minor gaps in Hegel's monumental History of Philosophy--and asking himself that imperative question: "where to begin?" When we talk about "thought-divers" we can see that Marx was the greatest of all.

That's what I'm really appealing to the youth to do. Becoming a thought-diver and an activist in this period demands nothing short of practicing the challenge to all post-Marx Marxists, and thereby creating such new ground for organization, such concretization of Marx's revolution in permanence, as to find a new way to let the actual revolution be.


1. Claude LÚvi-Strauss, "A Confrontation," New Left Review, no. 62 (July-August 1970, orig. French edition 1963), p. 64.

2. See "Anthropology in Question" in Section 6, "The Root Is Man: Critical Traditions," of Reinventing Anthropology, edited by Dell Hymes (Vintage Books, 1972), p. 427.--RD

3. G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind (New York: Harper, 1967), p. 512.

4. See The Free Speech Movement and the Negro Revolution, by Mario Savio, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Eugene Walker (Detroit: News and Letters, 1965). Philosophically, the Black dimension, especially Frantz Fanon, far from being pragmatist, worked out its critique of Hegel's concept of reciprocity in a revolutionary-dialectical manner. See both Black Skin, White Masks and my "Revolutions and Philosophies" of Aug. 1, 1983 [Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #7819].--RD

5. Dunayevskaya's speech on Marx's theory of alienation, given in Berkeley at the height of the Free Speech Movement and titled "Marx's Debt to Hegel," can be found in The Free Speech Movement and the Negro Revolution.

6. Bettina Aptheker's father Herbert Aptheker was a leader of the Communist Party USA.

7. Daniel Bell's The End of Ideology was published in 1960.

8. See the News and Letters Committees pamphlet Workers Battle Automation by Charles Denby.

Anthropology and Marx's philosophy of revolution

Rosa Luxemburg, Women's Liberation, and Marx's Philosophy of Revolution

With his study of works on primitive societies, Marx was diving into the study of human development, both in different historic periods and in the most basic Man/Woman relationship. The concept he held fast was the one he had worked out in his 1844 Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts. This was not, as anthropologists would have it, simply a move from a philosophic to an empiric, scientific, and anthropological view. Rather, as a revolutionary, Marx's hostility to capitalism's colonialism was intensifying. The question was how total must be the uprooting of existing society and how new the relationship of theory to practice. The studies enabled Marx (Marx, not Engels) to see the possibility of new human relations, not as they might come through a mere "updating" of primitive communism's equality of the sexes, as among the Iroquois, but as Marx sensed they would burst forth from a new type of revolution.

Women's Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution: Reaching for the Future

All too many of today's Women's Liberationists have rejected "Marxism" as if Engels' Origin of the Family was Marx's view, without ever digging into Marx's Marxism....What we now know as the Ethnological Notebooks....when set in the context of his philosophy of revolution and human development, led to the conclusion that revolution could come first in a backward land, provided the historic conditions were ripe and the revolution related itself to the rest of the world.

To order Rosa Luxemburg, Women's Liberation, and Marx's Philosophy of Revolution click here,
To order Women's Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution: Reaching for the Future click here.

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