As Others See Us: The new French edition of Marxism and Freedom ‘To retake the historical initiative’

January 31, 2017

From the January-February 2017 issue of News & Letters

Excerpted from the Preface to the new French edition of Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 until Today

by Frédéric Monferrand1Frédéric Monferrand is a doctor of philosophy. He is writing a book on Marx’s ontology and the critique of capitalism and is a member of the editorial board of the magazine Période.

“Marxism is a theory of liberation or it is nothing” — Raya Dunayevskaya

Marxisme et Liberté by Raya Dunayevskaya

Marxisme et Liberté by Raya Dunayevskaya To order CLICK HERE

Raya Dunayevskaya is one of those individuals in whom the historical and biographical, or to use Hegelian language which she never tired of borrowing, the Universal and the Particular tend to coincide….

In the words of Dunayevskaya herself, Marxisme et Liberté (Marxism and Freedom)—which constitutes the first part of a “trilogy of revolution” comprising Philosophy and Revolution: from Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao and Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolutionaddresses three main objectives:

1) to establish the “American roots of Marxism,” in the context in which the American working class, energized from within by the Black struggle, represents the best chance to rekindle the communist endeavor;

2) To reconstruct the philosophical consistency of “Marx’s Marxism” so that it comes to life, from the 1844 Manuscripts to Capital, through the idea that history is the history of the efforts of humanity to make itself free;

3) To re-evaluate the centrality of the “Hegelian dialectic” in the formation of a “new Humanism.”

[T]he opposition between state-capitalism and freedom defines the coordinates of a global conjuncture in which the whole of humanity finds itself engaged. And “the totality of the crisis” which is thus announced “compels philosophy, a total outlook,” which Marxisme et Liberté proposes to sketch.


By “philosophy, a total outlook,” Dunayevskaya signifies, at one and the same time, a method of interpretation of historical phenomena and a utopian horizon—something, that is, like a “vision of the world” with a self-developing and liberating scope.

The method in question is none other than the “dialectic,” defined as a dynamic way of thinking about contradictions and their historic outcome.

At a time when the Hegelian roots of Marxism are largely repressed, the author of Marxisme et Liberté commits herself to reintegrate, as the young Marx did before her, “negativity as the moving and creative principle” of revolutionary theory.

To qualify the dialectic as “method” is not to reduce it to a series of formal laws, such as the “law of the passage of quantity into quality,” of the “interpenetration of opposites,” or the “negation of the negation,” as Engels sought to do in his Dialectics of Nature. It is, rather, to present it as a tool which permits us to discern the “negative principle” at the heart of positivity, that is, the apparently unshakeable nature of social relations.

The dialectic is, in other words, the logical form of historical movement by which freedom embarks in a dynamic of the negation of the institutions which hinder it, and the creation of a world in accordance with its own essence, and it is in this sense that it represents, as Marx emphasized in Capital, a “critical and revolutionary” method.

We understand from this what is at first glance disconcerting: the progression of the first chapter of Marxisme et Liberté, where the political sociology of the different actors in the French Revolution leads little by little to speculations on the “Absolute.”

In Hegel’s Science of Logic, the “Absolute Idea” designates, in fact, the movement by which different oppositions (between being and thought, necessity and

Raya Dunayevskaya

Raya Dunayevskaya

freedom, or theory and practice) which usually structure the way we see things, find themselves supplanted and expressed within a totality.

Then, for Dunayevskaya, in the movement toward totalization of the dichotomies which thought encounters “there is imbedded, though in abstract form, [the idea of] the full development of the social individual,” and it provides in this way, the most compelling definition of that freedom for which the Parisian masses strove during the 1790s. By interpreting, following Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution, Hegel’s thought as a sort of philosophical summing up of the French Revolution, Dunayevskaya nonetheless does not intend to turn it into a relic or an object of historical curiosity. She instead sets out to do the opposite, to bring it up to the present.

In fact, as she states in Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, each epoch has to reinvent for itself the revolutionary dialectic, conceived as a process of resolving the contradictions inherited from the past, and the creation of new forms of social relations. This, furthermore, is what Lenin understood when he immersed himself in the Science of Logic to grasp the revolutionary potential contained, paradoxically, within the “collapse of the Second International” and the First World War. And it is this effort to grasp the “new society struggling to be born” that the contradictions of state-capitalism impose on revolutionaries:

Our age has seen a successful workers’ revolution—the Russian Revolution of November, 1917—which seemed to open up an entire new epoch in the free development of humanity only to end in the counter-revolution of state-capitalism. It is therefore our age that is preoccupied with the question of man’s destiny: What happens after a revolution succeeds?

As we see, for Dunayevskaya the dialectic does not only serve a retrospective purpose, but one of reaching to the future. To think dialectically is not only to reconstruct the social, political, and cultural relations of the past from the standpoint of congealing them in the present as contradiction, it is also to seek to clarify the goals of freedom movements, to ask the question of “What comes after?” and to look for “new beginnings.” Now, that movement that leads from theory to utopia, from recognizing contradictions to anticipation of their concrete resolution, is identical to that which leads from Hegel to Marx.

From Hegel, Marx in effect would have retained the idea according to which “all of history presents itself as a series of historical stages in the development of freedom.” Simply, where Hegel ran up against class prejudice that prevented him from situating the movement of a history of freedom in the self-activity of the masses, which consequently he mystified in the self-development of “Spirit,” Marx conceived the historical trajectory of humanity from the point of view of “labor in the process of production,” that is, of “the living laborer…against the domination of dead labor.” If “Marxism is a theory of liberation,” it is such as a “philosophy of human activity,” such that the “philosophy can be most fittingly called a new Humanism.”

Might one say, then, that Dunayevskaya’s Marxism is an embodiment of the “theoretical humanism” that Althusser denounced as the last refuge of liberal ideology within historical materialism? Yes and no. Yes, if we mean by “theoretical humanism” a philosophy of history written from the point of view of that meta-subject called “humanity.” No, if we mean by that term a social theory that pretends to explain social phenomena from the point of view of ahistorical properties of “human essence.”

Dunayevskaya does not, in effect, attribute an explanatory function, but a critical and utopian one, to the “new Humanism”: for her it is not a question of reducing forms of social objectivity to the objectification of human nature, but of insisting on the historical newness that must incarnate the arrival of the free society. As the Soviet counter-example shows, communism can’t be reduced to the collectivization of production, it implies the creation of “classless, totally new human relations in life and in philosophy” (Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, p. 192) as well as assuring the individuals involved the free development of their capacities.

This “new Humanism” represents, in other words, the materialist translation of Hegel’s “Absolute,” the code word for freedom that is conscious of itself because it unfolds in the framework of social relations. It constitutes in this way the yardstick from which to evaluate the present and the principle by which to orient ourselves in social and political struggles which presage the future. Its theoretical benefit depends, then, on its power of practical intervention.

Beyond the historical context of the time in which it was written, and whatever one thinks of the “Humanism” that is expressed there, Marxism and Freedom invites us to reconnect with the strategic creativity of past freedom movements, and to connect resolutely with the historical dialectic which is our destiny in any case, and to supplement the question of “what do we do?” with that of knowing where we want to go. Less than a program, but more than an incantatory call to resistance, this work is an invitation to retake the historical initiative that we have abandoned to capital and to the world that only belongs to it because we have allowed ourselves to be dispossessed.

Translation by D. Chêneville

Marxisme et Liberté by Raya Dunayevskaya

Marxisme et Liberté by Raya Dunayevskaya Click here.

nouvelle édition française!


par Raya Dunayevskaya 22 €

Éditions Syllepse, 69 rue des Rigoles, 75020 Paris

“C’est bien des modalités d’une rupture révolutionnaire anti-autoritaire et émancipatrice dont discute ici l’auteure.”

To order the original in English: Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 until Today click here. Click here for free Arabic and Chinese pdf editions.

Previously published in Italian, Japanese and Spanish and chapters have been circulated underground in Iran, China and East Europe.


1 Frédéric Monferrand is a doctor of philosophy. He is writing a book on Marx’s ontology and the critique of capitalism and is a member of the editorial board of the magazine Période.

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