Dialectics of revolution: American roots and world Humanist concepts
Editor’s note: For the centenary of Raya Dunayevskaya’s birth, we present excerpts from her March 21, 1985, lecture at the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Detroit, at the opening of a three-month exhibition of the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection (RDC). It will be continued in the next issue. The full lecture is included in the RDC, #8394.
* * *
II. The excitement of becoming Trotsky’s secretary and the break with Trotskyism
I am not writing the history of the past in the future tense. I have no intention of analyzing an historic personage like Leon Trotsky only as I see him after my break from Trotskyism. I have always strongly opposed any rewriting of history. I do not deny that I certainly considered it the highest moment of my own development up to that time to have become Trotsky’s secretary and to have been a guard and translator as well.
Trotsky’s contention was that, while Stalin’s Moscow frame-up trials did show that the workers’ state had “degenerated,” nothing could change the fact that it had arisen out of a Russian Revolution, which had abolished private property. To Trotsky, nationalized property “meant” that Russia remained a workers’ state, though “degenerate.”
I felt the need to prove my conviction that what had occurred was a total transformation into opposite, that Russia had turned from a workers’ state into a state-capitalist society.
It took three years before I finished my study of the three Five-Year Plans from original sources, set in the context of a new world stage of capitalism. The Great Depression had collapsed private capitalism, and had led to statification. Originally, the study began with a section called “Labor and Society”; but the Workers Party, in accepting the economic study for publication, though they were bureaucratic collectivists, refused to accept “Labor and Society.”
I had joined with C.L.R. James, who had also come to a state-capitalist position and had written a lengthy political Resolution for submission to the Workers Party. This State-Capitalist Tendency came to be known as the Johnson-Forest Tendency.
What I had not been aware of at the time was that “Labor and Society” actually contained what would also cause, nearly a decade later, the break between Johnson (James) and Forest (Dunayevskaya), and the new creation of the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism. The philosophy that the Workers Party rejected was based on Marx’s 1844 Humanist Essays, which, at the time I quoted from it, I knew only as Marx’s single article, “Alienated Labor.”
When, in the 1949-50 Miners’ General Strike, I again used Marx’s Humanist Essays–and my own activity showed the beginning of Marxist-Humanism–C.L.R. James also recoiled from Marx’s Humanism. This first became clear in the final section of the 1950 Tendency document, State-Capitalism and World Revolution, written under his direction. There, Humanism was dismissed as religious and/or Existentialist.
It was not until three years later–May 12 and May 20, 1953–that I first broke through on Hegel’s Absolute Idea in my letters to Grace Lee Boggs. I maintained that the Absolute Idea was not an abstraction or some sort of call for a God, but that it contained within it a movement from practice as well as from theory. This led to the founding of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S.
III. The Marxist-Humanist newspaper News & Letters; its worker-editor, Charles Denby: his autobiography, Indignant Heart; and the pamphlets,Workers Battle Automation and American Civilization on Trial
The decisions, made simultaneously at the very first convention of News and Letters Committees, were to have a Black production worker (Charles Denby) as editor of its paper, and to assign the National Chairwoman, Raya Dunayevskaya, to complete the first major philosophic–and not only economic-political–work,Marxism and Freedom, on which she had been working for several years.
The concept of having theory and practice together dictated our refusal to put theoretical articles only in a theoretical journal. Our point was that the intellectuals should not only read, but write for, a workers’ newspaper like News & Letters; that is, that intellectuals would talk to a working-class audience which has a great deal to contribute to the intellectual if the intellectual knows how to listen to the new voices from below. The goal became the new principle of combining workers and intellectuals–neither of whom would be stopped by a McCarthy retrogression. That was the ground for our Marxist-Humanist newspaper, News & Letters, when it was established in 1955.
In 1950, I was involved in the Miners’ General Strike in West Virginia. That strike achieved a truly historic first, both in the strike itself, and in what was happening simultaneously philosophically. The greatness of the miners’ strike over automation before the word was even invented was this: What had begun in 1949 as a union-authorized strike turned into a strike against the union leadership. Instead of asking for higher wages, the miners raised altogether new questions dealing with their conditions of work, and questions of the work itself. What they asked was: “What kind of labor should man do?” “Why should there be such a gulf between thinking and doing?”
The pamphlet we published–The 1949-50 Miners’ General Strike and the Birth of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S.–tells, first, the in-person story of the miners’ participation, co-authored by me and Andy Phillips, a miner who is himself a Marxist-Humanist. The pamphlet then includes the story of my activity. And in an Appendix there are 35 Letters exchanged between myself and the two other leaders of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, C. L. R. James and Grace Lee Boggs, which show that in that period I was not only translating and commenting on Lenin’s Philosophic Notebooks, but also, in the end, actually telling some of the strike events. All of this makes clear that the question of cognition and actuality, like the gulf between thinking and doing, touches on the relationship of philosophy to revolution.
Issue Number One of News & Letters came out in honor of the East German revolt. The year 1955 was also when the Montgomery Bus Boycott erupted and signaled the birth of the Black Revolution. My life and Charles Denby’s truly became one–that of Marxist-Humanism.
Part One of his autobiography was written before Denby’s own development as an editor. In Part Two of Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal, he sums up the events of a full quarter century of the existence of Marxist-Humanism which had meant such a new stage in his own life.
In 1960 he was not only the editor of News & Letters but the author of a pamphlet called Workers Battle Automation. On the American scene, we spelled out the Black Dimension so concretely that it ranged over the entire history of the U.S. We called it American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard; in 1983 we published a new fourth edition of it, and Denby asked that my Introduction include the new paragraph on the Black Dimension I had added to the Rosa Luxemburg book. We had singled out what characterized Marxist-Humanism from the start–the two-way road between the U.S. and South Africa. That is to say, the Black Dimension represents the kind of nationalism that is inseparable from internationalism, which in our age is the focal point for both national revolutions and the needed world revolution.
IV. The trilogy of revolution–Marxism and Freedom; Philosophy and Revolution; Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution. The unchaining of the dialectics of revolution: American roots and Marx’s world Humanist concepts
What is significant to us here, in Marx’s transformation of Hegel’s revolution inphilosophy into Marx’s philosophy of revolution, is how it was extended in his last decade. It led us to call the 1880s a “trail to the 1980s.” Marx deepened and concretized what he had originally called a “New Humanism” throughout his life. After forty years of labor in the field of economics, which culminated in the 1872-75 French edition of Capital, in the same decade in which he wrote hisEthnological Notebooks, Marx hewed out a new moment. It is seen in his critique of the Russian Populist Mikhailovsky; in Marx’s draft letters to the Russian revolutionary Marxist, Vera Zasulich; and in nothing less important than the Introduction to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto–where he predicted that revolution could begin first in the backward East rather than in the technologically advanced West. He singled out Russia as that East. That was 1881!
Strictly philosophically, our first unchaining of the dialectic began with my breakthrough in the May 12 and 20, 1953, letters on Hegel’s Absolute Idea. We have recently traced the breakthrough in its embryonic appearance in the three preceding years: 1950-53. It is true that the breakthrough in the 1953 Letters showed that within the Absolute Idea itself is contained the movement from practice as well as from theory.
But the 1950 strike was the real manifestation. It is therefore imperative to combine what Hegel called “the Self-Thinking Idea” with what was present in the spontaneous movements of the Coal Miners’ General Strike, that which we later called the “Self-Bringing Forth of Freedom.” It should not here be necessary to explain the obvious, but such explanation is “required” against the vulgar materialists to assure them that of course we know it is not the Idea that thinks; it is people who think. What must be added, however, is that the dialectic logic of the Idea moves in the direction of what was implicit in the movement from practice.
By the mid-1950s, the category I had worked out as the movement from practice provided the structure for my major philosophic work–Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 Until Today. That was the first of what we now call the “trilogy of revolution.” It illuminated the fact that the movement from practicewas itself a form of theory.
It is this concept of philosophy as being rooted in the movement from practice which creates a challenge for theoreticians to work out a new stage of cognition. It created the structure of Marxism and Freedom, where we first concretized those American roots of Marxism–from Abolitionism to the then ongoing Montgomery Bus Boycott, which opened the Black Revolution. In that work, the world Humanist concepts were also spelled out, not alone in the U.S. but in the very first mass revolts from under Communist totalitarianism in East Europe–East Germany, 1953; Poland, 1955; Hungary, 1956.
In the 1960s we began recording the new voices of a new generation of revolutionaries, and in 1968 had to face the aborted near-revolution in France, which made imperative our return to Hegel on an altogether new level. What was needed was a working out of the Hegelian dialectic, this time in and for itself, as well as how it was grappled with by Marx and Lenin. This resulted in the second unchaining of the Hegelian dialectic for our age as the dialectics of revolution. We examined, as well, the alternatives: Trotsky, Mao and the outsider looking in, Sartre.
1973 saw the publication of Philosophy and Revolution: From Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao. I there extended the concretization of Absolute Idea not just as a totality–the unity of theory and practice–but as the development ofAbsolute Idea as New Beginning.
The first chapter of Philosophy and Revolution was entitled “Absolute Negativity as New Beginning: The Ceaseless Movement of Ideas and of History.” Here I argued that seeing Absolute Idea as a unity of theory and practice, as totality, is where the task first begins. Absolute Idea as New Beginning challenges all generations to concretely work out such a new beginning for their own age.
The book moves to the different objective situations on the vicissitudes of state-capitalism in East Europe and Africa. Only after analysis of the objective situation do I face the new passions and new forces throughout the world. We there encounter the development of theory in Frantz Fanon, who, in The Wretched of the Earth, likewise called his philosophy “a New Humanism.”
(To be concluded next issue)