Essay: Dunayevskaya’s place in the history of the Left

November 9, 2010

From the Nov.-Dec. 2010 issue of News & Letters:

Essay:  Dunayevskaya’s place in the history of the Left

by Kevin Michaels

Raya Dunayevskaya deserves a prominent place in the historical self-understanding of the U.S. Left. She was acknowledged in her lifetime not only as a leader in theory by working-class militants like Charles Denby, author of Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal, autoworker and thinker Felix Martin, and the Scottish Marxist-Humanist Harry McShane, but also as a serious contributor to the interpretation of Hegelian philosophy by scholars like Louis Dupre and A.V. Miller. She has, however, not yet been accorded the rightful position her sixty-plus years as an activist and thinker in the revolutionary movement entitle her. In large part she has been relegated to a subordinate position in what can be called “C.L.R. James studies,” stemming from her intense collaboration with James and Grace Lee in the remarkable period from 1941 to 1955.

A much-needed new and profound encounter with the life and work of Raya Dunayevskaya will, however, not be simply an exercise in revising the history of American radicalism, but will be a contribution towards overcoming false antinomies that continue to impede the development of both practical and theoretical challenges to the domination of capitalism and the thinking that helps perpetuate it. Categories traditionally coupled in opposition, such as “Old Left” vs. “New Left,” class vs.race, class vs. gender, and spontaneity vs. organization, will appear in a new light when examined in the context of Dunayevskaya’s work. The centenary of her birth presents us with an opportunity to begin that encounter.


Dunayevskaya’s lifetime of work commenced in the early 1920s in the ranks of the then still-revolutionary Communist Party, at that time called the Workers Party of America. She participated in the work of the American Negro Labor Congress, which was forged in the effort to include African-American workers in the international revolutionary wave that began in Russia in early 1917. She contributed to the organization’s paper, the Negro Champion, which was edited by Lovett Fort-Whiteman.

Dunayevskaya can legitimately be considered to be among the first of the American Trotskyists, having been expelled from the youth section of the Workers Party for defending Trotsky in 1928, even before an explicitly Trotskyist organization had come into being.

Dunayevskaya participated in many of the historic struggles of the Great Depression, including the defense campaign for imprisoned labor leader Tom Mooney, the 1934 San Francisco general strike, and solidarity efforts for the striking Arkansas sharecroppers of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. She was also in the thick of the Trotskyist movement and served in one of the most important positions in the Left Opposition, that of Russian language secretary to Trotsky in exile in Coyoacan, Mexico, in 1937. She was present at the historic commission of inquiry held there in April of that year, which was chaired by philosopher John Dewey for the purpose of allowing Trotsky to publicly respond to the mountain of charges made against him in the Moscow trials of 1936.

The dramatic world events of the late 1930s presented revolutionaries with enormous challenges, and Dunayevskaya was among the few to rise to the occasion. The Fourth International was thrown into theoretical disarray over the class analysis of the USSR and the signing in 1939 of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Dunayevskaya developed an analysis of the USSR as a moment in the development of world capitalism since the great crisis that began in 1929. It represented an extreme form of tendencies toward centralization residing deep within the logic of capitalism itself. But the fact that capital had been centralized into the hands of the state did not mean that capitalism itself had been overcome.

The analysis of state-capitalism developed by Dunayevskaya, C.L.R. James, and Grace Lee (the Johnson-Forest Tendency), was distinguished by its firm foundation in Marx’s analysis of the categories of capital, unlike the analyses of bureaucratic collectivism tendered by Max Shachtman and Joseph Carter of the Workers Party, and the degenerated workers’ state position of orthodox Trotskyists James P. Cannon and Ernest Mandel, then known by his pseudonym Germain.

This strong foundation in Marx’s critique–in both the Capital and the then almost unknown Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844–led Dunayevskaya to an encounter with the dialectical philosophy of Hegel, through a close reading of Lenin’s own profound engagement with Hegel’s Science of Logic in 1914. The course of this work, begun in 1949, culminated in 1953 in what she considered to be her “philosophic moment,” two letters written in May of that year which contained a striking interpretation of Hegel’s Absolutes of Idea and Spirit. This contribution, although made in the context of the collective theoretical work of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, contributed to the eruption of sharp philosophical differences between Dunayevskaya, on one hand, and James and Lee on the other. The group, at that time called Correspondence Committees, split in 1955 and Dunayevskaya and her co-thinkers founded News and Letters Committees. She began developing what she called Marxist-Humanism, in advance of the consolidation of the Marxist Humanist thinkers of Central and Eastern Europe. Her first major published work, Marxism and Freedom, appeared not long after the Hungarian Revolution erupted, which definitively confirmed the analysis of creative mass revolt on both sides of the Iron Curtain that she had been developing since the death of Stalin and the revolt of the East German workers in 1953.

Dunayevskaya knew and corresponded with a wide array of important cultural and political figures of the Left. Even a small sampling of the variety of her correspondents may surprise those who wish to limit her to a small corner of the Trotskyist movement. Many of the letters she exchanged during her life are available in her archives, on deposit at the Reuther Library at Wayne State University and in microfilm as The Raya Dunayevskaya Collection. The Irish-American novelist and literary critic James T. Farrell took her class analysis of the USSR seriously and wrote her at least two long letters in 1946 discussing her theory. The art historian, critic and independent Marxist Meyer Schapiro and his wife Lillian were friends, and Schapiro contributed a serious comment in 1956 on the draft of Marxism and Freedom. Joseph Buttinger, the émigré Austrian socialist and co-founder of the journal Dissent, was a frequent and long-term correspondent. Her international correspondents included William Dixon Colley, a pioneering journalist in post-independence Gambia who edited a newspaper called The Nation; Jean Malaquais, novelist and author of World Without Visa; and Silvio Frondizi, an Argentinian lawyer, author, and revolutionary who was murdered in the wave of political repression during the Isabel Perón years.

In short, she was someone who was seriously interested in radical ideas. Those who were open to such ideas recognized the fact and acknowledged her contribution.


One area of the U.S. Left’s interpretation of its history that is in need of an encounter with Dunayevskaya’s contribution is the relationship of the Left to the African-American struggle against racism. There is a strong school of historical writing since the early 1980s that seeks to rehabilitate the role of the Communist Party in this area. Historians such as Theodore Draper had established the standard (and not inaccurate) interpretation of the Communist Party as totally beholden to the political line dictated by Moscow and willing to sacrifice the particular interests of African Americans (for example, the CP’s lukewarm support for, then total opposition to, the March on Washington Movement organized by A. Philip Randolph). In reaction, writers like Maurice Isserman (Which Side Were You On?: The American Communist Party During the Second World War, 1982) and Mark Naison (Communists in Harlem During the Great Depression, 1983) seek to argue that the CP played a nuanced and positive role.

While the writings of C.L.R. James on the African-American struggle during the 1940s are widely (and deservingly) acknowledged, it is far less known that Dunayevskaya worked and wrote extensively in this area during the same period. In fact, she served as the Johnson-Forest Tendency’s spokesperson in organizational debates on the official Workers Party line on the race question. Since Dunayevskaya was a critic both of the Stalinists’ limiting of the African-American movement and the Trotskyists’ underemphasis of it, new insights into this subject stand to be gained that can widen our understanding beyond that of the “traditionalist” and “revisionist” schools of thought.

A further area of needed recognition of Dunayevskaya’s contribution is the course of the history and development of the twentieth century U.S. Left itself. The history of the American Left is often interpreted as divided into the class-centered Old Left, which spanned the period from the rise of the socialist movement in the late nineteenth century to the repression of the McCarthy era, and the more diverse New Left, which, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, emerged in the early 1960s and paved the way for the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, and the identity politics of the 1980s. An examination of Dunayevskaya’s work will reveal that this interpretation is inadequate.

Having grown up in the organizations of the Old Left, Dunayevskaya saw first-hand the extreme limitations of the movement’s tendency towards an exclusively class-centered focus, whether it was the legacy of the conservative approach to the race question (that socialism had nothing to offer African-Americans outside of the question of class), or the perpetuation of the sexism of capitalist society within the theory and practice of the movement itself.

The Old Left by and large did not distinguish itself by an interest in philosophy. One of the great contributions of the Johnson-Forest Tendency was its pursuit of the philosophical currents of Marxism within the context of the U.S. revolutionary movement. This immersion in dialectical philosophy enabled Dunayevskaya to find a way to theoretically overcome false oppositions such as class vs. race and class vs. gender that had burdened the movement for so long and were preventing it from confronting the challenges of the post-war world.

This is how I interpret the moving passage in her philosophical letter to Grace Lee of May 12, 1953, in which she enthusiastically comments on the paragraph in the final chapter of Hegel’s Science of Logic where he uses the phrase “personal and free” to describe the human being. The individual, with all of his or her complexities and needs, is now formally recognized as being at the center of the struggle against the deformations of capitalism. No longer can the individual be totally subsumed into just one oppressive aspect of capitalist society.

This philosophical insight, along with the others she made in the letter and the even more profound one that followed on May 20, 1953, positioned her to move forward into the challenges of the time, at a time when her co-thinkers James and Lee were distancing themselves from philosophy. Dunayevskaya was theoretically prepared to recognize the emergence of new forms of revolt against oppression and comprehend them within the context of capitalism, without denying their particularities, a task in which she immersed herself until her death in 1987. This accomplishment does not fit neatly into the common distinction between Old and New Left and calls for a thorough reexamination of these categories that can potentially benefit us today.

It would be difficult to find a figure in the history of the U.S. Left who contributed as much of substance as Raya Dunayevskaya did during her lifetime. Her co-thinkers of the period 1941-1955, C.L.R. James and Grace Lee Boggs, currently have a higher profile in the writings and discussions of the Left than she does. While Dunayevskaya’s importance is by no means unacknowledged, we still have a long way to go before the depth and breadth of her intellectual work is recognized.

The feminist and radical writer Meridel Le Sueur, whose work of the 1930s and 1940s was rediscovered by the women’s movement of the 1970s, wrote in a moving letter of appreciation for Dunayevskaya’s Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, “Your contributions are so great, illuminating this memory comes up green like corn found in caves for a thousand years, moisture and heat and they make cob again.”

Given the coincidence today of a severe global economic crisis with an equally severe theoretical crisis of the Left, the time to reach a fuller understanding of her work–and the figurative regeneration Le Sueur depicts in her letter–has never been more urgent.

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