Essay: Karl Marx’s ground for organization

August 30, 2014

From the September-October 2014 issue of News & Letters

by Franklin Dmitryev

In the era of Arab Spring, the creativity of masses in motion has brought new life to the question of revolutionary organization. From the Arab countries to Israel, from Spain to Occupy Wall Street, the mass occupation of public spaces has been the most visible form of organization.

There has been much analysis and debate over why these movements have been so successful in challenging the existing social order, in some cases bringing about political revolutions, yet have not uprooted that order in social revolutions.

Not to be overlooked among their accomplishments is the revival of a spirit of revolution. The North African revolutions smashed the vanguardist views that revolution was no longer possible unless a party leads the masses, or that they require a blueprint to convince them of the viability of an alternative to capitalism.

Unfortunately, the broader debate has hardly touched on the relationship between organizational forms of masses in motion and the organization of thought. Consider analyses of the Occupy Movement. Those who appreciate its creative forms of organization generally act as if the movement’s spontaneous development can substitute for the role of ideas in setting its direction.[1]

The pitfalls of this attitude can be seen more clearly where a revolution did overthrow a dictator, as in Egypt. The relations and ideas of the old order find ways of rearing their heads–not only through outside military and economic force, but from contradictions within the revolution. The attempt to make a “non-ideological” revolution allowed the default ideology of capitalist society, equating freedom with elections plus markets, to eclipse the self-activity of the masses and their forms of self-organization.

The alternative to leaving all responsibility for ideas on the shoulders of spontaneity cannot be the widely discredited concept of the “vanguard party to lead.” The philosophy of revolution in permanence as an organization of thought must find an organizational expression, not to command or replace the movement from practice, but to unchain its self-development through a new relationship of theory and practice.


Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist-Humanism, began exploring this question well before the vanguard party fell into disfavor. A key aspect was the inseparability of Karl Marx’s concept of organization with his concept of revolution, as seen in his Critique of the Gotha Program (CGP).

The Gotha Program was written by a leader of a socialist party in Germany that was thought of as “Marxist”—though not by Marx—as the basis for merging with another socialist party in 1875. Marx criticized it for taking an “outrageous step backwards” from the scientific understanding that he had forged of capitalism and its transcendence.[2] He mailed his scathing critique to the party leaders, who, however, did little with it. CGP was not published until 1891, years after Marx died.

The new program marked a shocking retrogression from the high points achieved by those earlier movements and by the development of Marx’s body of ideas. He had experienced the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 and the 1871 Paris Commune, had participated in and observed revolutionary parties and forms of organization emerging spontaneously from the masses, and had written his greatest theoretical work, Capital, whose post-Commune French edition “has philosophy spelled out in the most concrete terms from fetishism of commodities to the new passions and new forces that go against the accumulation of capital,” as Dunayevskaya put it.[3]

She wrote, “[N]o matter how Marx kept from trying to give any blueprints for the future, [when he was confronted with the Gotha Program there was no way] not to develop a general view of where we’re headed for the day after the conquest of power, the day after we have rid ourselves of the birthmarks of capitalism when a new generation can finally see all its potentiality put an end once and for all to the division between mental and manual labor.”[4]

Other Marxists have mined CGP for its critique of Ferdinand Lassalle’s doctrines or for theoretical insights or rationalizations on the nature of the state or the transition from a capitalist to communist society. But Dunayevskaya is the only one to focus on how it illuminates the relationship of philosophy to revolutionary organization. She developed this further by showing it as the only full organizational expression of Marx’s 1844 “philosophic moment,” meaning the moment of birth of a historic philosophy.


From its very beginning with his 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx’s new Humanism spelled out liberation as full human development, as a negation of communism’s negation of private property. But that was not explicit in the organizational manifestos and addresses that followed. Marx certainly steered clear of utopian and anarchist efforts to draw up blueprints for the new society.

Karl Marx in the 1840s

Karl Marx in the 1840s

Only with CGP—after all that development of ideas, which was both the action of cognition developing the logic of the ideas and the response to the experiences in activity, organization, and the battle of ideas—only then did Marx write an organizational document that developed the negation of the negation as a “general view” of the future. CGP demonstrates the inadequacy of a “first phase of communist society” as a first negation of capitalism, and shows how it logically leads to the need for revolutionary organization to be grounded in the negation of the negation, spelled out in Marx’s “general view of where we’re headed for” after revolution.

None of this penetrated post-Marx Marxists’ understanding of CGP. After 15 years, the party still resisted, reluctantly publishing it at Engels’ insistence, and only as “a contribution to the discussion” as they wrote a new party program, which was accepted as a “Marxist” model.

Lenin was the first to pay serious attention to CGP in his The State and Revolution. However, his analysis was limited to the need for revolution to smash the state and how the ensuing non-state form must wither away. His concept of organization remained Lassallean and vanguardist.

Karl Korsch, who did pose the revolutionary nature of the dialectic and used it to attack the betrayal of the Second International when World War I broke out, wrote a celebrated 1922 introduction to CGP, which virtually reduced it to “materialism vs. idealism.” His view that “Lenin’s State and Revolution elaborates all the relevant passages of CGP” did not allow him to work out an independent concept of organization.

From there on, post-Marx Marxist commentary on CGP mostly reiterated Lenin or singled out specific theoretical points, aside from Stalinism’s total perversion of it to baptize the continued existence of the law of value and the state under nationalized industry and the Plan—that is, state-capitalism—as socialism.

Before 1979, Dunayevskaya’s references to CGP primarily referred to the all-important projection of “after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want”—going all the way back to an uncited reference in her 1942 “Labor and Society.”[5]

The exception is her attack on Stalin’s claim that the law of value operates under socialism. Because the Stalinist argument misused CGP’s discussion of “lower” and “higher” phases of communism, she hit back to make the point that it was not Marx’s concept, and that “It should be noted that [the Stalinists] thereby completely identify ‘distribution according to labor’ with distribution according to value.”[6] She was not making an argument there about what would happen after the revolution, except that if it was socialism the law of value would be abolished.

Dunayevskaya’s Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution—whose grappling with Marx’s last decade opened up a new concept of the totality of Marx’s Marxism with revolution in permanence at its center—took up CGP for the first time as the inseparability of organization and philosophy.

This was deepened with her very last writings, which made a category of the philosophic moment. She maintains that Marx’s philosophic moment articulating his new humanism was ground for organization throughout his life. Yet she sees it being expressed explicitly as the relationship between organization and principles only in CGP. She posed this while singling out the negation of the negation in Marx’s 1844 articulation of a new Humanism.[7]

It is worth recalling how Marx’s statement of a general view of future society arose from his critique of a specific organizational program. The Gotha Program called for “a fair distribution of the proceeds of labor,” and said, “the proceeds of labor belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society.”

Criticizing the imprecision of this formulation, Marx restated it in these words—not as a statement of his own views but rather to make it possible to criticize its inadequacy at the highest level:

“Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society—after the deductions have been made—exactly what he gives to it.”

He showed that this represented a deeply inadequate vision of a new society, and concluded by criticizing its focus on distribution of means of consumption.


A number of Marxists took CGP seriously in theorizing what a new society might encompass. Gajo Petrovic, a Yugoslav Marxist humanist, criticized the Stalinist use of the “lower and higher phases.” He points out that for Marx these phases are not distinguished by distribution (“remuneration according to labor,” etc.), nor by forms of economic production. Those, he says, are the ultimate determinant in the epoch of “alienated class society.”

“But the society that has to arise as a negation of capitalism has to be, according to Marx, not merely a negation of the capitalistic economic order; it must also negate the relationship between the ‘spheres,’ which was characteristic of class society; it must abolish not only the primacy of the economic sphere, but also the split of man into mutually estranged spheres.”[8]

Petrovic goes on to quote Marx from his 1844 philosophic moment, that positive humanism beginning from itself in “real life…is the positive actuality of man no longer mediated like communism by the transcendence of private property….Communism is the necessary form and the energizing principle of the immediate future. But communism, as such, is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.”[9]

“In other words,” continues Petrovic, “communism is the ‘lower’ phase, and real life is the ‘higher’ phase….according to Marx, communism is the emergence of humanism.”[10]

Compare what Louis Dupre saw in CGP: In the new society, “Labor cannot be equalized….Such a policy may be necessary during the period immediately following the overthrow of the capitalist economy, but it cannot be the ideal of a society where labor is ‘not only a means to life, but life’s prime want.’

“Marx’s critique of mathematical equality in social distribution, however brief, is crucial to understanding his attempt to reintegrate the sphere of economics with social life as a whole….he in fact denounces the independence of the economic sphere itself….Marx’s critique of the economic system is at the same time his critique of the society that has allowed its independence. The concept of productive activity that guides his Critique of the Gotha Program goes to the heart of Marx’s conception of culture….A reunited society integrates all productive activity….”[11]

As important as these discussions are, Dunayevskaya viewed this section of CGP as Marx’s exposition of the working out of the dialectics of revolution, of how revolution in permanence had to continue even after “communism” was reached.

Uniquely, she saw Marx as putting forth dialectics of revolution inseparable from organization. Yet she noted the limitation of his only having singled out “principle” and not “philosophy,” concluding that, while CGP remains ground today, it does not suffice. That does not absolve us of working out what it means for our time. That begins with the labor of allowing philosophy to play its role in revolution by ensuring that it has an adequate organizational expression.

[1] See, for example, Ken Knabb, “Looking Back on Occupy”; David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (Spiegel & Grau, 2013); Rodrigo Nunes, “The Lessons of 2011: Three Theses on Organisation.”

[2] Quoted from CGP, which is available in many print editions and online at For a detailed discussion, see Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (University of Illinois Press, 1991), chapter 11, “The Philosopher of Permanent Revolution Creates New Ground for Organization.”

[3] “Presentation on Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy of June 1, 1987,” in Raya Dunayevskaya, The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism (News and Letters, 1989), p. 6. A new edition of this piece was featured in the March-April 2014 issue of N&L.

[4] Ibid., p. 7.

[5] Raya Dunayevskaya, The Marxist-Humanist Theory of State-Capitalism (News and Letters, 1992), p. 18.

[6] From Dunayevskaya’s 1944 article “A New Revision of Marxian Economics,” The Marxist-Humanist Theory of State-Capitalism, pp. 83-84.

[7] The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism, pp. 3-5.

[8] Gajo Petrovic, Marx in the Mid-Twentieth Century (Anchor Books, 1967), p. 159.

[9] I’ve substituted Dunayevskaya’s translation here, and excerpted differently from how Petrovic does it on p. 160.

[10] Marx in the Mid-Twentieth Century, pp. 160, 162.

[11] Louis Dupre, Marx’s Social Critique of Culture (Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 184-85, boldfacing added.

One thought on “Essay: Karl Marx’s ground for organization

  1. Prior to the Russian Revolution of 1905 Lenin said ““Give us an organization of revolutionaries, and we will overturn Russia!” And there is no doubt that the existence of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party was important in the development of that revolutionary upsurge against Tsarism. So, organization is important. The existence of News and Letters Committees since 1955 is testimony to the fact that we regard the maintenance and growth of a revolutionary organization as vital in any revolutionary struggle. However, at the same time, the Russian Revolution of 1905 was a spontaneous upsurge by the Russian working masses against Tsarism. It created its own unique form of organization (the soviets) and unique form of struggle (the general strike). And history is replete with examples of spontaneous revolutionary upsurges that have seriously challenged the old order, and either led to a revolution in society or called for a new one. Russia in 1917 is one, Hungary in 1956 is another, France in 1968 yet another. But Dmitryev is correct when he writes: ‘The philosophy of revolution in permanence as an organization of thought must find an organizational expression, not to command or replace the movement from practice, but to unchain its self-development through a new relationship of theory and practice.’ Organization to unchain the development of theory and practice: that is what Lenin called for in 1902 and that is our task today. I hope all the readers of this web site understand that to read a web page is one thing, but to dedicate your life to a revolutionary organization such as News and Letters is quite another thing, and is vitally important in creating the sort of society that we wish to live in and pass on to our heirs.

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