Essay: Marx’s concept of permanent revolution as philosophy: Exploring it today with Dunayevskaya

From the November-December 2018 issue of News & Letters

by Franklin Dmitryev

If Karl Marx is to mean anything for today, then it must be in helping us confront the problem of how to make revolutionary new beginnings even at a time when counterrevolution is ascendant. World capitalism’s crisis brings wars, fascism, and the bankruptcy of thought. From staggering economic inequality to the flight of refugees, from genocide in Syria and Burma to the rise of the far Right in country after country, from President Donald Trump’s virtual endorsement of murderous racism to the sycophantic chorus rationalizing each of his lies, the world situation screams of capitalism’s inability to avert its self-destruction, whether through climate chaos or nuclear war. Furthermore, the far Right is working overtime to divert and exploit mass discontent.

Karl Marx in the 1840s

At the same time, interest in Marx has resurged after the 2008 crash and the Arab Spring led to a worldwide wave that returned revolution to center stage. The complications that quickly ensued underscored the unfinished nature of the revolutions and movements, and the need for what Marx called revolution in permanence.

And yet revolution is not central to the theory and practice of much of the Left. Many of those who call themselves revolutionary failed to practice solidarity with the actual revolution that broke out in Syria. Meanwhile, scientists have just told the world that nothing short of a revolution in the economic system is required to aim for less than catastrophic global warming—but the scientists don’t use the feared word “revolution.”

Marx’s concept of permanent revolution elucidated the need for freedom struggles not to stop at the first stage but to continue, until human relations were fundamentally transformed, including—but not limited to—relations in production that define the economic structure. Today, this can only be meaningfully interpreted as encompassing many facets of human relations. To flesh these ideas out, I will draw on the newly published book Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution in Permanence for Our Day: Selected Writings by Raya Dunayevskaya.

Permanent revolution for Marx was not alone strategy or “action.” It was key to his development of a philosophy of revolution.

I. Origin in Hegelian Negation of the Negation

Marx’s 1843 essay “On the Jewish Question” argued that political emancipation was “a great step forward” but insufficient. Calling attention to “the relation between political emancipation and human emancipation,” he contrasted political revolution with permanent revolution:

“In moments of special concern for itself political life seeks to repress its presupposition, civil society and its elements, and to constitute itself the actual, harmonious species-life of man. But it can do this only in violent contradiction with its own conditions of existence by declaring the revolution to be permanent….

“The political revolution dissolves civil life into its constituent elements without revolutionizing these elements themselves and subjecting them to criticism.”

From the beginning, Marx’s concept of permanent revolution involved a vision of totally new human relations. Permanent revolution represents a second negation, negating political revolution as the first negation of oppression, in order to achieve full human emancipation.

Hegel with his Berlin students. Sketch by Franz Kugler, photo: Wikipedia.

Marx developed that viewpoint on a profound philosophical level in his 1844 Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts, without using the word “permanent.” There he worked out his break with classical political economy, with vulgar communism, and with the dehumanization of the dialectic by Hegel. This triple break was at the same time the foundation of a new kind of humanism.

The focus shifts from things to the human being as revolutionary subject: from private property to labor as the heart of the contradiction of capitalism, from labor as source of value to laborer as subject, from the alienation of the product of labor to the alienation of the activity of labor, and from history as the movement of consciousness to the self-production of humanity through its own self-activity, with labor as self-development.

Marx was responding to the rise of proletarian revolt in the 1840s. He did not discard the Hegelian dialectic and its negation of the negation, but re-created it on the revolt’s basis as a “thoroughgoing Naturalism, or Humanism [which] distinguishes itself from both Idealism and Materialism, and is, at the same time, the truth uniting both.”

A key way that Marx directly expresses second negation is as the need to go beyond communism, to assure not stopping at first negation—the toppling of the exploitative society and its private property—but to develop the transcendence of alienation through the appropriation of the wealth of human capacities and needs, so that there arises “positive humanism, beginning from itself.”

He held absolute negativity to be Hegel’s “moving and creating principle,” which the old materialism did not match. In concretizing that dialectic of negativity as alienation and its transcendence through class struggles and the relationship between the sexes, Marx in 1844 created a philosophy of revolution in permanence.

II. Summing up the 1848 Revolutions

After the experience of the 1848-49 revolutions, Marx and Engels concretized that philosophy as theoretical preparation for the next revolution in their March 1850 Address to the Communist League. They singled out the highest point reached by revolution: a proletarian movement independent of other classes, and the need not to stop with the first phase of revolution but constantly to radicalize it, pushing for a second revolution. This entailed world revolution for one country’s revolution to succeed.

Dunayevskaya shows in the Address a quest for bringing out new revolutionary forces, beginning with the rural proletariat. Within a few years Marx would refer to the need for “supporting the proletarian revolution with a sort of second edition of the peasant war.” Later still he would turn to the question of the Russian peasant commune.

What cannot be separated from the refusal to stop at the first phase of revolution is the bold vision of a new classless society laid out in the Address:

“[I]t is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent….For us the issue cannot be the alteration of private property but only its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class antagonisms but the abolition of classes, not the improvement of the existing society but the foundation of a new one.”

Just as Marx had projected in 1844 both the overthrow of the old and the need to totally change human relationships, this Address projected the interrelation between international extension of revolution and the deepening of the concrete revolution.

III. The Multilinearity of World Revolution

While developing Capital, Marx extended his concept of permanent revolution, relating resistance by non-capitalist countries suffering capitalism’s exploitation to his concept of an “era of social revolution”; incorporating new revolutionary forces, the Black liberation struggle in the U.S. Civil War and women in the Paris Commune; and restructuring Capital on the basis of the dialectic of revolt from below and breaking with the old concept of theory.

Procession of women in the Paris Commune of 1871.

The historical tendency of capitalist accumulation that Marx identified in Capital was a universal—but only for countries where the capitalist mode of production already predominated, as Marx took pains to point out in his final years, when he fully developed the multilinear nature of his concept of permanent revolution. Marx honed in on Russia and the revolutionary potential of its peasant communes.

In the last decade of Marx’s life, his search for new paths to revolution, including in technologically “underdeveloped” societies, turned to anthropological and historical studies of noncapitalist lands and precapitalist times. To Dunayevskaya, Marx’s late Ethnological Notebooks disclosed “new moments” in Marx’s ideas, ranging from the Man/Woman relationship to societies where other modes of production prevailed, and from ancient communal social forms to revolutionary organization.

A central aspect of permanent revolution, the movement of negation of the negation, is seen in the way the Critique of the Gotha Program outlines how any initial stage of a postrevolutionary society bears the birthmarks of capitalist society. It is necessary to project a vision of full emancipation, with abolition of the antithesis between mental and manual labor and of the subordination of the individual to the division of labor; with labor itself becoming not only means to life but the kind of self-activity that is life’s prime need. The movement of second negation is spelled out not only as moving from the first phase of revolution to a second revolution, but moving from the first postrevolutionary order to a new one that develops on its own basis—a “positive humanism beginning from itself.” This emerges from a critique of an organizational program, suggesting that he sees the projection of this vision as not only a distant goal but a moving force even before the revolution.

IV. The Marxist-Humanist Interpretation

Unfortunately, interpretations of Marx’s writings on permanent revolution almost always reduce it to the question of moving quickly from the first, bourgeois-democratic phase of revolution to a second, proletarian-socialist one.

In contrast,  Dunayevskaya analyzed the writings of Marx’s last decade as “new moments of the revolutionary philosophic-historic concepts” of Marx as a continuation of his 1844 humanism and Capital. The dialectical discoveries of his last decade, she wrote, extended his concept of permanent revolution because they made clear how deep must be the uprooting of class society and how broad the view of the forces of revolution.

Dunayevskaya alone revealed these theoretical developments as philosophical, as integral to the working out of Marx’s philosophy of revolution in permanence, which recreated Hegel’s negation of the negation.

This concept meant that revolution must continue after the conquest of power to a profound transformation of human relations, a total uprooting, “be it in work, or culture, or leisure, or self….to continue after the overthrow of the old, at which point the task becomes most difficult, as it involves nothing short of such full self-development that the division between mental and manual is finally abolished.”

From this work arose her view of what she called post-Marx Marxism: a truncated Marxism that failed to draw on the totality of his philosophy. Dunayevskaya’s view of a duality between Marx and Marxism illuminated what kind of philosophy could address the problem we still face: unfinished revolutions, including transformation into opposite as in the case of the Russian Revolution turning into state-capitalist totalitarianism, as well as revolutions that stop short, as with Egypt’s 2011 revolution.

Dunayevskaya extended the concept of permanent revolution to address women’s liberation, seeing it as a dimension of Marx’s concept as early as his 1844 Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts. There he brought up the Man/Woman relationship as measure of the inadequacy of vulgar communism, and of how deep and total the social uprooting needs to be. Soon afterward, the Communist Manifesto called for the abolition of the family and “class culture” as well as of private property and the state. It also meant giving space in a developing postrevolutionary society for what would replace the family as we know it:

“…experimentation, with people having the right to choose….[T]he expression ‘revolution in permanence’ as Marx used it…was not just a political expression, the overthrow of the old regime….

“Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program is the finest critique….[T]he point is the recognition of what Marx meant by revolution in permanence, that it has to continue afterwards, that it encompasses the criticism that’s necessary, the self-criticism that’s necessary, and the fact that you have to be very conscious that until we end the division between mental and manual labor…we will not really have a new man, a new woman, a new child, a new society….You must never forget that the revolution in permanence refers to you too, not just to the enemy, and that it has to be continuous after the day of the revolution and the conquest of power, as much as the day before.”

V. The Significance for Our Day

Ask your library to order a copy.

What is so needed now is an overarching vision, a pole of attraction that a revolutionary philosophy can be. How can Marx’s ideas help us with the problem of how to make new revolutionary beginnings in a time when the counterrevolution is ascendant, without losing sight of the need to prepare for the equally crucial question of what happens after the revolution? Capitalism’s latest suicidal stage is seen glaringly in the steady march toward climate chaos and also in the explosive growth of fascism. This stage has been shaped by capitalism’s endemic crisis since the mid-1970s, generated by its falling rate of profit. Throughout these stages, the humanism, dialectic, and permanent revolution of Marx remain prime determinants of allowing Marxist responses not to stop at economic analyses but to release, rather than inhibit, new revolutionary subjects and directions.

This decade has seen no shortage of discontent, resistance, revolt, even revolution. What is needed is not another vanguard party, not another mind-numbing lecture to social movements of the need for a political agenda, strategy, and tactics, nor a belief that capitalism will collapse on its own. We must reckon with the character of this moment, when not only centrist bourgeois politics but fascism on the right and apologetics for Bashar al-Assad’s genocide on the “left” are pulling to disorient the masses of people dissatisfied with the ongoing social disintegration. What must be stressed today is the role of a unifying philosophy that points to the need for revolution in permanence, and its potential to act as a polarizing force for universal human emancipation, to make real negation of the negation as the dual rhythm of revolutionary transformation: the destruction of the old and the construction of the new.

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