Excerpts from the Introduction to the new pamphlet on ‘What Is Socialism?’: Marx’s Humanism, Marxist-Humanism and Socialism

March 11, 2021

From the March-April 2021 issue of News & Letters

July 31 march in Minneapolis to honor Sandra Bland and protest deaths of Black women in police custody. Photo by Fibonacci Blue https://flickr.com/photos/fibonacciblue/20207475375/

Excerpts from the Introduction to the new pamphlet on ‘What Is Socialism?’

Since 2008, capitalism’s aura of permanence and stability has been rocked—first by the deepest global economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by a recovery that did not feel like a recovery for the millions who could not recoup what they had lost, then by the worsening disasters wrought by the climate crisis. Then the totality of crises in the year 2020 shook it to its foundations, with its inability to contain a pandemic long predicted that should have been technically manageable, intertwined with a deeper economic crisis, punctuated by a spontaneous Black revolt against racist police violence that spread across the U.S. and the world, all while Donald Trump’s schemes to hold onto power put the threadbare democracy of the world superpower into question.

After these intersecting crises, things are not going back to normal. Even before the revolts, each aspect of the fumbled reaction to the deadly disease reflected how global capitalism had already been cannibalizing the social and environmental conditions for its own continuation. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as the climate crisis brings more and more destruction every year, while the economic crisis that the pandemic sharply deepened has no end in sight.

Just as importantly, if we look and listen closely, we can discern the beginnings and the potential for the creation of a new, human society. What would characterize that new society, how it would have to differ from capitalism to pull the world away from calamity, and how to get there, those questions are a matter not only of debate but of struggle. They are what this pamphlet addresses.

Growing alarm at the failing status quo led to the surging popularity of socialism and of openly naming capitalism as the enemy. The media finally noticed with the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. It is the masses of youth reaching for socialism that made possible the popularity of that campaign as well as of the handful of self-declared socialists elected to Congress in 2018, and of the call for a Green New Deal. The driving force is a generation that sees its future being sacrificed on the altar of profits and political expediency by the same system that shows no great concern for their present either, and that is confronted with the lethal, sadistic brutality of the armed enforcers of that system’s law in all its racist, sexist, heterosexist, class-slanted oppressiveness.

This makes it all the more important to deepen the discussion of what capitalism and socialism are. This is not a scholastic question separate from momentous consequences in life. Two whole periods of development of Marxist and revolutionary movements suffered transformations into opposite that clouded generations’ concepts of socialism.

The rot in the socialist Second International culminated in its collapse at the outbreak of World War I, when most of the national parties that belonged to it abandoned their anti-war stance and lined up behind “their” warring nation-state. The Russian Revolution repudiated that kind of chauvinism, unfurled a new banner of liberation, and opened a new period in international Marxist socialism. Within several years, a counter-revolution emerged from within it, transforming the beginnings of workers’ rule into a state-capitalist totalitarianism—and yet Stalinism presented itself as revolutionary Marxism and too much of the revolutionary movement accepted it as if it were some kind of socialism, or at least a movement toward socialism. These transformations into opposite show the need to be rooted in history and in a dialectical philosophy of revolution that articulates the essential differences between capitalism and socialism and can anticipate and comprehend such transformations.

It shows the need for a philosophical-political as well as economic understanding of what happens after revolutions. Old mistakes are resurfacing and lessons of history are missed….

Quite often it is taken for granted that capitalism means free markets and socialism means some combination of government intervention, nationalization, planning, and “democratization” of the state.

That kind of statism is in a different world from the revolts now raging. They reveal the state as a direct enemy and make demands that can only be met by tearing up present society by the roots and reconstructing it on new foundations. The demand to abolish or defund the police and prisons calls into question the class structure of society that necessitates a state that has a monopoly of violence and uses it to maintain exploitative relationships and the social hierarchy in which they are crystallized.

Many voices in the youth climate strikes explicitly called for a fundamental political and economic transformation, without which sufficient climate action will not happen. In resistance camps like those at Standing Rock in North Dakota, it was not only the Dakota Access Pipeline but ongoing settler colonialism and capitalism that were identified as the enemy. Women in worldwide marches and demonstrations demand to be comprehended as full human beings who have the right to control their own bodies, be free to walk all streets day or night, and be free of harassment, rape, discrimination and abuse.

The whole history of the 20th century reveals statist socialism to be a dead end. It is a substitute for the self-activity of the Subject, of masses in motion, which is the only basis for workers’ control of production and the labor process….Socialism must be rooted in the self-activity of masses in motion, new human relations, revolution, and philosophy of revolution, or it is nothing.


A worker in an automated factory in China, 2010.

That is why Karl Marx’s philosophy of revolution is so crucial. From the beginning, he separated himself from what he called “vulgar communism,” whose adherents believed the abolition of private property was enough to solve humanity’s problems. He wrote that a focus on private property lends the appearance of a problem lying outside of the human being, whereas “in speaking of labor, one deals directly with humanity itself.” In speaking of labor, one deals with the alienation of human beings from their own activity, and therefore alienation from themselves, from each other, from nature. Through this contradiction within labor, and therefore within human beings who labor, they develop in the direction of overcoming the contradiction. Their own living labor, extracted from them in the capitalistic labor process, is turned into dead labor, that is, capital, an accumulated dead weight embodied in machines and the other material elements of production, acting as an alien power that oppresses the worker. In capitalism, dead labor dominates living labor—the total opposite of freedom and self-activity. Marx called this a dialectical inversion of subject and object.

Marx spent decades clarifying the character of this alienation and its ramifications, as well as the whole economic structure and the human relations and ideology formed around it. That process of clarification leaped ahead through his work in solidarity with those fighting against slavery in the U.S. Civil War and solidarity with the 1871 revolution in France known as the Paris Commune—solidarity unseparated from careful observation and analysis. It deepened and made more concrete what had been developing in his thought since his philosophy was born….

It was the continuation of alienated labor and capitalist exploitation under the guise of socialism in the USSR that compelled Raya Dunayevskaya to develop the ideas of Marxist-Humanism, to establish a new beginning in Marxism.

Doing so required not only a precise economic analysis of state-capitalism and a sharp political analysis and critique but a return to Marx’s philosophical roots in G.W.F. Hegel’s dialectical philosophy. The first chapter of this pamphlet, “Socialism and a Philosophy of Revolution,” takes up how our age has proved the necessity of humanist philosophical mediation, if socialism is not to collapse into one more form of human self-alienation. That dialectic of negativity involves the comprehension of transformation into opposite, as in socialist revolution ending up with state-capitalist tyranny, but does not end there. Central to it is the dual rhythm of revolution as the destruction of the old and creation of the new, which is inseparable from, indeed dependent upon, the revolutionary release of the creativity of Subjects of revolution.

Marx’s singling out of the workers’ struggles for freedom and self-determination, their “quest for universality” in his words, as against the condition of being reduced to an appendage to the machine, did not exclude an openness to what Marxist-Humanism would later make explicit as Subjects of revolution, from women and youth to Black Americans and oppressed nationalities, from Indigenous peoples and people with disabilities to peasants in non-capitalist or partly capitalist lands. This question is elaborated in the second and third chapters of this pamphlet. “Socialism, Labor, and the Black Dimension” takes up the Marxist-Humanist concept that Black masses in motion act as the vanguard of revolution at turning points in U.S. history. “Socialism and Women’s Liberation” shows what women as Reason achieved in revolutions, deepening what socialism means, and lost with the consolidation of state-capitalism calling itself Communism. Right within his critique of vulgar communism, Marx revealed another dimension of the needed new human relations by criticizing the alienated conception of relations between men and women, not only in prevailing society but in the ideas of the communists—and viewing that relationship as the most basic one of all that needed total reorganization.

Without these Subjects of revolution self-organizing and self-developing into masses in motion, socialism cannot escape from the bounds of capitalism; at the same time, without revolutionary humanist philosophical mediation those bounds will reconstitute around us and block the total reorganization of society. Spontaneity, resistance, revolt, and revolution are absolutely necessary—and at the same time the upsurge from below seeks out both self-organization of people and the kind of organization of thought that can unite theory and practice, philosophy and revolution, in a new relationship.

Activity alone does not release “the reunification of mental and manual abilities in the individual himself, the ‘all-rounded’ individual who is the body and soul of Marx’s humanism.” Emancipatory philosophic probing and projection—living the dialectic—is itself a force of social transformation.

The age of state-capitalism brings with it such an administrative mentality that it pollutes the thinking even of those trying to end capitalism. It exacerbated a tendency already seen in the socialist Second International, and anticipated by Marx in his critique of “quite vulgar and unthinking communism [that] completely negates the personality of” human beings: counterposing the collective to the individual. He continued: “We should especially avoid re-establishing society, as an abstraction, opposed to the individual. The individual is the social entity.”…


Marxist-Humanism arose to face that challenge in a new era: a new stage of revolt and of cognition that burst out after World War II, along with a new stage of automated production. Coal miners in West Virginia were the first to battle automation in their 1949-50 general strike against the operation of the continuous miner. In the process they raised new questions that showed the todayness of Marx’s humanist socialism: what kind of labor human beings should do, and why there is this gulf between thinking and doing, seen in the workplace and in the workers’ organization, the union.

The 1950s revolts against Communism in Eastern Europe consciously linked back to Marx’s humanism, bringing out his 1844 Humanist Essays with their critique of vulgar communism right in the midst of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, for one. Their experiences brought to life again Marx’s point:

“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. . . . [C]ommunism is humanism mediated by the transcendence of private property. Only by the transcendence of this mediation, which is nevertheless a necessary presupposition, does there arise positive Humanism, beginning from itself.”

Because the Humanist Essays pointed beyond communism and addressed the question of what happens after revolution, their rediscovery in the 1950s laid the foundation for Marxist humanism from East Europe to Africa to the U.S. What became paramount to the Marxist-Humanism of Dunayevskaya and her organization, News and Letters Committees, is the whole question of new human relations and full human development that would rise to the level of what Marx called “the absolute movement of becoming.”

A new encounter with Marx’s roots in Hegel’s dialectic of negativity was crucial. It has always been easier to focus on the first negation—opposition to and overthrow of the existing system—than on the negation of that negation, the second negation, the construction of the new, moving toward full liberation, which can only emerge out of the first negation. What the new stage of cognition revealed was that a totally new relationship of theory to practice was called for. The movement from below had been working towards this with what Dunayevskaya, through her fresh encounter with Hegel’s absolutes, recognized as the movement from practice that is itself a form of theory—the liberation struggles of workers and other Subjects of revolution are not just a source of theory but a form of theory itself. And to become reality in our day, socialism needs to begin from the totality of theory and practice, of mental and manual activity, of Subjects of revolution and philosophy.

This meant a new emphasis on socialism as not alone a change in property forms, planning, and a redistribution of material wealth, and not alone a question of new forms of organization for workers like workers’ councils, but freedom, the self-activity of the masses….

—Franklin Dmitryev for The National Editorial Board of News and Letters Committees
November 2020

One thought on “Excerpts from the Introduction to the new pamphlet on ‘What Is Socialism?’: Marx’s Humanism, Marxist-Humanism and Socialism

  1. Interesting and needed..
    a suggestion:
    A long look at the “liberation” of Barcelona 1936-1938 and its’ aftermath could also be of use. Lots of “self-activity” that is always hidden by “marxists”, two years of self-activity that is never seriously looked at for what the self-activity entailed and what led to the re-introduction of capitalist productive relations.

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