From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: A Post-World War II View of Marx’s Humanism, 1843-1883; Marxist Humanism, 1950s-1980s

September 8, 2021

From the September-October 2021 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note:  The May 1987 essay excerpted here probes ways to make new beginnings in a period of reaction. It includes some of the themes of her work toward the book she had tentatively titled “Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy: ‘The Party’ and Forms of Organization Born out of Spontaneity.” Some significant footnotes have been omitted for reasons of space. It was published in full in Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution in Permanence for Our Day and in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Achilles Heel of Western ‘Civilization.’

by Raya Dunayevskaya

III: Once Again, Marx—This Time with Focus on His Final Decade and on Our Age


The newness of our age was seen in the whole question of Humanism, of the relationship of party to spontaneity, of mass to leadership, of philosophy to reality.

On Oct. 23, 1956, a student youth demonstration in Budapest was fired upon. Far from dispersing the young students, these were soon joined by the workers from the factories in the outlying suburbs. The revolution had begun in earnest. During the following 13 days, ever-broader layers of the population revolted. From the very young to the very old, workers and intellectuals, women and children, even the police and the armed forces—truly the population to a man, woman and child—turned against the top Communist bureaucracy and the hated, sadistic AVO/AVH (secret police). The Communist Party with more than 800,000, and the trade unions allegedly representing the working population, just evaporated. In their place arose Workers’ Councils, Revolutionary Committees of every sort—intellectuals, youth, the army—all moving away from the Single Party State.

Mass march in Budapest as part of the Hungarian Revolution, Oct. 25, 1956.

Overnight there sprang up 45 newspapers and 40 different parties, but the decisive force of the revolution remained the Workers’ Councils. When 13 days of armed resistance was bloodily crushed by the might of Russian totalitarianism, the new form of workers’ organization—the factory councils—called a general strike. It was the first time in history that a general strike followed the collapse of the revolution. It held the foreign imperialist as well as the “new government” at bay for five long weeks. Even János Kádár said he was listening to the demands of the Workers’ Councils for control over production and the “possible” abrogation of the single-party rule.

What none but Marxist-Humanists saw as the transition point between the East German Revolt of 1953, the outright Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and its philosophy was revealed in two seemingly unconnected events in 1955: 1) the Montgomery Bus Boycott opened the Black Revolution in the U.S. and inspired a new stage of revolution in Africa as well; 2) in Russia, there suddenly appeared, in the main theoretical Russian journal, Questions of Philosophy (No. 3, 1955), an academic-sounding article entitled “Marx’s Working Out of the Materialist Dialectics in the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of the Year 1844.” It was an attack on Marx’s Humanist Essays, contending that the young Marx had not yet freed himself from Hegelian mysticism and its “negation of the negation.” What the state-capitalist rulers calling themselves Communists had become oppressively aware of was the mass unrest, especially in East Europe. What they feared most was a new uprising.

Simply put, although the Russian theoreticians chose to shroud the philosophic phrase in mysticism, ever since Marx had materialistically “translated” the Hegelian dialectic of negativity as the philosophy of revolution, “negation of the negation” stood for an actual revolution. What the Russians fear most is exactly what erupted in Hungary in 1956. In all the changes since then, nothing truly fundamental has been altered. This is seen most clearly of all in the fact that it has always been the Single Party State that remained the all-dominant power. In this, China—Deng’s China as well as Mao’s China—has held to the same totalitarian principle.

This overriding fact makes it urgent to turn once again to Marx, this time not to the young Marx and his “new Humanism,” nor to the mature Marx as a supposed economist, but to Marx in his last decade, when he discovered what we now call his “new moments” as he studied pre-capitalist societies, the peasantry, the women, forms of organization—the whole dialectic of human development.

Because politicalization has, in the hands of the Old Left, meant vanguardism and program-hatching, we have kept away from the very word. It is high time not to let the “vanguard party to lead” appropriate the word, politicalization. The return is to its original meaning in Marx’s new continent of thought as the uprooting of the capitalist state, its withering away, so that new humanist forms like the Paris Commune, 1871, emerge. Marx himself was so non-vanguardist that, although the First International had dissolved itself, he hailed the railroad strikes spreading throughout the U.S. and climaxed in the 1877 St. Louis General Strike, as both an elemental “post festum” to the First International Workingmen’s Association, and the point of origin for a genuine workers’ party.

For that matter, the whole question of pre-capitalist societies was taken up long before that last decade. In the 1850s, for example, what inspired Marx to return to the study of pre-capitalist formations and gave him a new appreciation of ancient society and its craftsmen was the Taiping Revolution. It opened so many doors to “history and its process” that Marx now concluded that, historically-materialistically speaking, a new stage of production, far from being a mere change in property form, be it “West” or “East,” was such a change in production relations that it disclosed, in embryo, the dialectics of actual revolution.

What Marx, in the Grundrisse, had defined as “the absolute movement of becoming” had matured in the last decade of his life as new moments—a multilinear view of human development as well as a dialectic duality within each formation. From within each formation evolved both the end of the old and the beginning of the new. Whether Marx was studying the communal or the despotic form of property, it was the human resistance of the Subject that revealed the direction of resolving the contradictions. Marx transformed what, to Hegel, was the synthesis of the “Self-Thinking Idea” and the “Self-Bringing-Forth of Liberty” as the emergence of a new society. The many paths to get there were left open.

As against Marx’s multilinear view which kept Marx from attempting any blueprint for future generations, Engels’ unilinear view led him to mechanical positivism. By no accident whatever, such one-dimensionality kept him from seeing either the communal form under “Oriental despotism” or the duality in “primitive communism” in Morgan’s Ancient Society. No wonder, although Engels had accepted Marx’s view of the Asiatic mode of production as fundamental enough to constitute a fourth form of human development, he had left it out altogether from his analysis of primitive communism in the first book he wrote as a “bequest” of Marx—Origin of the Family. By then Engels had confined Marx’s revolutionary dialectics and historical materialism to hardly more than Morgan’s “materialism.”

In Marx’s revolutionary praxis, the germ of each of the “new moments” of his last decade was actually present in his first discovery. Take the question of the concept of Man/Woman, which he raised at the very moment when he spoke of the alienations of capitalist society and did not consider them ended with the overthrow of private property. This was seen most clearly in the way he worked during the Paris Commune, and in the motions he made to the First International. One such motion at the 1871 London conference recommended “the formation of female branches among the working class.” The Minutes recorded:

Citizen Marx adds that it must be noted that the motion states “without exclusion of mixed sections.” He believes it is necessary to create exclusively women’s sections in those countries where a large number of women are employed (since) they prefer to meet by themselves to hold discussions. The women, he says, play an important role in life: they work in the factories, they take part in strikes, in the Commune, etc. . . . they have more ardor than the men. He adds a few words recalling the passionate participation of the women in the Paris Commune.

Nor was it only a question of the women. In a speech at this same London conference of the First International—Sept. 20, 1871—Marx said:

The trade unions are an aristocratic minority. Poor working people could not belong to them; the great mass of the workers who, because of economic development, are daily driven from the villages to the cities, long remain outside the trade unions, and the poorest among them would never belong. The same is true of the workers born in London’s East End, where only one out of ten belongs to the trade union. The farmers, the day laborers, never belong to these trade unions.

Or take the whole question of human development. Marx definitely preferred the gens form of development, where, he concluded, the communal form—whether in ancient society, or in the Paris Commune, or in the future—is a higher form of human development. The point is that individual self-development does not separate itself from universal self-development. As Hegel put it: “individualism that lets nothing interfere with its universalism, i.e., freedom.”

While Marx considered the gens a higher form of human life than class society, he showed that, in embryo, class relations actually started right there. Most important of all is that the multilinear human development demonstrates no straight line—that is, no fixed stages of development.

The difficulty is that post-Marx Marxists were raised not on Marx’s Marxism, but on Engelsian Marxism—and that was by no means limited to Engels’ Origin of the Family. Rather, Engels’ unilinearism was organic—which is why we must start from the beginning.

Marx’s Humanist Essays showed his multilinearism, his Promethean vision, whether on the concept of the Man/Woman relationship, or the question of idealism and materialism, or the opposition not only to private property capitalism but what he called “vulgar communism,” which is why he called his philosophy “a new Humanism.”

These motifs are the red thread through his final decade, as well. The Iroquois women, the Irish women before British imperialism, the Aborigines in Australia, the Arabs in Africa, Marx insisted in his Ethnological Notebooks,[1] have displayed greater intelligence, more equality between men and women, than the intellectuals from England, the U.S., Australia, France or Germany. Just as he had nothing but contempt for the British scholars, whom he called “rogues,” “asses,” and “blockheads,” who were expounding “silliness,” so he made a category of the intelligence of the Australian Aborigine, since the “intelligent black” would not accept the talk by a cleric about there being a soul without a body.

How could anyone consider the very limited quotations from Marx that Engels used in the Origin of the Family as any kind of summation of Marx’s views? How could someone like David Ryazanov think that those Ethnological Notebooks dealt “mainly with landownership and feudalism”? In truth they contain nothing short of both a prehistory of humanity, including the emergence of class distinctions from within communal society, and a history of “civilization” that formed a complement to Marx’s famous section in Capital on the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation, which was, as he wrote to Vera Zasulich, “only of Western civilization.”

One Russian scholar, M. A. Vitkin (whose work, The Orient in the Philosophic-Historic Conception of K. Marx and F. Engels, was suddenly withdrawn from circulation), did try to bring the Marx-Engels thesis on the Asiatic Mode of Production, if not on Women’s Liberation, into the framework of the 1970s. This original contribution had concluded that “it is as if Marx returned to the radicalism of the 1840s, however, on new ground.” And the new ground, far from being any sort of retreat to “old age” and less creativity and less radicalism, revealed “principled new moments of his (Marx’s) philosophic-historic conceptions.”

It was in his last decade, as he finished the French edition of Capital, that Marx wrote his Critique of the Gotha Program, on which Lenin’s profound revolutionary analysis of the need to break up the state was based. Lenin failed, however, to say a word about what in Marx’s critique of the Gotha Program is the foundation of a principled proletarian organization, which led Marx to separate himself from the unity of the Eisenachists (who were considered to be Marxists) and the Lassalleans. Nor was there any reference by Lenin to his own critique of What Is To Be Done?, Lenin’s main organizational document.[2] He thus disregarded the twelve years of self-criticism during which he insisted that What is To Be Done? was not a universal, but a tactical question for revolutionaries working in tsarist Russia. Instead, it was made into a universal after the revolution. This set the ground for a Stalin—that is to say, for the problem that remains the burning question of our day: What comes after the conquest of power?

It gives even greater significance to the question that Rosa Luxemburg raised both before the 1917 Russian Revolution and directly after.[3] “The revolution,” Luxemburg wrote,

is not an open-field maneuver of the proletariat, even if the proletariat with social democracy at its head plays the leading role, but is a struggle in the middle of incessant movement, the creaking, crumbling and displacement of all social foundations. In short, the element of spontaneity plays such a supreme role in the mass strikes in Russia, not because the Russian proletariat is “unschooled,” but rather because revolutions are not subject to schoolmastering.[4]

The dialectic of organization, as of philosophy, goes to the root of not only the question of the relationship of spontaneity to party, but the relationship of multilinearism to unilinearism. Put simply, it is a question of human development, be it capitalism, pre-capitalism or post-capitalism. The fact that Stalin could transform so great a revolution as the Russian Revolution of 1917 into a state bureaucracy tells more than just the isolation of a proletarian revolution in a single country.

The whole question of the indispensability of spontaneity not only as something that is in the revolution, but that must continue its development after; the question of the different cultures, as well as self-development, as well as having a non-state form of collectivity—makes the task much more difficult and impossible to anticipate in advance.

The self-development of ideas cannot take second place to the self-bringing-forth of liberty, because both the movement from practice that is itself a form of theory, and the development of theory as philosophy, are more than just saying philosophy is action. There is surely one thing on which we should not try to improve on Marx—and that is trying to have a blueprint for the future.

[1]. Lawrence Krader transcribed Marx’s Notebooks, which were published as The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1972). For my analysis, see my Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1982).

[2]. Lenin’s many critiques of the concept of vanguardism and centralism during the development of Marxism in Russia were published in Russia as a pamphlet entitled Twelve Years. See his “Preface to the Collection Twelve Years,” in Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 13 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), pp. 94-113.

[3]. Lenin’s philosophic ambivalence had become so crucial for our age that I wrote a chapter with that as its title for my work, Philosophy and Revolution; the chapter, indeed, was published separately even before the book itself was published. Its timeliness in the year 1970 opened many new doors for Marxist Humanism. Thus, I spoke to such widely different audiences as the Hegel Society of America and the first conference of the young radical philosophers of Telos. The chapter was also published by Aut Aut in Italy and by Praxis in Yugoslavia. The opening to so many different international forums was in great part due to the fact that, because 1970 was both the 200th anniversary of Hegel’s birth and the 100th of Lenin’s, there were all sorts of criss-crossings of those two events.

[4]. Quoted in my Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, p. 18, where the whole question of Luxemburg as a revolutionary, as a theoretician, as an unknown feminist, is developed.

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