From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Automation and the New Humanism

November 14, 2021

From the November-December 2021 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note:  Today’s militant labor insurgency demands solidarity in both activity and thought. (See “Workers, from union to gig, reject rules that bosses try to reimpose,” Nov-Dec. N&L) Questions raised by the actions and words of the workers themselves demanded a philosophical response. Marxist-Humanism in the U.S. began with taking seriously what workers have raised since the onset of automation in the coal mines: What kind of labor should a human being do? Today’s Amazon warehouses and gig economy show how much automation has developed since then, with extremes of speedup, surveillance and control over human beings. To address this, we present here about one-fourth of Chapter 16, “Automation and the New Humanism,” from the book Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 until Today, lightly edited.

1) Different Attitudes to Automation

1950 opened a new era in production….The fact of Automation…brought about the longest strike in the mine workers’ history since the creation of the CIO.…The miners were determined that no one would do their thinking for them. They kept their thoughts to themselves, but they showed their concern was not with the union treasury nor solely with the threat of unemployment. They were concerned with something new: something they called “a man-killer”—the continuous miner. The automatic miner was frightening in an entirely new way. The miners were concerned not just with the old grievances and hazards. This Automation was recognized as a “man-killer” in a total way.…

One miner told this writer: “There is a time for praying. We do that on Sundays. There is a time for acting. We took matters in our hands during the Depression, building up our union and seeing that our families did not starve. There is a time for thinking. The time is now. What I want to know is: how and when will the working man and woman—all working people—have such confidence in their own abilities to make a better world that they will not let others do their thinking for them.”

That miner felt that the union wasn’t much better than the company nowadays. The reason for this is that the rank and file had let “others”—the leadership—do their thinking and write their contracts for them. What was the point of talking about “progress” when the new machine was making a havoc of your life both on the job and off of it? This miner pointed out that the change the worker had brought through his activity, had somehow turned into its opposite. The miners would elect someone to represent them in negotiations with management. Then the first thing anyone knew was that their representative became a labor bureaucrat who turned up in the District Office, not to fight with the workers against the company but to order the workers to produce more. This miner wanted to know: what made the miners stick together in 1943 and tell the Senators that if they were so interested in production, they could dig the coal themselves, yet no one tells the same thing to the labor leadership today. “The working person has a mind of their own,” concluded the miner, “so why let others do their thinking for them? If only there was no division between thinking and doing.”…

2) Workers Think Their Own Thoughts

What is new in Automation is the maturity of our age in which the totality of the crisis compels philosophy, compels a total outlook.

The struggle for the minds of humanity, when the tendency toward complete mechanization has reached its most acute point in Automation, cannot be won in any other way. The new impulse comes, and can come, only from the workers.

Contrast to the chimera of the scientist who writes of “Man Viewed as Machine,” the sanity of the production worker who writes that work will have to be “something totally different”:

“When the women at work talked about how some day they were going to do wiring automatically, I didn’t really understand the word ‘Automation.’ I responded to what my friend said, ‘What would happen to us?’ She said they would probably have to give us jobs on the machines. It was all very hazy though. Now, the word is all over the place. And it holds both fascination and fear. I saw on TV an ‘automated’ auto engine factory, they made one engine in fifteen minutes where it used to take nine hours. The magazine, Saturday Review, had a special issue on Automation. It had seven or eight different writers, some from business and one from the UAW-CIO. What gets me is how the clearest one was the industrialist. The others seemed scared to say much about what it will do to people. He doesn’t care. He just says exactly what he thinks.

“There is one little paragraph of his I can’t get out of my mind, ‘. . . another highly desirable feature of Automation in relation to labor, is the fact that machines are easier to control than people (and this is a blessing in our democratic society).’ I can’t tell exactly what I get from it. It’s like this is it, the point of no return. He doesn’t give a darn what happens to these people he talks about. And maybe I don’t really understand but I think he would like to do away with one thing in this society and that is ‘democracy.’

“There is something else, more time. You know, that scares me more than anything else. If I get more leisure time under this society I think I would go crazy. This is very silly because I have always wanted the shorter work day. They don’t bother much about what happens to people, not just people, but the unskilled worker. They are a little scared. Not scared of what happens to the workers, but I think scared of what the workers will do to them. I can’t help thinking over and over that this is it. They have thrown so many workers into the streets with their old production methods, and now Automation. Even if the union gets the shorter week and annual wage, what happens to all the workers all over the country that are not working now? There are some things about Automation that are terrific but the capitalists and the unions can’t do any good with them. We say men and women are able to work, to produce, to work with, alongside, other workers. This is life to us. Now what happens under Automation? I don’t see us working. Do the energies go toward something else? But what? This and the leisure time is connected somewhere, though I don’t exactly know where.

The continuous miner, above, brought automation into the mines and was a major reason that miners went on general strike in 1949-50. They called this machine a “man-killer.”

“People like to work, to build something, but today work is so separate from everything else in your life. Each day is divided: you work, then you have some time in which to rest, forget about work, escape from it. What will it be with Automation? There is less work for us (as I think of work today) but there is more time. I am scared of more time the way things are now because more time for the worker might be seven days a week with no paycheck at the end of the week.

“I used to be told that the fight for more leisure time was so that the individual could have more time for art, music, literature, for study in general. That doesn’t satisfy me any longer.

Under a new society work will have to be something completely new, not just work to get money to buy food and things. It will have to be completely tied up with life.

Just as, from the first Industrial Revolution, the workers in the factory gained the impulse for the struggles for the shortening of the working day, and thus created a new philosophy, so from the workers’ experience with Automation comes a new Humanism.


The beginning of the end of state capitalism has, of necessity, begun behind the Iron Curtain. Men and women everywhere breathed freer when those under Russian totalitarian domination answered affirmatively the question that seems to preoccupy the contemporary world: Can humanity wrest freedom from the stranglehold of the One-Party State?

The fundamental problem of true freedom, however, remains: What type of labor can end the division between “thinkers” and “doers”? This is the innermost core of Marxism. The transformation of totalitarian society, on totally new beginnings, can have no other foundation than a new material life, a new kind of labor for the producer, the worker.

This basic question was posed first, not behind the Iron Curtain, but on this side of it. It arose out of the new stage of production called Automation. It was posed first by the miners, who, with the introduction of the continuous miner, began to question not only the fruits of labor—wages—but the kind of labor. As one young worker put it when he was told that the union would now fight for a shorter work week, “The four-day week wouldn’t make much difference. We are liable to wind up working the same hours as now and get overtime pay for all work over thirty-five hours. What has to be different is the way we have to work. Coming in every day and working under company discipline, afraid to stay out, is no way. Russia can’t be much different. If you think about it the only reason this way of life seems to make sense is that this is the way people are used to living.”

“Work that would be completely tied up with life,” and “doing that would not be separated from thinking,” “a new unity of theory and practice, unified in the worker himself,” are in the full tradition of Marx’s concept of work as human activity that develops all of humanities’ natural and acquired talents. Thus, the workers, the American workers, made concrete and thereby extended Marx’s most abstract theories of alienated labor and the quest for universality.

Marx was right when he said the workers were the true inheritors of Hegelian philosophy. In truth, while the intellectual void today is so great that the movement from theory to practice has nearly come to a standstill, the movement from practice to theory, and with it, a new unity of manual and mental labor in the worker, are in evidence everywhere.

3) Toward a New Unity of Theory and Practice in the Abolitionist and Marxist Tradition

…Where the workers begin with the questions—What happens after the conquest of power? Are we always to be confronted with a new labor bureaucracy which is to end in the One-Party State?—the “vanguard” has nothing to say but, “First do this and follow me.” The capitalist ideologist is as good at giving commands: “Look at the new wonders of Automation, and follow me.” Everyone is ready to lead; no one to listen.

Intellectual sloth just accumulates and accumulates to the point where the self-complacent “scientific individual” is permitted to write, with impunity and unthinkingly, of “Man Viewed as Machine.” Evidently no human passion nowadays is beyond a mathematical formula that can forthwith be made practicable in “a buildable machine.”

What they all forget is that a new society is THE human endeavor, or it is nothing. It cannot be brought in behind the backs of the people, neither by the “vanguard” nor by the “scientific individuals.” The working people will build it, or it will not be built. There is a crying need for a new unity of theory and practice which begins with where the working people are—their thoughts, their struggles, their aspirations.

This is not intellectual abdication. Intellectual abdication took place during the long Depression because intellectuals had no philosophy or method of thought, and just drifted into the camp of the fellow travelers or outright followers of “the Party line.” Intellectual abdication reappeared when McCarthyism so panicked them that they willingly, and without the duress of Moscow Trials, participated in public confessionals. Intellectual abdication reigns supreme when “scientific men” are allowed to take command of the field of thought as if that too were a “buildable machine.”

Intellectual growth will first begin when new ground is broken. The elements of the new society present in the old are everywhere in evidence in the thoughts and lives of the working class. Where the workers think their own thoughts, there must be the intellectual to absorb the new impulses. Outside of that there can be no serious theory.

Philosophy springs from the empirical sciences and actual life, but incorporation of these laws and generalizations into philosophy, Hegel showed, “implies a compulsion of thought itself to proceed to these concrete truths.” Hegel knew whereof he spoke when he told the intellectuals of his day that “the sense of bondage springs from inability to surmount the antithesis, and from looking at what is and what happens as contradictory to what ought to be and happen.”

The modern intellectuals will lose their sense of guilt and bondage when they will react to “the compulsion of thought to proceed to these concrete truths”—the actions of the Black school children in Little Rock, Ark., to break down segregation, the wildcats in Detroit for a different kind of labor than that under present-day Automation, the struggles the world over for freedom. The alignment precisely with such struggles in the days of the Abolitionists and of Marx is what gave these intellectuals that extra dimension as theoreticians and as human beings which enabled them to become part of the new society. It will do so again. Once the intellectual accepts the challenge of the times, then the ideal and the real are seen to be not far apart. The worker is right when she demands that work be “completely different, and not separated from life itself,” and that “thinking and doing be united.” Once the theoretician has caught this, just this, impulse from the worker, their work does not end. It first then begins. A new unity of theory and practice can evolve only when the movement from theory to practice meets the movement from practice to theory. The totality of the world crisis has a new form….The American rush “to catch up” with the Sputnik, like the Russian determination to be the first to launch the satellite, is not in the interest of “pure science” but for the purpose of total war. Launching satellites into outer space cannot solve the problems of this earth. The challenge of our times is not to machines, but to humanity. Intercontinental missiles can destroy humankind, they cannot solve its human relations. The creation of a new society remains the human endeavor. The totality of the crisis demands, and will create, a total solution. It can be nothing short of a New Humanism.

Read about this first industry-wide strike against automation in U.S. history— The Coal Miners’ General Strike of 1949-50 and the Birth of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S. 

“A Missing Page from American Labor History,” by Andy Phillips 

“The Emergence of a New Movement from Practice that Is Itself a Form of Theory,” by Raya Dunayevskaya

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