From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Challenge to all post-Marx Marxists

March 18, 2022

From the March-April 2022 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: Dunayevskaya presented this talk taking up new developments in her work on the book Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution at the 1981 national gathering of News and Letters Committees. In it she projected a category from her work on the new final chapter of the book: “Post-Marx Marxism as a pejorative.” This talk was her summation after the discussion of her Perspectives Report on Sept. 5, 1981. It can be found in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection #15285. Under the title “Marxist-Humanism’s Challenge to All Post-Marx Marxists,” the full text appears as an Introduction to the 1991 edition of Rosa Luxemburg. Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution. Footnotes were added by the editor.

1. Philosophic Confrontation with Post-Marx Marxists on the Ground of the Mid-1950s Movement from Practice

…I want to challenge what you understand as Karl Marx’s Humanism and its relationship to Marxist Humanism.

When I said I was opposed to all post-Marx Marxists beginning with Frederick Engels, I didn’t mean only the gap between Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks and Engels’s reductionism in Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. I am challenging Engels also on nearly all of his interpretations of the dialectic, not because he betrayed; he didn’t. He did the best he possibly could. That’s the trouble. The best he could wasn’t good enough.

You have to begin seeing what it means to be a great genius, a “thought-diver” like Marx. And if you don’t grasp the uniqueness of that, loving Marx won’t help. All you would then do, as Engels did, would be to popularize him. Anyone who thinks he understands when it is made bite-size doesn’t understand what it means to appreciate and work out and recreate the dialectic at every single stage. Sure, six people will get up who will understand you and not understand Marx—and praise you as the “projector.” That doesn’t mean Engels had any right to think he was really projecting Marx’s whole continent of thought—Marx’s Historical Materialism, Marx’s Humanism, Marx’s “economics,” much less his philosophy.

HOW MANY PEOPLE THINK there is nothing greater than Franz Mehring’s biography of Marx? It stinks. And not only because he was a Lassallean, which was bad enough, but because, as an intellectual, he thought he could do better in projecting what Marx “really meant.” Do you realize that the German Social Democracy didn’t even ask Engels—he was still alive, and much superior to them, including Mehring, who was the one writing the history—for his views of the history of socialist ideas and organizations, a history he had lived through with Marx and with all tendencies who truly made history?

Ryazanov, who was known as the greatest Marx scholar, an archivist and analyst of Marxism, had discovered a great store of writings by Marx which had never been published. He introduced them in a scholarly and historic fashion, and that’s how we came to know the young Marx. That didn’t hold true for the last writings of Marx, which, though he hadn’t deciphered nor had a chance to read, he had the gall to characterize as “inexcusable pedantry.” This characterization was directed mainly to what we now know as Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks. As all the rest of the post-Marx Marxists, he was happy enough with Engels’s Origin of the Family, which was supposed to have summarized Marx’s 98 pages of notes on Morgan’s Ancient Society.

This attitude to Marx’s archives, even among the best of “Marx scholars,” who rush to publish their own views instead of publishing Marx’s unpublished works, is one of the major reasons it has taken us 100 years to find out all that Marx had worked out. Worse yet, we have been left with the impression that Marx was so ill that he did nothing in the last years of his life. The trip to Algiers at the end of his life was described as if it were only a matter of his health, whereas in fact he studied Africa there and “fell in love” with the Arabs. He had written to his daughters, as we have seen, that, nevertheless, they would all go to the Devil if they didn’t have a revolution.

CATCHING THE HISTORIC LINK to Marx is not only a matter of finally seeing all his writings, but of grasping, at one and the same time, that something had to happen both in the movement from practice and in the movement from theory. I want to depart for a moment from Marx’s day to our age, specifically the years 1950 to 1953. It was after the General Strike of the miners in 1949-50[1] that I felt we had reached a new stage both in Marxism and in proletarian consciousness. I therefore insisted that a worker be present when I gave my next report on what we then called “Marxism and State-Capitalism” and what became [the book] Marxism and Freedom. (Until then, the discussion had been limited to myself, C.L.R. James, and Grace Lee.) Clearly, something was stirring in the world; I felt it very strongly after the death of Stalin, which had lifted a heavy incubus from my brain. Before the actual outbreak of the June 17, 1953, revolt in East Germany—the first ever from under totalitarianism—I turned to the study of the Absolute Idea, splitting that category into two, i.e., saying that there was not only a unity of theory and practice, but that there was a movement from practice, and not only one from theory.

I no sooner said this than I went to check what Marx had written on Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind. I found that where I began with paragraph 385,[2] Marx had left off precisely at paragraph 384—saying he would return. But he never got to finish.

What makes somebody, a century after the event, without knowing where Marx had left off, start focusing on the very next paragraph? I don’t know. I do know that there are certain creative moments in history when the objective movement and the subjective movement so coincide that the self-determination of ideas and the self-determination of masses readying for revolt explode. Something is in the air, and you catch it. That is, you catch it if you have a clear head and if you have good ears to hear what is upsurging from below. All this happened May 12 and May 20, 1953, six weeks before the actual revolution on June 17 in East Berlin….

3. 1981: Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution

The point this time is that in the work on Rosa Luxemburg, which is also on Women’s Liberation, which is also on Marx’s work as a totality, which is also on Lenin, and which is also on Leon Trotsky, I not only take up revolutionaries, but great revolutionaries who were also theoreticians. Nobody was greater than Lenin in Russia in 1917 or greater than Luxemburg both in 1905 and 1919; how could they possibly be inadequate for our day? The point nevertheless is that before we spoke about the theoretic void left by Lenin’s death, which had never been filled; now we are speaking about the fact that even Lenin, who had made the great philosophic breakthrough,[3] had remained ambivalent.

He had philosophically reorganized himself in relationship to Materialism and Idealism, on the nature of the revolution that would not stop at the democratic stage but go all the way to the proletarian and elemental and international revolution. He also was for self-determination of nations as the actual bacillus for proletarian revolution. But, but, but… he did stop short of reorganizing himself on the Party, though he had introduced many modifications [under the impact of] 1905 and 1917. He was especially great when he threatened to resign from the leadership and “go to the sailors,” if the Party did not put the question of the conquest of power on the agenda. And he didn’t stop criticizing the new bureaucracy. But when it came to breaking with the Party then, far from “going to the sailors,” he was thinking that the Bolshevik layer was so thin that it was them he must trust fully. We certainly could not accept that. We, who have suffered 30 years of Stalinism, the transformation of the workers’ state into its total opposite, a state-capitalist society, and have witnessed new revolts from below, will not accept any vanguardism-to-lead; they have done nothing but mislead.

In a word, if Lenin had accomplished as great a reorganization of himself on the Party Question as he had done on the Self-Determination of Nations, we might have had some ground for today, but we don’t. And when it comes to the Woman Question, I don’t believe he ever thought of reorganizing himself. There we have to start totally anew….

ALLOW ME TO DIVERT back to Marx’s time. Marx first used the expression “permanent revolution” back in 1843 in an Essay on the Jewish Question; that is, on the civil rights of a minority, insisting that civil rights were insufficient and that there had to be totally new human relations. The next time he spoke of it was during an actual revolution, 1848. Once that was defeated, Marx, instead of bowing to the defeat, insisted on the need for a “revolution in permanence.” His point was that, first, one must remember the highest point achieved by the revolution. It was proletarian independence: “Never again must we go with the bourgeoisie.” Secondly, the revolution, to be successful, must have the peasantry with it. Thirdly, indeed above all, Marx was always looking for ever-new live forces to create a new dialectic, not just philosophically, but a new dialectic of revolution. In a word, when he used the expression, “revolution in permanence,” in the Address to the Communist League in 1850, he was talking about continuous revolution in transition to a classless society.

Two decades later, Marx continued to work out his theory of revolution in permanence, this time in the form of actually predicting the revolution coming first in a backward country, rather than a technologically advanced country. In his 1881 letter to Vera Zasulich, praising primitive communism in Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society, he neither failed to mention that Morgan’s report was government-sponsored, nor stopped at the primitive stage. It is true that the Iroquois women had more power than women under capitalism and collective property of the tribes could lead to a higher state. But Marx wasn’t just recording facts; he was interested in what the facts signified. Marx had lived through the Paris Commune, and a decade later there was nothing on the horizon of that nature, and he was questioning whether a new dialectic of revolution could start within Russia and the Peasant Communes that still existed there. So non-determinist was he, and so open to all new beginnings, that he now held that his “Historical Tendency of the Accumulation of Capital” was not to be made into a universal. It was a generalization of what had happened in Western Europe, but Russia had the best chance in the world to avoid the monstrosity of Western capitalism.

He was not predicting as a prophet. He was analyzing dialectically the law of motion of capitalist society to its collapse, the live forces of revolution who were recreating the dialectic of revolution in new circumstances. And precisely because his vision was of a new form of society, a classless society, he didn’t stop at any historic stage as the ultimate.

I BEGAN BY SAYING that unless Marxist-Humanists fully grasped the historic continuity to Marx’s Humanism and worked out the trail to the 1980s on the basis of those new moments in Marx’s last decade, the expression, “taking organizational responsibility for Marxist-Humanism,” would have no meaning. In a word, my “rejection” of that expression meant that the prerequisite for it was, at one and the same time, catching the historic continuity as well as working it out for our age. What I was stressing in Chapter XII of the book was the new openings in what Herman Melville had called “abrupt intermergings” and what we called the “new moments” in Marx’s last decade, be it in the Ethnological Notebooks, both as they concerned Asiatic mode of production and the role of women among the Iroquois and the Irish, and for that matter, what Marx had written on the Paris Commune, or the projection of a revolution in Russia ahead of one in the West….

The philosophic concept of leadership became correctly, with us, the projection of Marx’s Humanism. That is to say, philosophy of revolution rather than the vanguardist party. It becomes all the more imperative that we project all the new moments in Marx that we did discover. And that is not limited to the new in organizational form—committee-form against the “party-to-lead”—that didn’t separate theory from practice.

We have all too often stopped at the committee-form of organization rather than the inseparability of that from philosophy. And it is the philosophy that is new, unique, our special historic contribution that enabled us to find historic continuity, the link to Marx’s Humanism. It is this which is totally new, not the committee-form of organization, as crucial as that is.

As I put it at the end of the new book:

“What is needed is a new unifying principle, on Marx’s ground of humanism, that truly alters both human thought and human experience. Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks are a historic happening that proves, one hundred years after he wrote them, that Marx’s legacy is no mere heirloom, but a live body of ideas and perspectives that is in need of concretization. Every moment of Marx’s development, as well as the totality of his works, spells out the need for ‘revolution in permanence.’ This is the absolute challenge to our age.”

[1].  See A 1980s View: The Coal Miners’ General Strike of 1949–50 and the Birth of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S. by Andy Phillips and Raya Dunayevskaya.

[2].  These May 1953 letters on Hegel’s Absolutes were published in The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism: Two Historic-Philosophic Writings by Raya Dunayevskaya. Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind is taken up in her May 20, 1953 letter.

[3].  This is a reference to Lenin’s notebooks on Hegel’s Science of Logic, which Dunayevskaya saw as a break in Lenin’s thought.


Rosa Luxemburg - Kadınların Kurtuluşu ve Marx’ın Devrim Felsefesi

Cover design by Sinem Can

Rosa Luxemburg, Kadınların Kurtuluşu ve Marx’ın Devrim Felsefesi Tanıtım Bülteni

Now available in Turkish! Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution by Raya Dunayevskaya. Translated by Melda Yaman, published by Köstebek Kolektif.

From the publisher:

“Rosa Luxemburg” is much more than a philosophical biography. It is a sympathetic and critical portrayal of Luxemburg as a woman, thinker, organizer, and revolutionary. Dunayevskaya depicts Luxemburg as a passionate internationalist, anti-war, bright, brave and independent woman who believes in the spontaneity of the people. She depicts a woman who sees herself as the philosophical heir to Marx, rejecting her lover’s and other men’s efforts to discourage her from fully participating in “making history” simply because she is a woman, a woman “who joyfully throws her whole life on the scales of destiny.”

Part 2, “The Women’s Liberation Movement,” is one of the most exciting and uplifting writings since the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement, where writing and organization often go hand in hand. In this captivating portrayal of women in the movement, Dunayevskaya ranges from revolutionary leaders to activists in the Women’s Liberation Movement, from literati to philosophers, from working women on strike to Black women rebelling against their male comrades, both around the world and throughout history.

In the final part, Dunayevskaya draws attention to the fact that Marx is the only philosopher of the “total revolution,” that is, a revolution that will touch and transform all human relations, a revolution in permanence that will never end. She underlines that Marx discovered a whole new continent of thought and revolution, and creatively brought together struggling concepts and practice in harmony.

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