From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Marx’s critique of Hegel, and dialectics of organization and philosophy

June 16, 2023

From the May-June 2023 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: As part of renewed attention to the Marxist-Humanist concepts of dialectics of organization and philosophy, we begin with Dunayevskaya’s 1987 exploration of how it is illuminated by Karl Marx’s 1844 philosophic moment, in particular his “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic.” The first piece below is excerpted from #10883 in the Supplement to the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection. The second is excerpted from “Talking to Myself: Crucial on Book, yet 1953 as Concept vs. Experience” (#10923) and lightly edited for clarity.

Why Phenomenology? Why Now? What is the Relationship either to Organization, or to Philosophy, Not Party?

On the road to discovery of a whole new continent of thought and revolution, in 1843-44, Marx, without any conscious concrete reach for any such Promethean vision, was nevertheless posing in his Doctoral Thesis the question of where to begin. As a Hegelian, he found himself in disagreement with his master (Hegel), not just on the analysis of the different views of Epicurus and Democritus on the philosophy of nature. Rather, he saw the grandiose system of Hegel failing to achieve a unity of reason and reality in the present (1840) period of crisis. Instead, there seemed to be a total diremption of two separate totalities; reason and reality confronted each other with hostility….

Marx’s answer was to turn to the dialectical method, stressing that “the practice of philosophy is itself theoretical. It is the critique that measures the individual existence by the essence, the particular reality by the Idea.”[1] And that meant that the answer could only be found through a new beginning, in a totally new element. Marx found it in revolution, the very specific revolution which had both inspired and mystified Hegel—the great French Revolution—but he extended his hearing of the self-determination of the Idea to the sans-culottes.

Soon after the Doctoral Dissertation, Marx moved to break with capitalism as well as with the Young Hegelians, and on to the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” in 1844.

…Marx wasn’t only critiquing Hegel, but the materialist Feuerbach, whom he had “followed” but who he now says was deficient, having not understood the greatest creative contribution of Hegel of all, and that was “the negation of the negation” as the most creative, not mysterious, but actual movement of history, which Hegel tried to shroud with abstractions by “dehumanizing,” that is to say, turning man into the abstraction of “self-consciousness.”

“The greatness of Hegel’s Phenomenology, and its final result—the dialectic of negativity as the moving and creating principle—lies in this: that Hegel comprehends the self-production of man as a process…grasps the essence of labor and conceives objective man, true, actual man, as the result of his own labor.”[2]

But since it was in alienated form, it had to—just when it reached its highest point, Absolute Knowledge—undergo the Golgotha of the Spirit and perish….

Historic transcendence.

What is exciting about transcendence is that Marx credits Hegel with seeing it as what made him grasp objectivity and because he does that, though Hegel lives in an alienated world (and as a philosopher is the most alienated of all individuals) and uses the philosopher as the yardstick, nevertheless Hegel does not take the last step—boredom—but “arrives at an essence which is its very opposite, i.e., Nature” (p. 353).

Stop. Do you realize how great that is? What a leap? It was not only for Marx clearing his road, his totally new continent of thought and of revolution, but ours? Well, just consider how far in advance it is even of Lenin. Nature is not Practice. And Nature is not Sartrean exteriority. Nature, says Marx, is true essence because you can’t separate Nature from Human Nature. And that is why he uses, not as a naturalist, “thoroughgoing Naturalism, or Humanism” which would “first alone grasp the act of world history” (p. 347) and therefore have undergone the transcendence both of religion and thinghood, i.e., mediated by atheism and communism as the abolition of private property, and only then would there start “positive Humanism, beginning from itself” (p. 352).

The fact that we cannot give an answer, a blueprint, does not absolve us from the task. It only makes it more difficult. What we are trying to do with this book-to-be is to make this task historically and philosophically so deeply-rooted that both we and all whom we can reach on the outside will be glad to journey these uncharted roads….


Marx’s philosophic moment and the organization of thought

Marx’s “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” is actually mainly on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. That has been so vulgarized by Engels on, with its concentration on Feuerbach as if Marx were a Feuerbachian; the truth of course is that it is the sharpest critique of Feuerbach, precisely because he has declared him to be “the only one who has a serious, critical, relation to the Hegelian Dialectic” (p. 340). The truth is that that high compliment was relative to all of Hegel’s epigones and the fact that he certainly did help all, including Marx himself when they were younger, not to be so overwhelmed with Hegel as to immediately go with hammer and tongs at religion.

The fact that at once Marx called attention to negation of the negation should have given Engels at least a healthy hint that he was going to have something very sharp against Feuerbach, even though at the beginning he merely cites the fact of how Feuerbach interpreted negation of the negation.

Karl Marx

Next comes the fact that he singles out Phenomenology, though that does not appear in the title and though the praise of Feuerbach as well as his own critique means to be aimed directly at the system itself. But as he put it, it’s necessary to begin with Phenomenology, because that is “the true source and secret of the Hegelian philosophy” (p. 342). At which point he gives an abbreviated and very telling contents page, which is miles clearer than all the details the English translation gave us. Marx then shows that the Encyclopedia instead begins with Logic. And Marx defines Logic as “the money of the Spirit, the abstract expression of the speculative value of the thoughts of man and nature. It has become completely indifferent to all actual determinateness…” (p. 343).

At once, therefore, the whole theory of alienation, mystification, pretensions of reality, philosopher as the yardstick, is attacked mercilessly and that’s when he uses the word “inhuman”: “What is regarded as the essence of alienation, which is posed and to be transcended, is not the fact that human essence materializes itself in an inhuman manner in opposition to itself, but the fact that it materializes itself from and in opposition to, abstract thinking….Hence, despite its thoroughly negative and critical character, and despite the criticism actually contained in it, which often far surpasses the later developments, there is already in the Phenomenology, hidden in embryo, the latest potentiality and secret of uncritical positivism and equally uncritical idealism of the later Hegelian works—philosophic disintegration and resurrection of extant Empiricism” (pp. 343-44).

Marx continued with his very sharp critique of the double error in Hegel, this time showing inhumanity also in relationship to sensuousness, that is to say that he talks about sensuous consciousness in so abstract a way that it’s not a human being who has that sensuous consciousness, but just sensuousness consciousness in itself, and therefore cannot get “to true human actuality … [that is, making it a] spiritual essence” (p. 344).

This, however, is followed with the fact that hidden there is alienation, not as an abstraction, but the alienation of Man, even if we see Man only as a form of Spirit and “to that extent, all elements of criticism lie hidden in it and are often already prepared and worked out in a manner extending far beyond the Hegelian standpoint…” and, of course, that’s where Marx points to the greatest of all merits of Hegel, the dialectic of negativity (p. 344).

By then proceeding at once to Absolute Knowledge, he is actually, even when talking of that last chapter in Phenomenology, having in mind the whole Encyclopedia. Marx can do that because the opposition to thingness, to externalization, actually encompasses also Nature, with the result that “since it is not actual man, and likewise not Nature as such—man is human nature—which is made the subject…” (p. 347) thingness can only be externalized self-consciousness. Whereupon Marx is counterposing the truth instead of the mystification that Hegel presents us with, so that Marx concludes:

“We see here how thoroughgoing Naturalism, or Humanism, distinguishes itself both from Idealism and Materialism, and is, at the same time, the truth uniting both. We see, at the same time, how only Naturalism is capable of grasping the act of world history” (p. 347).

The whole question of Other Marx judges to be needed because of this mystification, and because the whole problem is with the question of knowledge. He concludes: “All the illusions of abstract, speculative thinking are concentrated in this judgment” (p. 350). He thus probes into “negation of the negation,” not just in Phenomenology but in Philosophy of Right and the whole Encyclopedia.

Marx considers that [transcendence in] Hegel’s “negation of the negation” “plays a peculiar role, in which both negation, and preservation or affirmation are united” (p. 350). And it is precisely because transcendence is handled so abstractly and ahistorically that it appears only as appearance and everything from religion, the state, nature, remain dogmatisms.

Once again, however, just when Marx reaches the highest point of criticism of Hegel, it is when he singles out the greatest merits of Hegel, and here it is on the question of “transcendence, as objective movement, withdrawing externalization into itself. This is the insight, expressed within alienation…” (p. 352). And of course this is the quotation we always rely on because it includes not only the transcendence of private property but communism, and ends with only then “does there arise positive Humanism, beginning from itself” (p.352).

Marx breaks off the essay as he gets to Absolute Mind, para. 384, “The Absolute is spirit: this is the highest definition of the Absolute” (p. 356). [That time, August 1844] is approximately when he met Engels and, whatever he told Engels of this manuscript, the decision of both was to break off with all Left Hegelians, to declare that disassociation publicly, and to create a different ground. Obviously, that ground was to be The Holy Family….[3]

The real philosophic moment is twofold. One is the fact that critique never ends. The criticism Marx is always leveling at other ideas and actions is the warp and woof of the dialectic. The second is that revolution, internationalism, is never separated from the idea itself, resulting in the fact that the key critique [in The Holy Family] against the Bauer brothers[4] and their battle against the French Revolution, is not just a defense of the French Revolution, but what its ideas were, and what type of organization it came from in 1789, and led to, in 1830:

“The French Revolution brought forth ideas which led beyond the ideas of the entire old world system. The revolutionary movement which began in 1789 in Cercle Social, which in the middle of its course had as its chief representatives Leclerc and Roux, and which finally was temporarily defeated with Baboeuf’s conspiracy, brought forth the communist idea, which Baboeuf’s friend Buonarroti reintroduced into France after the Revolution of 1830. This idea, consistently developed, is the idea of the new world system” (p. 119).

Whatever had been the immediate cause of the breaking-off of the 1844 Manuscripts, clearly Marx never let go of Hegel’s dialectic.

[1]. From Marx’s Doctoral Dissertation, “The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature,” as published in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 1 (International Publishers, 1975), p. 85.

[2]. Quoted from Dunayevskaya’s translation of Marx’s “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic,” published in Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution in Permanence for Our Day (Haymarket Books, 2019), p. 344. Following page references are to this edition. “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” is a crucial part of Marx’s 1844 Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts, which Dunayevskaya considered to be the philosophic moment of Marx.

[3]. The Holy Family by Marx and Engels was published in 1845. Page references here are to Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 4 (International Publishers, 1975).

[4]. Bruno and Edgar Bauer were prominent Young Hegelians. Marx attacked their criticism of the French Revolution in The Holy Family, especially on pp. 118-24.

Raya Dunayevskaya with Natalia Sedova Trotsky, 1937


Marxist-Humanism: A Half-Century of Its World Development




Contains a wealth of material from 1923-1987, including:

  • 1947-1951 — From the “Interim Period” to the Final Split from the Socialist Workers Party
  • 1959-1964 — The Emergence of a Third Afro-Asian, Latin American World and a New Generation of Revolutionaries Also in the U.S.
  • 1964-1968 — As Against Decadent Capitalism on the Rampage, New Stages of Mass Revolt
  • 1976-1978 — Forces of Revolution as Reason; Philosophy of Revolution as Force
  • 1979-1981 — What is Philosophy? What is Revolution? How the Revolutions of Our Age Relate to Those Since Marx’s Age: Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution
  • 1983-1985: From the Marx Centenary Year to Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution, and from Reagan’s Invasion of Grenada to Raya Dunayevskaya’s Work on “Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy”
  • Correspondence with: C.L.R. James, Adrienne Rich, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Natalia Trotsky, Nnamdi Azikwe, Tadayuki Tsushima, Sékou Touré and Maria Barreno

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.