From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Rival approaches to Marxist humanism

May 8, 2021

From the May-June 2021 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: Since the term “Marxist humanism” has once again become current, but subject to the most varying, and often sanitized, meanings, we present Raya Dunayevskaya’s “Two Worlds” column from the December 1961 N&L, originally titled “Marxist Humanism in New Books and Reviews,” together with excerpts from her two-part Weekly Political Letter from that month on “Why the New Crop of Books on Marxist-Humanism? Why Not on Its American Roots? Notes on the Historic and Philosophic Origin of News & Letters Committees.” The latter is found at pp. 87-96 of Once more, we face the questions she explored then: Why now, and how did these writers end up so opposite to where they seemed to be starting from?

by Raya Dunayevskaya

A whole new spate of books has been published this year on the Humanism of Marxism.[1] In contrast to the almost total silence which surrounded my Marxism and Freedom in 1958, which first published an English translation of the early Humanist essays of Marx, the reviews of the new books and the letters to the editors about them are numerous and exude enthusiasm. The most pretentious of these are by socialists who make each comment sound like a manifesto announcing the discovery of a new world. What they all fail to note is that the new books which started out as scholarly, eloquent treatises on “original Marxism,” on Marx as a philosopher of freedom, ended by falling into the trap of the veritable conspiracy between the State Department and Russian Communism to force an identity between those two irreconcilable opposites—-Marxism, a theory of liberation, and Communism, the practice of enslavement.

The shocking and—so far as the new authors are concerned—unintentional similarity of results arises, of course, from an affinity of belief in capitalism. Nevertheless, the “end product” sounds unbelievable in face of the authors’ own denials of the Communist contention that there was a young, immature “left Hegelian” named Karl Marx, and there was “the scientific economist and practical revolutionary” whose theories comprise Marxism because of its founder Karl Marx—and the twain never met. Therefore, the “how” of the startling result is worth going into.


Let’s first take the most profound of the recent studies—Marxism by George Lichtheim. It is a truly eloquent presentation of Marx’s vision of world history as a “creative drama of human liberation.” Mr. Lichtheim writes as passionately in defense of the truth that the young Marx and the mature Marx were one and the same:

“It is true that in later years he (Marx) took a less exalted view of the part which thought had to play in transforming the world, just as the concept of social revolution which would transcend philosophy by ‘realising’ its aims, disappeared from his writings; but it was never repudiated, nor could it have been, for it was precisely what he meant by the union of theory and practice.’ ” (p. 54)

As Mr. Lichtheim reaches post-Marxist Marxism[2] however, his hatred of Lenin allows the scholar to write as if present-day Communism and Leninism are very nearly one and the same. No doubt Mr. Lichtheim thought he was attacking Lenin, not Marx. In fact, he was inexorably led to the rejection of Marxism for our era. “The real trouble,” he writes on p. 397, “is that Marxism tried to do duty both as a theory of society and as a philosophy of history and that its philosophical insights are hopelessly at variance with its scientific insights.” Out of nowhere comes the sudden conclusion that “we” (that is to say, the exploitative, capitalist society against which Marx had rebelled, aged by a century) have “realized” Marx’s vision of “the creative drama of human liberation.”

Now it is one thing to rationalize one’s acceptance of the status quo—men made of sterner stuff than scholars have often done so. It is quite something else to read into Marx such an analysis and hence a rejection of post-Marxist Marxism, not to mention an equation of Leninism with its Communist usurpers. This unfounded conclusion is even more vulgarly presented in the less important work—Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx by Robert Tucker.

Prof. Tucker destroys the myth of two totally different philosophies—Humanism and “scientific economics”—by creating a new myth, which, however, he attributes to none other than Marx: “the myth of warfare of labor and capital was Marx’s final answer to the problems of man’s self-alienation” (p. 258). Only a man living in an ivory tower, far removed from the class struggle of everyday life, in the factory and out of it, could describe everyday reality as a “myth.”


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Nevertheless, this book is hailed as “the best single study of Marx’s early Manuscripts,” by Daniel Bell, who has made a name for himself as a “scholar on Marxism.” Mr. Bell achieved the status through innumerable writings (which include endless footnotes) that change their tone to fit the times. Especially illuminating for our purposes are the 1959 and 1960 versions of an article on “the historical Marx.” The 1959 version was called “Rediscovery of Alienation” (Journal of Philosophy, Nov. 19, 1959).

Although it followed the Communist attack on Humanism in 1955[3] by four years and the Hungarian Revolution which had raised the Humanist banner by three years, Mr. Bell had still not “rediscovered” Humanism. By April-June 1960, however, when Soviet Survey devoted a full issue on the subject chosen by the Russian Communists for their struggle against Humanism—“Revisionism”—Mr. Bell refurbished his 1959 article, this time entitling it “In Search of Marxist Humanism.”[4] By attributing what characterizes his writings—“Different times, different Zeitgeist”—to others, Mr. Bell manages to reduce the whole question of Humanism “to the relatively minute but important changes in the pace of work, such as extending job cycles, job enlargement, allowing natural rhythms in work, etc.” This is supposed to make not only the worker in an automated factory happy, but to make “the concept of alienation…stand on its own feet, without the crutch of Marx.”

Allegedly the “left” socialist Michael Harrington opposes all this—or so he tells us in his “Marx versus Marx” (New Politics, Fall 1961) where he pompously announces as if it were the first time these words were ever uttered: “I would suggest that both [Daniel Bell and Maurice Merleau-Ponty] are wrong, and that the mature Marx deepens the humanist categories of his early work.” Despite this pronouncement and the further admonition that “the crucial task” is the relating of Marxist Humanism to the present day, Harrington spends 12 pages in this quarterly as he has previously spent the full page in the newspaper New America, Sept. 22, “The Rediscovery of Marx” not on “the crucial task,” but to show off his “erudition” by referring to all sorts of works in German and French, works not easily obtainable, if at all, and not likely to be checked by the majority of his readers who do not know foreign languages.[5]


At the same time he studiously, and by all sorts of clever ruses, avoids any reference to my work with which he has been acquainted ever since its publication in 1958. I raise this question not in order to establish “first-edness.” Not at all. As I wrote to The New Leader:

“The dispute over who was the first to translate Marx’s 1844 Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts into English is a meaningful controversy only if it has a substantive relationship to the spirit of those essays and of our times. I was compelled to be the first to publish these Essays in 1958 because for fifteen years previous I had tried, in vain, to convince other scholars, writers, and publishers of the cogency of these Essays.

“When in the period between the [1953] East German Revolt and the [1956] Hungarian Revolution, the Russian Communists openly attacked those Essays (Voprosy Filosofii, #3, 1955), I once again began my round of publishers. This time the Essays were part of my book. I held that the Russian Communist attack on them was not academic, but a foreboding of revolutions to come. The following year the great Hungarian Revolution raised the Humanist flag clearly.

“Because Marxist Humanism, to me, is the only genuine ground from which to oppose Communist totalitarianism, I felt the compulsion to show that Humanism is not something invented by me, but came directly from Marx, who fought what he called ‘vulgar communism,’ writing that ‘communism, as such, is not the goal of human development, the form of human society’….

“As to whether I am European trained or American, I claim the latter especially since my work, in addition to reestablishing Marxist-Humanism,[6] aimed at uncovering the American roots of Marxism which had for too long been hidden. I was, however, born in Russia.”[7] Now why all the anxiety to praise all works on Marxism except one by a Marxist-Humanist? The answer is really quite simple and has nothing whatever to do with “first-edness.” A Marxist-Humanist acts always on the theory that, to use a Hegelian phrase, “the truth is concrete.” He is therefore unwilling to transform the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism into an abstraction in which every “scholar” can “score points” as if it were some college debate held for the purposes of “grading.” A Marxist-Humanist is concerned with reality, and philosophy’s relationship to a world so rent asunder by crises that the very continuation of the human race is threatened. As we saw, the present outpouring of words—in books, in articles, in letters—has not illuminated the nature of Marxism half as much as it has exposed the class nature of the debaters.

What is important in the flood of writings is the historic framework which compelled the concern with Marxist-Humanism, that is to say, the political maturity of the age, the impotence of all propaganda on both sides of the Iron Curtain to exorcise the ghost of Karl Marx and rebury him, this time as a Humanist. It cannot be done.

Marxist-Humanism will remain alive so long as a new world on truly new, human beginnings has not been established—and it will remain alive thereafter not as a “means to an end,” but as the “first necessity of life”—its breath, its work, its thought—the self-activity of the “all-rounded individual” gaining a new human dimension.


Excerpts from the Weekly Political Letters


1950 was the start of a new epoch on a world scale…. The American workers raised, in a most concrete manner, the philosophic question raised by Marx regarding the division between mental and manual labor which characterized all class societies. The crucial difference between the workers raising the question, “What Kind of Labor Should Men Perform?” and the learned who were raising the question about “the alienation of labor” turns on the positive aspects of Humanism….

Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties serves at least one good function—it reveals the utter bankruptcy of the bourgeois intellectuals.

So far removed was the intellectual world from the real world of workers that the book’s publication coincided with the birth of the African Revolutions both as actuality reshaping the world and as alive, independent, creative thought which many called “Humanism” or “African Socialism.”…From the wildcats in Detroit to the Freedom Riders in Jackson, Miss., American youth, Negro and white, showed they were determined to tear up the crisis-ridden world they had not made, tear it up by its roots and remake it. It is at this historic juncture that the bourgeois intellectuals in the U.S. caught the spirit the European intellectuals had caught the previous decade, and rediscovered the Humanism of Marxism.

Not by accident, however, they failed to discover the American roots of Marxism….

With the [1949-1950 coal miners’] strike, however, the question of labor even in its Philosophic aspects became most concrete. The reason is simple: the actuality of a general strike involving no less than 100,000 miners could not be separated from the Automation which caused it as well as the revolution in thinking….

In contrast to the Communists—who change their line depending on the foreign policy of the Soviet Union so that when the U.S. and Russia became allies, the American CP urged the Negro to forget his struggle for full equality—Marxist-Humanists have a view seeing the continuous history of the vanguard role of the Negro American. That is to say, the development from the slave revolts to the Civil War, from Marx’s time to the Populist Movement; from the Garvey Movement to the CIO; as well as the struggle for full equality during World War II and after till today, has been a struggle for freedom that has brought the Negro American to the forefront of the fight to reconstruct society….

Now to return for a final look at that new crop of books on the Humanism of Marxism. The avoidance of its American roots transformed Humanism into an abstraction. It was not done because of any international considerations. None of the authors has the universality of Marx. No, keeping the American roots hidden was the way to confine Humanism’s world concepts to books instead of allowing them life….

Old radicals who hail the present crop of books help keep hidden not only the genuine American roots as history, but what is even more crucial maintain a bourgeois division between philosophy and action…. [W]here socialists fail to see the workers not just as “muscle” but as the source of all theory, they inevitably fall into the trap set up by the bourgeois “scholars” of dividing thinking from doing, the Humanism of Marxism becomes an abstraction instead of something present in the daily lives of workers, youth, Negroes and other oppressed minorities….

[1] Representative of these are the two books under consideration here: Marxism by George Lichtheim (London, Routledge, and Kegan Paul, 1961), and Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx by Robert Tucker (Cambridge University Press, 1961.

[2] “Post-Marxist” is here meant chronologically. This was long before Dunayevskaya originated the category of “post-Marx Marxism as pejorative.” —Editor

[3] See the section, “Communism’s Perversion of Marx’s Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts” in my Marxism and Freedom (pp. 62-66).

[4] Mr. Bell seems to have a predilection for titles which include the phrase, “in search of,” without ever finding what he searches for. Thus, in April 1958 he wrote an article entitled “Ten Theories in Search of Reality: The Prediction of Soviet Behavior in the Social Sciences” (World Politics). I then wrote the editor that it was no accident that Mr. Bell, despite writing about a great number of “theories,” had not included among them the fundamental theory of state-capitalism, “because, far from being in search of reality, the state-capitalist theory analyzes reality and does indeed yield fruitful and cogent analysis of Russia—its economy, its rulers, and its policies.” Perhaps if Mr. Bell finally found himself, he wouldn’t be subject to the compulsion to go “in search of” all manner of things that aren’t there and blind himself to those staring him in the face.

[5] Knowing foreign languages doesn’t seem to help Michael Harrington to know the facts. Thus, he writes in New Politics: “This Marxist humanism is anathema to Communist ideology—and that is at least one factor in Russia’s delay in publishing the Manuscripts.” Now there was no delay by Russia in publishing these Manuscripts for the simple reason that when they were first published in Russian—way back in 1927—the Marx-Engels Institute was still headed by the great scholar Ryazanov who published them as soon as he could pry them loose from the vaults of the Second International, who had inherited them from Engels and kept them hidden from the world. To accomplish that, it took a successful proletarian revolution plus money. The excitement over them lasted a very short time since it coincided with Stalin’s triumph over Trotsky. When the Manuscripts got published in their original German in 1932, discussion was again short-lived since Hitler was coming to power. It is true that Moscow didn’t publish an English translation until the year after I did so in the United States, but that was due to the conception of the backwardness of the American movement which is held by most Europeans. The attack on them, however, began in 1955 (see footnote 3).

[6] Dunayevskaya often used the hyphenated “Marxist-Humanism” to distinguish her variety from other tendencies of “Marxist humanism.” —Editor

[7] The New Leader didn’t publish the letter although I had been invited to straighten out the record on the dispute that had been raised around my Marxism and Freedom in the magazine’s issues of Oct. 30 and Nov. 13. In the Nov. 27 issue, one sentence of my letter appears incomplete without any indication that it is but one sentence of a whole letter.

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

1947-1951 — From the “Interim Period” to the Final Split from the Socialist Workers Party

Leon Trotsky: Letters, Conversations, Unpublished Documents

Raya Dunayevskaya with Natalia Sedova Trotsky, 1937

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, Nnamdi Azikwe, Sékou Touré and many more

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