From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: The dialectic and women’s liberation

April 30, 2015

From the May-June 2015 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: In celebration of 60 years of News and Letters Committees, we print excerpts of a summary of a talk that Dunayevskaya gave to a conference on Women’s Liberation in Detroit, Mich., on Feb. 21, 1971. The purpose of the meeting was to help Dunayevskaya work out the final chapter of her book then in progress, Philosophy and Revolution. That last chapter would take up the “New Passions and New Forces” for the reconstruction of society. The Conference was also the beginning of the Women’s Liberation–News & Letters Committee. The entire summary can be found in the Raya Dunayevskaya collection, #4355.

Raya began her presentation by pointing out that the core of the dialectic as a movement is the number two, and then went into some of the dangers in this number two: We live in an age when even those opposites that are not antagonistic contradictions such as capital and labor are, nevertheless reveal the struggle of opposites: men and women; workers and intellectuals; theory and practice; spontaneity and organization; philosophy and revolution. This duality in reality is the knot to be unraveled and we therefore might as well make it the focal point of this discussion as well.

Everything can be divided today into: I. the Idea as such, and II. the Idea whose time has come. For the Idea as such there are two dates in history to take up: 1844 when Marx wrote his famous Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, and 1947 when these essays were translated into English by Raya Dunayevskaya. For the Idea whose time has come we will have to take up 1965 when [the Women’s Liberation Movement] was the”new,” and 1971 when we must begin to consider our perspectives.

Marx called his philosophy a “new humanism.” In those 1844 essays he lashed out against both capitalism and vulgar communism. In the essay on “Private Property and Communism” he said that the most fundamental relationship of all human relationships is that of man to woman. In 1947 when Raya translated the essays, however, what she stressed was Marx’s anti-capitalism and anti-vulgar-communism, as she was exposing the true state-capitalist nature of Russia which called itself “Communist.” She did take up the man/woman aspect of the essay twice. Once was in a discussion in 1947 with a professor who argued that it was not true that all contradictions are class contradictions. Raya pointed to the essay on the five senses, where Marx says that “seeing, hearing, smell, taste, feeling, thought, perception, experience, wishing activity, loving” are all human relations to the world—and that it is private property that has made us so stupid that we think an object is ours only when we possess it directly—eat it, drink it, wear it, live in it, etc.—in short, use it. Raya had pointed out the class nature even in such a thing as “taste” by comparing the difference of hunger to a starving child or to a gourmet. As for “human nature,” there is no human nature except to be free. The other time Raya had taken up the man/woman relationship as fundamental was in 1949 when the West Virginia miners were on strike, and only men came to a party that had been arranged. The men were promptly sent home to get their wives, without whom they could never have maintained their strike.

The transition point between “idea as such” and “idea whose time has come” is 1956 when News and Letters Committees wrote their Constitution and women were singled out as one of the forces of revolution. We alone did that, and even reserved a special section of our paper for women, just as we had for Black voices. But because the women’s movement had not yet appeared, it nevertheless remained “Idea as such.”

But the 1960s is a totally new stage. It is true that we have always pointed out the inter-relationship of the Abolitionist Movement and the Women’s Movement. It is not denigrating that tremendous page in history to stress the “new” that has now appeared, and is different from all the past. There have been women’s struggles throughout history, but the simple truth is that none before ever did what the new women are doing today. These new women had many things in their favor from the start:

Art by Paul Tanzawa

Art by Paul Tanzawa

1. They were young, and I am not stressing that as a “generational aspect,” but to emphasize that it eliminated from the start any nonsense that they were having troubles with males because they “couldn’t get one.”

2. They were from the Left, so they didn’t have to be self-conscious about any charges that they weren’t concerned with “humanity.”

3. The Black dimension was present—that is, Black women joined in the charges against male chauvinism—so they didn’t have to worry about charges that they were anti-Black if they charged Black males with male chauvinism, too.

4. They had no illusions about being a “majority,” even though there are more women in the population than men, because far from a majority of all these women shared their views. The women represent different classes, with very different outlooks on many of the most basic goals.

But despite all these things in their favor, the Women’s Liberation Movement has found the need for philosophy. The division in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was precisely on philosophic questions. Their disintegration was the result of their total disregard for philosophy. It has brought the Women’s Liberation Movement to an impasse, too. But the movement is so objectively valid that no matter what, it will keep rising up, over and over again. The most important point of the whole movement is that the women are objecting to being object, instead of Subject, to use the Hegelian term. They are seeking to become whole human beings.

There is a division of Theory into two stages. Hegel says that everything depends on grasping Truth not as Substance, but as Subject as well. The initial stage has to be alone, because otherwise the new will not come out. This is why Lenin kept talking about the shyness of workers; and why it was important for Blacks not always to have some white looking over their shoulders. This independence is, however, not for separation, but to be able to develop to another stage. Then there must be a return to philosophy to develop positions in your own organization. This self-consciousness and “taking back our heads” is being done to free everyone, not to make the same mistakes as men.

Raya took the article by Barbara B. in our pamphlet, Notes on Women’s Liberation: We Speak in Many Voices, as an example of what happens when you are not grounded in philosophy. The article was so anxious to establish that Marx was wrong that it claims that Engels’ theory was what Marx drew on for his theory of historical materialism. That is totally wrong factually, of course, which would be simple to prove even chronologically. But the most important error is not the factual one, but the methodology involved. Marx’s historical materialism demonstrated that exploitation of labor by capital is rooted not only in the division between mental and manual labor, but in the relationship of man to woman. And Marx showed that all history was movement. History is not “past.” It is present, too. All history is the history of class struggles. But you have to understand that part of the oppression is what the rulers do to rob you of your thought, as well as the fruits of your labor. They don’t want you to think—just to work. But the great truth is that no matter how much they may be oppressed, men and women do think, and they think their own thoughts. In fact, the more alienated you are, the greater you are, because the greater is your quest for universality.

Let’s take two theoretical works on women to examine what they do and what they don’t do. One is Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, and the other is Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. What is Millett’s failure? Hers is an excellent study, but because she is limiting her vision to only the woman aspect, she winds up saying that we had revolutionary activity up until women got the vote and then, after 1920, it was all counter-revolution. That is a fantastic thing to say when we have lived through the Spanish Revolution, the African Revolutions, revolutions all over the world. Moreover, she fails to see “transformation into opposite.” Thus, she criticizes Norman Mailer very correctly for many things, but fails to see that he was revolutionary at the end of World War II. His The Naked and the Dead was one of the greatest works to come out of that entire period. She is not a philosopher, and she thus misses the mark as a result. In short, Millett wrote a great book, but it needs some criticism—and it is the sort of critique that we could do, not with any long thesis, but just a few short paragraphs making a few of these important points.

Now take de Beauvoir. She doesn’t like Engels, by the way. And she does mention Marx. However, she, too, goes nowhere. We could definitely have something to say on her works. Again, not a long thesis—a couple of paragraphs can say a great deal.

Finally, let’s come to Philosophy and Revolution, my book in progress, which you are here to help me finish. It has three major parts. Part I takes up Hegel, Marx and Lenin. One of the most important parts for us here is the section that deals with how Marx concretized Hegel and at the same time broke with the whole concept of what is theory. This is where history as process comes in. Part II deals with Alternatives: Trotsky, Mao, and Sartre. And Part III is “New Passions and Forces” which deals with the Blacks, youth and women. We have been able to show why the Black dimension and why the youth are these new passions and new forces, because, in fact, the Blacks throughout American history and specifically since the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as well as the Blacks in Africa, have raised questions of deep philosophic import, whether it was Robert Moses on education or Frantz Fanon on the whole African revolution. The same reason—that is, concrete questions that were raised—enabled us to show this on the part of youth, as well, whether it was Mario Savio on alienation, or the French revolt in May 1968, where the new forms of student-workers committees were established. In the case of the women, we have not succeeded in hearing quite that many new voices. What we do know is that self-development means that you will gain a new dimension in yourselves, will feel a totality in the new person you are becoming, as you give expression to what you are feeling and thinking. The proof of Marxist-Humanism will be in your own self-development.

*    *    *

Marx captured a whole age, and while his philosophy was based on the study of years and years of human activity, past and present, it contains the germs for the future. Theory means taking a part of the philosophy and developing it for your particular period. There are divisions in theory. You can anticipate, but only “in general,” not the particular. The important period is when you are able to single out the new category for your age. The theory of state-capitalism was analyzed in 1941, but the humanist dimension was not reestablished until 1947. Every new stage of cognition comes only when a new stage of objectivity has been reached. Thus theory means recapturing the movement that was present in the philosophy, but not real yet. What it means is that when a new force arises, you can catch it if you are rooted in the philosophy.

*    *    *

It sounds wonderful to say “unite all women”—but it is utopian to say we should (or could) unite all women in, for example, a day-care center issue. What IWDhave we decided are the most important elements in the movement today? Proletarian and Black dimension. Therefore, concentrating on that, though it may sound “narrow,” is the only way to really broaden the movement. Why is it that after all the magnificent demonstrations throughout the past year, we hear complaints that no group is doing anything? Because of the class differences in the movement. There is “tokenism” of all kinds, on all kinds of questions—and some women are going to be allowed to break into new fields and get some good jobs—because the rulers are afraid of the real movement, from below.

What we are doing, because our philosophy is a total one, is listening to these voices from below, and working out a theory for the movement based on that. What we have to do is bring out the new dimensions of women as revolutionary force. The greatest strength of the movement is its spontaneity. This is the time when the objective time and the subjective situation have exploded. The self-development we are talking about is not the careerist woman, but the woman who thought she didn’t know how to speak. Ever since we began News & Letters, over 15 years ago, the tape machine has been the “magic box” that recorded what workers, Blacks, and women were feeling and thinking, and permitted us to transcribe those ideas and put them in the paper for others to share.

Correspondence has always been considered of primary importance to us, as well. Correspondence with others, to share our ideas, and elicit theirs. In fact, the history of News and Letters Committees goes all the way back to the American Revolution on this question of correspondence—because it was during the American Revolution that Committees of Correspondence became one of the most important developments of the revolution. And that is exactly where our conception of our organization as a new form of “Committees of Correspondence” came from.

We cannot forget, either, that it is no accident that ours is the only Left political organization whose theoretical founder is a woman.

The work ahead is not going to be easy. But it will be exciting because it will be breaking totally new ground. It is work that needs to be done, and nobody else is doing it. Don’t forget that our magnificent organization did not come to be what it is easily. It took a lot of very hard work—and it is far from being finished.

0 thoughts on “From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: The dialectic and women’s liberation

  1. “The tape machine has been the ‘magic box’ that recorded what [masses] think”. As odd at it could be, this phrase captures the essence of the relation between theory and practice in a MH organization. Also, “correspondence has always been considered of primary importance to us”. Because, for MH, “the self-development we are talking about is not of the careerist woman, but the woman who thought she didn’t know how to speak”. Correspondence, the tape machine, are then transformed into revolutionary means, for they let us know the voice of the “voiceless”, the practice as a form in itself of theory. However, that is not enough: correspondence and the tape machine turn really into that just when we “are rooted in philosophy”: “when a new force arises, you can catch it if you are rooted in philosophy”. “Theory means taking a part of the philosophy and developing it for your particular period”.

    The sentence about self-development meaning not of the careerist woman, but of the one who thought she couldn’t think, is specially striking to me in those days, when I have heard to 15 women in a two years long strike. What they are creating with their actions of resistance, with their “simple” thoughts, is just impressive: they are creating no less than a new world, with new human relations, in practice as well as in theory.

    It’s a pity this summary from Raya doesn’t go further in the question of broadening the movement concentrating on its more important elements. I guess what she means by that. Is it related with the vanguardist role of some massive sectors of society, compared to others not so strong and wide? Raya talks about the Proletarian and Black dimensions as the more important elements in the movement today. This last word is the key: today, that means 1971. With what is happening today in Turkey and the Middle East, could we say that women are there the most important element (not the only one, of course) in the process of social uprooting? Women as vanguard. That sounds good.

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