IV. What to do in the face of compounding crises—medical, economic, political, and the philosophic void

April 30, 2020

From the May-June 2020 issue of News & Letters

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2020-2021: Shattered by pandemic, world needs new beginnings in revolutionary activity, thought

Introduction: Deep crises demand a path to liberation
I. The failed pandemic response and the fetishism of the economy
II. The true pandemic war
III. Pandemic sets in motion the latent economic collapse
IV. What to do in the face of compounding crises—medical, economic, political, and the philosophic void

…Continued from III. Pandemic sets in motion the latent economic collapse

It is my desire that this history of Philosophy should contain for you a summons to grasp the spirit of the time which is present in us by nature.
—G.W.F. Hegel[1]

Marx’s philosophy is no abstraction and because that philosophy is concrete, it expresses the methodology needed for both analyzing serious crises and acting to uproot the system that created them….Marx never departed from the Hegelian negativity as “the creative principle.” That’s how, after the defeat of revolutions as in victory, Marx called for “revolution in permanence.”
—Raya Dunayevskaya[2]

The pandemic has intensified what many young people have been voicing in recent years: disgust with capitalism. The popularity of candidates who label themselves socialist, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, reflects the groundswell of opposition to capitalism and the search for an alternative.

Socially distanced demonstration in Hamburg, Germany, April 18 for sea rescue and elimination of European refugee camps. Banner reads: Kill borders. Overcome fortress Europe. Photo by Rasande Tyskar

The urgency of the dire situation must not be downplayed. Yet at the same time it generates a temptation to focus on the first negation, opposition to what is. Abolishing this sick society and founding a new one on truly human foundations requires that the positive in the negative, the negation of that first negation, be brought to the fore. Yet another half measure would only leave us exposed to the next crisis, from pandemics, climate chaos, economic crash, world war or bloodthirsty fascism.


Some are talking about what they are for, but the bulk of what is being projected, even by the “revolutionary” Left, is reforms or at best vague or unexamined concepts of socialism. Often capitalism is equated to neoliberalism, as if a fine solution would be a return to the kinds of state-capitalism that predominated in the period before and after World War II. That, however, led us to where we are today, and a raft of “democratic” reforms would not abolish the anti-human momentum of capitalism.

Totally missing is the self-activity of masses in motion, which is socialism. Self-movement is the inner core of the dialectic, without which there is no true negation of the negation but only shortcuts to halfway solutions.

Workers’ actions have gone far beyond appeals to the power of the state that are central to most of the socialist manifestos issued in the face of the pandemic. Even in defensive actions, workers are trying to shape their own conditions of labor. Nurses and doctors have even been fired for demanding N95 masks and other personal protective equipment. Just as in natural disasters, there is a tremendous amount of self-organization in solidarity from below, especially in the most marginalized communities.[3] But as the Uruguayan revolutionary Raúl Zibechi pointed out, “The mainstream media that are determined to instill fear hide the immense solidarity among the people from below. Surely because they fear it, because another world dwells there.”

In the future, we will be living on a planet damaged by capitalism, but the possible kinds of life we can have are poles apart, depending on whether we succeed in fundamentally transforming society. In the absolute opposite of today’s society, one based on freely associated labor instead of slavery to capital’s production for production’s sake, we can leave behind pervasive misery, precarity and antagonism, and self-development and cooperation can flourish, as can a rational relationship to nature. To get there, we need the clear direction that can only come from a philosophy of revolution.


We must be attuned to the positive in the negative, the reach for the future in present and historical resistance and revolt. For only revolution can break us out of capitalism’s suicidal spiral that threatens to bounce from one disaster to another—not one after another but overlapping and compounding. We cannot wait for the day of revolution to begin projecting the positive in the negative in the fullness of the body of ideas of Marxist-Humanism. Marx, at the inception of an organization that would be labeled “Marxist,” criticized its self-limiting program, and insisted on projecting as ground for organization his concept of the positive in the total uprooting of this society:

“After the enslaving subordination of the individual under the division of labor, and with it also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor, from a mere means of life, has itself become the prime necessity of life; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be fully left behind and society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”[4]

History shows we cannot afford to stop with the abstractions that pass for socialism. The transformation into opposite of the socialist movement at the time of World War I and the counter-revolution that emerged from within the socialist Russian Revolution show the need to be rooted in objective history and in a dialectical philosophy of revolution that can anticipate and comprehend such transformations. We are confronted with the questions of what kind of socialism, what kind of revolution, and what happens after the overthrow to make revolution in permanence both a method, a goal, and the reality?

Marxist-Humanism from the beginning has centered the need to abolish alienated labor and the division between mental and manual labor, and base society instead on self-activity, which begins before the revolution and must continue during and after it.

For the reach to socialism to amount to anything, we must confront the ideological pollution within the Left itself. That is most blatantly seen in those ready to excuse Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal attacks against the Syrian people’s nine-year revolution and in the way apologists for genocide have been accepted as legitimate in coalitions against Trump. As we wrote in our Perspectives Thesis three years ago:

“Nothing more starkly reveals how deeply today’s ideological retrogression has polluted the Left than the influence of those who defend Assad as ‘anti-imperialist’ and deny the existence of revolution in Syria. It reveals a Left that refuses to surrender to capitalism but surrenders anyway by implicitly abandoning revolution as a realistic goal. It perceives no positive in the negative because it assumes the masses to be backward as a given. It sinks into pure negativity—the mirror image of Trump—defining itself entirely by its opposition to U.S. imperialism.”[5]

This flows from the history of normalization of state-capitalism and its administrative mentality’s pseudo-revolutionary ideology ever since Stalin’s counter-revolution passed itself off as revolution. Left analyses of the pandemic seldom touch the Syrian revolution and counter-revolution. There is a pull to state-capitalist solutions: we are told that what we need is state planning (christened “democratic”), nationalization, regulatory apparatus—and that the state is the only power strong enough to confront the pandemic and the capitalists who get in the way of stopping it. Missing is the confidence in the masses, confidence in social revolution, with the latter being substituted by “political revolution” or a “revolution of values.” That lack of confidence is inherent in the administrative mentality of the state-capitalist era and its origins in Stalin’s counter-revolution that perverted Marxism into totalitarian Communism.


Protesters hold up a banner above Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, April 15. Part of a socially distanced protest over conditions in homeless shelters. Photo by Michael Swan

The shock of that transformation propelled the origin of Marxist-Humanism. It compelled Raya Dunayevskaya to rethink what had been the predominant assumptions about Marxism, which held that the organized economy, planned and subordinated to the state, was virtually the essence of socialism. That rethinking led to Marx’s 1844 philosophic moment, his concept of alienated labor and the self-activity of the worker as key, and his opposition to “vulgar communism.”[6]

The total contradiction of counter-revolution coming from within the revolution spurred her to question what had become of Marxist thought. This resulted in recognizing Marx’s work as a philosophy of revolution in permanence and disentangling it from what post-Marx Marxism has made of it. Even the greatest of Marxist revolutionaries who did not grasp Marx’s original recreation of the dialectic and development of it into a whole philosophy of revolution, instead separating parts of it from the integral philosophical whole.

Without that direction, generations of Marxists were left unprepared for the transformations into opposite within the Marxist movement and within revolutions. The field was left open to those who channeled capitalism’s objective impulses like Stalin, or like today’s mediocrities who align with the counter-revolutions of Assad, Putin, Iran’s clerics, or even Trump-adjacent rightists.


Looking back from this vantage point at the last decade of revolt, the revolutions of the Arab Spring undermined confidence in the existing order, propelling the reach for a new society. False alternatives including fascism proliferated at a time when the ideological pollution of the Left intensified to an incredibly deep disorientation, not excluding lining up with genocide and far right figures and propaganda.

While the ramifications and “intellectual sediment” from the upsurges of the 2010s are not finished, all this massive revolt has not led us out of the deepening dangers of disintegrating capitalist society. We cannot explain it away only because of the strength of the counter-revolution, both within each country and from without, which is real enough. The question is where does the elemental revolt lead when it is lacking a philosophy of revolution that would give these revolutionary struggles a direction?

Post-Marx Marxism did not rise to this challenge. It has proven to be a force in the world that often helped block revolution or transform it into opposite—from the aborted 1968 French revolution to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, attracting some to its counter-revolutionary anti-imperialism, to the counter-revolution from within Grenada’s revolution that opened the door for Ronald Reagan’s 1983 invasion—and eased the rise of the Right by discrediting the Left from within.

It should be clear, but is evaded by the Left in general, that to avoid the failure of revolution and the success of the counter-revolution that drives us onward to barbarism and pandemic/climate/extinction chaos, what is needed above all is the unity of philosophy with revolution, of philosophy of revolution in permanence with the subjects of revolution.

This is not brought about by an elitist party taking command. It is about leadership, not by an individual or a supposedly vanguard organization, but theory of revolution as leadership—in other words, “philosophy, not philosopher.” It depends on the body of ideas of the revolution in permanence, which demands projecting. As Hegel pointed out, the Idea of freedom is not so feeble as to have a right or obligation to exist without actually existing. That does not mean that we can leave the Idea floating on its own. It needs, it demands, an organizational home.

Out of Dunayevskaya’s work on Marx’s last decade, she made a category of revolution in permanence as the needed ground for organization. As she wrote in “Not by Practice Alone”:

“We…have used precisely Marx’s theory of the philosophy of revolution in permanence, not as an abstraction but as the actual concrete needed in order both to be armed against being pulled into the world market of the whirlpool of capitalism, state as well as private, and as requiring a decentralized organization whose ground is that continuing ‘revolution in permanence.’…

“Philosophy of ‘revolution in permanence’ cannot possibly be only ground, or even content, substance; it is Subject, and that both objectively and subjectively. The unchained dialectic—both as dialectics of liberation and dialectics of thought, dialectics of self-development—that self-development is both Individual and Universal. The achievement of that can only come with sharp awareness of the absolute contradictions in the nuclear world state-capitalist reality; to project Marx’s philosophy of revolution concretely, its Absolutes as concrete Universals, not abstractions, becomes imperative. This lays ground for daily practical work and not just books or essay writing. That is our organizational task.”[7]


That is the spirit we bring to working out our perspectives and tasks this year. Our projected new publications—on Syria, on Women’s Liberation, on What Is Socialism, and on the climate movement—are about comprehending the current stage of capitalism and this society, the disorientation on the Left as well as everywhere else, the meaning of the movement from practice, and philosophy and revolution reaching out to each other.

Aiding us in this projection are the two new books of selected writings by Raya Dunayevskaya, Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution in Permanence for Our Day and Russia, from Proletarian Revolution to State-Capitalist Counter-Revolution. These bring to the fore the Marxist-Humanist comprehension of Marx’s philosophy of revolution in permanence and the Russian Revolution, as well as the dialectics of counter-revolution coming from within the revolution, and the cruciality yet ambivalence of Lenin’s philosophical reorganization with his return to Hegel. These books bring out the centrality of the Marxist-Humanist trilogy of revolution, as incorporated right in our organization’s Constitution:

Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 until Today, “with its dialectical form of presentation of history and theory as emanating from the movement from practice, [laid] the foundation for the articulation of the unity of philosophy and revolution” as developed in Philosophy and Revolution. The latter reflected “the need of integrality also of philosophy and organization. As against ‘the party to lead’ concept, such integrality of dialectics and organization reflects the revolutionary maturity of the age and its passion for a philosophy of liberation.” Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution concentrated on the “new moments” of Marx’s last decade as the trail to our age, as seen in the Man/Woman relationship and in the relationship of the less technologically developed lands to the capitalistically technologically advanced countries. As a consequence, we “see the absolute challenge to our age as the need to concretize Marx’s ‘revolution in permanence’ not alone as the determinant for theory and practice, but as ground for organization in place of ‘the party to lead,’ in order to achieve the total uprooting of this exploitative, racist, sexist society and the creation of truly new human relations.” Our Constitution goes on to single out American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard, which “concretized [the trilogy of revolution] on the American scene and for the Black dimension,” as another fundamental Marxist-Humanist work and contribution to the theoretical preparation for revolution.

Nor can these be separated from what it means to have a Marxist-Humanist newspaper—and there are two, News & Letters in the U.S. and Praxis en América Latina in Mexico, which cooperate closely. News and Letters Committees is responsible for News & Letters and we aim to strengthen both its theoretical development and voices from below. There are no others like these, practicing as best we can the new relationship between theory and practice that is at the heart of Marxist-Humanism, and projecting Marxist-Humanist Archives as living. During the pandemic crisis, we will continue publishing News & Letters online, although circumstances prevent us from mailing out a printed newspaper.

All of these tasks point to the tremendous need for active, concrete, critical projection of Marxist-Humanism as participants in ongoing movements, and for organizational growth, which needs to become more concrete. Because what it is all about is revolution in permanence, getting rid of this rotten society and establishing one with totally new human relations.

—The Resident Editorial Board of
News and Letters Committees, April 22, 2020

[1] Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Vol. 3, p. 553.

[2] “What to Do Facing the Depth of Recession and the Myriad Global Political Crises as Well as the Philosophic Void,” Perspectives Report to the News and Letters Convention, Sept. 4, 1982, pp. 19, 20.

[3] See the poignant report by Raúl Zibechi, “Los Movimientos en la Pandemia,” desInformémonos, April 2, 2020.

[4] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, Part I.

[5]Philosophy and revolt confront Trump’s drive to fascism,” Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2017-18.

[6] See chapter 9 of Russia: From Proletarian Revolution to State-Capitalist Counter-Revolution: Selected Writings by Raya Dunayevskaya (Haymarket Books, 2018).

[7] Raya Dunayevskaya, The Power of Negativity: Selected Writings on the Dialectic in Hegel and Marx (Lexington Books, 2002), pp. 276, 288.

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