Marx’s Humanism today

May 15, 2012

From the May-June 2012 issue of News & Letters:

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2012-2013

(continued from Part III)

IV. Marx’s Humanism today

“The commodity form of the products of labor became a fetish because of the perverse relationship of subject to object–of living labor to dead capital. Relations between men appear as the relation between things because in our alienated society that is all ‘they really are.’ Dead capital is the master of living labor. The fetishism of commodities is the opiate that, to use a Hegelian expression, passes itself off as ‘the very nature of the mind’ to all except the proletariat who daily suffer from the domination of dead labor, the stranglehold of the machine. Therefore, concludes Marx, no one can strip the fetishism from the commodities except freely associated labor.” — Raya Dunayevskaya, “Marx’s Humanism Today” [21]

The accelerating plunge to climate chaos, the never-ending unemployment and austerity, the domination of politics by a small elite, the worldwide struggles to reverse these conditions, all point to the urgent need to uproot capitalism.

While that task can only be accomplished by masses in motion, history shows that revolutions cannot succeed without being grounded in a philosophy of revolution. Even when the old regime has been overthrown, let alone when that has only been halfway achieved, the relations and ideas of the old order find ways of rearing their heads–not only through the economic and military power of the old, but from the contradictions within the revolution.

We saw earlier that tendencies in Egypt have been pushing in opposite directions. Will the move toward democracy be a stepping stone for mass self-activity toward greater freedom, or will it be confined, as the capitalists and their representatives wish, to a form without real content?

The latter tendency knows how to take advantage of the wish to be “non-ideological.” Especially at the beginning of the struggle, given the pressing need for masses to unite in opposition to Mubarak’s regime, ideas about what should happen after the revolution, beyond “democracy,” took a back seat in the name of unity against the dictatorship. But ideology was still very much present. What was not banished was the ideology that does not seem like ideology because it flows from everyday life: what Karl Marx termed the fetishism of commodities. The most basic unfree relations seem natural and inescapable because, in capitalism, people are treated as things and things rule. The alienation of workers from their own activity–expressed as the value-form–appears to have no alternative. Liberty is confined to the political sphere, and the economy appears to have a will of its own that cannot be controlled.

Self-activity is at the heart of Karl Marx’s philosophy, which opposes the fetishism of commodities and grasps its absolute opposite, freely associated labor, as what is needed to transcend it. At the same time, today’s struggles demand recognizing that multiple subjects of revolution are confronting multiple dimensions of alienation. The full development of these concepts in Marx’s philosophy of revolution in permanence is projected in our forthcoming book of selected writings by Raya Dunayevskaya on Karl Marx.

Her Marxist-Humanism saw in Marx’s analysis of fetishism both the ideology and the reality of the value form as the domination of dead labor over living labor, and in addition its absolute opposite, the future in the present.

While the occupation of Tahrir Square did not match the Paris Commune of 1871 in transforming relationships in the workplace, what Marx wrote of the Commune applies: what was greatest was its own working existence. As Dunayevskaya wrote in “Marx’s Humanism Today,” [22] the total reorganization of society embodied in the Commune shed light on the form of value and its impact on thought.

The value of a commodity is determined by the labor objectified in it. The fact that labor appears to be a characteristic of the commodity, a thing, reflects how the capitalist labor process turns the worker, living labor, into a thing, an appendage to the machine. This dehumanization is the expression of a system of production and social relationships where dead labor dominates living labor. Dunayevskaya shows how Marx’s theory probes all of this as both alienated labor and as revealing what is needed to negate alienation and achieve a whole new human dimension through freely associated labor:

“Marx created special economic categories not only to expound his theory of value and surplus-value, but also to show how degraded human relations were at the point of production itself. By splitting the category of labor into labor as activity and labor power as a commodity–as if the laborer could indeed disjoint his hands from his body and have them retain their function–Marx was able to show that, since labor power cannot be so disembodied, it is the laborer himself who enters the factory. And in the factory, continues Marx, the laborer’s ability becomes a mere appendage to a machine and his concrete labor is reduced to a mass of congealed, abstract labor.” [23]

That reified reality is precisely why ideology appears non-ideological:

“Under capitalistic conditions of production, philosophy had been reduced to an ideology, i.e., false consciousness. The categories of thought proper to capitalistic production were uncritically accepted by all. . ..The fetishism of commodities is the opiate that, to use a Hegelian expression, passes itself off as ‘the very nature of the mind’ to all except the proletariat who daily suffer from the domination of dead labor, the stranglehold of the machine. Therefore, concludes Marx, no one can strip the fetishism from the commodities except freely associated labor.” [24]

To truly cut through ideology requires, not putting off discussion of ideas about how deep social change needs to be, but actually getting to the root of the social relationships from which false consciousness emanates, and listening to the voices of the Subjects of revolution, the workers, the women, the youth, the national minorities. As Dunayevskaya shows in this essay, Marx transformed his economic theory, as well as his concept of what theory is, under the impact of the workers’ movement for a shorter working day after the Civil War, and his theory of fetishism was deepened by the Paris Commune.

Crucially, Dunayevskaya’s comprehension of fetishism goes beyond where most other theoreticians stop. The theory of fetishism encompasses not only first negation, what we must oppose, but second negation, what is needed to create the new–specifically, freely associated labor as what is needed to abrogate the law of value, strip the fetishism from labor’s product, and establish freedom. This is one way the new book will illuminate the significance of grasping Marx’s body of ideas as a philosophy of revolution in permanence.

The contradictions being suffered by the current revolutions and movements are again showing what an urgent practical matter it is to be armed with a philosophy of revolution in permanence–based on a vision of total uprooting, knowing that the overthrow of the old is only the first act of revolution. Such a vision is needed to continue revolution’s self-development until a totally new social order is established.

V. Marxist-Humanist Tasks

We will prepare ourselves for the publication of the collection of Selected Writings by Raya Dunayevskaya on Marx. In all kinds of activities, we will work out concretely how it will be part of our participation in the freedom movements and today’s battle of ideas.

We will bring the new pamphlet of Marxist-Humanist Writings on the Middle East into anti-war and solidarity actions, international correspondence and theoretical explorations, as an avenue for releasing the power of philosophy as a force of revolution.

We will continue News & Letters, the only Marxist-Humanist journal in the world, as a print publication and on our website. That work will involve creatively eliciting the new voices from movements like Occupy Wall Street and revolutions like those of the Arab Spring. Just as importantly, it will involve new theoretical-philosophical essays as part of concretely working out the previous two tasks.

We will develop new discoveries of Marxist-Humanism and the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya–through our redesigned website, our newspaper, our activity in meetings and protests, or other avenues–into new relationships with the Marxist-Humanist body of ideas and News and Letters Committees as the organization grounded in them.

Membership growth remains an urgent task to make possible carrying out our perspectives on the way to revolution and the creation of a new world on truly human foundations. Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy, which involves the integrality of organization of thought with organization of living revolutionaries, remains abstract if it becomes separated from organizational growth.

–The Resident Editorial Board, April 15, 2012



1. See “Revolution and counter-revolution take world stage,” May-June 2011 News & Letters.

2. See “Syrian revolution fights Assad’s genocide, world powers watch,” March-April 2012 News & Letters.

3. Quoted from “Lebanon: The Test Not Only of the PLO but the Whole Left,” by Raya Dunayevskaya, which is included in the new News and Letters pamphlet of Marxist-Humanist Writings on the Middle East.

4. See 2011 Call for Plenum,

5. “Lebanon: The Test Not Only of the PLO but the Whole Left.”

6. See “Police Violence Against Occupy comes to the Midwest,” Occupied Chicago Tribune, April 12, 2012,

7. Public pressure forced the prosecutor to drop the flagrantly political “terrorism” charges against the activists.

8. “Extreme Poverty in the United States, 1996-2011,” National Poverty Center Policy Brief #28, February 2012;

9. See “New Attacks on Women Take Fascistic Turn,” Editorial in the March-April 2012 N&L.

10. See “Warehouse workers say abuses are systemic,” by Lilly Fowler, March 5, 2012,

11. See “ALEC Climate Change Denial Model Bill Passes in Tennessee,” by Steve Horn,; and “Climate change denial: Attack on the minds of humanity,” by Franklin Dmitryev,

12. Fifty years ago in October 1962, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev took the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. See “Marxist-Humanism vs. the U.S. Blockade of Cuba, the Russian Missile Bases There, Fidel Castro’s ‘Selective’ Party, All Playing with Nuclear Holocaust,” Oct. 25, 1962, Political Letter by Raya Dunayevskaya.

13. “Lebanon: The Test Not Only of the PLO but the Whole Left.”

14. Our new pamphlet of Marxist-Humanist Writings on the Middle East roots its analysis of counter-revolutionary anti-imperialism in the actual dialectics of revolution and counter-revolution in Iran 1979. Its meaning is obscured today by the rewriting of history as if that had been an “Islamic Revolution,” rather than a social revolution with many contradictions that led to its capture by counter-revolutionary Islamists.

15. See Neil Shea, “Afghanistan: A Gathering Menace: Traveling with U.S. Troops Gives Insights into the Recent Massacre,” The American Scholar, Spring 2012,

16. Yet the Pentagon’s 2013 budget request includes $2.9 billion for “Iraq activities.”

17. See “Spain’s general strike is also a day of action for the 99%,” by Katharine Ainger, 3/27/2012 Guardian,

18. See the Asian Development Bank’s report at

19. See,3746,en_2649_ 37465_49036555_1_1_1_37465,00.html.

20. See “Somalia famine, climate and capitalism,” Sept.-Oct. 2011 N&L

21. “Marx’s Humanism Today,” originally published in Erich Fromm’s 1965 symposium Socialist Humanism, is included in our forthcoming book of selected writings by Raya Dunayevskaya on Karl Marx.

22. “Marx’s Humanism Today” was quoted at the beginning of Part IV. This is one of the pieces that will be in the forthcoming book.

23. Quoted from “Marx’s Humanism Today.”

24. Quoted from “Marx’s Humanism Today.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *