From the November-December 2014 issue of News & Letters
Raya Dunayevskaya’s May 12, 1953, letter on Hegel’s Absolutes (printed in the Sept.-Oct. N&L and the current issue) is difficult to interpret unless read in the context of how what is embryonic is developed, and of the continuity and discontinuity in relationship to her earlier thinking and to the Johnson-Forest Tendency (JFT, of which Dunayevskaya and C.L.R. James were co-leaders, and whose philosophical approach she calls “Johnsonism”) as a whole.
This and the following letter of May 20, 1953 (to be printed in the next issue), show the process of passing beyond both the JFT’s “three layer” theory and its focus on “the dialectic of the party.” The May 12 letter differentiates its point of departure from James’s Notes on Dialectics, much of which focused on Stalinism and spontaneity vs. organization. Dunayevskaya was not yet aware of the ramifications of what would become a new basis of organization, as seen in her return to the “three layer” theory—albeit with a different meaning than what James had in mind—in her July 1953 document “Our Organization.” By the 1980s she would note:
“[H]ard as I tried to continue in the context that preoccupied James and Grace [Boggs]—the ‘dialectics of the party’—I was bound in a very different direction once I concentrated on Hegel’s ‘dialectic mediation’ rather than any sort of ‘mediator,’ whether the Party or otherwise….[I]n place of a ‘dialectic of the party’ we were, with Hegel’s Self-Thinking Idea, with the masses’ Self-Bringing Forth of Liberty, face to face with a new society” (The Power of Negativity, pp. 248, 292).
FROM PARTY TO SECOND NEGATION
I would argue that the references to party and to layers are residues of Johnsonism soon to be left behind, except (1) the statement that the Universal of socialism, the new society, is in the lives of the workers and the theory of the party, although she would formulate this idea differently after working out—in the May 20 letter—the movement from practice that is itself a form of theory; and (2) the references to the limits of the dialectic of the party—later to be reformulated.
Another differentiation from Notes on Dialectics is that it had translated negation of the negation as “only the general development of socialism through overcoming Stalinism, whereas now we can be more concrete, at least in relation to our own organization where the mediating determination is a negative ‘but the negative of the positive and includes the latter.’”
This gives a view deeper than the May 12 letter’s earlier statement translating the second negation into the party’s Other as not the proletariat outside but the party itself. This passage on the “turning point” of the movement of the Notion—that is, the second negation—turns out to be the turning point for this letter as well. The negation of the negation becomes the basis of “our organization” and the dialectic of the party is no longer the framework. From here on the letter’s focus shifts to liberation, freedom, and the attack on impatience.
One of the central points therein is the relationship of Hegel’s Absolute and Marx’s Capital. What was new and what was not new in the May 12 letter—in other words, what is its continuity and discontinuity?
(1) Lenin’s notes on Hegel’s Science of Logic compared the discussion of the development of the commodity-form and money in Chapter 1 of Capital to Hegel’s Universal-Particular-Individual. (2) As part of the JFT, Dunayevskaya had noted that Chapter 1 also includes the section on the fetishism of commodities. (3) The letter made the new observation that the final parts of Vol. 1 of Capital are based on the Absolute Idea.
What is new in this letter is the comparison of the end of Capital, Vol. 1, to the end of Science of Logic. For Dunayevskaya, “the negation of the negation” in Capital meant that capitalist society created its negation through its own inherent dialectic, which engenders revolt by the workers. And thereby Marx “also set the limits to the dialectic of the party, which is part of bourgeois society and will wither with its passing as will the bourgeois state.”
This comes after Dunayevskaya has gone beyond Lenin and James to highlight the conclusion of Absolute Idea, with the question of going beyond transitions to the need for “a new revolt in which everyone experiences absolute liberation.”
Both Capital and Hegel’s Absolute Idea chapter point to the future without making it “any more concrete.” This line of thought compels Dunayevskaya to dive into Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind. She feels that the JFT “couldn’t get very far [with the Philosophy of Mind] when we tried it before because we equated Mind to party, but now…I feel that Mind is the new society gestating in the old….” And for the third time she returns to the question of what happens after and the need for “full liberation.”
The movement of the whole letter is driving toward the May 20 letter—which takes up Philosophy of Mind—and, implicitly, to the replacement of “dialectic of the party” with what she would much later formulate as “dialectics of philosophy and organization.”