Philosophic dialogue on Dunayevskaya’s May 12, 1953, letter on Hegel’s Absolutes

November 23, 2014

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).


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.”

—Franklin Dmitryev

0 thoughts on “Philosophic dialogue on Dunayevskaya’s May 12, 1953, letter on Hegel’s Absolutes

  1. What intrigues me the most in this piece is how the author is able to see the development of Dunayevskaya’s thoughts on philosophy and organization where she went beyond the old ideas of the party to seeing the “party” as the new society being born from the old. I think it it a very good thing that News and Letters has broken so sharply from all the leninist formations without capitulating to a certain juvenile anarchist rejection of all authority or structure. I would like to add something in addition however: the idea of the organic party.

    This idea is based on Gramsci’s idea of the organic intellectual, wherein, to cite an excellent analysis I found on line, excerpted here, states that “Gramsci maintained that the working class, and its surrogates, needs to develop its own “organic intellectuals” to articulate its coherent philosophy, in order to counter a bourgeois hegemony of ideas. Additionally, he believed that with the emergence of new modes of production and the consequent emergence of a new class vying for dominance, there should develop a new class of intellectuals who give the ascending class homogeneity and awareness of its social interests and progressive role, not only in the economic sphere but also politically and culturally. The struggle for social liberation demands the establishment of a rival hegemony, and thus a struggle to establish a cadre of rival “organic intellectuals” to win over the bulk of “traditional” intellectuals, as well as to articulate the interests of an ascending socially conscious class. Here, one of the first tasks for socially progressive “organic intellectuals” is to discredit or dispute a dominant ideological hegemony of the ruling class through opposing value systems. This implies that working people and the oppressed must create a continuous expansion of “consent” in which various groups are melded together to form new alliances and historical blocs between “traditional intellectuals” and “organic intellectuals.” However, perhaps the most important, as regards the notion of organic intellectuals, is that for Gramsci there seems to be an explicit association that impacts and problematically binds his considerations of “organic intellectuals” as being integrally related to an alternative ascendant revolutionary party as the intellectual wing of the working class. Gramsci, it seems, believes that all members of a political party should be regarded as intellectuals. Here, what is critical is that the formation and function of an alternative party — which should be organizational and directive — be educative, in other words, intellectual.” Now, if we take this idea of the organic intellectual and apply it to questions of organization, the :”organic party” which is not a vanguard party, consists of a social force which establishes or tries to establish a set of ideas which challenge and seek to overthrow the prevailing ideas of bourgeois society. The author of the above quote, of course, sees the idea of the organic intellectual in the context of the leninist idea of the vanguard party. I would argue that we can go beyond that, while remaining true to Dunayevskaya’s rejection of vanguardism by recognizing that, even for her, the development of working class intellectuals, men and women from the factoriUes and the fields, like Denby and MacShane, is key to the growth of a revolutionary organization. This, for News and Letters, her ideas on the Absolute Mind, concretized in the class struggle, acquire an organizational form and in the context of that form, I would argue that priority should be is given to the development of a new type of party, the organic party, a unity of intellectuals in the traditional sense and the new working class intellectuals that we hope to bring to fruition. As Dunayevskaya put it, “but now…I feel that Mind is the new society gestating in the old….” I think that News and Letters and all its members should recognize that in our total opposition to both capitalist and state capitalist societies, that in our embrace of the revolutionary aspect of Hegelianism, and in basing our philosophy on the humanism of Marx, we are a clear and distinct force in the left, albeit incredibly small, the organic party in gestation, and that in our public work, in our development of the philosophic dialogue with other forces on the left and regular people as well, in our solidarity campaigns and in the preparation of the newspaper, we should recognize our unique character and contributions and act accordingly. Unlike the vanguard parties, our goal is not the incorporation of cadre into a certain fixed structure that Lenin advocated for in 1902 and rejected in 1905, but the development of organic intellectuals, thinkers and philosophers from the ranks of the Black vanguard, women, youth, and workers, who themselves will take responsibility for the articulation of a philosophy of revolution and the making of the same. If News and Letters begins to see itself (and I speak of the organization as a whole and each member) as a place where organic intellectuals from whatever class can be united in an organic party, I believe that in this new sense of identification, our work will be more fruitful in the long run. Comments are always welcome. After all, the only constant in this world, including in this organization, is the dynamic of change.

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