Philosophic Essay: Meeting the challenge not alone from practice but from Karl Marx’s Idea

May 6, 2024

by Ron Kelch

I. The horrid past haunting the present calls for Karl Marx’s idea of freedom

Massive demonstrations broke out in Germany in January against the fascist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which, though far from a majority, is now Germany’s second strongest party. The demonstrations exploded after the exposure of AfD’s secret agenda to carry out mass exportation of German citizens from different ethnic groups if AfD gets into the government. Many Germans see a rebirth of the Hitlerite ideology that wrought such total destruction on Europe, European Jews and Germany itself. Taught from an early age about that history, Germans know that many claimed in 1945 they didn’t know about the Holocaust and other Nazi horrors. Now Germany’s other major political parties seem unable to deal with the mass re-emergence of Hitlerism in Germany. Hundreds of thousands again demonstrated on Feb. 3, including encircling the national legislature with a “human firewall,” recollecting the Reichstag fire in February 1933 when Hitler initiated his agenda with a suspension of civil liberties. German masses, especially the youth, are demanding that politicians have the courage to do their duty according to the German constitution and remove this party altogether from the political arena.

Trump supporters outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Photo: Elvert Barnes, CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

In the U.S. an ongoing coup is out to erase historical memory, normalizing similar fascist tenets in political discourse in the current election-spectacle. On the first attempt, on Jan. 6, 2021, the coup nearly succeeded in overthrowing the certification of Joe Biden’s election as president. The attempted coup drew broad immediate condemnation from most Congressional Republicans, many of whom feared for their lives. Quickly, however, power spoke louder than principles and now the coup continues full bore into the 2024 election. This time the Republican Party has solidified into Donald Trump’s fascist insurrectionist party in which only loyalists who repeat the Big Lie that the last election was stolen are accepted.

Much media coverage has shifted into minutiae of a normal election horse race, forgoing focus on the Trump party’s open identification with Hitler’s visage: call refugees “animals” who are “poisoning our blood”; invoke the insurrection act to use the army against demonstrations; go after his opponents and minorities with the full power of the state while claiming total presidential immunity; christen the January 6 convicted insurrectionist thugs as hero-martyrs who would immediately be set free; continue to incite the mob to threaten and carry out violence against judges and election workers who don’t fall in line; and promise a “bloodbath” if he is not elected.

Inciting the mob never stopped even with an out-of-power Trump. He has tied up sympathetic courts with delaying maneuvers, getting considerable help from his appointed judges, including the Supreme Court, to run out the clock on his multiple crimes against individuals and the very existence of political democracy. (See “Democracy under dire threat” by Buddy Bell, News & Letters, Jan. 25, 2024.) One by one Republican politicians and oligarchs, some of whom banked on an alternative by throwing a lot of money first to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and then to former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, are falling in line and bowing to Trump.


Germany and the U.S., though distinct, are just two instances of a world phenomenon. Among pundits and historians there is no lack of awareness that humanity is in the throes of a 1930s-style, globally stalled capital accumulation. There is a pervasive drive in the political arena among big capitalists, who are a tiny minority and have concentrated wealth to an unprecedented degree, to shift the blame for the precarious conditions of life and labor at the bottom away from themselves or the system as a whole. The shift in focus is also to deflect from the total assault on life-sustaining nature from capitalism’s self-alienated human activity run amok.

The result has been a political devolution into other-hating fascism, fomenting new forms of genocide and ever new realignments for another round of total war. Russia’s fascist ruler, Vladimir Putin, repeatedly threatens to use nuclear weapons in his extermination war against Ukraine. While the movie Oppenheimer told of World War II’s birthing of the Bomb, it didn’t present its actual horror when the U.S. committed mass execution of the civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the post-World War II moment of total angst, any hope for the future came only with the caveat of remembrance and commitment to “never again.”


Jean Paul Sartre in 1951

In the immediate post war period, Jean-Paul Sartre rightly proclaimed a forever changed human reality, a reality in which all are metaphysical thinkers for whom the concrete can only be freedom and the human being as the absolute. Yet, even with Sartre’s later supposed turn to “Marxism,” his idea of freedom couldn’t abide Marx’s, which began from a thoroughgoing naturalism as the truth uniting materialism and idealism (Philosophy and Revolution, 203).

The absolute opposite of today’s retrogressive amnesia is Marx’s naturalistic idea of freedom as the essence of being human. Marx’s idea gives life, as well, to vigorous support of the struggle against absolutism in today’s political democracies, that is, to support democracy with “whips and kicks” as Rosa Luxemburg once summarized Marx. Marx noted the cowardice of the capitalists who, like today, will hedge their bets in the face of revolutionary strivings for democracy from below.

Marx’s idea is the absolute foundation for revolution in permanence, i.e., going beyond political democracy’s abstract equality and freedom to the many passions for new human relations in which masses seek to realize democracy and freedom in everyday life activity. This became clearer to Raya Dunayevskaya, as Marx’s body of work as a totality came into view, revealing his multidimensional and multilinear idea of freedom in distinction from post-Marx Marxism. In the immediate context of capitalistic politics, spontaneous organizations do arise, but working out the absolute opposite of capitalist politics and its party organizations, which are ever prone to oligarchy and plutocracy, became for Dunayevskaya the urgent organizational/philosophic question.


The ever greater depths of retrogressive amnesia under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s were an objective impetus that helped spur Dunayevskaya to project an over the top, screaming urgency for a new book, Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy (DOP), which demanded meeting the challenge not only from practice–from the reason in spontaneous mass movements–but from the Idea.[1]

With the Reagan era came: the illusion that finance could be uncoupled from the “real economy” as though the lesson of the 1929 crash could be ignored; the visage of Hitler reflected not only in apartheid South Africa and that regime’s decades long—racist and secretly named “tar baby“—embrace by U.S. capitalism but also in Reagan’s visit to Bitburg Cemetery to lay a wreath at the graves of Nazi SS officers; retrenchments on the social safety net welfare programs that saved capitalism in the 1930s; rolling back civil rights and labor union rights as Reagan’s tenure in office began with destroying the air traffic controllers’ union PATCO; Israel’s transformation into opposite, reaching not just for a safe place for Jews but its own, as Dunayevskaya provocatively put it, “über alles” aspirations in the region. Dunayevskaya’s chronicling of retrogression during the Reagan era is much more extensive than can be taken up here.


However, events triggering Reagan’s election stand out for their spurring of the urgency to work out Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy. A lighting fast Khomeini counterrevolution came from within the revolution in Iran after taking low-level U.S. embassy employees hostage during the 1980 presidential election campaign. Khomeini’s counterrevolutionary “death to America” anti-imperialism was politicized religion’s attempt to override and subdue the immanent multidimensional revolution from below—workers, youth, minorities—striving to realize a new freedom from within each one’s arena of concrete life. But none were so profound and in the vanguard as the women who demanded freedom and continued to do so at the “dawn of freedom.”

Manifestation of the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement in Ottawa, Canada, on Feb. 11, 2023. Photo: Taymaz Valley, CC BY 2.0 DEED

Today’s “Women, life, freedom” movement continues to be a beacon for all Iranians and the world against existing or want-to-be barbaric theocratic overlords. Today a concentrated expression of this arc of retrogression is in the horrid Israel/Hamas reality of permanent war and is on the cusp of inflaming the globe. Time has, indeed, run out under fascistic, politicized religion in which the other is a less-than-human object to be exterminated (see “End Israel’s War Against Palestinian Masses!” by Eugene Walker, News & Letters, March 11, 2024).

Karl Marx’s idea of freedom focused on labor, not in any narrow sense, but in the multiple ways humans strive to freely determine their life activity.[2] However, the centrality of Marx’s unifying humanist principle becomes most visible after a revolution. In this context Dunayevskaya began to look more closely at Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program (CGP) for working out the Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy because there Marx broached the idea of organization inseparable from the principle out of which a new society can be born and fully develop its potential after a revolution.

II. “The Critique of the Gotha Program” and Marx’s Idea of Freedom

Dunayevskaya’s urgent imperative for a new work on the Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy had many aspects—on Lenin; on Hegel, especially on Absolute Knowledge at the end of Hegel’s Phenomenology; new forms of organization born out of spontaneity; the limits of council communism and anti-vanguardist Marxists. However, the key in this undertaking, was chapter 11 on Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program (CGP) in her last major work Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (RLWLKM).


An entry point in that chapter indicates a focal point in her thinking on how she intended to work out for today’s world the “ground” Marx laid for organization in CGP. That entry point is a somewhat startling comment Herbert Marcuse made in their friendly but sometimes contentious relationship. Dunayevskaya first mentioned it in her “In Memoriam to Marcuse,” where she recounted Marcuse asking her what she thought it meant when Marx in CGP used the phrase: “labor, from a mere means of life, has become the prime necessity of life” (“Herbert Marcuse, Marxist philosopher,” N&L, Aug/Sep, 1979).

This question had such an impact on Dunayevskaya because she knew very well Marcuse wasn’t eliciting any sort of definition or quick answer. Going back to 1932, when Marx’s 1844 manuscripts appeared in German, Marcuse had already singled out this dimension of Marx’s original humanism, declaring it inseparable from his economics. Marcuse’s real question, Dunayevskaya surmised, is why does it reappear here as part of Marx’s discussion of organization and his perspective for a future society we cannot know? Why, indeed?

Marcuse’s query on what should we make of Marx’s return in CGP to non-alienated labor that begins from labor, not as a mere means, but the first necessity of life had an abiding impact on Dunayevskaya’s thinking beyond singling out that line in chapter 11 along with a footnote citing her “In Memoriam” (RLWLKM, p. 157, p. 162). She kept highlighting Marcuse’s query in later lectures. Without offering a quick answer, she simply asked, “What does this mean?”

However, in “Power of Abstraction” (POA, PON, pp. 309-314), Dunayevskaya revisits this “sentence that was so alive and worrisome to Marcuse” (PON, 312) in a new manner. In this 1985 executive session talk to News and Letters Committees, Dunayevskaya posed a fully philosophic inter-mergence between her concept of the new society, the self-thinking Idea (¶577 of Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind), and Marx’s perspective on the future where labor is the first necessity of life.

Before addressing the connection between Marx and Dunayevskaya with respect to the new society, it is important to be clear about the meaning of Marcuse’s “worrisome” reference.


Karl Marx

Labor not as mere means but the first necessity of life is an idea, a universal relating not alone to labor struggling to overcome its particular self-alienated social form under capitalism. Labor not as mere means but the first necessity of life is freedom as the specifically human dimension of life. The distinctly human “species-being” or “human essence” is freedom with respect to humans’ own life activity, i.e., making an object out of and freely determining their life activity through negating any of its given forms[3].

“Necessity” with respect to life here does not refer to the merely material or the mechanical but is rather an immanent life process that is bound up with nature. A new CGP translation clarifies that when Marx used the German word, Lebensbedürfniss, it means both “desire” and “necessity” (PM Press (2023), 59). “Desire” points to the internal subjective side of life. Animals have an immediate internal “desire and necessity” to fully develop their essential being through nature which both enables and constrains this development. The same is true for humans except that human life’s “desire and necessity” strives to “produce in freedom” beyond what is required to satisfy “immediate physical need” (CW 3:276). Humans realize their specific character as consciously free beings enabled and constrained by nature, their “inorganic being.”

Further, humans’ relation to nature is mediated through social relations which are always shaped by “the power of abstraction from sensuous individuality and contingency” (CW 30:232). The immanent socialness of the human character means the test of “desire and necessity” is whether another human being is needed and mutually recognized as a human being, i.e., a free determiner of her life activity. “Her” because Marx was referring specifically to the man/woman social relation as the most fundamental one of all (CW 3:296). Marx’s multi-dimensional Idea of freedom is directly part of life and nature, both together being the starting point for the Idea of freedom. Because, contra Hegel, Marx’s Idea begins directly as part of life and not by extrapolating life as the immediate Idea from pure thought, it opened a new perspective on thought in the whole “course of human development” (CW 3:281).


A brief discussion of “syllogism” may help clarify Marx’s concept of human development and set the stage for returning to Dunayevskaya’s concept of the new society based on Hegel’s final syllogisms. Hegel revolutionized the syllogism of formal logic and its lifeless externally applied attributes. (Typically: All men are mortal; Gauis is man; Therefore, Gauis is mortal.) In Hegel’s logic nothing is external. All categories have a necessary immanent development. Instead of externally applied attributes Hegel’s syllogism of the Idea explicitly begins immanent movement with Life. Marx’s freedom Idea deepened Hegel’s universal and its relation to the individual through particular moments. Marx’s universal of humans’ immanent character as free beings never subsumes the individual under some single attribute externally applied, but is a universal that unites with the individual through a particular moment which is always in motion, i.e., the universal never merges with any given state of material and social relations.

III. Marx’s Idea and Hegel’s final syllogisms

Dunayevskaya’s “Power of Abstraction” joins together three citations, the last of which from CGP begins from Marx’s Idea: “…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…only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be fully left behind and society inscribe on its banner: from each according their ability, to each according to their need.” Here Marx’s Idea, coupled with increasing productive forces inseparable from the all-round development of the individual, is the intermediary to the new society.

The first two citations are from Hegel’s two final syllogisms of Philosophy of Mind (¶576, ¶577). After introducing his “self-thinking Idea” (¶574), Hegel explicates it in three final syllogisms. The last syllogism (¶577) is the unity of the first two (¶575, ¶576)—the Idea as “fact which causes movement and development” and that same movement as “equally the act cognition.” Only with this unity does Dunayevskaya consider that “we have entered the new society” (May 20, 1953, PON, 30).

It is important to note that Dunayevskaya aligns Marx’s Idea in “Power of Abstraction” not with  how Hegel’s Idea presents itself in its “external form” as an empirical fact, which is the case in the first of Hegel’s three final syllogisms (¶575). In that first syllogism—Logic, Nature, Mind—Dunayevskaya saw the character of our epoch: the Idea’s self-liberation begins not as a special province of intellectuals but rather it begins in the movement from practice which is itself a form of theory.


G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831)

“Power of Abstraction’s” focus on Marx’s Idea, which is immanent to the human character, is in conjunction with Hegel’s second syllogism. The last syllogism (¶577) is the unity of the first two (¶575, ¶576)—the Idea as “fact which causes movement and development” and that same movement as “equally the act cognition.” Only with this unity does Dunayevskaya consider that “we have entered the new society” (May 20, 1953, PON, 30).

To Dunayevskaya CGP evinced Marx’s explicit return to the Idea of freedom from which he began and intrepidly followed no matter where it led. It led, as Dunayevskaya put it, to a “new Humanism…[where] the end will result in the Self-Bringing Forth of Liberty” (310). The “Self-Bringing Forth of Liberty” is Dunayevskaya’s shorthand expression for Hegel’s second final syllogism with Mind or Philosophy as the mediation between Nature and Logic. In CGP Marx’s Idea appears anew, as a perspective on the future beyond capitalism. Marx’s Idea is a universal that first appears in the 1844 Manuscripts. Every important argument that follows within those manuscripts is an elaboration on that Idea in specific ways. That includes Marx on negation of the negation and “the whole movement of history” as the “actual appropriation of human essence” (CW 3:296-7).


In RLWLKM (77) Dunayevskaya cites Marx’s “whole movement of history” with its two angles: “…[it] is, on the one hand, the actual act of creation—the act by which its empirical being was born; on the other hand, for its thinking consciousness, it is the realized and recognized process of development” (CW 3:297, RD trans.). Those two angles align closely with the first two of Hegel’s final syllogisms.

The two angles in unity are the “appropriation of the human essence”—the freedom Idea, standing on its own, recognizing itself as the energizing source of an ongoing “act of creation” in its particular moments. The “human essence” is an absolute opposite in as much as the Idea is never exhausted in any given moment. As Marx puts it, humans’ freedom with respect to their own life activity is “not a determination with which the human directly merges” (CW 3:276).

Put another way, no given perspective on nature is ever “in a form adequate to the human being.” Thus history is a continuous “conscious self-transcending act of origin” (CW 3:337). In Marx’s Idea we encounter the principle to which Dunayevskaya refers in “Power of Abstraction,” namely a principle that never changes and from which “you cannot deviate” and yet is “open to all the new, objective and subjective developments” (PON, 312).


Pitfalls await any who fail to hold fast to the unity of these two absolute opposite angles on the movement of history. An impasse results either if one fixes on a particular moment, or multiple particular moments like outlining a series of specific steps, or if one speaks of “process” so abstractly that particular historical moments no longer illuminate the universal. An act of creation like communism certainly has the character of “negation of the negation” (CW 3:313). However, this positive in the negation of capitalist private property is the “appropriation of the human essence through the intermediary of private property” (CW 3:313). As “practical humanism” (CW 3:341) communism is prone to limit itself to this kind of “immediate justification.”

A specific type of Absolute Method, negation of the negation that isn’t prone to fall prey to the limits of practice, involves a negative self-relation which is “Subjectivity and Subjectivity alone” (PON, 310). This type of negation of the negation becomes evident when Marx’s intriguing (at least to Marcuse) return to labor not as mere means but the first necessity of life is itself “tested by Absolute Method” (PON, 313). The freedom of human thought, reflecting on its own life activity, always reaches beyond the material and social barriers that shape any given moment of that life activity. All of history, for Marx, is this creative act of going beyond the given. Yet these moments are incomplete insofar as their creators get stuck in the immediate historical justifications found in a particular moment of their development like communism or equal remuneration (more on that later).


However, when the reflection of “thinking consciousness” is not limited to the immediate justification but recognizes the wholly immanent energizing human dimension, the ongoing power of thought to freely determine human’s own life becomes, in that negative self-relation, the most concrete perspective on reality. “Self-referred negation” becomes “self-deriving, positive humanism” (CW 3:342). Humanism as the true positive becomes the self-recognized movement of the Idea and, like Hegel’s second final syllogism, the absolute inter-mergence of means and ends.

Put another way, here is Marx’s non-linear and unifying humanist principle that speaks to all the new passions and new forces striving to reconstruct society on totally new beginnings. Here was the principle Marx held to that wasn’t exhausted in any particular organizational moments like the International Working Men’s Association and the mass spontaneous organizational creativity of the Paris Commune. In CGP Marx reiterates the universal in those moments even as he made no fetish of either of them, acknowledging that both came out of specific historical conditions that no longer applied. Both spontaneity and organization emerge in new manifestations of the Idea in history as creative act and are not absolute opposites. The absolute opposite of both is Marx’s Idea of freedom, a determination of humanity with which humans never directly merge. Again, the difficulty in “experiencing absolute negativity” whether in philosophy or actual life is that Marx’s Idea of freedom can only be comprehended in its movement, the unified movement of the two angles on history.

IV. A truncated Marxist-Humanism

Raya Dunayevskaya

The perspective on CGP here impacts one’s perspective on many other issues taken up in that document, but there is no time now to fully delve into that. Marx’s detailed line-by-line critique goes sequentially through a program with which he in no way wanted to be associated. In other words, that sequence definitely cannot in any way suggest the form Marx’s own self-generated presentation would have taken. CGP continues to stimulate new and varied analyses and now, as noted above, a new translation. That translation includes a lengthy 35-page introduction by Peter Hudis. Hudis’ main emphasis doubles down on the same singular issue he singled out in 2007, which was part of the reason a faction split off from News and Letters Committees, a faction which then itself immediately split into two.

At issue between those who stayed with News and Letters Committees and those who broke away was the pathway to the goal of a new society of “from each…to each” after social revolution, after freely associated labor makes “social life processes” “transparent” instead of being mediated by the product of labor taking the shape of commodities as bearers of value. For Dunayevskaya, as developed here, the explicit mediation to the new society demands a return to Marx’s philosophy of human development, his idea of freedom with respect to human life activity.


For Hudis, then (2007) as now, the pathway to a new society is revealed in Marx’s discussion of how workers would be remunerated or draw their share of the social product based on the actual time they work as the opposite to workers getting remunerated (paid) according to socially necessary labor-time under value production. Marx does begin CGP with a discussion of how workers would draw their share of the total social product in post-capitalist society. But that is so only because the Gotha Program began with such an ill-considered concept of distribution.

The very first line of the Gotha Program, “labor is the source of all wealth…”, sets the stage for its concept of distribution. More revealing than the distribution issue here is that already the Program bypasses nature as a source of wealth—bypasses the intimate connection with nature that labor, or human life activity, has in its realization of human’s essential character as free beings. Marx immediately criticizes omitting nature as source of wealth. Further, after a discussion on distribution Marx concludes that “it was in general a mistake to make a fuss about so-called distribution and put the principle stress on it” when these matters are “only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves” (p. 60, PM trans.)


Hudis’ fixation on how labor is counted for distribution falls prey to the pitfall of “tearing” (CW 3:297) a particular moment out of the unified process of the two angles in the self-movement of Marx’s Idea. When Hudis refers to “process” (16) it is in so abstract a manner that the particular’s relation to Marx’s universal, to his Idea of freedom, disappears. Actual time is not the absolute opposite of socially necessary labor time (value), a social abstraction and phantom property of commodities, which alienates their creators from their own labor, nature and sociality.

Marx’s philosophy of human development, his idea of freedom with respect to human life activity, is fully realizing, as Marx put it early on, that “time is the space of human development.” In that respect what is important is not only how labor is counted but precisely what counts as labor. Thus, the areas of social production like health and education that would still have to be socially determined and would enhance “the all-round development of the individual” would, Marx surmised, expand tremendously. The state as the external mediator of socially determined priorities would have to be totally dismantled diminishing greatly the huge resources that now go into the repressive apparatus to wage war and perpetuate capital’s despotic social relations of production.


It is not enough that Hudis fixes on Marx’s lengthy discussion of equal remuneration as the necessary next step where Marx himself says his attention was diverted by a misplaced “fuss” encountered in the Gotha Program. For Hudis, the lengths Marx goes to discuss distribution validates making equal remuneration the determinant character of the lower phase of communism and central to achieving the goal “from each…to each.” Shamelessly, Hudis associates Dunayevskaya with his own narrow focus, claiming she “explained” (15) Marx’s lengthy discussion of the lower phase.

Dunayevskaya did no such thing. Dunayevskaya was not “explaining” the “lower phase” in the following misappropriated quote: “To this day, this [Marx’s magnificent vision of a new society ‘from each…to each’] remains the perspective for the future, and yet the Marxists who keep quoting it never bother to study just how concretely that arose from Critique of a supposedly socialist program, and what would be required to make that real” (chapter 11of RLWLKM 156-7). The quote’s reference to “concretely” realizing has nothing to do with remuneration but the Idea itself as the pathway to the new society.

Hudis’ outrageous claim comes from one who still considers himself to be an adherent of the Marxist-Humanism of Raya Dunayevskaya and who helped repeatedly in Perspectives Theses in the 1990s to emphasize many of the same general directions Dunayevskaya laid out for addressing the Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy that News and Letters Committees are again revisiting.


Dunayevskaya’s pathway to a new humanity is never subsumed under a blueprint, a grand narrative, or a linear prescription on new paths to freedom. Her imperative to work out Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy had a razor-sharp focus on meeting the challenge not alone from practice but from the Idea and its self-determination. This shaped her perspective on Marx’s CGP, which demanded a return to Marx’s philosophy of human development, his idea of freedom with respect to human life activity—a unifying humanist principle that never changes yet is always open to the new and speaks not only to the present moment of humanity facing the abyss of total destruction but, as crucially, to the future after a revolution.

[1] Raya Dunayevskaya, The Power of Negativity (Lexington, 2002) pp. 6, 8, 9. Cited further as “PON” with page number in the text.

[2] This approach introduced my two recent essays on “Marx’s demystified dialectic and the ‘new society’” and “Ukrainian self-determination and the idea of freedom.”

[3] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (International Publishers: New York) vol. 3, p. 276, further referenced as “CW” with volume number and page number in the text.

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