Revolution, organization and philosophy

May 10, 2011

From the new issue of NEWS & LETTERS, May-June 2011

Parts IV and V of

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2011-2012

Revolution and counter-revolution take world stage


  • I. The Arab Spring
  • II. The wars at home
  • III. Japan: earthquake, tsunami and meltdown
  • IV. Revolution, organization and philosophy
  • V. Marxist-Humanist Tasks

(Parts I, II, and III were posted in the last two days.)

IV. Revolution, organization and philosophy

“The question of ‘What happens after?’ gains crucial importance because of what it signals in self-development and self-flowering–‘revolution in permanence.’ No one knows what it is, or can touch it, or decide upon it before it appears. It is not the task that can be fulfilled in just one generation. That is why it remains so elusive, and why the abolition of the division between mental and manual labor sounds utopian. It has the future written all over it….

“In a word, as opposed to the Party, we put forth a body of ideas that spells out the second negativity which continues the revolution in permanence after victory….Full self-development of Man/Woman that leads to truly new human relationships remains the goal.”

–Raya Dunayevskaya, The Year of Only 8 Months

The way the world’s crises and struggles call out for revolution in permanence makes it imperative to dig into the dialectics of organization and philosophy. History shows that organization bereft of philosophy of revolution leads at best to yet another revolution stopped halfway–and once the forward motion is stopped, the backward motion takes over.

The crises wracking the U.S. and Japan make it abundantly clear that the new society struggling to be born out of the Arab revolutions cannot be achieved by copying the “advanced” industrial lands’ democracy and science, shackled and perverted by capitalism.[17]

The pressure to halt halfway to liberation does not come only from the rulers. Even some of the Egyptian movement’s leaders called for it to halt after Mubarak’s fall. Amr Ezz of the April 6 Youth Movement said, “Now, the role of the regular people has ended and the role of the politicians begins. Now, we can begin negotiations with the military in order to plan the coming phase.”[18]

It is not that Ezz is one to settle for bourgeois democracy out of disregard for the struggles and demands of workers. The April 6 Youth Movement began in support of textile workers in Muhalla al-Kubra who had called for a national general strike in 2008. Nevertheless, the pull to stop short makes itself felt, whether from fear of provoking the counter-revolution or from fear of the totality of change that revolution reaches for–or from ideological obfuscation that portrays counter-revolution as revolution, whether that is Stalin’s state-capitalism or Khomeini’s Islamic Republic.

Ezz and others had to modify their position after the Army’s treachery culminated in the April 9-10 attacks on protesters in Tahrir Square. It is this situation that led the youth to ask, “What has happened to our revolution?” On April 10 the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, including Amr Ezz, condemned the military’s violence, suspended talks with its Supreme Council, the junta running the state, and threatened more sit-ins.

At the same time the military, hand in hand with the Muslim Brotherhood, has been working to funnel everything into the “normal” channels of the bourgeois state: negotiations with the junta and preparations for elections.

In this situation the revolution’s “leaderless” character was called into question. “Leaderlessness” did make clear that masses of people in motion are not seeking yet another leadership, and are reaching for self-determination in their own lives. And yet, leaderlessness could not substitute for theory. As long as the movement’s meaning is not grasped and made explicit as a category on whose basis the revolution acts, it is in danger of being lost.

The passage of the Army’s constitutional referendum by more than 75% shows how little a new parliament will represent the revolution. History long ago showed that elections within the old state form, even if it has been reformed, are the road to the destruction of the forms of power the masses were beginning to build for themselves. New parties being organized are not “leaderless,” and are in great danger of being incorporated into the state system.

Some Marxist groups, in Egypt and elsewhere, think they have the answer: build a revolutionary socialist vanguard party. History has also shown how vanguard parties that take power are prone to transform into opposite. The problem is not, as these parties believe, finding the right leaders. What is needed is not an individual or a party to be leader, but philosophy as the key–the philosophy of revolution in permanence, functioning as an integral part of revolution.


The pull to stop short was also expressed in the desire to make the revolution “non-ideological.” That is supposedly the only way to unite all the forces of revolt, and at the same time it is an effort to avoid a takeover by Islamists.

Confusing ideology with philosophy, the “non-ideological” approach was a manifestation of the longstanding theoretical void, which robs the revolution of any banner of total transformation. Without such a vision of new human relations, it is left entirely up to the spontaneous actions of the masses to resist the pull to stop halfway. That means settling for some concrete gains but giving up the real achievements of the revolution: the self-activity and self-development of the Subject, the new relations established, and the forms of organization the masses created spontaneously.

It is that self-activity that creates the basis for workers’ control of production, for breaking the law of value, for establishing a new society in which the division between mental and manual labor can be broken down. Without it, a new democracy cannot break out of the serious crises plaguing the world. With it, a banner of freedom can encourage the rest of the world to move to break away from capitalism and its crises.

The dialectic of revolts and counter-revolutions shows that a banner of total freedom that roots itself in the self-activity of the masses demands an organizational expression. Dialectics of organization and philosophy is not only about mass associations arising from the struggle, nor the elitist party, but about the kind of group that is with the masses and is organized around the movement from theory.[19]

Without organizational responsibility for the philosophy of liberation, the high points of revolution can be lost, rather than being expanded, deepened, and raised as a banner to engage the strongest solidarity from the masses around the world.

To address this historic problem, we are completing a new edition of selected writings by Dunayevskaya on Karl Marx. Key in this is the significance of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, and how that significance was lost on post-Marx Marxists. The 1875 Gotha Program was the basis for unity between two organizations, one Marxist and one Lassallean, to form a new socialist party. It is not the specific doctrines so much as the approach to organization and to revolution that makes it so revealing of the fundamental flaws of today’s organizations as well.

Marx’s critique exposed the limitations, not only of the Lassallean theory underlying the Gotha Program, but of the way principles were compromised to achieve unity. He raised a concept of organization as inseparable from theory, from a vision of the new society, from revolution in permanence–as opposed to the Lassallean conception of organization that became accepted by Marx’s followers.

The fact that Marx’s concept did not become the basis for post-Marx Marxist organizing–even by the greatest revolutionaries such as Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky–impelled Dunayevskaya to work on dialectics of organization and philosophy. It began with digging into the meaning of the Critique of the Gotha Program with her “Philosopher of Permanent Revolution and Organization Man,” which will be one of the key writings in our new edition of selected writings by Dunayevskaya on Marx.

In contrast to the way post-Marx Marxists had separated their concept of organization from Marx’s concept of revolution, this writing grasps his Critique of the Gotha Program as a return to the dialectic of negativity, worked out as revolution in permanence; what is crucial is the perspective of a totally classless society, which “concretely…arose from the critique of the supposedly socialist program,” and “what would be required to make that real.” The Critiquedoes not provide a formula, but rather holds up a vision of second negativity: what is achieved by revolution necessarily begins as an incomplete transcendence of capitalism and existing society’s many alienations. It must continue the transformations until the antithesis between mental and manual labor breaks down, and labor becomes no longer a mere means of life but its prime necessity. No post-Marx Marxist had grasped this as showing the principles on which revolutionary organization needs to be based.

This year’s moment of revolution and counter-revolution intiated by the Arab Spring raises a crucial aspect of Dunayevskaya’s work on dialectics of organization and philosophy: what happens to the new forms of self-organization that spring from spontaneous mass actions. These forms “are correct, as against the elitism and ossification of the Party,” yet they are not the absolute opposite of the Party-to-Lead.[20] One way this is seen is when these forms get “taken over” by political organizations such as vanguard parties. Dunayevskaya’s examination found that there is more to it.

The history of revolutions shows that masses are not satisfied with spontaneous action but “look to be taken over” in the sense of searching for an organization to bring together theory and practice against the tendency to stop dead with the conquest of state power. But the kinds of organization of thought that are ready to offer themselves to take over the movement fall short of a unity of theory and practice measuring up to the altogether new beginnings sought from below.

The concept of revolution in permanence, and what happens after the conquest of power–which has not yet come to pass in any of this year’s revolutions–actually impinges on questions of organization and struggle now. The vision of liberation and what is needed to make it real are a concrete challenge to tendencies in thought and organization who would have the movement stop halfway and are ready to take over the forms of organization that issued from spontaneity.


The revolutions and counter-revolutions of 2011 bring new urgency to the questions that begin another of the writings that will be in the new collection of Dunayevskaya on Marx, “A Post-World War II View of Marx’s Humanism, 1843-83; Marxist-Humanism in the 1950s and 1980s”:

“The two-fold problematic of our age is: 1) What happens after the conquest of power? 2) Are there ways for new beginnings when there is so much reaction, so many aborted revolutions, such turning of the clock backward in the most technologically advanced lands?”[21]

What is developed in this essay, and in the context of the whole collection, is the dialectic of human development, on what kind of labor human beings should do, on the Man/Woman relationship as well as “the relationship of party to spontaneity, of mass to leadership, of philosophy to reality,” on Marx’s multilinear approach, which allowed no blueprints for the future, as against the unilinearism of post-Marx Marxism. Thus, new illumination is cast, not only on the Humanism of Marx, but on the world today.

Therefore, at the forefront of our tasks for 2011-2012 is publishing this collection. Both in itself and as a new vantage point on the whole body of Marxist-Humanist writings, it gives us a fresh start toward working out dialectics of organization and philosophy, which is of the essence for the current moment of world development, and yet no one, including us, has worked it out.

V. Marxist-Humanist Tasks

  1. We begin with completing the collection of Selected Writings by Raya Dunayevskaya on Marx. In publishing this book for the world, we present it as our intervention in the freedom movements and today’s battle of ideas.
  2. The revolutions and counter-revolutions in the Arab world bring new urgency to the production of a new edition of a Marxist-Humanist pamphlet on the Middle East, as discussed in Part I.
  3. We will continue News & Letters, the only Marxist-Humanist journal in the world, as a print publication and on our website. The challenge is to work out a unity of theory and practice, in which the voices of workers, women, youth, people of color and LGBTQ people are unseparated from the articulation of a philosophy of liberation. In those voices we find the new passions and forces for the reconstruction of society, which can enrich our ideas if we practice the breakdown of that most monstrous class division, the division between mental and manual labor. We will endeavor to increase access to the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya on the internet.
  4. The most urgent task is membership growth 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 20, 2011



17. On Europe, which is stumbling from one national bailout/austerity program to another as it fails to emerge from the Great Recession and wallows in anti-immigrant hysteria no less toxic than the North American variety, see “European revolts confront economic and political crises,” by Ron Kelch, Jan.-Feb. 2011 N&L

18. Outside Egypt, many on the Left held that the masses “need to acquire the kind of political education that can be achieved only through a long-term practise of democracy.” Quoted from “Whither Egypt?” by Gilbert Achcar and Farooq Sulehria, Feb. 5, 2011,

19. See The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism, pp. 9-10, 23-40, 42-43.

20. See The Year of Only 8 Months, p. 11; The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism, pp. 14-15.

21.”A Post-World War II View of Marx’s Humanism, 1843-83; Marxist-Humanism in the 1950s and 1980s,” Bosnia-Herzegovina: Achilles Heel of Western ‘Civilization’ (News and Letters, 1996), p. 93.

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