The masses as Reason

November 14, 2011

As Others See Us

This review by Abe Cabrera is excerpted from a Sept. 20, 2011, post on his blog, The Rose in the Cross

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Raya Dunayevskaya’s book, Marxism and Freedom: From 1776 Until Today, is the founding document of a small political movement, Marxist-Humanism. Opposed equally to the tyranny of “ordinary” capitalism and its counterpart in the Soviet Union, China, and other Stalinist states, Marxist-Humanism states that the Hegelian struggle for freedom is primary in the movements of the masses against oppression. Set against the backdrop of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 as well as the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., this book was Dunayevskaya’s call for the masses to arm themselves with philosophy and for intellectuals to genuinely engage in contemplation of the struggles unfolding all around them. I believe her thought is very relevant today in addressing the political tasks of progressive people faced with the current economic crisis.


The structure of Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom is chronological, yet covers historical, economic, and philosophical trends with much depth and acumen. It begins in 1776 with the age of revolutions, which for Dunayevskaya culminated in the birth of the Hegelian dialectic as the “algebra” of revolution and history. From there she tackles the thought and development of Karl Marx, and shows how his thought evolved as a response to the various flashpoints of the class struggle that took place in his lifetime: 1848, the American Civil War, the Paris Commune, and so on.

The book shows Marx to be a follower of Hegel, though eager to correct his mystical distortions. A lack of appreciation of the dialectical heart of Marxism plagued the revolutionary movement even during its apex in Germany and the rest of Europe before the First World War. According to Dunayevskaya, it was only Lenin after the collapse of German Social Democracy in the Great War who returned to the dialectic in his study of Hegel’s Science of Logic. It is to this that Dunayevskaya attributes Lenin’s success in leading the 1917 Revolution. This lack of appreciation for the dialectic made Stalinist counterrevolution inevitable.


Here we must pause to summarize what the dialectic is for Dunayevskaya. For her, Hegel’s turgid tomes contain the revolutions of real people struggling for freedom. The dialectic is the theoretical distillation of the masses in motion. As she says in one of the key passages: “The masses, to Lenin, were not a ‘means’ to reach an ‘end’: socialism. Their self-activity is socialism.” (Author’s emphasis.) There can thus be no liberation or betterment of the conditions of humanity without the free actions of human beings. No system, no party, no god, and no ideology can free humanity without human beings in control, and direct control, of it. The Hegelian dialectic, even in its most abstract, is nothing more than humanity’s struggle for freedom, a tarrying with the negative to achieve Absolute Knowledge, or rather, liberation, in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all.

As Dunayevskaya explains: “That ‘individualistic’ element is the soul of Marxism. That is why from the start Marx warned, ‘We must above all avoid setting up “the society” as an abstraction opposed to the individual. The individual is the social entity.’ [Marx] was always watching what he called the ‘spontaneous class organizations of the proletariat.’ With these he aligned himself….The point here that needs stressing, in the development of Marx himself, is that with Marx we touch a new intellectual dimension–an intellectual whose whole intellectual, social, political activity and creativity become the expression of precise social forces.”

In proclaiming a new “Marxist-Humanism,” Dunayevskaya was not being redundant or flippant in the face of other self-proclaimed Marxists, or what she would later denominate, “post-Marx Marxists” starting with Engels himself. In many of these alternative versions from Engels, and Kautsky’s Social Democracy, to Stalin and Mao, the actual agent of revolution was something other than the masses: the vanguard Party, the “workers’ party,” the People’s Army, economic development, the “socialist” Motherland, and so on. Much of the book is devoted to how these leaders would openly distort Marxism in order to usurp the power of people to govern themselves. What often resulted was not “socialism” but merely state-capitalism as a higher stage of exploitation, and even outright regression as in the case of Mao’s failed economic experiments. Marxism’s humanist side is thus not optional; neglect of it leads to the gulags, genocides, show trials, and mass famines that gave socialism a bad name in the 20th century.

Dunayevskaya recounts how workers’ struggle against automation in the early 1950s gave birth to her own small movement. Both in the coal mines and on the automotive manufacturing lines, she found that workers were not merely demanding changes in their material conditions of work, but were asking questions concerning the nature of work itself. Similarly, Black people in the South fighting against Jim Crow were not only fighting for bourgeois “civil rights,” but posing questions as to what it means to be a human being under capitalism. For Dunayevskaya, these were not only questions of concrete demands, but philosophical questions–philosophy in the fullest sense of the word.


As Dunayevskaya puts it: “What they all forget is that a new society is the human endeavor, or it is nothing. It cannot be brought in behind the backs of the people, neither by the ‘vanguard’ nor by the ‘scientific individuals.’ The working people will build it, or it will not be built. There is a crying need for a new unity of theory and practice which begins with where the working people are–their thoughts, their struggles, their aspirations.” (Author’s emphasis.)

As we have continued to pass through the baptism by fire that history has given us since the writing of this book, we can ask, “What went wrong?” Why did the masses not continue to rise up against Stalinism to create an authentic socialism? Why did the workers not overthrow capitalism in the West? The issue has never been one of self-proclaimed Marxists convincing the masses of what they should do, since they always do this badly. The issue is the masses realizing that they must be agents who will determine humanity’s fate.

I should reiterate that capitalism does not solve problems, but defers them or moves them around. Our current economic crisis is an urgent case in point. When speaking of crises in Social Security, entitlements, job creation, the national debt, and so on, especially from the U.S. right-wing, the issue is no longer cutting this or that government program or spending bill, it is what sort of society we want to live in. Similarly, in Greece, when they are facing austerity demanded by their international creditors, the issue is one of democracy and national sovereignty: will they let their country fall under the dictatorship of international finance capital? When Chinese factories put up nets to prevent workers from committing suicide when they can’t endure working conditions, we are no longer dealing with “quality of life” issues on the vulgar materialist level. Perhaps before, with the relative prosperity of imperialist nations, we could hide it, but increasingly this will no longer be the case. What we need is a new humanism; either human society will be more just, or it will not be. As the old shibboleth goes, “Socialism or barbarism”.


I think that Dunayevskaya’s thought, in spite of its prose filled with lacunae and self-referencing jargon, is a valuable tool. People need to start disassociating Marxism from its totalitarian distortions, and begin to see it as the inheritor of the unadulterated values of the revolutionary Enlightenment: liberty, equality, and fraternity. The masses need to see in Marxism again the culmination of the long struggle of humankind for Freedom as shown in such works as Hegel’s Philosophy of History and the Phenomenology of Spirit. This is a long process that has had many starts and stops along the way, but the idea that all are free and must choose their own fate is the only one by which humanity can prosper and survive. It is the only idea that satisfies the insatiable hunger of the human mind for the Absolute; all else will lead to intellectual and spiritual starvation.

In this endeavor, those who consider themselves intellectuals must be humble in the face of the masses who make history. Either they are Reason, or life is irrational. On this, there can be no compromise.

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