Unchaining the revolutionary dialectic

May 10, 2014

From the new May-June 2014 issue of News & Letters:

From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya:

Unchaining the revolutionary dialectic

Editor’s note: The presentation excerpted here was given by Raya Dunayevskaya to the Resident Editorial Board of News and Letters Committees on Feb. 17, 1985. The original can be found in theSupplement to the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #16420.

Let me concretize it so precisely that we can begin a continuous process of development of what unchaining of the dialectic had meant in Marx’s age and what it has been in ours. Marx, by unchaining the dialectic first, discovered a whole new continent of thought and of revolution. Read again those words “of thought and of revolution.” That is what concreteness means in a dialectical sense.

This openness and totally new direction found constant proof of itself and its own correctness because Marx’s critique of that Hegelian dialectic[1] meant not merely a substitution of materialism for idealism, but an extension of the dialectic from its seeming burial in Thought alone by the presence of the dialectic in the development of reality.

Not only that. Marx thereby revealed the historic barrier which none could cross over, not even a Hegel. It is this which exposed the need for Hegel to have that mystical covering spread over his revolutionary dialectic–the power of negativity. The greatness of the French Revolution, the dialectics in action of the sans culottes, who were the true discoverers and practitioners of democracy. They were artisans and not yet a subject that would successfully, totally transform the old society.

Marx, on the other hand, did see a revolutionary subject–the proletariat–who could and, he said, would achieve the revolutionary transformation. Moreover, Marx made it clear that just as he was not separating thought from reality, or the fundamental Man/Woman relationship, so he was uniting materialism with idealism, calling it a “new Humanism.” With it, he separated himself from Feuerbach’s mechanical materialism and what he called “vulgar communism.” Indeed, he praised Hegel for that most creative category “negation of negation,” which Feuerbach had rejected as “mystical.” He worked for a truly new world which we would call classless, non-sexist, non-racist, truly human relations.

Let me sum it up by repeating briefly the two true historic unchainings of the dialectic: (1) No separation between thought and reality; dialectics characterized both the subjective and objective development. (2) He was not keeping in totally separate departments materialism and idealism. He was uniting them to create a totally new category–a “new Humanism.”

Each age has the laborious and unpostponable task of working out for its own era what, precisely, of the dialectic would achieve freedom. Lenin singled out “transformation into opposite” when he was confronted by the betrayal of the Second International.[2] What is the most crucial aspect, and was totally new, was that he didn’t stop with betrayal and he didn’t leave the totally new aspect at the economic stage when capitalism reached imperialism, but showed that since every unit has its opposite within itself, it is also true with a section of labor itself who had become “the aristocracy of labor.” And all this was done in his return to the encounter with the Hegelian dialectic, “in and for itself,” by having a totally new “additional” subject that was not just a helpmate. Rather, it was the actual bacillus of the revolution–the national revolution, in his case the 1916 Irish Easter Uprising. Lenin, however, did not know the Humanist Essays of Marx, much less where Marx left off in his Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic, promising to return.

What we had to do for the mid-20th century when we were confronted with the shocking fact of counter-revolution arising from within the revolution itself, the transformation into opposite of the first workers’ state into a state-capitalist society, was to catch the link of continuity with Karl Marx when he unchained the Hegelian dialectic, transforming and extending it to the Marxian. The climax of what was churning in me in the immediate post-World War II period and came alive first in the simultaneity of my exchange of letters with C.L.R. James and Grace Lee[3] (Boggs) on Lenin’s Notebooks and my activity in the miners’ general strike, were those letters of May 12 and May 20, 1953.[4]

The first unchaining of the dialectic for our age came with my breakthrough on the Absolute Idea: I held that there was a movement from Practice as well as from Theory. In a word, the consciousness in making a category of the movement from Practice was to expand with the added phrase: “which is itself a form of theory.” And it is this movement from Practice that is itself a form of Theory that created the challenge for the theoreticians to work out the new stage of cognition where philosophy would be rooted in this movement from Practice.

A second unchaining which revealed the specificity, originality and uniqueness of the whole body of ideas of Marxist-Humanism came to first bloom in 1973[5] when the return to Hegel meant both the grappling with all of Hegel’s major philosophic works and the realization that I happened to have started the confrontation in the Encyclopedia at the very paragraph following where Marx left off in the Philosophy of Mind.[6] In our case this resulted in the fact that not even Absolute as combining theory and practice, i.e., as a totality, really answered the task. The task first begins, or, to put it the way we expressed it in chapter 1 of Philosophy and Revolution: It is Absolute Idea as New Beginning. By then plunging into the three final syllogisms of the Philosophy of Mind, we discovered also a new Hegel. Thus Hegel in the last year of his life, in the final paragraph of the Encyclopedia replaced Logic, left it totally open for future generations.[7]

Insofar as Marx was concerned, though he didn’t comment on those specific syllogisms, he had so unified philosophy and revolution that, though the Critique of the Gotha Program did not contain the expression “revolution in permanence,” it could nonetheless become ground for organization.

Indeed, our serious analysis of that work showed that no post-Marx Marxist unchained the dialectic, not even Lenin, who did penetrate the dialectic on revolution, but did not when it came to the Party.[8] This led us to the creation of a category of post-Marx Marxism as the generation which does not fully reconnect with Marx’s Marxism. In a word, even the Great Divide in Marxism which Lenin did create and which was concretized in the magnificent State and Revolution had, however, kept the Party as his own “private enclave” called the vanguard party. The two fields in which I did not follow Lenin were the vanguard party and his confined conception of women’s liberation.[9]


1. Dunayevskaya is referring to “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” and “Private Property and Communism” in Marx’s 1844 Humanist Essays, or Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. See “A New Continent of Thought,” Chapter 2 of her Philosophy and Revolution.

2. See “The Collapse of the Second International and the Break in Lenin’s Thought,” Chapter 10 of Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom.

3. C.L.R. James and Grace Lee were co-leaders with Dunayevskaya of the Johnson-Forest Tendency. Johnson and Forest were the party names of James and Dunayevskaya.

4. Dunayevskaya’s May 1953 letters on Hegel’s Absolutes can be found in The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism. See also A 1980s View: The Coal Miners’ General Strike of 1949–50 and the Birth of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S.

5. Philosophy and Revolution was published in 1973.

6. Marx’s “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” ends on para. 384 of Philosophy of Mind, the last book of Hegel’s Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. Dunayevskaya’s May 20, 1953, letter begins analysis of the work with para. 385.

7. See discussion of the conclusion of Philosophy of Mind on pp. 41-45 of Philosophy and Revolution.

8. See “The Philosopher of Permanent Revolution Creates New Ground for Organization,” Chapter 11 of Dunayevskaya’s Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution.

9. Dunayevskaya expands on this in Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, p. 63 as well as Chapter 11.

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