From the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Crises of retrogressive Changed World

January 22, 2020

From the January-February 2020 issue of News & Letters

At a time of such intense retrogression in politics, economy and ideology, and such deep disorientation both in the mainstream and on the Left, it is worth revisiting Raya Dunayevskaya’s concept of the changed world of the 1980s. She had been analyzing the deep crisis in the world economy that began with the mid-1970s recession. The Changed World followed the economic crisis and the restructuring that capitalist rulers imposed to adjust to it, including driving down working-class wages, benefits and living standards and attacking labor unions. Internationally, it included a similar attack on the populations of less industrialized countries through the exploding debt crisis and neoliberal structural adjustment programs.

That was only the starting point for a multi-faceted global retrogression that U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher led throughout the 1980s. It also involved returning to a more aggressive, militaristic imperialism, as seen in Reagan’s 1983 conquest of Grenada, rolling back what was left of the revolution in that Black Caribbean country, and his assaults on post-revolutionary Nicaragua and other countries taken up in the articles below. No less central to Reagan-Thatcher’s onslaught was what Dunayevskaya termed the ideological pollution that infected not only the mainstream and the Right but the Left as well, so that “Ronald Reagan’s ‘Changed World’ has made counterrevolution so tower over the seething discontent of the masses in the world that the very thought of revolution seems impossible.”

The even deeper economic crisis inaugurated by the 2008 crash led to a great intensification of the “Changed World,” including the normalization of fascism. We excerpt Dunayevskaya’s two analyses that created that category in 1986. The first, an editorial in the April 1986 N&L, was originally headlined “Reagan’s Attacks on Libya and Nicaragua,” under a joint headline “Counter-revolution and Revolution” with that issue’s lead article. The second, a lead article in the October 1986 N&L, was headlined, “As Reagan and Gorbachev Maneuver: Ongoing World Revolts & Economic Crises Challenge Superpower Grip.” Footnotes were added by the editors.

Yesterday, March 24, out of the clear blue, the Reagan administration announced that the U.S. had sunk Libyan patrol boats hours before. Supposedly they had approached U.S. ships in the Gulf of Sidra with “hostile intent.” The U.S. then followed with actual attacks on “missile sites” on Libyan soil. Whether the Libyan dictator, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, had first given the order to fire on U.S. ships, or whether the U.S. had begun the firing is not the question. What is crucial is this:

Bent on converting the presidency into a regal outlaw throne, Ronald Reagan, that counter-revolutionary extraordinaire, is engaged in these near-war acts.

Ronald Reagan must be stopped! If he is not stopped now, will his obsession with being Commander-in-Chief in an outright war lead to a full-scale attack on any country, especially a Third World country like Libya or Nicaragua?

For the first time an American president, Reagan, uttered the truth, when he explained to the press that the word “contra” is short for “counter-revolutionary” in Spanish, and declared, “that makes me a contra, too.”[1] Reagan is continuing his all-consuming drive to overthrow the Nicaraguan Revolution, demanding $100 million in aid to the “contras,” while allocating $20 million in immediate “emergency aid” for the Honduran military.

His March 16 televised speech to “the nation,” warning of the “mounting danger in Central America that threatens the security of the United States,” surpassed all his previous exploits in the Big Lie, as he painted a picture of Castro and Gorbachev, Gaddafi and Khomeini,[2] all converging in Nicaragua and preparing an attack on U.S. borders.

Unintentional truths and carefully planned Big Lies coincided dramatically in a long-winded “background message” he sent Congress that same week, entitled “Freedom, Regional Security and Global Peace.” There he vowed that his administration will oppose dictatorships of the Right as well as the Left. Some liberal journalists promptly hailed the message as a “breakthrough in expressing the administration’s commitment to ‘democratic revolution’” (New York Times, March 15, 1986), while others suggested that its purpose was merely public relations. It is more than public relations.


A Libyan patrol boat after being struck by U.S. missilies March 24, 1986.

In fact, “contra aid” and Reagan’s new so-called “democratic revolution” represent two prongs of U.S. imperialism’s campaign to halt or channel a new wave of revolutions in the Third World of the 1980s. Even though the House voted “no” on “contra aid” March 20, it will vote again in April, and there is every likelihood that Reagan will get in some form his aid to the murderous right-wing mercenaries camped along the Nicaragua-Honduras border, just as he did last year, when it was supposedly limited to $27 million in “non-military” assistance, and as he did in 1983 when they were secretly funded by the CIA.[3]

This is true despite the many demonstrations by solidarity activists opposing funding, few of which have been reported by the media. The McCarthyite attacks launched by Reagan aide Patrick Buchanan and by Reagan himself against all opponents have had their desired effect, turning the focus of Congressional debate into marginal arguments over the aid’s timing and conditions. So emboldened has Reagan become that he now admits plans to formally send U.S. “military advisers” to the contras.

What has helped make him so brazen is the “bipartisan applause” for his handling of upheavals in the Philippines and in Haiti. The hope that his sudden, timely support for the removal of Ferdinand Marcos and Jean-Claude Duvalier—right-wing dictators who had long served as loyal mouthpieces for U.S. imperial interests, but who were on the verge of ouster by their own masses—may have staved off full social revolution has been made into a political category by the Reagan administration. In seeking to control “what happens after” the overthrow of the old, even before the overthrow is completed, Reagan’s new “democratic revolution” is revealed to be the other side of the coin of “contra aid.” His chief of staff, Donald Regan, admitted as much when he characterized it as “part of our overall strategy for resisting destabilizing forces on a regional basis.”

In Latin America today, as in the Philippines, the “destabilizing forces” do not emanate from the global interests of that other nuclear superpower, Russia, but from the deep economic crisis in the Third World and from the profound desire of the masses for a new society….

In this way, economic questions are revealed to be human questions, continuing dialogues between Latin Americans who have experienced first-hand both vicious exploitation and Third World revolutions, and North Americans from the “other America” at home—of Black ghettoes and concessions contracts, of youth protests and women’s liberation demonstrations. It is this human dialogue that the Reagan administration is seeking to destroy with its “contra aid” and with its prosecution of sanctuary activists. And it is this human dialogue that we are seeking to deepen, to not only assure that Reagan’s fake “democratic revolution” doesn’t get substituted for a full social transformation, but to so reorganize our thinking throughout the hemisphere that “what happens after” the overthrow of the old will be a new beginning in ideas and in life.

The latest events in Libya make all Latin America wonder whether Nicaragua is next on Reagan’s hit list. Our first task in deepening our dialogue with the Latin American masses begins with staying Reagan’s hand before an attack begins.

— March 25, 1986

The changed world that Reagan retrogression brought to a new barbarism with his foray into the Gulf of Sidra, followed by the bombing of Tripoli and the living quarters of Muammar Gaddafi, had even his NATO allies questioning him when his outreach declared SALT II “null and void,” as he continued with his empty rhetoric about the “evil empire” whenever it came to any talks with Russia about disarmament.

If the Chernobyl nuclear power disaster[4] led him to think he could sweep every imperialist act under the rug—all the allies sang in chorus against Russia over the horror—the illusion did not last long.

What is deeply inherent in Reagan’s retrogressionism is his effort to turn world capitalism away from what was attempted by it when the Depression threatened its very rule—i.e., the New Deal. Not only is that characteristic of Reagan’s two terms in office, but he is determined to incorporate it in unbreakable laws so that it will not matter who wins office in 1988; this is the ground on which they (Democrats or Republicans) will have to operate.

Now that Reagan has got Congress to approve aid to the Contras, his rhetoric has given forth his true aim—the U.S. is to repeat the Vietnam War by invading Nicaragua, beginning, as with Vietnam, by sending U.S. military advisers to train the Contras.

This is the same Ronald Reagan who thinks he can make himself sound like the great democrat by welcoming Corazon Aquino to the White House, at the same time he provided safe haven for Ferdinand Marcos who is working 24 hours a day to destabilize the new government in the Philippines.[5] It is clear that the only reason Reagan makes such a show of his welcome to President Aquino is because he is concerned with keeping his [military] bases in her land and thinks he can win her into his camp.


As Ronald Reagan’s changed world is preparing for the unleashing of the holocaust while talking of the alleged prosperity of the U.S. and the stability of the Western world, the truth is quite different. The world economy is in deep crisis, and this remains the key to the present world situation.

What the present economists consider the changed world economy—high technology, unimated, robotized production—is what bourgeois economists have called “the post-industrial world” ever since the end of World War II. It doesn’t really matter whether those economists were referring to monopoly, oligopoly, multinationals, or what they now refer to as the computerized world; all are characteristic of the periods of both the post-WWI and post-WWII worlds. They are characteristic of what Marx originally had singled out as the most fundamental law of capitalist production of his day as it pursued Accumulation, Accumulation, Accumulation.

What all the bourgeois economists choose to disregard about this high stage of robotized production is that unpaid, surplus labor—i.e., profit—comes, and can only come, from the living, sweated laborer.…

The need to organizationally concretize philosophy anew each year naturally is given new urgency now that Ronald Reagan’s “Changed World” has made counter-revolution so tower over the seething discontent of the masses in the world that the very thought of revolution seems impossible….

All of our activities in mass movements, be they in labor struggles or in the Black or Women’s Liberation Movement, or Youth, or anti-nuke, or in our international relations, be they in Latin America or Haiti, in South Africa or the Philippines, in East or West Europe, become inseparable from our major theoretical works. Indeed, that was characteristic of us from the first, as both the Hungarian Revolution and the Black Revolution became inseparable from Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 until Today.[6]

The same was true in the further development of philosophy and the new passions and new forces of the 1960s that became Philosophy and Revolution, from Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao. In the 1980s we decided that a balance sheet was needed of all the great revolutionaries like Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky—which not only became Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution but saw a new category created of “post-Marx Marxism, beginning with Engels.”

It is both our body of ideas and our concrete perspective…which is called upon by the objective situation to meet the challenge of this changed world that Reagan is retrogressively driving for, with his latest repeated threats to Libya and the ever-growing poverty in the U.S., where one-third of the nation is what Franklin Roosevelt said it was in 1933—”ill-clad, ill-fed, and ill-housed”—and now homeless….

[1].  The Contras were right-wing guerrilla groups that tried to overthrow the Sandinistas’ Nicaraguan government throughout the 1980s. With U.S. approval, they tortured and killed civilians. Five high Reagan administration officials were convicted of illegally funding the Contras by selling arms to Iran. Later, under the guidance of current Attorney General William Barr, President George H.W. Bush pardoned them and Caspar Weinberger.

[2].  This refers to then-leaders of Cuba, the USSR, Libya and Iran.

[3].  In October 1986, Congress allocated $100 million in military assistance to the Contras.

[4].  The Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the USSR, now Ukraine, suffered an explosion on April 26, 1986, that spread serious radioactive contamination across several countries, while the USSR government engaged in a cover-up that helped pave the way for its fall. Thousands of people eventually died from the radiation.

[5].  Corazon Aquino became president of the Philippines after Ferdinand Marcos was toppled by the “people power revolution” on Feb. 25, 1986.

[6].  Chapters 15 and 16 of Marxism and Freedom take up the Hungarian Revolution and the U.S. Black movement, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

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