From the March-April 2015 issue of News & Letters
Editor’s note: From the News and Letters pamphlet The Coal Miners’ General Strike of 1949-50 and the Birth of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S. we excerpt from Raya Dunayevskaya’s “The Emergence of a New Movement from Practice that Is Itself a Form of Theory,” on miners’ contributions to the philosophic birth of Marxist-Humanism.
by Raya Dunayevskaya
The dialectic of the 1949-50 Miners’ General Strike, as it was transformed from a Lewis-authorized strike that already had lasted some six months into a challenge to John L. Lewis himself, laid the ground for new ways of thinking. The historic rejection by the miners of Lewis’ order to return to work had imbued the old slogan, “No Contract, No Work,” with new meaning because of the totally new question the miners raised: “What kind of labor should man do?” In a word, by being concerned not just with the unemployment that is always caused by new machinery, but with the unbridgeable gulf between manual and mental labor, which the continuous miner widened, they were pointing to new directions.
I had for some years been developing the theory of state-capitalism. To me the Miners’ General Strike seemed to touch, at one and the same time, a concept Marx had designated as alienated labor and the absolute opposite to it, which Marx had spelled out as the end of the division between mental and manual labor.
MINERS SHOW TODAYNESS OF MARX
Indeed, the todayness of Marxism shone through brilliantly in the miners’ attitude to a passage I had read to them from Marx on the “automaton”: “The lightening of the labor, even, becomes a sort of torture since the machine does not free the laborer from work, but deprives the work of all interest.” Even the fact that the miners did not know that this passage was from Marx created a translucence when they insisted that the man who wrote that must have been in their mine, it was so perfect a description of Automation, specifically their continuous miner which they called a “man-killer.”
It led me to conclude that two new vantage points were needed for the book I had been working on, titled State-Capitalism and Marxism. One was that the American worker should become a point of departure not only as “root” of Marxism but as a presence today. I therefore proposed to my co-leaders in the Johnson-Forest Tendency (JFT)—C.L.R. James and Grace Lee Boggs—that a worker be present at future discussions of the drafts of the book. The second vantage point was to be the dialectic as Lenin interpreted it in his Abstract of Hegel’s Science of Logic. Four months before the strike erupted, I had finished the first-ever English translation of that historic 1914 encounter of Lenin with Hegel and, with brief comments, had transmitted it to James and Lee. A three-way correspondence resulted, centered on the relationship of the dialectic to Lenin as well as to our age.
While we seemed to be as one on the need to work out the relationship between objective and subjective for the state-capitalist age that Lenin had worked out for the monopoly stage of capitalism, that relationship between objective and subjective was spoken of only “in general.” Now, however, with an ongoing strike in progress, what had been a discussion of ideas assumed, to me, concreteness and urgency. Indeed, it gained a whole new dimension through what the miners were doing and thinking.
KEY IS LABOR SOLIDARITY FROM BELOW
The workers who had voted down Lewis’ order to return to work were already near starvation. Then, on Feb. 14, 1950, miners in Scotts Run voted for the motion that “Red” and Andy brought to a meeting to establish a committee of miners to go to the rank-and-file of other unions to ask for help. Clearly, a great deal more than just getting money was involved in that motion. The point was how to do away not only with mere “charity” donations but with dependence on union leaders. Approving this motion signified establishing labor solidarity from below. Three days later, this motion was implemented at an area-wide meeting of local unions.
It was on Feb. 15—the day after the miners had taken the first action to establish that new Miners’ Relief committee—that James, Lee and I held the first meeting on the book at which a worker was present. (He happened to be the one who would soon arrange the largest meeting in Detroit to raise a caravan of help for the miners.) Here is the way I began my presentation: “Just as the 1945-46 General Strike transformed the abstract Russian Question on property forms into one of actual production relations, so at present the struggle of the miners and the new content they have infused into ‘No Contract, No Work’ is what gave me the impulse to go into the essential dialectical development of Marx himself.”
I then proceeded to trace Marx’s own development 1843-73. It made clear Marx’s new historic points of departure that occurred in the 1860s. Ever since John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry, Marx had been talking about a new epoch that was dawning, which was sure to bring about a civil war in the U.S. In discussing how Marx began once more to rework Capital in 1865-67, I said: “There is the Jamaican Negro revolt in 1865. There was the Polish revolution, 1863. Then there are the Factory Reports. Marx asks Engels for a pamphlet on Machinery. He works out the average working wage. The whole history now becomes the history of production, not the history of theory.” I concluded, “Dialectically, the problem of form is the problem of the contract today.”
Many packages sent in the relief caravan contained the name and address of the worker who had sent it and who was asking for correspondence with the miner who received it. One miner summed up the feelings of many: “We have never had relief operate this way.” It was the rank-and-file to rank-and-file development that likewise opened a new stage in the consequences of this great movement from practice.
Although the rank-and-file miners who were direct participants when I debated with Harry Braverman in Pittsburgh correctly predicted split [with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)], we didn’t actually go through with it then. Just as 1950 was not over when the miners went back to work in March 1950 but re-emerged the next year when they wildcatted over seniority in September 1951, so, though the JFT had not left the SWP when we submitted our document on “State-Capitalism and World Revolution” in August 1950, we did finally leave Trotskyism for good and all in August 1951.
FRACTURES IN JOHNSON-FOREST TENDENCY
The shock was that it was also the beginning of the end of a united Johnson-Forest Tendency. Where I proposed that the first issue of the new paper we planned to issue should be devoted to the new miners’ seniority strike, Johnson (James) opposed. He insisted that “our membership and their friends are the only audience I have in mind for the paper. If a mighty bubble broke out, 500,000 miners vs. John L. Lewis, and shook the mine fields, I would not budge an inch from our program.” We then went “underground,” publishing only a mimeographed paper until 1953. It was during this period, 1951-52, that I continued my work on both philosophy and the book, writing a 54-page outline which I developed on the basis of the Feb. 15, 1950, meeting.
The differences that developed between Forest and Johnson occurred, after all, in a most critical period both internationally and nationally—1950-53. The Korean War and McCarthyism were raging and the death of Stalin brought it to a climax.
The death of Stalin lifted an incubus from my brain, and it was inconceivable to me that it wouldn’t do that for the Russian and East European workers. I looked forward to great explosions. Charles Denby (the Black production worker who was to become editor of News & Letters when finally the break between me and Johnson occurred) called as soon as his shift ended to tell me of the excitement in his factory as the radio blared the news of Stalin’s death. Each worker was saying that he had just the person to take Stalin’s place—his foreman.
Denby felt the workers he knew would not only understand the problems the Russian workers faced, but that they would find lessons for their own struggles against both the union bureaucrats and the company. He raised the question I had been discussing with him sometime before, on the 1920-21 Trade Union debate between Lenin and Trotsky. He said that if I could put that story in the framework of what the workers were experiencing right then, he would by happy to distribute it to his fellow workers and tell me their comments.
A NEW RETURN TO HEGEL’S DIALECTIC
I spent the next few weeks writing the essay on that debate, which I called “Then and Now.” I decided also to send it to West Virginia and asked that our comrades there should try to get the reactions of the miners to both Stalin’s death and the trade union debate.
Once again I felt the compulsion to return to work on the Hegelian dialectic. What had begun in 1948 with the translation of Lenin’s Philosophic Notebooks made me go this time directly to the Absolute Idea itself, six weeks before the actual first rebellion from under totalitarianism did erupt in East Germany on June 17, 1953, to be followed very shortly by revolt within Russia itself, in Vorkuta.
In a letter on Hegel’s Science of Logic, I wrote to Grace on May 12, 1953: “I am shaking all over for we have come to where we part from Lenin. I mentioned before that although in the approach to the Absolute Idea Lenin had mentioned that man’s cognition not only reflects the objective world but creates it, within the chapter he never developed it.” In disagreeing with Lenin for telling us that the last half of the final paragraph of Hegel’s Logic is unimportant, I argued: “But, my dear Vladimir Ilyitch, it is not true; the end of that page is important; we of 1953, we who have lived three decades after you and tried to absorb all you have left us, we can tell you that. You didn’t have Stalinism to overcome, when transitions, revolutions seemed sufficient to bring the new society. Now everyone looks at the totalitarian one-party state; that is the new which must be overcome by a totally new revolt in which everyone experiences ‘absolute liberation.’”
I concluded the letter of May 12 by insisting that I agreed with Lenin’s interpretation of Nature as practice and could see why he was so attracted to it and stopped there, but that I would continue, as Hegel advised, to the other “sciences” where he first concludes his view of the Absolute, Nature and Mind. The next week, on May 20, I concentrated on the final three Syllogisms of Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind—paragraphs 575, 576 and 577. Where Para. 575 at once established that practice, too, is “implicitly the Idea,” and in Para. 576 Hegel still says “philosophy appears as a subjective cognition,” it is only in Para. 577 that the unification of the two—theory and practice, subjective and objective—takes place. And while I was excited enough to then say: “We have entered the new society,” the new for our age was the fact that practice, as “implicitly the Idea,” meant to me that mass practice is itself a form of theory.
BIRTH OF A NEW HUMANISM FOR OUR AGE
Silence on the part of my co-leader became intolerable once I had written those letters—that is to say, once I had written out all that had been churning in me ever since 1948 and my translation of Lenin’s Abstract of Hegel’s Science of Logic; once I had experienced in the post-World War II period what Lenin had undergone at the simultaneity of World War I and the collapse of the established Second International; once I had grasped the concept of philosophy as action, as giving action its direction, and the following year had experienced that magnificent Miners’ General Strike; once spontaneity appeared in an altogether different form in 1953 in East Germany, where the first revolt ever from under the heel of Stalinism raised the new slogan of “Bread and Freedom.”
I tried not just philosophically but concretely to work out what these new movements from practice signified. I didn’t fear the “Absolute” once I saw it as so new a unity of theory and practice as to signify both totality and new beginning. It was, indeed, this new conception of the movement from practice that was itself a form of theory that dictated the form in which I cast the work on which I had been laboring for some ten years. The book I had variously referred to as “Marxism and State-Capitalism,” “the Marx book,” and “the Lenin book,” I now (in 1957, when I was free of Johnsonism and no longer restricted by factionalism) called Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 Until Today.
I could then openly dialectically declare: “This book aims to reestablish Marxism in its original form, which Marx called ‘a thoroughgoing Naturalism or Humanism.’” Moreover, the Introduction proceeded to explain the new way of writing: “No theoretician, today more than ever before, can write out of his own head. Theory requires a constant shaping and reshaping of ideas on the basis of what the workers themselves are doing and thinking. At least, it dictated the method by which this book was written. This work is therefore dedicated to the autoworkers, miners, steelworkers and student youth who have participated so fully in the writing of this book. They are its co-authors.”
As Andy Phillips put it: “To some, many of the things the miners did seemed spontaneous, as though the actions came from nowhere. Just the opposite is true. The spontaneity of the miners flowed from their own repeated collective thought and action that preceded their ‘spontaneous’ activity.’”
A pivotal moment for labor and for revolutionary thought
The Coal Miners’ General Strike of 1949-50 and the Birth of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S.
Participants telling their story include—
- A Missing Page from American Labor History, by Andy Phillips
- The Emergence of a New Movement from Practice That Is Itself a Form of Theory, by Raya Dunayevskaya