From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: New moments in Marx form trail to today

May 10, 2018

From the May-June 2018 issue of News & Letters

On the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth:
New moments in Marx form trail to today

Editor’s note: To observe the 200th birthday of Karl Marx, we present excerpts of a speech given by Raya Dunayevskaya on Jan. 1, 1983, the opening of the Marx centenary year. The original, titled “Marxist-Humanism, 1983: The Summation That Is a New Beginning, Subjectively and Objectively,” is in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #7639. It is excerpted in The Power of Negativity.

by Raya Dunayevskaya

Introduction: Where and how to begin anew?

The reason that we begin, not objectively as usual, but subjectively, is that the “here and now” demands a deeper probing into the creative mind of Marx.

Raya Dunayevskaya, informed by a photo by David Turnley, 1983; background is a page from the first draft of Karl Marx’s letter to Vera Zasulich, 1881. Art is by Melissa Farris.

The warp and woof of the Marxian dialectic, the unchained Hegelian dialectic, the dialectic of the revolutionary transformation is, after all, true objectively and subjectively. Yet Part III of Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution begins the probing of Marx before he fully broke with bourgeois society, when he worked on his doctoral thesis “On the Difference between Democritus and Epicurus.” Thus began his very first critique of Hegel, in 1841, as it appeared in the Notes that were known only to himself. What did appear in the doctoral thesis itself was what pervaded those Notes, i.e., the question: How to begin anew?

The reason that question reappears here is not to emphasize how it antedated Marx’s discovery of a whole new continent of thought and revolution, but rather because it reappeared in its true profundity in Marx’s own greatest work, Capital (I’m referring to the definitive French edition, 1875) as well as in the very last decade of his life, in what we now call Marx’s “new moments” of discovery.

Let me rephrase this. The crucial truth is that the question: How to begin anew? informed the whole of his dialectic methodology—even after his discovery of a whole new continent of thought, even after the publication of the first edition of Capital as well as the 1875 edition, after the Paris Commune, when he took issue with Nikolay Mikhailovsky who had written what turned out to be what all post-Marx Marxists likewise accepted as the climax of the work, that is, the “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation” as a universal. Marx, on the other hand, held that that summation of Western capitalist development was just that—the particular development of capitalism—which need not be the universal path of human development. Here we have the unique way Marx practiced summation as a new beginning.

Engels in 1877, in Brighton, by William Hall. Photo:

The concept of totality as new beginning was true also on the organizational question: How to begin a new organization when it is to express a whole philosophy of revolution….The fact that no post-Marx Marxists saw that inseparable relationship of organization to philosophy of revolution is the more remarkable when you consider that Marx’s closest collaborator, Frederick Engels, was not only still alive but worked with Marx very closely in sending letters to the various so-called Marxist leaders as Marx tried to stop the unification of the Eisenachists and Lassalleans on the basis of the Gotha Program. Beyond the peradventure of a doubt, the Critique of the Gotha Program formulated a totally different basis for the establishment of a Marxist “Party.”…

Think again about the question of how faithful Engels was to the Gotha Program critique, not only in the letters written when Marx was alive, but in the fact that he kept at the German Social-Democrats for a full 15 years after the Party did not publish that criticism, and only in 1891 did get it published.

The tragic truth is that it didn’t make any difference when they did publish it. It didn’t become ground for the new openly Social-Democratic organization. Nor was any parallel drawn by anyone, including Frederick Engels, between organization and Marx’s whole philosophy, though clearly, definitively, this was what Marx’s Critique aimed at. And just as clearly, [Marx’s] covering letter warned against the unification because there was to be “no bargaining about principles.”…

It wasn’t only the Eisenachists and Lassalleans who knew how to misuse the fact that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels didn’t make public their break with the Gotha Program and the German Workers’ Party. The truth is that the German Social-Democrats, who did consider themselves “orthodox” under its leading “Marxist” theoretician, Karl Kautsky, did the very same thing later. This time the reason rested in the claim that, since they adhered to Marx’s “theories,” their Party was the organization of vanguard socialism. They succeeded in so twisting the very concept of vanguardism that they made “the Party” read “the vanguard Party.” …It is high time for Marxist-Humanists to concretize “Where and how to begin anew” for our age by looking at those “new moments” in Marx as the trail to the 1980s.

I. The four new moments in Marx that are the 1980s trail

Far from the climactic “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation” signifying universality for all technological development, it characterized only Western Europe, while “the Russians” could choose a different path. Post-Marx Marxists failed to grasp this because they separated economic laws from the dialectics of revolution. For Marx, on the other hand, it was just this concept of revolution which changed everything, including economic laws. He rejected the fact of Western capitalist development as a universal for all, delved into the latest anthropological studies, and then wrote to Vera Zasulich stressing the possibility for revolution to erupt in a technologically backward country like Russia “ahead of the West.” In this letter to Zasulich he had made direct reference to the “American” (he was referring to Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society) whose studies of pre-capitalist societies, Marx thought, further proved that the peasant commune form of development could lead Russia, if the historic conditions were ripe and it was working with West Europe, as well, to initiate revolution.

Vera Zasulich. Photo:

To make sure that none misunderstood his concept of revolution and the prediction of revolution in the “East” ahead of the “West,” he (this time with Engels) had written a new Introduction to the Russian edition of nothing less important than his Communist Manifesto. There he publicly spelled out that prediction. That was 1882!

This was not the only new moment Marx discovered which post-Marx Marxists didn’t grasp. The second new moment again related to theory. This time it was a new interpretation of the dialectic itself in two crucial areas in the transformation of reality. Everyone knows the 1850 Address [to the Communist League], which ended with the call for “revolution in permanence,” though hardly anyone has related it to Marx’s continuing concretization of the dialectic of negativity, as the dialectics of revolution. None seem to have even begun to grapple with what it meant for Marx, as he was already completing economic analysis of capitalism (and pre-capitalist societies) in the Grundrisse in 1857, to have so fully integrated the dialectic and the economics as to articulate that the socialism that would follow the bourgeois form of production signified “the absolute movement of becoming.” What an Hegelian expression to use to describe that full development of all the talents of the individual that would mark the new socialist society!

That the question of individual self-development and social, revolutionary, historical development would thus become one manifests itself in the Grundrisse. It is no accident that it was there where Marx stopped speaking of only three universal forms of human development—slave, feudal and capitalist—and included a fourth universal form: the “Asiatic mode of production.” That post-Marx Marxists failed to have that as ground for working out the reality of their age and thus anticipate what we now call a whole new Third World is exactly what this age is still suffering from.

The third new moment—that on organization—was not only not grasped, but actually rejected. Post-Marx Marxists were always “proving” that, because Marx had not worked out a “theory” of organization, while Lassalle knew how to build a mass party, he left them no model to practice. The First International, they said, had included so many contradictory tendencies that Karl Marx was forced to “consign it to die in the U.S.” Indeed, all of them were quick to twist the whole concept of “vanguardism” as if it meant, simply and only, “the party.” Neither “Leninists” nor opponents of Lenin have been willing to acknowledge that the ground for [Lenin’s] What Is To be Done? was, precisely, the ground of the German Social-Democracy….While Lenin rejected any type of “halfway dialectic” on the National Question, he did not see that same type of “halfway dialectic” in himself on the question of the “vanguard party.”

…Marx never separated organization forms from his total philosophy of revolution. Indeed…Marx had worked out his whole theory of human development in Capital and in the organizational document, The Critique of the Gotha Program—because his principle, a philosophy of revolution, was the ground also of organization….

This, history shows, was not understood by the first post-Marx Marxists. It would take nothing short of the German Social-Democracy’s betrayal at the outbreak of World War I before Lenin totally broke with them, and first saw Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program as most relevant for his day. It was then also that he spelled out most concretely how revolutionaries could not just “take over” the bourgeois state machinery. That had to be smashed to smithereens. Lenin made that revolutionary message both more concrete and more comprehensive—a true concrete Universal—when he saw, as inseparable, Marx’s theory of revolution and his theory of human development, concluding, “The whole theory of Marx is an application of the theory of development.” Yet, as we know, Lenin still left the concept of the vanguard party in its old (though modified) form.

A new historic age was needed to work out all the ramifications. A new movement from practice as a form of theory had to emerge and be recognized before a new attitude could be worked out, and that meant, far from freeing the movement from theory of its responsibilities, the movement from practice was demanding that theory, too, undergo self-development so that it could concretize for a new age Marx’s revolutionary dialectical philosophy, which he had called a “new Humanism.” By the time, in 1956, that the Hungarian Revolution brought Marx’s philosophy onto the historic stage, we had developed that new Humanism in the U.S. By 1960, the Third World theorist Frantz Fanon had developed his liberation philosophy and called it “a new Humanism.”

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By the 1970s Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks were finally transcribed so that Marx’s Marxism could be seen as a totality. It is this which Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution is rooted in when it takes a new look at Marx’s 1875 Critique. The new book devotes a whole chapter to the Critique, entitling that chapter: “The Philosopher of Permanent Revolution Creates Ground for Organization.”…

The fourth new moment which opened with the Ethnological Notebooks (finally transcribed in the 1970s) reveals itself equally and even more urgently relevant to our age for Women’s Liberation. It is this work which enables us to see with new eyes that Marx’s 1844 concept of Man/Woman—far from being something that only the allegedly “utopian” young Marx had articulated—was deepened throughout his life.

Thus, in 1867, as he was preparing the first edition of Capital for the press, and Dr. Kugelmann had given him his early essays, Marx wrote to Engels: “We have nothing to be ashamed of.” Marx also related these early essays to the 1867 debates around Capital, holding that “the feminine ferment” was inherent in revolutions throughout history.

From his activities in the Paris Commune, we know how Marx had laid the ground in establishing the Union des Femmes, following this through by making it a principle that the First International establish autonomous women’s organizations. Finally, with his last work, the Ethnological Notebooks, he further enshrined this new attitude by showing the revolutionary presence of women throughout history, from the Iroquois women to the Irish women before British imperialism conquered Ireland.

Clearly, all four new moments, in theory and practice, in organization and spelling out “the new passions and new forces” for the reconstruction of society on new, Humanist beginnings—first naming the proletariat as Subject; then working out the revolutionary role of the peasantry, not only as in Engels’ The Peasant War in Germany but as in the peasant communal form in the 1880s; and always singling out youth and then women as Reason as well as forces of revolution—have laid new paths of revolution, a whole trail for the 1980s….


3 thoughts on “From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: New moments in Marx form trail to today

  1. Dunayevskaya’s remarks on the centenary of Marx’s death in 1983 remind us of what it should mean to celebrate the life of a revolutionary: finding emancipatory new beginnings for one’s own time. She asks “Where and how to begin anew?” and proceeds to show how all of Marx’s life involved that question. She concretized this by tracing out four moments from Marx’s last decade that manifest Marx’s new beginning as methodology. These included the possibility of a revolution in Russia, perhaps before the “advanced” West, as well as his Critique of the Gotha Program, seeking to show the relation between ideas or principles and organization.

    What does this mean when we are celebrating the bicentenary of Marx’s birth? Shouldn’t it mean that such a “celebration” needs to be so deep an exploration of Marx in relation to today’s reality that we can hopefully discover theoretical/philosophical threads that can assist us in working out our own revolutionary transformation in face of capitalism’s threats to humanity’s very existence?

  2. “New moments in Marx form trail for today” takes up a crucial concept for our age of retrogression: “Where and how to begin anew?” and how to do that as a summation of where your world is at. This is a necessary question when almost every hour Trumpism announces some new horror that will decimate one section or another of the population. Helpful was where she wrote that “movements from practice demand beginning anew,” and how important self-development is to that. The new movements, or new iterations of the women’s, youth, labor, and Black movements—are calling for a more comprehensive movement of theory to meet them. Not everyone thinks the Democratic Party will solve all our problems, and people have a sense of history—we’ve seen fascism before. Are we seeing a passion for philosophy also arising from these new movements and, if so, how does the Left plan to meet that passion and help it develop?

  3. The economic laws of capitalism are just as oppressive and crisis-prone today as in Marx’s time. Few today think, as many post-Marx Marxists did 100 years ago, that the crises would automatically bring capitalism down, clearing the path for socialism. “New moments in Marx form trail for today” stresses how post-Marx Marxists separated the economic laws from the dialectics of revolution, while for Marx the dialectics changed even the economic laws. Not that the laws could be ignored, but the paths of human development are not predetermined, and the concept of “absolute movement of becoming” as flowing out of those very objective dialectics of revolution is a determinant in whether we can create a new society.

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