From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: A return to the Humanism of Marx

From the July-August 2018 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: At a time when the social crisis is total—political, economic, cultural, ideological—this clarion call for a return to the original form of the Humanism of Marxism speaks to today’s need for more than just political change, but for a total view and a total solution to global retrogression. This originally appeared in 1963 as the introduction to the second American edition of Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 until Today.


“Only that which is an object of freedom can be called an idea.”—Hegel

The first edition of Marxism and Freedom went to press as Sputnik No. 1 went into orbit. That same year, 1957, the Little Rock riots shared headlines with the scientific phenomenon. In 1962, two different events were again held in unison in men’s consciousness. This time James Meredith’s courageous entry into the University of Mississippi took the luster out of Walter Schirra’s spectacular six-orbital entry into space. An age in which “a little thing,” like school desegregation, can hold in tow such scientific milestones is an age in which men’s consciousness is preoccupied, not with scientific conquest, but with human freedom.

This new edition appears when our life and times impart an urgency to the task of working out a new relationship of philosophy to reality. Thought and deed cannot forever stand apart. Somewhere, sometime, they must meet. Throughout history the forces that have produced great social revolutions have also generated great philosophic revolutions. It was true when Thomas Rainsborough expressed the motive power of the English Revolution of 1648 as: “…the poorest he in England hath a life to live as the greatest he.” It is true when, in 1963, James Baldwin speaks of “a glimpse of another world….I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths—change in the sense of renewal.” Seventeenth-century English Leveller fighting for equality, or twentieth-century Negro fighting for freedom now, pull strenuously at the intellectual tendency to resist the compulsion to original thought on the very eve of social revolutions that demand philosophic reconstructions.

True Levellers (Diggers) defend St. Georges Hill, 1649.

THE TWO FEATURES which characterize great periods of upheaval are, one, that a new subject is born to respond to the objective pull of history by making freedom and reason the reality of the day.

Occupied Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, 2011.

And, two, a new relationship between theory and practice is forged. This is true for the past—Levellers in seventeenth-century England; the sans culottes in the French Revolution of 1789-1793; the runaway slaves impelling the United States to the Civil War of 1861-1865; the St. Petersburg proletariat in the 1905 and 1917 Russian Revolutions. This is true for the present—in the Hungarian Revolution against Russian totalitarianism, no less than in the African Revolutions against Western imperialism. This does not mean that each of these historic periods has given birth to a totally new philosophy. An original philosophy is a rare creation, born after much travail only when called forth by a new stage in world consciousness of freedom. It does mean that a viable philosophy must be capable of meeting the challenge of human experience, of the new revolts symbolic of the lack of specific freedoms.

To this author it meant that, no matter what the reasons were that caused the transformation of the Marxian theory of liberation into its opposite after the Russian Revolutions failed to realize, that is to say, put into practice this philosophy of freedom (see Chapters XII and XIII), a return to the original form of the Humanism of Marxism became imperative. Because Marx’s Humanist Essays were not available in English at the time Marxism and Freedom came off the press in 1958, I included these writings as an Appendix.1That appendix has been dropped from this new edition because the Essays are now easily available in English. The official Moscow publication (1959) is marred by footnotes which flagrantly violate Marx’s content and intent. The preferable translation is T.B. Bottomore, which, with other primary materials, is included in Marx’s Concept of Man by Erich Fromm (Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York, 1961). My original Appendix B, the first English translation of Lenin on Hegel’s Science of Logic, has likewise been dropped since the material is finally available in English translation (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 38, Philosophical Notebooks, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1961). Since that time there have been several English translations of these Essays as well as many commentaries on them. It soon became evident, however, that this was done, not to re-establish the integral unity of Marxian economics with his philosophical humanism, but only in order to exorcise the ghost of Karl Marx and then rebury him, this time as a Humanist.

It cannot be done. Marxist Humanism will remain alive so long as a new world on truly new, human beginnings has not been established.

TOTALITARIAN COMMUNISM understands this so well that the counter-revolutionary suppression of the Hungarian Revolution went hand-in-hand with the suppression of thought. The subsequent Nikita Khrushchev-Mao Zedong designation of Marxist Humanists as “revisionists” and the denunciation of “revisionism” as the “main danger” did not, however, deter the American “ideology specialists” from taking over the term, “revisionism,” and similarly using it against the opponents of the ruling bureaucracies who had not only revised, but vitiated, Marxism. The very intellectuals who had lost their collective tongue during the period of McCarthyism now found their individual tongues to attempt to fragmentize Marx.

The debate around the Essays degenerated into a question of first-edness as if it were a college debate held for scoring points. As I stated during the discussion in 1961: “The dispute over who was the first to translate Marx’s 1844 Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts into English is a meaningful controversy only if it has a substantive relationship to the spirit of those Essays and of our times. I was compelled to be the first to publish these Essays in 1958 because for the fifteen years previous I had tried, in vain, to convince other scholars, writers, and publishers of the cogency of these Essays. When in the period between the 1953 East German Revolt and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the Russian Communists openly attacked those Essays (Voprosy Filosofii, #3, 1955), I once again began my round of publishers. This time the Essays were part of my book. I held that the Russian Communist attack on them was not academic, but a foreboding of revolutions to come. The following year the great Hungarian Revolution raised the Humanist flag clearly. Because Marxist Humanism, to me, is the only genuine ground from which to oppose Communist totalitarianism, I felt the compulsion to show that Humanism is not something invented by me, but came directly from Marx, who fought what he called ‘vulgar Communism,’ writing that ‘communism, as such, is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.’ ”

Skepticism also greeted my statement in the first edition that the road to a new society, opened by the Hungarian Revolution, was no less illumined by the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Since then the Negro struggle has become all-rounded and so engulfed the North, as well as the South, that the phrase, “Negro Revolution,” has become almost a cliché. Yet the fact that a revolution can be treated as a mere journalistic phrase only further reveals the failure to grapple with the truth that the American Negro has always been the touchstone of American civilization, which had an ever expanding frontier but no unifying philosophy. Nor has the challenge been met when the call for a unifying philosophy came from an altogether new source: the scientist (Dr. William E. Pickering) who first succeeded in sending the American Explorer into orbit. In speaking of the fact that mankind was now “only one-half hour away from total annihilation,” Dr. Pickering said that mankind was in need, not of more destructive weapons that the scientists invent, but of “a new, unifying philosophy.”2This is quoted from a November 1961 letter by Dunayevskaya to New Leader. —Editor

THIS SAME PERIOD saw the emergence of the African Revolutions under their own Humanist banner.3See my pamphlet, Nationalism, Communism, Marxist-Humanism and the Afro-Asian Revolutions (News & Letters, Detroit, 1959; Cambridge, England, 1961). It was indeed the birth of this new world independent of the Communist orbit that both led to the Communist discovery of this “third world” and to the rift within its own orbit. (On the Sino-Soviet Rift see Chapter XVII.) Because the dynamism of ideas escapes American “ideology specialists,” they do not pick up the gauntlet for the struggle for the minds of men. Instead, they act as if any ideological battle, if even it concerns the very survival of humanity, is only rhetoric. It is not that they do not know as well as anybody that, far from rhetoric, this is the overriding fact in a world of H-bombs and ICBMs. Nor is it that they held their breath any less than the rest of us when, in October, 1962, J.F. Kennedy told N.S. Khrushchev that the United States was ready to unloose a nuclear holocaust unless Russia removed its missiles from Cuba. It is rather due to their belief that their aging views toward ideas would somehow magically dissipate the class struggle, and the racial struggle would thereby become bite size.

Where some reviewers wished to return Marx’s Humanist Essays to the archives, others questioned my theory of state-capitalism, saying that I had paid insufficient attention to the changed conditions in Russia since the ascent of Khrushchev to power. They pointed especially to “the abolition of the forced labor camps.” Curiously enough, this criticism came, in large measure, from those who denied the very existence of the camps until Khrushchev declared them abolished. That the worst of the concentration camps have been eliminated does not mean that there are none. It only means that “corrective labor” has taken a different, a milder form. Neither United States “free enterprise,” nor Russian “communism,” has changed the fundamental Marxian theory of value and surplus value, or capitalism as an exploitative relationship of capital to labor. After the Russian admission, in 1943, that the law of value operates in Russia, there was no further point to continue the detailed analysis of their State Plans. My analysis of the Five Year Plans, therefore, stopped with World War II, and thereafter focused on the Russian assault on Marx’s Capital and his Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts (see Chapters III and XIII). There is no reason to revise my analysis.

What is fundamentally new now are the developments in the Sino-Soviet orbit. My analysis of the rift was originally elaborated in 1961 as part of a new book I am writing on world ideologies and the technologically underdeveloped countries. Because “The Challenge of Mao” has a special urgency for today, I brought it up to date when Japanese friends asked to include it in the edition of Marxism and Freedom they are preparing for publication in Tokyo. It is included as Chapter XVII in this new American edition as well. Both editions are going to press as we approach the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the International Working Men’s Association in London, in 1864.

Raya Dunayevskaya
November 1, 1963, Detroit, Michigan


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Marxism and Freedom dialectically presents history and theory as emanating from the movement from practice, re-establishing the American and world humanist roots of Marxism.

Using as her point of departure the Industrial and French Revolutions, the European upheavals of 1848, the American Civil War, and the Paris Commune of 1871, Raya Dunayevskaya shows how Marx, inspired by these events, transformed Hegel’s philosophy.

Freedom for Marx meant freedom from capitalist economic exploitation but also from all political restraints and the free development of human beings as social individuals. Dunayevskaya reveals how completely Marx’s original conception of freedom was perverted through its adaptations by Stalin in Russia and Mao in China, and the subsequent creation of totalitarian states. Exploitation of the masses persisted under these regimes in the form of a new state-capitalism.

Despite the profound derailment of Marxism, Dunayevskaya points to developments such as the Hungarian Revolution, workers’ struggles against capitalist automation, and the Civil Rights struggles in the United States as signs that the indomitable quest for freedom on the part of the downtrodden cannot be forever repressed. The Hegelian dialectic of events propelled by the spirit of the masses thus moves on inexorably with the hope for the future achievement of political, economic, and social freedom and equality for all.

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References   [ + ]

1. That appendix has been dropped from this new edition because the Essays are now easily available in English. The official Moscow publication (1959) is marred by footnotes which flagrantly violate Marx’s content and intent. The preferable translation is T.B. Bottomore, which, with other primary materials, is included in Marx’s Concept of Man by Erich Fromm (Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York, 1961). My original Appendix B, the first English translation of Lenin on Hegel’s Science of Logic, has likewise been dropped since the material is finally available in English translation (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 38, Philosophical Notebooks, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1961).
2. This is quoted from a November 1961 letter by Dunayevskaya to New Leader. —Editor
3. See my pamphlet, Nationalism, Communism, Marxist-Humanism and the Afro-Asian Revolutions (News & Letters, Detroit, 1959; Cambridge, England, 1961).

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