From the May-June 2021 issue of News & Letters
Today people live in perpetual confusion, alienation and misery. More than any previous generation, our humor, media, music, books, computer games, etc., are filled with self-harm, nihilism, and depression. Japan has admitted they have a crisis of young people shutting themselves away and committing suicide. The social relations put an end to any idea of progress or any utopia. There is nothing, no future. As David Hume said, “No man ever threw away life while it was worth keeping.”
Young people, from white to Black, Trans, Gay, and other marginalized people keep taking matters into their own hands and taking to the streets. Within their alienation is a reach to overcome the hopelessness: Black Lives Matter, Amazon workers’ struggling for unionization, international Women’s Liberation Movement, etc.
We fight against unfreedom: in China, the struggle against institutional racism, fight against post-truth politics of the Trumpists, and we support the class struggles going on in today’s COVID world.
Our time of total crises calls for a philosophy that will help us not only to understand the problems at the root of our misery but also to give us hope we can create a new society. For that we need the philosophy of Marx, his revolutionary humanism!
DISTORTIONS OF MARX ONLINE
Where do we even start to understand Karl Marx? The usual place young people look is online. It will almost always lead you to “Marxists,” not Marx himself. You might get the writings of Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong or even non-Marxist intellectuals who claim that Marx is outdated and no longer relevant to our present day.
So we must ask ourselves once more, where do we start? The best place would be to read Marx himself, but, unfortunately, today Marx has little chance to speak for himself. At this point the use of Marx makes him merely into a puppet, for others to project their voice onto him. There are career “Marxists” who claim to not only represent him, but correct him.
This isn’t new. It’s a trend that has been happening since Marx’s time, which makes interpreting Marx quite difficult. But there is an answer to this problem: Raya Dunayevskaya’s first book, Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 until Today (M&F). She seeks to clear away the misconceptions, falsifications and to re-establish Marxism in its original form, which Marx called “a thoroughgoing Naturalism or Humanism.”
WHAT MARX NEVER SAID
What is this “thoroughgoing Naturalism”? It isn’t a vulgar materialism concerned only with the way natural science presents the world. It isn’t what some represent as “dialectical materialism,” a phrase Marx never uttered in his life. It also is not an idealism concerned only with philosophical thinking, resolving problems within the mind alone.
“Thoroughgoing Naturalism” is a unity of idealism and materialism. “Thoroughgoing Naturalism or Humanism distinguishes itself both from idealism and materialism and is at the same time the truth uniting both.” (M&F, Dunayevskaya is quoting Marx’s “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic,” p. 42)
What exactly is this? It is Marx’s view of history. As Dunayevskaya wrote later, “To Marx, what was crucial was that man was not merely object, but subject, not only determined by history, but its creator. The act of world history is the self-development of labor, its class struggle.” (Philosophy and Revolution, p. 49) As Marx put it in The Manifesto of the Communist Party, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
Our history is a process of overcoming alienation within our relations in production, whether it be proletarians/capitalists, peasants/lords, or slaves/slave masters. Each is an act of realizing freedom! M&F presents a history of various struggles, which may appear as just spontaneous actions of people striving for freedom. Yet Marx projected a movement from theory that met this Reason that lives among the masses.
This isn’t a “law of history” as Stalin would put it. It is a dialog with masses in real contradiction within their mode of production. Marx’s movement from theory included his vision of overcoming the separation of mental and manual labor (man’s self-reproducing, creative activities). Humans always seek a unification of both to become truly and fully human.
MARX IS CONTEMPORARY FOR YOUTH
Why is Marx’s view of history so important? The point of M&F is to capture this movement of history from Marx’s time to the present, which meant 1957, when M&F was published. This history isn’t one humans controlled. Marx called all history to the present a “pre-history.”
Only new human relations, freely associated producers, create an opening to address what it means to be human—realizing the unity of materialism and idealism in life. This makes Marx a contemporary for youth, looking for a way out of life under capitalism’s hopeless future and absolute misery.
It’s about time M&F’s neglect—by radicals, intellectuals and the public in our contemporary society—has changed. A new movement for radical humanism can not only work for today but prepare us for the future. The massive influence of orthodox Marxism, market socialism, post-structuralism and other so-called “alternatives” has not only confused the radical Left but left us in constant failure. All these “alternatives” are outcomes of the failures of movements at the time.
M&F’s large subject matter on history and humanism can mean the difference for a successful movement toward freedom.