Part I-II: Review ~ ‘Marxism and Freedom: From 1776 until Today’
A New Humanism
As long as planning is governed by the necessity to pay the laborer the minimum necessary for his existence, and to extract from him the maximum surplus value, in order to maintain the productive system as far as possible within the lawless laws of the world market, governed by the law of value, that is how long capitalist relations of production exist, no matter what you name the social order.
Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1958 review of Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom praises her history of Marxism on three points, but finds it lacking in one. The then Marxist (now Catholic ethicist) reflects on Dunayevskaya’s time as Leon Trotsky’s secretary as well as her break with Trotsky over whether or not the Soviet Union was a degenerated worker’s state or state capitalism. This is highlighted because, although unsympathetic to Trotsky, the way the concept of state capitalism (and her conception of the working class) mediates Dunayevskaya’s analysis of the USSR becomes the apparent source of the contention between MacIntyre and Dunayevskaya.
Nonetheless, first he praises her book for being a. grounded in social developments and the experiences of socialists; b. extensively and therefore uniquely relying on the source material of Marxism; and c. a corrective to the denigration of Lenin as insufficiently sensitive to the working class’s spontaneous and revolutionary agency. Only then does this usually insightful theorist express an oddly contrary desire to soften (not eliminate) Dunayevskaya’s critique against ‘the socialist achievements of the USSR.’ She has, in MacIntyre’s view, created a new and negative dogma, which is close to what Joel Kovel — in his more sympathetic forward — frets over too.
But is it true? In advancing the claim that we might benefit from a return to Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom (as well as her broader project) I want to suggest that Kovel and MacIntyre got it wrong. In particular, the latter’s accusation that Dunayevskaya has no alternative plans to offer the Stalinists misses her point about planning, as the second part of my two part review hopefully clarifies. First, however, because I do believe Dunayevskaya’s narrow emphasis on a contemporaneous state capitalism was arguably slightly too narrow, I wish to further defend her against MacIntyre’s notion that she was ultimately another dogmatist.
This accusation gets to the crux of MacIntyre’s eventual break from Marxism, which I might explore in a future essay. That is, he accuses her of idealising the working class, which for him was especially fraught as he pessimistically saw capitalism as a Catch-22 type of problem, destroying the character of the only class that could otherwise overcome it—in other words, MacIntyre commits the very error Dunayevskaya persuasively argues that Lenin did not. Thankfully, such a glib idealisation is not at all what one finds reading Marxism and Freedom.
To progress beyond MacIntyre’s reading, then, it is helpful to ‘begin’ my essay by quoting Dunayevskaya’s precise reading of Karl Marx as to the role of workers, and thereby seeing how this shaped her understanding of their revolutionary and historical agency.
It isn’t that Marx “glorified” workers. It is that he knew their role in production. Just as history has not discharged theory from its mission of criticising existing society, so the workers, on whose back all the exploitation occurs must — to straighten up to the height of men — throw all this off their backs and therefore can criticise it and overcome it and see ahead.
It isn’t that Marx vilified capitalists and their ideologies. It is that he knew their role in production and how limited, therefore, their outlook. Because they were satisfied, they couldn’t grasp all of reality, and therefore their ideology was false.
In introducing Marxism and Freedom, Dunayevskaya makes a case for Marx’s continuing philosophical relevance. In her Introduction to the First Edition (written in 1957) she pleads that the ‘today-ness of Marxism flows from this: no philosopher has ever had a grander concept of humanity than did Marx, and yet no philosophic conception was ever rooted more deeply in the first necessity of human society — labor and production.’ And again, in her Introduction to the Second Edition (1963) she remains unequivocal; the ‘17th century English Leveller fighting for equality, or 20th 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.’ Prefacing the book, Herbert Marcuse picks a stand of this Humanist and philosophical imperative, ‘The realisation of freedom is a problem of time: reduction of the working day to the minimum which turns quantity into quality. A socialist society is a society in which free time, not labor time is the social measure of wealth and the dimension of the individual existence’. Dunayevskaya develops this, ‘Marx saw that free time liberated from capitalist exploitation as time for the free development of the individual’s power, of his natural and acquired talents.’ This is where Dunayevskaya begins; salvaging Marx’s philosophical legacy (his New Humanism) and illuminating what it still has to show us about freedom.
So as to salvage Marx, Dunayevskaya (as the book’s subtitle, ‘From 1776 until Today’, indicates) goes to the events and ideas leading up to Marx: ‘The impact that the Industrial revolution exerted on English political economy, the French revolution exerted on German idealist philosophy. Under this impact, the greatest of the German idealist philosophers, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, reorganised all hitherto existing philosophy.’ Dunayevskaya does not ignore English political economy, but her focus is clear: ‘Bourgeois thought had reached its highest point in the development of the Hegelian dialectic and, to use a Hegelian expression, “perished.”’
This is important because ‘to repeat tirelessly that Hegel is gibberish without Marx is to transform Marx into a vulgar materialist.’ That is, she seeks to present us with a unified and aptly Hegelian Marx, and to explicitly note that this is the only Marx that is also coherent: ‘There was no difference between Marx the Hegelian and Marx the revolutionary, nor between Marx the theoretician and Marx the practical organiser.’ Dunayevskaya sees Marx’s different ‘periods’ as distinguished chiefly by what he had learned from the proletariat, not by some new method or by outgrowing philosophy.
Marx and Hegel, in Dunayevskaya’s reading, mirror one another’s insights, ‘What is crucial to both Hegel and Marx is that there are barriers in contemporary society, which prevent the full development of man’s potentialities, of man’s “universality.”’ A lot of the following analysis puts the philosophical component of Marx’s writings, that is, his New Humanism, to work against its enemies. And it begins appropriately by looking at how Marx himself deployed his ideas against both detractors and false friends, but does so with the ultimate aim of addressing the counterrevolutions (dressed in revolutionary garb) of Russia and China, to which the largest sections of Dunayevskaya’s book is duly devoted.
[Marx] never tired of stressing that what is of primary importance is not the form of property, but the mode of production.
In that spirit, of the utopian socialists Dunayevskaya writes: ’it was the suffering of the masses that broke the bourgeois intellectuals from their own class and brought them near the proletariat, [but] they believed not one iota in the creative initiative of the masses.’ This characterises their true heirs too, from Keynesian planner to Stalinists. Therefore, although ‘Marx did not know the totalitarian Communists of our day, […] he put his finger on all that was essential when he criticised the utopian communists of his day for their total preoccupation with the question of private property[…] That is to say, there was really no fundamental difference between the exponents of private property and those who were opposed to it but were willing to let the mode of labor remain what it was.’ This particular point moves towards the nub of the book, and perhaps its most important claim: ‘For Marx the abolition of private property was a means toward the abolition of alienated labour, not an end in itself. He did not separate one from the other. He never tired of stressing that what is of primary importance is not the form of property, but the mode of production.’ Dunayevskaya is clear: without Marx’s broader philosophical insights, one cannot meaningfully be a Marxist.
This perspective is applied to both the intellectual battles Marx fought against other socialists in his lifetime and the vulgar Marxists that came to dominate after. That is, Dunayevskaya proceeds from the development of Marxism in Marx’s writings to the First and Second Internationals. On social democracy in particular, she at points as scathing as she later is of the horrors of Stalinist totalitarianism. She takes on all of this ideology’s different national expressions and shows their inadequacies when faced with its great and fatal challenge:
This belief in organisational strength, which would “automatically” insure the world against war, became characteristic not alone of the German Social Democracy, but of the whole International. Keir Hardie, for example, the founder of the Independent Labor Party of Britain, and a left winger at all the sessions discussing militarism, stated: “A strike of British coal miners would suffice by itself to bring warlike activities to a stand.” The Austrian, Adler, spoke of how the “crime of war” would “automatically ring the downfall of capitalism.” No words were more popular in the Second International’s lexicon than “inevitable “ and “automatic.” All of this was possible because of organization, organization, organization.
More critically still, Dunayevskaya sees the failure of the Second International in their failure to be Marxist:
The whole concept of theory as Marx lived it flowed from the proletariat as its source. The concrete struggles of the workers in his day produced the break in Marx’s concept of theory. It isn’t that intellectuals must work out “ideas.” But, as we saw, the actions of the workers created the conditions for Marx to work out theory. No such thing happened as a result of the 1905 Revolution. 1905 did not do for the theoreticians of the Second International what 1861–71 did for Marx’s theory. In that could be seen the fact that the Second International as an organization was beginning to go off the Marxist rails. Despite their adherence to Marxist “language,” there was no organization of Marxist thought.
Marxists who reject the specific insights of Marx (from Hegelianism to the insights of Capital vol.III ) often find refuge in claiming to show a stircter fidelity to Marx’s methodology. Dunayevskaya notices that they achieve the reverse, having ‘blinded themselves to Marx’s methodology, which took its point of departure from the real world in which he lived.’ That is, Marx’s analysis of capitalism applies to what is capitalist about it, and to empty it of that is to move from the project of abolishing capitalism to one of changing property relationships (e.g. by making the state the sole or main capitalist). Dunayevskaya’s recovered Marxism is not, then, an abstract attempt to understand the world, it is a tool to change it.
There is nothing surprising about the theoretical impasse facing Marxists who do away with Marx’s Hegelianism, Humanism and his particular understanding of capitalism. The upshot of all of which is that with even the ‘slightest slip off the dialectic of revolution — that is, the strictest relationship of the revolutionary activity of the mass to the specific economic epoch — and the Marxist theoretician ends by anticipating the next stage of bourgeois development.’ After the failure of the postwar consensus (never mind the failure of the Second International and Stalinism-Maoism) this diagnosis remains necessary, all the more so when we continue to face the same errors from the same classes.
To give up on the working classes is always to give up on overcoming capitalism, that is the key takeaway here. Having abandoned Marxism, MacIntyre’s writings remain a fascinating contribution to philosophical ethics, but as to changing the world along the lines of some vague revolutionary Aristotelianism he can only offer the hope of a great, traditional visionary rescuing us with a new idea that would arrive from outside all class contradiction. To quote the last line of his After Virtue: ‘We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.’ To this Dunayevskaya would say, with Lenin, that we are waiting neither for a saint nor a Godot, but on the ingenuity of working people, and we must be ready to follow their lead as we will likely not fully anticipate it.
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