Raya Dunayevskaya: Thinker, Fighter, Revolutionary

Against the Current, No. 12-13, January-April 1988

Richard Greeman

WE MOURN the passing of Raya Dunayevskaya, the Russian-born philosopher and revolutionary whose long and rich life was dedicated to the revolutionary self-emancipation of humankind. Her voluminous writings, the many struggles in which she participated, and the memories of the thousands she touched with her words, deeds and example, are a remarkable living legacy.

Her sixty-odd years of revolutionary thought and activity are summed up in three remarkable books, Marxism and Freedom (1957), Philosophy and Revolution (1973), Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (1982), and in the Marxist­Humanist organization she founded and led until her death, News and Letters Committees.

At all times it was Dunayevskaya’s method to try to meet the challenge of mass revolutionary creativity coming “from below” with a corresponding development in revolutionary thought in order to lay the basis for a new unity of theory and practice. Yet paradoxically, her seminal writings and compelling personality remained marginalized, indeed often ignored in the very Marxist circles to which she spoke with such power and originality.

A Born Fighter

This remarkable woman was born in Czarist Russia on May 1, 1910, the daughter of a poor rabbi who immigrated to the United States before World War I. A rebel from birth, Dunayevskaya threw off the fetters of orthodoxy at an early age and insisted on an education, something unheard of for a poor Jewish girl in that time and place.

She came to America in 1922. Her school had been the Russian Revolution and civil war. She arrived in Chicago at the age of twelve, as heartbroken by her forced separation from Red Russia as she was gladdened by the reunion with her family. But the sight of a hammer and sickle stenciled on a South Side storefront brought the Young Workers League what must have been its youngest and most ardent new member.

The oppression of Black people (she naively mistook the first Black man she saw for a coalminer) immediately struck her as the inner truth of this “land of opportunity,” and it was on the South Side of Chicago that her proud and permanent identification with Black America (and later Black Africa) occurred.

She led a school strike against anti-Semitism, joined the American Negro Labor Congress, and wrote her own version of the pledge of allegiance: “I pledge allegiance/ to the workers’ Red Flag/ And to the cause for which it stands/One aim throughout our life/ Freedom to the working class.”

Nonetheless she graduated first in her class, but the authorities prevented her from reading the valedictory address when she broke the color bar by inviting a Black student to escort her to the dance.

Over the years, Dunayevskaya’s active engagement with Black liberation led her to identified with the Black sharecroppers’ movement in the 1930s, the movement for the march on Washington defying Jim Crow during World War II, the post-war struggles for African independence, and the Black mass revolts of South Africa and the United States.

Her 1930 pamphlet showed historically that the race issue had put American Civilization on Trial and she fused Marxism with revolutionary Black nationalism in her theory of “the Black masses as vanguard” of the American struggle.

As a seventeen-year-old YWL activist, Dunayevskaya was not particularly engaged by the Stalin-Trotsky dispute then raging in the Russian party, but in 1928 she was nonetheless expelled merely for suggesting that the branch read the relevant documents before voting to condemn the founder of the Red Army.

After repeatedly being repulsed in her attempts to rejoin the communists, Dunayevskaya eventually made contact with organized members of the Left Opposition (Trotskyists).

In 1937, after teaching herself literary Russian, she joined Trotsky’s secretariat in Mexico, where she labored indefatigably to unmask the lies of the Moscow frame-up trials and, on one occasion, thwarted a bomb attempt on Trotsky’s life.

State Capitalism

The Stalin-Hitler Pact and the outbreak of World War II represented a crisis in the political life of the young militant. Although deeply devoted to Trotsky, who valued highly her disciplined work habits, boundless energy, honesty and intellectual rigor, Dunayevskaya was no longer able to accept Trotsky’s fundamental notion that Stalin’s Russia, with its massacres of Bolsheviks, forced starvation of peasants, and inhuman labor relations, was somehow a workers’ state, albeit “degenerate.” She reluctantly decided to return to the United States, determined to fight for her ideas as a rank-and-file member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, Dunayevskaya contended that the Stalinist bureaucracy had given birth to a new historical form of class oppression: state capitalism.

Dunayevskaya’s meticulous analysis of Soviet statistics demonstrated that the tyranny of the Stalinist Five Year Plans had effectively subjugated labor, reducing the workers to the status of dehumanized cogs in the productive machine.

Dunayevskaya’s original economic studies went hand in hand with her rethinking of Marxist fundamentals, based on her rediscovery of Marx’s youthful 1948 “humanist” essays, then unknown except to archivists.

Dunayevskaya not only produced and published the first English translations of Marx’s “Alienated Labor” and “Private Property and Communism” (later popularized by Erich Fromm and a whole new generation of East and West European thinkers). She made the theory of alienation and the concept of Marxist humanism the basis for an original interpretation of Marx’s major mature-work, Capital, demonstrating that for Marx himself, it was not a question of a “scientific” study of “economics,” but the condition of the workers, their role in production, their thoughts and their revolts that had been both his point of departure and his point of return.

The notion that the counterrevolution could come from within the revolution was a startling revelation: one that for a thoroughgoing dialectician like Dunayevskaya led immediately to the “second negation” (or “negation of the negation”) — the ceaseless resistance of the workers to their dehumanization and the necessary revolts, which later burst onto the historical stage in the form of the Hungarian Workers Councils of 1956 as well as the wildcats, civil rights struggles, and youth revolts of the 1960s.

Marxism and Freedom

In 1957 when her epoch-making Marxism and Freedom first appeared, people thought she was crazy for daring to juxtapose the actions of some Black school children in Arkansas with man’s (sic) conquest of space. What she had glimpsed was that the idea of freedom, once grasped by the human mind, becomes a material force in the world, that so called “subjectivity” is objectivity, and that in our age of absolutes, new human subjects incarnate what Marx, in Capital, called “the new passions and new forces for the recreation of society.”

How many Marxist intellectuals, whether in the movement or in academia, have even begun to grapple with the ideas of this highly creative and serious woman­ worker-philosopher-revolutionary? Her “friendly enemy,” Herbert Marcuse, described her work as “an oasis in the desert of Marxist thought.”

Back to Lenin Dunayevskaya made her debut as a Trotskyist theoretician under the pseudonym, Freddie Forest, and it was as co­leaders of the Johnson-Forest Tendency that she and her collaborator of the 1940s and early 1950s, C.L.R. James (“J.R. Johnson”) fought their political and organizational battles in and out of the Socialist Workers Party and developed their strikingly original theories on the national question, state capitalism, the American roots of Marxism, and the organizational question.

In 1955, Dunayevskaya founded News and Letters Committees with Charles Denby, a Black auto worker and author of a magnificent autobiography, Indignant Heart, A Black Worker’s Journal (South End Press reprint). Situating their national headquarters in Detroit, they attempted to create a new form of revolutionary organization, a true unity of worker and intellectual, which would be the opposite of the elitist “vanguard” party with its infallible “1ine” imposed from above.

The 1956 News & Letters Constitution specifically designated Black, women, youth and other oppressed groups along with workers organized in decentralized committees as the forces of revolution, thus anticipating the New Left by a full decade.

Yet in many obvious ways, News & Letters, with all its appreciation of spontaneity and self-development, functioned as a traditional Marxist sect. Dunayevskaya’s profound ambivalence on the question of the revolutionary organization (she certainly considered herself an “American Bolshevik”) was articulated in her theory of the duality of Lenin’s thought, one of her most original and problematic contributions.

Here again, Dunayevskaya returned to original archival material in the Russian language, in this case Lenin’s “Philosophical Notebooks,” Tracing the development of Lenin’s thought from his 1914 break with established Marxism to his 1924 “will” denouncing Stalin and declaring war on the new Communist bureaucracy, she made a powerful case for a “split” in Lenin’s thought between the hard-headed party man of What Is To Be Done? (1903) and the revolutionary of 1917 who told the Bolshevik Central Committee that if they failed to join the spontaneous revolution that was sweeping Russia, he would denounce them and “go to the sailors.”

For Dunayevskaya, Lenin’s concept that the full participation of “everyone,” to the last man and woman, in governmental and economic administration would be the test of the new society represented a “new universal” against which revolutionary governments and perforce revolutionary organizations would be measured.

In her justifiable enthusiasm for the theoretical implications of Lenin’s philosophical ‘breakthrough” on dialectics (concretized, for example, in his magnificent State and Revolution), Dunayevskaya chose not to deal concretely with the dualities of Lenin’s organization practice — declaring war on bureaucracy at the same moment in 1921 when he crushed the Kronstadt sailors and banned factional activity with the party.

Thus, although Dunayevskaya performed an important historical function in distinguishing clearly between Lenin, the divided revolutionary leader, and Stalin, the organizer of the counterrevolution, she declined to take up the specific problems posed by Lenin’s words and deeds in a concrete manner.

In a similar vein, Dunayevskaya’s organization, News and Letters Committees, provided a model of a Marxist organization dedicated to democracy and self-development. Yet in practice, this splendidly dedicated organization, which for more than thirty years pioneered new forms of writing, worker-to-worker international relations, participation in mass movements and integration of all layers in theoretical work, was not altogether successful in overcoming some of the stifling sectarian habits of traditional Leninist groupings.

Indeed, when one considers the brilliance with which News & Letters anticipated the great struggles of the 1960s, the understanding and courage with which it participated in them, the profundity of its philosophy in the face of the opportunism, theoretical confusion, and sheer cretinism of its rivals on the left, its relationships with revolutionary movements from Detroit and Montgomery to Prague and Peking, one wonders why its influence and membership have not been more significant.

Part of the answer lies in the tendency of radical intellectuals, faced with the totality of the world crisis, to seek “quick fixes” in pat solutions ranging from participatory democracy (sans theory and class analysis), to Mao’s Little Red Book or the tail-ending of one or another “progressive” one-party state.

Where others proclaimed panaceas or “transitional programs,” Dunayevskaya called for a “new unity of theory and practice” based on “new human relations” and to proclaim that thinking is a revolutionary activity!

That she was not always able to realize the ideals of spontaneity and self-development within her own organizational practice speaks more about the appallingly oppressive conditions in which radical groups are forced to develop in this totalitarian age of decadent capitalism and state capitalism than it does about Dunayevskaya’s failings as a leader.

It is rather for us to take up the challenge laid down by her sixty years of exemplary revolutionary activity and the profound insights developed in her many and always provocative writings.

For if Dunayevskaya did not always come up with the answers one wanted, she knew the right questions to ask, both philosophically and practically. By rediscovering the Marxism of Marx in the context of today’s contradictory realities, she laid the basis for the rebirth of a revolutionary methodology without which the left will never rise above mediocrity and reactiveness.

The theories and writings of this revolu­tionary daughter of Red Russia, this out­ standing American radical activist, this in­ternationalist philosopher of freedom, are the property of all humankind. Let us read and re-read them, discuss and debate them, allow them to enrich us, and trans­mit them to those who will come after us. We will not soon see her like again.

January-April 1988, ATC 12-13

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