Defending Raya Dunayevskaya’s Intersectional Marxism

Kieran Durkin

Summary: Presented at a panel in London at an IMHO meeting celebrating the paperback edition on the eve of the Historical Materialism Conference –Editors

We chose, as the title of this book: Raya Dunayevskaya’s Intersectional Marxism. We might equally have chosen: Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxist Humanism; or: Raya Dunayevskaya’s Humanist Marxism. For it is the humanism of Dunayevskaya’s Marxism that unites her focus on class, gender, and race, and that allows us to speak of ‘intersectionality’ in a very specific sense. To draw a connection between intersectionality and humanism here – a connection often deemed, on the Left today, to illicitly cross the bounds of the commensurable – is to recognise that there are multiple axes of oppression that overlie one another and that are, in the hands of Dunayevskaya, united into a single thematic that speaks of both the diversity and the connectedness of struggle.

What Dunayevskaya offers to us, perhaps more than anything else, through her humanist intersectional analysis, is what can be called a situated ontology of struggle, that is to say: a lived account of the life of struggle from the point of view of those who struggle. And, as if to complete the circle, in her situated ontology of struggle it is the articulation of her humanism that is the operative element. ‘Humanism’, for Dunayevskaya, is coded both as a recognition of this ontology of struggle and, also, as a commitment to its realisation. In contrast to those ‘professional Marxists’ who retreat from the realm of struggle, in literal and metaphorical terms, Dunayevskaya spoke of the special burden placed upon those of us who cannot turn our faces from struggle: a burden, that is, of ‘sustain[ing] both hope and clarity of judgment’ (2000: xix) in times where it might seem that no such hope is warranted.

For Dunayevskaya, ‘the central point of Marxian theory [is] that revolt marks every stage of capitalist progress’ (2000: 117). Indeed, it is only from such a position that she could defend as ‘humanist’ Marx’s observation that it is social existence that determines consciousness. There is, she tells us,

nothing mechanical about this materialist conception of history; the truth that social existence determines consciousness is not a confining wall, but a doorway to the future, as well as an appreciation of the past (1973b: 153).

A Marxist humanist ontology of struggle dictates that attempts to curtail dignity, agency, and humanity are always met with attempts to (re)assert one’s dignity, agency, and humanity. The hope that Dunayevskaya calls for is based on the ontological assumption that, as Joel Kovel puts it,

[w]here there is injustice and expropriation, rebellion will arise: that is given in the terms of the human condition, and in the endless evils of the world. These uprisings will come due; the real question is how, transformatively, will they be developed?’ (2000: xix)

At the heart of this ontology, we can discern an implied relationship between the former aspect (that a rebellion will rise) and the latter (that the real question is how it will be developed). This relationship consists of the need to be attentive to the actions of those in struggle. Of course, this is a principle that Dunayevskaya took from Marx, who introduced what she termed ‘a new intellectual dimension’, in which the concept of theory was unified with action (2000: 65). At the least, Dunayevskaya was surely correct in noting that what Marx was doing, even in works such as Capital, was refining new categories out of the impulses of workers in struggle. It was not the workers who were ‘practicing’ Marxism, but Marx who was ‘universalizing their praxis’ (1973: 199).

But it is Dunayevskaya, and not Marx, who develops this concept – that is to say, of the reciprocal movement between practice and theory. It is Dunayevskaya who forms it into a principle. This radical engagement with the spirit and letter of Marx is such that the two moments of praxis are articulated as markedly processual and interpenetrating, linked to a sense of subjectivity beyond the grasp of the objectivity of theory that we find, of course, in Marx himself, but radically emphasised in Dunayevskaya. Such a focus connects with Dunayevskaya’s attentiveness to the ‘voices from below’ and to the ‘new passions and forces that develop in the bosom of society’ – the new passions and forces that give rise to the struggles for the social transformation of the future.

It is the dual movement between practice and theory that is the key to her account of the process of realising social freedom. In her contribution to Erich Fromm’s 1965 edited collection Socialist Humanism, Dunayevskaya outlines the task that confronts out age – namely,

first, to recognize that there is a movement from practice — from the actual struggles of the day — to theory; and, second, to work out the method whereby the movement from theory can meet it. A new relationship of theory to practice, a new appreciation of ‘Subject’ of live human beings struggling to reconstruct society, is essential (1967: 75).

This is the task that we must redouble our efforts relative to today. In so doing, we must also not forget that there is also a movement from theory. Theory is not simply the dumb amplification of activity, although amplifying of activity is an integral component of theory. Theory contains its own element: a syncretic capacity that takes activity and makes something else of it, even if that be just a drawing out of its internal and unmediated aspects.

Dunayevskaya often claimed that Marx, in his turn towards the critique of political economy, opened ‘a whole new continent of thought’. While Marx’s analysis remains pivotal, inviolable to making sense of this new space, it remains a terrain – physical, mental, and geographical – that demands to be continually explored and responded to in terms of both theory and practice. Marx’s critique of political economy disclosed the ultimate structuring limitations (and thus the ultimate directionality of struggle), but it did not disclose the entirety of what Dunayevskaya called the ‘revolution in permanence’: a dynamically unfolding society in which individuals could freely develop and express their own creativity as part of a society of similarly free, creative individuals.

As a propaedeutic to the study of the revolution in permanence, it is important to recognise that workers are human beings in all their determinateness, and that the class relation is lived through different forms of race, gender, sexual and other determination. During periods in which the consciousness of racial, gendered, and sexual determinateness is to the fore, theory can help to reveal and delimit the revolutionary potential of such movements. Theory, in the form of Marxist humanist intersectional analysis, can help to reveal what Dunayevskaya termed the ‘the hidden Subject’ (2000: 10), i.e., the driving force of the revolutions of the future – a force that cannot be ordained in advance but that will arise in response to the multifarious but related dehumanisations of capitalist existence. That a sense of class determinateness is on the rise today, in a world of renewed Victorian misery, provides the extra lever that this theory needs. It is to this – and to the practical forms of struggle that develop in these spaces – that we must turn.


Dunayevskaya, Raya. 1967. ‘Marx’s Humanism Today’. In Socialist Humanism (1967 [1965]), London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press.

Dunayevskaya, Raya. 1973. Philosophy and Revolution. From Hegel to Sartre, and from Marx to Mao. New York: Delta.

Dunayevskaya, Raya. 2000. Marxism and Freedom. From 1776 until Today. New York: Humanity Books.

Kovel, Joel. ‘Foreword’ to Marxism and Freedom. From 1776 until Today. New York: Humanity Books.


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