[Discussion Article] Why Anarchists Should Read Raya Dunayevskaya

Tòmas MacAilpein

Summary: How Raya Dunayevskaya’s Intersectional Marxism on Race, Class, Gender, and the Dialectics of Liberation relates to Anarcho-Libertarian positions — Editors.

I’ve read the three books in Dunayevskaya’s ‘trilogy of revolution’ and more by Marxist-Humanists. And I’ve always got a lot out of it.

It’s fascinating to see Marxist-Humanists reach very similar conclusions to anarchist communists but coming from a different intellectual and political tradition. In fact, they came out of Trotskyism and even after Dunayevskaya’s break with Trotsky – she served as his Russian-language secretary in Mexico for a couple of years in the 1930s – Lenin’s thinking remained important for some time. There are parallels there with operaismo in Italy, and of course with C.L.R. James, who worked with Dunayevskaya in the Johnson-Forest Tendency.

I totally get why Dunayevskaya’s writings might be off-putting to some people. She delves deep into Hegelian philosophy in her project of renewing marxism and humanism. Paul Mattick thought her first book, Marxism and Freedom (1958), was a ‘Marxian oddity’ and full of ‘incomprehensible philosophical gibberish’. I think Mattick’s dismissal of her work was understandable but wrong and blocked a potential dialogue between two anti-authoritarian marxisms in the US. But, whatever we think about Hegelian dialectics – which for me is very useful because it can help us think about nuance, process and change – it’s true that it gets complicated and that has implications for communicating to people, and has the danger of creating a group of expert interpreters.

But Dunayevskaya also completely refused to accept Mattick’s anti-Leninist critique. Looking back over Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom, the treatment of the Russian revolution turned counter-revolution is incredibly problematic. There’s still a defence of the early stages of the workers’ state and Lenin’s leadership. A hundred years after Kronstadt, Dunayevskaya’s very occasional references to the mutiny – and any other example of resistance to Bolshevism – are terrible. (The only contributor in this new book who really confronts this contradiction for me is the old Italian socialist humanist Rodolfo Mondolfo, writing way back in 1963!)

Over time, Dunayevskaya became more critical of Lenin and his political practice. Marxist-Humanists explicitly advocate the self-emancipation of the working class, highly democratic forms of decision-making, and ‘establishing a new non-state form of governance’ etc. But, I’ve seen very little re-reading of Bolshevism by Marxist-Humanists, of earlier ideas of the ‘workers’ state’ or much in the way of a theory of the state.

Dunayevskaya created a completely new liberatory way of thinking about Marx and humanism. But because she seemed to want nothing to do with – or was highly critical of – currents of socialism outside of Marxism, most importantly anarchism, she basically ignores a significant amount of theory and mass movements around the world historically and in the future – especially theorists who, whatever their limitations, were concerned with exactly the same questions and with thinking about the ‘what comes after the revolution’. She thus closes off some of the ‘new forces and passions of history’ that the Marxist-Humanist tendency is meant to be grounded on.

One small example from near the start of Marxism and Freedom, where Dunayevskaya is discussing past currents of class struggle. She writes:

Despite the mountain of books on the French Revolution, there is not, to this day, a full account of the depth and breadth of the activity of the French masses. It is only recently that Daniel Guérin has written a truly pioneering work, The Class Struggles in the First French Republic [1947] […] (p. 28)

I think Guérin wrote this before he became an anarchist and libertarian communist, attempting to unite the best between marxism and anarchism. But, he himself later acknowledged the contribution Kropotkin made in The Great French Revolution 1789–93, published in 1893. Dunayevskaya seems not to have known of this or cared!

So why do I still like Raya Dunayevskaya so much?

She came to the States as an illiterate Jewish immigrant from Russia, educating herself through the communist/socialist movement in Chicago and developing an understanding of Marx’s critique of political economy and Hegelian philosophy difficult to find in anyone else in the world! She never separated theory and thinking from an active participation in struggles, all struggles against capitalism, racism, and gender oppression. And from the beginning she centred the thoughts and practice of Black Americans, women, women of colour and other oppressed groups.

In the post-World War Two era she was one of the few thinkers who, in rejecting the USSR, Western capitalism and social democracy, began again to develop an anti-capitalist politics relevant to the new struggles and conditions that emerged and continue to emerge. In terms of the ambition of her theoretical/practical project I can only think of Murray Bookchin and Daniel Guérin himself in the ‘anarchist’ scene as doing anything similar (maybe you can think of others).

The articles in this new book continue this open-ended, emancipatory politics for own times, drawing on the best of Marx and trying to understand and link current struggles around the world. Intersectionality was one of the great concepts I learned about from being in the Anarchist Federation. This book approaches it in an interesting and inspirational way.

So aye, anarchists should read Raya Dunayevskaya and other Marxist-Humanists!


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  1. Eugene Plawiuk

    I have had the pleasure of reading them since the early 1970’s as an anarchist

  2. Julie

    Thanks for sharing this analysis! I’m just learning about Dunayevskaya and the Johnson-Forest Tendency through reading an excellent biography about James and Grace Lee Boggs called In Love and Struggle. As an anarchist, I felt excited reading about this tendency, for the very reasons you outlined — the more I read about their beliefs and activities, the more I was like “yall are anarchists!” or at least very adjacent. I know the Boggs’ broke later on with the tendency and some in Correspondence believed they had dropped Marx all together and become more like Black capitalists, but I haven’t gotten to that part of the book yet, so it will be interesting to see if the reflection of anarchist ideas becomes stronger or weaker as their philosophy and activities evolve.