Marxism and Freedom: Dunayevskaya’s Contributions to Marxism and Liberation

Seamus Connolly

Summary: Examines the book’s underlying humanism and critique of totalitarianism, sixty years later — Editors

The publication of Marxism and Freedom: From 1776 until Today in 1958 was a landmark event in the history of Marxism. Appearing in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-6 and the Hungarian revolution of 1956, Marxism and Freedom contained the first English translations of the central “Private Property and Communism” and “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” essays from Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts. These manuscripts had been circulating in Marxist circles in Central and Western Europe since 1927, when David Ryazanov, Director of the Moscow Marx-Engels Institute had released them under the title “Preparatory Work for The Holy Family”, so this belated appearance of an English translation of these essays was highly significant. Marxism and Freedom is remarkable for more than including English translations of these early writings, however. In the context of the by then incontrovertible evidence of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union, but also of renewed struggles for liberation in Europe and America, the book itself spoke to the urgent need to rediscover the essence of Marx’s thought, which Dunayevskaya argued was a deep humanism based on a dialectical relationship between theory and practice. Since Marxism had been sullied by the development of totalitarianism in Russia, by its co-option into the new Stalinist theory of “dialectical materialism” and the sundering of the working classes under successive Five-Year Plans, Dunayevskaya sought to reclaim it through returning to the basis of Marx’s thinking as set against the wider historical context of the period. From the first chapter to the last, Dunayevskaya works out the fundamentals of the dialectical relationship between theory and practice that characterises the humanism of Marxist thought, mapping its development through the French Revolution, the rise of the Trades Union movement and the workers revolts of the nineteenth century, right the way up to the opposition to twentieth century automation and state capitalism.

Making a strong case for the existence of a fundamental underlying unity in Marx’s thought spanning both his early and later periods, Dunayevskaya argues that never for a moment did Marx separate his economics from his politics or from his philosophy: “[n]othing from Marx’s early Humanism,” Dunayevskaya contends, “was ever jettisoned by [Marx] when, at another period, he called it communism” [64]. Dealing with the hoary old accusation of “idealism” that is supposed to permeate Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts and render them outmoded, Dunayevskaya acknowledges that Marx did later depart from his earlier Hegelian language; but while this was so, she demonstrates that even when Marx utilised Hegelian language, in these earlier writings, he was never an idealist in the sense of thinking that the contradictions in society could be resolved through the machinations of thought alone. Dunayevskaya makes it abundantly clear that the notion of the negation of the negation, and the whole dialectic of negativity that Marx takes over from Hegel, is based on real contradictions, and on the real transcendence of those contradictions as an objective (but not solely objective) movement in the world at large. Importantly, Dunayevskaya points out that even in a later work like Capital – which she argues is unified by a scarlet thread of humanism running from its first page to last – it was Marx’s observations of the actions of proletarians struggling against the conditions of their labor at the point of production that helped him break free from the bourgeois concept of theory [65]. So, not only are Marx’s economic categories social categories, as is accepted by most today; they are also thoroughly permeated with the humanism that came out of the working class struggles for the shortening of the working day that so captured Marx and that informed both his early and later writings.

Importantly, Dunayevskaya does not argue for the preference of Marx’s earlier over his later writings. She merely argues that these earlier writings provide the intellectual biographical basis for the deep unity evident across Marx’s writings as a whole. Of course, in arguing this Dunayevskaya was working against a dominant trend in Marxist thinking that sought to downplay his earlier writings as “pre-scientific” and “ideological”. This trend, which had gathered pace during the 1950s, would find its most virulent representative a few years later in the figure of Louis Althusser. Althusser, utilising Gaston Bachelard’s notion of “epistemological rupture”, posited an irreversible break in Marx’s thinking between the 1844 Manuscripts and The German Ideology and Theses on Feuerbach, which appeared the following year. Althusser described the 1844 Manuscripts in his For Marx as the “Marx furthest from Marx”, explicitly deriding them for containing a humanist philosophy that Marx came to renounce and that Althusser argued should be “driven back into the darkness”. Marxism and Freedom, in fighting back against this interpretation and its division of Marx’s thought into irreconcilable earlier idealist and later scientific phases, played an important role in the development of the more tempered consensus that generally holds today.

A second notable contribution of Marxism and Freedom is the related reclamation of the notion of alienation and, with it, the strong strand of individualism that Dunayevskaya argued forms the background for Marx’s thinking. Making the connection once more with Capital, Dunayevskaya draws attention to the commonalities between the later Marx and the Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts. In particular, Dunayevskaya remarks upon the similarities between Marx’s preoccupation with alienation in his earlier writings and his later concern with the ways in which, under capitalism, all concrete labors become reduced to one abstract, congealed mass: “dead, accumulated, materialised labor, that now turns to oppress the living laborer” [56]. In opposition to a thinker such as Althusser, Dunayevskaya argues that the term alienation wasn’t merely a question of philosophical language which Marx quickly discarded when he worked out his “scientific economic theories”. It should be noted, for clarity, that the term alienation does appear itself in Marx’s later works, such as Capital, even if with much reduced frequency – this appearance itself suggesting the untenability of the contention that Marx came to reject the notion. But if not in explicit terms, it is clear that a concern with alienation – a concern with the prolongation of the working day, an increase in the speed of work, its prison-like discipline, and the extent to which workers are appendages to the machine – can all be found centrally in Capital as well as in these earlier writings. Here, as in Marxism and Freedom, the ultimate concern is with workplace democracy and the “need for universality” – the need, that is, to be a whole human being, a concern which Dunayevskaya convincingly argues guided Marx throughout his life.

Importantly, Dunayevskaya’s focus on alienation served as a criticism of both American capitalism and Russian communism at the time. In Marxism in Freedom we can see the concern with alienation drawn out in terms of the struggles of the day: against the intensification of the work routine, but also against the separation of mental and manual labor that she identifies as the cornerstone of Marx’s theory. In Chapter Sixteen there is an explicit focus on automation and the effects of the introduction of the continuous miner (dubbed ‘the man killer’ by the mineworkers), which Dunayevskaya notes brought about the longest strike in mine workers’ history. Making extensive use of direct quotations from the mineworkers themselves, Dunayevskaya is able to bring to the surface in a very direct way the real fears over work alienation and daily survival at the hands of the machine. Elaborating this discussion of dehumanization through reference to Marx’s own writings – particularly his stress on how the instrument of labor in automation confronts the laborer during the labor process as dead labor that dominates and sucks dry his or her living labor power – she manages at the same time to deepen her argument for the existence of the fundamental humanism that underlies and illuminates Marx’s entire corpus.

In relation to Russian communism, Dunayevskaya’s focus on alienation served to puncture the ideology of the Stalinist system – which she describes as “state capitalist” – and the mechanistic and deterministic interpretation of Marx that prevailed therein. Dunayevskaya is clear that the abolition of private property for Marx was a means towards the the abolition of alienated labor and not an end in-itself. The abolition of private property, Dunayevskaya notes, means a new way of life, a new social order, “only if ‘freely associated individuals’ and not abstract ‘society’ become the masters of the socialized means of production” [62]. Deepening her argument, Dunayevskaya draws attention to the importance of Marx’s distinction between vulgar and even positive communism on one hand, and his own philosophy of humanism, on the other. To quote her on the matter:

“another transcendence, after the abolition of private property is needed to achieve a truly new, human society which differs from private property not alone as an “economic system,” but as a different way of life altogether. It is as free individuals developing all their natural and acquired talents that we first leap from what Marx called the pre-history of humanity into its true history, the ‘leap from necessity to freedom’” [58].

This focus on the individual Dunayevskaya posits as the “soul of Marxism,” which is why she points out how Marx warned from the start that “[w]e must above all avoid setting up ‘the society’ as an abstraction opposed to the individual. The individual,’ for Marx, ‘is the social entity. The expression of his [or her] life…is therefore the expression and verification of the life of society” [65].

Dunayevskaya is merciless in Marxism and Freedom in denouncing the dehumanized relations that structure the Russian state. Describing it in powerful language as an “octopus [that] will gorge itself on what is left of the Revolution and on the workers who dare to resist” [226], Dunayevskaya rails against the enshrined separation between mental and manual labor that characterises the Russian state bureaucracy, which she describes as “the most deadly, the most insidious, the most dangerous enemy because it springs from the proletariat and cloaks itself in Marxist terminology” [239]. Striking at the heart of Stalinist ideology, Dunayevskaya pulls apart the proclamation that the perverse form of relations between human beings and machine, where dead labor dominates living labor, had been overcome. On the contrary, Dunayevskaya stresses, ‘the Plan has perfected it, and become a prisoner of it”. In fact, so opposed to the fundamental nature of Marx’s philosophy had the Russian experiment become that Dunayevskaya opines that “[n]ever before has so gigantic a State mobilized itself with such murderous vigilance to keep the proletariat at work while the leaders plan” [239]. The production process had clearly not been stripped of its antagonistic form. It had also clearly failed to realise the creative nature of labor. Likewise, the measure of wealth in Russian Communism was certainly not the plentiful leisure time that Marx had predicted in the Grundrisse and in other important texts. Marxism, for Dunayevskaya, is a theory of liberation or it is nothing.

But Marxism is not only a theory of liberation for Dunayevskaya, of course; it is also a practice of liberation. Dunayevskaya is clear that the essence of the dialectical relationship between theory and practice is the movement from practice to theory that also entails a movement from theory to practice. As already noted, Dunayevskaya reveals Marx as a thinker who places the experiences of the worker at the center of his theory. There is, for her, “no other source for social theory” [146]. For this reason, Dunayevskaya is sharp in her criticism of “professional Marxists” who operate with “too sophisticated an attitude to the revolts which have raged throughout the history of capitalism” [116]. Contrary to this approach, Dunayevskaya praises Marx precisely for this engagement with the working classes and their struggles – an engagement that she argues leads to a new intellectual dimension, one which enables the development of “an intellectual whose whole intellectual, social, political activity and creativity become the expression of precise social forces” [65]. As someone who traversed the line between theory and practice herself – with her lifelong participation in the workers movement, as well as her involvement in the women’s movement and Black liberation movement, her basic concern with real struggles for liberation wherever they arose – Dunayevskaya herself can claim to be such a thinker.

Importantly, at a time in which this engagement and sensitivity was markedly lacking in other intellectuals, Dunayevskaya saw the response of US workers to the length of working day and the very mode of labor they had to engage in, but also the revolt against Soviet Communism in Eastern European, and the Black and Women’s liberation movements, as a mark of genuine and developed consciousness. In Marxism and Freedom, as in Dunayevskaya’s life and work more generally, this reciprocal and dialectical movement between practice and theory, and between theory and practice, is attuned to struggles for liberation in a wider sense than found in orthodox Marxist theory. One of the first thinkers to seriously study Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks, written late in his life, and discussing oppressed nationalities and ethnicities across the world, Dunayevskaya puts forward a theory of liberation that seeks to give voice to those who resist dehumanization in its various forms. In a move that is characteristic of this more capacious notion of liberation, Dunayevskaya, in chapter sixteen of Marxism and Freedom raises the issue of the alignment of the liberatory actions of black school children breaking down segregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, the wildcat strikes in Detroit, and struggles for freedom the world over (including, in her other works, it must be stressed, the struggle for women’s liberation). These struggles are united in their pushing back against domination, and their expansion of the space for freedom at all levels in society. Although Dunayevskaya is robust in defending production as “our point of departure…because to see the crisis in production is to understand it everywhere else” [281-2], her attunement to the dialectics of liberation is such that she also views the crisis of the age as a “crisis of the mind” [282]. In light of this, Marxism and Freedom proclaims the need for a new philosophy, new total outlook to encourage a more determined relationship between theory and practice in all areas of liberation. This new philosophy, a new, real, or radical humanism in which the quest for self-development and freedom is expressed as central and recognized in struggles against sexism, racism, classism, disablism, and, I would like to add, speciesism, is something that we must take up from where Dunayevskaya left off – a point of departure from which it seems that we can make determined progress in meaningfully realizing the dialectics of liberation in the world today.


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