The On-Going Relevance of Marxist-Humanism

Sandra Rein

This article was presented as part of a panel entitled “Alternatives to Capitalism: Theoretical, Practical, Visionary” hosted by the International Marxist Humanist Organization and the Department of Sociology at Loyola University Chicago, July 13, 2012 – Editors

Before I can make the argument for the on-going relevance of Marxist-Humanism, it is necessary to briefly say what I mean by the term Marxist-Humanism.  This necessarily means saying a few words about Raya Dunayevskaya.  It is also necessary to say what I mean when I say relevant.  So, let me begin with a quick introduction to Marxist-Humanism as I use the term here; turn to a definition of what makes this body of thought “relevant” and then close with three areas that I argue benefit from an analysis grounded in Marxist-Humanism.

When using the term Marxist-Humanism, I am specifically drawing on the work of Raya Dunayevskaya.  While many are familiar with Dunayevskaya’s work, for those who may not be, you might first be relieved to know that she wasn’t a stodgy academic and that her philosophy is a living and breathing Marxism that demands that we see practice and theory in a creative unity, both informing the other.

Who was Raya Dunayevskaya?   Dunayevskaya emigrated from Ukraine to the United States in 1922 at the age of 12.  Her early activist years were spent working with the emerging Black civil rights movement and, ultimately, joining outright with the expelled Trotskyists.  In 1937, Dunayevskaya travelled to Mexico to join Trotsky in exile as one of his Russian language secretaries.  She returned to the United States in 1938 for family reasons, but continued to work for the Trotskyist organization, the Socialist Workers Party.  However, by 1939, Dunayevskaya found herself in profound disagreement with Trotsky on the Russian Question.  Dunayevskaya rejected the notion that Russia constituted a “workers’ state, though degenerate” and went on to make her first significant theoretical contribution in her analysis of Russia as state capitalist, first circulated as a bulletin in the breakaway Workers Party in 1941.  I am going to return to state capitalist analysis when discussing the relevance of Marxist-Humanism, so I will simply note here that Dunayevskaya became co-leader of the State Capitalist tendency (known as the Johnson Forest tendency) with CLR James.  Although there was a nearly 15 year period of collaboration between Dunayevskaya and James, they parted ways (both philosophically and organizationally) in 1955.  At that time, Dunayevskaya joined with others to form the News and Letters committees, espousing a philosophy of Marxist-Humanism.  Until the time of her death in 1987, Dunayevskaya worked out Marxist-Humanism in relation to the context of the times in many articles, and in three book-length works she called the “trilogy of revolution”.

Although Dunayevskaya is not the only person to argue for a humanist interpretation of Marx’s works, she is rather unique in that she argued that it is Marx’s humanism that infuses all of his works, whether one considers the early 1844 writings, the Manifesto, the Grundrisse, Capital, or his late ethnographic writings.  Moreover, it is Marx’s humanism that is derived from the “righting of Hegel”, that is, to consistently develop the dialectical movement from the labour process, that is the toil and activity of the workers.  But this was not, as Marx wrote and Dunayevskaya tirelessly argued, a rejection of Hegel or Idealism.  Rather, Marx wrote in 1844 that his own philosophical outlook was “Thorough going Naturalism or Humanism” that “distinguishes itself from idealism and from materialism and is at the same time the truth united both.” (Marxism and Freedom, p. 42)  Thus, the notion of Marxist-Humanism relies on the recognition of the Hegelian dialectic as the method of Marx’s development of a critique of capitalism, that is the source, of its driving logic, though “righted” to stand on its feet.  Logically, Marx’s method is driven by negativity, that is the historical movement derived from the negation of the negation – to be Hegelian in terminology.  Practically, it means that his analysis was always grounded in the activity of the workers, as production is the material basis of social organization, cognition, and worker consciousness.  New beginnings can be thought, but they can only be acted out and creatively rethought by labouring masses.  And, human beings, Hegel and Marx tells us, are in a constant process of striving to realize freedom which is denied by a repressive, alienating social system that is founded on the extraction of surplus value – that is modern capitalism.

Dunayevskaya argued that in Marx’s humanism we find Hegel’s method and the promise of achieving freedom.  Dunayevskaya critiqued post-Marx Marxism, beginning with Engels for losing sight of the dialectic and its human content.  Dunayevskaya argued, in the light of the Russian revolution, the failure of post-Marx Marxism to project a humanist vision prevented revolutionaries from anticipating and dealing with the transformation of the Revolution to its very opposite, state capitalism.  Moreover, it allowed for Marx’s analysis to be tied to oppressive totalitarian regimes and the fetishization of “the plan” as the supposed corrective to capitalism.

Before I turn to the question of relevance, which I admit looks bleak given that I have broken-off Dunayevskaya’s analysis as if it ends with the failure of the Russian Revolution, I wanted to briefly note that Dunayevskaya’s use of the term Humanism was consistent with Marx’s own use of the term.  In other words, I do not intend to conjure up the debates of post-modern anti-humanism, or the debates around secular vs. Christian humanism.  In fact, the terminology used by Marx and Dunayevskaya seems to be to be refreshingly clear in its intention – to highlight that social forms are not born of the works of unseen gods and are not structures that are forever set in stone.  Rather they are the products of social interaction, that is real, living breathing human beings.  These are not humans set to dominate nature, but are people whose activities have impact upon the world (social and physical) around them.  A Marxist Humanist philosophy, then, is one founded on the recognition that freedom is activity, that it is the unity of subject and object that has materiality and social impact.  While alienation and oppression are real, experienced conditions, they are not the result of adopting humanism – in fact, they are derived from quite the opposite approach.

Defining humanism as such, and noting its Marxist roots, does lead us nicely to the question of relevance.  Of course, we all know what “relevant” means – connected to the matter at hand.  But what, exactly is the “matter at hand” – and it is in defining the “what” that I think Marxist-Humanism is particularly relevant.  So, what is the matter at hand?  There are several, though related, that are of key importance, I will highlight three.

First, Marxist Humanist analysis of state capitalism tells us that any attempt to propose and workout real alternatives to capitalism must understand that the key to alienation under capitalism is that it produces value by the extraction of surplus value.  This is not a question of private property or a State adopting the correct “plan”.   It must be derived from freely associated labour that is cooperative but not value producing.  It must be visionary, but it doesn’t have to be without a history or philosophy.

Second, Marxist-Humanism directs our attention to those actors in society whose very subjectivity is in revolt.  At different points in history, different groups and movements have demonstrated this – for Dunayevskaya she singled out Women’s Liberation, Black civil rights movements, and Youth.  In light of today, we can see the yearning for freedom in North Africa, the Middle East, Burma, among Indigenous peoples, and closer to home, the youth-driven (but not exclusively so) Occupy movement.  Marx’s method drove him to look to the masses for organizational forms and instances of revolt, his later works took him to study non-Western peoples, we need to follow the method, but also to engage it philosophically.  For example, the Occupy movement has made great use of the 99% vs. the 1% slogan.  But if this is left to be understood as merely a question of distribution, we will be no further along in a critique of capitalism or the realization of an alternative to it.  So, we need to follow Marx and Dunayevskaya here to see this as a time to engage the theory arising from practice but to also inform practice with theory.

Third, we cannot be complacent to crisis.  This may sound strange, but let me explain.  Because the Left has been dominated by overly deterministic versions of orthodox Marxism, there is a tendency to still hold to the notion of the inevitability of socialism, that the last great crisis of capitalism is upon us, the grave-diggers have arrived.  But a deeper engagement with Marx’s philosophy of revolution should tell us this is a moment of which to beware.  Crisis, economic crisis as we see it today, is a mechanism of “cleaning house” for capitalism.  It destroys non-productive capital (and the people by whom it was once employed) but it does not transcend value production of its own accord.  That means we are at a crucial historical moment that needs the projection of Marxist-Humanism philosophy more than ever.  We have seen the catastrophic alternatives when such a philosophy is not the driving force of change.


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