Politicalization of Philosophy Then and Now

J Turk

Summary: Raya Dunayevskaya’s concept of the “politicalization of philosophy” routes political analyses through Marxist-Humanist roots. As method for any area of activity, it’s a way to avoid succumbing to a formulaic ideology that approaches any given phenomenon with a series of fixed conclusions, irrespective of existing realities. This article is adapted from a subreport to the 2018 IMHO Convention in Chicago–Editors

The great Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci once critiqued the Russian Marxist economist Nicholai Bukharin: “[He] no longer understands the importance and significance of the dialectic, which is degraded from being a doctrine of consciousness and the inner substance of history and the science of politics, into being a subspecies of formal logic and elementary scholasticism.“

Doctrine of consciousness, inner substance of history, science of politics – these are the elements of what Raya Dunayevskaya called “politicalization of philosophy.” Speaking to an audience in then-Communist East Europe in 1986, Raya framed it this way:

“Because politicalization has, in the hands of the Old Left, meant vanguardism and program-hatching, we have kept away from the very word. It is high time not to let the ‘vanguard party to lead’ appropriate the word, politicalization. The return is to its original meaning in Marx’s new continent of thought as the uprooting of the capitalist state, its withering away, so that new humanist forms like the Paris Commune, 1871, emerge (“A Post-World War II View of Marx’s Humanism, 1843-83; Marxist-Humanism, 1950s-1980s,” (“A Post-World War II View of Marx’s Humanism, 1843-83; Marxist-Humanism, 1950s-1980s”).

Few of Dunayevskaya’s writings are absent of comment on real-world movements and of critique of pseudo-revolutionary attitudes. At various times she declared that this was “measuring our philosophy against the actual objective developments” and at other times it was “politicalization as the concretization of philosophy.” Furthermore the style of politicalization changed with new stages in Marxist-Humanism.

This was true even before Marxist-Humanism had a name.  In her “philosophic moment,” the idea of Marxist-Humanism was released, articulated by her 1953 Letters on Hegel’s Absolutes. Preceding that breakthrough were years of study and dialogs, in the middle of which occurred the general strike of West Virginia coal miners in 1949 and 1950. The year after the strike, Dunayevskaya, CLR James and Grace Lee Boggs, leaders of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, departed from Trotskyism. They reconstituted the JFT as a new, independent organization in 1951, Correspondence Committees. But in the new formation, her desire to at once publish a newspaper dedicated to a new wave of miner strikes over seniority, and the general strike before it, was rejected by James and Boggs. Furthermore Correspondence Committees did not publish a wide-circulation publication for the first two years of its existence.

In 1953, Stalin died. She again turned to the American worker for perspective. She met with black autoworker Charles Denby. In his and his co-workers’ comments – one quipped that his foreman would be a worthy replacement for Stalin – she recognized proletarian internationalism and drew direction for her essay on trade unions in post-revolutionary Russia. In contrast Boggs believed there was more interest among workers in the mundane than in global events. She cited women workers giving deference to sharing recipes over talking about Russia. “For Grace Lee [Boggs], Stalin’s death ended in depoliticalization” (Vol. III, Section I introduction to The Raya Dunayevskaya Collection).

Lenin realized the role of subjectivity in revolution from his reading of Hegel’s Science of Logic – the Soviets, the peasantry, the national liberation movements. James, Dunayevskaya and Boggs were aware of this, but James and Boggs could not do the same, to reach much less surpass the stage Lenin achieved. They could not name the new subjects of their time. As Raya put it later:

“Where Marxist-Humanism now checks before and after each movement from practice also the movement from theory, and measures how we anticipated some of the events as well as created the fabric – the single dialectic in both subjectivity and objectivity – that was not so when we were a united Tendency in the critical period 1950-53, when the theory of state-capitalism still operated as a united JFT” (Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 1984-85).

The experience of depoliticalization could be the outcome of State-Capitalist Theory without Marxist-Humanism. By splitting from Boggs and James and founding News and Letters Committees, Dunayevskaya overcame the barriers to articulating that single dialectic which enabled the analyzing of political turning points – the East German workers revolt, the Hungarian Revolution, The Montgomery Bus Boycott – on new philosophic ground.

• • •

Analyses of the current world through the lens of history and philosophy can be found in Dunayevskaya’s three books, in her journalism in News & Letters, in speeches, and in letters. Furthermore crucial analyses appeared twice a year in lengthy drafts and final reports which were called Perspectives Reports. She presented these in conjunction with the yearly gatherings of News and Letters Committees. It was inconceivable that those reports would be anything but public and up for discussion.

Another form, political letters, intentionally combined analyses of critically important events with theoretic grounding. There were three series of these letters:

  • Weekly Political Letters, 1961-1962. Forty were published in 16 months.
  • Political Letters, 1962-1966. There were 10 published over four years.
  • Political-Philosophic Letters, 1976-1985. There were 20 over nine years. (Please see the list of letters, appended.)

The launch of the Weekly Political Letters was unexpected but understandable, given the experiences with James and Boggs. But also the completion and publication of Marxism and Freedom in 1957 challenged thinkers to measure theories of revolution against the realities of a state-capitalist world and the new movements from practice. These letters carried forth that challenge. They were mailed to the News & Letters subscribers and others. Often they were only two pages long. They were also read aloud in NLC meetings and included messages directly to the organization. Members led educational discussions about current events based on the letters.

The first “WPL” was impelled by President Kennedy’s 1961 invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs just two years after the successful revolution (4/22/61; see all Weekly Political Letters and Political Letters here). “So ominous was the new counter-revolutionary move American imperialism had launched with the invasion,” Dunayevskaya explained, “that we had at once decided to issue a Weekly Political Letter. Since we were too few in number and too poor in finances to print more than a monthly paper, these mimeographed letters were offered to all readers, and initiated a new stage of development for us, testing us by measuring our philosophy against the actual objective developments as they were occurring weekly” (25 Years of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S.: A History of Worldwide Revolutionary Developments). Eighteen months later, the U.S. blockade of Cuba compelled Dunayevkaya to fire off a new Political Letter, the first in a new series, because of the threat of nuclear war, but also to show the state-capitalist constraints over Castro’s Cuba (10/25/62).

The unity of the movements from practice to theory and from theory to practice, she held, is the Absolute Idea for our age. The book Marxism and Freedom was completed in 1957 with that new illumination of the dialectic. The letters were distributed in search of collaborators in expanding the theoretical base that Marxist-Humanism worked out in Marxism and Freedom.

Looking for such a dialog, Dunayevskaya wrote a letter titled “A Brief Outline of the New Book.” In five parts the book would cover the African Revolutions, the “Negro Question in America,” “the Russian-American struggle for world power, vs. American workers’ struggles against Automation, and Russian workers’ slowdowns,” “Hegel’s Absolute Idea, or the Subjectivity of Self-Liberation,” and “the New Humanism.” This was, of course, a first draft of Philosophy and Revolution, which would not appear until 1973 (6/3/61). The topic of another letter was the new, paperback edition of Marxism and Freedom, this one with a new chapter on “The Challenge of Mao Tse-tung” and a concluding section, “In Place of a Conclusion: Two Kinds of Subjectivity” (11/8/63). It first appeared in 1963 in the Japanese translation of Marxism and Freedom. This too pointed toward the eventual chapter on Mao in Philosophy and Revolution.

Dunayevskaya concluded that writing the letters and seeking dialogue “demonstrate what political-philosophic intervention means in establishing new international relations, especially in the Third World.” The result of these dialogues entered directly into the third section of Philosophy and Revolution, “Economic Reality and the Dialectics of Liberation,” with chapters on Africa and East Europe.

• • •

“The need for ‘second negativity’, that is, a second revolution, has become concrete,” Raya concluded in Philosophy and Revolution. Perversions of the Hegelian-Marxian dialectic call for its reconstitution on human grounds (286-288). Marx’s philosophy of revolution became the burning question of the revolutions of the 1970s. Commensurate with such new beginnings, Raya encouraged News and Letters Committees to draw conclusions. For the newspaper News & Letters, “The philosophic dimension became increasingly inseparable from analysis of current events” (The Myriad Global Crises of the 1980s and the Nuclear World since World War II). In line with that new standard, she started new series of writings – Political-Philosophic Letters. These were unscheduled analyses, outside the publishing routine of News & Letters, immediately responding to new developments. A new aspect of these was their length and on a single topic. (The expectation was that the members would project our ideas in this manner as well.)

The first letter in this series concerned the Portuguese Revolution. Dunayevskaya saw a new character of revolt in its Women’s Liberation dimension, it roots in anti-colonial African revolutions, and its questioning the mass party. Subsequent letters analyzed revolutions in Southern Africa in the context of global rivalry by the U.S., Russia and China; the translation of Capital we know today and those who try to limit the Marxian dialectic, all in light of economic crisis; and Reagan’s flirtation with Europe’s Nazi past in light of the 50th anniversary of the Spanish Revolution. Two letters dealt with Mao Zadong, one examining the decomposition of his rule, the other the power struggle after his death. And we are somewhat acquainted with Political-Philosophic Letters on the Middle East because some were circulated a few weeks ago. Three letters were devoted to the Arab world and five to the Iranian Revolution.

• • •

It was the high point and retreat of the Iranian Revolution which occupied Political-Philosophic Letters in 1979 and 1980. Iranian Marxist-Humanists, here and in Iran, read and responded to them. Importantly, simultaneous with the Political-Philosophic Letters was the drafting of the book, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution. It achieved a new stage with presenting the whole body of Marx’s thought, 1841 to 1883, as philosophically consistent and under continuous development. It also separated the dialectical thought of Marx from the century of Marxists afterward. This manner of discussing Marx’s Marxism appeared in her letters about the Iranian Revolution.

Her letter in March 1979 described how the new Iranian revolution – whose depth was seen in worker strikes, consumption of revolutionary literature, and Women’s Liberation – had been assailed from Day One. The incipient theocracy used anti-imperialism to frame its attacks on revolutionaries and grow its ideology for the state. Raya’s analysis of the IRP’s proposed constitution reached back to the first Russian Revolution, 1905, and Iran’s, 1906-1911, which featured Anjumeni (local committees) and women revolutionaries. It also reached to Marx’s theory of revolution at the end of the 1848 Revolutions and Lenin’s after the March revolution. In both instances, dialectal thought enabled revolutions to clarify goals and to separate from allies of earlier periods.

That perspective was greatly expanded in Raya’s December 1979 letter. About the seizure of the American embassy, the letter located it not in the anti-imperialist tradition of Lenin, but in the tactics of the IRP consolidating its power. But the letter opened with: “It sounds so abstract, so easy to say, with Hegel, that philosophy is the ‘thinking study of things’.” The rest of the paragraph concerned the distance between the idea of freedom and reality. It set up a discourse about a century of thought and revolutions. By bringing these forward, we dispose with “the analytic understanding” which poses a path and only wishes it were taken. The critique of those Iranian revolutionaries who believed it was possible to coexist with Islamic dominance in the revolution was unmistakable.

Raya wrote a very unusual Political-Philosophical Letter in October 1982. The title is a window on its subject matter: “On The Battle of Ideas: Philosophic-Theoretic Points of Departure as Political Tendencies Respond to the Objective Situation.” It did not discuss the objective situation, not in the way most of her other letters did. It did launch a five-year-long discussion on the dialectics of philosophy and organization. The point of departure was an attempt in 1951 by Grace Lee Boggs to “read” the history of the party in the Russian Revolution through the language of the Doctrine of the Notion in Hegel’s Logic. This sort of politicalization erred, Raya wrote, because Boggs and James were preoccupied with the revolutionary party as mediator rather than with philosophic mediation. “Once I ventured out in 1953, and confronted the actual world movement from practice,” she wrote, “the integrality of philosophy and revolution showed itself to be (or should I say, aspired to become) the solution to the problematic of the modern world” (reprinted in The Power of Negativity, 249). There’s no way to summarize this letter but it could be studied along with Marxism and Freedom.

• • •

Raya held that politicalization of philosophy is an assignment history has given each of us. In that spirit, I wrote about the alarming decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. In part it read:

“The fact is that it is the 11 million undocumented workers who are unprotected from the state. The individual stories of flight from danger are mashed and flattened into the Right’s narrative of uniform lawlessness. The Central American person and her aspirations stand in genuine opposition to the monolithic state, which differs little in this case from the former Communist state-capitalisms. In conceiving his new humanism, the young Marx wrote, ‘We should especially avoid re-establishing society, as an abstraction, opposed to the individual. The individual is the social entity’.”

So we should read the political conclusions in any of Dunayevskaya’s writings and speeches with caution. They are not to be applied outside the historical setting which evoked them. The method of engagement, though, can be recreated by anyone desiring to change the world by grasping it and its liberatory movements as well as their many internal differentiations.

Appendix: Raya Dunayevskaya’s Weekly Political Letters, Political Letters and Political Philosophic Letters

4/22/61WPLPreliminary Statement on Crisis Over Cuba (Bay of Pigs)
5/5/61WPLRecent Growth of the CP’s in Western Europe. and Especially in Great Britain
5/11/61WPLDe Gaulle and the Radical Parties at the Present Stage of Trench Crisis
5/17/61WPLSino-Soviet Unity (at Geneva) and Rift (at “summit”)
5/22/61WPLOn Apologists for Russian Communism
6/3/61WPLBrief Outline of New Book
6/13/61WPLOn the 5-4 Supreme Court Decision of 6/6/61
6/21/61WPLOn the 20th Anniversary o f the State-Capitalist Tendency
7/7/61WPLSelf-Organization of Proletariat, Working with “Other” Organizations, “Small Mass Partyism” and  Marxist-Humanism
7/14/61WPLBerlin Crisis, European Common Market. and International Class Struggle
8/2/61WPLThree Letters on Critique of the RCP Draft Program
8/9/61WPLThree Letters on Critique of the RCP Draft Program
8/14/61WPLThree Letters on Critique of the RCP Draft Program
9/10/61WPLAttitudes to War: The Not-so-Neutral Neutrals and the Working Class
9/17/61WPLSpontaneity of Action and Organization Of Thought: In Memoriam of the Hungarian Revolution
9/25/61WPLComplete and General Disarmament, or Two Can Play the Game
10/2/61WPLThe Syrian Revolt: The Cold Mar In the Middle East
10/9/61WPLCrisis Soon-To-Be in South Viet Nam and the Sending of U.S. Troops
10/16/61WPLMarxist-Humanism vs. Communism
10/23/61WPLThe New Stage of American Labor Struggles
10/30/61WPLThe Sino-Soviet Rift, or State Capitalist Power Politics
11/6/61WPLOn the American Negro and the African Revolution
11/13/61WPLIsrael, Burma, Outer Mongolia and the Cold War
11/27/61WPLKhrushchev’s “Destalinization”: Fact, Myth, Theory
12/4/61WPLWhy the New Crop of Books on Marxist-Humanism? Why Not on its American Roots, Part I
12/11/61WPLWhy the New Crop of Books on Marxist-Humanism? Why Not on its American Roots, Part II
1/2/62WPLThe American Katanga Lobby and the Congo Crisis
1/15/62WPLHigh Blown Words on “High Road of Recovery” from the Recession that is Still With Us
1/22/62WPLJFK’s Economic Report: A 93 Billion Dollar Budget, an Army of 5 Million Unemployed – and the “Atlantic Community”
1/29/62WPLIn Memoriam: Natalia Sedova Trotsky
2/5/62WPLJFK’s Willful, Vicious Ignorance of Marxism and Rusk’s Dollar Diplomacy at Punta del Esta
2/12/62WPLThe General Strike, The Class Weapon, Its Spontaneous Birth, Development – and Abuse, as Well as its Relationship to the Peace Movements
3/5/62WPLJapan’s New Left of Intellectuals and Workers: Possibilities of New International Relations
4/30/62WPLTheoreticians at the Crossroads, or Toward New Formulation of the Relationship of Theory to Practice
5/28/62WPLThe African Revolutions at the Crossroads: Role of Labor the Single Party, Neo-Colonialism, State-Capitalism, and Africa, Africa, Africa
7/6/62WPL(Special Double Issue) Gambia Close-up: The Gambia Takes the Long, Hard Road to Independence
8/1/62WPLA Critical Turning point in European History: British Anti-Nuclear Movements Come Up Against State-Capitalism, Russian and Franco-German Varieties
8/15/62WPL(Special Double Issue) Which Way Now? West Africa Under the Impact of Communism and Neo-Colonialism
8/17/62WPLThe Negro American
10/25/62PLMarxist-Humanism vs. The U.S. Blockade of Cuba, The Russian Missile Bases There, Fidel Castro’s ‘Selective” Party, All Playing With Nuclear Holocaust
12/8/62PLThe China-India War In A Nuclear State-Capitalist Age: Relationship of Imperialism to the Ideological Struggles
2/12/63PLDe Gaulle’s Challenge to Kennedy: A New Franco-German Axis as a Dominant World Power
4/15/63PLAmerican Civilization on Trial as statement of Our View and as Basis for Follow-up Studies and Articles
7/14/63PLThe Challenge of the March on Washington: Development and Division in Negro Leadership Vs. Mass and Marxist-Humanist Concepts of Freedom NOW
7/24/63PLThe New Sino-Soviet Conflict
9/26/63PLSartre’s Search for a Method to Undermine Marxism
11/18/63PLThe Forthcoming Paperback Edition of Marxism and Freedom
6/7/64PLGoldwater Primary Victory in California: or Under the Backlash of Counter-Revolution
5/5/66PLDo Mao’s and De Gaulle’s Pretentions to New World Roles Change the International Balance of Power? – The State of the World Economy and the Theory of Retrogression
Jan.-Feb. 1976PPLWill the revolution in Portugal advance? Under the whip of the counter-revolution
Jan. 24, 1976PPLThe UN Resolution on Zionism —and Ideological Obfuscation Also on the Left
Feb. 26, 1976PPLMao’s Last Hurrah,
May 23, 1976PPLWest Europe and its Communist Parties; Portugal and its Socialist Party; New Stage of State-Capitalist Crises
July 1976PPLTwo Summits: The U.S. Calls Western Summit in Neo-Colonial Puerto Rico and Russia Calls One in its East German Satellite
Aug. 1976PPLLebanon: The Test Not Only of the P.L.O. but the Whole Left
Oct. 1976PPLHenry Kissinger’s African Safari: Pressuring Rhodesia while Bolstering Apartheid South Africa.
Nov. 17, 1976PPLPost-Mao China: Who is Hua Kuo-feng? What is Mao’s Legacy? Are there any changes in global relations coming out of the People’s Republic of China?
Dec. 15-30, 1976PPLToday’s Global Crisis, Marx’s Capital, and the Marxist Epigones Who Try to Truncate It and the Understanding of Today’s Crises
May 15, 1978PPLThe Latin American Unfinished Revolutions
March 25, 1979PPLIran: Unfoldment of, and Contradictions in, Revolution
Nov. 27, 1979PPLGrave Contradictions in the Iranian Revolution
Oct. 11 1979PPLThe Two Russian Revolutions, and Once Again, On the Theory of Permanent Revolution
Dec. 17. 1979PPLNot So Random Thoughts On: What is Philosophy? What is Revolution? 1789-1793; 1848-1850; 1914-1919; 1979
April 29, 1980PPLThe Carter/Brzezinski-Ordered Imperialist Intrusion Into Iran — and What About Khomeini/Bani-Sadr’s “Holy War” Against the Left?
Nov. 1980PPLSpecial Introduction for Iranian Edition of Marx’s Humanist Essays
Jan. 5, 1982PPLBegin’s Israel Moves Further and Further Backward to His Reactionary, Terrorist Beginnings
Oct. 1982PPLOn the Battle of Ideas: Philosophic-Theoretic Points of Departure as Political Tendencies Respond to the Objective Situation
June 1985PPLPolitical-Philosophic Notes on Reagan’s Visit to Bitburg
Nov. 26, 1985PPLAndropov’s Ascendance Reflects Final Stage of State-Capitalist Degeneracy




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