Report on Mini-Conference on Raya Dunayevskaya’s Intersectional Marxism

Damian Algabre

Summary: On the first-ever conference on Raya Dunayevskaya’s work–Editors

On July 10th, 2021, the International Marxist-Humanist Organization, the Paulo Freire Democratic Project of Chapman University, and Department of Sociology of University of California, Santa Barbara sponsored the first-ever conference on Raya Dunayevskaya’s work through discussions of the book Raya Dunayevskaya’s Intersectional Marxism: Race, Class, Gender, and the Dialectics of Liberation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). The book, a collection of essays, grapples with Dunayevskaya’s insights into state capitalism while bringing into focus the way that her Marxism addressed authoritarianism, capitalism, sexism, and racism in a way that we might today call intersectional. Dunayevskaya’s unapologetic humanism and her engagement with Hegelian dialectics offer us indispensable insight for critical issues today.

While the ongoing pandemic made an online conference a necessity, the fact that it was online made it possible for a lot of people to attend. There were over 80 participants at the first session, over 60 at the second, and nearly 50 at the third. The full recording can be found here: https://imhojournal.org/articles/ni-conference-debating-raya-dunayevskayas-intersectional-marxism/. The conference brought together participants from Nepal, India, Iran, Brazil, Ireland, USA, UK, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden.

The conference was broken up into three sessions:

  • Session One: Raya Dunayevskaya and Contemporary Revolutionary Theory
  • Session Two: Hegel, Dialectics, and Humanism in Dunayevskaya’s Writings
  • Session Three: A Living Legacy: Dunayevskaya on Race, Gender, and Revolution

In the first session, Dunayevskaya’s work was brought into conversation with the most common aspects of revolutionary theory permeating the contemporary left. Speakers cited issues within today’s left such as class reductionism, voluntarism, and the lack of vision that are closely related to the poststructuralist and postmodern theories that inform it and fail to adequately answer the question: what comes after the revolution? Perhaps most urgently, speakers also discussed how humanism might remedy the established left’s inability to work outside of itself nor fight against the rise of modern Fascism. The speakers advocated for a return to dialectics in the vein of Dunayevskaya’s own study of revolutionary moments in order to give clearer shape and direction to a seemingly fractured left. Paul Mason, journalist and author of PostCapitalism, gave a striking image of the sort of myopia that class reductionists face when he described the ending scene of Bertolt Brecht’s 1932 film Who Owns the World? The scene depicts a train car full of a “young Communist team” arguing with wealthy train passengers over the state of the world. When a wealthy passenger finally challenges, “Who… will change the world?”, however, it is not the group of Communists who are ready to reply. Instead, a young woman not engaged in the argument until that point finally raises her voice to give a confident answer: “Those who don’t like it.” Considering the insights of this session’s speakers, it seems that Dunayevskaya’s theory would readily recognize the young woman’s subjectivity just as readily as that of the Communist team—something that many other currently prevailing philosophies would fail to do.

In the second session, the panel took a closer look at Hegelian dialectics and humanism, arguing for their relevance in a time in which Hegel and humanism are unfashionable. Kieran Durkin, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellow at the University of York and author of The Radical Humanism of Erich Fromm, advocated for the revival of a robust humanism that understands humanity as universal yet unfixed while, at the same time, making sense of the particularities that shape personhood as it spans throughout the world and throughout history. Durkin described the state of humanity under capitalism in provocative terms: “we all share something fundamentally in common, something quite terrible, actually… that denies us all our universality and human wholeness”. The remedy to this illness, it seems, must go one step further from anti-capitalism and grapple with the complex and dynamic question of what it means to be human. Each speaker touched upon how crucial practice (and the theory which emerges from it) is, with Durkin emphasizing the philosophical danger that arises when anti-humanist Marxists and “professional Marxists” ignore or deprioritize this practice in lieu of their own abstract theorizations. The other session two speakers charted Dunayevskaya’s humanism and her understanding of Hegelian dialectics in practice as well. Alessandra Spano, Ph.D. candidate at University of Catania and writer on Marx, Hegel, and feminism, highlighted how integral both dialectics and humanism were to Dunayevskaya’s understanding of Marx and, in turn, used Dunayevskaya to examine the USSR critically and define the term “state capitalism”. Despite the breadth of topics each speaker covered, all discussed dialectics not just as critical to an understanding of the past and present, but the future as well.

Despite the conference’s long hours, attendance held strong through the third session, where speakers connected Dunayevskaya’s work to some of the most pressing issues of today. Although the topic of the division of mental and manual labor was a recurring theme in discussions throughout the conference, Lilia Monzo, professor at Chapman University and author of A Revolutionary Subject: Pedagogy of Women of Color and Indigeneity, emphasized how ending this division is just as important in liberating people oppressed along the lines of race and gender as it is to upturning a class system. Speakers noted how those marginalized along the lines of race and gender often stand at the front of radical movements, both in theory and practice, because of the severity and particularity of the systemic violence they endure under oppressive systems. They also advocated for struggles against sexism and racism to be looked at with the same respect often reserved for class-first struggles—as histories worthy of recognition without being first seen as mere byproducts of capitalism, and even when there is no immediately discernible class element within them. In the steps of Marx and Dunayevskaya, speakers supported their stances by taking a close look at the concrete by highlighting historical moments of resistance, such as the Soweto Youth Uprising and the global George Floyd Uprising, which reveal the strong capacity for theorization and struggle toward subjectivity within identity-first movements.

To end the conference, Rhaysa Ruas, Afro-Brazilian researcher and human rights lawyer, asked the panel thought-provoking questions about the difficulties that Marxist-Humanism must face today in order to address the issues of our times. Among these questions: How can Marxist-Humanism engage with the renewal of old feminist Marxist perspectives, particularly with activists in the global south, today? What are the limits of identity politics in a state in which the understanding of the human subject and legal subject are so intertwined, and is abolition feminism at odds with the sort of identity politics that are so embedded in the state structure?

The conference ran for around seven hours and was lively throughout, with participants knitting their insights and knowledge together with the speakers’ presentations during each post-session conversation. With the large turnout and stimulating conversation throughout the conference, it is clear that the work of Raya Dunayevskaya has international relevance during a turbulent time. However, just as there is meaning in looking back at her past works, it is the dialectical method which she deeply understood that bridges the past and our future. As Dunayevskaya wrote in Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution: “Only live human beings can recreate the revolutionary dialectic forever anew. And these live human beings must do so in theory as well as in practice.… Marx’s legacy is no mere heirloom, but a live body of ideas and perspectives that is in need of concretization.”

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