Review of Raya Dunayevskaya’s Intersectional Marxism: Race, Class, Gender, and the Dialectics of Liberation

Sevgi Doğan

Summary: Review of “Raya Dunayevskaya’s Intersectional Marxism: Race, Class, Gender, and the Dialectics of Liberation,” Kevin B. Anderson, Kieran Durkin, Heather A. Brown (eds.), Palgrave 2021. Originally appeared in Science & Society, 2023, 87:3 — Editors

More than any previous historical event, the COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered the true face of neoliberalism and global capitalism, which have intensified and increased the exploitation of labor, environmental destruction, virulent racism, gender discrimination, economic disparity, and educational inequality. These diseases are not peculiar to the twenty-first century; but with the increase of authoritarianism and the rise of radical right-wing parties under a democratic guise, the harshness of capitalism has been increasingly felt. This has led to several uprisings targeting gender, ethnic, and racial discrimination, along with capitalist exploitation. The intellectual world has debated how these different discriminations overlap and what disadvantages might result from these interlocking identities under existing systems of power and oppression. These political and intellectual efforts demonstrate that subordinated and/or vulnerable groups are suffering from multi-dimensional oppression and exploitation. Hence concepts such as “double jeopardy” (coined by Frances Baela, 1972), “multiple jeopardy” (Deborah K. King, 1988), “triple oppression” (developed by black socialists in the US and popularized by Claudia Jones), and “intersectionality” (Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, 1989) appeared in response to the one-dimensional aspects of early feminist theory –even if scholars consider Sojourner Truth’s speech (1797-1883) “Ain’t I a Woman?” to be the first example of intersectionality in social justice movement.

The collection of essays, Raya Dunayevskaya’s Intersectional Marxism: Race, Class, Gender, and the Dialectics of Liberation, seeks on the one hand to shed light on the above-mentioned questions through an analysis of Raya Dunayevskaya’s writings. On the other, it tries to reveal the importance of the concept of commonality within intersectional discussions. The collection demonstrates that the notion of intersectionality and a similar concept can be found ante litteram in Dunayevskaya’s Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (1982) before the appearance of the concept in intellectual debates. The editors and contributors attempt to show how Dunayevskaya’s writings put together the problems of race, gender, and colonialism with capital, class and globalization. They state that Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution (1985) and a collection of her essays are works that “form the basis for our view that Dunayevskaya’s Marxist-Humanism was an intersectional Marxism avant la lettre” and that these two books appeared in a period when the feminist movement turned its back on Marxism and revolution (12).

What the editors of the book mean by “intersection” is recognition of the connections that exist between all these ill effects of capitalism, i.e., intersections between race, class, and gender, which “were central to the life and work of Raya Dunayevskaya, and that are at the heart of this book” (3). The editors differentiate themselves from two different streams of thought on the intellectual left. While the first stream underlines capital and class, adopting some form of Marxism, the second highlights race, gender and sexuality and accuses Marxism of being class reductionist (4). Dunayevskaya’s intersectional Marxism presents a perfect middle way between these streams.

In this regard, the main question of the book is how to dialectically overcome or transcend (aufheben) the contradictions of today’s intellectual left through Marxist theory and practice (4). Another more specific question is whether “the theory and practice of the Marxist-Humanist and feminist philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya (1910–1987) can help to overcome this contradiction within today’s progressive left” (4).

While the term intersectionality refers to differences, one can also mention commonality within intersectional theory. This volume, in some ways, shows that intersectional debates miss or underrate this important part of the theory. For Dunayevskaya, this commonality is the struggle for construction of a new society which brings with itself a great freedom. In this collection, Heather A. Brown indicates the term commonality in Marx’s Manuscripts (117). In this respect, following Marx, Dunayevskaya was able to see how the struggles of Black people and revolutionary feminists are a source of differences “inside the radical movement” (6) while also having many commonalities. Dunayevskaya believed that these two different movements were important because they constituted a real revolutionary vanguard both in the sense of action and theory. Dunayevskaya’s intersectionality is based on common humanity which unites all differences through philosophical and political struggle. Her concept of commonality therefore took account of differences as well as tensions created by these differences. Thus, Dunayevskaya’s intersectionality can be understood by her philosophical and political concept of “Marxist-Humanist commonality” that can embrace many different forms of thought and action. It seems that Dunayevskaya’s intersectionality does not only mean the intersection of disadvantaged identities but also the overlapping of their commonalities or the connection of different subjectivities. In my reading of the volume, what differentiates Dunayevskaya’s intersectional approach from current intersectional perspectives and theories is her emphasis on dialectic and philosophy as methods of struggle.

The book is divided into different topics; the first part, on Hegel and dialectics, contains some articles on Dunayevskaya’s relationship with Hegel’s categories and their role in her theory of state capitalism and theory of Marxist-Humanism. The second part explores how Dunayevskaya’s humanism deals with gender, race and revolution by avoiding a reductionist reading of Marxism. “Dunayevskaya recognized women not just as a revolutionary ‘Force’ (contributing courage, support, strength) but also as ‘Reason’—as initiators, thinkers, strategists, creators of the new” (94).

In the third part of volume on ‘connections and debates’, Paul Mason points out the importance of a return to the humanist origins of Marxism in order to renew Marxism in this period of automation. He evaluates the humanist aspect of Marxism and the future of capitalist society, or post-capitalism, through a wide yet detailed analysis of the current world condition, as human societies are transformed into digital and technological ones. Mason outlines the basic tasks of Humanist-Marxism in order to revolutionize capitalist society: 1) rebuilding the theory of knowledge; 2) providing “an account of the coming transition beyond capitalism”; 3) providing a theory of ecosystem; 4) providing a “complex and provisional anthropology of the species” (206). Following Dunayevskaya, Mason underlines the importance of theory and philosophy for revolutionary transformation.

The last part comprises four articles focusing on the concept of freedom and liberation which question the origin of humanism in Marx and Dunayevskaya’s humanist perspective. Kieran Durkin maintains that, unlike Althusser, Dunayevskaya did not recognize any epistemological or humanist break or anti-humanist perspective in Marx’s work. Rather, she connects early Marx with later Marx, 1844 Manuscripts with Capital (289). For Dunayevskaya, Marxism is not only a theory of liberation but it is also a practice of liberation (296). According to her, Marx’s approach to the unity of idealism and materialism, or the unity of objective and subjective in Manuscripts, is “the humanist essence and methodological basis of Marx’s thought” (287). Therefore, her absolute humanism is not static and abstract; is based on human agency and subjectivity; and refers to the unity of idealism and materialism.

In conclusion, this volume represents a comprehensive investigation of a philosopher, theoretician and Marxist-humanist who was underappreciated and underrated not only by Marxists, but also by those who writing about race, gender, feminism, Hegel and dialectics. I think what is missing in this collection is an extended debate on Dunayevskaya’s understanding of intersectionality as compared with more recent intersectional theory/theories, and how her work on intersectionality might or might not fit with those ideas.



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