The Dialectic in Marxism and Freedom for Today: The Unity of Theory and Practice and the Movement of Today’s Concrete Struggles

Lilia D. Monzó

Summary: Marx’s dialectical humanism grounds itself in workers as thinking, revolutionary subjects, and calls upon intellectuals to break with their elitism. They need to develop theory in dialogue with the working class and especially its most oppressed layers, who are often people of color — Editors

Raya Dunayevskaya established a new interpretation of Marx’s works that centers on the humanism that is established in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 but is built upon and threaded throughout his entire body of work, including Capital. In Marxism and Freedom, Dunayevskaya’s first major work, she articulates Marx’s dialectical method and positions the workers (and their movement) as Revolutionary Subjects without whom the intellectual grasps only an abstract concept of revolution.

In Marxism and Freedom, Dunayevskaya begins with Hegel’s dialectic: “His LOGIC moves. Each of the previously inseparable divisions between opposites – between thought and reality – is in constant process of change, disappearance and reappearance, coming into head-on collision with its opposite and developing thereby. It is thus, and thus alone, that man finally achieves true freedom, not as a possession, but as a dimension of his being…”

Unlike the often-made assumption that Marx stood Hegel upright, and planted him on the ground, transplanting Hegel’s idealism with materialism, Raya points out that “Marx did not reject idealism. ‘Thoroughgoing naturalism or humanism’ as the young Marx designated his own philosophic outlook, “distinguishes itself from both idealism and materialism and is at the same time the truth uniting both.”

She points out, “To develop the dialectical movement further it was necessary to turn to the real world and its labor process.”

Dunayevskaya points out that Hegel was unable to see and could not have seen the positive that emerges from alienated labor because the workers’ revolutionary activity was not yet revealed. It is during Marx’s time that alienated labor reveals its human nature – its agentic activity toward liberation.

She writes: “…the workers have been acting out Hegel’s Absolute Idea and have thus concretized and deepened the movement from practice to theory. On the other hand, the movement from theory is nearly at a standstill because it blinds itself to the movement from practice.”

She continues: “The crying inequality of distribution, arising from this method of production, could not but arouse the sympathy of the intellectual for the proletariat. Being outside of production the intellectual could not see that the working class had power to overthrow the contradictory conditions of production. For the intellectual the proletariat existed only as a suffering class.“

It is thus the dialectic that makes Marx’s work a humanist philosophy. The dialectic insists on the unity of theory and practice or praxis and on the recognition of the worker as human Subject. Without the recognition of their humanity – their concrete activity for change (which involves both movement in consciousness and reality), the intellectual’s theorizing remains disconnected from the actual concrete conditions and desires of those who are actually moving.

Marx recognized the dialectical relationship between theory and practice and its corresponding relationship between the intellectual who theorizes and the actual working-class people who struggle. As Raya points out Marx did not only keep his eyes glued to the movements but participated in them.

Dunayevskaya writes: “It was no accident that his Communist Manifesto was published on the eve of the 1848 revolutions. He could do this because of his idea of theory as the generalization of the instinctive striving of the proletariat for a new social order, a truly human society – a striving that arises out of the dialectic of the economic process which, at each stage, produces what Marx called the ‘new passions and forces’ for the next social order. Although no one can see the concrete form of the new society until it actually appears, Marx’s vision did anticipate the future society. He was not ‘left behind,’ not because of his individual genius, but because of his dialectical method of uniting theory and practice. He thereby gave the intellectuals who aligned themselves with the proletariat as a ‘political tendency’ that new human dimension to enable each to become as tall as the proletariat straightened up to its full height in the creation of the new society.”

Dunayevskaya points out, following Marx, that the intellectuals are often separated from the working class “as widely as heaven from earth” and that “they are consequently driven theoretically to the same tasks and solutions to which material interests and social position practically drive [the petty bourgeoisie].”

Furthermore, their lack of faith in the working classes often results in “radical intellectuals [who are] forever planning to do something for the worker, substituting their activity or at least planning for the self-activity of the working class.”

As Raya writes of Ferdinand Lassalle, a figure of scientific socialism, “he could not rid himself of the concept of the backwardness of labor.” He believed “science is classless and thus that he could represent both science (or the intellectual) and the worker. Lassalle was the anticipation of the state socialist administrator of our day.”

Clearly then, this undialectical treatment of worker as mere concrete activity and the intellectual as scholarly theoretician is hugely problematic. A dialectical treatment recognizes that the workers are both actively engaged in struggle and theorize about their activity and that the so-called intellectual must be grounded in struggle through active participation.

As Dunayevskaya points out, Marx was fully attentive to the struggles of his day and he was especially engaged with the Civil War in the U.S. and the struggle for the abolition of slavery, which he perceived as “a major world upheaval.”

He recognized American slavery as particularly atrocious and did not lump it together, as other socialists of the time, with “all slavery – wage and chattel” but instead recognized the racial dimension as inexcusable under any form of class struggle.

Marx writes: “In the United States of America every independent movement of workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic.  Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life arose. “The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours agitation, that ran with the seven leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California.”

Thus, Marx recognized the significance that the Civil War (once the Black masses were allowed to fight) had on labor more generally – regarding it as foundational to the struggle to shorten the working day.

According to Dunayevskaya, it is at this time that Marx begins to recognize the relationship between history (activity over time) and theory, a relationship that leads her to call the Black masses the vanguard of the revolution, invoking their long history of struggle for freedom.

Marx’s participation was of course indirect, following news sources, given that he was in England at the time.  The way we interpret participation or how we ground our political work in people’s movements is a crucial question but one that must be answered with specificity to specific movements – with the goal being the greatest grounding that we can achieve given particular limitations.

One such grounding is the inclusion of working-class people in our organization – those who are the most directly affected and among whom the forces of production create contexts that invoke both opportunity and impetus to organize.

In this time and place, it is the continued struggles for Abolition and Black civil rights and the struggles for Immigrant rights – struggles commandeered and engaged by peoples of color – that seem to be in constant motion. Indeed, these are the most affected working-class communities who (generally speaking) experience the worst working conditions. Thus, it behooves a Marxist-Humanist organization to engage these movements as the ground from which our theories develop and upon whose realities they are continually interrogated, deepened, and sharpened – so that our theories too can move in sync with the people and their activity. It also behooves us to attempt – as part of a reciprocal dialogue – to share with them the theoretical fruits of the six decades of Marxist-Humanism, beginning with Marxism and Freedom.



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1 Comment

  1. Lynda

    The American Civil War against slavery was a seismic shift in the fundamental ground of production, its fruit, a limit to the working day, lost in the transition from feudalism. Just as the European working class could never be free while labour was enslaved in the Black skin, so too with gender, as the root of exploitation, is who has the power to enforce the disposal of our labour-power. Dispose has interesting nuances eg. rubbishing, placing, positioning, regulating, appointing, managing; the opposite of self-determined activity. Interestingly, it can also mean tendency of mind.

    From birth, socially, through school, and in all areas of life, the very natural essence of what it means to be a living human being, interacting with nature and each other, thinking and doing as the self-development of abilities, is alienated from us, and its very opposite, the monstrous division between mental and manual labour in the factory prisons, is normalised. The hideous image of humans encased in a kind of master’s metal straight-jacket against our own free desires, will and liberty.

    Everyone who has ever done mind-numbingly boring, stressful factory, or any tightly regulated unskilled labour, knows the torture of conforming to a mechanical production machine process that rules humans instead of us controlling them to free up time and space for our own self-education and development. We are trained to submit to this torture when we know, in our free time out of work, when minds are naturally engaged with our hands, the contrast in terms of what kind of labour is true to us as a human and natural quality.

    Raya explains the barriers holding us back from establishing the conditions, now potentially present given the development of mechanical productive power combined with worker’s control, to releasing this unlimited and free self-activity. She says that once this idea takes hold, its power is uncontrollable and a powerful force towards a classless society. Reading Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Mass Strike’ pamphlet gives an exhilarating sense of this.

    Its this very inner relating of our working minds and bodies that is alienated from us under Capitalism, and Leftist intellectuals from Proudhon, to Lassalle to Stalin are blind to where the solution to untrammelled human freedom lies. They do not overcome the gap between intellectuals and workers self-activity that’s the heart of the problem and the centre of all working practise through which we develop judgement and creative skills. Instead of an inner relation within each of us socially, they separate mind and body as two classes – masters and slaves. This can take the form of a Worker’s Party or a socialist leader, which sound like they are on our side and in our interests, but unless this worker-intellectual divide is bridged, class society, those who rule and those who obey, will keep reappearing. If we believe in a leader as some kind of god outside of us, we leave our own true being, and the real social solution behind. Facing up to this inner contradiction, when taught from birth to think only very clever people, who are not us, know how to judge and organise society, is an inner opposition to be overcome. Simultaneously, this involves the labour and suffering of the negative, the serious work of philosophy connected within all rebellions against capitalism and slavery, as the creation of an eternal body of guiding and clarifying ideas.

    Leaving labour in the factory, as some kind of thoughtless, underclass, too stupid to know how to overcome the very conditions they face daily, only fit for regulated, controlled work under bosses and management, such intellectuals believe they can sort things for the workers by a fairer distribution of products and property, in which state property becomes the private property of an elite class of enforcers, administrators, enforcing labour’s conformity to someone else’s disposal through secret police and punishment gulags.

    In The Red Republican we see the initial, first strivings for worker independence in naiive utopian socialism eg exchange marts of worker products that remains regulated by an outer state body, when real freedom involves our own inner relations mediated socially through each other and nature as individuals, in particular associations and universally as a species.

    What kind of labour is central, the problem to be overcome and its solution. What and who confines and seeks to control it – the centre and essence of our being, so alienated from us that the very idea of work is anathema to us. Its this that underlies all questions of state versus private property and keeps a potentially united and classless humanity divided. It seems to me that this may be a central issue within the Yellow Vest movement. Its so obvious if we are true to our inner natural selves yet such is the level of twisted and deformed ways of being under capitalism, state and private, that its hidden from us – our own very inner essence.

    The discovery that labour is the source of wealth, not things outside of us like gold, land nor foreign trade, was revolutionary in its day. Followed to its logical conclusions however, it revealed a glaring contradiction in that labour was paid according to its cost of production, (means of bare subsistence enough to work plus its reproduction) like any other commodity, whereas all the remaining profits from production went to the capitalist. This duality is the death knell of so-called scientific economy. If labour is the source of wealth, how come the harder Chinese and Indian peasant women keep pace with machines, the poorer they and the families they support in the countryside are?

    This two-class system of mind and hands, is the root of all social contradictions, since the way we produce society, the method, is its end and beginning. Hegel revealed the way that change comes through self-determined negation and opposition in particular qualities of being which develop through absorbing their other within themselves. The real historical class war of the French Revolution under-pinned his descriptions of self-consciousness. He saw the dehumanisation of workers being dominated by metallic machinery but like intellectuals who do not view workers as thinkers, could not see the solution in their own abilities and human essence, within the activity of labour itself, in each of us.

    Raya writes: “Marx reported the mammoth meeting of the English workers which prevented the government’s intervention on the side of the South. It was under the impact of the Civil War and the response of the European workers as well as the Polish insurrection, that the International Working Men’s Association, known as the First International, was born. In the name of the International Marx wrote to Lincoln: ‘From the commencement of the titantic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class … Everywhere they bore therefore patiently the hardships imposed upon them by the cotton crisis, opposed enthusiastically the pro-slavery intervention, importunities of their ‘betters’, and from most parts of Europe contributed their quota of blood to the good cause.” p83 ‘Marxism and Freedom’

    This revolutionary book clarified the sharp distinction between Marx’s Marxism and so many post-Marx Marxists as vulgar crude communism, the total opposite of our Marxist-Humanist concept, totally opposed to the one party, so-called socialist, totalitarian state, calling itself Marxist in name only, that is as much a block to freedom as capitalism itself, and is a gift to capitalist propagandists who wish to keep us all enslaved, in the name of naked greed, the empty end of one huge congealed conglomeration of empty abstract labour units, instead of free unlimited creative self-activity, that is capital.