Toward the Unification of Theory and Practice in the International Marxist-Humanist Organization

Jens Johansson

Summary: Discusses challenges, possibilities, and future aims for the IMHO as an organization. Adapted from an organizational report delivered to the 2020 Convention of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization in July – Editors.

This report will focus not on the objective development of capitalism, nor on the development of the mass movements, but rather on the subjective development of IMHO as an organization. However, I will still start by pointing out an important development in the consciousness of the mass movements. This is because I believe it will have an impact on the future of our work.

The point I want to emphasize is that the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been very active these last weeks by protesting police abuse against Blacks and mass incarceration in America, is not only a US-movement, but an international movement. Much in thanks to the new communication technologies, the protestors are in very close contact with other protestors around the world. They are exchanging experiences in order to not only show international solidarity, but also to learn from each other and to understand how issues in one corner of the globe can illuminate the essence of an issue in another corner. But the attempts to connect and to understand the essence of the problems doesn’t stop there. Remember that many of the Black Lives Matter activists who are out protesting today were also out protesting the destruction of the climate and Indigenous rights less than a year ago, and many were also out protesting against sexism during the #MeToo-movement a while before that. Thus, the attempts of today’s activists to connect and understand the essence of the problem are made not only internationally, around the globe, but also interdimensionally, with different freedom struggles.

Nonetheless, while these international and interdimensional connections are absolutely crucial and extremely important, I am not sure that we can claim that there are specific characteristics of the movement that the generation of activists today make up. But one thing I do believe that we can claim is a new and original contribution that this generation has developed very far is the consciousness about anti-racism, about inclusion, care of each other, representation of all races and sexes, consciousness about one’s positionality, that everyone should have the possibility to speak and to be heard, and cognizance of the symbolic violence objectified in language, symbols, and statues, etc. This consciousness is something that I don’t think any previous generation has been so good at developing as today’s generation. In concrete terms, this is a consciousness that pushes forth a more human and inclusive environment. Therefore, it is something that should not be dismissed or ridiculed, but instead something that also the IMHO can develop from by embracing and learning from. What it basically comes down to is that it is an acknowledgement of experiences of marginalization and a recognition of the human reaction to practices of social exclusion and stratification.


Developing a Theory of Liberation

The first sentence in our constitution reads, “The International Marxist-Humanist Organization (IMHO) aims to develop and project a viable vision of an alternative to capitalism – a new, human society – that can give direction to today’s freedom struggles.” This sentence, I believe, encapsulates the whole purpose of the existence of our organization. The question, then, that we in the IMHO need to try to work out an answer to is: how does one develop and how does one project a viable vision of an alternative to capitalism?

Hegel spent a lot of time critiquing his friend Schelling for jumping over the particular when they discussed the absolute idea. Hegel complained about that Schelling thought that he could arrive at the absolute idea by skipping over the particular, thus to arrive at the absolute like a “shot-out-of-a-pistol.” The problem with that, Hegel thought, was that Schelling’s absolute idea then had no connection to reality. Schelling’s absolute idea was therefore running the risk of becoming completely abstract. Instead, Hegel meant that in order to reach the absolute, one has to approach it via the particular. This is so, because Hegel argued that the essence of an object must appear for us in a particular form. He meant that there can’t be an impassable barrier between the essence of an object and how that same object appears for us. Instead, he thought that an aspect of the essence must appear in a particular form in the world of appearances.

This is an important idea for us when we try to develop a viable alternative to capitalism. It is important because it means that when we start theorizing about what an alternative might be, we need to begin by grounding our analysis in the concrete particular experiences of daily life that people live today, in their specific contexts. With that in mind, where should we stand? We need to ask, “What problems exists out there?” We then need to listen to what those who are the most oppressed say. And what do they say? Well, today they are coming out to the streets and are literally shouting about stopping police violence against Black people. Our task as members of the IMHO is then to grasp those experiences and to go beyond the surface manifestation to try to understand what those experiences in the world of appearances are expressions of. To that end, what is the essence of what we see? When we have reached the essence, what we do then is start formulating a notion of an alternative out of a philosophy of revolution based on Marx’s humanism. It is here that we as subjects starts to appear because it is here that we define what a new society could be like and, thus, also what we as human beings could be like in this new society. This, beginning in the particular experiences of today, is what is meant by grounding the theory in the concrete. Because the particularities always change, every new generation has to work out a theory of liberation anew.


Projecting a Theory of Liberation

Trying to connect different freedom movements with a revolutionary philosophy based on Marx’s humanism was indeed what Dunayevskaya tried to do when the whole development of Marxist-Humanism, as we know it today, once begun.

There are thousands of great examples of how she did this, but just to pick one which I think also speaks to today, I would lift up an article which she wrote in 1944 entitled Marxism and the Negro Problem. In this piece, Dunayevskaya emphasizes the independent validity of the anti-racist struggle, apart from the class struggle. Moreover, in it, she also addresses the specific realities facing Blacks. No Marxist in the United States had said anything like that before she and the others in the Johnson-Forest Tendency’s said so. In one section of the article she writes:

Historians who state that the Negro problem is rooted in slavery and stop there fail to see the crux of the question. The “stigma” of slavery could not have persisted so long if the economic remains of slavery had not persisted. The Civil War abolished the institutions of slavery, but did not give the land to him who tilled it. Not having got the land, the peasant’s fate was inevitable, whether he be white or Negro. Even in Russia, where there was some fraudulent attempt to give the serf the land, it was impossible for the Russian serf to rise above the needs of the backward economy. All the more so in the South where the Negro did not get his “40 acres and a mule”. Cotton remaining dominant, semifeudal relationships were inevitable. The division of labor set up by the cotton economy may not be disturbed. The social relations arising on the basis of the cotton economy remain “less changed than the soil itself on which the cotton is grown”. Within the economic remains of slavery lie the economic roots of the Negro Question.[1]

Furthermore, in the same article she also says that even if the Black people’s movement develops in a reactionary way, and even if the revolutionary Marxists are unable to influence the movement, that only proves that Marxists needs to go even further in their attempt to understand the underlying, deep economic and social causes giving rise to the development. The completely wrong way to engage the Black people’s movement, she writes, is to dismiss the movement and throw epithets at it (here one can think of those who dismiss today’s anti-racist movement by putting epithets like “criminals” or “looters” on it).

But how does this example from Dunayevskaya actually help us to figure out the role of the IMHO today? I believe that in one sense we could say that the role of IMHO is a counter position of Lenin and Trotsky’s idea of the vanguard party. Lenin had the idea that, not just the revolutionary organization, but also the revolutionary theory should come from the vanguard party, which was to consist of a group of intellectuals who would know what is to be done. Dunayevskaya broke with that idea in the 1940s, and the IMHO has not turned back to it since. Instead, we strongly oppose the idea of a vanguard party that leads the masses, and we oppose the thought that revolutionary theory should come from an outside group disconnected from the masses.

However, we do not oppose the need for organizations as such which can make a contribution to today’s new movements by addressing the question of an alternative to capitalism. C. L. R. James held a view that spontaneous mass movements already contain within them the complete answer to what the new society is. Thus, he did not see the need for an organization that can help articulate that idea. IMHO today does not oppose James’s emphasis on spontaneous movements; we emphasize them as well, but on the contrary, we do see a need for an organization.

Dunayevskaya position on this was that revolutionary consciousness, and even some forms of revolutionary theory, emerge from the oppressed in response to an array of material conditions, but that such revolutionary consciousness is not reducible to revolutionary theory. Instead, she meant that revolutionary philosophy has to be worked out by hard conceptual labor on the part of the intellectuals, as well as the masses, and that some hard theoretical and philosophical labor is needed to get there.

I believe that the specific importance that the IMHO has in relation to today’s new movement is to address and project the question of alternatives to capitalism. That is because we have a body of ideas that fit very well to address this question. Thanks to our rich ideas of Marxism and of humanism (not liberal or Enlightenment humanism, but revolutionary dialectical humanism), we can discuss not only what we are against, but also what we are for. What we are for is a new form of universal humanism which unifies the alienated human being.

Today, truckloads of people are coming out to demonstrations. More and more of those are interested in alternatives to capitalism and are looking for groups that have something to offer in the way of that. The question, then, is if the IMHO will be there and make a humanist alternative available, or if it will only be other groups out there talking about some kind of redistribution model, or more authoritarian variants, as the alternative to capitalism?



[1] Dunayevskaya, R. (1944). Marxism and the Negro Problem, p. 264.


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