Why Philosophy? Why Now? On the Revolutionary Legacies of Raya Dunayevskaya, CLR James and Anton Pannekoek

It is not enough to follow the negative rejections of vanguardism made by Pannekoek, CLR James and Castoriadis, which are defined by what they critique in such a way as to never figure out how to present organizational responsibility for philosophy as the critical mediation.

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published his famous thesis on the “End of History.” This inaugurated  a debate about the massive political shift brought about by the collapse of communism, and the adoption of TINA (“there is no alternative”) by the reformist Left. Perry Anderson, in his essay Ends of History, noted that with the transformations in the global economy, “The distances between a Korean seamstress, Zambian field hand, Lebanese bank clerk, Filipino sailor, Italian secretary, Russian miner, Japanese auto worker, are vastly greater than those that were once bridged in the Second International…” [1]

The Second International, which today still has a zombie-like existence in several right-wing social democratic regimes, certainly organized millions of workers, but it was never truly homogenous and as a real international collapsed at the onset of World War One in the face of national chauvinisms . There is no doubt though, that in the 21st century the organizational void is even more pervasive than in 1992. The only factor “uniting” the non-homogeneous workers of the world is the global crisis they are being enveloped in.

What used to be said of socialism can now be said of the neo-liberal vision of globalised capitalism dreamed up in the Thatcher-Reagan era: “It seemed a good idea in theory but it doesn’t work in practice.”  This is not to suggest that there is any likelihood of a “socialist” transformation through statist re-regulation of the economy; or that mass protest and activism will spontaneously generate revolutions.  Now that the End of History is complicated by a global crisis of historic proportions, a renewed engagement with the Hegelian dialectic – the intellectual source of the controversy –  becomes necessary once again. As Raya Dunayevskaya put it in Philosophy and Revolution (1973):

“Because the transformation of reality is central to the Hegelian dialectic, Hegel’s philosophy comes to life, over and over again, in all periods of crisis and transition, when a new historic turning point has been reached, when the established society is undermined and a foundation is laid for a new social order.” [2]

In 2009 the undermining is well under way, but where is the foundation for a new social order?

1 – Hegel and History

According to Alexander Kojeve (1902-1968), Hegel saw Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Jena in 1807 as bringing about the “End of History.” The citizen-soldiers who dealt the fatal blow to the lordship and bondage of feudalism represented the new synthesis of war and industry in a “universal-homogeneous state.” Subsequent events, Kojeve argued, had simply confirmed the thesis: the failure of the fascist assault in World War Two was the final nemesis of the “anti-Jacobin” wars; Stalin’s Soviet Union imitated the universal-homogeneous state of Napoleon (“who was an imitator of Caesar, who was also an imitator”). Furthernore, Kojeve argued, the Cold War and the Anti-Colonial revolutions marked a sort of structural adjustment by the Jacobin/Communist/Socialist Left to the rise of the European Union and the USA, and (implicitly) the inevitable triumph of socialized global capitalism.  [3]

The claim that Hegel’s “absolute idea” includes a notion of the “end of history” seems to have originated with Engels’ essay, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy (post-Marx in 1886). Engels argued that the real “absolute truth” to be discerned in the Hegelian dialectic was that it was philosophy not history, which had come to an end; Hegel’s achievement was to have “unconsciously” shown the way to a “real positive cognition of the world.” [4]

But, as Perry Anderson pointed out, Hegel did not actually use the term, “end of history.”  Hegel’s concept of universal history owes much to Kant, who had ridiculed the Christian dogma of the Last Judgement at the End of Time and put forward his own concept of history as a purposeful (teleological) human progress towards a state of happiness and moral good. For Hegel, nature and history were two sides of self-mediating spirit. Acting through nature, spirit unconsciously produced tribal and family relationships which grew into the state. Acting through history (and art), spirit worked its modes consciously.  The reconciliation between nature and history, between the bourgeois and the citizen, would be a result, not an ending; freedom, as a living process of becoming, could not be frozen or enclosed. Speaking of the “new epoch” in the History of Philosophy, Hegel said that world spirit, having gone through the series of philosophical forms, had shaken off “all alien objective existence”. [5]

If this meant that philosophy had completed its task, history had not. For “abstract formal freedom” had passed out of the self-destructive sphere of the French Revolution into “another land of self conscious spirit.” Certainly Napoleon did extend the “universal-homogeneous state” into several other lands. But Hegel also “foresaw” the Emperor’s downfall; Napoleon was like the hero of a classical tragedy who is forced to recognize the right of the “mass of mediocrity” to play the role of the chorus, which in the end always survives the hero and comes out on top. Recognising the power of bourgeois industry and “abstract labour,” Hegel, at the end of his life in 1831, saw industrialised England as “another land” of great and dangerous potential and saw America as the land of the future.

Hegel presented the relation between philosophy and history in the Phenomenology of Spirit as a “science”; by which he meant knowledge of the totality of human history in all its various stages; expressed in “the shape in which time sets forth the sequential existence of its moments.” This “science,” together with contingent History (i.e. History not yet understood), forms an intellectually comprehended History, which is at once the “Recollection” of absolute spirit – the gathering together in thought of all the shapes spirit has gone through – as well as its “Golgotha.” [6] Whereas George Lukacs saw this as Hegel’s “annulment of history,” Raya Dunayevskaya saw something quite different: “Marx certainly must have had something like this in mind when he wrote Freiligrath about organization in the historic as well as the ephemeral sense.” Organization in the “ephemeral sense” means forms of organization that have had their time and collapsed.  In the “historic” sense, Marx, in 1860, following the demise of the Communist League, thought that the “party” would spring up again “naturally out of the soil of modern society,” which explains why he could tell the new German socialist party in 1874 that his analysis in Capital some years earlier had been “a theoretical victory for our party.”

2 – The Dialectic of the ‘Party’

In 1948 CLR James’ study of Hegel’s Logic (Notes on Dialectics) reflected on the role in revolutionary history of abstract and concrete universals: from the petit-bourgeois “ideality” of democracy in the English Revolution, to the Second International’s program for common ownership, to Lenin’s vision of every proletarian participating in the administration of the state and the economy. James, as co-leader with Raya Dunayevskaya of a tendency in the Fourth International (later the Correspondence group) which rejected the Trotskyist concept of the “vanguard party,” argued that the experience of Stalinism had shown that the problem for the movement had become how to negate the vanguard party; spontaneous conscious actions by the masses, already organised fighting fit in their workplaces, would negate all the abstract universals that previous revolutions had thrown up and create a new society.

Later, in the 1950s James threw out any concept of organized mediation in the world of class struggle. As he and Grace Lee Boggs wrote in Facing Reality (1958) of their philosophy: “the organisation will not seek to propogate it, nor to convince men of it, but to use it so as the more quickly and clearly to recognize how it is concretely expressed in the lives and struggles of the people.”  Believing that socialism was “inherent in the masses,” James argued that only role left for revolutionaries was to tell anyone who didn’t know it that this was so.

Raya Dunayevskaya took a different view. In 1955 she founded the News and Letters Committees as a revolutionary alternative to the vanguard party concept of organization. The decentralized committee-form, in uniting workers and intellectuals, was based on the recognition that the new political forces that arose from below in the 1950s represented a movement from practice which needed unification with the movement from theory. At the time Dunayevskaya’s book Marxism and Freedom was published (in 1958), she wrote optimistically:

“So rich are the traditions of America, so uninhibited are the American workers by the preconceived notions of leaders, including those from their own labor ranks, that a new Humanism is evolving. They have no Labor Party to ‘lead’ them or mislead them—and they have no awe of intellectuals like the French Existentialists. That does not mean they reject theory. On the contrary. There is a movement from practice to theory that is literally begging for a movement from theory to practice to meet it. When these two finally do meet—and I have no doubt of their meeting—it cannot be anything short of a New Humanism.” [7]

An amendment to the News and Letters Committees’ constitution in 1973 counterposed the “integrality of philosophy and organization” to the “party to lead” concept. But by 1987, when Dunayevskaya was beginning work on a book on philosophy and organization soon to be cut short by her death, she was concerned that her organization was failing to achieve such integrality. Dunayevskaya decided that although the committee-form and the party-to-lead are opposites, they are not absolute opposites. This would suggest that, if they were absolute opposites, then the committees would be locked into a struggle with vanguardism which would make superfluous all other battles of ideas, if not all engagements with the movement from practice which weren’t about fighting those trying to “take over.” Dunayevskaya posed the question:

“What have the various forms of spontaneity – councils, soviets, committees, associations, communes – achieved? And why when they did come close to power, it wasn’t the political organizations that didn’t take them over so much, as that they themselves looked to be taken over?” [8]

Dunayevskaya was reflecting, as she so often had, on her “philosophic moment” of June 1953. That same year, when Dunayevskaya was studying Marx, Lenin and Hegel on the “Dialectic of the Party,” the veteran council communist, Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960), was in correspondence with Cornelius Castoriadis of Socialisme ou Barbarie in France and the Correspondence group in the US on the question of workers councils and the increasingly problematical role of the “revolutionary party.”  At a time when Dunayevskaya was asking “what purpose does a party or a group serve, and what are its tasks?” Pannekoek was projecting a unity of theory and practice which argued that although “our task” is “essentially theoretical: to find and indicate, through study and discussion, the best path of action for the working class,” this “should not be intended solely for members of a group or party, but the masses of the working class.” In order to help the working class decide in the workers councils, “they must be enlightened by well-considered advice” [emphasis mine] by a group (or united group of various revolutionary tendencies) whose “primary task is to go talk to the workers, for example by means of popular tracts that will clarify the ideas of the workers by explaining the important changes in society, and the need for the workers to lead themselves in all their actions, including in future productive labor.” [9]

The fact that Pannekoek, a philosophical follower of Dietzgen, saw nothing of value in Hegel did not prevent him and James from arriving at similar organizational conclusions, at least in the formal sense, about the relationship between revolutionary organization and spontaneity.  In 1987 Dunayevskaya came across Pannekoek’s 1953 letter again and wrote of it: “It is extremely important to consider it the ground of all other tendencies, be it various anti-Leninist groups like Mattick’s or even within Marxist-Humanism,” who “act as if the absolute opposites are party/spontaneity rather than party/dialectics of thought.” [emphases mine] The problem with councilist organisation theory was that “both party and mass are forms of organization sans philosophy, and we want organization inseparable from philosophy”. [10]

3 – Philosophy of Revolution

The idea that Pannekoek’s letter should be considered the ground of all other anti-vanguardist tendencies is not invalidated by the historical shift in activism from industrial struggles to the new social movements. Anarcho/autonomist “People Power” activists see the logical alternative to capitalism as 1) people taking direct control themselves of the resources and decision-making in their communities and workplaces, 2) federating communities and workplaces for the democratic running of society and the economy for human needs in an eco-friendly manner. The political party is absent from this perspective, except in the Pannekoekian sense of a movement advocating that ends and means be merged into one process (Pannekoek had told Castoriadis of Socialisme ou Barbarie, on workers councils, “While you restrict the activity of these organisms to the organization of labor in factories after the taking of social power by the workers, we consider them as also being the organisms by means of which the workers will conquer this power.”)

But history has shown that the problem Dunayevskaya identified  remains: the various forms of spontaneity, when they do come close to power, themselves look to be taken over by political organization. In such circumstances the question of What Happens After should become paramount. The heirs of Pannekoek would say that the question of What Happens After is for the workers to decide once the councils are established. But consider Poland and Iran in 1979. In both countries the mass movements seemed to have a tremendous spontaneous creativity with the necessary ingredients for social transformation, including women’s movements and workers councils. And yet both revolutions were easily taken over, in one case by Catholic reactionaries and in the other by Islamic fundamentalists. In both instances the question of What Happens After was not put, even by the radicals. Marx’s description of capital in the Grundrisse as “the all-dominating economic power of bourgeois society” shows that if capital remains and relations of labour at the point of production remain unchanged, then political decision-making will necessarily operate within the limits capital imposes. The fetishised form of the commodity is a materialisation, not of the producers subjectivity but of the objective relations of production; the reification of labour manifests itself in all of the subsequent fetishised forms – including Stalinist state-capitalism and all other false alternatives.

Dunayevskaya’s outline for the book on philosophy and organization in 1987 was more than a critique of spontaneism;  in hindsight it had the “recollection and the Golgotha” of the News and Letters Committees written all over it. Dunayevskaya said of her project for the book that she couldn’t foresee the conclusion and that it would be an “untrodden path” for the organization. But an untrodden path still has to go somewhere. And there is no point in building a hut halfway from which one can only look back from whence one came. The group who broke with News and Letters in 2007 to found the temporary “Marxist-Humanist Committee” saw the News and Letters Committees as having failed to tackle the task of working out a philosophically grounded alternative to capitalism, preferring instead to simply repeat conclusions and give lip service to the ideas of Dunayevskaya, who herself had stressed that working out the question “what happens after the revolution” before it occurs is crucial for overcoming one of the most important and unresolved problems in the history of Marxism—the separation of philosophy from organization:

“At the point when the theoretic form reaches philosophy, the challenge demands that we synthesize not only the new relations of theory to practice, and all the forces of revolution, but philosophy’s ‘suffering, patience, and labor of the negative,’ i.e. experiencing absolute negativity.” [11]

It is not enough to follow the negative rejections of vanguardism made by Pannekoek, CLR James and Castoriadis, which are defined by what they critique in such a way as to never figure out how to present organizational responsibility for philosophy as the critical mediation. For the theoretic power of philosophy in class struggles to be exercised, it must be projected organizationally as the power that is both the form for eliciting from the masses their thought and for projecting a Marxist Humanist perspective to them for a new society in which the capitalist value form is overcome.

1 Perry Anderson, Zones of Engagement 366
2 Raya Dunayevskaya, Philosophy and Revolution xv
3 Perry Anderson op cit 315-6
4 Kevin B Anderson, ‘Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism’ 12-15
5 Perry Anderson 286-7 Hegel, History of Philosophy  III 551-2
6 Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Findlay ed. 493
7 Dunayevskaya ‘Communism, Marxism, and Liberty—The American Humanist Tradition’, Raya Dunayevskaya Collection microfilm no. 12514
8 Not by Practice Alone,’ 1984-87″ [May 19, 1987], in Raya Dunayevskaya Collection 10955.
9 http://www.marxists.org/archive/pannekoe/1953/socialisme-ou-barbarisme.htm
10 Dunayevskaya Collection 10901-3
11 Dunayevskaya, ‘On political divides and philosophic new beginnings’ Power of Negativity 337-41

The Hobgoblin


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 Comment

  1. steven colatrella

    Thanks for this urgently needed and interesting comment. As someone highly influenced by CLR James, I find this criticism mostly warranted, though I think that the movements that followed the theoretical leaps of 1948 and 1957 must have made these seem sufficient. As you point out here, the Polish and Iranian revolutions, which came much later, show us that more is needed, without falling back on the old formulas. I would say that the most recent questions arise from Thailand, Greece and Honduras – it seems that in Bolivia, Venezuela and elsewhere in L.America people have tried to transform the state through an open dialectic between direct democracy and representative democracy. this has pitfalls as well but is a new strategy it seems to me. That strategy – democracy first, then a radicalization (same thing happened in ancient Athens by the way) – was happening in Honduras and Thailand but the army was used brutally to crush the movement. Why was it possible for these states to act like Burma’s military, previously a rogue state and win against such mass movements for democracy?



No items found