Marxism and Freedom, From 1776 Until Today

Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom, From 1776 Until Today; Preface by Herbert Marcuse, and a new Foreword by Joel Kovel (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2000).

In this aptly titled book, Raya Dunayevskaya (1910-1987) makes a spirited claim that Marx was oriented throughout his life’s work by a humanist philosophy. She announces in the Introduction: “Marxism is a theory of liberation or it is nothing” (22). Indeed the name which Marx gave in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) to his all-encompassing outlook was “humanism” (21).

Marxism and Freedom was originally published in 1958. This edition retains the original preface by Herbert Marcuse, which pays tribute to Dunayevskaya’s interpretation that “Marxian economics and politics are throughout philosophy, but that the latter is from the beginning economics and politics” (xix). A new foreword by Joel Kovel emphasizes the distinction between academic philosophy separated from the real world and Dunayevskaya’s “philosophic preparation for revolution” (xv).

What are the distinctive themes introduced by Dunayevskaya and further developed in her later writings?”* How may these themes be of use in our struggles today? The future of any kind of “Marxism” in the 21st century centers on how it is able to provide an alternative to what collapsed in 1989. This work, written three decades before that collapse, represents a serious reexamination of Marx’s humanism in light of the distortions of what was called socialism.”

Dunayevskaya argued that state ownership is an altogether inadequate approach to resolving the contradictions of capitalism. She showed that for Marx everything centers on overcoming the perverse relation of subject and object in the labor process under the capitalist mode of production. Thus, the mastery of the capitalist over the worker is based on the mastery of things over man, of dead labor (machines) over living labor. The specific character of capitalist production is the application of living labor to capital, with the sole aim of augmenting its value, to create surplus value. In capitalism, value is pregnant with more value while the satisfaction of human needs is shunted aside.

However, Marx maintained, capitalism itself calls forth “new forces and new passions” which can “reconstruct society on new, truly human beginnings,” so that “the full and free development of every individual is the ruling principle” (125). This process constitutes the overcoming of the inverted relation of subject and object, and a humanistic resolution of the contradictions inherent to the capitalist mode of production. For Dunayevskaya, the humanism of Capital runs like a red thread throughout the work, giving it its force and direction.

This philosophical comprehension of Marx’s mature work of political economy needs to be reckoned with by today’s “anti-globalization” movement. That movement is largely motivated by the injustice of the huge disparity in wealth between the northern, advanced capitalist nations and the nations of the south. The rallying cry is for a more just distribution of the world’s wealth. Marxism and Freedom moves beyond this politics of equity. It illuminates how deeply capital must be uprooted in order to transform labor into an activity for human development and the realization of individual potentialities.

Dunayevskaya highlights the question, “What are we for?” Typically it is more immediately clear what we are against-capital’s globalized reach, or imperialism. The question of the kind of society we are working for is usually ducked as too remote or potentially divisive. Dunayevskaya nonetheless insists on the need for full-fledged discussion within the movement and a collective focus for working it out.

This orientation comes out of Dunayevskaya’s embrace of Hegel’s method of the negation of the negation. She likens it to Marx’s concept of “revolution in permanence,” which “made it clear that the revolution does not end with the overthrow of the old but must continue to the new, so you begin to feel this presence of the future in the present” (12). The revolutionary impulse thus seeks the creation of a new human being beyond the uprooting of the old society. Only this ceaseless negation, including the negation of the initial attempts at negation, can lead us beyond a reshuffling of the cards so as to achieve an equitable redistribution of the world’s wealth.

For Dunayevskaya the dialectic of negativity is the notion that forward movement emerges from the negation of obstacles to freedom. Negation needs to go further than the refutation of the given, because the first negation is still imprinted with the old. Only when negativity goes on to become self-directed, self-related, or in Hegelian terms “absolute,” does it create the positive and the truly new.

While the aim of a humanistic transformation of society has this dialectical philosophical basis, it emerges out of actual human struggles. Dunayevskaya anticipates the focus on fighting for “new human relations” that later became central to the women’s, Black liberation and workers’ struggles. She quotes a young worker from Los Angeles who asked: “What skill do you need in this day of Automation? What pride can you have in your work if everything is done electronically…? What about the human being?” (272).

Marxism and Freedom elucidates Marx’s mature work in political economy through a humanist lens. Dunayevskaya succeeds in showing that Marx was engaged throughout his life in a comprehensive project of human liberation, the bringing about of a new society based on new human relations.

Reviewed by Eli C. Messinger
New York Marxist School

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