Raya Dunayevskaya (1910-1987) has attracted considerably less scholarly attention than C.L.R. James, her onetime co-leader of the influential-beyond-its-size dissenting current of American Trotskyism known as the Johnson-Forest Tendency (JFT). While interest in James understandably stems in part from the wide variety of influences that contributed to his identity, Dunayevskaya also embodies a fascinating diversity of attributes that one assumes would make her a magnet for close study. Female, immigrant, and self-schooled in the whole of Marxism, Dunayevskaya is distinguished from the American radical milieu by the longevity and quality of her contributions, both as a revolutionary organizer and as a theorist.
The body of literature on James is large, and additions to it show no signs of abating. Dunayevskaya, in contrast, still awaits a full-length study issued by a major publisher devoted to her work in its entirety. She has not been without influence though, and a number of recent works have focused on aspects of her legacy. The latest of these is the present book, which does not survey of the whole of her intellectual production, but instead amplifies the aim of her last undertaking, left unfinished at the time of her death: a close examination of the relationship of philosophy to revolutionary organization.
Marxism’s philosophical content was an enduring interest for Dunayevskaya, dating back to the JFT’s collaborative exploration of both the young Marx’s humanist essays and the work of Marx’s philosophical inspiration, Hegel. While James, Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee (the third member of the small group’s intellectual leadership) each exhibited intense interest in dialectics in the 1940s, only Dunayevskaya continued to delve seriously into philosophy after 1950, the culminating year of the trio’s collective interrogation of the dialectic. Although James’s manuscript known as Notes on Dialectics (1948) remains a frequently cited highpoint of the JFT’s output, he did not return substantively to philosophy in his lifetime.
Dunayevskaya, in contrast, based the tendency she founded after her 1955 split with James and Lee in part upon her prior work in dialectics, especially two wide-ranging letters on Hegel’s Absolutes that she wrote to Lee in 1953 (published in The Power of Negativity: Selected Writings on the Dialectic in Hegel and Marx, 2002). Marxism and Freedom (1958) was an attempt to integrate her humanist philosophy with new forms of working-class struggle in the age of automation. Philosophy and Revolution (1973) was an ambitious call for a renewal of Hegelian Marxism. Later, after a 1982 book on Rosa Luxemburg, Dunayevskaya once again took up the relationship of ideas to organization in Marxism. Although she worked on this project for a number of years, it remained unfinished at the time of her death.
Gogol takes Dunayevskaya’s unfinished task as an inspiration. The scope of the project is daunting, encompassing a resumé of Hegel’s Absolutes, an interpretation of Marx’s attitude toward organization, and a study of historic instances of working-class upswellings. Although Gogol stresses that the end result of Dunayevskaya’s creative process cannot be presumed, the structure of his book follows closely an outline that she drafted in May 1987.
Advocating the practical relevance of philosophy – let alone Hegelian philosophy – in the milieu of American Marxism has never been an easy task. Deweyan pragmatism and doctrinaire materialism were the strongest competing native philosophical currents before the post-1960s proliferation of academic radical theories, which tended to flip Marxism from all-practice to all-theory. Against this grain and following Dunayevskaya’s lead, Gogol argues that dialectical philosophy must be embedded within the practice of organization itself. He traces organizational Marxism’s tendency to privilege immediate practical needs over theoretical principles back to the SPD’s Gotha Program of 1875. Marx’s immediate and wide-ranging critique of that program was all but suppressed until the party’s next major program-revision in 1891, by which time the Social Democracy had become largely invested in maintaining the society it putatively sought to overcome.
Gogol begins by discussing how Marx linked theory to organization throughout his life. While 20th-century Marxists habitually looked to Lenin to provide the model of organization, Marx provides us with an abundance of valuable experience with organizations large and small. Marx’s 1860 comment to the poet Freiligrath on the “party in the broad historical sense” (cited by Gogol) is indicative of what can be called a spirit of organization, although Gogol doesn’t use this phrase. In Marx’s efforts from the Manifesto onwards, he consistently privileged openness, fidelity to theoretical rigor, and a strong orientation toward the living and breathing human beings who had no other choice but to labor at the foundation of a society that oppressed them. Part of Gogol’s thesis is that this spirit provides a more enduring legacy than do Lenin’s organizational theses.
Gogol continues with a review of spontaneous proletarian uprisings from the Paris Commune to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. While comprehensive, it relies on secondary sources and tells us little that is new about these events. A cursory account of the experience of Polish Solidarity raises more questions than it answers. Problematically, no organizational form more recent than Solidarity is discussed.
The second section, on Absolute Knowledge, presents Dunayevskaya’s view of Hegel’s significance for the question of organization. Here Dunayevskaya is on ground almost completely untraveled in Marxist tradition (with the exception of Lukács), as she argues that Absolute Knowledge, the destination reached by Spirit at the conclusion of Hegel’s Phenomenology, can be read as a highly abstract stage in which historically contingent manifestations of human activity, such as working-class organizations, merge with expressions of their philosophical comprehension—a unity of theory and practice in which, as Gogol puts it, “The dialectic in philosophy will from within itself give birth to a dialectic of organization.”
For Dunayevskaya, in contrast to Lukács’s reading in The Young Hegel, this Absolute produces something new with direct significance for revolutionary praxis. Gogol here also examines Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, which he sees, following Dunayevskaya, as a significant document for the concept of organization.
Gogol next takes up a relationship of crucial importance to Dunayevskaya, that of Lenin and the Hegelian dialectic. Dunayevskaya’s encounter with Hegel was largely inspired by Lenin’s 1914 reading of the Science of Logic and additional philosophic works, carried out as the Second International imploded. A translation of Lenin’s notes on Hegel was one of her contributions to the JFT’s collective work on dialectics, and she published this as an appendix to Marxism and Freedom. She continually revisited Lenin’s unprecedented (for a Marxist) exploration of Hegel and considered it a major element of her own thought. Gogol, in one of the highlights of his book, draws attention to Dunayevskaya’s late-period return to the critical attitude toward Lenin’s notes present in her 1953 letters to Grace Lee. There, Dunayevskaya criticized Lenin’s indifference to Hegel’s Absolute Idea (found at the close of the Science of Logic). She intimated that her work on organization and philosophy would substantially develop this point, so crucial to Hegelian Marxism.
The book concludes with an account of News and Letters Committees (the organization virtually synonymous with Dunayevskaya during her lifetime) and a critique of the works of some recent thinkers in the area of Marxism and theory, including John Holloway, Michael Lebowitz, and István Mészáros. The latter section is interesting, but seems somewhat outside of the book’s scope because the theorists taken up by and large don’t concern themselves with the topic of organization.
At the time Dunayevskaya began her study of dialectics and revolutionary organization, the subject of spontaneous forms of organization was one of cutting-edge concern. By the late 1980s the world had seen the definitive eclipse of the old model of the vanguard party by a myriad of new movements animated by feminism, nuclear disarmament, and AIDS activism, among many others. Those movements can be said to have paved the way for the contemporary world, in which many of their concerns and achievements have been incorporated into the fabric of capitalist society. Dunayevskaya’s project could have helped prepare Marxists for a post-Soviet reality in which the mere collapse of capitalism’s other would neither guarantee the success of a renewed socialist movement, nor automatically ground it more deeply in new social struggles.
Gogol makes a welcome contribution in describing that unfinished project, but by neglecting to examine the subjective and objective landscape of the world since Dunayevskaya’s death, he fails to make the dialectics of philosophy and organization seem relevant for the moment. A comparison with the organizational ideas of C.L.R. James would seem to be a natural component of Gogol’s undertaking (it is included in Dunayevskaya’s May 1987 outline of her project), but unfortunately, discussion of James after the 1955 split is entirely absent.
While Hegelian philosophy is no closer to the center of the radical movement (much less the diminished Marxist movement) than it was at Dunayevskaya’s passing, the spontaneous forms of called for in the 1980s are now the norm. The current predominance of loose and decentralized forms of organization, from New York to Istanbul, encourages us to look for ideas by which they may be made to function. Gogol’s book doesn’t exactly call us to that task, but he provides relevant material for it.
Reviewed by Kevin O’Brien
Librarian and blogger, Chicago