Raya Dunayevskaya 1960

The World Crisis and the Theoretical Void

Source: This piece was published in a French language translation in the journal Prometeo (March 1960), edited by Onorato Damen. It is included in The Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, microfilm numbers 9501-9512;
Transcribed: by Kevin Michaels.

I. The Whip of the Counter-Revolution and the Crisis in Marxist Organization

The counter-revolution has struck again in Algeria and in France. That 3,000 willful fascists (colons) in Algiers can assume the initiative in holding 45,000,000 French by their collective throat, and can keep the whole world on edge; that De Gaulle can get the Communist and socialist trade unions to demonstrate allegiance to him – and have them do so on their own time so that capitalist production is in no way disturbed by this lunch hour demonstration – whereupon De Gaulle moves to assure “emergency” dictatorial powers – these latest events all point to the fact that the counter-revolution is now on the offensive in small things as in large. Whether it is the reappearance of ant-Semitic acts in West Germany; whether it is Eisenhower embracing Franco in fascist Spain; whether it is a comparative handful of colons insisting on the importance of their role in De Gaulle’s search for greater global glory; whether it is the Khrushchev threat to wipe “the enemy” country and/or countries “off the face of the earth” with the world’s most technologically perfect Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and/or a “fantastic weapon” – all the while preparing for summit “peace” conferences – the stark fact that emerges from all this is not the display of the incessant preparations for the holocaust of World War III, but the fact that even this has not overcome the crisis of organization among Marxists.

On the one hand, the reasons are obvious enough: (1) No spontaneous workers’ revolts have come under the influence of genuine Marxists, as was the case in 1864 when Marx came to head the First Workingmen’s International. (2) Neither has there been any direct passage of Marxist heritage from one organization to another, as was the case with Engels’ being alive at the birth of the Second International. (3) Nor has there been a successful revolution of the scope, breadth and depth of the Russian Revolution of 1917 which assured the foundation of the Third International.

On the other hand, valid as these historical facts are, I am sure no one among us wishes to use these as excuses for inactivity either in the class struggle or in the theoretical field. Those who have agreed to the establishment of a Centre for International Correspondence are certainly conscious of the tremendous revolutionary development from the field of practice: on the one side of the Iron Curtain, the 1953 revolts in Vorkuta and East Germany, climaxed by the Hungarian Revolution of 1956; and, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, wildcats and class struggles of the magnitude of general strikes, although embracing only individual industries, as is true in the United States. At the same time a whole series of Afro-Asian Revolutions are remaking the map of the world.

It is all too obvious that, just as devotion to revolutionary Marxism on the part of so-called vanguard groups has not led to a successful revolution, neither have mass actions led to a totally new society. The crucial question – What gives action a direction? – applies equally to mass action as well as to the activity of small Marxist organizations. The answer is not as easy as would appear on the surface.

II. The Challenge of Our Times

No vanguard party can “guarantee” victory to a spontaneous revolution. When such unequal forces as Russian totalitarian armed might and the Hungarian revolutionaries are pitted against each other in mortal combat, it is clear that not even the combined genius of Marx and Lenin at the head of a vanguard party could have succeeded in overcoming the Russian counter-revolution without the extension of the revolution to other countries. There was a vanguard party in 1905 (and let us not forget that both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had a revolutionary strategy and worked in unison in that revolution) but it could not topple Tsarism. With our without a vanguard, the Hungarian revolutionaries, whose courage and genius for organization fired the imagination of the world, could not keep Russian state capitalism from triumphing, once there was no extension of the revolution on a European and world scale.

What I am stressing is that, while action without a theoretic direction cannot win “by itself,” neither can theory or a party “by itself” create a new social order. Only the unity of theory and action taking an organizational form that is inseparable from the spontaneity of the masses can “guarantee” success. Before we rush off “to lead,” let us clear our heads first. There has never been a greater theoretical void in the movement than now. The point is how to meet the challenge that: (1) No international organization has arisen to replace the Third International; (2) The Trotskyist attempts to create a Fourth International have failed.

Although Leon Trotsky was a great revolutionary and an internationalist, he could not succeed for the very good and sufficient reason that he was wrong on every single fundamental prediction that stemmed from his wrong theoretical foundations – from the prediction that the Stalinist bureaucracy would not be able to defend nationalized property, through the expectation of inevitable betrayal of the CP in each country to its own bourgeoisie; to the theory of permanent revolution which maintained that, without the proletarian leadership, the peasantry could not consummate a revolution. Trotsky’s failure to recognize the new world stage of capitalism, and his inability, therefore, to grasp the class nature of Soviet Russia, led to his call for defense of that state-capitalist society and inevitably gave the Fourth International no historic reason for being. Its disintegration was thus unavoidable. But this was no repetition of the betrayal by the Second International, neither in the sense of national defense, nor of class collaboration. On the contrary, for opposing World War II, the Trotskyists were sent to prison.

“Revolutionary defeatism,” in the hands of Trotskyism, has become only a form to justify taking sides with one of the poles of world capital – Russia. This shows the truth of Lenin’s statement during the period of the Zimmerwald International: “Only the lazy do not swear by internationalism these days.”

I am not understating the importance of the present reassemblement of Marxist grouping[s] on the sound principle of proletarian internationalism which opposes both poles of capital – American and Russian. Nor can this type of revolutionary defeatism be confounded with those who will practice it only against one of the poles of world capital. What I am stressing is that, in our time, it no longer is the distinguishing mark. That is why the Centre, while an important move forward, is only a first step to a Marxist regroupment.

It is necessary to check our first step toward regroupment with the experience of Lenin when he faced the collapse of the Second International. It is impossible otherwise to stand on solid ground and be able to create the comprehensive theoretical foundation to meet the challenge of the time and thereby become the polarizing force for the movement of the revolutionary masses.

III. What We Can Learn from Lenin During the Period 1914-1924.

“Dialectic is the theory of knowledge of (Hegel and) Marxism. This is the ‘side’ of the matter (it is not ‘a side’ but the essence of the matter) to which Plekhanov, not to speak of other Marxists, paid no attention."
Selected Works, Vol. XI, p. 83 [1]

Just as the totality of the crisis in our day, which threatens the very survival of civilization, compels philosophy, a total outlook on the part of the masses, so the collapse of the Second International in 1914 compelled Lenin to turn to philosophy with new eyes.

No doubt it appeared strange that a revolutionary leader, in the midst of such a holocaust, should spend his days in the library reading the “abstruse philosopher,” G.W.F. Hegel. No doubt many a small mind was willing to “reveal” to him the fact that Hegel was a reactionary Prussian. But Lenin would brook no “defensive mood” where the philosophical foundations of Marx were concerned.

At the outbreak of World War I, Lenin felt the ground give way under him not alone because the leadership of the Marxist International had betrayed the masses, but because he, as a co-leader, had foreseen none of this. Had he not felt a compulsion to break with his own philosophic past, he would have had no need to spend all those hours restudying Hegelian dialectics. Certainly it was not because he wavered at any single moment in his revolutionary policy, or even in his search for the economic roots of the betrayal. But, unless these were governed by the profound philosophy that produced Marxism as “scientific socialism,” it would be quite inadequate to meet the challenge of the collapse of established Marxism.

Previously, the debates and divisions were “political” or “organizational.”

Until Rosa Luxemburg had written her Accumulation of Capital, which unfortunately, challenged, not the “epigones,” but Marx himself, none of the Marxists, whether reformist or revolutionary, challenged the interpretation of the basic works of Marx. Karl Kautsky’s economic doctrines, Plekhanov’s philosophic works, Hilferding’s examination of the new stage of finance capital – these were the “standard” texts for all.

Lenin now categorically rejected their very understanding even of Capital: “It is impossible fully to grasp Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, [2] if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, none of the Marists for the past half-century have understood Marx!”

Nor was this rejection of the past due to scholastic reasons. He didn’t consider a Marxist party to be a mere “debating society.” He felt the success of any developing revolution depended upon revolutionary theory not just as “politics” or “economics” but as practical perspective for the ever lower and deeper layers of the proletariat which would reconstruct society on totally new beginnings. That Lenin had thus not only armed himself for the Russian Revolution, but gave those who would live after him a methodology that could give mass action its theoretic direction can be seen most clearly in his Will.

There, he argues not against betrayers. He analyzes his own revolutionary committee. He gives us the benefit of a lifetime spent in the revolutionary movement not only when he criticizes the main protagonists – Trotsky and Stalin – but in his criticism of the Party’s main theoretician, Bukharin:

“Bukharin is not only the most valuable and biggest theoretician of the party, but also, may legitimately be considered the favorite of the whole party; but his theoretical views can only with the very greatest doubt be regarded as fully Marxian, for there is something scholastic in him (he never learned, and I think never fully understood, the dialectic).

Unfortunately, it made no difference to the heirs of Lenin whether the Will was or was not published, and finally when it was, the history of the debates of the Second International repeated itself. It became a matter of “political” or “organization” debate, not a philosophic grappling.

Future Marxist generations will stand astounded at the disdain the Marxist movement has shown to Lenin’s Philosophic Notebooks. This was true not only among Trotskyists who displayed no interest in the English translation which I submitted to them; it is equally true of those who broke with Trotskyism on the economic analysis of the new world stage of capitalism which caused the transformation of the first workers’ state into a state capitalist society. Now that the philosophic undercurrent of the actual revolutions against Russian Communism is so deep, that even the totalitarian monolith must recognize the existence of Marxist Humanism as the enemy, it is high time that this phenomenon receives the serious attention that our Marxist heritage demands and our times compel.

IV. The Historic Reality and the Need for Theoretical Clarification

“The unity of theoretic ideas (cognition) and practice – this NB – and this unity precisely in the theory of knowledge for the result is the ‘Absolute Idea’ (and Idea – ‘objective truth’.)”

Philosophic Notebooks

When in 1955, the Communist theoreticians suddenly launched an attack on the early Economic-Philosophic Essays of Marx, a strange silence pervaded the Marxist groupings. There were no Lenin texts they could follow since Lenin died before the Essays were published. (The Second International, which had been the heir of Marx’s writings, had never bothered to publish them, and by the time the Third International finally bought and published them, it was 1927.) The publication and debate around them seemed to be the concern only of “specialists” like Ryazonov, [3] Deborin, [4] and Lukacs, since Bukharin was too busy creating a theoretic base for Stalins’ “Socialism in One Country,” and Trotsky was too busy fighting it.

As state capitalism pervaded our world, the theoretic void among Marxists became so oppressive that no one faced the challenge of the young Marx, who, to distinguish his new world outlook both from the capitalists and the vulgar Communists of his day, had named his philosophy, “Humanism.”

The Russian theoreticians did not, in 1955, undertake their sudden attack on Humanism for pedantic reasons. Very real, very objective, very threatening forces in the world compelled this confrontation – the incipient revolutions in Eastern Europe. To serious Marxists, it was clear then that the Stalinist crushing of the East German uprising could not have killed the undercurrent of revolt in Eastern Europe as completely as the Russian Communists pretend. As I wrote then: Their sudden attack on Marx’s Early Essays must mean new proletarian stirrings.

Six months later, the Hungarian Revolution broke out. It then became known that in the months preceding the Revolution, the debates within the Communist Party revolved around the question of Humanism. For example Tardos, [5] in rejecting the idea that the top ruling clique and the Party were one and the same thing, wrote: “The party is ourselves, those...who fight for the ideas and principles of Humanism and whose aims reflect in ever-increasing measure those of the people and the country.”

When, as a result of the Russian crushing of the Hungarian Revolution the Communists in Western Europe began to tear up their membership cards, some who formed new groups called themselves “Socialist Humanists.” When this fact became a practical question for the Trotskyists in England who wanted to win some recruits, the American Trotskyists finally wrote lengthy articles on Humanism both as a philosophy and as a concrete organizational question. On the whole, the Trotskyists seem to be in agreement with the Stalinist interpretation that Humanism was “merely” the young, “immature” Marx. But whatever can be said of this spurious interpretation; whatever can be said about their sudden interest in the origin of Humanism in ancient Greek philosophy of the fifth century B.C.; at least they recognized also its existence today both in Hungary and in Western Europe.

Not as much can be said for those among us who are so anxious to slander Humanism as a philosophy that they hark back to its prevalence in the Renaissance rather than to the revolutionary thought of the young Marx, which the mature Marx, far from abandoning, developed to the point where it became a red thread that runs through his greatest theoretical work, Capital. Lenin’s insistence (1) that no one could understand Capital who hadn’t understood Hegel’s Logic; (2) that “man’s cognition not only reflects the objective world, but creates it, “ as well as (3) his disgust with the vulgar materialists of the Second International (“Philosophical idealism is only nonsense from the standpoint of crude, simple, metaphysical materialism,”) – all three attitudes were part of Lenin, not merely as “philosopher,” but as revolutionary leader. They come alive in his every political pronouncement from the day after the Russian Revolution succeeded. They permeate every theoretical discussion, from the “Revision of the Party Program” to the Will.

To evade the question of Marxist Humanism today is to blind oneself to the new, both as concerns questions posed by the proletariat in technologically advanced countries as well as those posed by the march to freedom in the Afro-Asian countries.

If we cannot learn from the revolutionary movements of our time, the whip of the counter-revolution will drive us finally to see that Hegel’s “Absolutes,” and the international struggles for freedom, are not so far apart, either in life or in theory, as would appear from the obscurantist articles in Russian official philosophic journals which keep pounding on “Partynosts,” that is, the “Party character” of philosophy. Where, even three decades ago, Lenin could see the Absolute Idea only “in general,” we can see it “in the concrete” provided we are Marxists, and can therefore read the spirit of the times in materialist terms.

The truth of Marxist Humanism, that has forced its way on the historic stage throughout the world from Hungary to Asia and Africa, was first raised by the workers in the United States when they were confronted with Automation and asked, “What kind of labor should man perform?”

It is this historically higher stage of the question of alienation of labor that Marx raised over a century ago that enabled the American movement to raise the question of Humanism as a concrete question of production before it had been raised on the political scene in Europe.

Today, when an Eisenhower hides his mailed fist and masquerades as his being a world traveler, talking to the people about “human dignity” and “peace”; when a Khrushchev talks out of both sides of his mouth, threatening to wipe those who opposed Russia “off the face of the earth” while championing “peaceful co-existence"’ when a De Gaulle promises nothing short of self-determination in the “spirit of our times” while preparing for all-out war against these same Moslem rebels; and Communist and Socialist trade unions demonstrate for De Gaulle – and yet no revolutionary Marxist grouping has any deep roots among the masses; then the counter-revolution seems indeed to have the whip-hand everywhere.

The totality of the world crisis, however, at the same time compels the revolutionary proletariat to search for a philosophy that would govern its reconstruction of society on totally new beginnings. A reconstruction that would not repeat the tragedy of the Russian Revolution, which, not having extended itself, could also not deepen itself to the extent where the economy and the state were run by the proletariat “to a man,” thereby making a vanishing factor of the distinction between mental and manual labor.

It is this perspective which Lenin would not give up as he saw the bureaucracy arise as incipient state capitalism lay in the shadows. It would be a fatal reflection of theoretical sloth were we as contemporary Marxists to refuse to grapple with the philosophical problems raised both in production and in the political area in acts ranging from American wildcats through intellectual inter-CP debates on the eve of Hungary’s revolution to the revolution itself, not forgetting that the colonial revolutions, in striving to industrialize without the inevitable concomitant capitalism, have posed questions for new points of departure in theory that, again, Lenin laid a basis for in his thesis [6] at the Second Congress of the CI.

We cannot, in 1960, unfurl less of a banner than Lenin unfurled in 1914 when he made Marxian dialectical philosophy the governing principle of his every action. For our times, however, the philosophic outlook can no longer remain in private notebooks, or published for “specialists” to debate pedantically as if these had no relationship to the revolution. The maturity of our age demands public, comprehensive discussions in which the proletariat, the theoretician, and the practical revolutionary are indistinguishable from one another in the seriousness of approach.

We do not doubt that this will become a regular feature of the Journal of the Center for International Correspondence.

February 2, 1960

1. “On Dialectics,” 1915 [Transcriber’s note]

2. It is precisely this first chapter that Stalinists ordered cut from the study of Capital at the same time that they broke from the Marxian analysis of the law of value in 1943.

3. D.B. Ryazonov (1870-1938), also spelled Riazonov, was a Marx scholar who produced editions of many texts by Marx. He was executed during the Great Purge period. [Transcriber’s note]

4. Abram M. Deborin (1881-1963) was a prominent Soviet philosopher. [Transcriber’s note]

5. Tibor Tardos was a member of the Hungarian Writers’ Union and a leader of the Petofi Circle. [Transcriber’s note]

6. Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and the Colonial Questions. [Transcriber’s note]