Raya Dunayevskaya and Her Legacy: A Review of Peter Hudis, Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism – by Out To Lunch (Ben Watson)

  • E-Mail
  • Facebook
  • Twitter

Philosophy / Theory: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

image001Summary: Out To Lunch: Ben Watson is host of weekly radio show Late Lunch With Out To Lunch on Resonance FM: London’s Arts Station. He is also author of Adorno For Revolutionaries. The following article first appeared on the website Unkant — Editors


Looking around at the fraught relationship between Marxism and Feminism in Britain today, a clue to its ongoing Punch & Judy — Judy currently punching above her weight — may be in the names. An ‘ism’ named after one man, as if the writings of a single person necessarily cohere into a philosophy; and a politics named after an entire gender. Both are so broad and conflicted they’ve been used to justify nuclear armageddon (the ‘workers’ bomb’ of Soviet Russia) and bombing countries into submission (Iraq and Afghanistan). But how to combine them so as to shed the bad sides of both? Enter Raya Dunayevskaya, who in 1922, aged 12, arrived in Chicago from the Ukraine with her refugee parents. Six years later she was “kicked down some dirty stairs” by communist militants, because she said that maybe Trotsky’s writings should be read before he was condemned as a ‘fascist agent’. Furious at this treatment, she wrote to Trotsky in Mexico, offering him her services as a secretary — she could take dictation, use a typewriter, manage a filing system. She went to Mexico and became a Trotskyist, helping the Old Man with his work — and carrying a pistol.

The story does not end there. Today, following a generation’s experience of anti-capitalism, net-activism and student protest, ‘Trotskyism’ has become a name for a corrupt petit-Stalinism, party-building operations which are closer to a historical re-enactment society than anything facing reality today (Lenin’s What Is To Be Done suspended over a dirty stairwell). Dunayevskaya was an independent spirit, truly a revolutionary, perpetually rebelling when she sensed social conformity and intellectual security congealing around her. Working with the Trinidadian revolutionary C.L.R James in the 1940s (the ‘Johnson-Forest Tendency’, named after the aliases they used to avoid FBI surveillance), she broke with Trotskyism and developed a theory of ‘state capitalism’: the Soviet bloc was not Marxist at all, but a another way of exploiting labour. Relocating to Detroit, she decided that the hierarchical model of the Communist Party — star bourgeois intellectual surrounded by worker apparatchiks — was all wrong: in its core activities, a left organisation must refuse the separation of mental from manual labour. Her News & Letters groupuscule introduced car workers to dialectical philosophy: she called it ‘Humanist Marxism’ to distinguish it from the Soviet kind.

Writing to Harry McShane in 1964 (the Glaswegian ‘Red Clydsider’ who’d joined the Communist Party as a young militant worker in 1920, but in 1932 was shocked by the conditions in a Soviet coalmine he visited in the Donbas region of the Ukraine, left the party and got interested in Humanist Marxism in the 1950s), Dunayevskaya said:

“I really must get worker-revolutionaries who have not previously thought of philosophy involved in a dialogue on it, even if it’s only to say they ‘don’t understand’, because the manner in which they express their non-understanding is much more understanding than some intellectuals’ glibness — and it helps me a great deal.”

This statement rings true for anyone who’s tried to make politics something more than PhD fodder, something that can make a difference: talking exclusively to professional thinkers trivialises thought, making it something to live by or on, rather than live.

Dunayevskaya didn’t use her reading to block out the world or gain status as an expert (her first language was Yiddish; she read Marx in Russian and Hegel in English), but to try and understand social conflict in her contemporary America. The Black Civil Rights movement and then the Women’s movement were currents she threw herself into, but always holding onto her Marxism. Marx, she believed, by discovering that we are shaped by real, material histories rather than merely ‘ideas’, had discovered “an entire new continent of thought”. Contrary to Stalinist misinterpretation, which jettisons the earlier, scurrilous Marx as ‘unscientific’ and ‘bourgeois’, she insisted that Marx started with the Man/Woman question and built his theory out from there (“The immediate, natural, necessary relationship of human being to human being is the relationship of man to woman … It is possible to judge from this relationship the entire level of development of mankind” EPM (1844), Early Writings, p. 347). Like many adepts of social satire, sexual hypocrisy was for Marx the chink in the armour of the bourgeoisie, and reduced all their fine talk of morals and ethics to dust. He excoriated Parisian bankers and millionaires for their double standards: ‘chaste’ wives at home (in fact probably committing adultery), mistresses and prostitutes elsewhere.

Dunayevskaya’s response to the Women’s Movement — Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (1981) — has received scant attention. It’s as if politicians and pundits, seeking quick-fix issues to galvanise niche audiences, would rather feed us partial views, as if the ‘whole picture’ is somehow too much for our little brains. Actually, it’s because we don’t get the whole picture — which needs to include our frustration with an official ‘politics’ argued via morals and ethics and religion, but never by revealing historical and financial facts; our urgent need to have our subjectivities addressed, our desires and proclivities explained, our dreams analysed; our boredom with a ‘radical’ politics that already knows every answer — that we drop out and become resigned to personal solutions, cynicism, despair (or all three). I am not going to write about Dunayevskaya’s  book, as the occasion for this article is the publication of a book by one of her followers, but I do hope to hear someone else on that volume soon: it addresses precisely the issues which agitate the best of the left at the minute.

Which is a peculiar way of starting a book review, but I wanted to explain why I want to pay attention to a hardback volume in the Brill Historical Materialism series called Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism. It looks forbidding, like one of those works which erects a perimeter fence around Marx and only issues passes to qualified experts. However, its author, Peter Hudis, was once part of Dunayevskaya’s News and Letters collective, and still calls himself a Humanist Marxist. His intention in the book is simple. It’s often said that Marx, with his polemics against the “Utopian Socialists”, opposed “blueprints about the future”, so that we should also refrain from saying what socialism will be like. Socialism therefore becomes like Jehova for the Jews (or the ‘object petit-a’ for the Lacanians … or Voldemort in Harry Potter), an unsayable absence which nevertheless shapes all our thinking. So, to counter this myth, Hudis read through Marx’s oeuvre highlighting any reference to the new society; the passages are cited in the book, then glossed.

‘But’, you may retort, as did an anti-capitalist ten years ago to Candy Udwin when she tried to address a crowd of anti-capitalista outside Euston station just after they’d set a police car on fire: ‘Karl Marx is dead!’. True enough. Although this fact obviously gives you a license to run out of the chip shop on Eversholt Street without paying (which the heckler subsequently did), I’m not sure it also means Marx’s idea of socialism is dead. The reason I began with a sketch of Humanist Marxism was to explain why I hoped Hudis would have something to say, and indeed he does. This is Marxism written by a seasoned left activist from Brooklyn. Hudis usually cuts to the chase. What I like about this kind of writing, as opposed to the ‘proliferating margins’ of those much-celebrated Parisian philosophes who confuse theory with belles lettres (and unit-shifting tons and tons of verbiage), is that the argument hits nails on heads — and then moves on to complete the roof. Moishe Postone, for example, whose thesis of the ‘objective’ movement of Capital is fashionable among financial advisers in Frankfurt, and has caused no-end of damage to the German Left (the anti-Deutsch pickets of David Rovics and Susan Witt-Stahl as ‘anti-semitic’ etc) is dispatched in five succinct pages. Nice one.

Contra received opinion, Hudis finds that Marx did talk about post-revolutionary society. Still more interestingly, it seems his warnings were borne out over the twentieth century. Some readers of early Marx are puzzled by his ferocious attacks on Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, erstwhile friend and drinking companion, toast of the Communards. Hudis explains what was at stake. Like Max Keiser today, Proudhon’s answer to the problems of his contemporary capitalism (like Keiser, Proudhon had a joltingly sharp vision of its crimes and iniquities) was a fairer system of money — labour-chits (Keiser favours silver and bitCoin): a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. No, answered Marx, the value of the work you do isn’t to be measured by the hours you put in, like a rota organised on a collective farm, because international trade has created a new situation. It’s not just that greedy bosses take more for themselves than they should (though they do); but that the value you create is dependent on socially-necessary labour-time. If you spend your life digging out potatoes with a spade and, meanwhile, someone else invents a T-CPHM (Turbo-Charged Potato Harvesting Machine), then the value of your potatoes will diminish, irrespective of any struggles with the boss. Hence your boss’s desperate ‘there is no other way’ when he sacks you.

Not that this appreciation of the position of the boss makes Marx any less critical of capitalism. Far from it. It makes his politics more radical. The whole system of wage-payment must be uprooted: “from each according to their capacity, to each according to their need”. The bourgeoisie is so steeped in the ideology of competition (“we need to be free … in order to compete” Max Keiser The Truth About Markets 25-ix-2013), this slogan will strike them as sheer madness, but this is the attitude Marx found among Silesian weavers in 1844. Their revolt caused Marx to break with his intellectual milieu and become a revolutionary. Proudhon’s labour-chits enforce a moralism about labour which tramples on the needs of the individual: thus, argues Hudis, Marx criticised Soviet state capitalism nearly a century before it happened. Marx proposed a new configuration of subject and object, individual and society: a million miles away from the ‘service to the collective’ ideology of Soviet Russia.

Earlier this year, I was subjected to a fierce dressing-down by Tony Herrington, the publisher of Wire magazine because on my Resonance radio show I had the temerity to accuse his little magazine of milking a market named “avant”. Apparently, I was dealing with a workers’ co-op, not a capitalist concern, so I had no right to criticise their way of making a living. Over to Hudis:

“Workers cooperatives that exist in a context in which exchange-value continues to govern the production and circulation of commodities eventually discover that they have less freedom and control than may at first appear.” (p. 180)

Such a ‘bitter’, ‘twisted’, “abstract” argument on my part was pretty obvious to the cleaners who struck for the minimum wage at John Lewis’s this Spring.

Andy Wilson has speculated that, with the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, the old debate over the nature of that regime (engaged in by Dunayevskaya and James in the United States, and by Tony Cliff, Gerry Healy and Ted Grant here in the UK) no longer has any political bite. However, by resuscitating Marx’s critique of Proudhon, Hudis shows that criticism of Soviet Russia remains crucial: if you do not apply the revolutionary dialectic of Hegel to politics, and recast what we think is objective and subjective — moral and self-indulgent, real and free, political and personal — then we are building a collective bound together by politics and morals, and it’s bound to end up with bullying and rape cover-ups at best, gulags at worst. Alienated work for a ‘good’ end is still alienated:

Marx is suggesting that it is not enough to ameliorate the quantitative inequities associated with the determination of value by labour-time; instead, what is most needed is to qualitatively eliminate the kind of labour that creates and constitutes value in the first place. (p. 137)

“Darkness within darkness is the gateway to the truth” said Lao Tzu, a Daoist proverb which some say (me included) found its way into Hegel’s infamous ‘negation of the negation’, a concept beloved of Dunayevskaya and her followers. This ‘mystic’ saying makes sense, like all properly materialist observations, only once it’s applied to concrete things rather than the abstractions of ideology. Hence: the above statement by Hudis might well strike you as obscure and dark. But lay it on top of another darkness: why does the AMM, with its emphasis on proletarian politics, persistently raise ‘aesthetic’ issues? Why does the AMM tent at Occupy Marxism fill the ears of activists with horrible upsetting noise? (Thanks to Bloggingjblogger at Facing Reality website for that observation). Because artistic revolt is the qualititative critique of the labour! If, on the other hand, you take this revolt and commercialise commentary upon it, turn the avant gardeinto a commodity, you have betrayed that qualitative critique. This revolt is the moment of subjective truth bleeping in the system, and if you have to pretend it’s there when it isn’t, or serve up an imitation of it, or erase it when it happens in favour of a convenient substitute, you’ve just served another stretch of deadtime labour.

Hudis tackles a problem at the heart of Capital, one that exercises everyone who reads it. Despite his polemics about the importance of history to understanding religious doubt and economic crisis, Marx does not begin at the beginning with pre-capitalist, feudal society and trace the origins of capitalism in the towns of medieval Europe. Capital begins by talking about exchange in fully-developed capitalist society, i.e. in Marx’s time. Hudis refers to the work of Chris Arthur, who has investigated manuscripts and different editions, prefaces and primers, to prove that the idea of Capital starting with ‘simple’ commodity production and then proceeding to later, more complex forms (a view associated with Engels) is an error: according to Hudis, “Capital consists of a sequential ordering of abstract categories, not a consequential ordering of how they actually unfold in history.”

I think Hudis is here in danger of succumbing to the academicism of his readers. Certainly, Marx wasn’t writing history in Capital, or at least he was proposing a new kind of history, one that starts from something in the present, in his case, commodity exchange. But to set up ‘logic’ versus ‘history’ as Arthur does breaks the monist integrity of Marx’s thought and its refusal of timeless metaphysical antinomies. Hudis’s sequential/consequential couplet introduces another unnecessary opposition, as if thinking is a pure ordering (‘sequence’) whereas history has cause and effect (‘consequences’). Analytical philosophy uses such abstract oppositions as its key to unlocking every school of thought, a method introduced into sociology and politics by Anthony Giddens, and it’s deeply anti-historical, since it pretends its science hovers above history as a meta-scheme. Giddens’ vocabulary (historicist, teleological, formal, functionalist, immanent, transcendent, normative etc etc) only sounds scientific and technical because it has been shorn of the historical periods which gave them birth, the individual flavour of Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ or Vico’s ‘ricorso‘ expunged; like an infant deodorised by the latest pharmaceutical products, this suppression of origins is meant to convey clinical exactitude and unimpeachable correctness. Marx’s method works in the opposite direction: it uncovers the trail of blood and shit left behind by money-making.

Hudis is playing the academic game here, allying with Arthur against Postone, so he cannot blow the whistle and look at how bloody awful some of Arthur’s sentences actually are. According to Arthur, Marx’s concepts of value and capital “are in effect of such abstract purity as to constitute a real incarnation of the ideas of Hegel’s logic” (p. 23). Incarnation! Abstract purity! Will the blessed professor please stop thinking about Jesus. Hegel’s logic is a method, a way of thinking that refuses the chasm between thought and thing-in-itself posited by Kant, a way of thinking that includes the Whole while looking at the Part because our idea of the Whole tilts the way we look. Seeking to ‘explain’ Hegel by deciding ‘Spirit’ is capital (or freedom, or masturbation, or …) is to think metaphorically, not concretely. These are the kind of coups which leave an assembly of professional commentators spellbound, but they don’t wash with us. If you’re convinced that only the combined working class can sort out the world, the ‘dilemma’ over whether Hegel’s spirit is capital or freedom vanishes: it’s what chopped off Louis XVI’s head in 1793, it’s what liberated the Jews, it created the industrial revolution, imperialism, the slave trade and the holocaust, and is likely to lead to eco-catastrophe. Vis à vis the old feudal order, it’s freedom, though a lot of people got hurt on the way; vis à vis, the new class it creates — i.e. us — it’s capitalism. As the Communist Manifesto argued, understand class struggle as the horrible motor of history, and it’s ‘no longer a mystery’ (as the song has it).

The ‘Leninism’ professed by shabby sub-Stalinist sects today may be rubbish, but it shouldn’t obscure the fact that in Lenin we have a great writer, the major inspiration for Dunayevskaya (although she goes beyond Lenin), and the best commentator on Capital. Lenin’s gloss on Capital doesn’t collapse into the metaphysical contrast between logic and history (these terms are actually ciphers — for thought (logic/spirit) and political action (history/matter) — forever sundered in academic Marxism):

“In his Capital, Marx first analyses the simplest, most ordinary and fundamental, most common and everyday relation of bourgeois (commodity) society, a relation encountered billions of times, viz. the exchange of commodities. In this very simple phenomenon (in this ‘cell’ of bourgeois society) analysis reveals all the contradictions (or germs of all the contradictions) of modern society. The subsequent exposition shows us the development (both growth and movement) of these contradictions and of this society in the summation of its individual parts, from its beginning to its end.” (‘On the Question of Dialectics’ 1915,Collected Works Vol. 38, pp. 360-361)

Lenin is taking his lead from Marx himself. In the preface to Capital, Marx compared the abstractions he uses to analyse the commodity with the microscopes used by biologists to investigate the fundamental unit of all life on earth — the cell. But what a contrast to the strictures about ‘logic’ and ‘history’ coming from Chris Arthur, where ‘logic’ becomes something ineffably gleaming and complex, impossibly elevated above the mere history us mundane chancers are living! Lenin, in contrast, emphasizes the sheer banality of what Marx is analysing. It’s something we do everyday — using money.

Unlike Arthur, for whom Marx mints concepts of ‘abstract purity’, even Marx’s collaborator, backer and friend Engels didn’t really understand, adumbrating some kind of divine Arthurian ‘logic’ at variance with ‘history’, Lenin points out that Marx is looking at everyday reality; indeed that in Capital he starts from there. History unfolds as we gaze into the detail, like Leopold Bloom staring at his tea caddy on the kitchen-shelf and imagining Ceylon, the globe, his own weight and the force of gravity (Ulysses, pp. 86-7). The specialisations of the academy mean those who read Capital cannot grasp that its dialectical method, writing history from what’s immediately in front of us, was taken up by all pertinent artists in the twentieth century: focus in on the rubbish, read the tea-leaves, futuro-haruspex with perspex visors. William Blake, as ever, the precursor.

Thought photograph from April 2000: I’m attending Tony Cliff’s funeral. Golders Green. It’s a weird vibe. There are over a thousand of us, but it’s a funeral procession, so there’s no shouting or placards, just a sprinkling of red flags. I’m wondering how many comrades are in the procession. I could run up ahead onto pedestrian cross-over and have a look down and estimate, but I don’t want to leave the march, it might be interpreted as disrespect. What would I do, wave at friends? Flip Gareth Jenkins the bird? Then it comes to me: I’d been reading Chris Harman’s long-awaited A People’s History of the World, and feeling disappointed, but I couldn’t quite tell why. Suddenly I knew. For those unimpressed by religion and mysticism, history is a cortège you can’t leave. There is no pedestrian cross-over, no bird’s eye view, no helicopter, no Tardis. You live your life among the people you know, that you walk beside. The only way you can find out about the start of the march or the end of it — to plumb historical origins or futures — is by speaking to those around you and swapping information (this was before the mobile phone). Writing history is like that. I was disappointed that Chris Harman, who’d recruited me to the SWP by his fierce words about how academics misconstrue Marx (‘cruds’), had written a history of the world without admitting his own point of view. A People’s History of the World is a digest of the literature, maybe slightly more spiky than Hobsbawm, but really the same deal. That’s why Capital is such a blinder: it tells history without pretending we can aspire to an off-planet, Godlike point of view (‘transcendent’!) (“In Africa, 950,000 years ago, two Homo sapiens were born. They were called Adam and Eve.” etc) But from its close attention to what we are doing when we use money, Capital paints a history of what commerce has done to the world — and predicts its future. Here, as commentators are increasingly saying, Marx got it right.

Sarah Pigott commented on Facebook the other day, saying that she thought Marxism could contribute nothing to understanding sexual choice, since with the best will in the world, if she didn’t fancy someone, that was it, however impeccable political-correct they were. It appears that her concept of Marxism has been supplied by pragmatic party politics: Proudhonist moralism, promoted by Soviet Russia as ‘Marxism’, casts a long shadow — where all assertions of subjectivity are ‘petit-bourgeois’, and service to the collective is the only virtue. This is the double-think of Stalinism which so exercised Jean-Paul Sartre in his ‘problem’ plays: “Should I sacrifice my conscience/self/virginity etc for the Good of the Cause? Does the End justify the Means?” All that abstract ethical/moral horseshit dumped on us by liberals. As Hudis explains it, following Dunayevskaya, Marx superseded this bind:

“Marx does not use the word socialism or communism to describe a postcapitalist society. He instead refers to it as ‘free individuality’. In fact, most of Marx’s references to ‘socialism’ in the Grundrisse are critical references to the standpoint of Darimon, Proudhon, and the English neo-Ricardian radicals. The word ‘communism’ appears even more rarely. Marx appears to be trying to distinguish himself from other opponents of capitalism by further clarifying his understanding of the alternative to it. The ‘free individuality’ that defines the third stage is a very different kind of individuality than that found in capitalism, since it is based on the ‘universal development of individuals’. What predominates is “the free exchange of individuals who are associated on the basis of common appropriation and control of the means of production” (MECW vol 28, p. 96). p. 114.

Hudis surely highlights these words because they correspond to the best moments of political organisation he has experienced — anyway, they tally with mine: SWP branch life in Leeds 1979-84, in Camden Town 1995-2005, Mad Pride, the AMM. Intelligent discussion because we are openly pooling resources in pursuit of a common aim, not because we are being handed down ‘intellectually rigorous’ arguments from on high.

The gist of Hudis’s argument is contained in a quote from Marx also used (twice) by Eugene Gogol, Hudis’s erstwhile News and Letters comrade, in his Brill publication (Toward a Dialectic of Philosophy and Organisation). It appears the paragraph was some kind of meme among the Dunayevskayaites, combining as it does a zest for life, contempt for the money form, progress towards freedom and a distinctly Hegelian conclusion. Marx articulates what is creative and amazing about capitalism, dissipating the fog of tragedy and despair with which the privileged smoke-screen their guilt and passivity. As Marx says in chapter four of Capital, summarising what is for me the joy and necessity of political endeavour (a lesson well learned by the French situationists, but all too rare on that anguished scene, the British left): “For capitalism is already essentially abolished once we assume that it is enjoyment that is the driving principle and not enrichment itself.” (Capital Volume 2, p.199; quoted by Hudis, p. 176). Marx’s paragraph is so great, I’ll reproduce the whole thing:

“If the narrow bourgeois form [i.e. money] is peeled off, what is wealth if not the universality of the individual’s needs, capacities, enjoyments, productive forces, etc., produced in universal exchange; what is it if not the full development of human control over the forces of nature — over the forces of so-called Nature, as well as those of his own nature? What is wealth if not the absolute unfolding of man’s creative abilities, without any precondition other than the preceding historical development, which makes the totality of this development — i.e., the development of human powers, as such, not measured by any previously given yardstick — an end-in-itself, through which he does not reproduce himself in any specific character, but produces his totality, and does not seek to remain something he has already become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?” [Marx, Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy (1857-8, MECW vol 28, pp. 411-412) quoted in Hudis p. 114]

Here is simply the best description of John Coltrane’s playing on Interstellar Space(Impulse!, 1967), his final LP of ‘out’ duets with drummer Rashied Ali, ever written! And its “obscure” Hegelian assertion of creative, self-defining freedom —“not measured by any previously given yardstick” — is instantly comprehensible to anyone who has fought, like Coltrane and the people around him, for freedom against the constraints and iniquities and crimes of modern capitalism.

Dunayevskaya’s readers include Red Clydesider Harry McShane; original RCP-member and poet Sheila Lahr; Dave Black, contributor to LobsterHobgoblin and writer of The Secret History of Acid, poet Adrienne Rich; and Egon Bondy, founder of the Plastic People of the Universe, the band which helped bring down Soviet Communism in Prague. People who think for themselves. By her passionate insistence that philosophy is for everyone, not the experts, Dunayevskaya created a politics that shatters the ‘professionalism’ which makes left organisations oppressive, whatever the gender of the fulltimer telling you off. If more people read Dunayevskaya and her followers, we wouldn’t be in such a mess today.


Leave a comment


Email(will not be published)


Your comment