Summary — Raya Dunayevskaya, in 1970, critiques the illusions of the counter-cultural “Woodstock nation,” and calls for a coalescence of the objective and subjective forces needed for social revolution — Editors
Editor’s Introduction: We publish below a letter written by Raya Dunayevskaya in July 1970 in response to an activist-correspondent who stated in a letter to her, “The movement now is not primarily in the factory; the consciousness is not there nearly so much as in the rock-drug culture.” Her response was first printed in News and Letters, Vol. 15, No. 8, October 1970. One obvious parallel with 2017 is that the then-President of the United States (Richard Milhouse Nixon) was, like Donald Trump, a racist, regressive human rights abuser and general menace to democracy. True, while in 1970 Nixon was criminally raining bombs on the people of Vietnam, Trump hasn’t yet committed US armed forces to a major war, but the operative word has to be yet. Other parallels center around the fact that then as now there is a huge gulf between the oppositional forces of American youth and the population as a whole, especially the working class. The life-style, countercultural politics of the “Woodstock Nation,” the “violent spouting” of street-fighters and delusional “armed-struggle” tendencies like Weather Underground, the union bureaucrats, the Civil Rights Movement, the vanguardist left and the “Nixon-Agnew” state-terrorists all come under Dunayevskaya’s scrutiny. She further argues that the failure of German Social Democracy to prevent the First World War in 1914 held lessons for the anti-war movement of the early 1970s. They still do.
I was glad to hear that your recent activity centers around the workers’ strike, and sad to hear about some of the activism of the youth that they think is revolutionary. Let’s begin with the activity of the youth that was great—the support of the strike—and the elitism in the conclusions they drew from it. To say that it was adventurous or utopian or chaotic or idealistic does not get to the root of the matter, because any one of these adjectives—or all of them together—would still be only a partial answer. To get to the whole answer, we would have to see it in historic context. I’m referring to the talk about “a general strike nationwide following the elections.” Who talked that way? Obviously, it was not the proletariat. Not so obvious, I’m afraid, is the wrongness of the conclusion that the ones who talked that way were revolutionaries, whereas the workers who did not were interested only in “bread and butter” questions.
First of all, so-called bread-and-butter questions aren’t all that unimportant for those who must live only on what they earn in a capitalist society—whereas to petty bourgeois youth, poverty appears minor. Secondly, and more important, is the fact that it isn’t true that that is all that concerns workers. As [Charles] Denby has recently pointed out, where the labor bureaucracy is interpreting “bread and butter” to mean raises and benefits, the workers are demanding changing conditions of labor and their right to control the speed of the line. So sharp is the opposition of the rank and file to the labor contract that they have begun using the expression “runaway shops”—not, as in the past, to mean the shops that would go South because they could get non-union cheap labor there—but to the very shops right here in the North that are the most unionized by the “left” UAW.
Nevertheless, they are “runaway,” that is to say, runaway from any control by workers because the labor bureaucracy is at one with management in signing away any control over the production line to management.
In a word, the way in which the workers interpret “bread and butter” and the way the labor bureaucracy interprets it—[the latter is] unfortunately, the way in which the elitist activist youth also interprets it—are miles apart. It is this unbridgeable gulf (unbridgeable because different classes are involved, from opposite sides of the production line) that is the mark of today’s “revolutionaries,” who seem to think that activism—whether it is at a park or at the point of production—are one and the same thing, and since it happens more obviously at the park than at the point of production that makes the workers “backward.” Note, please, that I didn’t go into the fact that you, yourself, admit that many of the workers are also anti-war. However, I will now go into the anti-war activities of the youth.
There is no doubt that this is the greatest event of this decade, that it has created a whole generation of revolutionaries and that, therefore, it has the potentiality of leading to a pre-revolutionary situation. But (1) The anti-Vietnam war movement did not, did not arise out of “sex, dope, rock music and communal living.” It arose, first and foremost, in response to the objective situation, [especially] the imperialist U.S. bombing of Hanoi. (2) It came after the youth had experienced contact with the Black revolution, from who it learned not only its tactics but also its black bravery. The concrete path led from the Freedom Rides through the FSM [Free Speech Movement] (both as an affinity to the black revolution and an affinity to the Marxian concept of alienation) to the Ann Arbor teach-in.
In a word, the awakening of the youth, as a revolutionary force, was via the now much-denigrated Civil Rights Movement. Of course, the recognition that the system will not be uprooted via Civil Rights tactics but through revolution is a great leap forward if revolution is understood historically, actually, philosophically, as a social revolution which, moreover, does not stop at the political phase, or on the day of revolution, but wants to make sure that the day after we are not confronted with a new statist bureaucracy but continue on uninterruptedly to totally new human relations which the masses themselves establish and re-establish creatively and check on daily.
I do not mean to denigrate the Woodstock “Nation”; they certainly are a superior phenomenon to the Establishment. They certainly bespeak of the duality in existing society, that is to say they show that just as in a class-sense there are two worlds in every country, so in a generational, youth, cultural-sense there are two worlds within the existing structures that undermine it. That is the proof of the dialectic that every unit has the opposite within itself, and that the gravediggers of the old, the forces of the new, the combatants, culturally as well as in a class sense, are lined up for the life and death struggle long before they are “armed.” Does that make the ones who are “armed” the revolutionaries—even though their chaotic acts [have] led to the tragedy of blowing themselves up, and even though it gives the Nixon-Agnew terrorists the excuse to conduct their preventive civil war before the objective situation and the subjective forces have coalesced to assure the victory of the social revolution?
This type of activism is not revolutionary, isn’t very serious and isn’t “the alternative society.” I am using the word “serious,” not in the derogatory Sartrean sense, but in the Hegelian sense of “labor, patience, seriousness, and suffering of the negative.” Activism, putting one’s life on the line, is most serious when it means a revolutionary uprooting of the decrepit capitalist (I’m sure you realize that I am including the state capitalist as well as the private capitalist) system and not merely a violent spouting of 4 (or 12) letter words. Words must be as new, as multi-dimensional, as expressive of a whole human being as the new society that is truly human and wholly free. Four and 12-letter-words on the other hand, are as alienated, fragmented and expressive of the old society as are the sundered human beings the class society produces.
As against the statist, elitist party-and-cultural man that Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” has produced overseas, we need a total concept of philosophy and revolution, of freedom and self-development. Both individually and collectively, self-development has always occurred through history—that is to say through actual class, generational and cultural struggles that have been carried on by live men and women who have been whole enough to wish to engage in a battle of ideas.
Your description of events have made me see even more clearly than before how very urgent is this need for the unity of theory and practice. When someone as brave and wonderful as your friend seems to have been ends-up dead at so young an age, I am aroused, not only against this degenerate police-type of state, but also against the delusions that make a youth think that individual acts [of violence] would bring about a revolution. Must the youth sacrifice their bodies to prove the repressions of this capitalistic society? Can’t we go beyond aborted as well as soured revolutions? Can’t we see that thinking, too, is an activity, and that to think that activity is the only “doing,” irrespective of the underlying philosophy, is not only as one-sided as the ivory tower type of thinking, but is precisely what the Establishment—the power structures on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific and the China and Red Seas and Indian Oceans—are counting on us doing? We, thereby, prove only one thing. We are as organically part of this society we were supposed to be uprooting as the society itself is, because we are operating within its pragmatic philosophic structure.
This note is too long already but I do want to say one word, at least, about “living in communes.” No doubt the youth think that this is very new, very revolutionary and shows that they are living in a different world, a totally different world from that of the Establishment. Unfortunately, it’s also a very different world—and not necessarily for the better—from where the masses live and must live. It is a way of isolating oneself, not only from the workers who are the main revolutionary force, but from the population as a whole and it is, again, precisely what capitalism wants. That is to say, [it wants] to break up the various revolutionary forces from ever finding each other.
Do you know that the Kaiser was the only one who knew what Lenin did not know, that he need not fear the Second International’s opposition to the holocaust of the First World War he was going to unleash because the socialists were so elitist—they lived so much by themselves, had their own rituals for everything from marriage as “against” the bourgeois type, to naming of their children by revolutionary instead of biblical names—that they had no contact with the unorganized “backward” masses and this isolation assured capitulation? Not that the masses were “spontaneously” antiwar at that moment, and it is precisely at that moment that the socialists—had they not been isolated and therefore compelled to experience the divisions within their own ranks before the outbreak of war—could have played a revolutionary role. As it is, the fight of the revolutionaries to transform the imperialist war into a civil war came only after the Russian Revolution succeeded.
So-called communal living is not new in America and is the very opposite of the Paris Commune “storming the heavens.” The only ones in this country who attempted this, for a brave 72 hours, were the workers in St. Louis [during their general strike of 1877]. As against that type of inspiration, the American intellectuals were inspired by the utopian socialists to build their “communes” at the very moment when the Abolitionists were trying to show them that association with the Blacks is the only “transcendental” gesture that meets the challenge of the times. Whether or not you would like to look into that period with Abolitionists’ eyes, or only with eyes of today and as a poet, I would very much like to see a review by you of Hawthorne’s Blithendale Romance.
No, I do not think that we’re in an immediately pre-revolutionary situation, least of all resulting from the sex and drug culture, and neither does Nixon. What he does see is that he can take advantage of these chaotic actions to prevent any such possibility from developing out of the emerging class struggles and the possible transformation of the anti-Vietnam war movement into a fully revolutionary movement. I am enclosing our Perspectives [Thesis] of this year and I’m looking forward to your comments. A copy of the [Women’s Liberation] pamphlet was also sent to you; we are expanding and issuing it as a printed pamphlet. There is a new revolutionary force, and we, alone, are working to see that it does not isolate itself from the proletariat, from the Blacks, towards mere escapism.
July 24, 1970
P.S. I’d like to recommend to you the study of one of the most beautiful works on China, especially the chapter on “Nihilistic Revolt or Mystical Escapism.” You will there see that “Being and Nothingness” had been anticipated by some 1,700 years in the concept of Void. The work is entitled Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy by Étienne Balázs. It happens that when I was in Japan in 1966, I was asked by these modern-day existentialists a very “superior” question on [what they called] the “Oriental Void.” My translator on the platform informed me that it was a malicious question that merely meant to show up both Marxism and Westernism. I insisted, however, on answering it quite seriously, both as it first occurred in history, and why these modern existentialists have brought nothing new with their concept of “extreme situation.” In any case, I believe it will help return you to historic situations as illuminators of the present.