Reading Dunayevskaya: Philosophy and Revolution – 1

This is an extremely difficult book to read, especially if you have no prior knowledge about Hegel. It is not helped by the rather dense way in which it is written, assuming that the reader can follow the frequent use of undefined terms from Hegel’s writings. I am struck by how abstract and almost mystical is this hunt for connection between Hegel and Marx. I wonder whether I need such abstruse theorising at all in order to understand the world. Do I even need RD? Possibly in parts she is helpful. Marx in Capital is at least readable. Hegel is gobbledegook.

There are passages, when one gets away from this specialised argument, when the book is less dense, more clearly related to human experience and therefore easier to follow. Of course, this rather defeats the argument that understanding Hegel’s Logic is the key to understanding Marx, and in turn, Dunayevskaya’s conception of Marxist-Humanism. I will therefore stick with what I understand and make no attempt to follow the inscrutable. I will take it on trust that RD is honest when she says in relation to Lenin: ‘Naturally his aphorism about none being able to understand the first chapter of Capital who had not understood the whole of the Logic is not to be taken literally[1].’ I have no desire to go through an endless regressive study of philosophy back to the ancient Greeks in order to understand what is going on in my world today.

  1. I responded best to the passages on alienation (e.g. pages 87-88). The point about labour power being a commodity is crucial to understanding the inequalities of capitalist society, legally, culturally and socially, and therefore what is meant by ‘alienation’. This is not a simply economic issue about being separated from the product of our labour. We in the working class are first and foremost human beings, but we can only live if we sell our labour power. Hence, we trade our labour power as a commodity in the same way that we purchase consumer goods as commodities with the money we get from selling our labour power. [Note that some of this purchase is collective via taxation and creates another veil of obscurity.]

Capitalist society says that we are all free and equal – but the need to sell our labour power is absolute and in turn absolutely denies us our freedom as human beings with creative potential. As human beings in free association with others, we would naturally incline to find social and personal ways to secure our well-being and to express our creativity and self-development. We still attempt to do that in capitalist society, but we are constantly thwarted, corralled and thrown back. In capitalism, this desire is channelled into the need to get a job, and therefore to become educated, to develop skills both practical and social to improve our labour power (and increasingly we are also forced to fund this, most notably by higher education students having to take out crippling loans to fund their qualification chase). If there is money to spare after meeting the basic necessities of life, we may also use that to expand our self-development. We may try to become artists or writers, but we are forced to sell this as well, because that is the inexorable logic of capitalism. We purchase our leisure, relaxation, health and free expression as commodities.

Yet, we still retain our basic humanity, because we are still human beings, not labour automatons – hence the sense of alienation that affects us and sometimes drives us mad. It is impossible to be a true human being in capitalist society, even for the capitalists. At all times, at all levels, social relations are reduced to the sale and purchase of commodities. It does not matter if this is bread to survive or our third luxury yacht.

  1. RD asserts the issue of national self-determination as the critical point of disagreement between Lenin on the one hand and Stalin and Trotsky on the other (she doesn’t mention Luxemburg here, who also had distinct views, but that appears in her next book). How is this squared with the Red Army’s invasion of Poland or the role of the Red Army in the Ukraine against Makhno and other regional nationalist groups (1919-1921)? Was this an attempt to substitute war for revolution?
  2. She also goes on to the subject of leadership again, correctly criticising Stalin and Trotsky, but absolving Lenin whose theoretical writings seemed to advocate turning to the masses all the time, implying that the leaderships were always lagging behind. Once again – this does not square with the treatment of the WO, who specifically advocated this approach but were bureaucratically silenced by Lenin! I can accept the idea from experience. The major theoreticians of the New Left in the UK devised their left-reformist May Day Manifesto exactly 50 years ago. The movement that actually emerged the following year blew it away. I witnessed the change on the streets: in 1967 at Easter I attended the annual CND March from Aldermaston to London, which passed off in a good-natured cheerful fashion, keeping to the left-hand side of the road. The following March, we assembled in Trafalgar Square against the Vietnam War and the place was a sea of red flags. As the marchers set off, they immediately occupied both sides of the road and, when we arrived at Grosvenor Square in front of the US Embassy, it was bedlam and our contingent was just in time to witness a hopeless Cossack-style charge by mounted police against the crowds who had taken over the Square. Something other than reformism was in the air (which, of course had fizzled out by the following year).

[1] P&R p 105

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