Reading Dunayevskaya – Philosophy and Revolution – 2

  1. ‘Part 2: Alternatives’ is a section with which I have little to disagree with (apart from point 3 above). I long ago accepted the idea of ‘state capitalism’, both as a description of Soviet society and as a description of global capitalism in the 20th century. I also rejected the idea of the leadership of a centralised, hierarchical and bureaucratic party (or union, or any other style of organisation). While I enjoyed (and still do) reading Sartre and the other existentialist coterie, I could never take seriously the idea that existentialism offered anything more than an inspiration for the individual flagging in the face of a stifling society when feeling isolated. I do however disagree with RD’s characterisation of existentialism as ‘petit-bourgeois’. I bridle at this cheap class characterisation of any ideas, since it is so redolent of Stalinism and the economic determinist concept of consciousness.
  2. ‘Part 3: Economic Reality and the Dialectics of Liberation’ is for me the most illuminating section of the book. For the first time in reading RD, I find I can recognize myself in what she is describing and analysing. The section covers the ‘noise’ around my early years of political consciousness, as well as events and movements within which I got my first practical experiences: African liberation, Biafra, the Congo, Cuba, the Civil Rights Movement, the East European Revolts and so on. Most especially, I recognize how I responded with excitement to the youth revolts of 1968, the emergence of Black Power and Women’s Liberation (though I am male and white). It was, for me, all about liberation, the prospect of self-development together with others, breaking down barriers, throwing off the shackles. I remember the slogan, ‘Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible’. This all relates back to Part One of the book and its concentration on alienation.

I warm to statements like these: ‘The reality is stifling. The transformation of reality has a dialectic all its own. It demands a unity of the struggles for freedom with a philosophy of liberation. Only then does the elemental revolt release new sensibilities, new passions and new forces – a whole new dimension.’ (p 292) After all, I have experienced this once in my lifetime and seen it happen elsewhere at other times. I hope it happens again soon and a more widespread and consistent level.

But I remain troubled that this book is not helping me to understand why all that excitement of 1968-1973 ran into the sand. Why, over the last decade or more, has the undeniably existing movement not emerged in a new way? What is holding things back? Why does society seem, if anything, to be regressing? Why is the quest for liberation so apparently helpless? Why does RD keep characterising ‘the other’ as ‘petit-bourgeois’ in this book? Isn’t she part of the same grouping as an intellectual theorist?

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