Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxist Humanism and the Alternative to Capitalism

The Russian-born thinker Raya Dunayevskaya was an important and influential figure on the US radical left. At an early stage, she recognized the need to combine struggles against racism and capitalism — two oppressive structures that were intimately linked.

American thinker Raya Dunayevskaya challenged the premises of established Marxism by promoting a humanist alternative to the myriad forms of alienation that define modern society. (News and Letters Committees)

The upsurge of interest in socialism in recent years has unfolded in a context defined by one of the most massive and creative movements against racist dehumanization in the history of the United States. The movements against police abuse and for black lives clearly suggest that the effort to forge an alternative to capitalism hinges on developing an intersectional Marxism that treats race, gender, and sexuality as seriously as class. So do the ongoing struggles against the sexism and homophobia that has often manifested itself within leftist organizations.  

For this reason, one figure in the history of Marxism who has been receiving increased attention is Raya Dunayevskaya (1910–87). Dunayevskaya challenged the premises of established Marxism by promoting a humanist alternative to the myriad forms of alienation that define modern society. As Adrienne Rich put it:

Dunayevskaya vehemently opposed the notion that Marx’s Marxism means that class struggle is primary or that racism and male supremacism will end when capitalism falls. “What happens after” she said, is the question we have to be asking all along.

A Crisis of Marxism

Born in western Ukraine to an impoverished Jewish family in 1910, Dunayevskaya and her siblings fled the country during the Russian Civil War and migrated to Chicago in 1921. Still barely a teenager, she became active in local left-wing politics and joined the youth group of the Communist Party. In 1925, she became active in the American Negro Labor Congress — the first effort of US communists to create a presence in the black community.

After being thrown down a flight of stairs in 1927 for objecting to the party’s condemnation of Leon Trotsky, she spent the next ten years involved in the labor movement as a Trotskyist militant, working with such figures as James P. Cannon, Martin Abern, and A. J. Muste. In 1937, seeking a reprieve from the factional struggles consuming the US left, she became Russian-language secretary to Trotsky during his exile in Coyoacán, Mexico.

Dunayevskaya first emerged as a theoretician following her break with Trotsky in 1939 over his defense of the USSR as a “workers’ state,” even after the Hitler-Stalin Pact gave the green light to World War II. The pact — and Trotsky’s refusal to rethink his view of the USSR in the light of it — was a tremendous shock, since it indicated that the very meaning of “socialism” had become so degraded as to justify the gravest of crimes.

She responded by embarking on an economic analysis of the nature of the USSR, arguing that socialists had been wrong to presume that abolishing private ownership of the means of production necessarily leads to a free society. She wrote in 1940:

The determining factor in analyzing the class nature of a society is not whether the means of production are the private property of the capitalist class or are state-owned, but whether the means of production are capital, that is, whether they are monopolized and alienated from the direct producers. The Soviet Government occupies in relation to the whole economic system the position which a capitalist occupies in relation to a single enterprise.

The USSR, she concluded, was neither “socialist,” nor a transitional society between capitalism and socialism, as Trotsky had argued. It was “state capitalist.”

This designation of the USSR was controversial enough. But Dunayevskaya went further, taking issue with Stalinism’s left-wing critics — whether that meant Trotsky or his estranged disciple Max Schachtman, who defined the USSR as a “bureaucratic collectivist” system — for likewise holding that property forms define the nature of society. Property is a product of labor, and property forms concern relations between things.

The fundamental issue, she held, isn’t whether property is privately or collectively owned. It is whether relations between people are established in which they cease to be treated as things. By not recognizing that public or state ownership does not deprive the means of production of their character as capital, Marxists were failing to keep their fingers on the pulse of human relations.

It wasn’t that socialists were wrong to oppose private ownership of the means of production and anarchic market relations, Dunayevskaya believed. Rather, they had become so fixated on these questions that they overlooked the alienated conditions of life and labor that made such property relations possible.

Alienation, she argued, is not just about the separation of the product from the producer — the fact that workers produce more value than they obtain in wages. This imbalance was the consequence of being alienated from one’s own activity, both at work and in our relations with other people (and with nature) outside of the workplace. As Marx stated:

Private property is thus the product, the result, the necessary consequence, of alienated labor, of the external relation of the workers to nature and to himself … though private property appears to be the reason, the cause of alienated labor, it is rather its consequence.

The unequal distribution of property, income, and resources is the necessary result of alienated human relations, not the other way around. Marx penned those words in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 — known as his Humanist Essays. Dunayevskaya discovered these writings, which were virtually unknown in the English-speaking world at the time, during her research on the Russian economy, and was the first to publish parts of them in English.

The discovery of Marx’s humanist critique of alienation did not merely influence her economic analysis of the USSR. It also led her to a wider understanding. Dunayevskaya came to see that Marxists had struggled to integrate issues of race and gender oppression into an anti-capitalist perspective because their economism and objectivism blocked them from addressing the dehumanized forms of interpersonal relations that define modern society.

Race, Class, and Dialectics

Dunayevskaya’s involvement in anti-racist movements extended, in the 1940s, to her work with C. L. R. James in the Johnson-Forrest Tendency (JFT). This was a dissident grouping in the US Workers’ Party which promoted an analysis of the USSR as a state capitalist society. Its name derived from the respective pseudonyms of James and Dunayevskaya.

Issues of race and racism were integral to the JFT’s work. Most Marxist groups at the time saw anti-racist struggles in terms of demands for civil rights that would be achievable within capitalism, but the JFT held that such struggles were pivotal to any effort to transcend capitalism.

Since racial determinations had shaped class relations ever since the inception of American “civilization,” fighting against racism would enable workers and other oppressed groups to find their voice. On these grounds, they argued for the independent validity of anti-racist struggles by black Americans, in opposition to those who viewed them as secondary or ancillary to the general class struggle.

This standpoint did not entail downplaying class struggle: on the contrary, it led to a deeper understanding of it. Borrowing from Marx’s use of questionnaires to gain insights into the thoughts of workers, the JFT found that many workers in their own time were increasingly concerned, not just with the inequitable distribution of the proceeds of labor, but also with their alienated conditions of labor. This reflected a heightened level of consciousness which undermined the traditional view associated with Lenin that workers were only capable of attaining “trade union consciousness” through their own endeavors.

This in turn led the JFT to question the crude materialism which had characterized much of Marxism after Marx. Along with Grace Lee Boggs, who joined the JFT shortly after its founding, James and Dunayevskaya engaged in intense studies of Hegel and his impact on Marx — as well as the German philosopher’s relevance for contemporary politics. This was in part spurred by Dunayevskaya’s first English translation of Lenin’s 1914 work, “Abstract of Hegel’s Science of Logic,” in which the Russian Marxist made the following statement:

Cognition not only reflects the objective world, but creates it … in this most idealist of Hegel’s works there is the least idealism and the most materialism.

The JFT can be considered the first group of Hegelian-Marxists in the United States — a fact often overlooked in accounts of that tradition.

The JFT’s emphasis on spontaneous class and race consciousness eventually led it to break from the concept of a vanguard party and leave Trotskyism behind. Yet emerging differences over alternatives to that concept explained the group’s ultimate breakup. For Dunayevskaya, groups of Marxist thinker-activists remained crucial — not to take over and control movements, but to raise awareness, in active dialogue with those movements, of what constitutes a viable alternative to capitalism.

Humanism and Alienation

Dunayevskaya’s 1958 work Marxism and Freedom was the first book-length treatment of Marxist-Humanism. Its preface stated:

This book aims to re-establish Marxism in its original form, which Marx called “a thoroughgoing Naturalism or Humanism” … Marxism is a theory of liberation or it is nothing.

It served as the basis of the first of several Marxist-Humanist organizations, News and Letters Committees, founded by Dunayevskaya along with Charles Denby, a Black Detroit autoworker.

Dunayevskaya followed Marxism and Freedom with many works over the next three decades: American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard (1963), Philosophy and Revolution: from Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao (1973), Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (1981), and Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution (1985). She consistently argued that the realities of our times made a revolutionary humanist perspective essential for both theory and practice.

According to Dunayevskaya, the many unfinished and aborted revolutions since 1917 showed that Marxists would pay a hefty price for relying on hierarchical and elitist forms of organization while neglecting the need for a thoroughgoing reorganization of human relations before and after the seizure of power. A philosophical reconstruction of Marxism based on Marx’s humanism became imperative.

Although a number of thinkers came to be associated with socialist humanism over the years, Dunayevskaya’s approach differed from many others in two important respects. Firstly, she did not ground humanism in an essentialist or ahistorical view of human nature, but in actual forces of revolution. She called it “a movement from practice that is itself a form of theory.”

Mass freedom struggles, Dunayevskaya held, were not simply a force to be harnessed in the name of “making” the revolution. They raised theoretical questions that had to be heard, absorbed, and developed — such as “When does my working day begin and end and why do I have no say in it?” “Why am I seen not as a person but in terms of a racial stereotype?” or “Why does the person who claims to love me still treat me as an object?” Such questions posed by new social movements compelled Marxists to broaden their view of the entire emancipatory project.

In this spirit, Dunayevskaya placed great emphasis on the struggles of rank-and-file workers against automation. She disagreed with the view of Herbert Marcuse, with whom she carried on a lengthy correspondence. Marcuse saw such struggles as an impediment to progress, or a failure to understand that the replacement of living labor by capital provides the material basis for socialism. She argued that they raise the question, “What kind of labor should people perform?”

It wasn’t simply the fact that automation made work more alienating. The underemployment and permanent unemployment to which it gave rise also made life outside the job site more alienating. Long before “deindustrialization” had become a household word, Dunayevskaya focused on how the drive for greater automation was turning social life itself into a kind of factory.

Dunayevskaya’s attentiveness to the impact of capitalism on the fabric of everyday life influenced her view of struggles against racism and sexism. She embraced the Civil Rights Movement, beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–56, as signaling the beginning of the “Black Revolution” in America. This was at a time when many leftists saw it as simply asking for a bigger slice of the capitalist pie. What did signs like “I Am a Man” held up by many African-American protesters of the 1960s — which reemerged in recent anti-police protests as “I Am a Woman” and “I Am Trans” — signify, if not the affirmation of a kind of humanism?

As Dunayevskaya wrote in a discussion of Black women’s struggles in 1985:

To grasp the Black Dimension is to learn a new language, the language of thought, Black thought. For many, this new language will be difficult because they are hard of hearing. Hard of hearing because they are not used to this type of thought, a language which is both a struggle for freedom and the thought of freedom.

The Value Theory of Labor

The second divergence between Dunayevskaya and the majority of socialist humanists was this. While most other discussions of Marx’s humanism focused on his early writings, Dunayevskaya held that its most profound expression could be found in his most “mature” work, Capital.

Scholars often presume that Marxism is a radical variation on David Ricardo’s labor theory of value, in the sense that Marx drew from the theory an argument that surplus value should be redistributed from capitalists to workers. However, this is misleading. Marx took issue not just with the unequal distribution of value but with the very existence of value, which is wealth expressed in money.

A commodity’s value, Marx stressed, was not determined by the actual number of hours taken to produce it, but by the average amount of time necessary to do so. This abstract average, which he called socially necessary labor time, imposed its will on the producers regardless of their needs or desires. “Value,” for Marx, was the expression of a peculiar form of labor in which individuals were subjected to abstract forms of domination outside of their control. It was a product of dehumanized social relations.

Socialism represented the abolition of value production through the creation of new human relations in which individuals would freely organize their time instead of having it organized for them by the market or the state. As Dunayevskaya put it:

Marx’s primary theory is a theory of what he called “alienated labor” and then “abstract” or “value-producing” labor … hence it is more correct to call the Marxist theory of capital not a labor theory of value, but a value theory of labor.

In recent years, there has been a challenge to the emphasis of traditional Marxism on property forms and exchange relations from a number of Marxist value-form theorists, including the German Neue Marx-Lektüre, the school of systematic dialectics, and the late Moishe Postone. They have argued that this approach neglects the growing dominance of abstract labor and socially necessary labor time.

However, the value-form theorists have become so fixated on abstract forms of domination that they reach a despairing conclusion, according to which the logic of capital overpowers the resistance of workers or any kind of subjective human agency. In the process, they pass over the humanist implications of Marx’s critique of value production. It is no accident that few of these thinkers have had much to say about racism or sexism and the forms of resistance that have arisen against both oppressions.

Dunayevskaya took a different approach. If we grasp that Capital’s object of critique is alienated forms of human praxis, she believed, we will become more attentive to forms of alienation that may have no direct relation to economics, including forms of sexism and racism that may be even more dehumanizing than class oppression.

Philosophy and Organization

Dunayevskaya’s effort to reconstitute Marxism as a philosophy of revolution stemmed from a crisis that was confronting efforts at social transformation in her own time. The freedom movements of the late 1960s did not result in a single revolution. Even in France, the authorities could put down the near-revolution of 1968 without firing a shot.

Nor were such problems limited to “the West.” Frantz Fanon warned in The Wretched of the Earth that if the Afro-Asian revolutions did not move toward what he called “a New Humanism,” they would find themselves trapped by the pincers of neocolonialism. The phenomenon of a counterrevolution emerging from within the revolution itself was not confined to the USSR under Stalin. A much more recent example came when the Marxist-Leninist faction in Grenada’s New Jewel Movement assassinated Maurice Bishop, the revolution’s democratic socialist leader, in 1983. This made it easier for Ronald Reagan to order the US invasion of Grenada that year.

Such realities led Dunayevskaya to delve deeper into the work of Hegel and Marx toward the end of her life. She wanted to explore the question of how anti-capitalist movements can avoid stopping at the first negation of existing society. Her original interpretation of Hegel in Philosophy and Revolution, which centers on the category “Absolute Negativity as New Beginning,” reflected this focus. So did her examination of Marx’s last decade in Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution.

This was a period in which Marx turned his attention to the non-Western world and highlighted the fact that women had greater freedoms in many pre-capitalist societies than they enjoyed today. Dunayevskaya’s study of Rosa Luxemburg contained a fascinating discussion of her feminist dimension. It also took issue with a claim made by Frederick Engels in his work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

Engels attributed what he called “the world-historical defeat of the female sex” to the rise of private property. Starting from the assertion that patriarchy had been born from private property, he went on to assume that the former would end with the abolition of the latter. This argument is hardly sustainable in the light of twentieth-century experience. Dunayevskaya concluded that even the greatest Marxists who came after Marx fell short of his liberatory perspective, which she termed “a philosophy of revolution in permanence.”

Today’s world differs in many respects from the one experienced by Dunayevskaya, who died in 1987 as she was working on a new book about the “Dialectics of Organization.” However, she speaks directly to the most important problem facing us today — how we can envision a viable alternative to capitalism. As she wrote in 1981:

The myriad crises in our age have shown, over and over again, from Russia to China, from Cuba to Iran, from Africa to Pol Pot’s Cambodia, that without a philosophy of revolution, activism spends itself in mere anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, without ever revealing what it is for … what is needed is a new unifying principle, on Marx’s ground of humanism, that truly alters both human thought and human experience.