Raya Dunayevskaya and 'Dialectical Materialism'
by Cyril Smith
Hobgoblin No.4 2002
Hobgoblin No.4 2002
If the supporters and admirers of Raya Dunayevskaya would spend a little less time singing her praises and defending her every word, perhaps they would be better able to see her real contribution - not the production of a completed system, but a powerful struggle with 'orthodox Marxism'. This battle can only be appreciated as a decades-long process, so we should stop admiring its conclusion and work to take forward its further development. In this Note, I should like to examine her emerging understanding that Marx's humanism was essentially incompatible with the standard characterisation of 'Marxism' as 'Dialectical Materialism'.
In Marxism and Freedom (1957), Raya has already seen the essence of Marx's humanism, 'distinguishing itself from idealism and from materialism and ... at the same time the truth uniting both', as he put it in 1844. But as yet she sees no conflict between this central notion and the term 'dialectical materialism'. On page 54 she begins a section with the heading 'Dialectical Materialism and the Class Struggle' which goes on to
talk about Marx's 'new dialectical materialist view of history'.
By the time of her 1973 book, Philosophy and Revolution, she knows that 'it was others, not Marx, who named his discovery Historical Materialism, Dialectical Materialism.' (Page 49.) In footnote 106, page 302, she elaborates a little:
Engels coined the expression 'Historical Materialism'; Plekhanov, 'Dialectical Materialism'.... Marx himself preferred more precise though longer phrases, such as 'the mode of production of material life' or 'material base', and 'the dialectical method' or, simply, 'revolutionary.' In the early essays he calls his philosophy 'Humanist', later 'Communist', still later, 'internationalist', but at all times 'revolutionary'. Nevertheless, as a shorthand term, to express what Marx had meant by 'material base', 'dialectical method', 'history and its process', we will use 'Historical Materialism' to designate that specifically Marxian historical dialectic-materialist conception of history.
This, it must be admitted, is not Raya at her clearest. And that is particularly regrettable, because, as far as I know, she never used the phrase 'dialectical materialism' again. From then on - and she produced many important works over the next 14 years - she must have become increasingly aware of its direct conflict with Marx's ideas. However, I know of no text where she discusses this.
Does this matter? Yes, I think it is crucial. It was Plekhanov in 1891 who gave the world 'dialectical materialism', in his essay: 'On the Sixtieth Anniversary of Hegel's Death'. For him, that term was quite reasonable, as a devotee of the eighteenth-century French materialists, like many other nineteenth-century Russians. As far as he was concerned, the materialists,
people who saw 'matter' as prior to 'mind', were the 'progressives', and the idealists, who put 'mind' first, closely allied with 'clericalism', were holding things back. The purely individualist understanding of human thinking of the eighteenth-century thinkers, in which each individual citizen was passively acted upon by bits of matter and their consciousness affected accordingly, was incorporated into 'dialectical materialism'.
Marx was a materialist, Plekhanov told us, but with a dialectical twist, and this enabled him to extend 'materialism' into the realm of history. The old materialism was somehow combined with two further elements: (a) the dialectical method of thinking; and (b) a belief that the three 'laws of dialectics', extracted from Engels' tentative remarks in Anti-Duhring, 'applied' to nature, history and thought. Together, this made up an
overarching world outlook, 'dialectical and historical materialism', a set of ideas dogmatically fitted on to the world. Do I need to show that Karl Marx had nothing in common with these ideas? For one thing, there is no 'matter' in Marx's 'new materialism'. In contrast to 'dialectical materialism', Marx begins, not with 'matter in
motion', but with the lives of human individuals as socially-active natural beings, who relate to Nature only through social forms. Thus Marx's views were quite hostile to the outlook of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century materialists.
Lenin was Plekhanov's most prominent pupil. Even after his reading of Hegel in 1914-15 shook his faith in Plekhanov, he never ceased to call himself a 'dialectical materialist'. You can see the deleterious effect of this on his philosophical health, not just in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908), but throughout his works. For example, look at the 1914 essay 'Karl Marx'. The section headed 'The Materialist Conception of History', (after a quotation from Engels falsely attributed to Marx), starts with this piece of Plekhanovism:
Since materialism in general explains our consciousness as the outcome of being, and not conversely, then materialism as applied to the social life of mankind has to explain social consciousness as the outcome of social being.
But Marx's chief contribution was to show that the old materialism could not 'explain our consciousness'. For there could be no human consciousness - or human anything - which was not simultaneously individual and social. To take another example of the mechanical character of Lenin's materialism, look at his essay Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism (1913). 'The philosophy of Marxism is materialism', he proclaims, explicitly identifying eighteenth-century materialism. Marx went further, of course. 'Just as man's knowledge reflects nature (ie developing matter) which exists independently of him, so his social knowledge ... reflects the economic system of society.'
Lenin, in the privacy of his Philosophical Notebooks, came as close as he could to self-criticism on many issues, and this certainly implies a challenge to his previous conception of materialism. But even within the
Notebooks he does not spell this out, and he certainly never discussed it anywhere else. Rather than 'reading Hegel materialistically' - whatever that means - what was really needed was to re-think materialism.
It is a pity that, in Marxism and Freedom, even Raya, who has clearly seen that Materialism and Empirio-Criticism is vulgar materialism, still tries to make excuses for it. She thinks the book - which did so much intellectual damage to the workers' movement - may have been necessary 'for the specific conditions and purposes of Russia', because 'Russia was so backward that in 1908 one still had to fight against the influence of
clericalism in the Marxist movement.' (Page 171.)
Certainly, Lenin's reading of Hegel had a profound effect on all of his thinking. But no public statement of his shows any sign that his adherence to the old materialism was even slightly shaken. In his last speech to the Comintern, in November 1922, he goes out of his way to recommend his old teacher's philosophical writings, calling for a complete edition to be published, 'with an index'. When, earlier that year, he made a contribution to the journal 'Under the Banner of Marxism', he begins with praise for Plekhanov. Even the title, 'On the Significance of Militant Materialism', is an allusion to Plekhanov's pamphlet Materialismus Militans. Yes, Lenin's article includes his famous appeal for an alliance between Marxists and Hegelians. But the
bulk of the piece is about the fight for materialism, and the need for it to provide a solid foundation for 'the advanced trends in social thinking in Russia', stressing the importance of 'Under the Banner' to promote militant atheism. (This is not the place for it, but someone ought to undertake a critical analysis of all the anti-religious work of Bolshevism, both before and after 1917, carefully disentangling the politics of the Church and the sometimes crude anti-God propaganda of the 'Marxists'. This should be compared with Marx's careful 'critique of religion'.)
There is an important related matter. Neither Plekhanov nor Lenin ever commented on, or even quoted in full, the vital First Thesis on Feuerbach:
The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism - that of Feuerbach included - is that the Object [der Gegenstand], actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object [Objekts], or of contemplation [Anschauung], but not as human sensuous activity, practice [Praxis], not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism - but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, differentiated from thought-objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. In Das Wesen des Christenthums, he therefore regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and defined only in its dirty-Jewish form of appearance. Hence he does not grasp the significance of 'revolutionary', of practical-critical, activity. (This is a careful retranslation of Marx's text by Don Cuckson.)
Of course, this contains the essence of Marx's humanism, and is particularly relevant to Raya's ideas. It is interesting to note that, in her later writings, as she separates herself from 'dialectical materialism', she is able to get more and more from those vital lines of
Marx. This process begins with Philosophy and Revolution, and continues with the book Rosa Luxemburg, Women's Liberation, and Marx's Philosophy of Revolution (1981).
It is a pity that she herself was never able to investigate this inverse relationship and to see just how much Lenin's devotion to 'dialectical materialism' had acted as a barrier to the approach to Marx of all of us. Why don't we try to do this work on her behalf?