Two dialectical anniversaries: Lukács and Dunayevskaya

Lukács and Dunayevskaya

First published at The International Marxist-Humanist.

In a fortunate coincidence, 2023 marked the 100th anniversary of Georg Lukács’s epochal History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (1923) and the 50th anniversary of Raya Dunayevskaya’s ground-breaking Philosophy and Revolution: From Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao (1973). One difference between these luminous works is that the one by Lukács is widely held to be the greatest work in Marxist philosophy, whereas Dunayevskaya’s book remains highly respected yet somewhat neglected. Published in the aftermath of epochal social revolutions and uprisings, for Lukács the 1917 Russian Revolution and for Dunayevskaya the global revolutionary uprisings of the 1950s/1960s, neither of these books were academic philosophical works responding merely to intellectual currents.

Lukács’s recovery of Hegelian-Marxist dialectics

What is breathtaking in History and Class Consciousness is how the author sets forth in the first chapter a series of conceptual frameworks that brushed away the crude materialist cobwebs that had covered over Marxist philosophy in the generation after the founder’s death. Although Lukács acknowledged in the preface that his book was rooted in Lenin’s proposal the previous year to form “a kind of society of the materialist friends of the Hegelian dialectic,” this link to Lenin has largely been lost in a century of the book’s academicization (Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone, with a new preface by Michael Löwy, London: Verso: 2023, p. lvii).

First, Lukács begins with the breathtaking notion that the dialectic is the soul of Marxism, that Marx’s dialectical “method” was more fundamental than any particular conclusion on his part (p. 1). No one had done so up to that time.

Second, he did not leave this as a generality, which many do even today, but named some of the names of those who neglected the dialectic. Among these was the widely-denounced rightwing social democrat Eduard Bernstein, who rejected not only revolution but also “the ‘dialectical snares’ of Hegelianism” (p. 5). Lukács did not leave it there, however; he also targeted none other than Friedrich Engels for an essentially “contemplative” stance toward reality, and for relegating dialectics to the notion of a fluid vs. a static perspective. Lukács wrote that this truncated the dialectic by “ignoring the dialectical relation between subject and object in the historical process,” without which “dialectics ceases to be revolutionary” (p. 3). Meanwhile, at a more general level, Lukács attacked what he called “the vulgar materialists,” a category that seemed to include revolutionaries as well as reformists (p. 9).

It was his courageous naming of Engels, and this while working inside the Communist International, that got Lukács into trouble with some leading comrades. The CI’s Chairman, Grigory Zinoviev, denounced Lukács by name for idealist deviations at the 1924 Fifth Congress of the International. This pronouncement of course ignored Lenin’s own writings on Hegel and dialectics, little-known at the time. A year later, in 1925, the leading Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin, considered even today a great Marxist theoretician, published Historical Materialism, a primer in which he declared himself a proud “mechanical materialist.” Unfortunately, Leon Trotsky never really went beyond such a stance either, even after Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks on Hegel were finally published.

A third important achievement of History and Class Consciousness lay in how, for the first time ever, a work in Marxist theory placed the commodity fetishism section of Capital at the center: “It has often been claimed – and not without a certain justification – that the famous chapter in Hegel’s Logic treating of Being, Non-Being and Becoming contains the whole of his philosophy. It might be claimed with perhaps equal justification that the chapter dealing with the fetish character of the commodity contains within itself the whole of historical materialism and the whole self-knowledge of the proletariat seen as the knowledge of capitalist society (and of the societies that preceded it)” (p. 170). No one, not even Lenin, had seen commodity fetishism as the most crucial aspect of Marx’s Capital.

History and Class Consciousness exerted a huge influence on radical intellectuals, winning many over to Marxism, from the Frankfurt School in the 1920s in Germany to existentialist philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty in postwar France, and many since then. This has led to numerous original developments in radical philosophy and social theory, in part because Lukács extended his Hegelian and dialectical critique of Engels in the pages of History and Class Consciousness to academic positivism in the social sciences as well.

At the same time, and this is the tragedy, after the Comintern attack, revolutionary political Marxism generally ignored History and Class Consciousness, as it became separated from those who inhabited the Marxist organizations that tried to follow in the footsteps of Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky.

Lukács’s turn to Marxist dialectics was preceded by a break with the glittering world of German-speaking Central European intellectual life in the first years of the twentieth century, a world that was only beginning to open up to Jewish intellectuals. While so highly placed a figure as Max Weber wrote letters of recommendation for him for university positions, these efforts failed due to antisemitism. Lukács’s rejection of the carnage of the imperialist First World War, which Weber supported, led him to a rethinking of his fundamental premises. As with so many other intellectuals of his generation, took him down the road toward revolutionary Marxism.

Raya Dunayevskaya: Dialectics as revolutionary life force, in all its colors and shapes

Russian-born Dunayevskaya came out of a very different social milieu, the Yiddish-speaking atmosphere of immigrant Chicago’s Ukrainian Jewish community. Born in western Ukraine, she grew up in the 1920s in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago, subsequently bulldozed in a “slum clearance” to make way for the campus of the University of Illinois-Chicago. She never received a PhD or even a BA, but how many immigrant working-class women of her generation did? Surrounded by members of the Communist and Socialist parties, she joined world activism early on, first in the Communist Party and then as a Trotskyist, where she received her political and theoretical education. This included dialogues with Trotsky himself while serving as his Russian secretary in Mexico, with CLR James and Grace Lee Boggs, and somewhat later, with more academic thinkers like Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and Louis Dupré in the U.S., or Silvio Frondizi in Argentina and members of the Praxis School in the former Yugoslavia.

Dunayevskaya’s Philosophy and Revolution was the culmination of nearly three decades of dialectical investigations, beginning with her translation of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks while working with James and Lee Boggs in the 1940s. Her groundbreaking 1973 book contributed to the dialectics of revolution in a number of ways.

First, she showed that Hegel’s dialectic was revolutionary in and of itself, in this way also separating Hegel at his most revolutionary from his more pedestrian and sometimes even reactionary political and historical writings: “Precisely where Hegel sounds most abstract, seems to close the shutters tight against the whole movement of history, there he lets the lifeblood of the dialectic — absolute negativity — pour in” (Dunayevskaya, Philosophy and Revolution, New York: Delacorte, 1973, pp, 31-32).

Second, like Lukács she attacked mechanical materialism, especially in Bukharin, who had also rejected the concept of national liberation in a class-reductionist manner. But she also targeted some forms of romanticism and above all intuitionism, which, in Hegel’s words, “rejects all methods” and was, therefore, a retrogression to pre-Kantian positions (p. 20). Dunayevskaya used Hegel’s critique to develop her own critique of “the intuitionist and voluntarist alternative to dialectics” found in Mao Zedong thought and its practice (p. 162). This was seen in Mao’s hyper-subjectivist campaigns for rapid development like the disastrous Great Leap Forward, which drove the country into mass famine and was thus deeply retrogressive.

Third, where other Marxists, even those who were unafraid to draw their concept of dialectic directly from Hegel, tended to reject Hegel’s absolutes, Dunayevskaya was the only major Marxist thinker to embrace this aspect of Hegelian dialectics: “In Hegel’s Absolutes there is imbedded, though in abstract form, the fully developed ‘social individual,’ to use Marx’s phrase, and what Hegel called individuality ‘purified of all that interfered with its universalism, i.e., freedom itself.’ Freedom, to Hegel, was not only his point of departure; it was also his point of return” (p. 43). This was extremely important for Dunayevskaya’s reconstruction of the philosophical basis for a real communism where human liberation would finally be achieved.

Fourth, in Philosophy and Revolution Dunayevskaya took up an array of global revolutionary movements of the 1950s/1960s, with particular attention to Africa and to Black liberation in the U.S. As to Africa, she discerned the creative thinking of African intellectuals, among them Frantz Fanon, at a time when leading U.S. intellectuals remained mired in Cold War binaries: “The truth is that while ‘backward’ Africa was charged with a dynamism of ideas that opened new paths to revolution and looked for new roads to development, the Cold War reigning in the ‘advanced’ United States produced so pervasive a malaise among bourgeois intellectuals that they proclaimed ‘an end to ideology’” (p. 215).

As to Blacks in the U.S., in Philosophy and Revolution Dunayevskaya saluted the 1967 Detroit uprising, which began as a protest against police brutality, as a genuinely revolutionary event, with class as well as racial dimensions: “In 1967 the vitality of the black people, full of purpose, attacked only the symptoms of oppression-the white landlord in the slums, the white merchant, the white middleman. This is not because they did not know who Mr. Big was. Rather, it was because they did not see white labor ready to join them in their determination to undermine the whole system. They know better than the elitist leaders that, without white labor, the system cannot be torn up by its roots. The black revolt reached a peak in Detroit because for the first time in years, outside and inside the shop, there was the first appearance of white and black solidarity. It was but the faintest of beginnings, but it did appear.” (pp. 272-73).

In this regard, one hostile review of Philosophy and Revolution, published in 1982 in Philosophia: Philosophical Quarterly of Israel, is particularly illuminating, due to the way it put its finger on just how much Dunayevskaya’s revolutionary, Marxist form of humanism differed from liberal versions: “Author’s excitement about spontaneous actions of masses is reflected in her admiration for those who burned and looted Watts in 1965 and Detroit in 1967. It is her firm conviction that only the dialectic, born from such movements of masses, can achieve a social revolution which will bring about the real humanism. One cannot but wonder at the kind of humanism she is talking about.” Indeed, for it was certainly not this reviewer’s humanism!

This hostile review also points us to the common thread linking Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness and Dunayevskaya’s Philosophy and Revolution, those germinal studies of dialectics whose anniversaries we are marking this year: Both of these books center on the dialectics of revolution, on creating philosophical ground for tearing up existing society by its roots, and for replacing it with one based upon freely associated labor.