Book review: The Dunayevskaya-Marcuse-Fromm Correspondence

Kevin B. Anderson and Russell Rockwell, eds, The Dunayevskaya-Marcuse-Fromm Correspondence, 1954-1978: Dialogues on Hegel, Marx and Critical Theory2012

Reviewed by Ben Watson

Raya Dunayevskaya died in 1987 aged 77, but her ideas remain alive and to-be-lived-by today, a permanent reproach to thought’s accommodation to an intolerable present. Dunayevskaya inspired and inspires a special enthusiasm, evidenced here by the meticulousness of the editing: no passing reference to text or event is left without a footnote. The scholarly apparatus is not there to obscure the original writing, but to make sure no prior knowledge – of history, of politics, of ‘isms’ – is taken for granted. The result is that, in its footnoted entirety, the book becomes an ideal introduction to the agonistic drama of twentieth-century life and politics: global conflicts are pursued right down to the minutiae which make and break friendships. This is entirely in the spirit of Dunayevskaya, the revolutionary activist who believed that Detroit auto-workers fighting speedups and mechanization on the shop floor were better equipped to understand world history than professional intellectuals.

‘Kicked down a dirty staircase’ in 1928 for daring to suggest to some Young Communists that they should perhaps read some Trotsky before condemn­ing him, Dunayevskaya refused to be intimidated. A skilled typist, she wrote to Trotsky in Mexico offering her services as a secretary. He accepted. This role gave her the best Marxist teacher on the planet, a prestigious place in international politics, and a pistol. But Dunayevskaya outgrew Trotsky. In his 1933-35 Notebooks, Trotsky wrote: ‘Lenin created the apparatus. The apparatus created Stalin.’ Yet he never awoke to the completeness of Stalin’s counter­revolution. Working with C.L.R. James, Dunayevskaya concluded that Russia was state-capitalist. The manner in which Russia waged World War II was exactly like Nazi Germany and the Allies: conquest of territory via armed bodies of men organized to prevent political consciousness. In 1943 and 1944, both the US State Department and the Soviet embassy in Washington strove to prevent the publication of Dunayevskaya’s translation of an article in a Soviet publication (Under the Banner of Marxism) which argued that the law of value still applied under ‘socialism’, along with a commentary in which she stated:
Foreign observers who have carefully followed the development of the Soviet economy have long noted that the Soviet Union employs almost every device conventionally associated with capitalism. Soviet trusts, cartels and combines, as well as the individual enterprises within them, are regulated according to strict principles of cost accounting … Essential to the operation of Soviet industry are such devices as banks, secured credit, interest, bonds, bills, notes, insurance, and so on.
Dunayevskaya was blowing a whistle on the entire coming spectacle of postwar politics, the ‘struggle’ between the Free World and Communism. In fact, as Philip K. Dick showed in The Penultimate Truth (1964) and Charles Levinson in Vodka-Cola (1979), the Cold War was the perfect environment for exploitation of workforces in both East and West, and Dunayevskaya is scathing about intellectuals who took sides: ‘since our state-capitalist age has the two nuclear giants fighting to the end, it compels those intellectuals who do not wish to base their theory on what the proletariat does, thinks, says, to attach themselves to one or the other pole.’ The same thing, of course, has happened to many intellectuals with shaky (or non-existent) Marxism during the War on Terror.

Dunayevskaya fought tooth and nail against the prejudice (Stalinist and academic) that Hegel and Marx were ‘too difficult’ for workers to understand. In her obituary of Herbert Marcuse, she wrote that ‘far from the proletariat having become one-dimensional, what the intellectual proves when he does not see proletarian revolt, is thathis thought is one-dimensional’. Her understanding of Marx wasnon-pareil. A letter of 11 October 1957, where she explains to Marcuse how social developments in the American Civil War influenced the writing of Capital, is a stunning splice of political economy, historical analysis and scholarship. Both Marcuse and Fromm, members of the famously erudite Frankfurt School, used her to source quotations in Marx. But mere displays of intellect repelled her. Dunayevskaya believed that philosophy – that is, truth – was thesine qua non of political activism. She dived into Hegel, not in order to prove she could juggle concepts, but because she was convinced that if you didn’t grasp his dialectic, you’d make mistakes (in Stalin’s case, mistakes with atrocious results). The notion of philosophy as a set of random ‘moves’ in a timeless void – turns on the dance floor – is binned: there are clear steps in the advance of thought, and if you miss these, you fall.

She didn’t read German. She read her Marx in Russian (she emigrated from the Ukraine to the United States as a child) and her Hegel in English. Her readings of Hegel are nevertheless incredibly excited and vivid. Compared to run-of-the-mill Hegel scholarship, it is as if someone had slapped a Marvel super-hero comic down on top of some mouldering leather-bound volumes. In 1974 at the Hegel Society of America, her paper ‘Hegel’s Absolutes as New Beginnings’
almost got a standing ovation; they were falling asleep over their own learned theses, and here I was not only dealing with dialectics of liberation – Hegel as well as Marx tho the former was, by his own design, limited to thought – but ranging in critique of all modern works from ‘their’ Maurer to Adorno’s Negative Dialectics which [is] so erudite they didn’t quite dare attack until they found I was merciless in critique.
Dunayevskaya rages against Adorno for abandoning Hegel’s ‘negation of the negation’ (which in Capital is concretized as the proletariat), dismissing his proposal that Auschwitz represents absolute negativity as a ‘vulgar reduction’. It is hard to summarize Dunayevskaya because she is always driving at the same point, the moment of human liberation when official bourgeois society (and its official opposition), with its pretexts and lies and corruption and humbug, collapses like a house of cards... Read more:

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