Dunayevskaya’s Critique of News and Letters Committees’ Attitude to Theory


by Andrew Kliman

During the discussion period of a meeting of the leadership of News and Letters Committees, on May 8, 1984, Raya Dunayevskaya said:

I consider the question of Theory/Practice as the unique characteristic of the whole N&L paper, of each writer and not just the columnist of Theory/Practice. I believe it is our weakest point. It is definitely both the most difficult to work out and the least understood, much less dialectically practiced. One of the events of the past which you may not know is that every one of the intellectuals – and I’m referring to those who did sympathize and even helped support N&L – opposed the Two Worlds column. It wasn’t only Johnsonism that opposed my serious analysis of the Beria purge for the very first issue of Correspondence where I predicted that Khrushchev, not Malenkov, would replace Stalin. No, that type of attitude characterizes all intellectuals. They wish to discuss theory only among intellectuals (and without diving down too far) and “popularize” for the masses. When I established as a principle that a workers’ paper was to be where theory/practice were broken down and insisted that if intellectuals were serious about theory they not only had to submit to a critique by the rank and file but had to begin where the masses were by contributing the highest kind of theory to illuminate, not “popularize”, the objective situation Marxistically, they all went the other way. Now, when it comes to ourselves, we seem to all agree. In fact, however, we do not work hard at theory and keep taking it for granted, as if repeating conclusions can be called theoretic development. What is worse, we portray activity as if that is theory. Theory is a very hard taskmaster. Taking it for granted instead of going through the “labor, patience, suffering of the negative” is what makes it hard to project the uniqueness of RLWLKM [Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution], the whole body of ideas of Marxist-Humanism, the trilogy of revolution, the challenge to post-Marx Marxists. It is this which needs further serious development …. [p. 7 of Minutes of the meeting]

Note that Dunayevskaya makes four distinct criticisms of News and Letters’ theoretical practice—or lack thereof:

 (1) “we do not work hard at theory”;

(2)  we “keep taking it for granted”;

(3)  we act “as if repeating conclusions can be called theoretic development”; and

(4)  “What is worse, we portray activity as if that is theory.”

It is significant that Dunayevskaya refers throughout to “theory,” not to “philosophy.” The terminology isn’t accidental, or a slip on her part. To illustrate the attitude she is criticizing, she refers to intellectuals’ opposition to her “serious analysis of the Beria purge,” not opposition to a philosophical essay. When she said theory, that is what she meant.

Her critique of intellectuals is not that they want too much theory, but that, first, their theoretical discussions do not “div[e] down too far,” and second, that even these discussions are kept from the masses, who are given “‘populariz[ations]’” instead. She insists that to do serious theory, intellectuals must “begin where the masses” are.  But how do they do so?  They do so, she says, “by contributing the highest kind of theory to illuminate … the objective situation Marxistically.” This is definitely not reducible to showing the reason inherent in the masses’ thought and activity.

Dunayevskaya’s comment ends with an explanation of why News and Letters had difficulty “projecting the uniqueness of … the ideas of Marxist-Humanism.” The cause of the problem was that it took theory for granted instead of  laboring at it.

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