The Concreteness of Marxist-Humanism

By Anne Jaclard.

The author examines Dunayevskaya’s method of concretizing Marx and suggests that Hegel and Marx together spell out the material, conceptual ground for developing an alternative to capitalism today.

Note: This essay was originally published in the June 2004 issue of News & Letters. It received a virulently negative response from some of those who now lead the remnants of News and Letters Committees. They rejected the perspective that Marxist-Humanism needs to be concretized anew in the face of new realities. Pretending that their abstractions were concrete, they rejected the very idea that Marxist-Humanism needs to be concretized *in theory*–as if events and actions make philosophy concrete by themselves, without the need for theoretical mediation.

Raya Dunayevskaya’s essay, “Marx’s Humanism Today,” published in Erich Fromm’s collection, SOCIALIST HUMANISM: AN INTERNATIONAL SYMPOSIUM (Doubleday, 1965; Anchor Books, 1966) …, was a response to the battles over the humanism of Marx that she faced in 1965. It was not only a summary of her earlier work on this theme, but it intervened in the battle of ideas going on at the time in order to meet the demands of the moment in a concrete way. Taking this method as a challenge to us to be just as concrete when responding to today’s objective situation, I will argue that we face a new situation in 2004, different from that of 1965, and that, if we are to respond concretely, revolutionaries need to begin theorizing an alternative to capitalist society.


Let us begin by looking at the history leading up to Dunayevskaya’s essay. It came seven years after her groundbreaking book MARXISM AND FREEDOM. A key purpose of that book was to expose the “veritable conspiracy” to hide the humanism of Marx that had prevailed for decades. On the one hand, Marx had been suppressed by official Communism–not only by the Russians, who failed to publish his 1844 HUMANIST ESSAYS, but also by deliberate mistranslations and misinterpretations of his works, including his greatest work, CAPITAL. The suppression was perpetuated not only by the Russian and Chinese governments, but also by fellow-traveling intellectuals all over the world. The Marxist Left had so little interest in Marx’s 1844 ESSAYS, that the first to resurrect them were European Catholics after World War II, who used them in their struggles with the Communist parties for the hearts and minds of the masses.

On the other hand, McCarthyism in the U.S. suppressed Marx by identifying him with existing Communist states. As Dunayevskaya wrote, in MARXISM AND FREEDOM’s introduction, “Today, in the face of the constant struggle of man for full freedom on both sides of the Iron Curtain, there is a veritable conspiracy to identify Marxism, a theory of liberation, with its opposite, Communism, the theory and practice of enslavement.” The book drew a sharp new division in the world. It both exposed “existing Communism” as state-capitalism, and challenged the anti-Stalinist Left to develop Marx’s philosophy of liberation as an alternative pole of attraction.

But the world changed radically between 1958 and 1965. Starting in the 1940s, and up to MARXISM AND FREEDOM’s publication, Dunayevskaya had been virtually the only English-language theorist (except for Herbert Marcuse) to write about Marx’s humanism. His 1844 ESSAYS had not even been published in English until she included two as an appendix to MARXISM AND FREEDOM. But the 1950s witnessed the start of new mass movements that pulled Marx’s humanism out of the archives and onto the world stage. Third World revolutions against colonialism, Eastern European revolts against so-called Communism, and the Black “Freedom Now” movement in the U.S. compelled discussion of Marx’s humanism.

Fromm’s collection was a culmination of this resurgent interest in Marx’s humanism. Widely read and translated into many languages, it contained essays by authors from many countries who had varied concepts of socialism and humanism, including Bertrand Russell and Norman Thomas, as well as Marxists and Marxologists. The breadth of the new discussion compelled Dunayevskaya to sharpen the differences between her thought and those of others.

By 1965, Marx’s humanism had become such a hot topic that even some Communist parties and theorists began to claim they were for it. As Dunayevskaya writes in the 1965 essay, “the Russian Communist line changed….the claim now became that the Soviets were the rightful inheritors of ‘militant humanism.’” A battle raged in and outside the French CP over its purported endorsement of humanism; fellow-traveling intellectuals such as Sartre supported it, while those such as Althusser vigorously attacked it. His READING CAPITAL, which contains a critique of Sartre for his defense of humanism, was also published in 1965.

Far from welcoming this new-found Communist “humanism,” Dunayevskaya recognized it as an attempt to quiet the masses’ interest in genuine Marxism. It was no longer sufficient to reveal the humanism of Marx; she now needed to distinguish it from its misrepresentations and distortions. Her essay sharply separates Marx’s humanism from the Communist version, but she also distinguishes it from liberal interpretations of Marx. By stripping Marx’s humanism of its specificity, she argues, the liberal academics “leave the door wide open” for Russia and China to cloak their exploitative, capitalist character and policies.

In response to this problem, the essay not only warns against leaving Marx’s humanism abstract; it also demonstrates how CAPITAL “signifies Marx’s ‘return’ to his own philosophic humanism…on a more concrete level, which, rather than diminishing Marx’s original humanist concepts, deepens them.” If Marx’s humanism is invoked without specifying its further, concrete development, its enemies can transform it “into an abstract[ion] that would cover up…the need to abolish the conditions preventing ‘realization’ of Marx’s philosophy, i.e., the reunification of mental and manual abilities in the individual.”


Following Dunayevskaya’s method of being concrete when responding to the objective situation, let us identify what is new and what is not in 2004, so that we can think through the needed response. I argue that we face a different situation in 2004 from that of 1965, and that, to respond to it concretely, we need to theorize an alternative to capitalism. Today, although there are still “vulgar communists” around who defend statified property as socialism, few argue any longer that Marx rejected his youthful humanism when he became “scientific.” And despite an anti-humanist reaction in parts of the academic Left, the concept of humanism has had a great influence in the world.

Many social movements of the past 40 years have based themselves on humanist ideas that share some aspects of Marx’s, such as the goals of individual freedom and self-development, including the Black liberation movement and the women’s and GLBT movements. So established is “humanism” in the U.S. that liberal intellectuals like the editors of THE NEW YORKER, present the political struggle in the U.S. today as one between Christian fundamentalists and humanists. A hair-raising cartoon by Lee Lorenz in the May 10 issue shows a full-scale military assault on a suburban home with a mild-looking man in the doorway. The caption reads, “2:12 p.m. Aug. 16, 2007. The last secular humanist is flushed from his spider hole.”

But the concept of humanism most often expressed is undeveloped and fuzzy. It is surely a step backward that, in today’s reactionary climate, we are called on to defend secular humanism. Marx’s humanism does not even figure in the battle of ideas, because Marx barely appears. So we are facing a different, perhaps harder job than in the 1960s, when there was widespread discussion about Marxism.

The changed terrain hits you when you read Dunayevskaya’s 1965 essay. It remains a great summary of Marx’s humanism, but the Russian and Chinese Communists against whom she argued are no longer the main enemy. Nor is there much of a Marxist Left to contest the implications of Marx’s humanism. As Dunayevskaya argued, what is crucial for a successful revolution that actually establishes a new, human society, is the re-creation of Marx’s philosophy for our age. But few are working to re-create it today.

Instead, public discussion of Marxism has dwindled to almost none, and most people view thoroughgoing social transformation as so impossible that it is hardly worth discussing. So the 1965 essay certainly does not solve the problems we face. Our job, it seems to me, is not simply to re-publish it. We need also to accompany it with a discussion of what it means to be continuators of Marx’s and Dunayevskaya’s ideas at a historic moment when revolution seems to be off the agenda. I suggest that the first order of business is to show that an alternative to capitalism is indeed possible.

This problem is addressed in News and Letters Committees’ Perspectives for 2003-04, which calls upon revolutionaries to concretize a vision of post-capitalist society. To begin this work, it is necessary to study Marx, for a fuller understanding of his achievements on this. It is crucial to explicate the inner workings of capital, rather than discussing his work at a level so general that people fail to catch the historic specificity of capitalism’s mechanisms. And it is crucial not to read Marx in light of one’s own particular concerns, but rather to draw out of his work the principles that can aid our search for capitalism’s absolute opposite.

If we have correctly identified the challenge facing us today, our task may be harder than ever. That is because Marx gave only brief hints about what a post-capitalist society would be like. To break through his and our own abstractions about it, we need to understand his method of analysis with sufficient precision to get inside the dialectic of CAPITAL and concretize it.

Dunayevskaya’s warning in 1965 against turning Marx’s humanism into an abstraction, and her discussion of the need for “thought to proceed to…concrete truths,” seem to me to be crucial to the perspective of concretizing an alternative to capitalism. Some of us have long repeated the goal of abolishing the separation between mental and manual labor and of becoming whole human beings. It is high time to say what we mean by that. If we fail to “proceed to concrete truths,” why should any one believe that a new society is possible?


Dunayevskaya writes, “The totality of the world crisis demands a new unity of theory and practice, a new relationship of workers and intellectuals….This new stage in the self-liberation of the intellectual from dogmatism can begin only when, as Hegel put it, the intellectual feels the ‘compulsion of thought to proceed to… concrete truths.’”

The dogmatism she had in mind here was the intellectuals’ belief in the backwardness of the masses, which resulted in their tailending “actually-existing socialism.” What I am concerned with here is a different dogmatism, the belief that “there is no alternative” to capitalism. What remains key, however, is Hegel’s methodology, which we need in order to work out a new direction for revolutionary thought, and thereby break through this new dogmatism.

Hegel’s reference to “proceeding to concrete truths” is no call to leave theory behind and rush into practice, since his dialectic remained in the realm of thought. Rather, Hegel is describing the method of development of ideas–how thought, when allowed to continue its own logical development, can end up at concrete truths. Dogmatism cuts off the dialectic in thought before it can develop to its logical end

Throughout her writings, Dunayevskaya developed the importance of the dialectical impulse to follow out the logic of ideas. In a 1985 talk called “The Power of Abstraction” (contained in THE POWER OF NEGATIVITY, Lexington Books, 2002), she said,

Remember how rarely you think something through to the end. Indeed, if you do follow an abstract thought to the end, and if your Idea is the wrong one, you will wind up sounding like an idiot. That is, thinking ‘in and for itself’ will end up by proving that the Idea is no Universal. But if your Idea was correct, the concretization will prove you a genius. Ideas ‘think,’ not sequentially, but consequentially, related to other Ideas that emerge out of HISTORIC ground, and do not care where all this might lead to….

Why do we so rarely think through ideas to the end? Why are we so reluctant to do hard mental labor? It seems that many in today’s anti-war, anti-globalization, and other movements think of ideas as bare, undeveloped abstractions. They think that ideas can only be concretized by political practice–usually in the form of the same old street demonstrations around single issues, sometimes even by making unprincipled alliances. Such people must be assuming that a new, human society will just flow out of more and more protest activity, or from their good intentions, without the need ever to face any theoretical problems.

Why do some assume this, when history has so clearly proven otherwise? Perhaps many don’t consider ideas as a force for revolution because they have never considered it possible to make ideas concrete, and have never experienced the process. Therefore they cannot grasp Hegel’s notion of concretizing IDEAS as a necessary mediation between the objective world and the ideal one we seek to realize.

Perhaps some hold back from thinking through alternatives to capitalism because the present moment looks so bleak that the project seems futile. But the objective situation only underscores the need to engage in this process. We need to do so not only because we live in retrogressive times, but because, as the U.S.’s morass in Iraq shows, the empire is unstable. There are opportunities for fundamental change.

Hegel’s method alone is not sufficient, however, for thinking through alternatives to capitalism. As noted above, we simultaneously need a firm grasp of Marx’s Marxism, which alone contains an understanding of the specific “nature” of capitalism that allows it to be transcended.

Hegel cannot tell us what the new society will be like; his idea of freedom remained abstract. Marx alone laid the basis for envisioning non-capitalist society. But Marx can “tell” us this only if we practice what Dunayevskaya singled out from Hegel–following an idea to its conclusion. Indeed, she understood Marx to have followed the drive to freedom inherent in the Hegelian dialectic to its conclusion; she said that he transformed Hegel’s revolution in philosophy into a philosophy of revolution.

Thus, Hegel and Marx together spell out the material, conceptual ground for developing an alternative to capitalism. Only hard mental labor can give direction to the tasks we face today. Even though Marx avoided giving a “blueprint” of postcapitalist society, the need to work out an alternative to capitalism has been the perspective inherent in revolutionary Marxism since its birth 160 years ago, in Marx’s 1844 ESSAYS. It is time for those who dream of a different future to proceed to concrete truths.

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