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The Philosophy and Politics of Freedom

Paul Le Blanc has for many years been a teacher and activist in Pittsburgh. His books include: A Short History of the U.S. Working Class: From Colonial Times to the Twenty-First Century(1999); From Marx to Gramsci: A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics (1996); and forthcoming in 2003, Black Liberation and the American Dream: The Quest for Racial and Economic Justice. Humanity Books, an imprint of Prometheus Books, is the publisher of all three.

Raya Dunayevskaya, The Power of Negativity: Selected Writings on the Dialectic in Hegel and Marx, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2002), 386 pages, $100.00 cloth; $24.95 paper.
August H. Nimtz, Jr., Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2000), 377 pages, $71.50 cloth; $24.95 paper.
John Rees, The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 314 pages, $85.00 cloth; $26.95 paper.

In these terrible times, to believe in the possibility of helping to make the world a better place, and to commit ones life to that, makes one a revolutionary. Over the years, some of us have been inclined to embrace Karl Marx because he was on our side—the side of labor, of the oppressed, of the working-class majority—and provided invaluable intellectual tools for understanding and changing reality. Others, in this dangerous time of intensifying capitalist “globalization,” are also reaching out to what Marx has to offer. With his comrade Frederick Engels he produced enough material to fill the numerous volumes of their Collected Works of which the final volume is due in 2003. A number of helpful books are now appearing that contribute to the collective process of understanding and utilizing this legacy for changing the world. Those who can offer some of the most fruitful insights will be those who, following the example of Marx and Engels, have committed themselves politically in their own lives. Which brings us to the works under review.

A Philosophy of Freedom

Raya Dunayevskaya’s three major books—Marxism and Freedom; Philosophy and Revolution; and Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution—have now been capped by a splendid fourth volume, The Power of Negativity: Selected Writings on the Dialectic in Hegel and Marx, lovingly and carefully edited by two capable followers. This will be a rich and challenging resource for anyone who cares about any of the topics enumerated in the titles of these works. John Rees extends the study of the Marxist philosophical approach in The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition, providing an admirably clear, stimulating, and well-documented discussion of Marx and Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Antonio Gramsci, and Georg Lukacs, not to mention Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, George Plekhanov, Antonio Labriola, and others. August Nimtz, Jr.’s Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough is itself an academic breakthrough. He defines the book’s themes as arguing that Marx and Engels “were the leading protagonists in the democratic movement in the nineteenth century,” that “they were first and foremost political activists, and not simply ‘thinkers,’” and that their practical political experience was central to shaping their theories.

Dunayevskaya was politically engaged from the 1920s as a teenager in the early Communist movement until she died in 1987, after leading her own Marxist-Humanist group for more than three decades. Rees, a younger leader of Britain’s Socialist Workers Party, is the capable editor of the group’s theoretical organ, International Socialist Journal. An association with the very different Socialist Workers Party of the United States is suggested in the footnotes of Nimtz’s volume; an African-American scholar who has previously published Islam and Politics in East Africa, he is the only one of the three who is an academic—a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota—but the insights in his book indicate a familiarity with on-the-ground politics consistent with the experience of Marx and Engels. One might insist that the political groups mentioned here are mutually incompatible. But the strengths of each book transcend the boundaries of small groups.

With a handful of others (including Herbert Marcuse, with whom she corresponded), Dunayevskaya was a pioneer in tracing connections between Marx and German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831). Powerfully influenced by what E. J. Hobsbawm has termed the dual revolution—the tidal waves of democratic and industrial revolutions that gathered force in the late eighteenth century—Hegel developed a way of comprehending reality, a method of analysis, hailed by the Russian revolutionary Alexander Herzen as “the algebra of revolution.” Known as dialectics, this philosophical orientation profoundly affected Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and was developed as an essential component of the revolutionary Marxist tradition. It has often been shrugged off—with a grimace or a laugh—as impossibly dense. Dunayevskaya will have none of that. Terming Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (which she was the first to publish in English) as “founding a new continent of thought and of revolution,” she insists that the young Marx “articulates the great merit of Hegel in discovering the ‘negation of the negation,’ and the great demerit of Hegel in enveloping it in such mysticism by dealing with it as various stages of consciousness, rather than as men and women thinking.” Her meaning emerges in such Hegelian-Marxist passages as these:

What [French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty] is trying to do here is to sum up Marx’s conception of the dialectic as TOTALITY….The human factor is the decisive factor and if that is so it is the total human being, not any single portion of him. And because this is so, and because all history is the history of the class struggles for freedom, Hegel’s “Absolute Idea” was in actuality TOTAL FREEDOM. That is how Hegel and Marx met, so to speak, and why Hegel’s abstract ideas are in actuality the reflections of this historic movement…

To some extent, the limitations of the three books are offset by the strengths of each. That is, they disagree with each other. Nimtz tells us that Marx and Engels carried out an “irreparable break…with philosophy in general and German philosophy in particular,” and were especially intent on “clearing away the Hegelian cobwebs” of their student days. Such assertions become untenable in the face of Dunayevskaya’s impressive labors, not to mention Rees’s survey. Of course, the focus of each book is different. Nimtz restricts himself to Marx and Engels, but for Dunayevskaya this is one person too many—she creates a wall to protect Hegel and Marx from what she dismisses as “post-Marx Marxists, beginning with Engels.” Rees doesn’t accept this, insisting that a fundamental methodological continuity places Marx with Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, Lukacs, Trotsky, and Gramsci all within the same revolutionary camp. Rees complains that Dunayevskaya and her one-time co-thinker C. L. R. James “map the categories of Hegel’s philosophy directly onto the history of capitalism in an unmediated and abstract manner.” And, in fact, there is a remarkably abstract quality to Dunayevskaya’s discussion of practical politics, including questions of strategy, tactics, and organization. And it is precisely here that Nimtz’s strengths come through.

Revolutionary Practice

Nimtz honors Hal Draper’s “insufficiently heralded work on Marx and Engels.” Draper’s four fat volumes, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (Monthly Review Press) plus his three-volume Marx-Engels glossary, register, and chronicle, as well as Richard N. Hunt’s two-volume Political Ideas of Marx and Engels, broke much of the ground that Nimtz covers. But here, in a single volume of 300 clearly written and well-documented pages, we get not only a survey of much previous scholarship but, more important, a survey of the writings (including the correspondence) and the political activities of the two revolutionaries. An initial chapter on the context and beginnings of Marx’s and Engels’ revolutionary partnership is followed by three chapters on their involvement with the Communist League and the revolutionary upsurge of 1848–1849. Next comes a fine chapter comparing the thought and political activity of Marx with that of liberalism’s intellectual hero Alexis de Tocqueville. Another chapter shows that the long “lull” in the class struggle, stretching from 1850 to 1861 was one in which Marx and Engels remained engaged in practical and organizational work—which formed an important prelude to their involvement in the International Working Men’s Association (the First International of 1864–1876), to which Nimtz devotes three more chapters. The final chapter focuses on Engels’ political work in the years between Marx’s death and his own.

One could use this as a guidebook for the fifty-volume Collected Works, and also as a political biography worth setting beside David Riazanov’s classic Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. More than this, it offers a challenge for those drawn to the spirit of Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach—that the point for revolutionaries is not simply to understand the world but to change it. Nimtz is not content merely to reproduce the ideas of his two subjects. He interacts with them and offers interesting ideas and interpretations. There is a refreshing rejection of Lenin-bashing as he emphasizes an elemental and multifaceted continuity between Marx, Engels, and the Russian revolutionary. He also points out that the young Engels was inspired by the Seminole Indians’ resistance to “White European encroachment” in 1830s Florida, commenting that both Engels and Marx were confident in “the ability of the oppressed to overcome their oppression.” There is also the importance of the peasantry and the centrality of the worker-peasant alliance that he is able to trace in the thought of Marx and Engels.

More than this, the relationship between capitalism and democracy, according to Nimtz, is illuminated by the fact that “the ‘self-organization of the working class’ in the second half of the nineteenth century was responsible for the democratic breakthrough, that is, the institution of ‘universal suffrage,’ and the acquisition of civil liberties.” In this he cites the important 1992 study Capitalist Development and Democracy by Dietrich Rueschmeyer, Evelyne Stephens, and John Stephens (though equally relevant is Geoff Eley’s just-published Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850–2000). Essential in the thrust of working-class democracy, Nimtz documents, were the intellectual and practical-political labors of Marx and Engels in the Communist League, in the 1848 upsurge, during the quiescent interlude that followed, and then in the years of the First International and the Paris Commune. The serious-minded political work (not just theorizing) of Marx and Engels for twenty years before the First International’s founding in 1864, we are shown, was essential in enabling them to play a central role in its development. And Nimtz is especially good in conveying a sense of the crucial importance of the First International in the larger political developments of the 1860s and 1870s, and particularly in the development of the labor movements of Europe and North America.

Yet the book also provides some less positive surprises. There is an odd and recurring fuzziness around the basic Marxist concept of class. The term working class is defined as “employed manual labor outside of agriculture.” This dramatically narrows what one finds in the Communist Manifesto and Capital: the working class consists of those making their living through the sale of their ability to labor. Nimtz also uses the term “middle class” quite loosely—sometimes seemingly to imply that it is similar to “petty bourgeois” or perhaps to “non-manual” employees. In the Europe of Marx and Engels, however, the term referred to the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class (the upper class being the landowning aristocracy). Even worse is his bungling of the concept dictatorship of the proletariat, which (Draper and others have shown) Marx and Engels saw as political rule by the working class. Nimtz disagrees, insisting that a workers state cannot coexist with a capitalist economy. Nimtz uncharacteristically criticizes Engels for asserting that Paris Commune of 1871 (which did not have time to eliminate capitalism) was an example of the dictatorship of the proletariat (workers’ rule). “Engels may well have overstated the case of the Commune to score points,” Nimtz insists, adding “it seems reasonable to conclude” that Marx would have preferred to view the Paris Commune as “the dictatorship of the people’s alliance, that is, an alliance of the proletariat and its allies….” One can only assume that Nimtz would also reject the standard interpretation offered by Lenin in 1919: “‘Soviet power’ is the second historical step, or stage, in the development of the proletarian dictatorship. The first step was the Paris Commune. The brilliant analysis of its nature and the significance given by Marx in his The Civil War in France showed that the Commune has created a new type of state, a proletarian state.” Contrary to Nimtz’s convolutions, it would seem that Lenin and Engels were accurately representing the views of Marx that, quite simply, a workers’ state must first comes to power in order to initiate the process of eliminating capitalism.

Fortunately, such theoretical tangles do not intrude into most of this study. Somewhat more intrusive is the way Nimtz discusses the organizational question—he makes reference to the “the Marx-Engels team” and “the Marx party” so frequently, and in such varied contexts, that confusion is inevitable—especially since “the Marx-Engels team” appears to be simply another way of saying “Marx and Engels,” and what is meant by party is more often than not referring “to a political tendency and not an organized current” (and can include sometimes just Marx and Engels, sometimes those who agree with the basic ideas of the Manifesto, sometimes old friends from the stormy days of 1848, sometimes those who agree with Marx and Engels inside the First International). But as Marx’s biographer Franz Mehring put it, “their supporters, as Marx himself admitted, did not represent a party.” Nimtz prefers a different way of putting it—that, more often than not, “the party was still not convinced that circumstances required an organized formation.”

The point that Nimtz is making here, however, seems entirely valid. Marx’s detractors and even some of his partisans generally miss a key aspect of what he was doing. To the extent that they look at his practical political activity at all—especially his conflicts with others inside the labor and socialist movements—they tend to see a tactless, impatient, and argumentative ego, somehow lining up and manipulating various pals, more often than not hurling polemics and mobilizing cliques that were “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” What Nimtz is able to highlight is a much more consistent, coherent, principled mode of operation on the part of a numerically fluctuating current of co-thinkers. It has political meaning. There is a correspondence between analysis, strategy, and tactics. What Marx and Engels and their various comrades hoped to accomplish was related to how they functioned—even without an organization—and they were able to have a profound impact in the broader organizations and movements of which they were part. All of this contributed to the later crystallization of socialist workers parties in a number of countries. More work needs to be done to understand all of this more clearly, but Nimtz is pointing us in the right direction.

The Dialectics of Struggle

In The Algebra of Revolution, John Rees highlights the philosopher Hegel’s immense intellectual labors, which combined a deep commitment to human freedom with a profoundly historical sensibility embracing the notion that reality unfolds and moves forward through the interaction of contradictory tendencies. Each of these tendencies contain elements of “truth” that can only be understood adequately as part of a complex, multifaceted, always-evolving totality. Hegel developed concepts and categories to help comprehend the almost impossibly complex, dynamic, contradictory reality in which all of us are enmeshed. Rees, like Dunayevskaya before him, demonstrates that this dialectical outlook and method were absorbed into the very being of Marx, to be transformed by him but never abandoned.

All too many in the Marxist tradition have shrugged off or quietly set aside or (worse) dogmatized this approach, resulting in a deterministic Marxism: history and economics become the powerful “objective factors” which inevitably move forward, regardless of what people think and try to do (which are the secondary and subordinate “subjective factors”). Such seemingly hardheaded, “scientific” fatalism has all-too-often passed for profound Marxist wisdom. This can cause working-class militants to passively wait for revolutionary inevitabilities, which, as the history of the twentieth century demonstrates, never materialize.

In contrast, Marx and Engels saw objective and subjective factors as an interacting unity of opposites, with the working class itself (thanks to the role in the labor process and the quality of human consciousness) combining the subjective and objective. “Once this notion, the unity of subject and object, has vanished…the working class is no longer seen as the identical subject-object of history,” Rees argues. “That is, it is no longer seen as a class whose struggle transforms it from being an exploited class lacking in socialist consciousness and unable to control the society that it produces into a class capable of consciously fighting to banish exploitation and able to run society according it its own needs.” What Hegel taught was what Marx and Engels intensified—human freedom is possible and necessary, what people do and fail to do makes a difference, the working-class majority can become conscious of its situation and determine its own future.

This activist outlook, as the work of Nimtz has so effectively shown, is central to the actual lives and political efforts of Marx and Engels. Rees goes on to show us that it is precisely this dialectical-activist element that is built into the mass strike conceptions of Rosa Luxemburg, the theory of permanent revolution of Leon Trotsky, and the understanding of the party/mass struggle dialectic of Lenin, which was further elaborated by the Hegelian Leninists, Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs, through their own intense revolutionary experience in Italy and Hungary. The longest chapter in this volume is that dealing with Lukacs, a splendid exploration consistent with Lukacs’ recently discovered and published masterpiece of 1926 (for which Rees has written a fine introduction), Tailism and the Dialectic. Rees’s book helps to demystify something about which much complicated (and also simplistic) nonsense has been propagated. While making a passing reference to “the characteristic Hegelian triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,” he is scornful of the idea that the Hegelian dialectic can be reduced to this “eternal trichotomy,” approvingly quoting Plekhanov that “it does not at all play in Hegel’s work the part which is attributed to it by people who have not the least idea of the philosophy of that thinker.”

Rees is more inclined to accept, as “useful reminders of forms in which dialectical contradictions sometimes work themselves out,” the three “laws” identified by Engels: unity of opposites; transformation of quantity into quality; and negation of the negation. The unity of opposites involves the dynamic linkage between interpenetrating yet contradictory elements—for example, the relationship between workers and capitalists as essential components of the capitalist system. The transformation of quantity into quality involves the process by which gradual “numerical” alternations can result in qualitative change—water turning from a liquid into a solid or gas depending on the rise or fall of the temperature, or an escalating number of workers and workplaces being involved in a strike changing a situation from an economic dispute to a politically-charged general strike to a social revolution. The negation of the negation involves the development of some aspect of reality in which its original state is overcome or transcended (negation), but rather than being simply obliterated, the elements of the original aspect of reality are preserved (negation of the negation) in the process of transformation. For example, a liberal’s fundamental belief in human rights and freedom of expression might be preserved in his or her later rejection of liberalism for socialism.

However, Rees emphasizes, these three “laws” are “not the only way that dialectical development can take place,” and by no means do they constitute some “supra-historical master key.” He clearly prefers a different way of explaining the dialectical method, emphasizing “three principles: totality, change, and contradiction. Taken separately these principles do not constitute a dialectical approach. Only when they are taken together do they become dialectical.” He adds that “the parts and the whole are not reducible to each other. The parts and the whole mutually condition, or mediate, each other.”

Rees emphasizes that Marx’s materialist conception of history is grounded in this analytical approach: “Society is taken to be in a process of constant change. Such change involves the totality of relations—economic, political, ideological, and cultural—of which the society is composed. This process of total change is a result of internal contradictions, manifested as class antagonism, which reconstitute society anew by both transforming and renewing the forces that first gave rise to the initial contradiction.”

At the same time, Rees explains, the dialectical method in Marx’s hands does not consist of “a progression of self-generating categories,” but instead that he continually refined and revised his dialectical analysis through “constant empirical verification,” understanding that “real contradictions are…more diverse and complex, and change more rapidly, than the concepts that express them, even when these are dialectical concepts especially designed to capture complexity and change. Constant empirical work is therefore essential to renew both the concrete analyses and the dialectical concepts that are generalized from these analyses.” Lenin described this as Marx’s method in Capital: “Testing by facts or by practice…is to be found in each step of the analysis.”

Rees concludes his study with the obvious but essential notion that the Marxist dialectic revolves around “an appreciation of the revolutionary potential of the working class,” and that any effort to renew Marxist philosophy is actually inseparable from the task of overcoming late-twentieth-century defeats of the working class through rebuilding the working-class movement. He adds that “a revolutionary organization remains the indispensable tool for overcoming the unevenness in working-class consciousness, maximizing the effectiveness of working-class struggle, recalling the lessons of past victories and defeats, and educating and leading workers in struggle.”

We are faced with the urgent question, however, of how these truths can be understood and applied in the unique historical circumstances at the dawn of our new century. Any mechanistic effort to superimpose “orthodox” formulas from earlier historical contexts onto the new and fluid realities would be a violation of the dialectical method Rees so ably discusses in this fine book. A simplistic effort to proclaim a revolutionary working class party, even if done in the name of revolutionary dialectics, is guaranteed to be fruitless. Such things must evolve organically from the actual class struggles of the real world in which we live. The question is: how can that process be advanced by thoughtful activists?

Armed with the theoretical tools surveyed in different but challenging ways in these books by John Rees, August Nimtz, and Raya Dunayevskaya—each designed for those committed to developing revolutionary analyses and strategies—activists of today and tomorrow, one can hope, will be better able to understand the world in order to change it.