Dialectics: the algebra of revolution

Submitted by libcom on July 27, 2005

Editor's Note
The following consists of excerpts of comments made by Raya Dunayevskaya during the 1978 Convention of News and Letters Committees, in response to a question from the floor about the meaning of dialectical philosophy. It has never before appeared in print. We publish it now as part of our ongoing effort to raise and work out the question "Why Dialectics? Why Now?" (See the announcement for an upcoming series of discussions on this.) The original can be found in THE RAYA DUNAYEVSKAYA COLLECTION, 5791.

Main text
I come from Russia 1917, and the ghettos of Chicago, where I first saw a Black person. The reason that I'm starting that way is that I was illiterate. You're born in a border town. There's a revolution, there's a counter-revolution, there's anti-Semitism. You know nothing, but experience a lot, especially if you happen to be born a revolutionary. You don't know that you're a revolutionary, but you're opposed to everything.

If the capitalists were only exploiting us they wouldn't last a minute. It's because they have all the mass media, as well as the exploitation, all the education, everything with which to brainwash us and make us think that their ideas are our ideas--"If I only think about myself and my family, I will get somewhere" is that type of idea--that they are able to perpetuate this exploitative system.

Now how does it happen that an illiterate person, who certainly didn't know Lenin and Trotsky, who as a child had never seen a Black person, had begun to develop all the revolutionary ideas to be called Marxist-Humanism in the 1950s? It isn't personal whatsoever. If you live when an idea is born and a great revolution in the world is born, it doesn't make any difference where you are. THAT BECOMES THE NEXT STAGE OF THE DEVELOPMENT OF HUMANITY. You know it in your bones in something as simple as when you say, "No!" to your Mama who wants to put you in pink and the boy child in blue....

Take Rosa Parks. Do you think she thought she was starting a revolution? No, she was tired as all get-out! She had just worked a full day. She was tired and just wasn't going to get up again to move to the back of the bus to give her seat to a white man who hadn't labored as hard as she. And the Black youths who were sitting there seeing this middle-aged woman being dragged off to the police station, said, let's not let Rosa Parks be all alone there.

What did Rosa Parks do by that one action? She started the entire Black revolution in the South! She's the one that made Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the "leader." King would never have been leader if a movement for freedom hadn't started from below, spontaneously.

What is important is that you are so natural an opponent of this system that you will bring on the revolution. Your one action of opposition to the system makes you part of that revolutionary movement, and you did it, not because you were "unconscious"--that's what they think you were--but because you were born a revolutionary and don't like the damn system under which we live!

The reason it is important not only to be a revolutionary and not like the capitalist system and want to start a revolution--is that we have had too many ABORTED revolutions, too many UNFINISHED ones! We have to contend with the fact: What is it, why is it so?....

Take any one of the revolutions that have happened. What was great about Russia 1917? They had a successful revolution. They had a Lenin! Was Trotsky the same as Lenin? It sounds like he was. He was not only on the right side of the barricades. He led that great proletarian revolution, he built up the Red Army, and he was next to Lenin in political stature. But did he undergo the same reorganization of himself [as did Lenin]? When World War I happened and there was the Second International's betrayal, did Trotsky think that, though he didn't betray, nevertheless he too had to reorganize his thinking because the historic responsibility for such a betrayal of existing Marxism needed more of an answer than just: "I didn't betray"?

Yes, Lenin and Trotsky found themselves on the same side of the barricades, and that's what the Trotskyists always paraded out--and I as a Trotskyist for years helped Trotsky parade out that fact. But how did it follow from that that there was no difference between Trotsky and Lenin? IT'S NOT TRUE! Trotsky was on the same side of the barricades as Lenin, but Lenin had undergone a transformation on philosophy as well. Lenin was leaving us a heritage, the steps by which to recapture the philosophic, historic link of continuity with the Marxian-Hegelian dialectic.

Put differently, Lenin said: We Russians are backward. We have done the revolution in a country that is not supposed to have had it. Without the revolution in Germany, we'll certainly die! But the other revolutions will know not only from something we did and were successful but also from where we pointed to in a world context, in a new relationship.

He was saying: We have found out that we whites are so conceited, because we have run this world for so long, that if [the revolution] didn't happen in Germany, with the tradition of Hegel and Marx, and of being technologically advanced--if it didn't happen there, what are we going to do? Fold up and die? No! We have to point to NEW BEGINNINGS.

And the new beginnings in 1920, at the Second Congress [of the Communist International] was that [Lenin said] despite our conceit, the majority of the people in the world are Black and Red and Yellow. If the counter-revolution can be stopped, and on a world scale, not from Berlin but from Peking or wherever, then we should be willing to sacrifice [the Russian Revolution] for that world revolution.

[Lenin also told] the editors of the new theoretical journal UNDER THE BANNER OF MARXISM to publish Hegel, naturally from a materialist point of view, but the dialectic is the pivot. He said call yourselves "Materialist Friends of the Hegelian Dialectic."

So he left us beginnings, both global and philosophic. What did Trotsky do? Trotsky said, I was on the right side of the barricades, but we lost the revolution, and therefore because I'm a revolutionary the difference between us is reformism. But that wasn't the only difference. A NEW philosophic ground he did not have, a NEW Subject of revolution he did not have. He kept repeating: the peasantry is reactionary, as I showed in my theory of Permanent Revolution. They did play a revolutionary role in the Russian Revolution, but that is their last time.

The only thing he added when he lost to Stalin was not new beginnings, but: if only I can build up a new cadre, that will do it.

Look what happened. We got World War II and we're waiting for a revolution equivalent to the Russian [Revolution of 1917]. We get at most the Chinese, in other words a great national revolution [in 1949]. So you have to reconsider what is happening. You had always thought the revolution would come out of the war. Had you noticed any new forces that now have emerged? Had you built out of those new forces? And those revolutionary peasants in China? Is that only a mirage? Is that only Stalinism in Chinese dress?

Consider Africa. Do you think the Zulus knew they were leading a revolution? They knew they didn't like British imperialism trying to take their country over. We learned of that because: l) we had a world revolutionary perspective; 2) we knew that the 1905 [Russian Revolution] couldn't have been only in Russia; something was "in the air" globally; and 3) in the post-World War II period we said there must certainly also be something happening in Africa. If that idea of revolution came to France, or to Japan, where else is it?....

Take the question of male chauvinism. Suddenly just a "personal," "family" affair makes you rebel. It isn't that you made a category called "a movement from practice to theory; a movement from theory to practice." It isn't in any book you read. The book may have made a generalizationabout it, but it was in life, in your life, and because it was also in other lives, and they too rebelled, it became a movement, and a "book," and an organization.

One other incident hasn't to do with women, but with Black. I was in Paris in 1947, trying to convince Trotskyists they should believe that Russia isn't merely a "degenerated workers' state," it's a state-capitalist society.....When I go to Lyon, France, where I addressed the Socialist youth, somebody is sitting in that audience whom I didn't know. But now I read all the histories and biographies of Frantz Fanon, and not only was he there, in Lyon at the same time, interested in Trotskyism, but though he was also finding an affinity with Existentialism, the Black nature leads him away from it all to an independent path he will later call "new Humanism." These happenings aren't "accidents." When there are great stirrings in life, in revolutions-to-be, something gets "in the air" and crosses national boundaries.

The point is: it doesn't make any difference whether there was an in-person relationship. If you know the exact relationship between OBJECTIVE AND SUBJECTIVE, between PHILOSOPHY AND REVOLUTION, and don't consider any of that as abstract, you then realize it is abstract only if you haven't made the connection of objective and subjective, and seen how the actual subjective genuine human new beginnings which then unite with the movement from theory can make up into this Absolute Idea AS NEW BEGINNING....

A theory is good for the answer of what you're going to do this year or next year, but you need an entire philosophy for a vision of your age's "breaking the barrier," that is to say not only overthrowing the old, but creating the new.

The greatest thing in relation to Marx's philosophy of revolution is this--even before he worked out all of historical materialism, he is saying: If we are going to be serious about A NEW TYPE OF PERSON, A NEW TYPE OF SOCIETY, we really have to begin with the beginning, the Man/Woman relationship. Isn't that tremendous! In other words, he wants to uproot not only the exploitation, or the racism, or the sexism even--he means it has to be so totally different that you have to begin, so to speak, with your moment of birth, or the moment after you're born.

Ever since Marx, every Marxist tendency is trying to make it narrower and narrower. We cannot get into it further here. I'm simply indicating what the goal is of the book--Rosa Luxemburg, Today's Women's Liberation Movement, and Marx's Philosophy of Revolution.