It’s an interesting sign of the troubles with which capitalism is struggling that the coverage of Karl Marx’s bicentenary has been pretty respectful.
So it’s surprising, and disappointing, that the well-known left wing journalist Paul Mason should have written a really dreadful article in the New Statesman. It is centred on a photograph taken in Mexico City in 1937. In the foreground are the exiled Russian revolutionaries Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalia Sedova and the great painter Frida Kahlo, and, behind her, Trotsky’s secretary Raya Dunayevskaya.
Mason’s thesis is that the first three—Kahlo later became a Stalinist—all represented in different ways the dominant version of Marxism. This is summed up by Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, for whom—Mason says—workers “needed the cattle prod of an elite, underground ‘vanguard party’ to make them move”. Even the best Marxists were “prepared to use manipulation and violence for the greater good”.
By contrast Dunayevskaya went on to discover Marx’s early Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, where he set out “the concept of communism as ‘radical humanism’”. She later founded the current of Marxist Humanism in the US. What Mason himself means by “radical humanism” only becomes clear in his final sentences when he writes, “Fuck the vanguard party. The revolutionary subject is the self.”
I’ll leave aside the many distortions and plain mistakes in Mason’s article. He is right that in the Manuscripts Marx argues that the aim of communism is the self-realisation of the individual. He sticks to this ideal throughout his life. In one of the drafts of Capital, the Grundrisse (1857-8), Marx even tends to refer to communism as “free individuality”.
But this is no way counterposed, as Mason claims, to the study of “impersonal forces and structures”. He misrepresents Dunayevskaya, making her sound like another Russian emigre to the mid-20th century US, the ultra-individualist Ayn Rand who was an apologist for capitalism.
Dunayevskaya put forward a powerful interpretation of Marx’s writings, stressing their continuities with the thought of the great German philosopher GWF Hegel. Her views are controversial because Marxists endlessly argue about Marx’s precise relation to Hegel. But she was a tough-minded Marxist who attached particular importance to Capital.
In her path-breaking study Marxism and Freedom (1958) Dunayevskaya shows how the workers’ struggles of the day and the US Civil War (1861-5) helped to shape the writing of Capital, Volume I. But she also stresses the importance of analysing the objective economic structures of capitalism that created the conditions for working-class self-activity. She says “Marx’s discovery” was “that the objective movement itself produces the subjective force for its overthrow”.
Dunayevskaya also had a very different assessment of Lenin from Mason. She puts his writings in historical context and praises him for winning the Bolshevik party to fighting for the workers’ councils (soviets) to take power in Russia in October 1917. “The party finally did become the ‘vanguard’, that is to say when they finally saw that without the spontaneity, the creative energies of millions, the ‘masses as reason’, which meant concretely their form of organisation to have power, the Marxist party would indeed be nothing but an elite,” she wrote.
I don’t agree with everything Dunayevskaya wrote, but she deserves better than being appropriated to support what seems like a form of radical liberalism.
At its core Marx’s thought is a doctrine of human freedom, of individual self-determination. But the road to realising this ideal lies through understanding the objective structures of capitalism and their contradictions. These can be undone through collective action—both the mass struggles of workers and the efforts of revolutionary parties.
Marx understood this perfectly well. This is why he spent so much time simultaneously studying capitalism in the British Museum and building the First International. And his greatest followers—not just Lenin and Trotsky but Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci as well—followed the same path. Marx’s bicentenary is a good moment to rededicate ourselves to this effort in our own small ways.