Sixty Years of Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom: Then and Now

David Black

Summary: On the book’s reception at the time of its publication by intellectuals like Alasdair MacIntyre and Paul Mattick, as well as labor activists like Harry McShane and Sheila Leslie; its impact on the British left up through Paul Mason today; and the evolution of the author’s perspectives on Lenin on dialectics. Presented at the July Convention of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization — Editors

Note: Photo is of Sheila Leslie’s copy of the original 1958 edition of Marxism and Freedom, given her by Raya Dunayevskaya, with Herbert Marcuse’s name as author of the preface crossed out and replaced by ‘Harry McShane of Glasgow Trades Council’.

Reception in the US and Britain

Marxism and Freedom: From 1776 until Today by Raya Dunayevskaya was published in 1958 by Bookman, New York. I will open with a consideration of the book’s reception  amongst scholars, activists and theoreticians. Looking at their reviews illuminates to what extent the book’s content still stands after 60 years, as well as how the reviewers’ critiques look in the present day. For reasons of time and space, and because it’s what I know about best, I will concentrate on the book’s reception in Britain and the US.

Alisdair MacIntyre, in the Universities and Left Review, Autumn 1958, praises Dunayevskaya’s explication of Marx’s indebtedness to Hegel:

“Certainly Marx had to transform Hegel. But the ferment of the concepts of freedom, reason and consciousness in Marx’s philosophy is the Marxist debt to Hegel. Hegel without Marx is unrealistic, and in the end obscurantist. Marx without Hegel would have been rigid, mechanical, inhuman…”

Dunayevskaya’s book, writes MacIntyre, has “three great merits”:

“The first is that she has tried to write a history of Marxist theory in which development of the theory is linked at every point to the corresponding developments both in society and in the political experience of socialists. The second is that she has utilised some of the source material of Marxism more fully than any previous commentator” [specifically Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Lenin’s Hegel Notebooks, and the records of the Russian trade union debate of 1921]…

“The third merit of this book, and it arises out of the other two, is that it provides a framework for a re-evaluation of Lenin in which a change can be noted from an emphasis on the party as the revolutionary manipulator of a passive working class to emphasis on the potential revolutionary spontaneity of the working class. And this change goes along with what we may call Lenin’s Hegelian conversion….”

Surprisingly, considering MacIntyre’s subsequent political development (vacillating between Thomism and anti-Stalinist Marxism), he thinks Dunayevskaya is too “negative” about the USSR:

“For Miss Dunayevskaya this is the age of state capitalism, a form of economy common to both USA and USSR. This leads her into a fantastic under-valuation of socialist achievement in the Soviet Union… And the result is that this portion of her book is negative and sterile… Her only hope is the world-wide working class. And the suspicion grows as one reads that she has an entirely idealised view of that class.”

For Paul Mattick, an anti-Bolshevik Left Communist who also reviewed the book in 1958 for the Boston-based Western Socialist, under the title, “A Marxian Oddity,” the problem with Dunayevskaya’s book was not any “under-valuation of socialist achievement in the Soviet Union”, which in Mattick’s view was non-existent. But he would seem to agree with MacIntyre’s suspicions about an “idealised view” of the world working class. For Mattick, the “idealism” stems from Dunayevskaya’s Hegelian Marxism: “an embarrassing, scatterbrained hodge-podge of philosophical, economic and political ideas that defy description and serious criticism,” and “leads back into the murk of Hegelianism where it gets lost in incomprehensible philosophical gibberish.” Having assumed that his rationalist, materialist-minded readers will share his dismissal of Hegelian “mysticism,” Mattick’s argument hinges on “economism” and class-reductionism:

“…she celebrates the proletarian aspects of the East German and Hungarian risings but she neglects to pay attention to their nationalist implications. She applauds the bus boycotts by Negroes in America’s South. She sees in them expressions of working-class self-determination yet overlooks the striving for racial equality within the existing social system. She supports — as is proper — sporadic wild-cat and sit-down strikes but fails to notice their relative insignificance within the total American situation and with a working class fully in the sway of capitalist ideology.”[i]

Mattick sees no real value in Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts (“fragmentary early writings of Marx… which represent a stage of Marx’s intellectual development which he himself was glad to get behind him”); less still Lenin’s Hegel Notebooks of 1914 and Dunayevskaya’s re-evaluation of Lenin’s break with vanguardism, which Mattick finds “astonishing”.

George Lichtheim, who was also anti-Bolshevik, reviewed the second American edition of Marxism and Freedom in the New York Review of Books, in 1964. In this review, he recognizes that “… she has a firm grasp of the essentials so far as the descent from Lenin to Stalin is concerned.” However,

“Her own utopianism comes out in the chapter devoted to 1921, the NEP, and the failure of the ‘Workers’ Opposition’. It is true that Lenin in 1921 tried to salvage what was left of party democracy, where Stalin later ruthlessly destroyed it… ‘The tragedy of the Russian Revolution,’ in her view, was that ‘the masses’ were not really drawn into public life, in the way Lenin had envisaged when he wrote State and Revolution. But in the absence of democracy, how could they have been so drawn in? Mrs. Dunayevskaya might have learned the reasons of the failure from Rosa Luxemburg, whose general outlook is somewhat akin to hers.”[ii]

Dunayevskaya, who would later write a whole book on Rosa Luxemburg, and indeed discuss Lenin’s and Luxemburg’s divergences on democracy and socialism, took Lichtheim’s challenging critique very seriously. He was evidently one of those intellectuals she liked to refer to as a “friendly enemy”.

Not so with the British Trotskyist, Cliff Slaughter, whose critique took the form of a pamphlet, Lenin on Dialectics, published in 1962:

“Raya Dunayevskaya describes the ‘keynote’ of Lenin’s Hegel Notebooks as ‘nothing short of a restoration of truth to philosophic idealism against vulgar materialism to which he had given the green light with his work on Materialism and Empiriocriticism’.”

Slaughter comments: “Dunayevskaya naturally quotes Lenin’s aphorism: ‘Intelligent idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than stupid materialism’… But it is nonsense to suggest that Lenin revised his opinions on the general relationship between materialism and idealism.”

Slaughter seems to think that Lenin’s statements in the Notebooks attacking Hegel’s “mysticism” meant that he hadn’t broken at all with his earlier work, Materialism and Empiriocriticism, which polemicized against alleged “Godseekers” and Neo-Kantian agnostics. Therefore, we should not take too seriously Lenin’s statement in 1914 to the effect that:

“It is impossible fully to grasp Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently none of the Marxists for the past half century have understood Marx!!”

Workers and Intellectuals

There were several other reviews of Marxism and Freedom in Britain. Eric Heffer (a future Member of Parliament) in the Socialist Leader (September 13, 1958) and Paul Foot, in Tribune (August 1964) were favourable towards Dunayevskaya’s vindication of Marx’s humanism against Stalinist distortions. Heffer and Foot were political friends of Harry McShane, who was promoting Marxist-Humanism in Scotland.[iii]

Born in Glasgow in 1891, McShane joined the revolutionary party of John Maclean, and played a leading role in the near-insurrectionary Revolt on the Clyde, in the wake of the Russian Revolution. In 1922, McShane joined the new Communist Party of Great Britain. In the 1940s, he became disillusioned with the unprincipled practices of the party and its leaders’ mindless subservience to Russian Stalinism. He left the party in the early 1950s and, although by this time into his sixties, returned to work in the shipyards.[iv] In the late 1950s, when he retired from shipbuilding, he read Marxism and Freedom, contacted Dunayevskaya, and arranged meetings for her in Scotland when she visited Britain in 1959.[v]

Unlike many of those who left the CPGB following the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, McShane did not see Trotskyism as representing a truly radical break with the practice and ideology of Stalinism. One reason for this was his memory of “other ways” of thinking and organizing:

“We suffered a long time from the fact that we found it difficult to shake off the ‘Communist’ way of seeing things. Had it not been for the fact that I had been 13 years in the movement before I joined the CP in 1922, I might never have made it. I certainly would not have made it had it not been for Marxism and Freedom.”[vi]

Sheila Leslie (née Lahr) born in 1927, and probably the last surviving former member of the 1940s British Trotskyist party, met Raya Dunayevskaya in London in 1962.  Raya gave Sheila a hardback copy of Marxism and Freedom she had been showing to prospective publishers in London for a British edition of the book. Sheila still has the book, and remarkably, on the cover, Raya has crossed out “Herbert Marcuse” as author of the preface and written under it “Harry McShane, Glasgow Trades Council.”

By this time Dunayevskaya had rather fallen out with Marcuse (more of which later), so she wanted to replace his preface with one written by a worker: Harry McShane. It actually took until 1971 for a British publisher, Pluto Press, to take on Marxism and Freedom. And by that time, since Marcuse had become famous, and was being blamed by reactionaries and liberals alike for stirring up the revolt of the students, his preface had to stay in the book – alongside the preface by Harry McShane.

Pluto Press was, at this time, the publishing arm of the International Socialists (IS), led by Tony Cliff and Michael Kidron. The book’s analysis of Russian state-capitalism found some favour amongst IS anti-Stalinists, who were unconvinced by the Trotskyist designation of the USSR as a “deformed workers’ state.” Dunayevskaya’s theory of state-capitalism differed however, from that of Tony Cliff, who held that, because of state control and planning of the Russian economy, the law of value did not operate in it and its capitalist nature was imposed by the external factor of the world market.

There were other forces on the revolutionary left – such as the followers of Cornelius Castoriadis – who could see little in Lenin’s legacy other than an authoritarianism that “paved the way” for Stalinism. And, as England is the ancestral home of empiricism, they found Lenin’s Hegelianism hard to digest as well. There were also followers of CLR James – both Black and white – who promoted spontaneity and activism rather than Tony Cliff’s party-building.

Following the youth radicalization of the 1960s, Tony Cliff’s organisation recruited thousands of new members – admittedly with a very high turnover – while there was no corresponding growth in Marxist-Humanist organisation. Many people welcomed Dunayevskaya’s exposition of what was truly original about Lenin in his development through study of Hegel and Marx. However, they paid less attention to Dunayevskaya’s intimations about what was lacking, which stood increasing exposed in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. The attitude was, “Well, if Lenin was so good after all, why would we join a tiny band of Marxist-Humanists, when you can join a growing ‘Bolshevik-Leninist’ would-be revolutionary party organised by Tony Cliff?” Both Trotskyism, whether orthodox” or “Cliffite”, and anti-Bolshevik socialist “libertarianism” had (and have) formulas for organising and recruiting. But there is no organizational “formula” as such to be found in the conclusion of Marxism and Freedom. Dunayevskaya writes:

“The working class has not created a new society. But the workers have undermined the old. They have destroyed all the old categories; they have no belief in the rationality either of the economic or political order. The ‘vanguard’, on the other hand, has done nothing. It is stuck in the mud of the old fixed categories, chief of which is ‘the Party to lead’.”


“There is a crying need for a new unity of theory and practice which begins with where the working people are – their thoughts, their struggle, their aspirations.”

Many readers failed to fully appreciate this conclusion – which on the face of it might seem like anarchist practice plus dialectics gleaned through “Lenin’s Hegelian conversion”. It was often overlooked that Dunayevskaya was actually describing her own attempts to unify theory and practice by drawing intellectuals like Marcuse, MacIntyre and Lichtheim, as well as workers like Harry McShane, Angela Terrano, Charles Denby and Sheila Leslie into a worldwide conversation about how to renew the struggle for socialism.

Marxist-Humanist organizational efforts in Britain were not, however, totally without success. Harry McShane had the brilliant idea of publishing the chapters in Marxism and Freedom on the three volumes of Marx’s Capital, as a separate pamphlet. McShane motivated his suggestion by referring to the success of the classes on Marx’s Capital, which John Maclean had organized in Glasgow before the First World War and which were attended by five hundred workers every Sunday afternoon. Dunayevskaya readily agreed with McShane’s idea, and the pamphlet was published in 1977 with a foreword by McShane; an introduction by Dunayevskaya, which critiqued Ernest Mandel’s introduction to the new Penguin edition of Capital Vol. I; and an appendix also by Dunayevskaya, which critiqued Tony Cliff’s writings on Lenin.

It’s hard to imagine now, but back in late-1970s there were hundreds of Left and alternative bookstores in Britain. And there was a national distributor to service them. We managed, just for starters, to get the distributors to take and sell 500 copies (I would imagine that that little pamphlet provided its readers with a lot more food for thought than was offered by Mandel or Cliff — who reads them now?).[vii]

The Automation debate: Dunayevskaya and Marcuse

Herbert Marcuse had expounded in his critical (but “friendly”) preface to Marxism and Freedom on “the transformation of the labouring classes” from a force of negation of capitalism to one of acquiescence (if not actual affirmation). In further correspondence with Dunayevskaya, Marcuse suggests that only “genuine [i.e., universal] automation” would “explode” the capitalist system. Objectively, sections of both the capitalist class and the proletariat were united in resisting automation. Capitalists had cause to worry about the decline in the rate of profit and the necessity of sweeping government controls in the economy; workers were worried about “technological unemployment.”

In 1960, Dunayevskaya directed Marcuse’s attention to a debate within her organisation (News and Letters Committees) between two workers, Angela Terrano and Charles Denby. Terrano, an electrical worker, rejected automation altogether, arguing that work in the new society would be “something completely new, not just to get money to buy food and things… it will have to be completely tied up with life.” Denby, a Black auto-worker in Detroit, on the other hand argued that workers control of production plus a shorter work-day, in the context of the abolition of capitalism, would be needed to realise the potentials of automation. Marcuse, in contrast to Denby, could see no theoretical or practical connection between the intense struggles in Denby’s auto-plant and the much-needed abolition of capitalism. As for Angela Terrano’s position, Marcuse writes:

“Re Angela T.: you should really tell her about all that humanization of labor, its connection with life, etc. – that this is possible only through complete automation, because such humanization is correctly relegated by Marx to the realm of freedom beyond the realm of necessity, i.e., beyond the entire realm of socially necessary labor in the material production. Total dehumanization of the latter is the prerequisite.” [viii]

The Dunayevskaya-Marcuse debate is of course most relevant to current concerns over automation and artificial intelligence. As Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England has warned. “Marx and Engels may again become relevant.” Carney says that the growth of artificial intelligence, big data and high-tech could create huge inequalities between the high-skilled workers who benefit from the advances and those who are sidelined by them. On the Left, Paul Mason has recently given us this gem in the New Statesman:

“As Dunayevskaya understood, the impulse towards freedom is created by more than just exploitation: it is triggered by alienation, the suppression of desire, the humiliation experienced by people on the receiving end of systemic racism, sexism and homophobia. Everywhere capitalism follows anti-human priorities it stirs revolt – and it’s all around us. In the coming century, just as Marx predicted, it is likely that automation coupled with the socialisation of knowledge will present us with the opportunity to liberate ourselves from work. That, as he said, will blow capitalism ‘sky high’. The economic system that replaces it will have to be shaped around the goal he outlined in 1844: ending alienation and liberating the individual.” [ix]

Ambivalence in Lenin

Marxism and Freedom left a lot of unfinished business, which Dunayevskaya was up to taking on in later years. In 1986, she writes to the philosopher, Louis Dupré,

“Along with the battle I’m currently having with myself on the Absolutes (and I’ve been having this battle ever since 1953, when I first ‘defined’ the Absolute as the new society), I am now changing my attitude to Lenin.”

What had changed was that in her book Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, Dunayevskaya had developed the category of “post-Marx Marxism as pejorative.” This meant separating Marx’s critique of capital from all subsequent interpretations, whether Engels’, Luxemburg’s or Lenin’s. In Lenin’s case especially, there had been a failure, despite his Hegel studies, to connect dialectics to organization. Lenin’s concept of the elite vanguard party was, of course, freely adapted by Stalin to validate his single-party totalitarian state. Philosophically, the problem, as she explained it to Louis Dupré, lay “specifically” in the chapter of Cognition, in the Third part of Hegel’s Science of Logic, the Doctrine of the Notion.

Why is this important?

In Hegel, “Spirit” is the realization of reason and the Good in the historical process. Spirit unfolds itself in the world as the Notion transformed by desire and labor, arriving, as it were, in the post-feudal world of industrialization, division of labor, and Adam Smith. The first form of the Idea in Hegel’s Doctrine of the Notion is “Life.” Life as Spirit has a “we-like” character which unifies the I with the world, and spirit with nature. The second form of the Idea is Cognition, which is subdivided into pure cognition and volition. Pure cognition has for its object the True; Volition, the active self-universalizing subject, has for its object the Good. How then does the Good become the True, and what is the “objectivity of subjectivity”? As Hegel puts it, no doubt with the French Revolution in mind:

“When external actuality is altered by the activity of the objective notion and its determination therewith sublated, by that very fact the merely phenomenal reality, the external determinability and worthlessness, are removed from that actuality.” [Science of Logic, Miller ed., p. 465]

In Hegel’s terms, this takes the form of an “objective notion”; in reality, it has become the General Will that the potential of revolutionary change is actually more real than the merely phenomenal reality, the external determinability and worthlessness of the crumbling, decadent feudal way of life.

In Lenin’s 1914 “materialist” reading of Hegel’s Science of Logic the Absolute Idea represents the unity of theory and practice, with the emphasis on practice (Lenin never broke from Blanqui’s concept of insurrection as an “art”).[x] In the context of his revolutionary perspective during World War One, Lenin’s “objective truth” can be seen as the subjective-objective conditions for revolution.[xi]

What was not in Marxism and Freedom, but what can be gleaned from Dunayevskaya’s later writings (including the uncompleted project to write a book on the dialectics of organization and philosophy) is the recognition that the theoretical void, which she said in 1958 had dated from the death of Lenin in 1924, actually began with the death of Karl Marx in 1883. Lenin conceived of the Russian “workers state” (under the “dictatorship of the proletariat”) as a “transitional” society in the first stages of socialism, yet still based economically on wage labour, commodity production, and Taylorist production techniques.

For Dunayevskaya the question was always, “What happens after” the revolution. Following the catastrophes of the 20th century, no one seems to know what socialism is, let alone how a revolution might achieve it without recourse to faith in “objective” technological developments. Dunayevskaya interprets Hegel’s Idea of absolute negativity as what Marx expresses in his concept of “revolution in permanence,” as well as the argument in the Critique of the Gotha Program, that the “all-round development of the individual” requires the abolition of the “enslaving subordination” to the division of labor and of the antithesis between mental and manual labor.[xii] Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program was of course not itself a program. As Dunayevskaya puts it:

“The whole truth is that even Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, which remains the ground for organization today, was written 112 years ago. What is demanded is not mere ‘updating’, after all the aborted revolutions of the post-World War II world. ‘Ground’ will not suffice alone; we have to finish the building – the roof and its contents.[xiii]



[i] Paul Mattick, “A Marxian Oddity,” Western Socialist, Boston, USA, March-April, 1958

[ii] George Lichtheim, Review of Marxism and Freedom (second edition) by Raya Dunayevskaya. New York Review of Books, Dec 17, 1964

[iii] Other reviews in Britain were Times Literary Supplement, 19August 1959, and Peter Cadogan, Cambridge Forward, August 1960.

[iv] Harry McShane and Joan Smith, Harry McShane: No Mean Fighter (London: Pluto Press, 1978).

[v] Harry McShane, Review of Raya Dunayevskaya’s Philosophy and Revolution, in The Scottish Marxist-Humanist (1974). Reprinted in Hobgoblin No. 5 (2003).

[vi] Peter Hudis, Harry McShane and the Scottish Roots of Marxist-Humanism (Glasgow: John Maclean Society Pamphlet, 1992), p. 30.


[viii] The Dunayevskaya-Marcuse-Fromm- Correspondence 1954-1978 (Eds. Kevin Anderson and Russell Rockwell, p. 66.


[x] Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 38 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), p. 234.

[xi] Dunayevskaya, Philosophy and Revolution, p. 27.

[xii] Dunayevskaya, Power of Negativity, p.  241.

[xiii] Dunayevskaya, Power of Negativity, p. 9.





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