The Five Lives of Raya Dunayevskaya: Sources of Intersectional Marxism

By Kevin B. Anderson, Kieran Durkin, Heather Brown

The history of women thinkers is marked by enforced obsolescence, especially once male counterparts start working in the same terrain. Think of Hypatia or Rosa Luxemburg, nearly forgotten in the years following their assassinations. Sometimes interest in these thinkers is revived, however, years or centuries later. The life and work of Raya Dunayevskaya (1910–1987)—a Marxist, a Russian immigrant, a humanist, an anti-racist, a feminist, a political economist, a philosopher, and a revolutionary—illustrates something of this pattern, in what could be considered her multiple “lives.”

Dunayevskaya burst onto the U.S. intellectual scene in 1944–1945, when her Marxist critique of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian state-capitalist society appeared in the American Economic Review. The ensuing debate involved responses defending the USSR by Paul Baran and Oskar Lange, also reaching the front page of the New York Times. Yet by the next decade, when the debate over “totalitarianism” reached its zenith, little mention could be found of Dunayevskaya’s pioneering writings on the subject. The 1940s was also the period when she and C.L.R. James (and later Grace Lee Boggs) led the “Johnson-Forest Tendency” in its explorations of race, class, and the dialectics of revolution, as they moved in and then out of the intellectual orbit of Trotskyism.

A second wave of recognition greeted Dunayevskaya’s 1958 monograph, Marxism and Freedom. The book contained the first translation of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts and a humanist interpretation of the whole of Marx, from 1844 to Capital. Herbert Marcuse wrote in the preface that her treatment of Marx was unsurpassed since the work of Georg Lukács. Marxism and Freedom anticipated the revolutionary wave of the 1960s in its discussions of the Hungarian revolution and protests on the part of workers and Black people in the U.S., especially the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Some 1000 turned out to hear Dunayevskaya speak on the book at Berkeley in 1959, with very large audiences in the UK as well. Erich Fromm saluted the book’s discussion of Marx, and it was reviewed widely, including by the London Times. Yet by the 1970s references to Dunayevskaya’s book had become rarer in the literature on Marx.

A third, more muted, wave of recognition for Dunayevskaya occurred during and after the publication of her second monograph, Philosophy and Revolution: From Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao (1973). With its original treatment of Hegel’s absolutes, this book cemented Dunayevskaya’s reputation as a leading Marxist philosopher, especially in the area of dialectics. It also resulted in an invitation to present a paper to the Hegel Society of America, one of the few times a Marxist has done so. While the reviews were respectful and the translations plentiful, the book appeared at the same time as those of European philosophers like Lukács or Theodor Adorno were being translated into English. Dunayevskaya’s book tended to be overshadowed by these contributions. At the time, few commentators noted how Dunayevskaya moved effortlessly from the dialectic proper to subjects like Frantz Fanon and the African revolutions, the Black insurrections inside U.S. cities, the emergent women’s liberation movement, and the Eastern European revolts from the left against Stalinist communism. At the political level, the turn to the right in the 1970s—and the book’s fierce critique of Mao Zedong and Maoism, still popular in what remained of the New Left—limited its audience among leftist activists outside academia.

A fourth wave of recognition, or perhaps really recognition manqué, greeted Dunayevskaya’s third monograph, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (1982). This book contained the first-ever analysis of Luxemburg as feminist, the first widely disseminated analysis of gender in Marx’s late Ethnological Notebooks, and a hard-hitting discussion of feminism, race, and revolution that pulled no punches in terms of critiques of dominant forms of feminism, especially in the U.S. The treatment of the late Marx featured a searing critique of Engels’s economistic reductionism on women’s liberation, and this was followed up by unstinting critiques of Lenin and Trotsky as well as Luxemburg herself on the failures of what Dunayevskaya termed “post-Marx Marxism” to fulfill the profound legacies left to them by Marx. The book appeared at a time when neoliberalism was coming to the fore. At this time, the intellectual left (including its feminist wings), was moving away from Marxism and from humanism toward poststructuralism. In this atmosphere, the book received few prominent reviews. One major exception was a 1986 essay on Dunayevskaya by one of the era’s paramount feminist thinkers, the poet Adrienne Rich; but this alone could not stem the tide.

In the 2020s, are we on the verge of a fifth wave of recognition for Dunayevskaya’s work? Several studies strongly influenced by Dunayevskaya, including from some of the authors of this blog, have received some attention in the 2010s. New collections of Dunayevskaya’s writings have also begun to appear. In an era when it is becoming increasingly impossible to discuss race or gender without looking at capital and class, or vice versa, when the whole structuralist and poststructuralist framework—anti-dialectical and anti-humanist—has receded somewhat, and when Russian imperialism is once more rearing its head (and clashing with Western imperialism), is there room for a real revival of the work of Raya Dunayevskaya’s intersectional Marxism avant la lettre? The authors of this blog have attempted to contribute to such a possibility through the publication of our edited volume, Raya Dunayevskaya’s Intersectional Marxism. Surprisingly, ours is the first volume of essays ever published on the life and work of this remarkable thinker-activist. Let us hope it will not be the last.