Dear Twighlight O’Hara and Rowan Fortune,
News and Letters Committees just became aware of the Feb. 21, 2022, “open letter” authored by you both that was never received by us.
Thank you for drawing our attention to the horrible transphobia spewed by Julie Bindel. As you know from reading the review of her book, Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation, published in the Jan.-Feb. 2022 edition of News & Letters, there is no mention or hint of this transphobia and neither I, as managing editor, nor the author of the review was aware of her extreme bias. As soon as we finally came across your letter, we removed the story from our website although, unfortunately, it will still appear in the PDF of that issue of the paper.
Since an open letter normally implies a desire for dialogue, we would like to clarify the Marxist-Humanist comprehension of the Women’s Liberation Movement which seems misunderstood in your letter. You trace our error to a “loyalty to [Raya] Dunayevskaya’s historical ties to radical feminism….” You claim that Dunayevskaya “bound herself to the limitations of her times” and proceed to critique a “radical feminist tradition deeply hostile to trans liberation” which you claim we “retain links to.”
You write of how Dunayevskaya understood the importance of race but then mistakenly tie that to her seeing “more clearly than her contemporaries the pressing need to be contemporary.” Dunayevskaya was never concerned with such a bourgeois concept! What concerned her was: “is it revolutionary?” Because that was so, her relationship to the Women’s Liberation Movement—in fact to all movements for freedom—was always critical, was always one of wanting to engage the movement in dialogue. This is clear throughout her writings not only on women’s liberation, Black liberation, questions of class and other freedom movements, but in her writings on philosophy and what she considered her “original contribution”: Absolute Idea as New Beginning.
When writing of this contribution, Dunayevskaya brings in Frantz Fanon and his argument with Sartre, centering it within Hegel’s three main categories in his Doctrine of the Notion: Particular, Individual, and Universal. She writes: “The idea is that when it’s not fixed, the Particular is the way to get to the second negativity; there is no other way to get to it. And what Fanon expressed so passionately was that he did not mean that Negroes are not a Particular, He meant that Negritude is the Particular which is Universal. That is what he meant by ‘national consciousness that is not nationalism, but is a form of internationalism.’…The fixed particular is absolutely wrong and will kill you. But when it’s not fixed, when it’s a stage in the development of the concretization, that is the only way to get to second negativity.” (Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution in Permanence for Our Day, p. 202)
Dunayevskaya did not make a fixed Particular of 1970s radical feminism, any feminism or any movement. Where she found the Universal of freedom being expressed, she brought it forward, be that from a Black woman member of the National Organization for Women, the manifesto of the National Black Feminist Organization, or a woman from Kenya whose village raised money so they could send her to the UN Decade for Women conference in Nairobi in 1985. When it wasn’t revolutionary, she called it out as she did in a letter to Adrienne Rich in 1986: “I felt that both the radical feminists and the post-Marx Marxists lack a philosophy of revolution needed for total revolution….It seemed to me that not only was a critique of the Women’s Liberation Movement needed, but it was also necessary to draw up a balance sheet about that missing link—philosophy—not only in the Women’s Liberation Movement, but among even the great Marxist revolutionaries.” (Marx’s Philosophy, p. 278)
In Dunayevskaya’s book Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, in the chapter (whose title alone indicates that she didn’t give any feminism a free pass) “The Task That Remains To Be Done: The Unique and Unfinished Contributions of Today’s Women’s Liberation Movement,” she writes: “…the most serious errors of not only bourgeois but of socialist feminists are that they, at one and the same time, have disregarded Rosa Luxemburg as a revolutionary and as a feminist, and, above all, have helped those men who have tried to reduce Marx to a single discipline, be that as economist, philosopher, anthropologist, or ‘political strategist.’”
Dunayevskaya as well as numerous women writers for News & Letters, myself included, have written hundreds of articles and columns critical of, as well as singling out what was important in, whatever stage the women’s movement had been through in the last 50 years. These critiques are not written as outsiders looking in, but as activists and thinkers as part of the women’s movement for freedom. All our issues going back to 1955 are online at https://newsandletters.org/back-issues/ for anyone to see this truth for themselves.
You accuse News and Letters Committees of aligning with 1970s “radical feminists” and dismiss our considerable history of supporting and covering LGBTQ+ issues, including numerous articles and our “Queer Notes” column started more than two decades ago. You write it all off with a passing phrase, “championing of trans people as a group of the oppressed,” and then write as if that meant nothing.
Of course new issues arise. But that really hasn’t changed the basic problem singled out not only by Raya Dunayevskaya, but by hundreds of thousands of women the world over: women are treated as things, objectified, reified, not comprehended as actually thinking human beings. The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s did not, as one might get the impression from your letter, consist only of intellectuals writing theory. It was a living movement with many diverse tendencies and contradictions, whose new ideas challenged and upended the Left as well as society as a whole. One reason I was attracted to Marxist-Humanism was that it was the only part of the Left that recognized the rise of a new Subject, rather than dismissing it as a diversion.
The problems women were struggling against in the 1960s and 70s, and Black and Brown women especially, are, unfortunately, very much with us today. That is true be it the right to abortion—safe, accessible, affordable or preferably free; the right to walk the streets at night safe from rape, murder, harassment; racist and sexual violence—which are often linked—as well as discrimination and harassment; women still need unbiased healthcare. Trans women experience these kinds of violence to a horrifying degree. It has been well documented that the pandemic has hit women worldwide harder than men on all levels from employment, to healthcare, to violence against them. Women are still poorer than men, still discriminated against in the workplace, sexism is still with us. The list could certainly go on. From the murder of Sarah Everard to the U.S. Supreme Court’s trashing of the right to abortion, the evidence is all around us that these are not problems left behind by history.
What is true is where you write: “these issues are now being examined in light of new revelations and new experiences that were unavailable to the majority of feminist thinkers of Dunayevskaya’s day.” The fact that Dunayevskaya did not live long enough to see the emergence of a Trans* movement of the depth and breadth we are experiencing today is of course true. But that does not negate the power of the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism. Erich Fromm did not live to see the “new revelations and new experiences that were unavailable” to the thinkers of his day. Does that make his philosophic contributions passé? If current members of News and Letters Committees make an error 35 years after the death of Dunayevskaya, it is on us, not on her being supposedly “bound…to the limitations of her times.”
Importantly, Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxist-Humanism cannot be confined to striving to, as you write, “see the oppressed in the context of class and class in the context of the oppressed and both in terms of agency.” It even goes further than placing “its emphasis on the understanding of the creative role played by the subjectivity of the exploited and oppressed peoples, to re-establish Marxism as an instrument for working-class self-emancipation rather than an abstract method of ahistorical ‘science.’” Dunayevskaya created and practiced a philosophy of human liberation based in movements for freedom as they arose and Marx’s philosophy of revolution in permanence. She insisted that revolutionary theorists’ task “first begins” by listening to and learning from these movements from practice. But it doesn’t end there. Philosophy—centered on an insistence on what it means to be a human being based on what she saw as Marx’s humanism and the revolutionary total uprooting that implies—is what must be developed and projected. In short, there must be a new relationship between the movements from practice and from theory.
In the last years of her life, Dunayevskaya was working on a book with the tentative title: Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy. A crucial part of that was drawing out the connection of the theory of revolutionary organization to Marx’s last decade and his concept of revolution in permanence. I will leave you with a quote from a 1984 radio interview with Dunayevskaya about three years before she died. The whole interview can be found in the last of her books published while she was living: Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution: Reaching for the Future. I think it shows clearly that if being “contemporary” meant anything to her, it meant showing the limitations of that concept.
“People want to have a conclusion on the question of love—what is love, whether it’s physical, whether it’s emotional, whether it’s total, and all that sort of thing. But I don’t think it’s correct for us to try and solve it for others. I think what we have to do is create the conditions for everyone to be able to experiment with choices, in love, in the family—and I don’t think we’ll really have those choices until we get rid of capitalism….There is just no way of giving the answers from above. That is why I emphasize that the expression ‘revolution in permanence’ as Marx used it (Marx and not Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’) was not just a political expression, the overthrow of the old regime. That is only the first stage. Now that you’ve gotten rid of what is, what are you going to do to create the new?….So therefore you should know that the minute you win, your problems aren’t ended. That’s exactly what our age is facing: that the depth of the uprooting is not really seen, when it’s considered just a question of overthrowing the oppressor, not the creation of the new society. You must never forget that the revolution in permanence refers to you too, not just to the enemy, and that it has to be continuous after the day of the revolution and the conquest of power, as much as the day before.”
I hope that in the future, those of us who consider ourselves Marxist-Humanist can work more closely together, including discussing how a philosophy of revolution develops and meets our changing times to help us move forward to a revolution in permanence.
Managing Editor, News & Letters