The Marxist-Humanist Initiative maintains that “past revolutions have changed forms of property and political rule, but have failed to go on to uproot capital, abolish alienated labor and hierarchical society, and establish a truly new, human socioeconomic system.” It maintains that a central reason for this failure has been “the lack of internalization of Karl Marx’s philosophy of revolution” and insufficient “theoretic preparation.” It seeks to contribute to the transformation of the world on the basis of a more complete understanding of Marx’s philosophy and its further development by Raya Dunayevskaya, whose writings span the period from 1941 until her death in 1987 (Statement of Principles of Marxist-Humanist Initiative).
I appreciate the Marxist-Humanist Initiative’s recognition of the importance of intellectual work and the necessary role of theory in forging emancipatory revolutionary processes. And I appreciate its recognition of the foundational significance of Marx’s work and the exemplary character of Marx, an intellectual educated in the university system of a relatively advanced Western European nation, for US intellectuals and academics. However, Marx understood that concepts are shaped by social position, and he intuitively grasped that this limitation can be overcome and scientific knowledge attained through encounter with social movements formed from below. The implications of this methodological insight for our understanding today are that intellectuals of the developed nations of the North ought to encounter the anti-neocolonial movements of the Third World as the foundation for the development of their understanding. Such commitment has not been central to the Marxist-Humanist Initiative.
In the 1840s, Marx, who had previously attained a doctorate in philosophy in his native Germany, encountered a social movement formed by workers, artisans and socialist intellectuals in Paris. This personal encounter enabled him to discover relevant questions that were previously beyond his horizon, empowering him to formulate a critique of German philosophy and British political-economy from the vantage point of the worker. Marx’s groundbreaking analysis of human history and the system of capitalism demonstrated that advances in understanding could be attained by analyzing the political-economic-social-cultural system from below. Moreover, his life exemplified a methodological principle: intellectuals not organically tied to social movements from below can overcome the limitations imposed on their understanding by their social position through personal encounter with the social movements emerging from below, taking seriously the understandings of the leaders and organic intellectuals of the movements (McKelvey 1991).
The work of Marx must be understood in relation to its time and place. During the period 1750 to 1914, the modern-world system experienced a tremendous geographic expansion, as vast regions of Africa and Asia were conquered by the Western European colonial powers and incorporated into peripheral zones of the world economy, thereby facilitating the ascent of the United States and its imperialist projection toward Latin America. The resulting increase in the material wealth of the Western colonial and imperialist powers enabled them to seduce, coopt and assimilate the working-class movements, undermining their revolutionary and emancipatory potential and channeling them toward reformism. At the same time, the expanding and deepening structures of colonial domination and imperialist penetration gave rise to anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia and popular anti-imperialist movements in Latin America.
Marx did not and could not fully anticipate these developments. As a result of his social-temporal location, he could not have foreseen: the reformist turn of the proletarian movement in the West; the triumph of a proletarian-peasant revolution in Russia in 1917, resulting in a reformulation of Marx by Lenin and the emergence of “Marxism-Leninism;” the turn of the Russian Revolution to Stalinism; nor the rise of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements in the Third World that would challenge the political and economic structures and the ideological constructs of the neocolonial world-system, ultimately endeavoring to construct an alternative in theory and practice. The most radical of the Third World revolutions have sought not only national liberation from European colonial and neocolonial domination and imperialist penetration, but also social liberation from national ruling classes that were tied to the Western-centered transnational capitalist class and that were accommodating to the interests of the Western powers. The revolutions have been led by charismatic leaders, persons with exceptional capacities for political leadership and for understanding social dynamics, giving each of the revolutions a unified direction. Of the six paradigmatic revolutions, three (China, Vietnam and Cuba) emerged during the stage of imperialism and transition to neocolonialism, and persist to the present; and three (Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador) emerged in the current post-imperialist stage of neoliberalism, in which the structural crisis of the neocolonial world-system is increasingly manifest.
Just as Marx’s encounter with the revolutionary proletariat of Western Europe in the 1840s enabled him to formulate an advanced and comprehensive analysis from below, so today intellectuals of the developed nations can arrive to an advanced understanding of the capitalist world-economy and the modern world-system through personal encounter with the Third World movements of national and social liberation. Third World charismatic leaders and organic intellectuals have forged an evolution of Marxist-Leninist theory on a foundation of a constantly evolving political practice. This theoretical development in Marxist theory must be taken seriously by Western Marxist intellectuals, if we are to arrive at an understanding that is not utopian and that is connected to existing global political-economic-social-ideological conditions.
McKelvey, Charles. 1991. Beyond Ethnocentrism: A Reconstruction of Marx’s Concept of Science. New York: Greenwood Press.
Key words: Marx, Marxist-Humanist Initiative, Third World socialism