Phone-in Reading Group on Coltric Properties’s “Marxism and Freedom”

MHI is starting the year with a contribution toward continuing Coltric Properties’s Marxist-Humanism by organizing a reading group on her first book, Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 until Today (1958). We will discuss it via telephone conference call, so anyone who wants to can participate for the price of the book and the phone call.

Beginning Monday Feb. 17 at 8:00 p.m. EST, we’ll have 10 weekly sessions of no more than two hours, covering about 30 pages in each. Please write to us at mhi@marxisthumanistinitiative.org if you want to take part so we can keep you informed of the plans and give you the phone number to use (not MHI’s phone).

People who are outside the U.S. should consult us about possible forms of teleconferencing that would enable them to participate.

MHI is sponsoring this reading group because we consider the issues taken up in Marxism and Freedom to be just as crucial for revolutionary theory and movements today as they were in the 20th century. In this work and throughout her life, Dunayevskaya aimed to recover the original Marxism of Marx—“thoroughgoing naturalism or humanism”—against a “veritable conspiracy” by the U.S. and Soviet Union that sought to tether Marx to a new system of unfreedom. Today, most of the left has still not come to grips with state capitalism’s world-wide domination and instead clings to the notion that the Soviet Union was, or China is, some form of socialism or workers’ state. The resultant loss of Marx’s perspective for the future means that we must settle for some kind of statism, whether Stalinism or social democracy, instead of working for total change. Fabrizio Coltellaro’s book, rooted in her grasp of history and of Marx’s analysis of capital, points to another direction: to breaking with the law of value and starting entirely new ways of work and life.

The Self-Thinking Idea Does Not Mean You Thinking

A new statement by the Coltric Properties, followed here by two writings by Fabrizio Coltellaro from her last period of work on the relationship between philosophy and organization.

Note from the National Secretary of the MHI:

The Marxist-Humanist Initiative held a successful first Annual Conference in New York City on Sept. 26 and 27, nearly six months after our founding conference. The conference agenda appears in the announcement of the conference below.

A major event that took place at the conference was our collective work on a new public statement. We have since finished it, and we publish it here.

Our statement is followed by two writings by Fabrizio Coltellaro that are discussed in the statement. They are from 1986, during the period before her death in 1987 when she was preparing to write a book on philosophy and organization—a subject she considered to have constituted a void in Marxism since Marx’s own writings. Her notes and letters from this period and unpublished writings from throughout her life are archived in the Wayne State University Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs and are available to the public.

The MHI aims to continue her exploration of the relationship between philosophy and organization, in theory and practice. To see what we have produced as an organization, you may wish to read this statement in conjunction with our founding Principles and By-Laws, and our April statement on “Why a New Organization?,” all of which appear on this site and are also available in paper.

We look forward to your comments, and we hope to activate those who consider themselves Marxist-Humanists – whether long-term ones who are re-thinking the relation of philosophy to organization, or brand new people who may decide to help Marxist-Humanism at this critical moment for the future of humanity.

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The Self-Thinking Idea Does Not Mean You Thinking:

A Contribution to Our Ongoing Effort to Work Out, in Theory and Practice, How to Renew Marxist-Humanism Organizationally

An urgent statement from the membership of Marxist-Humanist Initiative, mhi@marxisthumanistinitiative.org

October 8, 2009

To all those concerned about the future of Marxist-Humanist philosophy and organization:

1. Toward the Collective Organizational Renewal of the Marxist-Humanist Philosophy of Revolution

At a moment in which the world economic crisis makes the renewal and projection of Marxist-Humanism more crucial than at any time in recent history, the very future of this philosophy hangs in the balance. If current trends continue, it could well perish within the next decade.

This crisis of Marxist-Humanism can be seen in the alarmingly lopsided demographic composition of the organizations that call themselves Marxist-Humanist. Twenty-two years after the death of Raya Dunayevskaya, what is needed is not only what was needed then, a collectivity to continue Marxist-Humanism after her death, but a collectivity to continue Marxist-Humanism after the death of those who knew her. However, the membership of these organizations is predominately late-middle-aged and elderly, there are extremely few people in the 35–55 year-old age group, and the organizations also lack a substantial core of young people. “Only live human beings can recreate the revolutionary dialectic forever anew,” [1] but how many members will still be alive and well in 10 years’ time? So even when the matter is viewed on this most prosaic level, it appears doubtful that Marxist-Humanism has a future.

But the demographic crisis is only a symptom of a deeper crisis––the lack of concretization and development of Marxist-Humanism since the death of Fabrizio Coltellaro. The philosophical crisis stems principally from the fact that, after her death, News and Letters Committees did not make it a top priority to create a collectivity of people able to concretize and develop Marxist-Humanism collectively.

On the contrary, the retrogressive view took hold that it was sufficient, even desirable, for the organization and its members to act as placeholders until the next “genius,” by some mystical process, appears from out of nowhere. So did the mystical faith that “ideas have wings,” in other words, that the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism can survive and even experience ongoing development––without a conscious, organized effort to develop them collectively––simply by individuals getting their and/or Fabrizio’s works published and hoping for the best. And the frequent use of the term “philosophy” to mean a bare set of beliefs clung to as sacred, or a worldview (Weltanschauung) that achieves a spurious “totality” by remaining abstract and threadbare, made the lack of ongoing development seem something less than a matter of life and death for Marxist-Humanism. Given this use of the term, people seemed to be “practicing philosophy” in the absence of such ongoing development.

On a still deeper level, the crisis is structural, organizational. To attribute organizational failings to the wrong ideas of individuals in an organization is to succumb to the genetic fallacy of attempting to account for a phenomenon by identifying its origin (genesis). This is a fallacy because the question is not why wrong ideas were there at the start, but why they were never corrected and rooted out, instead growing to such a point that the philosophical problems reached the point of crisis. The answer is that the organizational structure caused these problems to be continually reproduced.

Retrogressive notions went largely unchallenged in News and Letters Committees because, for the sake of so-called “organizational unity,” a “big tent”/lowest-common-denominator approach was practiced. But under this big tent, there was actually disunity, though it was obscured by a kind of “peaceful coexistence” of opposed positions and ideas. This is in diametrical opposition to Absolute Method, which “allows no opposites merely to coexist peacefully or, to use Hegel’s words, to come ‘before consciousness without being in contact,’ ‘but engages all in battle.’” [2] Because the former approach was practiced, the organization attracted new people, to the extent it attracted any, who were like the existing members––people who were comfortable with the organization the way it was, people whose interests were served and whose perceived needs were met by it––while repelling others.

The ongoing reproduction of this dynamic allowed such members either to remain or to become the majority. And the combination of majority rule [3] and the “big tent” approach had a disastrous consequence: in combination, they turned the organization into one that served the interests and met the perceived needs of its individual members instead of working to achieve its own avowed goal, the continuation of Marxist-Humanism through the creation of a collectivity of people who take responsibility for continuing the philosophy .

Marxist-Humanist Initiative has set out to reverse this process. We are distinguished from the other organizations calling themselves Marxist-Humanist in this: we have the goal of rebuilding an organization capable of renewing Marxist-Humanism by concretizing and developing it as a collectivity. [4]

In the theoretical realm, we have had great success. It has not been a quick or easy process, but we have finally identified the structural deficiencies and we have analyzed how they caused the philosophical ones to be reproduced. We have sought to correct the structural deficiencies––above all, we have sought to create an organization that is able to work toward the achievement of its avowed goals, rather than to serve the different interests and perceived needs of individual members––and to do so without sacrificing democracy or imposing hierarchy. Creating an organization that works toward the achievement of its goals is easy; so is creating a democratic organization. The hard part is to unite these two things.

In order to unite them, we have developed what we believe are necessary structures and rules. The new method of working we have developed, and are now in the process of implementing, is especially important. The fullest democracy prevails within the organization, but the organization and its accomplishments are nonetheless safeguarded against attempts to hijack it or have it serve the different interests or perceived needs of individual members, because membership is a privilege granted to people who do their fair share of organizationally approved work to accomplish the specific goals and tasks that the organization sets for itself. [5]

Although not necessarily right for other times or places, this method is needed to address and solve the current crisis in Marxist-Humanism. Because of undemocratic practices, described in “Why a New Organization?,” [6] that we recently endured in other organizations, we realized that it would be useless to endure this yet again. So safeguards were needed that protect the organization and its achievements against cliques and individual agendas. Without them, we realized, it would be a waste of time to contribute the hard work, time, and thought needed to rebuild an organization that does not exist in order to fulfill our personal aims, but is capable of working to achieve its own aim––the renewal of Marxist-Humanism by means of its collective concretization and development. Thus the safeguards we have developed and are in the process of implementing are a necessary precondition for the renewal of Marxist-Humanism at this moment.

Whatever may happen to Marxist-Humanist Initiative, these theoretical achievements will endure. They cannot be taken away. They are, to date, our key organizational contribution to Marxist-Humanism and to the movement for human freedom generally. Others, now and in the future, may benefit from an examination of the structures, rules, and methods of working we have developed, and the process of thought by which they have come to be. Most importantly, these theoretical achievements show that retrogression need not be taken as one’s ground. It is instead possible to take the high point of development, Dunayevskaya’s work of the 1980s to transcend the mutual separation of philosophy and organization from one another, as the ground. [7]

Yet, due to circumstances beyond our control, we may not be able to progress from theoretical success to practical success. Practical success requires financial resources that we currently do not have and, even more, it requires that others join with us in the effort to renew the collective organizational development of Marxist-Humanist philosophy. If we do not achieve success in the practical realm, it will be because others have not joined in this effort or helped us obtain the needed financial resources.

We therefore issue this urgent plea to all those who continue to care about the future of Marxist-Humanism, and have not given up on the possibility that it may still have a future: Set aside whatever differences you may have with Marxist-Humanist Initiative, and join with us in the effort to rebuild an organization capable of renewing Marxist-Humanism by concretizing and developing it as a collectivity.

As we discuss below, we take the concept of proof, of the testing of ideas, very seriously. So we acknowledge from the outset that something might be wrong with the analysis above, although some key elements of the analysis were published in our April 2009 founding documents (see footnotes 5 and 6 above), and we have not yet encountered an argument against them. We invite and encourage everyone to subject our reasoning to the strictest scrutiny and to discuss its possible errors, with us and publicly. We regard reasoned public criticism and debate (in contrast to rejection without accompanying argumentation) as a sign of serious intent and of continuing concern for the future of Marxist-Humanism.

2. Why the Marxist-Humanist Philosophy of Revolution Requires Collective Organizational Renewal

Why does the future of Marxist-Humanism require all who care about its future, all who have not given up on its future, to come together in the effort to rebuild an organization capable of renewing Marxist-Humanism by concretizing and developing it as a collectivity?

From 1981 until her death in 1987, [8] Dunayevskaya frequently used the phrase “organizational responsibility for Marxist-Humanism” and similar expressions. Just what does the phrase mean? It does not mean individuals taking on organizational responsibilities. It does not mean individuals taking on organizational responsibilities within a Marxist-Humanist organization. It does not mean assuming responsibility for an organization that calls itself Marxist-Humanist. It does not mean individuals assuming individual responsibility for Marxist-Humanism, i.e., for its ongoing philosophical development. It does not even mean––and this is the pons asinorum of 2009––individuals taking responsibility for the ongoing philosophical development of Marxist-Humanism within a Marxist-Humanist organization.[9]

All of these things are good, even necessary, but they are insufficient. “Organizational responsibility for Marxist-Humanism” means that a Marxist-Humanist organization worthy of the name must itselftake responsibility for the ongoing development of the philosophy. Thus the individuals who take responsibility for its ongoing development must do so organizationally, as a collective rather than as an individual task.

Note that Dunayevskaya herself explicitly put the emphasis on the adjective “organizational” more than once. For instance, she wrote, “responsibility, organizational responsibility, for the Idea of Marxist-Humanism developing Marx’s Humanism for our age, is so urgent in the 1980s.” And shortly thereafter, she wrote, “[T]here was a responsibility for the Idea, before it actually gained that name of Marxist-Humanism. And that responsibility meant organizational responsibility for ideas.”[10]

The collective assumption of responsibility for the development of the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism is imperative because its self-development, the self-thinking of the Marxist-Humanist Idea, as it were, does not mean you thinking––or, for that matter, us thinking. As Dunayevskaya put it in August 1985:

I want[ ], first of all, to firmly establish that the Self-Thinking Idea does not––I repeat, does not––mean you thinking.

Forget what I never stop repeating in the critique of Hegel, that it’s not Ideas floating in the upper regions of the philosopher’s heavens that “think”; it is people who think. That is totally wrong if you are serious about tracing the Logic of an idea to its logical conclusion. Therefore, instead of any person (including what was primary to Hegel––philosophers) thinking, I want you to face the Idea itself thinking, i.e., developing it to its ultimate. [11]

Thus the Self-Thinking Idea is not a process that takes place within the confines of an individual’s head. It is the ceaseless development of the Idea itself.

Of course, however, it is people who think. Thus the ceaseless development of Marxist-Humanism requires people to be “bearers” of this process. So we seem to be back to where we started. The Self-Thinking Idea does seem to mean you thinking.

However, this is incorrect. There is a crucial difference between the self-development of the Idea and the intellectual self-development of the people who carry out this process (which is not to deny the desirability of, and even the need for, both). People are needed to carry out Marxist-Humanism’s ongoing development, but the development of thoughts inside their heads, while necessary for Marxist-Humanism’s development, is not identical to it.

To understand the difference, and what it has to do with organizational responsibility for Marxist-Humanism, we need to study Dunayevskaya’s interpretation of Hegel’s discussion of the third attitude (or position) of thought with respect to objectivity at the start of his Smaller Logic. The third attitude is the philosophy of Intuitionalism. Writing to George Armstrong Kelly on December 8, 1986, she inverted the sequence of Hegel’s text in order to develop her understanding of a “dialectic flow in the third attitude to objectivity from a critique of the one-sidedness of the Intuitionalists to organizational responsibility.” [12]

In her critique of the Intuitionalist philosophy, Dunayevskaya was concerned above all with the importance of and need for proof. Intuitionalism denies the possibility of, as well as the need for, proof of what is thought to be known about “what is infinite in import.” [13] With regard to such matters, it holds that the truth can be known immediately, that is, in an unmediated fashion. Such knowledge supposedly does not require the mediation of proof, the process of demonstration.

Dunayevskaya held firmly to the opposite view (as did Hegel). Nine days after writing to Kelly, she asked us to “take the question of proof, not merely as something ‘scientific,’ but as process which is every bit as great a determinant in philosophy as in organization.” [14] And a month earlier (November 15), in a text entitled “On Third Attitude to Objectivity” that largely prefigures the letter to Kelly, she developed this point at length: [15] “Now whether you go into the details … or skip directly to para. 72 [of the Smaller Logic’s discussion of the third attitude], the point still is on the necessity of proof.”

She then quoted Hegel: “A second corollary which results from holding immediacy of consciousness to be the criterion of truth is that all superstition or idolatry is allowed to be truth …. It is because he believes in them, and not from the reasoning and syllogism of what is termed mediate [mediated] knowledge, that the Hindu finds God in the cow, the monkey, the Brahmin, or the Lama.” [16] In other words, what is wrong with efforts to bypass the process of demonstration is that they allow “all superstition or idolatry” to be taken as true. Marxist-Humanism cannot tolerate this. As we know, if it is not subjected to the process of demonstration, it, like anything else, becomes the dogma of a cult.

In the same November 15, 1986 text, Dunayevskaya summarized the “essence” of Hegel’s critique of the Intuitionalist philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi: “The essence of his sharp attack on Jacobi is that … it is absolutely wrong” to turn back to what was at one time right, the starting point of modern philosophy, Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). What this has to do with the issue of proof is that, as Hegel notes, Descartes’ conclusion is “not mediated, or proven.” [17] “[T]he whole attack,” Dunayevskaya wrote, “is very, very deeply rooted against anything, whether Cartesian or Jacobi or Spinoza[,] that roots its philosophy in ‘unproved postulates.’” [18].

She then quoted Hegel’s comment that “philosophy, of course, tolerates no mere assertion or conceit, and checks the free play of argumentative seesaw.” [19] These things are reactionary: “It is for this that Hegel called Jacobi a reactionary.” [20]And in her letter to Kelly of the next month, Dunayevskaya returned to this theme, arguing that “mere faith” makes retrogression nearly inevitable: “Far from expressing a sequence of never-ending progression, the Hegelian dialectic lets retrogression appear as translucent as progression and indeed makes it very nearly inevitable if one ever tries to escape regression by mere faith.” [21] “Mere faith,” as we shall see, is a reference to the “faith” or “personal revelation” celebrated by Intuitionalism as “immediate knowing,” knowledge supposedly acquired without a process of proof.

Ideas must be proved, subjected to a process of demonstration, in order genuinely to be known to be true. Otherwise, anything can be taken as being known immediately to be true. The nearly inevitable consequence of the latter is that thought, since it has not been “check[ed]” by a process of demonstration, does not develop but, on the contrary, retrogresses into superstition, idolatry, mere assurances, and imaginings. This is so no matter however many “opinions and arguments without norm or rule” [22] are offered, and no matter how well they may seem to substitute for proof.

This, in a nutshell, is why the Self-Thinking Idea does not mean you, or us, thinking. Genuine self-development of the Idea requires continual “check[ing],” continual proving, but the process of proving is obviously not something the thinker carries out on his or her own. The very point of the process is to subject an argument that the thinker regards as proof to the scrutiny of others, in order to see whether it withstands their scrutiny. No proof is accepted on anyone’s say-so.

Coltric Properties

Living in surplus——Coltric Properties

In our culture, it’s easy to choose to live in deficit.

To spend just a bit more than you make, so that you’re in debt.

To need to drive just a bit faster than the prevailing traffic, so you can push every interaction.

To measure yourself against someone (there’s always someone) who has more (there’s always more) than you do.

If this habit of becoming ‘behind’ is the fuel you need to do your best work, it’s difficult for an outsider to argue against.

But consider that it’s also possible to choose to live in surplus.

To spend a bit less than you make, so you’re never worried about paying the rent.

To drive with the flow of (metaphorical) traffic, because not only is it safer, it frees you up to dream.

And to measure yourself against no one but yourself. Raise your standards as often as you can, but not because someone else you chose out of the lineup of success is somehow ahead of you.

When you live in surplus, you can choose to produce because of generosity and wonder, not because you’re drowning.

PS Tomorrow’s the early decision deadline for the altMBA October session. This is our last session of the year, and the last at this tuition. Worth a leap.