Raya Dunayevskaya’s intersectional Marxism

Issue: 176

Christian Høgsbjerg

A review of Raya Dunayevskaya’s Intersectional Marxism: Race, Class, Gender and the Dialectics of Liberation, Kevin B Anderson, Kieran Durkin and Heather A Brown (eds) (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), £95

This edited collection provides a valuable, stimulating and thought-provoking introduction to the life, work and thought of Raya Dunayevskaya, one of the 20th century’s most important anti-Stalinist revolutionary Marxist intellectuals. Like Leon Trotsky, she was born to a Jewish family in what is now Ukraine when it was part of the Tsarist Russian empire, which used anti-semitism to try to maintain its rule. The Russian Revolution of 1905 had taken place five years before her birth, and as a child she experienced the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the attempted counter-revolution during the Civil War, before moving to the United States in 1922. In Chicago she became political, later recalling how she had been shaped by the “Russia of 1917, and the ghettos of Chicago, where I first saw a black person”. In the 1920s, she moved from the Jewish area of the city to the black area, and as a teenager joined the youth wing of the Communist Party USA.1 Aged 18, she was expelled for suggesting her comrades find out about Trotsky’s response to his 1928 expulsion from the Soviet Communist Party, and she soon became part of the early US Trotskyist movement. In 1937-8, she worked as Trotsky’s secretary in Mexico, where he had been exiled; a marvellous photograph exists of her with Natalia Sedova, Trotsky’s partner, in Mexico City in 1938.2 In the 1940s, she helped pioneer the Marxist theory of state capitalism as a way of explaining the transformation of the Russian Revolution into Stalinist counter-revolution. She worked alongside C L R James and Grace Lee Boggs, both important Marxist writers, as part of the so-called Johnson-Forest tendency inside, and later outside, US Trotskyism.

The Johnson-Forest tendency’s theory of state capitalism—outlined in works such as State Capitalism and World Revolution, published in 1950—sought to understand the Stalinist regimes while preserving Karl Marx’s central theoretical insight that the emancipation of the working class would be the conquest of the working class itself. In this way, it mirrored the efforts of groups such as Socialisme Ou Barbarie (Socialism or Barbarism) led by Cornelius Castoriadis in France and the Socialist Review Group led by Tony Cliff in Britain. This theoretical perspective was to be vindicated by the class struggles in the Eastern bloc, including the uprising in East Germany in June 1953 and the prisoners’ revolt in the Russian forced labour camp of Vorkuta in July 1953. The Johnson-Forest tendency broke with orthodox Trotskyism and attempted to develop new forms of post-Leninist revolutionary organisation. However, before they could seriously put any of these ideas into practice, they split in 1955 under the pressures that McCarthyism brought to bear on their tiny group.

In 1958, Dunayevskaya published Marxism and Freedom: From 1776 Until Today, probably her most inspiring, important and influential work. The book provided a brilliant summation of the collective theoretical work undertaken in the fields of philosophy, politics, history and economics by the wider Johnson-Forest tendency over the previous decade and a half. Marxism and Freedom made the case for a democratic and humanistic form of classical Marxism, derived from G W F Hegel, Marx and Lenin, as opposed to the vulgarities of Stalinism. “Marxism is a theory of liberation or it is nothing”, Dunayevskaya rightly declared.3 The book contained English translations of essays from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts relating to alienation under capitalism that were all but unknown at the time, showing how this theme ran throughout Marx’s life and even underpinned Capital. More generally, as Kevin Anderson notes, “Dunayevskaya took from Hegel, Marx and Lenin two conceptual threads: on the one hand, a certain type of dialectics of revolution and, on the other, a sensitivity to new social forces and movements with revolutionary potential”.4 Marxism and Freedom showed that Marx’s Capital had been theoretically shaped by freedom struggles around the world—both class struggles such as the battle for the eight-hour day as well as the fight against slavery during the 1860s including the US Civil War. Dunayevskaya’s theoretical case for a “new humanism” also flowed naturally from the freedom struggles underway in the 1950s, ranging from wildcat miners’ strikes in West Virginia in 1949-50, the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-6 and the wider civil rights movement in the US to the rebirth of workers’ councils during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Indeed, Dunayevskaya noted that “no theoretician, today more than ever, can write out of his own head. Theory requires a constant shaping and reshaping of ideas on the basis of what the workers themselves are doing and thinking”.5 She concluded, “There is a crying need for a new unity of theory and practice that begins with where the working people are—their thoughts, their struggles, their aspirations… The elements of the new society present in the old are everywhere in evidence in the thoughts and lives of the working class”.6

Marxism and Freedom made a tremendous impression among those few who were open-minded enough to read it at the time. Dunayavskaya travelled across Europe to promote the book and meet with the tiny number of other socialists who shared a similar “state capitalist” perspective, including Cliff’s Socialist Review Group, helping ensure the work was finally published in Britain in 1971 through Pluto Press. In Glasgow, veteran militant revolutionary socialist Harry McShane was deeply impressed by the work, and Dunayevskaya reports that Nan Milton, daughter of the legendary Scottish revolutionary John Maclean, “began to say that since the days of her father she had heard nothing like it—‘genuine Marxism’”.7 As Anderson rightly notes, Dunayevskaya was indeed rare as a Marxist theorist because she “swam so easily in both the humanist/dialectical aspect—alienation, fetishism, dialectic and so on—and in concepts such as the tendential decline in the rate of profit, the foundation of Marx’s theory of economic crises and depressions”.8 Amid the struggles of the 1960s, particularly the women’s liberation movement, African anti-colonial battles and the emergence of Black Power in the US, Dunayevskaya followed up Marxism and Freedom with two more volumes: Philosophy and Revolution: From Hegel to Sartre, and from Marx to Mao in 1973, and then Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution in 1982. These made up what she called her “trilogy of revolution”. The last of these, her Rosa Luxemburg book, highlighted the critical importance of black women’s contributions to the struggle in the US:

Just as the Sojourner Truths and Harriet Tubmans learned to separate from what they called their “short-minded” leaders who would not fight for women’s suffrage in the “Negro hour” of fighting for black male suffrage, so the new women’s liberation movement arose from participation in the black freedom struggles of the 1960s, and the black women, in turn, made their own declaration.9

This new collection gives some sense of the power of Dunayevskaya’s contribution to Marxism and her wider intellectual evolution, collaborators and concerns. The essays are generally valuable and thoughtful, making the volume worthy of engagement.10 It is divided into parts on “Hegel and Dialectics” and “Gender, Race and Revolution” as well as concluding sections on “Connections and Debates” and “Freedom and Liberation”. Inevitably, there is some repetition of points and arguments, which is unsurprising given the work also republishes older essays. These include a 1986 appreciation by the US feminist poet Adrienne Rich and texts that served as introductions to various reprints or collections of Dunayevskaya’s writing, as well as newer pieces written specially for this volume. Indeed, the repetition is sometimes helpful, particularly when trying to make sense of some of Dunayevskaya’s discussions of the Hegelian dialectic. The Johnson-Forest tendency had begun to turn to these ideas during the Second World War, when fascism and Stalinism were at their heights, in the hope of re-establishing Marxism as a theory of revolution amid the counter-revolution underway around them. This mirrored Lenin’s turn to Hegel in an earlier moment of crisis during the First World War.

The volume is much weaker in how it is framed around a new-fangled notion, “intersectional Marxism”, which the editors claim emerges from Dunayevskaya’s 1982 work on Rosa Luxemburg and an edited 1985 volume of her essays, Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution: Reaching for the Future.11 The editors suggest that Dunayevskaya “offers a positive vision of intersectionality that takes our common humanity, worked out through philosophical and political struggle, as a basis for unity rather than asserting already ossified differences”. They rightly note that she “saw the struggles of black people and revolutionary feminists as sources of creative difference inside the radical movement” as well as often constituting “a real revolutionary vanguard” in themselves.12 It is, of course, proper and fitting for a contemporary volume on Dunayevskaya to highlight the way in which, as a Marxist, she worked to incorporate issues of oppression, and the real historical and material struggles of the oppressed, into her wider framework of analysis. It is also important to note that she made key contributions to showing how Marx also took race and gender more seriously than he is generally given credit for. Yet, given her work reminds us of this dimension of Marx, one could argue that classical Marxism was always in one sense “intersectional” and thus there is no need for a separate category of “intersectional Marxism”.

More importantly, although there are many different theorisations of the concept of “intersectionality”, the most influential ones tend to reduce social class to simply another form of oppression alongside race and gender, rather than seeing it as the collective social expression of exploitation. They therefore fail to see what Marx saw—how workers’ shared experiences of exploitation and their collective resistance to it provide a basis for solidarity and building a wider, united struggle against oppression. In a 1959 private letter, Dunayevskaya, no doubt mindful of all this, wrote, “I take it for granted that the proletarian developments will be the basis always”.13 The volume does not make it clear whether this focus actually remained the basis of Dunayevskaya’s thinking in later years. However, her shift in approach towards attempting a philosophical reinvigoration of Marxism clearly contrasts to that of Tony Cliff’s, who—as a classical Leninist—threw himself into building revolutionary organisation amid “the thick of workers’ struggle”, and whose theoretical writings always flowed from the questions thrown up by that real, living movement.14

Crucially, this volume, with its emphasis on “intersectionality” rather than “Marxism”, does not explore the possibility that Dunayevskaya’s writings about workers’ collective struggles for freedom during the 1950s might undermine aspects of intersectionality theory. This would vindicate Marx’s stress on workers’ self-emancipation as the key to unlocking the real dialectic of human liberation.

Christian Høgsbjerg teaches history at the University of Brighton and is the co-editor, with David Featherstone, of ­The Red and the Black: The Russian Revolution and the Black Atlantic (Manchester University Press, 2021).


1 Anderson, Durkin and Brown, 2021, pp91-92.

2 The photograph is reproduced in Williams, 2022.

3 Dunayevskaya, 1964, p22.

4 Anderson, Durkin and Brown, 2021, p325.

5 Dunayevskaya, 1964, p23.

6 Dunayevskaya, 1964, p286.

7 Anderson, Durkin and Brown, 2021, 246. For more on Dunayevskaya’s meetings with Cliff, see Birchall, 2011, pp105-107.

8 Anderson, Durkin and Brown, 2021, p318.

9 Anderson, Durkin and Brown, 2021, p103.

10 Readers might, however, find Paul Mason’s contributions to the volume less useful. Mason goes furthest in openly rejecting any revolutionary potential of the working class and makes crude caricatures of Leninism, perhaps unsurprisingly given his current political journey to the right.

11 Anderson, Durkin and Brown, 2021, p12.

12 Anderson, Durkin and Brown, 2021, p6.

13 Anderson, Durkin and Brown, 2021, p238.

14 Cliff, 2002.


Anderson, Kevin B, Kieran Durkin and Heather A Brown, 2021, Raya Dunayevskaya’s Intersectional Marxism: Race, Class, Gender and the Dialectics of Liberation (Palgrave Macmillan).

Birchall, Ian, 2011, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time (Bookmarks).

Cliff, Tony, 2002, Selected Writings, Volume 2: In the Thick of Workers’ Struggle (Bookmarks).

Dunayevskaya, Raya, 1964, Marxism and Freedom: From 1776 until Today (Twayne).

Williams, John, 2022, C L R James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries (Constable).