‘Hegel, Marx, and the Necessity and Freedom Dialectic: Marxist-Humanism and Critical Theory in the United States’ by Russell Rockwell reviewed by Kaveh Boveiri

Reviewed by Kaveh Boveiri

About the reviewer

Kaveh Boveiri’s research focuses on Hegelian and Marxist philosophy. He has taught in the …


With regard to the categories of necessity and freedom, how may Hegel’s philosophy be related to Marx’s critical social theory? Put differently, how should the transition from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom be understood in this context? In Hegel, Marx, and the Necessity and Freedom Dialectic, Russell Rockwell tries to respond to this question through a contextualization of Marxist Humanism in the United States.

In North America, Marxist Humanism is mainly represented by the International Marxist-Humanist Organization (IMHO).** Its activities are twofold, both theoretical and practical: elaboration on philosophical discussions on the one hand and practical engagement through writing for the public, organizing meetings, conferences and participation in demonstrations, on the other. This engagement is both local, through elaborating on the important issues of the region, and international, in supporting the progressive movements worldwide and condemning nondemocratic regimes from the middle east to south Africa, from Latin America to Europe. There is here central importance attributed to Raya Dunayevskaya’s interpretation of Marx’s thought. The Initiative then aims at the concretization, development and projection of this reading of Marxism. Rockwell’s book contextualizes the gradual evolution of this reading of Marx in the United States while also relating it to well-known figures of the Frankfurt School, such as Habermas, but with more detail on Herbert Marcuse.

The introductory chapter familiarizes the reader with philosophical and biographical background, while focusing on the two major writers discussed in the book, namely, Marcuse and Dunayevskaya. Without this introduction, the reader who has not already mastered a considerable amount of Marxist literature in general, and these two thinkers in particular, would be easily lost.

Chapters two and six elaborate on the correspondence between Dunayevskaya and Marcuse. The importance of these correspondences lies not only in giving the background of the reciprocal maturation of their work but also in the influence they had on later thinkers, particularly Moishe Postone, whose works are analyzed later in the book. It is here shown how Dunayevskaya and Marcuse develop, in mutual relationship, their accounts of necessity and freedom in relation to Marx and Hegel. The centrality of the relationship between necessity and freedom is underscored by Marcuse in Reason and Revolution in 1941. By 1954, both Dunayevskaya and Marcuse find Hegel’s philosophy and Marx’s critique of the capitalist mode of production central.

Marcuse warns us against the confusion regarding the concept of the necessity: the iron necessity of the laws of the development of capitalism should not be generalized to the transformation of this mode of social life to socialism. The Marcuse of Reason and Revolution and Dunayevskaya both agree that Marx’s conception of fundamental laws under capitalism should not lead to a fatalistic determinism. Rockwell, in his turn, shows how this dialogue, along with ‘tracing and retracing Marx’s theoretical trajectory’ (227), may help us better understand the passages written by Marx, such as his letter to Vera Zasulich. Such passages, once rightly contextualized, show that with a correct understanding of Marx and its relationship with the dialectic of freedom and necessity, subjectivity is of pivotal importance.

Chapter two discusses these correspondences while focusing on the relationship between the evolution of Marxist Humanism and critical theory. Chapter six, on the other hand, shows how these correspondences view the historical configurations of the dialectic of the necessity and freedom while elaborating on automated production and a future post-capitalist society. Similarities between their standpoints are numerous: theoretically, for both, Marx’s The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 were significant, and both see them in unity with Marx’s later works. Practically, both also supported the radical movements developed in the 1960s. More importantly, they share the worries of finding strategies to fight against the capitalism still alive and resilient notwithstanding the wars, the crises and the emergence and growth of the communist orbit. Their differences, which can be seen among others in Marcuse’s preface to Marxism and Philosophy in 1957, are also noteworthy. Here, Marcuse thinks that revolutionary class in-itself is simultaneously an economic, political and philosophical category, while thinking that Dunayevskaya ignores this.

Chapters three and four trace the development of Marcuse’s Hegelian Marxism, critical theory and value theory, the former focusing on the Hegel’s significance in this development, whereas the latter concentrates more on the impact of Marx’s thought. Chapter five weighs Habermas’ reading of the Grundrisse against that of Marcuse. Whereas Habermas sees a rupture between the Grundrisse and Capital for which Marx ignores, in Capital, that ‘the labour theory of value is contingent on the level of development of science and technology’ (97), Marcuse sees a consistency between the two, a view shared by Dunayeskaya and developed in her Marxism and Philosophy as well.

Before the conclusion, the last two chapters discuss and critically evaluate the interpretation of Marx’s value theory given by Moishe Postone, in two steps: first in the Grundrisse (chapter seven), then in Capital (chapter eight). Postone agrees with Marcuse on two important points: on abstraction being the function of capitalist system, and on the significance of the relationship between ‘Marx’s method and the social relationship associated with abstract labor’ (165).

But their views diverge on several occasions. Although Marcuse recognizes the twofold concept of labor developed by Marx: ‘specification of the internal workings of capitalist production, determination of its social relations, and creation of the conditions of post-capitalist society’ (145), the further development of this is left to Postone. In so doing, Postone, similar to Marcuse, sees the ‘effect of the abstract labor on concrete labor’ (146) and the determination of the concrete labor, a point seemingly missing in Marcuse’s account. Unlike several thinkers in the Frankfurt School who criticize capitalism either ‘from the “standpoint” of labor or, as well (in the case of Habermas), Marx’s alleged affirmation of that labor even within his (Marx’s) critique of capitalism’ (147), Moishe sees it from a Marxian reading that imparts from the critique of labour. According to Postone, although Marx’s analysis in the Grundrisse entails both inclusion of the notion of labour while going beyond it, ‘Marx’s theory of abolition and transformation of labour is […] one sided’ (159). For a fully developed concept of abstract labour, one has to return to Capital, where the concept of socially necessary labour time is elaborated upon. Marx develops this in part four of Capital, ‘The Production of Relative Surplus Value’. One merit of Postpone, in contradistinction with Marcuse, is his elaboration on this point. In this way, whereas in his interpretation of the concept of necessity, Marcuse relates ‘Marx’s dialectic with the history of class society’ (162) and ‘argues that social necessity is intrinsic to class society generally, Postone shows that social necessity is characteristic of only one form of class society, that is, the capitalist form.’ (163) Another noteworthy point is related to alienation. For Marcuse, alienation is twofold: a ‘side effect of the expenditure of abstract labour and hence production of value’, and ‘the emergence of concrete labour as a mere form of appearance of abstract labour.’ For Moishe, in his turn, ‘the alienation is centrally that of the dimension of concrete labor, its appropriation by capital’ (188-189).

In the concluding chapter, ‘New Forms of the Necessity and Freedom Dialectic’, two interpretations or autocritiques proposed by Postone are linked to the critique by Rockwell. This is the major and, as far as this reviewer can say, an original contribution by the author. After elaboration of the first two autocritiques put across by Postone, namely, Marx’s appropriation of Hegel’s theories of ‘objectification and alienation’ on the one hand, and substance and the historical subject on the other, Rockwell proposes a third autocritique. He modestly admits that this third autocritique could not be achieved without the first two critiques already elaborated by Postone. This third autocritique, which refers to post-capitalist society, is twofold. Marx implicitly criticizes his previous criticism of Hegel in The Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts of 1844, and he presents the dialectical relationship between realms of necessity and freedom.

Here comes the response to the question raised at the outset of this review. To actualize the realm of freedom, labor should not be determined by necessity and external goals. That necessity should cease. The socialized individuals, associated producers of that future society, will thereafter govern their metabolism with nature in a rational manner. Blind power will here be necessarily substituted for collective control – being dominant for being dominated. The resulting freedom has this new necessity as its basis.

As the reader can see, the book takes a promising standpoint, novel enough, to be read thoroughly by all people interested in familiarizing themselves with such an important theme. Formally, the book is very well laid out. Each chapter announces its theme in the beginning and ends with references, which encourages the interested reader to go further, if they so wished. Nonetheless, the content of the chapters is sometimes hard to follow. This is probably because the level of erudition in the book is quite high, perhaps too high for an approximately two-hundred-page book. Thus, it is very difficult to find pages without several references to the primary or secondary literature. These references, or cross-references rather, make the book similar to a very long piece of indeterminate music, with long intervals and countless cases of back and forth. To the reader who does not already possess quite an advanced level of mastery of the issues discussed, the book as a whole can appear cryptic.

This along with some extreme conciseness, the book sometimes approaches its passages like a panorama or a catalogue of concepts and standpoints. As a result, many points are left insufficiently developed. We can here limit ourselves to three points related to Dunayevskaya’s thought.

Given the importance of the Grundrisse throughout the book, a discussion and evaluation of Dunayevskaya’s criticism of Rosdolsky’s now classic The Making of Marx’s Capital is a legitimate demand that is not met. This is also important because in her criticism, she elaborates on the distinctive points of her understanding against, to repeat the term she uses, Rosdolsky’s ‘dogmatic’ interpretation. Another more important point, one this reviewer wished to see more clearly and extensively, is further elaboration on Dunayevskaya’s key Hegelian term, ‘Negation of Negation’, among others, in her Philosophy and Revolution and The Power of Negativity. The very few references to this concept are unsatisfactory and limit themselves mainly to her letters, and not to where it is further developed in her books. A final point that would have been important to incorporate is the existing rebuttals with regard to Dunayevskaya’s thought. One example is Chris Arthur’s rereading of The Power of Negativity in his dialogue with Kevin Anderson. Unfortunately, reference to this important interchange is mainly decorative – limited to footnotes and references. Nevertheless, these limitations are probably inevitable aspects of such an ambitious project.

** An earlier version of this review mistakenly wrote “Marxist-Humanist Initiative” instead of “International Marxist-Humanist Organization”. I apologise to my comrades in the Organization and the Initiative for the mistake.

13 April 2021


  1. Some readers may be inclined to draw unwarranted conclusions from Kaveh Boveiri’s statement that “[i]n North America, Marxist Humanism is mainly represented by the Marxist-Humanist Initiative. … Rockwell’s book contextualizes the gradual evolution of this reading of Marx in the United States.” Marxist-Humanist Initiative is familiar with Rockwell and his positions, but he does not speak for us. Our understanding of Marx’s Marxism and Dunayevskaya’s Marxist-Humanism differs markedly from his in multiple ways, including on the relationship of their thought to Marcuse, Postone, and critical theory generally. Furthermore, Rockwell has no relationship with Marxist-Humanist Initiative and never has.

    Anne Jaclard, Organizational Secretary, Marxist-Humanist Initiative

  2. It is more than odd to state that “In North America, Marxist Humanism is mainly represented by the Marxist-Humanist Initiative” when neither of the editor’s of the reviewed volume have anything to do with it and the largest and most influence organization in the tradition under discussion is the International Marxist-Humanist Organization, of which Anderson is a leading member, as are most of those actively associated with this body of thought in the U.S. and elsewhere today.

  3. I appreciate Kaveh Boveiri’s wide-ranging review of my book on the necessity and freedom dialectic in Hegel and Marx. His final point on the Anderson-Arthur interchange touches on multiple and far-reaching questions. On the question of the conclusion to Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind (1817), which I show in my book is a key point of contention in the unjustly neglected Dunayevskaya-Marcuse correspondence, Anderson shows that it was only in the last few months before his death in 1831 that Hegel added the volume’s final sentence: “The eternal idea, in full fruition of its essence, eternally sets itself to work, engenders and enjoys itself as absolute Mind”. In my work, I try to show that Hegel’s conclusion written, significantly, after the Philosophy of Right, which deals only with Objective Mind, points the way to late Marx’s necessity and freedom dialectic as the underpinning of his full social appropriation of Hegel’s Absolute Mind as the theory of the post-capitalist society. To help make this argument, I carefully exam Moishe Postone’s analysis of the concluding chapter to the part in Marx’s Capital on relative surplus value— “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry”. Postone highlights the significance of Marx’s concept of “historical time” for Marx’s theory of a post-capitalist society: “[T]he historically constituted aspect of the use value dimension of labor in capitalism is like a ‘natural force’ inasmuch as it is independent of direct labor, costs nothing, and increasingly replaces human toil as the central social factor in the transformation of matter, the social ‘metabolism’ of humanity with nature that is a necessary condition of social life. With the development of large-scale industry, then, the incorporation into production of these ‘immense forces of nature’—that is, the acquired ability to tap the powers of nature and objectify and make use of the past—increasingly supersedes direct human labor as the social source of material wealth. The production of material wealth increasingly becomes a function of the objectification of historical time” (my emphasis).

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