Skip to main content

On Dogmatism Again…

The problematic of dogmatism in the left is a topic I've written about from multiple angles, both on this blog and in my books. Just like the anti-intellectual/academic-elitist dialectic I keep returning to, dogmatism is one of my personal concerns because, due to the problems it can cause through its practice or erroneous apprehension, it undermines the development of a revolutionary movement. I am still convinced that this is the case, because once a movement becomes truly dogmatic it loses its ability to creatively engage with the masses; it valorizes formulaic statements and a religious devotion to revolutionary texts at the expense of mass work. Which is why I'm writing yet another post on this topic… Although I feel it is important to contextualize what I'm about to write in what I've previously established since a pithy "anti-dogmatism" that is invested in reinventing the theoretical wheel for no good reason, erasing the accomplishments of the past, and treating a scientific understanding of revolution as "dogmatic" when science (though not "scientism"), by definition, is non-dogmatic.

The first problem with defining the category of dogmatism is, as I already discussed on this blog, the fact that it can be used as a charge against a perceived "orthodoxy" in a manner that is itself wholly dogmatic. With this in mind, I spent the entirety of one post trying to break down the categories of leftist dogmatism, demonstrating that often what formally appeared as "dogmatic" might not deserve the charge, while conversely what sometimes passes as "anti-dogmatic" might be another manifestation of dogmatism.

The second related problem in defining this category is that sometimes militants struggling against the pitiless regime of capitalism are forced into dogmatic claims and practices because they are under siege. Every leftist turned liberal who gibbers about "saving the left from itself" complains about dogmatism, sectarianism, call-out culture, and a whole litany of internal problems without understanding that the lack of hegemony in the left, and the mentality produced in the course of struggling against the real hegemony of capitalism, necessarily produces a combative subjectivity. In Continuity & Rupture I also examined the ways in which dogmatism emerges in the militant defense of revolutionary science against revisionism––understandable but ultimately undermining since it undermines science. But being under siege often deforms aspects of the movement and, conversely, all "left" critiques that do not understand that fall prey to another kind of dogmatism: the bourgeois liberal dogmatism with its moralism about "totalitarianism", a willful refusal to look at social structures and the disciplinary mechanisms of the state of affairs. Every criticism of "Stalinism" that refuses to understand how much the first socialist state was not forced into many of its understandings and options because it was functioning under a state of siege that was unknown until that time, and thus did not possess any historical lessons to draw upon, is its own kind of dogmatism.

These two problems, however, speak to the fact that when we use the word dogmatism we often don't understand what it means, let alone what it means as a political error, and just assume its definition is "common sense". Usually that which is dogmatic is conflated with what is perceived to be orthodox and old-fashioned. That is, for the contemporary movementist Marxism-Leninism is "orthodox" (and it is easy to cite examples of ML orthodoxy) and so it must, tout court, be wholly dogmatic. But this definition is based on a tautological drawing of theoretical boundaries: dogmatic means orthodox, anything in the Marxist-Leninist tradition is orthodox, so every form of Marxism-Leninism (including Marxism-Leninism-Maoism) is dogmatic because it is orthodox. Really what this definition of dogmatism is claiming is that "Marxist-Leninists are dogmatic because they are dogmatic" and so "dogmatism is dogmatism"––all bachelors are unmarried men.

So let us define dogmatism correctly. Essentially that which is dogmatic is the anti-scientific. The Dictionary of Revolutionary Marxism provides the following definition:
The blind, totally uncritical acceptance and promotion of a doctrine or set of principles without any consideration of new evidence or changed circumstances and actual conditions. It is the approach of those who refuse to think about what they are saying and doing, let alone to really try to improve upon it, and who are instead determined to merely slavishly follow some previously established system of dogma as they understand it, come what may. Dogmatism is very common in religion, especially of the fundamentalist varieties. When it appears within politics, even within Marxism, it is a religious approach to politics.
Accepting that something is correct simply because it was written down by someone we like, treating thinkers as prophets and their claims as formulaic above and beyond the scientific method, is dogmatic. Assuming that truth is something that is closed, that can be found in closed statements rather than a process that produces these statements and other successive statements, is religious thinking. Science is open to the future; dogmatism locks things into pronouncements, sacred doctrine, textual hermeneutics.

The Marxist-Leninist who bases their understanding of truth simply on everything that Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin ever wrote and did is as dogmatic as the anti-Leninist who accepts a cold war discourse about these thinkers: both are committed to a formulaic doxa rather than a truth process. Whereas the former dogmatism is internal to the movement, the latter dogmatism is external. Indeed, the latter dogmatism encapsulated by the cold war doxa of "Stalinism"––of communism being "totalitarian" and revolutions "eating their young"––is expected and should be understood as the threshold that determines our organizing, the "end of history" ideology that will reveal friends and enemies in its immediacy: those with an advanced consciousness, who are part of the initial elements of an accumulation of forces, are those parts of the masses who do not dogmatically dismiss communism. Any communist movement worth its salt, that does not hedge its bets and hide the red flag, begins by setting itself against this common sense dogma.

But the internal dogmatism tends to be more difficult to overcome because it is internal to a fighting communist movement and because it often manifests in opposition to the external dogma––in the face of the dogma that communism is bad we might dogmatically cling, out of a necessary defiance, to some wrong ideas about our ideology. Similarly, the state of siege experienced by the Soviet Union created a context where numerous erroneous ideological conceptions were allowed to fester, where challenges to the party line were often seen (and for good reason because of the state of siege) as challenges to socialist hegemony, and so where the necessity to pursue this hegemony permitted a number of mistakes. While we must recognize that these mistakes might have been unavoidable because the USSR socialists succeeding Lenin were in an uncharted historical moment––and while we must also demarcate the actual mistakes from those proclaimed by cold war dogma––we do ourselves no favours by pretending that they did not exist. If we cannot be critical of our history, and thus fail to grasp and learn from our mistakes (along with our successes of course), then we reinscribe our current movements with the same state of siege mentality. Our dogmatism regarding ourselves becomes an instance of repetition as farce since we aren't even close to the cadre in the Soviet Union who were defending a socialist formation. Indeed, when dogmatism manifests in regards to the former Soviet Union (or China under Mao, for that matter), we are presented with a paradigm of the problematic, a reason why such a religious attitude needs to be combatted: this kind of "communism" looks like the obsessive behaviour of a historical recreation society rather than a living movement against the current state of affairs.

Hence, such a dogmatism might be even more damaging to the movement because it deforms us from within, because it is neglected due to the omnipresence of anti-communist dogma. And if our job is to organize the masses against the external dogma of anti-communism we will fail at this task if we approach them according to our own dogmatic categories––if we seek to win them over by repeating stale formulas, refusing to recognize their creative power, citing Marx/Lenin/Mao at the expense of listening to their thoughts. As our revolutionary ancestors in the New Communist Movement recognized decades ago:
The disease of the dogmatists is that they will never test their ideas in practice and base their ideas on practice. What they needed to cure themselves of their disease was practice, but they did everything to go against it, and instead wrote pamphlets and articles expounding their wrong views and thus marched to their graves yelling how everyone else should also become a dogmatist.
We cannot be a historical recreation society, a group of online "LARPers" or "cosplayers" who think communism is mummifying Marx or Lenin, who think through stale formulas, who assume it is better to perform a mythology rather than engaging in a practice based on the mass-line. It is not a coincidence that so many of the activists devoted to the old revisionist parties (Communist Party of Canada, Communist Party USA, etc.), who have had no meaningful mass work to speak of since 1930, are also those dogmatically invested in this historical recreation society bullshit. Dogmatism and revisionism go hand in hand… Which is why it is especially important to correct and obliterate dogmatic behaviour within the ranks of organizations who define themselves as "anti-revisionist." For if we are anti-revisionists we should also recall the line struggle within the anti-revisionist camp over "dogmato-revisionism". Anti-revisionism, in its hatred of opportunism, can end up undermining class struggle, the development of the scientific comprehension of this struggle, by dogmatically appealing to the formulas of the "great men" of socialist struggle. The revisionism, here, is in the rejection of science in favour of dogmatism––the decision that revolutionary theory cannot be open to the future, that the masses have no role in its development, and only the words of a collection of prophets are worthy of consideration.

To be clear, a rejection of dogmatism should not and cannot mean embracing an attitude of "anything goes". A scientific attitude, which is wholly incompatible with a dogmatic attitude, is intrinsically opposed to such a bland anarchism of thought. Science establishes truth procedures which are open to the future; it is anti-scientific to assume that no truth can be established, that everything should be constantly reinvented, just as it is anti-scientific to base our concept of truth on citing the authority of prophets. We know that when Six Day Creationists complain that the entire edifice of evolutionary biology is like another religion they are full of shit. These complaints are little more than a thinly veiled attempt of dogmatists attempting to drag the non-dogmatic down to their uncritical understanding of reality and, by forcing this false equivalence, cynically using the convention of free speech to push anti-scientific bullshit. Attacks on historical materialism are cut from the same cloth because historical materialism is a science. As a science it establishes a structure of truth procedures while also calling into being, like other sciences, dogmatic pseudo-science doubles. Biology has its evolutionary psychology pseudo-science doppelgänger. Physics has its weird new age variant. Historical materialism has its revisionist formalists.

If historical materialism is a science then all forms of dogmatism must be stamped out within the boundaries determined by class struggle. The point is to clarify the science, to expunge the "Marxist" dogmatists that latch unto the claim of science but without an appreciation of what science means, and the intention to use this word to push dogmatic formalism. For if we are to truly overcome dogmatism then we must centre the conception of science in our thought. All claims that there cannot be a science of revolution court dogmatism, and all claims to this science that do not understand the meaning of science should be relegated to the dogmatist camp.