What is Dogmatism and Why Does It Matter?


There has been a revival of the working class movement across the world. But if we want to seize this moment, we need to re-embrace scientific analysis. We have to avoid the errors that led us to the weakened state that we find ourselves in.

The fall of the Soviet Union began a crisis for all socialists, even the anti-Leninists. Gone was the largest sources of funding for the worker’s and anti-colonial movements. Gone was the rationale for the existence of left-wing social democrats. The Social Democrats had served as the final bulwark against Communism. Gone was an organic workers’ movement for the Trotskyists to latch onto. The rotting corpses of the trade unions are all they had left. The Anarchists, who ascended during the anti-globalization movement, devoured themselves with lifestyle politics. There was no longer a social basis for the worker-centric politics of classical Anarchism. Class-struggle Anarchism defined itself through opposition to Revolutionary Marxism. It still does, if the anti-Bolshevik smear-jobs still put out by AK Press are anything to go by, . The anarchists were Pharisees denouncing the Priesthood of the communist movement.

The Official Communists were distraught. At least one leader of the CPUSA had a heart attack after learning about the fall of the USSR. They dedicated their lives to what they believed was the most advanced mode of life to ever exist. Allowing for modifications to national particularities. That system had shown itself to be a rotten sham. They had two choices, either deny their official Marxism-Leninism or deny reality. Those that chose the former had long discredited any Marxist alternative through polemic. All they had left was opposition to the far right without any positive beliefs of their own. Those that chose the latter retreated into their ideological bunkers. Their views reinforced by hack historians like Grover Furr.

The Maoists, for their part, kept guerilla struggles alive in many parts of the world. But outside isolated instances, they lacked connection with the workers movement. The Maoists instead based their struggle on rural peasants. While heroic, these struggles too have ended in failure. The Shining Path collapsed. The Naxalite’s have declined. And the Nepalese Maoists have capitulated to developmentalist capitalism. Success is establishing a proletarian dictatorship. Nowhere has the Protracted People’s War thesis demonstrated success outside of China. And that success was in the context of the second world war with the support of the Soviet Union.

No relevant current had any in theory to help them navigate the new world.

But even this enormous setback shouldn’t have prevented organizers from continuing their work. Bourgeois social scientists shouldn’t have been able to declare the “end of history.” For decades our movement suffered the terminal illness of dogmatism; long before we got the Soviet death certificate. This isn’t to say efforts weren’t made by organizers in the past to treat the illness. Nor that there weren’t individual exceptions among communists. But, a fatal commitment to thought processes that damage any movement tainted ours.


Before we can discuss the nature of dogmatism, we need to ask: where does knowledge come from? There’s a field of study, called epistemology dedicated to it. There are even entire departments for it. Epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge. But, to simplify things, there are two main schools of thought. Either knowledge derives from reason or it derives from observation. There are many other schools of thought as well. Some that locate the source of knowledge in social power. Others in divine/intuitive revelation. And many others. But other schools tend not to predominate in society and are beyond the scope of this discussion.

The first school, which says knowledge comes from reason, is Rationalism. Rationalism says that you can take things that are universally true (axioms) and logically derive further truth from them. Lets take the classic Dr. Seuss story “The Sneetches.” The Sneetches without stars on their bellies believed that because all Sneetches with green stars on their bellies are popular, if they use Mr Bean’s star-on machine they too will become popular. This conclusion logically flowed from their premises. But in practice it doesn’t work out. The star-bellied Sneetches, rooting their sense of superiority not in the stated difference. It was the fact they could exclude others from a privileged position in Sneetch society. Of course, this illustration is simplistic, but it gets at the sort of thought process that underlies rationalist modes of thought. Rationalists make logically consistent closed systems that draw truth from the initial premises. Rationalism is the basis of theology, mathematics, Austrian economics, and most idealist philosophy.

The second school, which says knowledge comes from observation, is empiricism. Empiricism says that you must engage with things and study before you can make a statement about truth. An empiricist would look at the history of production and how needs get met. After studying, an empiricist would conclude that many modes of production existed in history. These all met people’s needs for survival. Capitalism is not unique in doing so. Because capitalism is better than feudalism at meeting needs, they might at first come to endorse capitalism. But, the Empiricist would look at history and recognize that the state emerged with class. It was a means to defend inequality. They would see that class society limits freedom. They’d see that market “freedom” for the few is actually unfreedom for the many. By observing, an empiricist would see that capitalism is a violent system. That it’s one which deprives people of the things they need in the name of private property. For the empiricist, if you want a world with freedom and the provision of needs, you’d have to reject capitalism. An empiricist revises their worldview as they learn new facts. One of the claimed weaknesses of empiricism is that it doesn’t make hard claims about truth, only soft ones. Any statement that an empiricist makes is provisional. New information could show that their claim was wrong. But this “weakness” is a strength. It means that an empiricist is more able to correct errors compared to a rationalist. Empiricism is the basis of both hard and soft science.

Empiricism, as a framework, doesn’t start from a blank slate though. You still ideological commitments before you take your data to create an analysis. Like the idea human freedom is worth fighting for. Or the idea that exploitation is bad. These come from a given position in the world. Bourgeois empiricists imagine you can find a neutral position from which to draw conclusions. But one’s commitments and the ideological lenses color their analysis. Our position, as Marxists, is the perspective of the working class and a basic humanism.

Likewise, bourgeois empiricists start from the perspective of individual rather than collective experience. It’s no wonder they often stray into subjectivism. But science isn’t done from the perspective of the individual, it is a collective effort. As Ludwig Feuerbach said in Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, “Even the certitude of those things that exist outside me is given to me through the certitude of the existence of other men besides myself. That which is seen by me alone is open to question, but that which is seen also by another person is certain.” To create empirical knowledge, we need objective metrics and collective analysis. This doesn’t mean knowledge develops in a democratic manner. It isn’t up to a vote if the Earth revolves around the Sun. But, it did take concerted effort over many generations to discover heliocentrism. And combined effort to prove within the framework of physics. Likewise, the methods of science themselves are subject to change. As collective knowledge grows, new techniques to gather and organize information develop. What was once scientific practice in one period may not not scientific in a later one. As Alexander Bogdanov says in The Philosophy of Living Experience, “A scientific point of view is one that corresponds to the highest standards of its times and which takes into consideration all the accumulated experience in a given realm of knowledge. And all experience pertains, of course, not to one or another separate individual person but to all society, or, if society is not unified – if it is divided into classes – then the relevant accumulated experience is that of the class collectivity that is most progressive in that realm of knowledge.” Socialist empiricism takes the collective and scientific approach. Bourgeois empiricism takes individualist and speculative approach.

Empiricism and rationalism aren’t always at odds: they can be complementary in building an analysis. We never have complete information or experience. We’re going to end up taking what we know and deriving conclusions logically from them. And it’s important to try and find logical inconsistencies in our own ideas. Finding them can show we have faulty data somewhere along the way. Deductive reasoning, what rationalism uses, is how we create “heuristics.” A heuristic is: an approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method recognized as imperfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals. In simpler terms: a rule of thumb. To understand the world, so we can operate in it, we do have to make models of it. That means fleshing out our incomplete information through logical analysis. But, we should be clear that these models are provisional. They are subject to update based on new information. Things like democratic centralism, the labor theory of value, and the theory of the vanguard party are heuristics. They are useful for navigating problems we face, but they’re not universal truths ordained by the Dialectic of History. Empiricism, supplemented by deductive reasoning, is the basis of scientific socialism.

Scientific Socialism

“Scientific socialism” was a term coined by Frederick Engels. It refers to socialism that uses observation of history and practice to determine praxis. Utopian Socialists, conversely, base arguments on morality or abstract principles like justice. Those ideas are context specific and not useful for making scientific analysis. Scientific socialists do not see any specific formula or theory as eternal. The notion of an “immortal science” is anathema. Instead, theories have to be justified against the material facts and new information.

Many Marxist organizations have taken the empiricist approach in their organizing. Marx and Engels began their political careers as communists by studying situation the working class found itself in. Before participating in the Revolution of 1848, Engels wrote The Conditions of the Working Class in England. Likewise, Lenin took the material conditions as the starting point for his work. Lenin authored the April Theses, calling for non-cooperation with the bourgeois Provisional Government. Instead he called for proletarian revolution. It was clear that the conditions were right given the events of the February Revolution. But this upended the Marxist orthodoxy which said a bourgeois revolution must be complete before a proletarian one. Lenin was denounced by the Bolshevik paper Pravda, whose editor at the time was Stalin, for “Bakuninism.” But the situation proved Lenin right.

After defeating the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War, Mao focused his attention on economic policy. He didn’t transpose the Soviet model though. Mao saw that the agricultural “revolution from above” in the USSR provoked an insurgency. It had taken the property of the peasants to fund urban industrialization. He knew that such it couldn’t work in the PRC, which had relied in the support of the peasants for its establishment. Mao avoided the kind of failures the Soviet leadership had in Ukraine because he started from the facts rather than starting from theory. But, dogmatic application of theory marred his policies as well. The infamous Four Pests Campaign, unreasonable grain quotas, and the attempt to decentralize steel production were all a result of non-empirical practice. Even if we are scientific socialists in some areas, it does not prevent us from being dogmatic socialists in others. But, when communists are successful, it is because we chose the scientific socialist road rather than the dogmatic road.

Dogmatism in Practice

In contrast to scientific socialists, dogmatists invert the formula. They base their beliefs on rationalist deduction from first principles. Then they twist observed phenomena to fit their worldview. For a dogmatist, certain truths are the starting point rather than the end of analysis. For instance, God’s benevolence, wealth being the result of virtue, or the universality of the Protracted People’s War. From these eternal truths, found in texts of great teachers, dogmatists construct a narrative that can explain any facet of life. Many dogmatists adhere to the teachings of thinkers who themselves were empiricist. For instance, while Mao opposed “book worship,” many people present his quotations as proof something is true. If one has a problem, they can consult the holy book and think through the implications for their answer.

If facts conflict with the conclusions of a dogmatist, there’s a few possible reactions. One is for the dogmatist to deny the facts. To take an example from the world of the hard sciences we can look at the Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko was a prominent biologist in the USSR. He developed a process to convert spring wheat into winter wheat called vernalization. Yet, he also adhered to a theory of biology which held that characteristics were a result of the environment. He believed environmental experience could be inherited. And he rejected the idea that characteristics were passed according to fixed traits and mutation. While his views seem like epigenetics, they’re not. Lysenko rejected the idea of a genetic substrate . He thought you could convert one species into another through external pressure. It would only take a few generations. Soviet biologists, confronted with conclusive proof of genetics, dismissed the data as fraudulent. Lysenko’s initial success with vernalization helped Soviet agriculture,. But, his other theories like cluster planting, caused problems throughout the Soviet economy. Like Kropotkin, Lysenko saw cooperation rather than competition as decisive in nature. He claimed that planting crops close together would make them more effective. They should cooperate and help one another out. Cooperation is important in nature. But, rejecting of Darwinism should only happen if it’s proven false, not because it conflicts with one’s worldview.

Sometimes dogmatists will engage in special pleading for their ideas. Anarchists avoid criticism of their strategies by locating their failure in external forces. But, they’ve failed to succeed where those forces were not present. During the Spanish Civil War, the Stalinist PCE did fight the Anarchists. But, during the earlier Spanish revolt of 1873 the Anarchists failed on their own merits. Likewise, many Anarchist movements have waxed and waned without completing a revolution. There have been movements in Korea, Latin America, and eastern Europe, but all failed. But they still think that if only their same theories were better applied they would work this time. From terrorist bombings throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to general strikes, and factory occupations: the failure to translate into success needs the be addressed as a failure of Anarchism.

Another reaction is to create complex formulations to fit the new data into the system. When the People’s’ Republic of China ran into conflicts with their erstwhile socialist ally, the Soviet Union, they declared it was state-capitalist. The Khrushchev leadership now followed the “capitalist road.” Yet, the structures of the economy were identical to how they existed under Stalin.

Sometimes, dogmatists will claim that their truths are esoteric and unconcerned with the mundane world. The Catholic Church accepts the theory of evolution as not in conflict with the teachings of the Church. But, they persecuted people who disagreed with other literal interpretations of the Bible before. Likewise, many “Marxist economists” wave away failure to describe the economy in monopoly conditions. They say that Marxism doesn’t need a “theory of price.”

Finally, dogmatists might revise their axioms to be abstract or even metaphorical. When confronted with evil, God’s benevolence becomes a sacred mystery beyond the ken of us mere mortals. The third-world countryside of Protracted People’s’ War becomes the slums of the urban metropole. These tactics serve to avoid the problems of doing scientific analysis. They prevent losing the comfort of always having an easy answer.

How Dogmatism Undermines the Movement

Few tendencies are as dangerous for the communist movement as dogmatism. Dogmatism leads to failures, which in turn leads to isolation from the masses. Positive external feedback is lost which only leaves self-reinforcing tendencies.

A textbook example of this is the Revolutionary Communist Party USA. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the organization that would become the RCP-USA was called the Revolutionary Union. They focused on the point of production and committed to militant struggle. As a result, they expanded throughout the country in both urban and rural areas. Their initial success came from a novel understanding of the objective conditions. But, the RU/RCP began relying on the authority of Mao and their leader Bob Avakian. They didn’t develop the critical abilities of their members. Abstract theoretical issues became defining factors of membership. And they demanded intense commitment of members. Those who disagreed with the ideas of the leadership might face a “struggle session.” They were subjected to verbal abuse and expected to self-flagellate. The ideas of the leadership weren’t true not because of scientific analysis. They were true because they had the superior interpretation of Marx, Lenin and Mao.

Members of the RCP/RU, like all followers of Mao Zedong at the time, defended many horrible things. They backed Pinochet’s murder of leftists. Supported the pro-apartheid South Africa forces in Angola UNITA against the revolutionary MPLA. They denounced the Castro government. And they supported the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese “aggressors”. They took these lines because China was “on the socialist road” while the USSR was “on the capitalist road.” China had the correct foreign policy. The USSR’s actions, like supporting African self determination, were imperialism. The RCP/RU confused China’s national realpolitik with socialist internationalism. The same fatal error made by the CPUSA half a century before with Soviet policy.

They based unity on agreement with abstract principles rather than investigation. So, after the death of Mao Zedong, an intense split fractured the RCP. Arguments were based on appeals to internal consistency with Marxists ideology. The leadership held that China had transmuted overnight into a Capitalist country. Their preferred side lost the succession fight. As many as 40 percent of the members believed that China remained a socialist country. They thought it was the vanguard of the world Socialist movement. The splitters created the “Revolutionary Workers Headquarters.” That split would evolve into the Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

Since then, the RCP has degenerated into a transparent personality cult around Bob Avakian. They sell newspapers that use his quotations in place of arguments. They repeat slogans like “without a revolutionary party there is no revolutionary movement,. It’s like a mantra to justify their own existence. Because the “revolutionary” content of the RCP was reduced to the slogans of their leader, they fell into right-opportunism. Particularly after the election of Donald Trump.

Instead of their old left-opportunist calls for immediate revolutionary civil war, material conditions be damned, the RCP uses the front group “Refuse Fascism” to sell a class collaborationist line identical to that of the CPUSA. They reason: 1) fascism is the greatest threat to the workers movement 2) Bob Avakian says Trump is a fascist. Thus, it follows that it must be defeated by any means necessary. For the RCP that means mass demonstrations devoid of Marxist criticism. They want to unite as wide a section of the population as possible. So, they focus on the threat of radical Republicans. The fact such tactics failed to end the Iraq war when the RCP tried them before doesn’t factor in. They don’t treat fascism as a physical threat to be crushed, they treat it as an existential boogieman.

Empiricism is useful for all social scientists. It is useful for Marxists in particular. Marxists are social scientists of revolution. Dogmatism is useful too: it is useful for bureaucrats, abusers, capitalists, and cult leaders. When all your truth comes from an authority like a book or the wisdom of a teacher, it’s a lot easier for those who offer the “correct” interpretation of those doctrines to set themselves up in a position of power.

These people have social capital stemming from their supposed theoretical expertise. They can extract income, respect, submission, and even the freedom to abuse members of their organization. Imagine you’re verbally abused by leading cadre in your party. Take a real example, Socialist Alternative, which had recently won the first city council seat for a socialist in decades. You believe the organization is responsible for the emancipation of humanity. It’s hard to do anything but internalize it as a failing on your end. You’re in the FRSO. Your tiny group wields the four swords of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism-Gonzalo Thought. It’s easy to accept the claims that your party officer, who the new member says preyed on her while drunk, is being targeted by an FBI frame-up. After all, it’s the state’s job to target the one true revolutionary party. You’re in the Socialist Equality Party. Your organization decides that unions are counterrevolutionary. The party chairman begins a union-busting campaign at his privately-owned printing company. It’s hard to dispute this line when everyone who does is purged. And there’s plenty of choice quotes from Marx, who is of course in your eyes the greatest mind to ever live, to support the chairman’s line. Accepting received interpretations of the world trains us to do it more and more in all areas. Dogmatists follow and accept things on the basis of fitting their complete worldview. This worldview includes the formal, or informal, hierarchy of their organization. These are all real scenarios and. While there’s other factors, each was enabled by dogmatism. This doesn’t mean that curing dogmatism will fix all problems of abuse on the left. But, when a body is sick with a poison like dogmatism, other diseases more take root.

Further illustrating this is a choice passage. It’s taken from “A Critique of Ultra-Leftism, Sectarianism, and Dogmatism” by the Movement for a Revolutionary Left:

“Trotskyists almost never learn from practice, their strategies and tactics almost never change as a result of trial and error and sum up. Instead changes in their positions occur through intellectualist dogmatic debate of the order of who is loyal to the true Fourth International (or to the Third), who has the correct interpretation of what Leon Trotsky (or Stalin) meant. Because of the rationalism of their theory of knowledge and the corresponding lack of and often disdain for practice trotskyist groups split into ever smaller groups all of which maintain hostile relations with all other trotskyist groups. The idea that correct thought, rather than current practice, will decide the issues dividing them is pervasive. Trotskyites often focus most of their energy on fighting each other rather than on actually organizing the working class. Because of their frequent obsession with ideological conversion, rather than with, mass struggles, trotskyists are often most overbearing in their attempts to badger people into endorsing their various lines. Out of fairness it must be noted that not all trotskyists groups share in this later categorizations, and hence that they are not defining characteristics of trotskyism. For example, the Socialist Workers Party works in many mass struggles (although some would argue only in order to recruit members) and the International Socialists seem to be rooted in the working class (if only because many of their former student members have taken factory jobs). The most prominent examples of pure trotskyist groups in the U.S. are the Spartacus League and the Progressive Labor Party.”

There are many flaws in the Movement for a Revolutionary Left’s analysis. One of which are the identification of dogmatism as an ultra left deviation rather than an error of both the left and right of the communist movement. Also, their commitment to unreconstructed Marxism-Leninism. But their exploration of the internal failures of the sectarian left is still worthwhile.

If Marxists want to overcome capitalism, we need to plan our strategies and tactics based on scientific socialism. We should look at past revolutionary experience but without treating theoreticians as prophets. Dogmatism would limit our ability to make concrete gains, hinder our ability to make analysis, and weaken our ability to deal with abusive members of our organizations. That’s why we must oppose it. With an empiricist foundation, supplemented by well-reasoned heuristics, we can resume the necessary work of our class.

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