Dogmatism in the Left

Written by the MLM-Mayhem blog.


Due to a number of conversations, debates, and arguments I’ve had over the years with comrades and not-so-much-comrades, and due to the fact that I often use the term dogmatism in reference to other leftists with  barely any explanation, I felt that it was necessary to post something about how dogmatism functions within the left as it should be understood by critical leftists.  All of us, whatever our shade of red or black, have probably been guilty of acting dogmatically at some point of our lives. And sometimes, even if our entire approach is not in itself dogmatic, we can occasionally come across as dogmatic, uncritically fail to realize that some of our practices are dogmatic, and then fail to self-criticize and assess our behaviour.  Sometimes I catch myself, when pressed into unexpected arguments and confrontations, making statements that seem more religious than critical––I’m sure that all of us have had the experience of being forced into denouncing conservative family members with slogans!  More importantly, however, I often find myself repeating practices that I know do not work (because they have never worked) but still, for some reason, want to believe in these practices because my activist training has taught me to have faith in what has never been proven.

Generally speaking, dogmatism is a religious (broadly understood) worldview that is in direct contrast with a scientific (broadly understood) worldview.  Whereas the latter accepts as a general law that motion is a general law of nature, that we can only come to an understanding of universals through particular investigations of a concrete reality, the former imagines a static universal order, like Platonic forms, that are not subject to change.  Being a left dogmatist means to abandon critical investigation, to fail to involve oneself in a concrete investigation of one’s concrete circumstances, and to default unto a past order of beautiful and unchangeable theory––to misunderstand the universal axioms of past practice as universal religious rules that are perfect and pure.  Like conspiracy theorists and religious zealots, leftwing dogmatists exist within a hermetically sealed echo chamber that is always reinforced by fellow adherents; they can ignore all counter-evidence that disproves their commitments, they will accept a distorted rather than critical view of history and society in order to remain within their vacuum.  It is often impossible to argue with dogmatists who are committed to their particular type of dogmatism because they will rely on citing their holy texts, they will fall-back on their historical distortions, and in some cases they might even (as I will argue below) pretend they aren’t dogmatic by inaccurately accusing others of dogmatism.

In any case, I want to briefly look at three general categories of dogmatism that affect the broad leftist movement.  Categories that, even if we understand and reject them, still possess enough ideological clout to affect our practice and way of seeing the world.  So this is partially an act of self-criticism because, though I understand and reject the categories I will describe as below, there are always moments of my behaviour and practice that are similar to the behaviour and practice promoted by the following types of left dogmatism.

1. Communist Missionary Dogmatism [or, traditionally, "dogmato-revisionism"]

This is the most obvious type of leftwing dogmatism, the type which I have criticized the most on this blog whenever I speak of dogmatic left groups.  We are all familiar with the uber-sectarian organizations, those tiny cabals of proselytizing marxists, who imagine that they are the clergy of a pure communism.  And because they imagine that they’re the high priests of socialism, they will generally refuse to involve themselves in coalitions with those they see as heathens and apostates.  To be sure they will show up at the rallies they do not support and have never spent any energy in organizing or promoting but only as condescending observers who are there only to sell their papers and maintain their perfect slogans.  Indeed, they often spend more time trying to develop the “most correct” slogan (meaning a slogan that does not contradict the sacred boundaries of their theory) than organizing.

By imagining that there is some sort of pure communism outside of time and space, and that they are the elect capable of reflecting and understanding this perfect theory, they have abdicated a scientific view of revolutionary theory in favour of religious superstition.  Indeed, they sometimes like to throw around the words “scientific socialism” but only because these words were used by the critical theorists who they have turned into prophets and angels.  They fail to understand the law of motion, the fact that a scientific worldview means accepting a dynamism that is open to the future.  They grasp only the scientific fact of universals but they cannot understand how these universals were discovered and established through social practice, and how this discovery and establishment requires further discovery and establishment.

There are two requirements for understanding revolutionary theory in a scientific way: a) a critical understanding of past discoveries and proven successes as a foundation; b) the realization that these past discoveries and proven successes must always be open to the future.  We must not only be taught by our successes but by our failures, and dogmato-revisionists can only grasp the former at the expense of the latter.  For in some ways the second qualification of a scientific worldview means that all scientific-minded theorists are as heteredox as they are orthodox: the greatest scientists and scientific-minded theorists not only preserve the axiomatic germs of previous discoveries/successes but do so in a way that is often seen as heretical.

In an earlier article I spoke about a marxism beyond marx, a leninism beyond lenin, and a maoism beyond maoism. I tried to explain that my critical commitment to a theory that is short-handed as “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” should be understood (regardless of some blaise and ignorant dismissals on the part of people who do not read) in a non-dogmatic manner where these names are ciphers for stages of universal development, all tested and proven in the crucible of world historical revolution, and that they demand, if read critically and non-religiously, to be developed further. Communist Missionary Dogmatists cannot understand that the conjunction of these names means a procession of socialist paradigms where each short-handed link in the chain represents a moment of rupture and continuity: what we call “leninism” is a theory that solved the problems Marx was unable to solve but, at the same time, produced its own failures and limitations; “maoism” surmounted the failures and limitations of “leninism” but, again, produced another limit due to its own failures and setbacks. In this way I am in agreement with Samir Amin who argues that all developments in revolutionary communist theory must be heterodox; he also argues that the greatest developments so far, leninism and maoism, were definite moments of heterodoxy.

But the missionary marxist apparently imagines that all of the answers are already inherent in hir sacred theoretical texts and the only reason for failure is misapplication. In this way they cannot understand how the dogmatic application of theory divorced from practice will always fail; the beauty of dogmatism is that, because a perfect theory divorced from social practice can never be perfectly applied, it is self-confirming because it allows the dogmatist to keep saying, with every failure (even failed attempts to apply hir own dead theory): “it failed because the rules weren’t followed perfectly.”

But it is easy to understand why this type of dogmatism is a dead end because, when held against the concrete reality of social practice, it seems rather silly and backwards. And if a group hasn’t grown in several decades, and has a revolving membership of only 10 or 20 people at any given time, then it clearly isn’t resonating with the masses it is supposed to be organized. Moreover, if it always refuses to involve itself in mass movements, and treats its organizing as nothing more than making slogans and hoping people will wake-up and see that it’s correct, then it never will grow. Again, the counter-argument is simple for the dogmatist to argue back that: a) the conditions now do not permit growth and one day (in the distant future) people will see the truth; b) every communist group that is growing significantly are fake communists and that’s the only reason they’re growing. The point being: it is generally impossible to prove to this type of committed dogmatist, through logic or history, that hir position is incorrect––it’s a bit like talking to a hardcore creationist about the validity of evolution.

2. Socialist/Anarchist/Movementist “anti-dogmatic” dogmatism

I tend to believe that this type of dogmatism is the direct result of the type of dogmatism critiqued above. That is, when confronted with holier-than-thou marxist missionaries who wouldn’t want to reject all of the universal axioms they have transformed into dead idealist principles? So when someone speaks about the concept of a party, of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the revolutionary avant-garde some of us cannot help but think of those sectarian cabals and their condescending slogans. Eventually, however, the broader rejection produced by a rejection of the above dogmatism leads to its own type of dogmatism.

Decades ago, after the rise of state capitalism and the eventual fall of the Eastern Bloc, the left at the centres of world imperialism tried to make sense of their practice. Honestly realizing that something went wrong there were multiple attempts to assess this failure. Unfortunately, the most popular attempts were the wrong answers to the right questions: whereas the first type of dogmatism refuses to learn from failures and setbacks, the second type of dogmatism refuses to accept that there were successes and victories that established certain foundational axioms. A proverbial throwing out the baby with the bath-water, so to speak, without any real appreciation for the baby or the bathwater.

All of this led to a type of practice that is now sometimes called, by both its adherents and its detractors, movementism. Influenced by anarchist theories of practice and autonomist marxism, the movementist approach holds that the problem with radical movements in the past was the structure of the party or the concept of vanguardism and, without really providing any critical assessment as to the meaning of these concepts, that revolution can only be accomplished by multiple and disconnected trajectories, along with moments of spontaneity, all of which will somehow cohere into a critical mass to swarm capitalism and bring about the revolution.

Unlike the tiny cabalists discussed in the above category, the proponents of movementism have generally been far better in organizing people and producing mass movements. The only problem is that nothing has been done with these movements accept for large-scale demonstrations that have devolved into chaos. The anti-globalization movement, the hallmark of this approach, reached its heights in the early 21st century with the WTO protest in Seattle and the FTAA protest in Quebec City, but quickly dissipated at the onslaught of September 11th. Then it reformed in the large-scale anti-war demos but again, slowly dissipated when people realized that confronting the war with the same demonstrations wasn’t doing anything. Most recently it reached another critical mass with the G20 Protests and yet, repeated as tragedy and then farce, again did nothing but devolve into a defensive retreat. In all of these cases, because so many of those responsible for the hard work of organizing affinity groups and building coalitions were generally opposed to building revolutionary structures and trying to figure out how to organize in a way that could directly oppose and defeat the state, there was no way to unify these forces into a political organization capable of seizing power. It is one thing to mobilize people; it is quite another to mobilize them for nothing more than a chaotic confrontation that will go nowhere other than “getting the message out.”

As someone who was once extremely dedicated to this approach and, because of seeing the limits of this dedication, am now quite disenchanted with its results, I can at least understand its reasons. I remember the excitement of the FTAA protests, the adrenaline of the confrontation on those streets when the cops advanced and we thought we were scoring victories when we pushed them back, the tear-gas in the air and the screaming. But no victories were really scored because capitalism and its states still exist; they continue to persist despite every mass-scale convergence of this type. And this type of approach is incapable of producing a unified movement that stands for something more than capitalism/colonialism/imperialism; it can only understand, sometimes quite correctly and sometimes nebulously, what it is against. In a word: it is only defensive.

Except that the people who still abide by this way of seeing the world, and who dismiss all discussions of revolutionary parties and the lessons learned from the Russian and Chinese world historical revolutions as “religious” and “dogmatic”, refuse to accept that their chosen political practice doesn’t work. And since they refuse to understand the successes and developments of the aforementioned revolutions, willfully choosing to see nothing but homogenous failure, they are the ones who end up being religiously committed to nothing more than a dogma. For movementism, spontaneism, anarchism, or whatever we wish to call it is a dogma because history continues to prove it incorrect. And those who support this position are dogmatists when they continue to forget they were proved wrong (and perhaps, like the category of dogmatists above, ascribing failures to the misapplication of something that, if purely applied, would work), and make the same pronouncements when it comes to the spontaneous uprisings elsewhere, like the so-called “Arab Spring”––and when proved wrong even here, refuse to admit their errors and persist, over and over again, in supporting the same political line.

This type of dogmatism is dangerous because its adherents often treat every other approach as “dogmatic”, mistaking its love of spontaneity and multiplicity as left-wing open-mindedness when, in truth, it is close-minded to the critiques and facts that have proved it erroneous. Misunderstanding its heterogeneity, it fails to understand that it possesses its own exclusionary doctrine. And those heretics who question this doctrine are falsely deemed “religious” and “dogmatic” when, in so many cases, the opposite is the case. And all appeals to past revolutionary successes, no matter how critical these appeals, that the movementist ideology deems complete failures are rejected and misunderstood as religious because the actual religious mindset of this type of dogmatist cannot conceive of revolutionary success and maybe does not want to conceive of revolutionary success.

I often become quite troubled when those who adhere to the movementist position attack the practice of those who maintain that there is something worth preserving in the past successes, and that we need to critically build on these successes in order to move forward, and hypocritically denounce them as “religious” without ever critically investigating the utter lack of success of their political practice.

Then there is the eurocentric aspect of this doctrine: while it is quite common for a movementist of the anarchist persuasion to call marxist-based theory “eurocentrist” because “Marx was a white man”, shouldn’t we also ask why: a) movements inspired by the supposedly “antiquated” and “dogmatic” communist theory are still prevalent and powerful in the global peripheries; b) movementism is by and large rejected in the radical movements outside of Europe. The confines shrink around the theory, boundaries of a temple wherein resides a congregation that fails to accept that its non-religious religion has failed to significantly change the world.

3. Liberal Dogmatism

I only include this third and final category because it is prevalent amongst liberals and social democrats who want to imagine they are part of the left, who call themselves “socialist” even though they reject everything that is socialist, who generally aren’t even part of the honest social democrat population who does a lot of mobilizing around reforms, and who feel the need to involve themselves in leftwing debates without even having a critical grasp of the terrain. What is most interesting about this phenomenon is that they imagine themselves to be critical minded, objective, and unbiased. They will write-off communism in toto as “dogmatic” and “religious”, influenced perhaps by Popper’s idiotic understanding of marxist theory, and despite having no experience in activism and political organizing believe they have the right to make pronouncements about theory and practice. Although Mao said without investigation there should be no right to speak, I wouldn’t expect them to care because Mao was just another deluded dogmatist who should be relegated to the dustbin of history.

And yet it is utterly dogmatic to make pronouncements regarding politics and movements outside of your own experience if you have not investigated these processes, the history behind them, and theoretical debates––more importantly if you yourself have no history in these movements aside from academic observation––even if you imagine yourself to be a critical thinker. More importantly, this liberal position is utterly unaware of the boundaries of its own thought that reify capitalism as the end of history.

The most unquestioned article of dogma in today’s society is that capitalism is the end of history and that, in the liberal social democratic worldview, the best we can get is welfare capitalism. It takes as eternal ideas and events that are historically contingent, that are only several centuries old, and forbids any discussion of another future. Moreover, it often accepts all of the anti-communist propaganda––much of which even liberal historians of Russian and China reject––regarding the previous world historical revolutions as God’s own truth; its adherents will ignore all counter-evidence, refuse to read the serious critical scholarship that calls into question their default beliefs, and just repeat the same arguments over and over even if they lack any depth.

In two previous and semi-humourous posts I pointed out how these liberal “insights” regarding past communism were not only unoriginal but utterly banal. I would also add that, lacking any real critical insight or understanding of both the emergence and failure of actually existing socialisms, they are nothing more than a dogmatic assertion of capitalist ideology. That is, by accepting that capitalist socialist relations are holy and eternal laws of the universe, those who adhere to this position are incapable of thinking critically about anything outside of what they have been socialized to believe is normative. In this way they reify the parameters of counter-revolution, placing themselves firmly against change. But, to paraphrase Amin again, ideas that seek to change society for the better are superior to ideas that seek to preserve society as it is; this is because society changes and the point, if we accept change and motion as a principle, is to mobilize around and understanding that seeks to change society for the better rather than for the worse.

This type of dogmatism is the dogmatism of liberal capitalism and represents an uncritical acceptance of the confines of capitalist existence. Nothing more than a jumble of ruling ideas from the ruling classes, it is amusing that its adherents imagine they are critical when they are doing nothing more than repeating ad nauseam what is said by every liberal capitalist ideologue, what is printed in every pop-philosophy and pop-psychology handbook, in every liberal hollywood film, and is distilled in the most asinine Oprah-era new age philosophies… And has become immeasurably boring and small-minded, unoriginal and predictable.