Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Rigified ideology...or clinging rigidly to the role of ideology?

by John Cleveland

First Published: In Struggle! No. 284, April 6, 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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The article signed by the editors last issue (283) correctly challenges Charles Gagnon’s argument that objective (economic) conditions decide everything and thus the experience of socialism need not call into question the programme and ideology that guided the parties that took power, Marxism-Leninism.

Unfortunately, their logic is the flip side of the same coin. Eastern European regimes became totalitarian. MLism was the official ideology of the ruling parties. Hence, MLism is a totalitarian ideology. That ideology must be smashed, broken with 100%, before any future political struggle is possible. This cannot be done in IS! or even the left as a whole in the next few months. Hence no political unity is possible among revolutionary socialists; IS! must be dissolved. [1]

What’s wrong with both the “defend proletarian ideology” and “smash totalitarian ideology” approaches?

First, there is no time for a majority of members to come to definitive conclusions pro or con the ideology of Marxism-Leninism. But there is time to reject key elements of our programme and to clear the way for a deeper debate. The editors’ proposals mean dissolution and dispersion; a step by step approach might enable us to maintain a country-wide organizational structure for continuing the debate in the framework of an ongoing collective practice.

Second, the way in which we have dealt with theory (ideology) in the past necessarily made it the preserve of a few theoreticians somewhat cut off from practice. We cannot all of a sudden demand of rank and file members, workers, women etc. to enter into the debates at that level and in that way. This second point requires elaboration.

The role of ideology

What has our line been on the role of ideology and of theoreticians that must be broken with?

First thesis: that the masses are dominated by bourgeois ideology (nationalism, reformism). Left to their own devices, they will spontaneously wage struggles within the confines of that alien ideology.

Second thesis: that the role of communists is to develop and propagate proletarian ideology. This is the work of scientists because Marxism is a scientific ideology. Only scientists – the modern-day philosopher kings – are able to fully comprehend the economic laws which drive history forward independent of anyone’s will.

Third thesis: that the key factor in making a revolution and building socialism is the development of a party which is above all an ideological vanguard. Hence the critical thing is to maintain the ideological solidity of the leading cadre around the “essentials of a class line”, around a basically unchanging scientific ideology. This is what underlies our view of the programme as the expression of that ideology which will remain valid at all stages of the revolution. It is the basis for the idea that the top leadership must maintain ideological unanimity at all times.

Most important, it is the basis of the idea that our political positions are just an application to a particular situation of a universally applicable scientific body of laws (ideology). Hence, it is presumed that we can deduce political positions from the ideological principles and that conformity to those principles is the number one criterion of the “correctness” of the position. In practice, this has led repeatedly to the development of political positions and analyses that were great in theory but far removed from the practical political situation. It led us to oppose the PLO in the name of “proletarian leadership” and to condemn Bill 101 in the name of the abstractly fine principle of the absolute equality of languages and nations.

Such an approach also leads to organizational structures where the (scientist) theoreticians develop and refine the ideology and the members are mere executants (lab technicians) who do politics (seen as applying the theoreticians’ ideology to a particular situation).

When Gagnon and the collective of 30 defend our programme’s conception of the party as an ideological vanguard, this is what they are upholding.

To continue with an approach which requires everyone to adhere to a high level of shared ideological principles can only lead to one of two things: either a tiny sect of intellectuals willing and able to be “scientists” or a bigger organization where ideology controls politics and the “scientists” control the executants. We need to start uniting people on the basis of agreement on what to do not what to think – around a set of political objectives (short and long term) and a strategy for getting there. [2] And if socialist feminists or socialist nationalists want to join a communist organization because they agree with the political objectives and strategy, because they see socialist revolution advancing the struggle against their oppression, we should welcome them.

The editors expect comrades to come to the congress and choose between total acceptance and total rejection of an ideology [3]. In the short run, this could only mean asking members to vote “on faith” for one group of theoreticians versus another. In my view, the congress should aim to reject a limited number of basic political conceptions where a majority consensus is possible and aim at a basis of unity which allows for ideological differences.

After the congress, we can go more deeply into the ideological roots of the political problems we face. We will do it together with other socialists.

Once we agree to set aside the programme due to political criticisms explicitly shared by a majority, then we can create new, looser organization which tries to build a new approach to ideology and politics, so that:

(1) we seek unity based on political positions, not ideology. This means that people’s (ideological) reasons for supporting the same political conclusions may differ. In the next few weeks we must concentrate on figuring out whether a sufficient consensus exists on political perspectives to continue as an organization – or at least determine why we cannot at this time.

(2) we slop seeing ourselves as the vanguard minority who will make the revolution by ideological remote control. Instead we are a part, of a socialist movement of several tendencies which will take power, together with the mass organizations, as a progressively more united, organized and conscious majority.

(3) we see the development and propagation of theory as a process which is necessarily linked to the lessons drawn from the practice of class struggle by those waging that struggle.

John Cleveland


[1] The editors counter Gagnon’s conservative skepticism with radical skepticism. Gagnon says that the theoreticians should continue the study of the history of socialism and publicily question various aspects of the ideology; however, members must continue to defend the programme until this work is completed and a new coherent ideological consensus can be imposed. The editors write articles which emphisize the negative. The aim is not so much to transform people’s views as to smash the ideology that has a religious hold on them first...like we tried to do with the wrong ideas held by the masses in the gooold “radical demarcation” days.

[2] The ideological vanguard approach must be rejected. However, a communist organization should draw on the most advanced and progressive theory in all fields and make its contribution to developing and promoting it. Intellectuals still have a positive to play. The problem is seeing proletarian ideology as something fixed and monolithic and is something only a few party theoreticians can contribute in developing.

[3] Although their approaches have created some problems for the way the debate has gone so far, let me be clear: both Gagnon and the editors have right to insist that we must be ready to critically examine the fundamental premisses of our ideology in carrying out the debate.