Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Philadelphia Workers’ Organizing Committee

The sickness on the left – Dogmatism and the ’Revolutionary Phrase’

First Published: The Organizer, Vol. 2, No. 4, August-September 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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* A group of Black workers at a plant with a long history of racism are discussing filing an EEOC suit against the company. Our “Marxist-Leninist” steps forward to provide leadership. The workers are treated to a lengthy presentation on the class nature of the state. The state, you see, is in the hands of the bourgeoisie, so filing a suit would be playing right into their hands, Get it?

* Some leftists and workers are meeting to plan support action for a hospital strike. Our “Marxist-Leninist” takes the floor and inquires if they all realize that their projected support activities are “mere trade union struggle” and “economist” to boot. The leftists sigh. . . everyone else looks confused and embarrassed.

* A rank and file caucus is meeting. A protest is being planned at the union hall after the union leadership has collaborated with the companies in cutting back fringe benefits. Our “Marxist-Leninist” rises to the occasion and delivers a fine summation of Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism and our solemn obligation to work in the trade unions. We should not be attacking the union but the bosses, he explains. The workers assume the young man is new to the industry and patiently try to explain to him the facts of class collaboration. He leaves the meeting looking puzzled.

* The workers at a particular shop have been hit with wage cuts. Working conditions have deteriorated, leading to spontaneous protests and work stoppages. Our “Marxist-Leninist” leaflets the shop. The leaflet has a paragraph outlining the specific problems in the shop tacked on to a two page single spaced manifesto that identifies the main contradictions in the world today, calls for concerted action against the two superpowers, and ends with a stirring proclamation calling for the creation of a Marxist-Leninist vanguard-party. The janitor has to work overtime to clean up all the crumpled leaflets on the shop floor.


For all too many workers this is the face of Marxism-Leninism that they encounter in the shops and in the day-to-day struggle in the unions. These incidents are all examples of the grip of dogmatism on the Communist movement today.

What is dogmatism? For some it equals any serious attempt to study revolutionary theory as it was developed by Marx, Engels, Lenin and so forth. These revolutionaries worship “practice,” by which they mean their own experience, their own narrow political activity. They refuse to see that practice in its broader historical sense is exactly what Marx and the other great theorists sought to understand and sum up. This sort of opposition to dogmatism is nothing but a fig leaf to hide contempt for theory.

A popular understanding of dogmatism is that it consists of the parroting of what the Soviets said in an earlier period or what the Chinese say today. Certainly this is one of the earmarks of dogmatism. The slavish devotion of many in our movement to the line of the Chinese Communist Party has been underlined by recent events in Angola, where any attempt at an independent analysis showed that the Chinese party had made some serious errors.

The uncritical acceptance of the line of the Communist International of 1928 on the Afro-American national question (namely that Black people in the Black Belt South constitute a nation) in spite of profound social and economic changes since that time is another example of the same mentality. But this aspect of dogmatism does not get at its essence.


Lenin summed up the underlying error in all the incidents we cited at the beginning when he said: “Our theory is not a dogma, but a guide to action, Marx and Engels always said, rightly ridiculing the mere memorizing and repetition of formulas that at best are capable only of marking out general tasks, which are necessarily modifiable by the concrete economic and political conditions of each particular period of the historical-process.”

Our dogmatists have undoubtedly memorized this quotation along with all the others, but as the examples we cited show this did not prevent them substituting the “repetition of formulas” for the concrete application of Marxist principles to the particular situation. Our dogmatists are quite vocal when it comes to our “general tasks” – they will wax eloquent on the need for a vanguard party, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and proletarian internationalism.

But they have very little to say that is useful when it comes to posing a concrete strategical and tactical path of action to actualize these concepts. A Marxism that remains on the plane of our general tasks is next to useless because it cannot be a guide to action. It cannot address the real and immediate problems that are posed by the concrete situation.

A theory that is rooted in dogmatism cannot possibly generate an effective practice. The result is that our most extreme dogmatists do not even try. They belittle mass work and avoid the class struggle like a plague. They reduce Communist work to “memorization and repetition of formulas.” The formulas are conscientiously learned in study groups and duly repeated in endless polemics which are only of interest to other dogmatists and in leaflets at the factory gate which are read by virtually no one.

This, for the most part, is the practice of the ultra-dogmatist “revolutionary wing,” a sorry collection of groups that appear to be united principally around an understanding that the work of building a party consists of pure and simple study and propaganda and should not be contaminated by any involvement in the impure mass movements.

Others, and here we would include the October League and the Revolutionary Communist Party, do seriously attempt to provide leadership in the class struggle. They understand to some degree at least that this is the key test for Marxist-Leninists. But the influence of dogmatism here also makes itself felt and has the end result of either furthering the isolation of Communists from the masses or misleading sections of the mass movement.


Dogmatism, when carried over from the realm of theory into the world of actual events, produces sectarianism. The dogmatist, guided by a set of abstract and timeless truths, cannot modify and tailor our general tasks to the concrete situation. The result is a policy that is no policy at all because of its abstractness or worse yet a policy that because of its failure to take into account the particulars of the situation, is plain wrong.

Sectarianism is the politics of revolutionary phrase-making. . . “the repetition of revolutionary slogans irrespective of objective circumstances. . . ” As Lenin put it: “. . . the slogans are superb, alluring, intoxicating, but there are no grounds for them.” The OL’s slogan “No unity of action with Revisionism” is an example of revolutionary phrasemongering in the guise of a policy. It sounds very revolutionary, with its uncompromising and strongly stated opposition to revisionism. But when analysed in terms of the actual state of our movement and the tasks that face us its emptiness becomes readily apparent.

The plain facts of the matter are that the revisionists are a larger factor in the mass movements than we are. To refuse to join in activities in which the revisionists play a major role is to cut ourselves off from the broad masses who unite with this activity. It is to leave them at the mercy of the revisionists. Objectively it narrows the field of influence of anti-revisionism and strengthens the influence of revisionism. The posture of being “more revolutionary than thou” cannot hide the bankruptcy of this position.


Sectarianism, when it does not consist of empty phrases, is almost always guilty of being too many steps ahead of the mass movement to be able to lead. Sectarianism poses a program that may be very fine in the abstract, but that fails to make connection with the real state of development of the mass movement. The result is inevitably isolation of the Communists.

Sometimes a sectarian policy may succeed in capturing sections of the advanced workers. Then the result is to split off these workers along with the Communists from the broad center, and thus further divide and weaken the movement.

The practice of both the Revolutionary Communist Party and the October League in the trade unions reflects this sectarian approach. Instead of working to build a broad left-center alliance that unites Communists with the mass of workers, our ultra-leftists draw a handful of advanced workers into forms based on a program that fairly bristles with revolutionary-sounding phrases and politically advanced demands, but cannot possibly serve as a rallying point for struggle for the broader ranks.

Why does dogmatism have such strength in our movement today? Much of it has to do with our historical development as a reaction to both the anti-intellectual ism of the New Left and the pathetic reformism of the CPUSA.

The New Left, which dominated the political landscape of the 1960’s, at best underestimated the importance of theory and was woefully ignorant of Marxism. At its worst it advocated a mindless politics of “doing your own thing” which was hostile to even thinking very much let alone developing a systematic theory. Much of our movement developed out of the civil rights, anti-war, and student struggles of the sixties. The failures of these movements underlined the need for theory and organization.

The most serious survivors of the New Left took up Marxism-Leninism as an antidote to spontaneity. This of course was a necessary and positive development. But at least among significant sections of the new Communist movement, there was an overreaction that tended towards book worship and a profound distrust of the mass movement.


The attempt to recreate a revolutionary Marxist trend in the US has occurred against the backdrop of the triumph of revisionism in the CPUSA and the degeneration of that once proud party. Lenin remarked that the strength of ultra-leftism in his time was the price the working class movement pays for the sins of opportunism. So it is with us today.

Since the 1950’s all the efforts to build a new Marxist-Leninist party have been swamped by ultra-leftism. The RCP, the OL, and the Revolutionary Wing are all travelling a well-worn path, first blazed by the Provisional Organizing Committee and the Progressive Labor Party. The anti-revisionist movement, while full of good intentions and revolutionary spirit, has failed to meet its theoretical tasks. It has for the most part been unable to counter revisionism with anything more than revolutionary phrases and sectarian practice. It has been unable to grasp revisionism dialectically, and has instead fallen into a knee-jerk emotionalism, which often as not, rejects not only reformism but the reform struggle as well.

Many in the Marxist-Leninist movement have identified this theoretical poverty as the historical Achilles heel of the revolutionary labor movement in the US. They have correctly seen that the tradition of pragmatism or a generalized indifference to the development of revolutionary theory must be overcome if we are to succeed where past generations have failed.

Unfortunately, our dogmatists, in their eagerness to bury this legacy, have dug themselves into a hole. The dogmatists of today call to mind the German immigrant Marxists whom Engels never tired of lambasting for their preoccupation with abstract theory, their ignorance of the American conditions and their hostility to the “impure” workers’ movement in the US.


Finally, the strength of dogmatism is to some degree a reflection of the class composition of our movement. . . the continuing preponderance of students and petty-bourgeois intellectuals over proletarian elements. Finished abstract systems have a certain appeal to the petty-bourgeois intellectual. The test of practice always endangers such systems and is thus naturally to be avoided. Such people are satisfied to cultivate their purity in isolation from the nasty complexities of the class struggle.

Ultra-leftism has a definite material basis in the isolation from socialized production that is characteristic of the petty-bourgeoisie as a class. The revolutionary minded petty-bourgeoisie characteristically lacks discipline and staying power and this impatience often finds its way into the movement in the form of super-revolutionary sounding programs, a tendency to skip over important steps and stages, and the habit of jumping the gun.

These highs of revolutionary frenzy are often followed by lows of utter demoralization and acceptance of the bourgeois order. The careers of New Left leaders Rennie Davis and Jerry Rubin, who in a matter of a short time made the transition from super-revolutionaries to public relations men for religious cults which preach passivity to capitalist oppression, illustrate this point.


While the class composition of our movement inevitably produces these tendencies, their dominance is by no means inevitable. By studying Marxism-Leninism and creatively applying it to the conditions of our society, by sinking deep roots in the working class and by working to provide leadership in the class struggle, our movement can proletarianize itself, both by transforming the outlook of its cadre drawn from the student and intellectual strata and by winning over substantial numbers of advanced workers.

Today we are in the period of laying the groundwork for the construction of a genuine Communist Party. One of our most critical tasks is the exposure of opportunism as part of the process of forging unity around a correct political line. Today it is left opportunism, in the form of dogmatism and sectarianism, which is holding back our movement.

It is this mistaken line which is diverting sections of the party-building movement away from the difficult but absolutely necessary task of building a Communist current in the workers’ movement. It is this line which is preventing the Communist forces from broadening their influence among the democratic movements of women and the oppressed nationalities. It is this line which is driving a wedge between the revolutionary working class here in the US and the national liberation movements in the oppressed countries.

This article begins a series devoted to the exposure of dogmatism. In the next issue we will examine the approach of the dogmatist trend to the question of party building.