Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Irwin Silber

The struggle against dogmatism

First Published: The Guardian, December 22, 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Fourth of a series

* * *

The problems of dogmatism and what Lenin appropriately called “infantile leftism” represent a particularly dangerous trend in the Marxist-Leninist movement in the U.S. at this time.

When a Marxist-Leninist party has developed some significant ties to the working class and mass movements of the people, these connections help to serve as a brake on tendencies toward dogmatism. This happens because a party with such ties to the masses cannot help but become quickly aware of the consequences of its political stands.

But in a period when the communist party remains to be built–when barely the first steps towards building it have been taken–then the connections between Marxism-Leninism as an organized political force and the mass movements of the people are unavoidably very weak. This is so even though the individual Marxist-Leninists may themselves have come directly out of the mass movements because we cannot speak seriously of testing theory in practice unless we are talking about the disciplined collective practice of a Marxist-Leninist organization. Nor can such practice be considered really meaningful so long as it is confined to work on a local scale.

Precisely because Marxism-Leninism is not yet an effective political force in our country–and it cannot be one until it is not only tested in practice, but enriched by practice–there exists an inevitable tendency towards quotation-mongering, juvenile left posturing and book Marxism. Left dogmatism flourishes when those who would be revolutionaries are not compelled to take responsibility for the consequences of their political line among the masses.

But this is only half the problem. The U.S. left–for a great variety of historical reasons–has always suffered from a low theoretical level. Pragmatism is the dominant form of bourgeois ideology in the U.S. and this has also had a profound influence on the left itself. As a result, the science of Marxism-Leninism has, for the most part, been caricatured–not only by the ruling class, but by the left itself.

The struggle for Marxism-Leninism in the U.S. is a direct result of the collapse of the Communist Party into revisionism and the awareness by many of those who became radicalized in the mass struggles of the 1960s of the need for a scientific theory to guide the deepening struggle against monopoly capitalism. The emergence of a pernicious dogmatist trend in our movement should be seen, therefore, as a serious deviation in what is essentially a positive development–the struggle for Marxist-Leninist theory.

This needs saying because the appearance of dogmatism in the party-building movement has been seized upon by various revisionist, social-democratic and anarchist trends to justify their own abhorrence of Marxist-Leninist theory and communist organization.

The struggle to combat and expose dogmatism, therefore, is an indispensable aspect of the struggle against all of those who use such errors to foster anticommunism in its various “left” guises.

Dogmatism, of course, does not describe itself as such. But its manifestations are all around us and are not hard to recognize.

Are we not all familiar with “revolutionary” organizations whose members will attend one or two meetings of a tenants organization (for example) and immediately begin to fulminate about the “dictatorship of the proletariat?” Haven’t we seen the “mass” leaflets of those who “build” the movement against racism in Boston by calling upon the masses to struggle against “the two superpowers” or who direct “the main blow” at Soviet social-imperialism when supposedly taking up the struggle for Puerto Rican independence?

What is a flunkeyist attitude toward foreign communist parties if not an expression of the most abject dogmatism? Is there a Marxist anywhere in the U.S. who did not know exactly what the October League (OL) would say about recent developments in China before they appeared in print, not one decibel different but with less authority than in the pages of Peking Review? What need does a communist organization have to weigh the consequences of its political line before the masses if its statements are intended to win approval elsewhere rather than to be measured for their influence on the American working class?

How about those who sneer from the side lines at every struggle for union democracy, so “pure” in their contempt for “reform” leaders like Sadlowski of the Steelworkers, Miller of the Mineworkers or Caesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, that they isolate themselves from the masses of workers and give no leadership at all?

And what of those who immediately chorus “reformism” whenever Marxist-Leninists attempt to develop struggles that utilize the bourgeois legalities? They are usually fond of quoting Lenin, but they rarely cite Lenin’s views on this very question. They are worth considering:


“Inexperienced revolutionaries often think that legal methods of struggle are opportunist because in this field the bourgeoisie has especially frequently (particularly in ’peaceful,’ nonrevolutionary times) deceived and fooled the workers and that illegal methods of struggle are revolutionary. But that is not true.... It is not difficult to be a revolutionary when revolution has already broken out and is at its height, when everybody is joining the revolution just because they are carried away, because it is the fashion and sometimes even out of careerist motives.

“It is far more difficult–and of far greater value–to be a revolutionary when the conditions for direct, open, really mass and really revolutionary struggle do not yet exist, to be able to champion the interests of the revolution (by propaganda, agitation and organization in nonrevolutionary bodies and often enough in downright reactionary bodies in a nonrevolutionary situation, immediately appreciating the need for revolutionary methods of action. To be able to find, to probe for, to correctly determine the specific path or the particular turn of events that will lead the masses to the real, last, decisive and great revolutionary struggle–such is the main task of communism in Western Europe and America today.” (“Left Wing Communism”).

Lenin wrote these words more than 50 years ago and he clearly did not intend them as a prognosis for our tasks in 1976. But the revolutionary movement in our own country has progressed in such a way since that time that we can say with some assurance that his commentary continues to be most relevant to U.S. communists today.

Can dogmatism ever defeat revisionism? To the contrary, dogmatism pushes the masses into the hands of the revisionists. The slogan, “No united action with revisionism,” used by the OL to justify a great variety of sectarian actions, reflects a misreading of U.S. political reality that stems from a lack of responsibility to the mass movement and a mechanical transplanting of a concept advanced by the Chinese Communist Party under a completely different set of circumstances. Actually the OL was not even original with this line. Consider the following:

“There is no basis for partial and temporary unity with the revisionists. Revolutionaries should not enter into Soviet-inspired alliances. They are traps to thwart the revolution.” Familiar? Who do you think said it?

The statement comes from an article written in 1966 by Progressive Labor (PL), once considered a “Maoist” group but generally recognized as having become yet one more isolated cult. More to the point, it was contained in an article criticizing North Vietnam for accepting Soviet aid in 1966. There is a direct line of development from this piece of gratuitous “advice” by PL to the Vietnamese in the heat of battle against imperialism and the stand taken by various “Maoist” groups today on Angola, Puerto Rico, Iran and Cuba.


In ideological terms, dogmatism leads to objective class-collaboration. Ultra-“left” groups invariably provide a “radical” cover for the ruling class. But in some respects there is an even deeper political and human tragedy involved. How many thousands of talented and intelligent cadre are lost to the revolutionary movement as the result of dogmatism? How many human personalities wrenched out of recognition, not just by the hatreds of polemical struggle, but by the frustration that descends upon those who have pursued a political course down a deadend street, doomed to tilt at ideological windmills until they burn out with rage and futility?

Perhaps the most dangerous consequence of all is that dogmatism breeds contempt for revolutionary theory. Ours is a movement that needs Marxist-Leninist theory like a baby needs milk. It is our indispensable nourishment. Without a revolutionary theory we will remain in our political infancy, unable to take the first step in building a movement that can even lead the struggle for state power.

There is no magic formula for combatting dogmatism. All parties–including the best of them–make dogmatic errors from time to time. And in a period such as ours, when the task of building a party has been placed before us, the problem is even more difficult because we have only a limited amount of direct collective experience in the popular movements, especially the working-class movement.

The mastering and internalization of Marxist-Leninist theory is one essential part of the process. But precisely because in such a period theory? will inevitably be studied as theory, it is urgent that the Marxist-Leninists train themselves to study theory in a practical way, constantly examining the fundamental principles of scientific socialism in terms of their origins in practice and their concrete application to revolutionary struggle.

In addition, party-building cannot be separated from the necessity of communists deepening their ties with the working class and participating in the popular movements, although it is essential that this be done from a party-building point of view.

But there is yet another dimension. The very task of party-building is itself part of the struggle against dogmatism. For unless the political practice of communists proceeds within the framework of a collectively determined political line, discipline, scientific analysis, criticism and self-criticism and the experience of democratic centralism, we may fall into the trap of economism or reformism in the very process of combatting dogmatism.