Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee

Reprints #1 from The Organizer

On Party-Building, Against Revisionism and Dogmatism

Clay Newlin

Dogmatism: the root of opportunism in our movement

From The Organizer, Vol. 3, No. 5, July 1977.

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In this concluding article in our series on dogmatism, we discuss why we regard dogmatism as the essence of the ultra-left trend within the anti-revisionist Communist Movement. Beginning with our next issue we will begin to take up differences on the question of party building among Marxist-Leninist forces who oppose both dogmatism and revisionism.

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The Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and the October League (OL) have some strong political disagreements. They have diverged sharply on how to approach the question of busing. Each has a radically different approach to trade union reformers such as Sadlowski. And they have differed severely on how to apply China’s international line in the US.

In essence, however, they suffer from the same disease. Both have shown themselves in practice to be incapable of providing vanguard leadership to the working class. Both have demonstrated their political impotence in the powerful movements of the oppressed nationalities. And most importantly, both have been unable to apply Marxism-Leninism to the objective reality in the US.

In the Marxist-Leninist wing of the party-building movement, there is general agreement that the core of the RCP-OL disease is an ultra-left line. While both the RCP and OL have certain components of their political perspectives which are clearly rightist in both form and content (e.g. RCP’s liquidation of the struggle against racism, OL’s line on the family), their dominant aspect is ’left’ in form, right in content.

That is, both have manifested a general overestimation of the objective content of the class struggle at this stage in its development, characterizing a level of class consciousness that the workers have not yet attained. This leads them to adopt an objectively adventurist policy, a policy of propagandizing the workers in favor of revolution, but ignoring the task of actually organizing the workers for that revolution.


However, while there is general agreement as to the symptoms of this ultra-left disease, there are differences on how to correctly characterize it. We have used the term dogmatism. Others think that “’left’ opportunism” or “sectarianism” are more appropriate.

While some may consider a discussion of which term most accurately conveys the essence of the ultra-left line not worthy of debate, a correct resolution of this discussion is essential to the future of the Marxist-Leninist movement. For while dogmatism, ’left’ opportunism and sectarianism are all manifest in the ultra-left line and each must be combated on its own terms, the specific weight of each form of opportunism is not equal. There is a root error and if that error is not singled out, the diseased plant will continually send forth new shoots.

In our opinion, the root error is dogmatism, because it is dogmatism which provides the theoretical basis for the ultra-left line. Generally speaking, it is dogmatism which has caused many basically honest communists to deviate from Marxism-Leninism.

Dogmatism separates theory from practice. It sees theory as existing apart from the living reality of the class struggle, as if theory had a life of its own independent from the social practice of the masses. It sees theory as a schema, a set of immutable propositions, whose veracity is determined only by their internal logic rather than by the sole criterion of practice.


Thus for the dogmatist the study of concrete conditions is negated in favor of quotation and pedantry. All one has to be able to do is “to pick out passages from a book like a scholar whose head is a card index box filled with quotations from books, which he picks out as he needs them; but if the situation arises which is not described in any book, he becomes confused and grabs the wrong quotation from the box.” (Lenin, Wks, Vol. 29, p. 364.)

A dogmatist mechanically applies formulas which were derived from definite conditions in a specific time and place, to other and vastly different circumstances. The rich and varied, ever-changing reality is forced into a straight jacket of ready made axioms. New revolutionary phenomena are made to conform to outmoded ideas.

For the dogmatist, all theoretical problems have already been solved; our movement has no creative tasks. Our theoretical work is reduced to the mere recapitulation of the principles of Marxism-Leninism as summed up in the classics. Marxism is static; it needs no development.

Who can deny that our movement suffers from an overdose of these dogmatist “card-index-box-heads” who unfortunately forgot to file this remark of Lenin’s:

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. (Emphasis in original, Lenin, Wks. Vol. 24, p. 43.).

Certainly, it is easiest to recognize this error in the childish absurdities of such organizations as Workers’ Viewpoint which builds whole positions out of quotes from Lenin or the Marxist-Leninist Organizing Committee which, quite literally, strives to reduce the tasks of our movement to reprints and xeroxing.

But it is also manifest in both RCP and OL. Both have exhibited strong dogmatist currents in their lines on the relationship of the struggle for democracy to the struggle for socialism and the Afro-American national question (although on this last question RCP revises Marxism-Leninism in the service of dogmatism). And both reflect the very essence of dogmatism in their treatment of international line, and the class character of the Soviet Union.

The characterization of the ultra-left line as dogmatism, however, does not just lend clarity in that it identifies the base of the RCP-OL opportunism. It has two additional distinct advantages. First, it implicitly ties the ultra-left line to the main accompanying form of right opportunism revisionism. Dogmatism developed in direct relation to – or rather in direct reaction to – the growth of modern revisionism as represented in the CPUSA.


Revisionism transforms Marxism-Leninism into a muted doctrine of radical reform. It renounces the revolutionary core of scientific socialism which it argues is outmoded in modern conditions. Nature makes no leaps and the working class will evolve into socialism – this is the credo of revisionism.

In response to revisionism, genuine Marxist-Leninists have sought to resuscitate the revolutionary essence of Marx’s doctrine. In order to achieve this it was necessary to turn to a thorough study of the classics and to defend them from the revisionist attacks. Unfortunately, however, some forces got bogged down in their study, were not able to internalize the essence, the dialectical kernel, of the doctrine and turned to repeating phrases as if Marxism was a catechism.

Lost in the world of study and books, what became primary for them was not the conformity of theory to the actual path of societal development in the world and in the US, but the correspondence of a theory with what Lenin or Mao said – and this often misquoted and misunderstood. From a living science Marxism was transformed into a dogma.


The present ultra-left line is, therefore, the penalty our movement is paying for the sins of revisionism. Moreover, we are combatting dogmatism because it is presently the main impediment to striking a decisive blow against revisionism by developing a vanguard party. If the CPUSA was not a consolidated revisionist organization, our movement would not exist. In the final analysis, it only has real political significance as a movement against revisionism. Thus, if in the heat of the struggle against dogmatism, we lose sight of this fact, we will only aid revisionism which is in the long run an even greater danger than dogmatism.

It is the characterization of the ultra-left line as dogmatism which most clearly highlights this relationship between revisionism and dogmatism. In method, dogmatism is the exact opposite of revisionism; revisionism negates the proven principles of Marxism in the name of modern conditions, whereas dogmatism negates the modern conditions in the name of the principles of Marxism. In combatting revisionism, there is an inherent tendency to go over to the standpoint of dogmatism and vice versa.

Furthermore, the characterization dogmatism provides more clarity in one final respect. As a movement in the party-building stage, we face immense theoretical tasks. The struggle for correct theory plays a central role in determining the overall success or failure of our efforts. Without correct revolutionary theory there can be no question of developing a vanguard party in the US.

More specifically, our paramount theoretical task is the development of an independent elaboration of Marxism-Leninism for the concrete conditions in the U.S.

Certainly the defense of the “inherited legacy of scientific socialism”, as Comrade Silber of the Guardian put it, is the indispensable starting point for such an elaboration. But it is only the starting point. What is truly “paramount” is the development of an application of those principles for the actual struggle of the working class “against actual and real enemies who stand in the actual path of social and economic development” (Italics in the original, Lenin, Wks., Vol. 1, pg. 298).

The key to making such an independent elaboration is correct method. Once the fundamental principles of Marxism-Leninism are grasped, the solutions to our theoretical tasks depend on the application of the dialectical and historical materialist method to the concrete conditions and objective course of development in the US.

The term dogmatism serves to feature the most debilitating aspect of the ultra-left line precisely in relationship to our most pressing theoretical task. For while indeed serious, ultra-left errors are a natural product of a movement in its infancy. No great harm is done, as long as Marxist-Leninists prove capable of recognizing their errors and correcting them. With dogmatism as our method, however, such a correction is impossible. Reality serves to best demonstrate the real essence of a bankrupt political line. As we have pointed out above though, reality is of little importance for a dogmatist.

In conclusion, it is dogmatism which provides the best characterization for the ultra-left line. It is the term which emphasizes the theoretical base of the prevailing left opportunism and sectarianism. It ties the present ultra-left line to its most dangerous cousin. Finally, it is dogmatism which is the most dangerous block to the fulfillment of our pressing theoretical tasks in the present period.