Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

The New International, June 1940


Philip Sherman

Marxism and Deweyism


From New International, Vol. VI No. 5 (Whole No. 44), June 1940, p. 109.
Transcribed by Damon Maxwell.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Some people in and around the labor movement have begun to raise the question of the relationship between the work of Karl Marx and that of John Dewey. That seems to me to be pretty important – so I’d like to say a few words about it.

One distinction has to be kept clearly in mind, that between what men do and what they say they do. Most of the criticism of Marxism has called into question what Marx and the Marxists have said (their opinions on philosophy, sociology, political economy, etc.) And the best part of this criticism, including most of Dewey’s remarks in his Freedom and Culture, is, in my opinion, amply justified. It’s pretty clear to me that Marx took over the metaphysics of Hegel as well as the assumptions of classical political economy. And neither can stand up under serious critical examination today. If we think of Marxism only in terms of its philosophical doctrine, then of course it is radically different from Deweyism. But if we consider Marxism in what I feel is its far more significant phase, as a group of organized individuals with a job to do, then the relation becomes rather clear. This phase is revolutionary Marxism; it is Marxism in action; it is what the Marxists (Leninists) do.

Essentially Deweyism is this: firstly, the explicit formulation of the general features of scientific activity and secondly, the plea for the use of scientific method in social action. What I want to show is that there is an already existing relation between Marxism and science, and that the explicit, conscious acceptance of the procedures of inquiry is necessary for Marxism.

The same kind of critical analysis which Dewey applied to the method of science can be fruitfully utilized in a consideration of Marxism. Marxism, like science, is problem-solving activity. (And Marxists, like scientists, talk a great deal of nonsense about that activity.) The Marxist party seeks to accomplish a social revolution. To this end it must make analyses of existing conditions, and if it is serious, must propose solutions to the problems of various groups, itself included, with-in society. In this process the specific weight of traditional Marxist doctrine dwindles in importance at the same time that the procedures of inquiry come to the fore. And, as a matter of fact, it couldn’t be otherwise. It’s a very naive notion which says that a social movement – any social movement – which actually takes part in the day-to-day struggles of living people could rely on a system of Absolutes for answers to the questions which that struggle raises. It might say it did, but we don’t have to believe that. Consider, in these terms, the problem of the dialectic. Even as the traditional Hegelian formula, it is no doubt defended by most Marxists. But in the Leninist movement, “dialectic” is also and perhaps above all the name for a procedure. In practice, those procedures are called dialectical which place the received Marxian formulae in their context in inquiry. What is meant is that while these abstract formulae (nature of state, class struggle, etc.) may aid in the construction of hypotheses, may help to delimit the situation, nevertheless where action is to be taken, no judgment can be made which does not take the concrete aims of the party plus the existing conditions into consideration. This use of the term can be amply verified by a study of the Marxist critique of sectarianism in which “undialectical” is a word of opprobrium, used to designate the use of the Marxian formulae deductively, ripped out of the context of the needs and goals of the party and of the existing conditions. This, as I understand it, is a Deweyite analysis, whose very applicability is significant.

What is crucial, of course, in the consideration of Marxism and Deweyism is the place of science in the Marxist scheme.

All social action involves common-sense activity and thus may be viewed in terms of the relevant problem-situations and efforts at the construction of judgments. Thus in that sense alone, just because it is social action, there is a close relation between Marxism and science. But the Marxist movement has gone further than that. Long years of participation in the mass movements throughout the world has made necessary repeated analyses of concrete situations in the light of the needs of the struggle for power; and this has tended to systematize the body of knowledge relevant to revolutionary activity which has been developed by Marxist political scientists. And if Dewey would apply himself to a study of the actual procedures of the Marxists, he would soon see that goals, too, are not fixed. “World socialist revolution” is a concept broad enough to permit the adjustment of ends to the needs of the concrete situation, although it undoubtedly serves to shape those ends. Thus, approximately and in general, the procedures of the Marxists have been those of scientific inquiry. All this is cloaked, of course, in the proper world-historical phraseology, but it is no less significant on that account.

But if that is so, what need have Marxists of Deweyism – that is, of the conscious acceptance of the method of science? A profound need. Firstly, because these procedures have never been more than at best a rather close approximation to those of science. Secondly, because Marxists have had a limited notion of what constitutes democratic procedure. Widespread participation in the determination of actions is at a minimum. That is because participation cannot be important if a course of action is supposed to be determined by a set of received principles in which everyone “believes.” The leadership may “believe” as well, but it, at least, must answer concrete questions. The fight for socialism – and socialism without democracy is a contradiction in terms – must be a process of conscious application by an ever-growing group of intelligent men of the methods of inquiry in social action. The education of the rank and file of that movement must be one in the consciousness of those methods rather than in the repetition of empty shibboleths. And lastly, there may come a time when even highly abstract formulae will be betrayed by existing conditions. At such a time, a devotion to the formula may hamper the arrival at the required problem-solution. Facts will be forced into the necessary mold, the previously constructed system of procedures will have to be torn down, and it will be the beginning of the end for the movement as a revolutionary participant in the social scene. Thus every count requires the extension throughout the movement of the “scientific morale.”

Before concluding, there is one distinction which I think it is necessary to make: that is the difference between Dewey and Deweyism. I feel that Dewey, and Hook after him, tends to make a fatal error. An appeal to “the American people” for the use of scientific method can remain a sterile and Utopian dream. The proper place for that appeal is within the group which is prepared to see things through to the end. If we propose experimental socialist politics we must be ready to accept whatever judgment results from our inquiry. We cannot appeal to people in general for that acceptance – it requires devotion and an iron will. To appeal to various mass groups in society on the basis of participation in the solution of their problems which, dominantly, are rooted in their socio-economic position, is one thing. But to attempt to educate “the people” to a devotion to cultural freedom or scientific method in the abstract is to deny the tenets of Deweyism itself as to the real bases for action. Significant action is always motivated by a problem-situation, but the choice between scientific method and something else is certainly not felt to be a problem by the American people. Various groups within American society have problems of their own which demand solution before the democratic order which Dewey desires can be established. But this is not inconsistent with Deweyism. On the contrary, Deweyism, even if not Dewey, would strive to guide the mass movement in problem-solving activity. Education as to the best ,that is scientific, procedures would and could rise only from the experience of that activity. Dewey himself has pointed out the close relation between common-sense and inquiry. It is madness to demand that all people consciously apply the methods of science before action can be taken. That is an ideal which may shape our present goals, but which cannot be substituted for them.

Nor does the political activity of Dewey and Hook raise any serious hopes as to their ability to meet today’s problems in a forth-right and intelligent manner. A struggle against totalitarianism in the abstract and chummy relations with those who are willing to water down Marxism only in order to be able more easily to defend the status quo – all this bodes ill for a correct position on war and fascism and unemployment.

Just as there is a distinction to be drawn between what the Marxists say and what they do, so it is valid to do the same for Dewey. Dewey claims that he uses the method of science in politics – whether he does or not is at least questionable. This sets the problem. For, roughly, the major link between Marxism and Deweyism is that between Marxist action and Dewey’s claims. I believe that to bring them together would aid tremendously the fight for democratic socialism in America.


Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 7.7.2013