Praxis No. 1. 1965

Practice and Dogma

by Danko Grlić

Source: Danko Grlić. “Practice and Dogma,” Praxis, 1965/1, pp. 49-58.

“Practice” is a term which in a colloquial sense is very widely and very variously used. When we speak of a doctor’s “practice,” we have in mind a very definite pursuit within a limited period of time; when describing a businessman as “practical,” we think of him as being able, resourceful and shrewd; when pointing out the value of our socialist “practice,” we emphasize historical experience and assess developments which have taken place throughout a whole country, even a whole system. When arguing for a general cession of abstract theorizing and a commencement of “practical” action, we mean all concrete acts in the sphere of sensuous material reality, as opposed to those in the sphere of theory.

It would appear that the last, “most abstract,” most general, and, therefore, probably, most philosophical” distinction, has somehow become crucial in certain theses of contemporary philosophical thought.

Indeed it is just the determination of the relationship to theory that is basic to many arguments about the meaning and purport of the idea of practice. Thus, the related terms “theory and practice” are often taken as being fundamental, even when attempts are made to characterize practice, from a Marxist position, as a wider, more comprehensive notion into which theory can be subsumed, when the fact that theory is immanent in practice is considered to be the specific of human practice. Consequently, human practice — from this paint of view — is always theoretical, and human theory is inconceivable without certain “practical” repercussions, if it really is a “serious” theory, i. e. a thought tending towards realization, and if it is expressed within co-ordinates of a particular place and time, and not empty speculation and idle thought. Human practice is thus distinguished from animal “practice” just because it is purposeful, planned, ideally preconceived; a consequence of its having first been theoretical. A frequently adduced proof of this argument is the well-known quotation from Marx’s Das Kapital, though Marx is dealing with the analysis of the concept of labour, not practice, and although the subject of Marx’s objection is the narrower concept, which, at best, can only be part of universal human practice: “We presuppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees, is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He does not only effects a change of form in the material in which he works, but he also realizes a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will.” (K. Marx, Capital, vol. I, ch. 5)

This thesis of Marx, extended to all spheres, taken as absolute, lop-sidedly interpreted as the basic characteristic of the total sum of human practice has often resulted in theoreticians unconsciously taking as basic and preponderant in defining the category of practice relationship theoretical-practical, ideal-material, imagined-realized[1].

Regardless, however, of whether practice includes or does not include theory — or whether both practice and theory can be comprehended only through same third thing, which determines the possibility of establishing this relationship — the question nevertheless arises: can practice be determined at all simply on the basis of its relation (immanent or transcendent) to theory?

A particular concept may sometimes not be determined and wholly explained only through a positive statement of the content immanent in it and it is extremely important for the delimitation of its scope and the comprehension of its meaning that it also be determined negatively towards that which is really opposed to it as its counter-concept. What is, then, opposed to human practice?

If we intend to determine negatively this central concept of Marx’s thought according to Marx’s fundamental views (although not always in accordance with certain of his own observations and accidental distinctions, in some places where practice is even opposed to theory) we could, I think, argue that human practice stands in opposition to all that is passive, merely meditative, non-creative, all that is adaptation to the world, a yielding to the nature of the world and to its particular social conditions. True human practice, consequently, is not acceptance of the “facts,” of objective reality and its laws, of moral or ideological imperatives or accepted norms, of something heteronomous, in which man is always at a disadvantage and is the pawn of superior forces, spiritual or material. Human practice — as opposed to animal adaptation — could be defined as the true transformation of the world, a transformation which is historically relevant, as an active interference with the structure of reality. Human practice is, therefore, not different from animal practice” through being — or at least not only through being — always theoretical as well, but primarily because it transforms the world, and does not conform to it; the world being always — epistemologically speaking — its object. Human practice is not creating itself and not created, because of particular conditions transcendent to it, because it is not — to use the old terms of Spinoza — only natura naturata, but also natura naturans. Consequently, put more simply, practice which deserves this name, is always creative. It is not at all an ideal or actual state, but an unceasing living process of alteration and transformation. However, this process is not a process destined sometime to terminate in inactivity, it is not a process meant to stop being a process, not even on account of those factual “imperfections” of modern reality which aim at a conflict-free “perfection.” It seeks to attain no ultimate and final “results,” no life of bliss in this or the other world, in paradise or some promised land. Future practice, towards which contemporary practice is open and is leading us, will again be transformation. Accordingly, thus practice will never completely satisfy “true” human nature, and the belief in such concrete, wholly unalienated nature is itself a sort of mythological alienation. Therefore, practice is a negation of that eschatological view, which believes in the end of the world, the end of history, and the end of the possibility of the “eternal” development of human nature, i. e. believes in the final “stabilisation” of human nature and society.

Naturally, to define human practice (i. e. practice worthy of human beings) as transformation is still not to define it adequately in content. Certain questions are necessarily implied — in order to avoid a banal relativism — of the quality, purpose, and meaning of this transformation. But, even without any closer definition, without distinctions — which could, for instance in opposition to mere natural change, be looked for in the sphere of historically relevant change, a change, consequently, including the concept of progress as well — such an “empty” definition of practice as transformation can also have quite concrete repercussions in the theoretical and sensuous-real sphere of human activity.

Man’s fundamental vocation, his constitutive characteristic, and his mission (both as theoretician and practician in a narrower sense) become so — to consider only certain ideological repercussions of practice thus understood — no longer a passive acceptance of everything that has once, somewhere been established as correct, no “transplantation” of earlier theoretical postulates to our time (or simply their “elaboration” under “our specific conditions”), no “application” of certain eternal principles to our reality, but a revolutionary transformation of these principles. Man cannot, as for instance a philosopher, have the ambition to transform the world if he does not at the same time transform his own ideas and principles. It is, therefore, an inevitable pre-requisite for him — in order to constitute himself as human — to be actively, personally, ceaselessly engaged in fighting for possibilities of an invariably new, increasingly progressive, non-standard thought and action. Practice, thus, ceases to be an inert insistence on something existent, some status quo ante, or, again, a self-contented life in the past or present. On the contrary, it is made up of such human penetration into all spheres of reality that it transcends the existing, and includes elements of projection into what is, as yet non-existent, into the future. Such human practice cannot be resignedly made to conform to some general category, to the scheme of certain superhuman forces or material conditions. For, this practice means self-awareness of the fact that the existence of these forces is made possible, and the conditions created and changed, by man, the subject of real historical changes, leading from the “kingdom of necessity” to the never sufficiently free and never fully liberated “kingdom of freedom.” Practice is thus opposed to everything established, dogmatic, rigid, static, once-for-all determined, fixed, standard; to everything that has become dug into the past and remained hypostatised. From this point of view, dogmatic practice cannot be practice at all; therefore, it is, in fact, contradictio in adiecto, an insoluble contradiction, which can only conditionally be used as a term, in order to make clearer the counter-term, i, e. anti-dogmatic practice or, simply, practice. For, schema and dogma, invariable emphasis on the same principles, a “faithful” adherence to whatever has once been proclaimed true are nothing but a substitute for practical impotence. Therefore, a strict attachment to any once-stated theses (even if they are the so-called fundamental theses) cannot be made to conform to the sense of the concept, the quintessence of all that Marx meant by human practice.

This is the reason why it is absurd to insist in Marx’s name persistently and in detail on everything that Marx ever and on any occasion said or wrote. For, anything — regardless of the freshness, revolutionary enthusiasm, and intellectual force with which it may have been expressed — may sometime become dogma. And it may well be that today, more than ever, the basic historical assumptions have been negated of any dogma whatever that had its relative justification in certain historical conditions, as an efficacious, though frequently simplified, slogan as a call to direct action. It its just because these historical assumptions have been so clearly refuted today, that we often find ourselves in a paradoxical situation when even some dogmatists agree “in principle” that Marx’s thought is no dogma, that certain assumption should be developed and not allowed to stagnate and should be restated for and because of a different time. Therefore, even the dyed-in-the-wool high priests of dogma at times very “resolutely” and “radically” argue that “quotation mania” and a talmudic approach to Marx should be done away with. It is, thus, persistently repeated from all sides that Marxist thought should have unfettered and full development. Even so — though dogmatists will admit it less readily (perhaps now and then only, at intimate moments or within the closest circle) — this line of thought is somehow not developing adequately. The idea concerning the transformation (if we do not count all those changes for worse), it has just slightly ossified, has become repetitive, has lost in vigour, freshness and applicability to life. All those — and they are not many — who, like Plekhanov, Rosa Luxemburg, Lukacs, Fromm, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Lefebvre, Bloch, Goldmann, Kolakowski, and others, attempted, with more or less success, to develop the idea individually, were either completely rejected by those holding the “official” Marxist position, or were, at least, declared to be dubious theoreticians, replete with grave errors and constantly “deviating” to the left or right.

It is, therefore, necessary with full force to ask the questions: why is this so, why is it that this line of thinking, whose development- is so fervently desired by everyone, still does not advance much or keeps deviating?

It is an undoubted fact, — as we have said — that in Marxist philosophy (as well as in some humanities) a structure of thought has prevailed in which — both with dogmatists and with those that verbally disassociate themselves from dogmatism — it is emphasized, until it has become little more than a tedious platitude, that Marxist thought should develop in keeping with the changes of the real world. At the same time, however, as soon as anyone dares to say anything about some particular problem, which reveals a different view, deviating, however slightly, from the one held by Marx, he will find himself the target of a hail of ready, concerted, abusive or ironical attacks: he is “ correcting” Marx, we know well those who “complement” Marx, who claim the right to “criticize” Marx, to be more contemporary than him, those primitive innovators, woolly-headed abstract humanists, renegades, etc., etc. It is beyond doubt that no reasonable person can argue that everything new is at the same time good, and that everything new also means the overcoming of the old. Moreover, frequently (and most often when Marx is involved), the question of authority is based on too simplified a dilemma: either original thought or the complete recognition of somebody else’s authority; as if the entire history of thought and reality so far had evolved only around these two extremes. For, insofar as we do not tend to exaggerate, to paint everything with too restricted a palette, discarding all nuances; insofar as struggling against authority, we ourselves do not fall victim to the “authority” of inevitable and unavoidable needs for radical decisions — we shall be compelled to admit that the alternative: authority or one’s own attitude, in this most radical form, is only an apparent antinomy. Because, there is no country, or social system, or ideological climate, in which every germ of individuality has to such a degree been suppressed, that persons become simply faceless executors of every desire, idea or accidental thought of authority; in which persons become such cowards, genuflectors, and adulators that they entirely lose any individuality.

There is, likewise, no philosophy nor any major theoretical venture in history which, irrespective of its revolutionarity, is totally free of the authority of tradition. Nevertheless, in spite of all this, the question of authority, even of supreme ideological authority, is today an open issue facing Marxist philosophy. For, how — this, after all, seems to be the crucial question, the answer to which is nearly always avoided — are we to develop Marxist thought at all (not only “elaborate” it or scholastically systematize and “complement”), if we cannot, in principle, have different, even divergent views on some issues from those held by the classics. Marx is — it is almost banal to repeat this truth acknowledged today by many bourgeois theoreticians also — one of the greatest theoreticians, whose intellect, will, and talent frequently transcend the horizons of his time; he is one of the towering geniuses of world history. However, are we to exempt from history Marx of all people; who had such a genius for and displayed such a profound insight into the essence of the historical; are we to declare him to be outside time and space; someone whose thought cannot become obsolete ever and anywhere, whose every word is inviolable law surpassing all historical reality, and binding for all time and every historical moment? This can be effected only through a Hegelian termination of history; if we shut out those new horizons of theoretical and real historical progress, first so radically and daringly revealed by Marx.

Within the same context of the problem of absolute and eternal truths we may raise the question, why — in order to preserve, at any price, an almost mythological belief in everything said by the classics — in it very often passed over in complete silence (or, at best, “camouflaged” by various “felicitous” formulations and ambiguous terms) that Lenin actually had different views from Marx, and Marx from Engels in various, often fundamental questions[2]?

To be “faithful” to Marxism-Leninism, so favourite a catchphrase, for many even now means adhering to all of Marx’s and Lenin’s dicta; often completely ignoring the fact that their views on some problems — particularly as concerns positive, scientifically established theses (e. g, the tendency towards pauperisation of the working class, scientifically deduced from the then obtaining figures on the constant decline of the proletarian living standards) — are really antiquated, and that clinging to all their statements (and not only to actual words, but also to the spirit of sonic of their theses) now often at the same time means an inability to grasp certain essential characteristics of the modern socialist and communist movement. In other words; it means not being a Marxist. In discussions with orthodox dogmatists, such as the Chinese, for instance, we shall, really not achieve much just by wrangling about who has remained more “faithful” to, say, Lenin; because at times we shall find ourselves in the paradoxical situation that in certain questions dogmatists will perhaps be able to find in his works more appropriate quotations — and not only “dislocated,” and thus fogged, quotations and views — than creative Marxists. But is it enough to demonstrate that Marx and Lenin had different views on a problem from ours now, in order to make it an eo ipso proof that we are wrong? And is not today’s trend towards discovering the “true” Marx, the “original” Marx very often also burdened by the view that being a Marxist today means finding confirmation for one’s theses only in Marx’s and Lenin’s writings? To be sure, we can find in Lenin’s works a whole series of quotations about the need for, among other things coexistence and peaceful co-operation with countries of different social structures. But the Chinese can probably find just as many or even more, quotations concerning the need for armed revolution, and for the ceaseless and inexorable struggle. This was indeed often emphasized by Lenin — and quite rightly — as an unavoidable pre-requisite for the establishment of a socialist society, under the conditions of the preparation and eruption of proletarian revolution, under the conditions of the birth pangs of the first socialist country, and of foreign intervention. If, however, what we might call conditionally our “thought practice” does not diverge from those co-ordinate systems, which were the only ones within which thought was permissible and possible in the time of Marx and Engels, if we do nothing but argue that it is a “dirty lie,” that we have at any time or in any place deserted classical thought, we shall not only be brought to a position when we can do nothing but helplessly and fruitlessly revolve within a scheme out of keeping with modern reality, but shall also often find ourselves showing that it is the dogmatists who “are right,” who are more “faithful” to the classics, more faithful to the spirit of tradition. For, dogmatic “practice” is faithful, often more faithful than the most faithful religious “practice,” to the past; because the schematism of dogmatic thought exactly lies in leaving thought in the past, in leaving it static, in arresting real history and the history of ideas at certain fixed constants.

To face this fact squarely, emphasizing no blind “faithfulness” as the highest virtue and no attachment to the tradition of the classics as the sole standard for Marxism or anti-Marxism, would be — it seems to me — one of the first (but not the only) pre-requisites for any thought that wants to call itself creatively Marxist in our epoch. Today, unfortunately, even within anti-dogmatic theses, discussions of these problems are timidly and adroitly avoided, and a varying gradation of terms, from rigid ones, such as disloyal betrayal,” to more liberal ones, like “creative application “, helps towards settling the manner of thought into a mould which only obscures and certainly does not raise questions of attitude to tradition. It is, indeed, most paradoxical that in different variants “faithfulness” should remain the fundamental category and virtue of those philosophers who believe that their thought follows in Marx’s footsteps; when such faithfulness to their teacher was not shown even by those sterile philosophemes linked to the closed idealistic systems, such as the neo-Kantians, neo-Hegelians, and others. However, forcing on Marx some of our views, representing them as merely an elaboration and completion of what he, allegedly, started but did not manage to finish (having been too busy), is really not an occupation that could be considered worthy of a Marxist thinker.

But there is a magic word for all this, shelving every such attempt at transformation. We have got a magic formula, a reliable, tested label, blackening without redress every effort towards creative individual thought. This word is revisionism. Transplanted from a period when it really meant an attempt to weaken the essential revolutionary aspirations of the masses, when it meant dulling the combative edge, capitulation before burning issues, ideological confusion, and the betrayal of the proletariat, it still exclusively retains the pejorative meaning of a false, distorted approach to contemporary problems. And we seem very often to be afraid that this attribute might — no matter by which side — be attached to us, it is as if we as individuals were still apprehensive of being thus called [3]. We do not it appears ask ourselves whether it is now negative to state openly, without any pharisaic scruples, that it is necessary to carry out and keep on carrying out a real revision of certain views of the classics. Is not such a revision an imperative of the present historical moment, in order to save the fundamental humanistic core of Marxism, and in order that certain new revolutionary values of socialist, and consequently creative, practice may be created under contemporary conditions, and carried over into a new period, as Marx did in the conditions of his time? Revising something, however, means taking personal “responsibility.” And the fact that an individual (even society as a whole) might have to rely on himself, gives rise to apprehension in face of the unknown. This apprehension is revealed in the search for support in everything that can be found in the earlier thought or experience of the great, in familiar systems and the heritage of ideas. Thus we shall often find and “recognize” ourselves in that which we are not at all. This is only a slightly modified theological attitude, and an instructive illustration of the possibility of appearance of the religious, heteronomous man even outside religion. It is the attitude that it is exactly that other thing which can solely guarantee our own existence. That “other thing’ is always the superior, better, surer, more reliable thing; it is that fulcrum, that constant which can be found either in God, or real human nature, or historical determinants, in all those things that will take the responsibility and risk for everything that we actually are.

The static quality of dogmatism and the dynamism and changeability of true Marxist practice is also reflected in the attitude towards the function and scope of criticism. The hierarchical gradation of individuals, statically determined in minute detail within a particular society, requires also a precisely determined system in which one knows exactly who may “criticize” whom, where, why, and when. If anyone, in any manner tried to shake or even simply question that conservative, safe order, he would be met with incredibly obstinate opposition. So-called criticism “from below” (as if anyone could be “up” or “down” in criticism, as if those taking part in critical debate did not always need to be equal) may, under this system, only go as far up as individual managers; while senior leaders may only be subject to criticism by yet higher-level leaders. Often completely ignoring public opinion, believing that there are those who are “qualified” to criticize higher leaders, a number of these leaders will “laterally” allow criticism to take even a “vertical < direction on the imaginary scale of critics and criticized. However, at is characteristic of this “liberalism” that it often develops into a more frenzied and rigid dogmatism than ever before, since its representatives reproach themselves with their own liberality and broad-mindedness, which in the end brings even them into question, although it was they who had so benevolently given their approval to it in the first place. Then a hurried investigation of the life histories of such critics starts — because it has always been typical of dogmatists to react not to what is said, but by whom — conferences behind closed doors are called, threats about familiarity with certain secret documents are made, hidden purposes and sordid aims are mentioned, the critic is unmasked as a former enemy — and the question which he has raised and the phenomenon which he has criticised do not attract a single word in the general uproar. Unless we can discard this kind of approach to problems and individuals in the sphere of ideas and reality, I. e. in practice, the possibility will always exist that a “liberal” relationship will be turned into “disciplined” restriction, even persecution, and an apparent and verbal humanism become open anti-humanism.

Out of the fixed, settled, unchangeable sphere of the existing, we shall not be led into true socialist practice by anybody else, anyone from below or above, not be admitted by any administrative permission, or by any pass confirmed at any level. Anti-dogmatic, i. e. socialist or creative practice, or, which is the same, simply practice or praxis in the Marxist sense of the word, can always and only be made and secured, and must always be secured anew, by us ourselves, i. e, only by those who cannot as men recognize anything human as “above” or “below” themselves. Woven into the fabric of his practice will be every single word of ours backed by a true conviction concerning the necessity of progress, every single action which is directed towards a real future from a dynamic interpretation of real contemporary life. Only thus, by refuting and d?molishing all ideological and material constants, all soured unchangeableness, stability, petty-bourgeois self-satisfaction with the already attained, shall we be able — as was so ingeniously done by Marx from the horizon of his world — to speak dialectically and contemporarily to the modern world, and to transform impotent dogmatic schematism into anti-dogmatic practice. In doing so, we must, however, be aware of the fact that the critics of past and the builders of new practice will at the same time be forging the critical weapons with which they themselves can be subjected to criticism, ever anew and from ever new horizons. It is just this that is the true humanistic meaning of revolutionary practice, and this practice can never, anywhere in the name of anything be stopped. It is by reason of this that man, that finite, mortal, impotent being is “practicall?” infinite, immortal and omnipotent.


1 Such a thesis, e. g. in the sphere of artistic creation or artistic “Practice” would ultimately mean a confirmation of the Plotinian or Crocean conception, according to which a work of art is in fact complete as internal expression. It is finished as imagined, and everything else — as Plotinus would say — is slave work, not artistic work. Every other work in concrete material is a technical pursuit, not decisive for the essential in art, but a mere skill, a more or less successful realization of the artist’s ideal conception. It is question, however, whether the artist actually first conceives the work of art in his mind, realizing it only subsequently, or whether matter itself (e. g. colour, plastic material, etc.) somehow in the course of realization also determines the fundamental structure of the work of art. Therefore, this work does not owe its final form only to a pre-conceived concept, but also to the matter from which it has been created, and which changes and by its specific laws often determines in artistic creation the entire appearance, meaning, and value of the work itself. The same head, “conceived” quite identically in the ideal scheme, is artistically completely different if “realized” in marble, or bronze, or wood. (This fact was in a sense taken account of by Plato, when speaking about necessity, about constraint peculiar to matter as such).

2 Nobody will maintain, I think, that the question of the world revolution, for instance, or the problem of the possibility of revolution in one isolated country is an accidental issue for Marxism.

3 This attribute is sometimes attached to individuals, for fear that those same dogmatists — who often call all of us as a whole revisionists, or used to do so — might “hold it against us” because of our too “radical” views. It is, therefore, “necessary” that we should somehow officially disassociate ourselves from those embarrassing individuals, whose statements could be “drawn on” ijn a campaign against us, and who, after all, have never asked for permission “from above.” The belief that everything published or publicly said wears an “official” stamp is at the root of this corrupted attitude. As if writers and thinkers did not always and in principle express and utter their own views (for, if they merely “elaborated” some general directives, how could they ever be called thinkers), and as if their every word had a governmental character, needing an imprimatur from higher authority, in order to avoid “embarrassing” political repercussions.