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On Dogmatism

category international | the left | opinion / analysis author Monday April 07, 2014 20:22author by Jan Makandal Report this post to the editors

It was sent as a response to A. Floyd on Horizontalism

Dogmatism is a manifestation of theoretical and/or ideological deficiencies, such as idealism (metaphysics), sectarianism, elitism or followership. It’s a significant obstacle to working class emancipation, which we must identify and comprehend in order to combat it. There are several variants and expressions, including:


What is Dogmatism?

February 2014


Dogmatism is a manifestation of theoretical and/or ideological deficiencies, such as idealism (metaphysics), sectarianism, elitism or followership. It’s a significant obstacle to working class emancipation, which we must identify and comprehend in order to combat it. There are several variants and expressions, including:

A) The practice of conflating our concepts with reality (for example, arguing that the concept of democracy is the power of the people, and really existed in ancient Greece even though that was a slave society).
B) The attempt to make a concept become reality (for the dogmatist, God exists not as a concept but as reality).
C) The belief that a concept can create reality (utopian schemes).
D) The attempt to fit a concept into a reality (for example, the idea that we can shape our social relations to fit concepts like direct democracy or horizontalism, which have never existed historically except as concepts).
E) The belief in dogma: “unchangeable, immutable truths” that are to be taken for granted, unquestioningly, and that are not founded in reality. (Like quoting from some historically acclaimed figure to prove one’s point in a debate, as if that quote itself is enough to “prove” one’s point of view, as if historical conditions have not changed…)

Reality has an independent existence outside of our minds. Objective reality is the basis for constructing concepts, not the other way around. A concept does not precede objective reality, but is based on reality that is already manifested, whether in nature (the weather), socially (class struggle), or systems of thought (science, philosophy). For example, our thought process did not create DNA, but has simply developed a concept for it through our rationalization and centralization. We construct concepts to generalize and centralize patterns so we can recognize and interpret phenomena. For example, instead of apprehending each individual cluster of water vapor as a completely new phenomenon, the concept of “cloud” can help us interpret it based on our previous observations and experiences of other clouds.

In the development of our thought process, humanity has so far produced two main approaches. The foundation of both is the same: objective reality. In an antagonistic class divided society, these contrasting methods of thinking generally correspond to the conflicting interests of different classes. Each serves a specific class for its reproduction.

1) The metaphysical (idealist) approach asserts that our thought process creates objective reality. (The term "metaphysical" has various uses and definitions; it is taken here to mean “beyond physical,” referring to the belief that the mind, thought, soul, etc. supersedes objective reality). Usually, this approach to understanding all external manifestations of reality assigns their construction to a superior power that guides our mind. The metaphysical mode of thinking supports the interests of the class or classes that dominate society, by fostering belief in dogma, the acceptance of one’s role in society and the permanent reproduction of class relations. Religion, with its creation of God or gods, is an example of this.

2) The dialectical materialist approach strives to identify and comprehend the internal functioning that gives life to objective phenomena, especially the fundamental motor (contradiction) that allows for their reproduction. The dialectical materialist mode of thinking advances the interests of the dominated classes by fostering the appropriation of reality (especially social reality) as it actually exists outside our thought process, which opens the door for its transformation. For example, class struggle is a materialist conception of the relations of production in any class divided society.

Objective reality exists even when we are unaware of specific phenomena. Species of fish are swimming in the seas that we have no knowledge of. We don’t talk about them, define them or elaborate on their history, because our systems of senses have not encountered them. Objective reality precedes our thought process; our initial encounter with any phenomenon is usually made with our perception, the sensory level of our thought process enabled by our systems of senses: hearing, touch, sight, smell.

Both the metaphysical and the dialectical materialist modes of thinking begin with that first encounter. The idealist will assign a definition to a phenomenon in that initial moment, whereas the dialectical materialist will continue to another level of the thought process: rationalization.

Reality has its own motion, its own dynamic, and we initiate a system of thinking to interpret it. The process of rationalization is the constant development of our thought process from perceptual to rational, during the appropriation of reality. There is no permanency in this process except for the continuous reproduction of objective reality.

When a phenomenon no longer exists, it becomes simply historical evidence. At that point we can only learn from it, since the process of rationalization will no longer be needed. Though the clash between feudalism and capitalism still plays an important role in many social formations dominated by imperialism and in major conflicts worldwide, in most advanced capitalist social formations we don’t discuss feudalism as a current system, because it is no longer the dominant form of social organization. We merely continue to observe and note some remnants of feudalism, which are mostly in the superstructural field. We can identify this field as: conservatism.

Conservatism is an approach that refuses to identify the advancement of reality and the corresponding need for our thought process to advance with it. To assert that a concept has not incurred any changes in 300 years means that our thought process is stuck in reverse. For example, to define democracy as “the power of the people” is a conservative approach, because the mind is creating a reality that is totally distinct from (and even antagonistic to) objective reality. In a class divided society, in which one or more classes dominate others, how is it possible that everything that regulates this relation of domination is equally dispersed? How can slaves share power with the master? How can the exploited share the wealth that is being produced from their exploitation?

The other side of the same metaphysical coin, not fundamentally different from conservatism, is liberalism. Liberalism (also a term that has various uses and definitions) is an approach that superficially and pragmatically acknowledges the development of reality, and adapts to it for the purpose of satisfying the overall objective of capital (which promotes the valorization of everything that it comes across).

Liberalism and conservatism are both tendencies of dogmatism. In the final analysis, dogmatism is a metaphysical (idealist) way of thinking that serves the interests of the class or classes that dominate society. This fact is based on the incapacity of dogmatists not only to give an interpretation to the objective reality, but also to offer any guide to deal with it—because what they perceive as reality is not reality.

Because interpreting reality is a continuous process of rationalization, our thought process is contextual and conjunctural. Most of the time we will never be able to fully comprehend reality, though sometimes we can appropriate certain tendencies of particular phenomena and predefine their development. This was the case when Lenin identified tendencies and interpreted the development of capitalism toward its supreme stage of imperialism, and when Marx defined the theory of value. But these are rare occasions, and thus can’t be established as repetitive models of a thought process.

Usually, most attempts to extend our interpretations beyond the current context and conjuncture (make predictions) have proven to be erroneous. Marx predicted that the development of the productive forces creating a society of abundance would automatically lead to socialism. Clearly, it did not (even if the process of constructing abundance objectively facilitated socialized forms of social organization). This was based on an erroneous appreciation by Marx (and others) of the relationship between relations of production and productive forces. The determinant role of the relations of production has since been demonstrated.

Another danger in the process of rationalization is to prematurely jump to conclusions. Often, conclusions are drawn during the sensory/perceptual stage of our thought process or in the midst of a debate. For example calling people dogmatic (or any other label) in the midst of a debate (at the perceptual stage of thinking) is itself a dogmatic approach. When there is not enough evidence for that conclusion, then this is a case of confusing the ideas in one’s head with reality. This approach usually impedes any further development of thinking, because a conclusion has already been made.

The process of rationalization is a method of interpreting objective reality in any field of science. Discerning a pattern in the behavior of apples falling from trees (they always go down, never up or sideways, unless other external phenomenon, like wind, pertinently affect the dominant form of the apple's trajectory) led to the theory of gravity. The theory of resistance originated from labor practices. Peoples struggling for their reproduction gave us class struggle. These theories weren’t created out of thin air; they came from our interpretation of reality including our social practices.

Interpretations can be idealist (metaphysical) or materialist. In our initial, sensory contact with objective reality, both tendencies are present. Idealism will lead to an interpretation external to reality, while dialectical materialism will attempt to appropriate the internal functioning of that reality. Dialectical materialism is the constant struggle of the materialist field against the idealist field for the triumph of materialism.

The idealist field is permanent, making it dogmatic. Its permanence necessitates the reproduction of class divided society, of class dominance. The materialist field is constant but not permanent; we can enter a river at the same place and time of day for 100 years, but it will never be the same river. The materialist field is for radical change.

No fundamental difference exists between the left dogmatic practice of casting the analysis of previous revolutionaries in stone, and the right dogmatic attachment to the Bible. The interpretation of democracy by left dogmatists is no different from its interpretation by right dogmatists. Both are creating reality from ideas existing solely in their heads.

Left dogmatists will sooner or later transition to right dogmatism. We have seen many proponents of a mechanical transition to a non-wage society entering the same practice as the reactionary organized labor establishment in the US. In the worst cases, they are transporting the same traditions from the Labor Day of establishment labor organizations to May Day, in an attempt to replace revolutionary working class ideology with liberalism, for the permanency of capitalism.

For the working class, dogmatism is a dangerous approach in theory and in practice. It is bourgeois theory in our midst. Dogmatists are incapable of formulating a political line correspondent to reality, because they have no interpretation of the internal fundamental functioning of reality. Whatever approach they do offer is metaphysical, based on superficial elements or on the merely external aspects and expressions of internal contradictions (rather than based on the actual contradictions themselves). Any interpretation that is based on superficiality, on external expression, will only lead to reformism. History has already proven this many times.

Theory is not reality, but an interpretation of it. Theory is not a creation from nothing, but is constructed by our efforts to understand reality. It is constructed in the dialectical relation of theory and practice, determined and validated by practice.

Revolutionary and progressive militants and movements must constantly struggle against dogmatism. Dogmatism is a manifestation of capitalist ideological domination, a mode of thinking of and for the capitalist class, and serves nothing but the reproduction and the continued valorization of capital.

The continuous production of proletarian theory is for our constantly developing understanding of objective reality, leading and allowing us to deal with undeniably opposite and antagonistic phenomena: the process of capital accumulation and the process of proletarian struggle. Dialectical materialism is crucial for the victory of proletarian struggle, or at least to allow history to advance in the interest of the masses. It is, by far, the most advanced revolutionary method of interpreting objective reality.

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