The Dogma of Anti-Dogmatism

BY:Scott Hiley| February 4, 2017
The Dogma of Anti-Dogmatism

We always say that Marxism is a science, but we don’t always dig into what that means.  When Marx and Engels talk about scientific socialism, the word they use for science is Wissenschaft, which means something like “a systematic way of constructing knowledge about a defined set of phenomena.” The systematic study of literature (as opposed to mere aesthetic appreciation) is a  Wissenschaft, for example, as is the study of history.  Science is thus an interaction of a method and an object of study.  At its best, Marxism is a way of using a set of philosophical methods (materialism and dialectics) along with concepts drawn from the analysis of history (class, revolution, etc) to move beyond bourgeois science in understanding the development of social, economic, and political relations.  Part of this task — the part that Marx seems to have especially relished — involves exposing the ideological basis of bourgeois social science and political economy, revealing that its core principle is really just the preservation of existing social relations.

Of course, bourgeois social scientists recognize the danger that Marxism poses and have developed ways of countering it. One is locking Marx away in philosophy and history departments, where he is studied as a historical figure kept safely in isolation from the analysis of contemporary society.  Another tactic has been to accuse Marxism of being ‘dogmatic’: ideologically rather than scientifically driven, lacking objectivity, etc.  Part of the fault for this lies with Marxists, perhaps, but it’s mostly a way of discrediting a philosophical perspective hostile to bourgeois interests. Lenin recognized this early on, devoting a big chunk of the first chapter of “What is to be done?” to the academic fashion of dismissing Marxism as ‘dogmatic’ to avoid responding substantively to Marxist critiques.  This continued as a feature of bourgeois social science, picking up steam with folks like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (The Vital Center) Daniel Bell (The End of Ideology), and Raymond Aron (The Opium of the Intellectuals), who worked to paper over class struggle with a political vision based on the confrontation of ‘freedom’/’moderation’ and ‘extremism’:  basically, conservatives, liberals, and social-democrats vs. Communists and Nazis.  The main arrow in their quiver was accusing Communism of being too ideological.  We’re still dealing with the fallout of this.  For example: how establishment Democrats dismissed Bernie as an ideologue with no practical vision, or how pro-TPP Democrats pilloried Elizabeth Warren for her ‘dogmatic’ opposition to free trade.

This is why we have to be vigilant about calls for ‘anti-dogmatic’ and ‘flexible’ Marxism.  That critique has a history as the center left’s weapon against us. Getting rid of rigidity in our thinking is fine, but it always struck me that the overthrow of received ideas couldn’t be an end in itself.  Our goal is to be right, not to be flexible; we’re measured by how correct our analysis is, not by how novel it is.  To paraphrase Lenin, if you have something better than Marxism, out with it; otherwise, don’t think that calling us dogmatic discredits our analysis.

    Scott Hiley has taught French, literature, history, and philosophy at the high school, college, and post-graduate levels.  A member of CPUSA since 2010, he is active in struggles against austerity and for education justice and labor rights. His articles have appeared in the People's World (US), the Morning Star (UK), and l'Humanité (France). He lives in a rural town in upstate NY.

Comments (14)

Danny Mitchell | February 14, 2017 at 2:12 PM

When I call the cpusa dogmatist it is because you have refused to go beyond the concept of centralized democracy. It has been proven that centralized democracy doesn’t work. It causes splits in the party members instead of a tolerance of the variety of marxist analysis we have around us. When the cpusa learns to run its organization in an undogmatic and democratic way then I will join you. Let me know when you hold the first election for Chairman of the party.

BH | February 08, 2017 at 5:07 AM

Just curious Ms Kehle but what was the name of that book and what did it say about the garment industry?

    Elise Kehle | May 26, 2017 at 12:35 AM

    Fashioning Socialism was the book, BH

Gary Mueller | February 08, 2017 at 7:38 PM

I got a lot out of it

phm | February 07, 2017 at 4:48 AM

I think this is a great way of addressing the concerns of free radicals like myself. It is refreshing to see such noted members of the left acknowledge their own moral hazard and address it with vigor. The snake eats itself, brother.

BH | February 05, 2017 at 2:39 AM

Dear Professor Hiley,

Perhaps you can help me with something if you read the comments section of your articles.

I have tried in utter vain—and I mean utter vain—to find any book or series of articles anywhere that discusses just how the command economies of the last centuries actually planned out specific industries and how they decided to produce what and how much. I know many here reject the supposed dictatorships of the first so called Marxist economies but they were the first to have a go and we need to study them in detail.

Do you know any book titles or journal articles one could read that goes into great depth as to how these economies were managed and particular industries managed, their goods produced, how much and how they were divided among the population?

    Elise Kehle | February 08, 2017 at 6:33 PM

    Seconded. I’ve been looking for something like this for years! I’ve only found one book, dripping with red scare propaganda about the East German garment industry, and I too need an education in these matters.

      BH | February 08, 2017 at 5:05 AM

      Thanks. I know it is not scientific but I googled Chernobyl one time just to look at pictures of mutated creatures I expected to find on the net. Not being sadist, just wanted to see how bad things were for myself. Anyway, it started bringing up pictures of abandoned homes often with the furnishings still in them. The people had to leave quick to escape the radiation poisoning. Anyway, I was impressed with the size and furnishings inside many of these homes. Of course they looked dirty with some rotten boards around but when they were still in pristine cared for times they probably would have been nice homes to live in. In fact, they appeared to be nicer and some even a lot bigger than many around where I live. It was certainly not the poverty living standards I thought they had over there.

      BH | February 08, 2017 at 5:07 AM

      Just curious Ms Kehle but what was the name of that book and what did it say about the garment industry?

        Elise Kehle | May 26, 2017 at 12:36 AM

        Fashioning Socialism

Naim jeanbart | February 05, 2017 at 3:49 PM

bourgeois this bourgeois that how bourgeois of you

    Scott Hiley | February 05, 2017 at 12:49 AM

    I’d love to find a better adjective than ‘bourgeois’ to designate the mentality/outlook of the ruling class under capitalism, but nothing occurred to me. Any suggestions?

Niamot Ali Enayet | February 05, 2017 at 10:34 AM

Yup, may it could be a good analysis to look at the praxis of Marxism. Hope we will understand it.

Art Perlo | February 04, 2017 at 11:19 PM

As usual, Scott Hiley has given us a useful and thoughtful way of looking at things. And commendably brief!

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