1920s >> 1927 >> no-279-november-1927

Doctrines, dogmas and Marx


A Canadian correspondent sends us a cutting from “The Sporting News,” No. 32 (of Winnipeg), and asks us for our opinion on it. As the cutting is undated, we cannot supply our Canadian readers with any further means of identification except that the article appears to be an editorial, and is headed “Capitalism.”

The article has a good deal to say about “doctrines” and “dogmas,” and the workers’ “lack of understanding,” but is itself written in such an ambiguous style that the reader is not assisted in his efforts to get at what the article is intended to make clear—if there is any such intention !

Here is a quotation from the early part of the article :—

“The point to be noted is that, all that passed for knowledge in those days [early, or prehistoric times] has long since been forgotten, but the struggles of mind over matter were passed on, and to-day the man who seeks to read history will not seek to damn Capital or Capitalism, but rather seeks to understand it. How natural for the pioneer of thought to make mistakes ; he but glimpses the truth, and the pain and struggles of the mass often supply just that portion of his idea which he has perforce left ambiguous. This has been so in all the fields of scientific research. Sociology, or the science of life, is difficult to understand. The worker untrained in the process of mind, though exceedingly clever with tools, often becomes a victim of his own misunderstanding and becomes lost twixt the philosophical and the scientific, the theoretical and the practical.”

Now what exactly is the meaning of this nebulous collection of statements? To write that “all that passed for knowledge” in early times “has been forgotten” is to write rubbish. The knowledge, for instance, that it is dangerous to stand under a falling tree, is as true to-day as it was when man first grasped the fact. And what is the precise meaning of “the struggles of mind over matter”? Is this not of the nature of a dogma? After all, the mind seeks to grasp the ways of the world including itself, and if the article is intended as a contribution to clear thinking, it should avoid phrases that are ambiguous, and confuse. An illustration or two would have helped readers to grasp what is meant by the pain and struggles of the masses supplying just that portion of a pioneer’s idea which he is alleged to have perforce left ambiguous !

Again, is sociology the science of life? Is it not rather the science which investigates the means and methods of human association? Surely Biology is the science of life ! The writer, or writers, having enlightened the readers with the above ambiguities and false phrases, then warms to the business in hand, and give to the world the following pearls of wisdom :—

“He formulated the three doctrines, viz., the materialist conception of history, the class struggle and the theory of surplus value. His work is the exposition of these doctrines. Does the world grasp them as doctrines to be used to influence understanding, “They do not” ; it is much easier to give them a dogmatic interpretation than to read and understand them. “Did Marx say the last thing in economic law?” He did not, in fact; history will ultimately show that he really said the first rather than the last. His three doctrines included all the knowledge known and all that was to be known, because the doctrines comprise the whole of existence. The workers have been left to understand Marx as best they may, and they seem to be making a sorry mess of the job. When dogma takes the place of doctrine, then imagination runs riot and reason is dethroned for the time being.”

We are told that Marx did not say the last thing in economic law, in fact, he said rather the first. Yet “his three doctrines included all the knowledge known [what is knowledge that is unknown?] and all that was to be known, because the doctrines comprise the whole of existence” ! Reason certainly seems to be a little bit off the throne here ! If Marx said the first thing in economic law, then what about Aristotle, Franklin, Adam Smith, Ricardo, and the rest?

May we suggest that it would have been a concession on the part of whoever is responsible for the article if they had hinted at the meanings of “dogmas” and “doctrines” so that readers would have had some small opportunity of piercing the veil of mystery surrounding the “points” in the article. A dogma is an opinion or doctrine accepted on trust or authority; a doctrine is a principle, view, or set of opinions taught. The principles put forward by Marx were arrived at after a lifetime’s examination of a veritable storehouse of facts; and the principles together with facts upon which they were based were set down for all to examine and criticise. The workers, where they have had the opportunity, and in spite of the intentionally pernicious effect of capitalist education, have succeeded in grasping the essence of Marx’s teaching, and this without the aid of a “higher education.”

To say that the workers are “making a sorry mess of the job” is either the empty words of an enemy or the cheap sneer of a cocksure blunderer.

“Leaving the materialist conception, and surplus value to one side for brevity, in this article, what interpretation do many of the workers put on the class struggle ? In the ordinary language of the day, it is “get ready for a fight, organize for a revolution,” and this dogma of the class struggle has sure brought much havoc among the workers. It was this dogma that organized the German Proletariat and got them ready to obey the Imperialism of Germany. It is the same “bunk” which inflamed Russia, who intend to inflame the rest of the world if they are allowed to have their way. The point in this connection between doctrine and dogma is that the three doctrines are a threefold conception, a theoretical conception from which lessons of understanding may be learnt. Where the three are understood, each in relation to the other, it presupposes an understanding which leads to the evolutionary rather than the revolutionary. If the revolution takes place in mind, it no longer is sought for in the national rough house tactics. It cannot lead to the destruction of wealth, war, and all it entails. It must lead to conservation of national life and the workers must needs fit themselves with understanding, so that those who direct the struggle shall be subdued by it. The class struggle is a doctrine, is theoretical, and will change with the process of changing industry, but as a dogma it, like many superstitious dogmas, will always remain the same till society outlives it. The worker may continue to damn capitalism, but it cannot be denied that it is the school-master of the iron and steel age, and materially shortens the distance towards emancipation in proportion as doctrine understood supersedes—Dogmas—the misunderctood too !”

The above is the last paragraph in the precious article. It may be noted in passing that the materialist conception and surplus value are put aside, at the beginning, for the sake of brevity, but brought in again a few lines later as inseparable from the class struggle theory. It may also be noted that nowhere is there an attempt to define any of them, beyond assuring us that they are “doctrine” ! It is asserted that many workers interpret the class struggle as a call to “get ready for a fight, organise for the revolution,” and then the assertion is made that this dogma was the cause of the downfall of the German Proletariat. This is a false interpretation of the situation, and is used for the purpose of bolstering up the ”Evolutionary” as opposed to the revolutionary view of social change. But first of all a word on the downfall of the German Social Democracy. This was the outcome of a long period of propaganda that had as its basis the view, still common among so-called leaders of democracy, that the main thing was to get a large body of workers organised, without bothering much whether they understood clearly for what they were organising. This had nothing at all to do with the class struggle theory.

“Evolutionary,” scientifically understood, signifies an unfolding, a movement from a relatively lower to a relatively higher state, and this, as applied to society, includes in the movement “revolution” as the expression of a complete change of basis. The people, however, who urge “evolutionary” as opposed to “revolutionary” views of social change interpret “evolution” to mean a gradual change of the social basis from private ownership of the means of production to common ownership, taking place step by step, a little at a time, on the quiet without anybody being the wiser until, hey presto ! the deed is done. Socialism is here, whoever would have thought it? And this is apparently the culminating idea in the article with which we are dealing. Lo, the mountain bringeth forth not even a mouse, but only the hair off the leg of a gnat !


(Socialist Standard, November 1927)

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