Overcoming “Subjectivism”: The Twin Dangers of Empiricism and Dogmatism



For Left movements and Communist Parties, whose goal is revolutionary transformation through radical political action, based on a Marxist-Leninist understanding of society, the danger of “subjectivism” is an ever-present one as the history of such movements and parties demonstrates. The issue has come to the fore in the Indian context over the question of the tactics of the Left movement during the last two decades. Subjectivism is contrasted to the correct understanding that is drawn from the “ground realities” or the “concrete analysis of concrete conditions.” The error of subjectivism is held to be characterised by one-sidedness in any assessment, attempting to understand reality based on some pre-conceived notions, or picking and choosing facts selectively to establish the validity of some pre-conceived notions.

The authority of Lenin and Mao is typically invoked on the question of subjectivism. But before we turn to their views, let us begin talking of it in our own simple language, with an elementary illustration.

Consider, for instance, the phenomenon of night and day. The empirical viewpoint seems superficially fine. After all, one does see the sun rise every morning and set every evening, and it does seem that the sun travels across the sky. Or further, in a modern neo-populist version: “Don’t the masses accept this and isn’t it part of their experience, and must we not learn from their experience”? But unfortunately this “adherence to facts”, for all its seeming obviousness, is equally subjective, because it takes perception as uncomplicated, does not know it to be an artefact of how humanity is situated inside objective reality, and does not realise that complete knowledge comes only with science, setting aside the human-centred “subjectivism” of perception. The realisation that our perceptions are an objective illusion (due to our being fixed to a moving Earth, which turns on its axis while the Sun is really fixed) involves in fact the “overcoming” of experience, and setting aside “common sense”. As Engels puts it in Anti-Duhring: “Only sound common sense, respectable fellow that he is, in the homely realm of his own four walls, has very wonderful adventures directly he ventures out into the wide world of research.” Of course ancient science begins here, in tackling this very basic, empirical and objective illusion. In taking the first steps, proposing that the Earth rotates, Aryabhata begins the work of science, that draws knowledge from empirical reality, but is neither trapped in dogmatism, originating from Vedic authority, or mere empiricism founded on the evidence of the senses alone.

A further issue needs to be clarified here. Once the science is settled and understood, partially complete at least, it is not dogma to say that science successfully explains the real motion of the Earth around its axis, as well as the illusion (of the Sun going around) and is therefore the truth. This is the confusion that modern idealism (in the form of “social constructivism”, or in varieties of post-modernism) tries to create, in alliance with extreme empiricism one may add, rejecting and denigrating all scientific theory as dogma – arguing that one may “subjectively” choose between the scientific and the religious or any other view, all equally dogmas.  This view is of course to be distinguished by the dogmatism of an earlier era, that arose from the imposition of a religious or philosophical view in explaining the nature of the objective world, whether natural or social. This early type of dogmatism is of course much less visible in contemporary times, though not entirely absent.

So what were Mao’s views on subjectivism? Contrary to what some portray, Mao viewed subjectivism as arising from both these two directions — dogmatism as well as empiricism. From what has already been said, the first is clear enough, and Mao is indeed scathing about the intellectual class, its bookish knowledge, its divorce from political and economic realities and so on. But what about the second? Mao says, in his 1942 speech, “Rectify the Party’s Style of Work”, delivered at the opening of the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China: “On the other hand, our comrades who are engaged in practical work will also come to grief if they misuse their experience. True, these people are often rich in experience, which is very valuable, but it is very dangerous if they rest content with their own experience. They must realize that their knowledge is mostly perceptual and partial and that they lack rational and comprehensive knowledge; in other words, they lack theory and their knowledge, too, is relatively incomplete. Without comparatively complete knowledge it is impossible to do revolutionary work well.”

What is that comparatively complete knowledge? In Mao’s words it is “theory” — or as he puts it, “it is knowledge of the struggle for production and knowledge of the class struggle.” For Mao, it is in developing this complete knowledge, through practice and theory, in the concrete conditions of Chinese society, with the aim of developing the Chinese revolution, that both dogmatism and empiricism are the sources of subjectivism. So Mao is clear that: Dogmatism and empiricism alike are subjectivism, each originating from an opposite pole. Hence there are two kinds of Subjectivism in our Party, dogmatism and empiricism. Each sees only a part and not the whole. If people are not on guard, do not realize that such one-sidedness is a shortcoming and do not strive to overcome it, they are liable to go astray.”

Which of these is the greater danger, or are they both equally so? To Mao, dogmatism was the bigger problem in the China of 1942, when he addressed the question of subjectivism. But Mao did not set aside the role of empiricism. This is clear, for instance, even from the subtitle of his famous work, “On Practice”, that reads “On the relation between Knowledge and Practice, between Knowing and Doing.” For Lenin too, in the context of the developing Russian Revolution, in the heat of battle in 1917, it was subjectivism from  the “dogmatic” direction that was the danger. But here for Lenin, especially as he laid it out in his Letters on Tactics, (published in April, 1917, Vol. 24, Collected Works), the danger was that “subjectivism” led to not seeing the need for a more radical stance, a more revolutionary position to meet the needs of the situation. Dogmatism did not lie in in over-reaching or over-estimating the revolutionary needs of the situation (indeed Lenin carefully argues that he is not “subjectively” arguing for skipping the necessary stages of the revolution). Dogmatism in fact led to precisely the opposite, namely underestimating how radically the situation had changed.

Both the examples cited above come from the contexts of a revolutionary upsurge. The work of Lenin however, offers examples from the Russian experience in the pre-revolutionary period that are relevant to us. Both dogmatism and empiricism deter scientific understanding under different conditions. Even more pertinent to us is that the charge of dogmatism is often used to reject theory and a scientific understanding, especially in turning away from the application of a correct Marxist analysis. In Lenin’s classic work, “What is to be done?”, he begins by demonstrating how the charge of “dogmatism” and the slogan of “freedom of criticism” are used by those who want to move  towards social reformism instead of staying on a revolutionary trajectory.

Empiricism in economic theory, and practical politics, combined together, has been indeed the hallmark of revisionists of all colours, from the origins of the international proletarian movement, through the era of the separation of revisionist Social Democracy from the Communist movement, till the present time. Typically, the move towards revisionism has always been portrayed as breaking from rigidity of thought or a scholastic and dogmatic reading of Marx, or applying Marxism creatively to the current situation and so on.

On the other hand, in combating Left adventurism, Lenin is set clearly against “dogmatism” of the so-called “Left Communists” . Here his insistence is on learning by doing, evaluating tactics not through sanctimonious phrases, but by the gold standard of whether they advance the revolution, both in the Soviet Union and abroad, as in the case of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, and the practical needs of developing the productive forces without empty talk of surrendering the socialist ideal to “State capitalism.”

So what then is the solution of the problem of avoiding either “dogmatism” or “empiricism”? The answer, as Lenin and Mao both point to, is to base oneself firmly on the dialectics of theory and practice, out of which develops our knowledge of the dialectics of essence and appearance. This constant movement between theory and practice leads to the knowledge of the essence of class rule, in the nature of the ruling class and the fundamental class contradictions of society especially between the ruling classes and the exploited classes, and the social and political institutions that enable this essence to be sustained. Theory and practice also shows the relation between this essence, and the appearance, namely the everyday movement and functioning of society and its variety of institutions. This back and forth, between theory and practice on the one hand and essence and appearance on the other, of course works differently in the social world, compared to the natural world, since it includes the conscious will and action of human players. Theory and practice in the natural world deals with an objective reality that is not endowed with the capacity for will and action whereas in the social world this is not the case. To put it starkly, the electron does not do anything to “evade” or “resist” the scientists’ probing experiments to understand its nature, whereas the capitalist learns something, a little bit at least, every time he has to confront a workers’ strike and takes action to meet the challenge of the next confrontation.

How is this essence, of the current stage of class rule, to be transformed? Essence cannot be transformed directly, but only by first acting on the appearance, till a crisis emerges, where contradictions are sharpened to the point that the essence is laid bare, and is amenable to change (even though the transformation here also begins in the political sphere rather than the economic). All actions in the realm of everyday activity, the realm of appearance, do not necessarily lead to sharpening the contradictions leading to the possibility of transforming the essence. It is constantly necessary to utilise and focus on those actions at any given time, that enable movement in the right direction. Thus the everyday activity of trade unions, mass organisations, participation in routine political activity including elections and so on, are all relevant to the final aim, but only if the focus remains relentlessly on how each one of these assists in approaching final goal.

The whole process is obviously historical in character and moves slower or faster, and is shorter or longer in time, depending on the particular conditions of the society in question. But as the movements of the exploited classes and their leadership, become aware of and understand this process, and at every stage analyse the conditions of both society and their relative strength in relation to the ruling classes, and their own state of knowledge and activity, the errors of dogmatism and empiricism are gradually overcome.

When it comes to the contemporary political arena in India, which of these two “opposite poles”, from which subjectivism arises, is the more potent source of danger? A long and difficult struggle over several decades, ensured that a non-dogmatic understanding of the basic contradictions of Indian society and the basic correlation of class forces was finally achieved in the programme of the CPI(M). Following the many changes in the domestic and international situation, this understanding was also suitably updated. Dogmatism, in the form of seeing only the bourgeoisie as the ruling class, or dogmatism that saw only a semi-feudal society in India, both bookishly taking from theory, or uncritically from the Soviet and Chinese experience, without understanding Indian reality, was for long the bane of the Indian communist movement, though eventually overcome. Critics of the CPM have also charged that the Party has often displayed a dogmatic understanding of Marxism on the caste-class relation, a charge that is often overstated but does bear some self-critical examination.

But of course the matter does not end here. There is always the constant task of understanding the everyday movement of politics and society, understanding how this is related to the Party programme and how the everyday tasks of political action must be constantly fashioned to the final goal of the end of bourgeois-landlord class rule. It is here that the danger particularly arises from empiricism. It is all too easy to be drawn into the details and effort of routine political activity, especially electoral politics, to be engaged by it in a manner that it occupies most of the time and effort. The same may arise from trade union or mass organization activity as well. If one is not attentive to how participation in routine political activity, especially electoral activity, is related to the eventual goals of the communists and the communist party, then of course the dream of radical transformation of current class rule remains as distant as ever. “Subjectivism” of this kind leads to parliamentary reformism, through the need, among other things, for self-justification. Eventually, this may lead to subjectivism of a personal kind, where individual recognition in the parliamentary arena or in the general milieu of bourgeois politics and the sense of acceptability in that milieu begins to overwhelm one’s class instincts and class responsibilities and duties. The communists and left movements in India have had occasion to confront this problem more than once.

The challenge is made sharper by the various transformations undertaken by the ruling classes themselves and the twists and turns of ruling class policy, arising from their own need to overcome the periodic crises, political and economic, that threaten them. Thus, the question of subjectivism is particularly sharply posed in the period of the rise of  Hindutva, with the alternation of the Congress and the BJP in power from 1992, and the decline in the electoral (and not solely electoral) influence of the Party in the period of the second UPA government and the re-entry of Hindutva forces to office at the Centre.

Two issues, are worth noting as relevant to the question of “subjectivism.” The first is the nature of the danger that Hindutva in office poses. On the one hand, is the analysis that sees the empirical consequences of Hindutva rule in isolation, in their own right (serious though they may be), without seeing the links to the more fundamental structures of class rule. Or, in another variant, while the links are acknowledged, they are considered to be of secondary importance, while Hindutva represents a more distinctive break that overrides such considerations. On the other is a more thorough-going analysis that also sees Hindutva in the context of the evolution of ruling class policies and strategies over time, indeed in the context too of a global resurgence of a new Right in politics. It also takes note of and accounts for the numerous ways in which the entry of Hindutva into actual day-to-day control of Government have been, over time, shaped by the actions of the earlier representative of the ruling class, the Congress. In particular, the role of the economic policies and their social and political consequences as well as the collaboration with the non-secular or the Hindutva viewpoint that has characterised Congress rule is considered to have also played a determinate role in leading to the present.

These two analyses lead to two different conclusions in terms of action. On one hand is the rhetoric of  “opposing fascism,” in which the making allies and alliances, particularly (but not solely) in the electoral arena, to serve the electoral anti-Hindutva agenda, is paramount. The gathering of numbers against Hindutva is what is significant, without examining too closely what these numbers stand for, or what binds them or brings them together politically.

On the other hand is the view, that it is an illusion, just as surely one as the Sun going round the Earth, to believe that the frothing and fuming of electoral politics alone would put paid to Hindutva. In this view, while broader alliances are no doubt necessary, a larger social and political mobilisation, based on the development of organisations with a class viewpoint are the more lasting and effective opposition to the Hindutva danger.  Electoral politics, though by no means unimportant, is only a means, contingent in its efficaciousness, to achieving this kind of mobilisation, and must remain subservient to this larger goal.

In the second view, both in the analysis of the present situation and the way forward, the debate is not over a choice between Hindutva nationalism and Congress-style nationalism, the latter’s weakness having also been exposed, but the manner in which to move towards a nationalism that focuses on the people, their unity, the abolition of social and gender discrimination, and their aspirations for development and well-being that draws on the most militant and uncompromising aspect of the anti-imperialist traditions of the freedom struggle.

There are, no doubt, those who sincerely believe in the first kind of analysis, while it appears that the wealth of historical experience of the communist movement, and its theory and practice in India, as well as a scientific analysis of the present conditions, should indicate the correctness of the second. A healthy debate is  necessary to convince those who believe in the first. But the mutual trading of abstract charges of subjectivism, without concrete and specific scientific analysis, is hardly the way forward to determining the nature of effective political action.





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