Neither Dogmatism nor Eclecticism, But Marxist Dialectics

There are two ideological traps that prove a problem for many Marxists: eclecticism, the habit of grabbing ideas from all over the place, which either dilutes Marxism or renders it meaningless; and dogmatism, the stubborn rejection of any new ideas at all. Understanding how society and history work dialectically is crucial to navigating through these twin pitfalls and developing a sound approach to Marxism.

by | Mar 8, 2024

Marxism represents a complete and vigorously materialistic world-view. A complete world-view differs from an eclectic one in that each of its aspects is connected in the closest way with all the others, and therefore one cannot with impunity eliminate one of them and replace it by something arbitrarily drawn from a different world-view.

— Georgi Plekhanov

Too many would-be Marxists want to “improve” Marxism by importing ideas that are contradictory to the philosophy. This wrong approach to Marxism, known as eclecticism, takes many forms; but reformist socialism is one of the most common and visible, and provides a potent illustration of its fatal flaws.

Reformists often accept broader Marxist notions of class struggle, but reject the fundamental principle of revolution as necessary to social transformation. Instead, they pick and choose problematic aspects of society and lobby for their removal — either through legislation, or goodwill from benevolent members of the ruling class. They tend to operate from a grab-bag of Marxist, populist and liberal ideologies that shift over time based on the political landscape. They all end up in the same place: rendering their “Marxism” useless for the revolutionary transformation of society.

But some Marxists make the opposite mistake: they reject eclecticism so strongly that they dogmatically refuse to incorporate contributions from other schools of thought, even when those contributions are compatible with Marxism.

This essay will examine how both eclecticism and dogmatism undermine Marxism and need to be rejected. It will also give an overview of dialectics, which is central to developing a Marxist strategy for social change. Dialectics is necessary for navigating through the twin pitfalls of eclecticism and dogmatism.

Some principles of dialectics

The world works dialectically: both human society and nature, which human society is based on, are dialectical. To put it simply, this means they do not move, change, or evolve in a linear way, but through complex interrelationships involving conflict and contradiction. Dialectics is foundational to Marxism as a philosophy, and must be understood at some level by Marxists before we attempt to analyze and change social relations.

Let’s look at some of the key principles of dialectics and how they apply to capitalist society:

1) The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In a given system, all parts are influenced by other parts and the whole. In human society, a mode of production, such as capitalism or feudalism, is a unitary but contradictory whole. This means that the fundamental aspects of a society cannot simply be removed one at a time. Attacking one aspect of society will in turn impact other parts and the whole.

For example, racism cannot be legislated out of capitalism. The struggle against racism will never completely succeed within the current system because racism is intrinsic to capitalism. But at the same time, movements against racism can modify its form and lead to important improvements in society.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s in turn triggered the women’s liberation, antiwar, and LGBTQ+ pride movements, and many more. Directly and indirectly it led to many beneficial reforms. Therefore, the Civil Rights movement had a broad impact on the structure of US society — but it did not end systemic racism under capitalism.

Because of the unitary but contradictory nature of  societies, they can only be transformed by driving their contradictions to the extreme — to the creation of a new mode of production, a new unitary whole. This is one reason revolution is necessary.

2) Societies are contradictory.

Despite their sometimes placid appearance, all human societies are riven by contradiction. Societies change through the working-out of these contradictions.

Capitalism is particularly contradictory, since it is based on the exploitation of one class by another (workers are not paid the full value of what they produce by capitalists). Under capitalism, socialized production is combined with privatized appropriation — the resources created by the vast majority collectively are taken by a tiny minority privately. Limited democracy in the public sphere is contradicted by dictatorship at work. Underneath the appearance of legal labor relations, the class struggle continues — “now open, now concealed,” as Marx put it in Capital.

Dialectics is foundational to Marxism as a philosophy, and must be understood at some level by Marxists before we attempt to analyze and change social relations.

In capitalist society, every political battle is ultimately based on class struggle. Who gets which resources created by the working class? The balance of class forces that derive from this struggle influences all aspects of economics and politics. The ruling class responds politically with both the carrot and the stick. The working class moves to counter these responses, and that drives further responses.

Thus, capitalist society changes through these internal conflicts — making it a particularly volatile form of society compared to those that came before, such as feudalism.

Ultimately, taking class struggle to the extreme, the working class has the potential to one day take back the wealth it has created and expropriate the capitalist class. When it does this by first taking political power, it can start a transition to a new mode of production. This is the essence of socialist revolution.

3) Change is interactive, not linear.

Put another way, effects become causes. The pattern of change, whether in nature or society, is not just A causes B which causes C. B might actually influence A. Or A and B together create C, which in turn reacts to both, and so on.

For example, in the 1600s, the plantation owners in the British colonies in North America needed a large number of workers for their extremely intensive agriculture. At first, European indentured servants made up the colonial labor force. But though life was harsh for an indentured servant, the extent to which they could be exploited was limited by civil rights developed over centuries of class struggle in Britain. On the other hand, the enslavement of Native Americans was difficult because they could escape relatively easily. Through the inhuman logic of capitalism, these limitations ultimately led to a new form of brutality: the kidnapping, importation and enslavement of African people.

The enslavement of human beings, as well as the need to steal Native land in order to expand the colonies and their plantations, required an ideological justification. The result was institutional white supremacy and racism as an ideology to divide laborers against each other. This violent division of the working class and the oppressed required laws and institutions to enforce it — from laws against intermarriage, to forbidding literacy amongst the enslaved. Many of these institutions and laws were continued even after slavery to maintain racial divisions. The form of institutional racism changed over the centuries of class struggle and anti-racist struggle, but institutional racism became so central to capitalism that it continued. Racism and capitalism became inseparable. This combination of racism and capitalism was entrenched internationally as well, through colonization and imperialism.

To make class struggle as effective as possible, workers must understand the role of racism and the need to oppose it. At the same time, antiracists must understand how capitalism fuels racism and always has. This example shows how a dialectical understanding of social change is needed for effective struggle towards the goal of social transformation.

4) Historical materialism provides the best explanation of human society.

As we have seen, society changes through struggles over the contradictions inherent within it. The most important of these is class struggle. Revolutionary socialists have upheld this truth since Marx and Engels laid it out on the first page of the Communist Manifesto.

Societies also change through struggles against other contradictions — racism, sexism, and environmental destruction among them. There is a relationship between ideas and struggle.

Clarity of ideas helps to create clarity of goals and effective strategies for transformation. However, it is ultimately struggle that transforms. Ideas become a social force only when they grip large numbers of people and motivate struggle. Oppositional ideas develop because of material contradictions. Workers oppose being exploited not primarily because they have read about it, but because they experience it.

Reformists do not see modes of production as coherent wholes which are transformed through struggling over contradictions within the economy and society. They believe capitalist society can be transformed into socialism a little at a time.

One example of the interaction between material change, struggle, and ideas is the movement for the abolition of slavery before the US Civil War. In these years, the slave economy of the South became increasingly competitive with Northern capitalism. Northern employers of free labor had growing clashes of economic interest with the Southern slaveocracy. The new economic contradictions created openings for abolitionist ideas to resonate more widely.

Abolitionism in turn laid the basis for increasing attacks on slavery through legislation and direct action. This intensified the conflict. The Southern slaveocracy finally felt threatened enough that they seceded, setting off the Civil War. And in the course of that struggle, the US government had to abolish slavery to win the war and preserve the Union.

So, ideas flowing out of economic changes fueled the Civil War. However, the spread of abolitionism on its own would not have liberated the slaves. It took direct physical struggle to do that.

Another way to summarize this lesson: Theory is crucial to what we do as activists — those who dismiss the importance of theory are wrong — but the most important purpose of theory is to clarify struggle and make it more effective.

5) Appearances differ from reality.

Contradictions in society are often hidden. For example, bourgeois ideologues try to deny the reality of class struggle. They argue that the system is by and large a fair one — that most workers receive a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. Workers freely decide to work for the wage negotiated with the boss, so where is the problem?

Most workers themselves may even agree with all of this, most of the time. It may appear that the majority of the working class are conservative and unwilling to fight for socialism. As Marx and Engels wrote, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

Workers have to go along with bourgeois ideas, at least to a degree, in order to survive. They must obey their boss to keep their job. They must obey the cops to stay out of jail. They rationalize this obedience by adopting bourgeois ideology, at least to some extent.

But it’s necessary for Marxists to look below the appearance of conformity. Even when workers obey, they don’t necessarily like it. Reality is not static. There is always dynamic change below the surface. The volcano can lie dormant for years, decades, even centuries with little change on the surface.

However, eruptions will come! The placid working class of the 1920s eventually spawned the militant 1930s labor movement. The McCarthyite 1950s yielded the massive upheavals of the 1960s. Thirty years of the Mubarak dictatorship came to an end very suddenly with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. One thousand years of Tsarist rule ended with the Russian Revolution of 1917.

6) Quantity changes into quality.

To follow on from the previous point, rapid transformation happens in both nature and in society. In nature, warmer and warmer ice turns to liquid at 33 degrees Fahrenheit; if it keeps heating up, liquid water then turns to steam. Until this “sudden” transformation, the ice seems solid and steady. After it melts, the water is just a little warmer but fundamentally the same element.

The same thing happens in society. As noted above, conservative periods can become revolutionary seemingly overnight. Those not paying attention to molecular changes underneath the surface can be taken by surprise and not know how to respond.

An understanding of dialectics is necessary for the creation of effective strategies of social change. Those who have a static view of society, who don’t understand the driving forces of contradiction, can become pessimistic about the possibility of social change. They may end up accepting reformist ideas and strategies rather than revolutionary ones.

The incoherence of eclecticism

Marxism is a coherent theory of revolutionary social change. Certain fundamental aspects of Marxism cannot be excised without destroying it as an effective program. These include the concepts of dialectics, historical materialism, class struggle, revolution, internationalism, orientation towards the working class, and opposition to oppression and exploitation. Each is a pillar of the house of Marxism. Take out one of these pillars and the whole house falls.

In this sense, Marxism itself is dialectical. It cannot be “reformed” into a new, more effective revolutionary school of thought by removing key aspects of it. That kind of fundamental reform of Marxism would only change it into a philosophy compatible with capitalism. Ironically, in contrast with the unitary nature of societies, a philosophy such as Marxism can be reformed (in a bad way) by removing key elements.

As we saw earlier, reformists attempt to remove the need for revolution from their view of social transformation. Reformists do not see modes of production as coherent wholes which are transformed through struggling over contradictions within the economy and society. They believe capitalist society can be transformed into socialism a little at a time. This is a rejection of several Marxist principles, especially in removing class struggle as the driving force of history. It produces an eclectic and incoherent ideology, heavily influenced by liberalism and ultimately serving the interests of capitalists.

To understand how these contradictions play out in the real world, look at the way reformists such as Bernie Sanders, the Squad, and their apologists in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) inevitably end up betraying principles of socialism — justifying government strikebreaking, for example, or supporting US imperialism.

But, contrary to the dogmatists, there is a way to incorporate relevant new ideas into Marxist analysis without removing those fundamental pillars.

A dialectical view of different schools of thought

Dialectical analysis is the best way to understand the world. However, most human thinking is only partly dialectical or not dialectical at all. As we’ve seen, in any class society, human consciousness is heavily influenced by ruling ideology. By its very nature, ruling ideology in class society is not dialectical. It tends to stress “eternal” (but in fact socially conditioned) truths such as human nature, morality, national character, and the virtue of social hierarchies.

This means that particular ideologies are not analogous to modes of production or social formations. They are not necessarily a coherent totality. They are made up of ruling ideas mixed with oppositional ideas, formal logic with dialectics. We need to approach them differently than we do modes of production. We can confront the negative aspects of a certain set of ideas and help change those aspects. By the same token we can learn from their positive aspects.

There are Marxists who refuse to accept ideological contributions from other schools of thought. They argue that Marxism is sufficient unto itself, and fear that any contribution to a Marxist understanding from outside Marxism will pollute it. This contradicts Marx’s method.

Often a particular author (say, a liberal historian such as Corey Robin or Eric Foner) will have a relatively trenchant analysis of an issue. The author will demonstrate, and may even say openly that capitalism causes a particular problem or injustice. In the end, they will often recoil from the logical conclusion of their own analysis — the need to overthrow capitalism!

Revolutionaries, on the other hand, can take this trenchant analysis and draw Marxist conclusions from it. We do not have to reject the liberal historian’s entire ideology as we would reject the entire capitalist mode of production. We do not have to revolutionize the ideology, overthrow it and create a new one. Instead, we can use parts of it to build Marxism.

Of course, we can approach other ideologies dialectically in one respect. We can grab the contradictions within them and use the analysis to overthrow the strategy. Our goal is to replace liberalism and reformism with revolutionary politics. In doing so, we should not be shy about using the research results of other ideologies towards Marxist ends. Liberalism and reformism as a whole are reflections of the needs of capitalism and will be overthrown with the overthrow of capitalism. However, most authors do not express these ideologies in a pure form.

The problem of Marxist dogmatism

It is important to grasp the distinction between a dialectical approach to ideologies and a dialectical approach to society and nature. A rigid understanding of Marxist principles that rejects this distinction can lead to dogmatism. There are Marxists who refuse to accept ideological contributions from other schools of thought. They argue that Marxism is sufficient unto itself, and fear that any contribution to a Marxist understanding from outside Marxism will pollute it.

This contradicts Marx’s method. As Lenin argued, Marxism flowed from the combination of English political economy, French socialism and German philosophy. Marx took important aspects of each to develop his revolutionary communism. He took these previous sets of ideas and welded them into a coherent whole, a new social science.

People with a wide variety of politics produce empirical studies, and develop analyses based on these studies. Obviously, these studies have to be approached critically. As Marxists, we have to inquire into their scientific approach or lack thereof. We might, for example, accept their research but question their conclusions.

With these caveats, studies from any angle can be useful to developing and enriching a Marxist analysis of current society.

This also applies to non-Marxist ideologies. There is no reason to believe that no useful ideologies have developed since Marx. But ideas from other traditions need to be examined for scientific validity and their compatibility with Marxism.

One example of dogmatism is the wholesale rejection of feminism by the British Socialist Workers Party. The SWP saw all feminism as bourgeois feminism and therefore virtually worthless. They rejected any suggestion that aspects of feminism could enrich Marxism. The now-defunct International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the US took this same position for most of its existence.

Feminism stems from an important contradiction of capitalism. Bourgeois ideology says all people are equal in the marketplace; yet at the same time, in capitalist society women are subjected to institutional oppression. The questioning of these contradictions and the resistance to this oppression yields various forms of feminism. Feminist struggle throws up new ideas and means of struggle that can usefully be incorporated into Marxist analysis.

Society is dynamic. Political programs must be dynamic as well. Life and struggle create new opportunities, new methods, and new ideas. The dialectics of society has impacts on the development of ideas.

Some Marxists reject settler-colonial theory. This theory seeks to analyze societies that are based on the dispossession of natives by colonial settlers. Unfortunately, this theory is often used to reject American, Canadian, and Australian workers in the modern era as counterrevolutionary “settlers.” Though this is an anti-Marxist application of the theory, at the same time settler-colonial theory can be used fruitfully to analyze Israel, South Africa under apartheid, and the earlier phases of US, Canadian and Australian history. Some aspects of the colonial settler origins of these societies still persist. Those who dogmatically reject settler-colonial theory in toto because of some negative applications of it will miss its important insights.

Another historic example of dogmatism can be found in the debates over the development of the Russian soviet. In the 1905 Russian Revolution, workers in the major cities created workers’ councils, or soviets, to carry on their strike activity. The soviets were expressions of class struggle, but were not consciously socialist or revolutionary at first.

Leading Bolsheviks in St. Petersburg saw the soviets as expressing different politics than revolutionary Marxism, and therefore saw them as political rivals to the party. They demanded that the soviets immediately become fully Marxist and adopt the program of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). The workers refused, and Marxists at first had little influence on the soviets as a result.

Lenin rejected this sectarianism. He saw the soviets as the potential basis of a workers’ government, and called on the party to work to convince workers of the Marxist view. In order to win the soviets to Marxism, the Marxists had to support and work within the soviets: “It seems to me that to lead the political struggle, both the Soviet … and the party are, to an equal degree, absolutely necessary.”

Lenin’s view was proven correct, and the soviets, of course, became the basis of government after the working-class insurrection in the next revolution, in October 1917.

Society is dynamic. Political programs must be dynamic as well. Life and struggle create new opportunities, new methods, and new ideas. The dialectics of society has impacts on the development of ideas.

Marxism is a living, breathing political philosophy. It must incorporate new ideas that develop in struggle. Obviously, this process needs to be handled critically. Marxists do not accept new ideas just because they are new. The key is to incorporate ideas that are scientifically valid and do not contradict the core bases of Marxism which have been proven over history.


Eclecticism has no firm foundation. It takes in ideas willy-nilly without seeing if they contradict firm principles that have been developed over years of struggle and thought. It is so open to “new” ideas that it is willing to jettison established positions previously proven in practice.

Dogmatism is just as contradictory to Marxism. It promotes theoretical stagnation, and prevents Marxists from adapting to new forms of struggle and from reaching new audiences.

Finding the balance is important. To understand which new ideas to incorporate into Marxist analyses, Marxists must first have a firm grasp on the principles of Marxism. It is only through a thorough understanding of these principles that Marxists can evaluate the usefulness of outside ideas and analyses.

This means that new Marxists need to focus on understanding the science of Marxism. They must read the classics and internalize the basic principles. Only then can they evaluate what to add and what to reject from outside philosophies. For this reason, eclecticism usually causes difficulty for new Marxists, while dogmatism can prove to be a problem for both newer and more developed Marxists.

To defend and use Marxism effectively, Marxists need to reject both dogmatism and eclecticism and embrace dialectics!

image: Paul Klee, Crystal Gradation, 1921

Steve Leigh
(he/him) is a founding member of Firebrand and the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists. He has been an active Marxist since 1971 and was a founding member of the International Socialist Organization. He was a shop steward in SEIU for 35 years and is a member of the retirees chapter of SEIU 925. Read more from Steve on his blog.

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