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Red Theory: Marxism against pragmatism

By J. Sykes |
June 27, 2022
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Marxist-Leninists are practical people. This has been true since Marx wrote his famous Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Many Marxists might even consider themselves “pragmatists.” But Marxism and pragmatism, though there may be some superficial similarities, are, in fact, fundamentally opposed. So, let’s look more closely at this. What is pragmatism?

To be a pragmatist means a lot more than just being a practically-oriented person concerned with organizing. Pragmatism is a philosophy, born in the 19th century in the United States, that basically says, “whatever is useful is true.” Ultimately, it is a methodology rooted in subjective idealism.

Subjective idealism says that only our minds and mental conceptions exist. Things only exist to the extent that they are perceived. This subjective idealism is the starting point of pragmatism. For the pragmatist there is no shared, objective material reality with universal laws. Nothing is objectively true, but only becomes true through the subjective act of inquiry. Because objective truth and necessity are inaccessible at best, any claim to objective truth gives way to whatever is useful to believe.

In the 1870s, pragmatism originated from a group in the United States called the Metaphysical Club, which included many prominent professors in the fields of philosophy, psychology, law and theology. Charles Pierce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Fiske, and Williams James were the most notable pragmatists to come from this club, with John Dewey coming later.

Pragmatism in practice generally leads to a kind of eclecticism, taking a bit of this and a bit of that, mixed together in whatever combination is considered useful. Thus, many who have called themselves pragmatists have held a range of views. But for now, let's focus on the point common to all of them: the idea that what is true is “whatever works” for the pragmatist. William James called this the “instrumental view of truth,” or “truth’s cash value.”

An obvious objection to this is that some truths may in fact be useless, but nonetheless true. Likewise, it is very clear that unscrupulous people often find falsehoods to be very useful. But that only makes sense if we accept that there is an objective reality independent of our subjective experience and beliefs. This is no problem for the pragmatists, who care only about expediency, only what serves self-interest. They can’t be bothered by objectivity. The pragmatist is satisfied with whatever is useful for them to believe. All that matters is what gets the job done. We see that when pragmatism says that whatever is useful is true, this begs the question: useful to whom, and for what? For the capitalist ruling class, of course, “the job” just so happens to be whatever keeps capitalism running smoothly and efficiently.

If we look at things from the point of view of historical materialism, we see that the mode of production of society gives rise to a dominant ideology that reinforces it. Every mode of thinking is stamped by the brand of a class, and pragmatism is no exception. Pragmatism arose after the Civil War had swept away the slave economy of the South and consolidated the power of northern industrial capital over the country. This was also the period when competitive capitalism was giving way to monopoly capitalism. Religious philosophy and theology were no longer sufficient as ideological weapons of the bourgeoisie. Pragmatism arose to take up this role and became the dominant philosophical expression of the ideology of imperialism and the monopoly capitalist class. Old, traditional ways of thinking were being swept away, and “whatever works” became the motto of the monopolies as they devoured the economy and set out to seize markets the world over.

In the terrain of the capitalist superstructure, the ideology of the ruling class is dominant, and proletarian ideology is secondary. This means capitalist ideology is always exerting pressure upon our thinking. Since the dominant ideology in the superstructure reinforces the economic base, if we don’t challenge pragmatist ideology, it is easy to allow it to weasel its way into our thinking and methodology, where it can undermine our practice.

Harry K. Wells, in his book Pragmatism: Philosophy of Imperialism, identifies four features of pragmatism as a methodology: empiricism, individualism, spontaneity, and expedient opportunism. It is important to look at each of these and see how even well-intentioned revolutionaries could make these errors, and how one leads to the next.

Beginning with empiricism, pragmatism goes all in on practice and despises theory. Pragmatism holds that reality is nothing but our perceptions, and so we can only know what we have directly observed and experienced. It rejects any claim that we can draw universally applicable theoretical lessons from our experiences. Instead it advocates pluralism and relativism. In other words, what is “useful” (and therefore “true”) for me may not be for you.

Therefore, individualism is an obvious outgrowth of this. Since pragmatism thinks only our direct perceptions give us access to knowledge, we are left only with our unique, particular, individual experiences. Thus, pragmatism rejects social practice, collective summation, and organizational discipline, especially when they don’t align with our individual experiences. Strategic unity of action becomes unthinkable.

From there, spontaneity takes the place of planning and strategy. The dialectical relationship between theory and practice is broken and the focus is narrowed to only the local, immediate work. Long term goals are sacrificed for the “pragmatic” demands of our day-to-day work. Instead of working with a plan, we’re now just doing things, focused on “whatever works” for the task at hand. This spontaneity fits perfectly with the capitalist anarchy of production.

Finally, pragmatism leads us to expedient opportunism. This view holds that it doesn’t matter if we adhere to our principles, as long as we get results. Without an analysis built upon the laws of dialectical and historical materialism, and without a sense of historical progress, there is nothing to prevent pragmatism from transforming Marxism into opportunism as Marxist principles are compromised for “whatever works.” But to oppose principles to results is a false dichotomy, of course. And it is actually one that sets us up for failure. Our Marxist-Leninist principles are truly the keys to our success.

Let’s look at an example of how this could play out. A revolutionary in the labor movement may correctly say that the immediate tasks of organizing are important, but incorrectly say that the long-term task of party building and winning over the advanced workers from these labor struggles to Marxism isn’t practical. They do the hard work of organizing but intentionally avoid talking to their coworkers about Marxism. Certainly, our work should aim to win all that can be won and strike blows against the enemy. But if we aren’t building revolutionary organization and winning the advanced to Marxism-Leninism, then we are sacrificing our long term goals for the immediate tasks in the name of being pragmatic. Similarly, because they think it is expedient, they may make concessions on matters of principle in order to build broad unity, tailing behind the backwards. Such an approach concedes leadership to these backwards elements. Instead, revolutionaries should be relying upon the advanced forces to help win over and mobilize the intermediate masses and challenge backwards ideas.

In this way, pragmatism is a right-opportunist error, and often it is an error made with the best of intentions. We want to get things done, after all. But left unchecked, “whatever works” can lead us to abandon revolutionary theory, to abandon revolutionary organization, to abandon our long term goals, and to abandon our principles.

Marxism does not agree with pragmatism. When Marxists say that practice is the sole criterion of truth, we don’t mean that theory should be set aside. We mean that through social practice we can know the world and understand its laws of motion. We can study the laws that govern material processes and formulate strategies and tactics with a long term view. We can use that knowledge to change the world for the better through further practice. This is the only way to revolutionize society and eliminate exploitation and oppression once and for all.