Most people have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. A socialist is a little different. On the left shoulder sits “The Dogmatist,” wearing a newsboy cap, shaking a copy of a print publication, and muttering about the year 1917. On the right shoulder sits “The Opportunist,” sporting a tie, stirring a latte, and lecturing about how such-and-such Democrat is really a friend of the people.
Every socialist since Marx and Engels has confronted the challenge of tuning out both voices. And every socialist has made some dogmatic and some opportunistic mistakes. One needs to be generous, and not so quick to charge a comrade with one of these errors. But we should also learn to spot what is and isn’t dogmatic and opportunistic. If you’re going to avoid making a mistake, you need to know what it looks like to make it.
What is Dogmatism?
Dogmatists follow “rule by timeless formulas.” In place of a mind open to new challenges and a willingness to adapt strategy and tactics to a given moment, the dogmatist insists that certain evergreen articles of faith can guide the work of a movement everywhere and always. Being timeless, these formulas tend to look more like abstract ideas than concrete plans.
This is what makes dogmatists incapable of undertaking the messy work of building up working-class power — they tend to shun those who dissent from, or merely don’t understand, their rigid faith. One day, the dogmatist reasons, everyone will learn their lesson and put the dogmatist in charge. Until that day comes, the dogmatist will go on merrily thumbing their nose at the world and drawing hard lines between their side and the wrong side.
Sometimes the work of coming up with one’s own timeless formulas seems like too much work. Or perhaps the dogmatist is insecure about their own qualifications to lead. So, taking a shortcut, the dogmatist dives into history books, lifts up some figure of the past as The Great Leader, and copies their plans and strategies. Much easier to copy than to be original.
Some people confuse dogmatism with holding unpopular opinions. That’s not it. If it was, every socialist in our current moment would be a dogmatist. It is right and good to hold fast to one’s beliefs — as long as they’re rooted in reality — and to make the case for them. Don’t be obnoxious about it. Don’t make agreement on every question the prerequisite for collective work. But in conversations, meetings, and canvassing you have a right to present your case.
Some people confuse dogmatism with learning from the past. That’s not it either. If one uses the past as a pretext to craft those timeless formulas I mentioned, then yes that’s dogmatism. Some groups really do that. But most people who want to study history do so because they reason, correctly, that there’s a lot to be learned from the past, even though there are no ready-made answers.
What does it look like to make a dogmatic mistake? In 2015, some on the U.S. left looked on in horror as Bernie Sanders prepared to run for president in the Democratic primary. Decades of experience with the Democratic Party led some on the left to turn the good principle that socialists should be independent of the Democratic Party into a timeless formula for tactics: It is always a bad idea to run in the party’s primary elections. Since Bernie was running as a Democrat, it simply had to be the case that Bernie was up to no good. As one leader of the International Socialist Organization put it in 2015, “Bernie Sanders’s campaign inside the Democratic Party is an obstacle” to the project of “breaking with the Democratic Party and building an electoral alternative as a complement to struggle from below.” Therefore, socialists could not be active supporters inside Bernie’s campaign.
Whatever one might think of Bernie’s political trajectory since 2015 — and I certainly have my criticisms — it seems hard to say that either of Bernie’s presidential campaigns were a net negative for opponents of the Democratic Party. Bernie’s campaigns helped polarize the party’s supporters between its left and right wings. Organizations like DSA that threw themselves enthusiastically into Bernie’s 2016 run came out of the election that year with lots of energy and tens of thousands of new members. And most of those members have gone on to develop sharper politics and a deep hostility to the Democratic Party leadership.
What is Opportunism?
Opportunists follow “rule by the path of least resistance.” For the opportunist, the easier road is always the better one. Much better to win some small victory now, by any means necessary, than to sacrifice short-term gains for potential long-term ones. Nor is there any need for serious debate about the challenge of fighting for long-term goals, because strategy is subordinated to a single formula: take the easiest route.
The opportunist is especially attuned to the siren song of liberal public opinion. If everyone in “respectable” society does something, it must be because that’s the right way to do it.
Just as there’s a lot of misconceptions about what dogmatism is, there’s a lot of confusion about opportunism.
It’s not opportunistic to want to win. Winning a union contract, winning an election, and winning a reform campaign are essential parts of longer-term strategies to change the world. These sorts of victories can help strengthen the working class.
The question sometimes, though, is about how we win. Do we take shortcuts, and lock out the membership of an organization from making decisions, in order to win? Do we adopt a culture of organizational secrecy because it’s easier to make decisions with a small group we know we’ll agree with (and perhaps because there’s less of a risk of upsetting powerful people we’re trying to make deals with)? Do we compromise on principles and in doing so demoralize our organizers? Do we conceal our real plans for now under the faulty assumption that, like the soldiers in the Trojan Horse, we can sneak into the camp of the enemy and then start fighting? Do we flatter the ego of some rival politician or bureaucrat in order to gain an advantage and in the process mislead our own people into thinking they’re a friend?
It’s not opportunistic to weigh one’s words carefully. Sometimes it’s not the right time to press a debate or a disagreement inside of an organization or movement. Sometimes it’s the moment to emphasize what a group holds in common. There’s no rule one can use ahead of time to judge when it is and when it is not appropriate to stress unity or press to make controversial changes. That has to be figured out in a concrete situation.
What does it look like to make an opportunistic mistake? In 2021, organizations on the progressive left had to make a choice: Attack the new administration of Joe Biden from outside the halls of power, or shift gears to take posts as advisors to the new president and other positions within the Democratic Party. Tragically, many organizations made the mistake of trying to enter government and influence the Biden administration from the inside. As one smart critic of this move put it, the result was that the progressive left was “defanged” and co-opted into “Bidenworld” — even as the administration jettisoned progressive priority after progressive priority. Activists wanted to believe that the Biden administration represented the opportunity to make big changes that they had long waited for. They bought the administration’s claims that this was so, and in the process disarmed themselves and their members.
Getting the Balance Right
There’s a balance to be struck between consistency and compromise, abiding by lessons learned from the past and seizing new opportunities. It’s normal to make mistakes here, to emphasize one approach over the other at a given point in one’s life, or in the life of an organization. The dogmatist on our left shoulder snags our ear one year, and the opportunist on the right shoulder hooks us in the next.
In my time on the left, I’ve come to believe that people are more susceptible to each danger at different points in their political development and in different roles in an organization.
The new socialist is full of fire. Often, someone new to socialism can get consumed by the excitement of tearing down whatever old worldview they had and putting up the scaffolding of a socialist outlook. In doing so, they’re more likely to jump into those history books and overvalue some tired formula or want to spend their time focused on what the “wiser” elder dismisses as abstract debates. The greater danger, therefore, for the new socialist is dogmatism.
Something similar can sometimes be said for the rank-and-file member of an organization. Distanced from some of the difficult challenges that face leaders, they rue every compromise as opportunism.
The experienced socialist is full of perspective. Often they regret some of their younger excesses. They’re more likely to appreciate the need for compromise and more apt to see things in grays. But sometimes they put too much emphasis on compromise. Sometimes they’re too quick to jettison assumptions that were once foundational to their worldview. Sometimes they look at political projects to their right and think: “Hey, the grass is really greener over there!” The greater danger, therefore, for the experienced socialist is opportunism.
Something similar can be said for a leader of an organization. Focused on the challenges they face, lifted up as a representative of a group and in touch with “respectable” elite society, the immense weight of liberal public opinion can feel crushing. It does seem easier to go along to get along with the Democrats and union bigshots and noted intellectuals one is suddenly in touch with.
Learning to avoid the pitfalls of dogmatism and opportunism takes practice, time, and a conscious effort. It’s a bit like learning to ride a two-wheel bike. Don’t fall down on your left or your right. Move forward.