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Gavin Mendel-Gleason - Sun Jul 14, 2019 22:24
The role of elections in socialist strategy The Legacy of the Republican Congress In 1934, in the shadow of a rising fascist threat in Europe, the Republican Congress was convened. This congress brought together the main elements of socialists, communists … Continue reading

The role of elections in socialist strategy

The Legacy of the Republican Congress

In 1934, in the shadow of a rising fascist threat in Europe, the Republican Congress was convened. This congress brought together the main elements of socialists, communists and progressives, largely drawn from the republican movement. In the few years of its existence, the Republican Congress was surprisingly successful in organising political rallies, pickets, and trade union support, especially given the condition of Ireland as a young post-colonial and underdeveloped state in which it arose. 

Ireland was highly socially conservative, had a relatively small working class, the socialist movement was young and the workers’ movement had yet to achieve the kind of mass successes it had won in mainland Europe and in the UK. It would be fair to say that the terrain of struggle was difficult.

The Congress constituted itself as a federation of groups which attempted to work together towards a common cause. However, a motion was put forward that it should constitute itself instead as a political party. This motion was voted down fairly narrowly in favour of remaining as a broad front united against reactionary forces and the rise of fascism. Within a few years, the Congress itself dispersed, breaking up into constituent groups with many participants simply drifting away. 

One of the groups involved in the Republican Congress, which actively promoted the position that it should remain federal, was the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI). This orientation in the Communist Party, but also more broadly in the socialist and republican movement, has remained fairly consistent, as we can see from the more recent attempts of the “Peadar O’Donnell Forum” to establish a similar federative network. Peader O’Donnell was himself a member of the Republican Congress and an advocate of this strategy. 

With respect to the elections, George Gilmore, a prominent member of The Republican Congress, put forward the following view: 

If in the course of the various struggles that make up the Congress activities – the struggles of the landless men of the framing population for land, of the unemployed for work, of the town tenants for reductions of rack-rents, of industrial workers for better conditions of life – if in connection with any of these activities some person, who has become prominent in the fight, should be put forward as the candidate of whatever party or league or group is making that fight, then I believe that the Congress would urge its supporters to vote for that candidate in preference to any other.”

That is, the Congress should not constitute itself as a party and run candidates, but could tactically endorse candidates of other parties (or independents presumably). This position is remarkably similar to the position held by the CPI (and its affiliated Connolly Youth Movement) today. In the local and European elections of 2019 the CPI, in their periodical Socialist Voice, called for support for independent community candidates but did not advance any candidates itself.  

It should be understood that the orientation of Gilmore arises from a context in which Sinn Féin and republicans in general had widely viewed the parliaments in the North and in the South of Ireland as illegitimate or “enemy” parliaments, whose sovereign power they refused to consumate. The contemporary Sinn Féin goes much further than this claiming that participation in the elections, North or South, is outright treason. The Republican Congress position therefore handily avoids being too tainted with the “enemy parliament”, while not completely ruling out tactical flexibility. 

The route to power seen by George Gilmore for the congress, is in the organisation of Workers’ and Peasants councils. These councils would grow to become a parallel administrative state which would assume to organs of power, first as a dual power, and finally as the sole legitimate power. The strategy is essentially that which was embraced by the Dutch-German council communists of the 1920s and 30s, and has as originating template, the Russian revolution, in which the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” invoked that legitimate power should go to the workers’ and peasants councils which were formed in the revolutionary climate of 1905 and then revived and ultimately (though briefly) assumed power in 1917.

Hence electoral activity was seen not only as suspect by members of the republican movement, many such as Gilmore saw it largely as a distraction from the building of this more serious and much more important counter-power. 

The Balance Sheet

The call to cooperation or federation around a set of principles is always an easier goal, and therefore tends to be “an easy sell”. It is daunting to attempt to fuse people into a united organisation, with all of the organisational and ideological differences which exist in their respective parts. Faced with seemingly insurmountable difference, the easy option is a looser affiliation. 

What is loosely bound, is also easily untied. And so it was with The Republic Congress which managed to hold together for only a few years. Having produced the first sizable socialist and republican movement in Ireland’s history (The Fenian proclamation is an amazing document, but it’s arguable how widely its sentiments were actually felt) the Republican Congress participants can hardly be blamed for this fate.

And though there was briefly a progressive party, Clann na Poblachta with some popularity, a socialist party with the aim of organising a workers movement, and some success in doing so, would have to wait until the socialist turn in the republican movement which led to Official Sinn Féin, later the Workers’ Party.

The Workers’ Party’s history is not without its complicated twist and turns, its character being reinforced by the Provisional split of those dissenting from the “political turn” which the majority leadership of Sinn Féin endorsed, coupled with the opening up of a serious conflict in the North ultimately caused by remaining juridical and economic sectarian divisions imposed by the British state.

The strategy of shifting the republican movement to a socialist orientation, merging the republican movement with the labour movement, and both taking part in elections and extra-parliamentary struggles resulted in a scale and duration of class conflict which has not yet been repeated. While the Workers’ Party of the early 80s could boast 1000s of members, many dedicated socialists who had been educated about Marx and class dynamics of capitalism, the alternative socialist strategies along the lines of those outlined by the Republican Congress, despite being pursued actively by various groups, including he Communist Party of Ireland, have failed to gain any significant purchase. 

It must be acknowledged that the Workers’ Party had itself serious mistakes of orientation, political errors and dubious self-promoting characters rising to prominence at various times. Though steps can and should be taken to prevent such occurrences in the course of the development of a party, they are a danger that rises proportionally to the size and importance of a party movement. The small can remain ideologically pure and untainted by dangerous missteps, but no party of capacity can do so indefinitely. 

The point is not however to justify this or that position of the Workers’ Party or to denounce those positions of the other groups in the various complex terrains that arise in political reality in the course of class conflict. Rather it is that the general strategic approach found purchase in mass activity and mass support by the working class, while its counterpart, the “council communist” strategy did not. 

The Strength of Antiparliamentarism

While conditions of social and political economy deeply shape which strategies are available to socialists and the exact context must be carefully taken into account, the extra-parliamentary strategies of syndicalism and council communism, irrespective of their political nuance, have proved vastly less effective in the much broader field of Europe. This is true in scale and impact in the context of even very limited democracies, and certainly in the fully developed western bourgeois democracies. 

No socialist political movement has taken power in a fully fledged democracy, by any strategy, leaving us with a paucity of statistical examples of successes and complicating the analysis. However there have been some near misses. Immediately after WWII the US conspired with local bourgeoisies to suppress communist forces, holding off elections in France and Italy until they felt non-communists forces were safe. In Chile, Allende attempted to implement socialist measures which were forestalled by a coup in cooperation with the CIA. 

And while communist parties such as the PCI in Italy, the PCF in France and the KKE in Greece gave rise to movements of 100s of thousands or even millions, the council communists and syndicalist impacts were far more limited. And the record of Venezuela is not yet set in stone.

Among the most impressive examples of extra-parliamentarian political formation is the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) of Spain, which managed to pursue a syndicalist strategy which genuinely became mass. Yet this was in a context of a very young republic which was almost immediately destabilised by a reactionary putsch. And ultimately they found themselves taking part in elected governments.

Of the more Marxist “council communist” approaches the Kommunistische Arbeiter-Partei Deutschlands (KAPD) is notable. It had not only a party dedicated to education but also associated unions and even at certain points, paramilitary forces.Though itcould count its support in the 10s of thousands these numbers were directly inherited when it split away from an electoral formation. It then proceeded to almost immediately lose 90% of its members, returning to the size of a sect before disappearing entirely.

Similarly, the Italian wing of council communism, of which Amadeo Bordiga was an important proponent, ended up drifting into microgroup obscurity while the Italian Communist Party was giving the US securicrats in NATO and the CIA nightmares.

The council communist idea is inspired by the events of the Russian revolution, where the soviets represented a dual power, that eventually superseded other governmental organs. Yet the Bolsheviks, which became the motive driving force of soviet supremacy did not achieve power by a slow process of building councils over decades. Instead they built a social democratic workers party (RSDLP) over the course of decades, which involved itself not only in union activities, media, community organising, but also every democratic outlet available to it, including the decidedly undemocratic Duma. 

Portrait of Lenin“Soviets”, which might also be called “councils”, arose as a response to the revolutionary conditions of 1905 and then resuscitated themselves during the increasingly revolutionary conditions of 1917. It was only in this later phase in 1917 that the Bolshevik party decided that they should be the vehicle of proletarian power. To imagine that we build the soviets first, and the party will follow is to invert the causal direction of the exact historical referent from which council communism arises. 

It was precisely to dispel this “council communist” confusion that Lenin decided to write his famous work “Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” in the 1920s which was directed at the Dutch-German council communist trend and its advocates. And while Lenin was very much an advocate of base building, advancing the unions, etc. He was quite hostile to the idea that action should only happen “from below”:

“The long reign of political reaction in Europe, which has lasted almost uninterruptedly since the days of the Paris Commune, has too greatly accustomed us to the idea that action can proceed only “from below,” has too greatly inured us to seeing only defensive struggles. We have now, undoubtedly, entered a new era: a period of political upheavals and revolutions has begun. In a period such as Russia is passing through at the present time, it is impermissible to confine ourselves to old, stereotyped formulae. We must propagate the idea of action from above, we must prepare for the most energetic, offensive action, and must study the conditions for and forms of such actions.” – Two Tactics of Social Democracy, Vladimir Lenin

The Theoretical Structure of Electoral Necessity

The historical record does not paint a favourable picture of the extra-parliamentary approach, but it is important to make a theoretical examination of why this might be the case. We will restrict ourselves to investigations of the developed western democracies, of which Ireland is a special case, in order to narrow the field.

The primary reason that elections must necessarily be a core activity of the party pursuing socialist transformation is that, contra strategies of the ruling class, the socialist transformation requires politically directed activity, expressed in a programme and propelled by mass activity. A very substantial fraction of the population must be directly involved in the organisation of this programme and organisational activity, and an even larger fraction should be either sympathetic, or at least not functional antagonistic. Without these factors, success is impossible and failure is assured. 

Elections give a forum in which to involve members in presenting a program to the broader population, and a means of assessing where it is we stand vis-vis this population. The micro-group eschewing elections can always imagine its reach further and its message deeper, but those who take part in elections have a much more demonstrable measure of the reality. 

And while it is certainly possible to pursue the politicisation of the unions, community groups, etc via a political party which does not involve itself in elections, the unions, community groups, etc. will consistently look to the political representation when it comes to issues of importance on the day. When the extra-parliamentary party calls for reforms it can not enact, and the union turns to the left-wing of the neoliberal establishment, is it really the union who is to blame? 

And so it is that these extra-parliamentary groupings find themselves engaging in normal union activity, periodic spontaneous resistance, and the occasional stunt, yet amount to little more than ginger groups for other left wing parties and independents in the best of cases, or simply as gadflies denouncing the activities of those who engage in electoral activity at the worst. The halfway-house of the republican congresses “tactical support” is similarly no antidote. It serves only to cede the territory to other actors in the electoral arena, which it finds itself either denouncing, ignoring or tailing and these other political actors have little reason to seek approval or support in return. 

By contrast, even very marginal activity with a radical message in elections tends to reconfigure the playing field. The Workers’ Party, with only one member on Dublin City Council put Sinn Féin under a large amount of pressure, limiting their capacity to liquidate public assets, and forcing their votes to the left. The promotion of public housing as the solution to the housing crisis was given much more visibility and credence than it had previously enjoyed. And while the Workers’ Party failed to take a seat (by a little less than 50 votes) this near miss for a quite radical and explicitly socialist message demonstrates in fact the viability of the approach. If only slightly more effort had been invested, success surely could have been achieved.

Electoralism is dangerous and the pressures to reconcile to the status quo are very real. Failure in elections is painful for active party members and especially for candidates. In addition, the access to funds, a thing always so elusive to the socialist party, provides a strong incentive to growing the number of votes. Both of these factors push parties to move towards the current political economic norm and against suggesting anything too extreme. The promotion of candidates can lead to individuals who, incentivised towards popularity, obtain power which can not easily be checked by party structures. It’s also possible to have a very shallow party movement who have only a small political machine and no real organisational depth, while enjoying some electoral success.

And when socialism appears on the horizon of a democracy, one can be assured that the US will step in to divert the course.

These criticisms while real, cannot change the fact that the alternative approaches do not even yield significant dangers of failure because they fall so far short of success.

Revolutionary Reality

The last generation of political activists can be excused for believing that the revolutionary horizon was removed entirely. It was after all, the era of the end of history. However, the end of history has ended. Revolutionary conditions are likely to assert themselves with very high probability in the coming period, not least of which is the reality of a rapidly changing climate, which potentially leads to the of a kind of terminal crisis of capitalism which Luxemburg had only considered theoretical. Coupled with this is an increasingly unstable geopolitical situation, which while currently mono-polar, may not remain for too many more decades.

Far from meaning we should eschew activity in the electoral arena, instead it presents the possibility of popularising revolutionary aims through the ballot box once again. Bold initiatives are needed in bold times. Putting forward an ambitious but realisable programme of transition to socialism may have seemed pie in the sky in 1995, but in 2025 it’s the only thing capable of saving us from climate catastrophe, making non-revolutionary measures the outrageous ones.


A party with the aim of socialism and deep roots in the working class simply does not yet exist in Ireland, however, history demonstrates that it is possible for one to exist. History can also give us very important clues about which strategies can be pursued with any hope of success.

The situation in Ireland is perhaps more dire than people have given it credit. Sinn Féin will prove to be ultimately a pointless enterprise, having no genuine dedication to socialism. Indeed apart from a vague interest in some sort of republican sentimentalism, they hardly have any ideology at all, and could transform into Fianna Fáil quite readily. 

And aside from this we have Solidarity who is currently in the midst of a 3 way split, people Before Profit whose core values are something about cannabis and protecting people from inheritance tax, we have Independents for Change, a group which actually contains the lack of commitment to being a genuine party in its very name, and then a range of very small socialist, communist and republican groups, including Éirígí, the Workers’ Party, The Communist Party and others.

A commitment to creating a genuine socialist party of the working class, in more than just name, is then a very daunting task in the current climate. It will require heroic efforts of courage and force of will to discover the process for assembling and fusing those forces which are present and gathering up those which can be encouraged. Yet it is a task which we desperately need to undertake if we are to have a future. Continuing down proven failed paths, or shying away from proven ones because they feel too uncomfortable or difficult, betrays the working class of Ireland as a whole.

Sylvia Smith - Wed Mar 21, 2018 08:10
Introduction There has been a revival of the working class movement across the world. But if we want to seize this moment, we need to re-embrace scientific analysis. We have to avoid the errors that led us to the weakened … Continue reading


There has been a revival of the working class movement across the world. But if we want to seize this moment, we need to re-embrace scientific analysis. We have to avoid the errors that led us to the weakened state that we find ourselves in.

The fall of the Soviet Union began a crisis for all socialists, even the anti-Leninists. Gone was the largest sources of funding for the worker’s and anti-colonial movements. Gone was the rationale for the existence of left-wing social democrats. The Social Democrats had served as the final bulwark against Communism. Gone was an organic workers’ movement for the Trotskyists to latch onto. The rotting corpses of the trade unions are all they had left. The Anarchists, who ascended during the anti-globalization movement, devoured themselves with lifestyle politics. There was no longer a social basis for the worker-centric politics of classical Anarchism. Class-struggle Anarchism defined itself through opposition to Revolutionary Marxism. It still does, if the anti-Bolshevik smear-jobs still put out by AK Press are anything to go by, . The anarchists were Pharisees denouncing the Priesthood of the communist movement.

The Official Communists were distraught. At least one leader of the CPUSA had a heart attack after learning about the fall of the USSR. They dedicated their lives to what they believed was the most advanced mode of life to ever exist. Allowing for modifications to national particularities. That system had shown itself to be a rotten sham. They had two choices, either deny their official Marxism-Leninism or deny reality. Those that chose the former had long discredited any Marxist alternative through polemic. All they had left was opposition to the far right without any positive beliefs of their own. Those that chose the latter retreated into their ideological bunkers. Their views reinforced by hack historians like Grover Furr.

The Maoists, for their part, kept guerilla struggles alive in many parts of the world. But outside isolated instances, they lacked connection with the workers movement. The Maoists instead based their struggle on rural peasants. While heroic, these struggles too have ended in failure. The Shining Path collapsed. The Naxalite’s have declined. And the Nepalese Maoists have capitulated to developmentalist capitalism. Success is establishing a proletarian dictatorship. Nowhere has the Protracted People’s War thesis demonstrated success outside of China. And that success was in the context of the second world war with the support of the Soviet Union.

No relevant current had any in theory to help them navigate the new world.

But even this enormous setback shouldn’t have prevented organizers from continuing their work. Bourgeois social scientists shouldn’t have been able to declare the “end of history.” For decades our movement suffered the terminal illness of dogmatism; long before we got the Soviet death certificate. This isn’t to say efforts weren’t made by organizers in the past to treat the illness. Nor that there weren’t individual exceptions among communists. But, a fatal commitment to thought processes that damage any movement tainted ours.


Before we can discuss the nature of dogmatism, we need to ask: where does knowledge come from? There’s a field of study, called epistemology dedicated to it. There are even entire departments for it. Epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge. But, to simplify things, there are two main schools of thought. Either knowledge derives from reason or it derives from observation. There are many other schools of thought as well. Some that locate the source of knowledge in social power. Others in divine/intuitive revelation. And many others. But other schools tend not to predominate in society and are beyond the scope of this discussion.

The first school, which says knowledge comes from reason, is Rationalism. Rationalism says that you can take things that are universally true (axioms) and logically derive further truth from them. Lets take the classic Dr. Seuss story “The Sneetches.” The Sneetches without stars on their bellies believed that because all Sneetches with green stars on their bellies are popular, if they use Mr Bean’s star-on machine they too will become popular. This conclusion logically flowed from their premises. But in practice it doesn’t work out. The star-bellied Sneetches, rooting their sense of superiority not in the stated difference. It was the fact they could exclude others from a privileged position in Sneetch society. Of course, this illustration is simplistic, but it gets at the sort of thought process that underlies rationalist modes of thought. Rationalists make logically consistent closed systems that draw truth from the initial premises. Rationalism is the basis of theology, mathematics, Austrian economics, and most idealist philosophy.

The second school, which says knowledge comes from observation, is empiricism. Empiricism says that you must engage with things and study before you can make a statement about truth. An empiricist would look at the history of production and how needs get met. After studying, an empiricist would conclude that many modes of production existed in history. These all met people’s needs for survival. Capitalism is not unique in doing so. Because capitalism is better than feudalism at meeting needs, they might at first come to endorse capitalism. But, the Empiricist would look at history and recognize that the state emerged with class. It was a means to defend inequality. They would see that class society limits freedom. They’d see that market “freedom” for the few is actually unfreedom for the many. By observing, an empiricist would see that capitalism is a violent system. That it’s one which deprives people of the things they need in the name of private property. For the empiricist, if you want a world with freedom and the provision of needs, you’d have to reject capitalism. An empiricist revises their worldview as they learn new facts. One of the claimed weaknesses of empiricism is that it doesn’t make hard claims about truth, only soft ones. Any statement that an empiricist makes is provisional. New information could show that their claim was wrong. But this “weakness” is a strength. It means that an empiricist is more able to correct errors compared to a rationalist. Empiricism is the basis of both hard and soft science.

Empiricism, as a framework, doesn’t start from a blank slate though. You still ideological commitments before you take your data to create an analysis. Like the idea human freedom is worth fighting for. Or the idea that exploitation is bad. These come from a given position in the world. Bourgeois empiricists imagine you can find a neutral position from which to draw conclusions. But one’s commitments and the ideological lenses color their analysis. Our position, as Marxists, is the perspective of the working class and a basic humanism.

Likewise, bourgeois empiricists start from the perspective of individual rather than collective experience. It’s no wonder they often stray into subjectivism. But science isn’t done from the perspective of the individual, it is a collective effort. As Ludwig Feuerbach said in Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, “Even the certitude of those things that exist outside me is given to me through the certitude of the existence of other men besides myself. That which is seen by me alone is open to question, but that which is seen also by another person is certain.” To create empirical knowledge, we need objective metrics and collective analysis. This doesn’t mean knowledge develops in a democratic manner. It isn’t up to a vote if the Earth revolves around the Sun. But, it did take concerted effort over many generations to discover heliocentrism. And combined effort to prove within the framework of physics. Likewise, the methods of science themselves are subject to change. As collective knowledge grows, new techniques to gather and organize information develop. What was once scientific practice in one period may not not scientific in a later one. As Alexander Bogdanov says in The Philosophy of Living Experience, “A scientific point of view is one that corresponds to the highest standards of its times and which takes into consideration all the accumulated experience in a given realm of knowledge. And all experience pertains, of course, not to one or another separate individual person but to all society, or, if society is not unified – if it is divided into classes – then the relevant accumulated experience is that of the class collectivity that is most progressive in that realm of knowledge.” Socialist empiricism takes the collective and scientific approach. Bourgeois empiricism takes individualist and speculative approach.

Empiricism and rationalism aren’t always at odds: they can be complementary in building an analysis. We never have complete information or experience. We’re going to end up taking what we know and deriving conclusions logically from them. And it’s important to try and find logical inconsistencies in our own ideas. Finding them can show we have faulty data somewhere along the way. Deductive reasoning, what rationalism uses, is how we create “heuristics.” A heuristic is: an approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method recognized as imperfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals. In simpler terms: a rule of thumb. To understand the world, so we can operate in it, we do have to make models of it. That means fleshing out our incomplete information through logical analysis. But, we should be clear that these models are provisional. They are subject to update based on new information. Things like democratic centralism, the labor theory of value, and the theory of the vanguard party are heuristics. They are useful for navigating problems we face, but they’re not universal truths ordained by the Dialectic of History. Empiricism, supplemented by deductive reasoning, is the basis of scientific socialism.

Scientific Socialism

“Scientific socialism” was a term coined by Frederick Engels. It refers to socialism that uses observation of history and practice to determine praxis. Utopian Socialists, conversely, base arguments on morality or abstract principles like justice. Those ideas are context specific and not useful for making scientific analysis. Scientific socialists do not see any specific formula or theory as eternal. The notion of an “immortal science” is anathema. Instead, theories have to be justified against the material facts and new information.

Many Marxist organizations have taken the empiricist approach in their organizing. Marx and Engels began their political careers as communists by studying situation the working class found itself in. Before participating in the Revolution of 1848, Engels wrote The Conditions of the Working Class in England. Likewise, Lenin took the material conditions as the starting point for his work. Lenin authored the April Theses, calling for non-cooperation with the bourgeois Provisional Government. Instead he called for proletarian revolution. It was clear that the conditions were right given the events of the February Revolution. But this upended the Marxist orthodoxy which said a bourgeois revolution must be complete before a proletarian one. Lenin was denounced by the Bolshevik paper Pravda, whose editor at the time was Stalin, for “Bakuninism.” But the situation proved Lenin right.

After defeating the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War, Mao focused his attention on economic policy. He didn’t transpose the Soviet model though. Mao saw that the agricultural “revolution from above” in the USSR provoked an insurgency. It had taken the property of the peasants to fund urban industrialization. He knew that such it couldn’t work in the PRC, which had relied in the support of the peasants for its establishment. Mao avoided the kind of failures the Soviet leadership had in Ukraine because he started from the facts rather than starting from theory. But, dogmatic application of theory marred his policies as well. The infamous Four Pests Campaign, unreasonable grain quotas, and the attempt to decentralize steel production were all a result of non-empirical practice. Even if we are scientific socialists in some areas, it does not prevent us from being dogmatic socialists in others. But, when communists are successful, it is because we chose the scientific socialist road rather than the dogmatic road.

Dogmatism in Practice

In contrast to scientific socialists, dogmatists invert the formula. They base their beliefs on rationalist deduction from first principles. Then they twist observed phenomena to fit their worldview. For a dogmatist, certain truths are the starting point rather than the end of analysis. For instance, God’s benevolence, wealth being the result of virtue, or the universality of the Protracted People’s War. From these eternal truths, found in texts of great teachers, dogmatists construct a narrative that can explain any facet of life. Many dogmatists adhere to the teachings of thinkers who themselves were empiricist. For instance, while Mao opposed “book worship,” many people present his quotations as proof something is true. If one has a problem, they can consult the holy book and think through the implications for their answer.

If facts conflict with the conclusions of a dogmatist, there’s a few possible reactions. One is for the dogmatist to deny the facts. To take an example from the world of the hard sciences we can look at the Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko was a prominent biologist in the USSR. He developed a process to convert spring wheat into winter wheat called vernalization. Yet, he also adhered to a theory of biology which held that characteristics were a result of the environment. He believed environmental experience could be inherited. And he rejected the idea that characteristics were passed according to fixed traits and mutation. While his views seem like epigenetics, they’re not. Lysenko rejected the idea of a genetic substrate . He thought you could convert one species into another through external pressure. It would only take a few generations. Soviet biologists, confronted with conclusive proof of genetics, dismissed the data as fraudulent. Lysenko’s initial success with vernalization helped Soviet agriculture,. But, his other theories like cluster planting, caused problems throughout the Soviet economy. Like Kropotkin, Lysenko saw cooperation rather than competition as decisive in nature. He claimed that planting crops close together would make them more effective. They should cooperate and help one another out. Cooperation is important in nature. But, rejecting of Darwinism should only happen if it’s proven false, not because it conflicts with one’s worldview.

Sometimes dogmatists will engage in special pleading for their ideas. Anarchists avoid criticism of their strategies by locating their failure in external forces. But, they’ve failed to succeed where those forces were not present. During the Spanish Civil War, the Stalinist PCE did fight the Anarchists. But, during the earlier Spanish revolt of 1873 the Anarchists failed on their own merits. Likewise, many Anarchist movements have waxed and waned without completing a revolution. There have been movements in Korea, Latin America, and eastern Europe, but all failed. But they still think that if only their same theories were better applied they would work this time. From terrorist bombings throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to general strikes, and factory occupations: the failure to translate into success needs the be addressed as a failure of Anarchism.

Another reaction is to create complex formulations to fit the new data into the system. When the People’s’ Republic of China ran into conflicts with their erstwhile socialist ally, the Soviet Union, they declared it was state-capitalist. The Khrushchev leadership now followed the “capitalist road.” Yet, the structures of the economy were identical to how they existed under Stalin.

Sometimes, dogmatists will claim that their truths are esoteric and unconcerned with the mundane world. The Catholic Church accepts the theory of evolution as not in conflict with the teachings of the Church. But, they persecuted people who disagreed with other literal interpretations of the Bible before. Likewise, many “Marxist economists” wave away failure to describe the economy in monopoly conditions. They say that Marxism doesn’t need a “theory of price.”

Finally, dogmatists might revise their axioms to be abstract or even metaphorical. When confronted with evil, God’s benevolence becomes a sacred mystery beyond the ken of us mere mortals. The third-world countryside of Protracted People’s’ War becomes the slums of the urban metropole. These tactics serve to avoid the problems of doing scientific analysis. They prevent losing the comfort of always having an easy answer.

How Dogmatism Undermines the Movement

Few tendencies are as dangerous for the communist movement as dogmatism. Dogmatism leads to failures, which in turn leads to isolation from the masses. Positive external feedback is lost which only leaves self-reinforcing tendencies.

A textbook example of this is the Revolutionary Communist Party USA. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the organization that would become the RCP-USA was called the Revolutionary Union. They focused on the point of production and committed to militant struggle. As a result, they expanded throughout the country in both urban and rural areas. Their initial success came from a novel understanding of the objective conditions. But, the RU/RCP began relying on the authority of Mao and their leader Bob Avakian. They didn’t develop the critical abilities of their members. Abstract theoretical issues became defining factors of membership. And they demanded intense commitment of members. Those who disagreed with the ideas of the leadership might face a “struggle session.” They were subjected to verbal abuse and expected to self-flagellate. The ideas of the leadership weren’t true not because of scientific analysis. They were true because they had the superior interpretation of Marx, Lenin and Mao.

Members of the RCP/RU, like all followers of Mao Zedong at the time, defended many horrible things. They backed Pinochet’s murder of leftists. Supported the pro-apartheid South Africa forces in Angola UNITA against the revolutionary MPLA. They denounced the Castro government. And they supported the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese “aggressors”. They took these lines because China was “on the socialist road” while the USSR was “on the capitalist road.” China had the correct foreign policy. The USSR’s actions, like supporting African self determination, were imperialism. The RCP/RU confused China’s national realpolitik with socialist internationalism. The same fatal error made by the CPUSA half a century before with Soviet policy.

They based unity on agreement with abstract principles rather than investigation. So, after the death of Mao Zedong, an intense split fractured the RCP. Arguments were based on appeals to internal consistency with Marxists ideology. The leadership held that China had transmuted overnight into a Capitalist country. Their preferred side lost the succession fight. As many as 40 percent of the members believed that China remained a socialist country. They thought it was the vanguard of the world Socialist movement. The splitters created the “Revolutionary Workers Headquarters.” That split would evolve into the Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

Since then, the RCP has degenerated into a transparent personality cult around Bob Avakian. They sell newspapers that use his quotations in place of arguments. They repeat slogans like “without a revolutionary party there is no revolutionary movement,. It’s like a mantra to justify their own existence. Because the “revolutionary” content of the RCP was reduced to the slogans of their leader, they fell into right-opportunism. Particularly after the election of Donald Trump.

Instead of their old left-opportunist calls for immediate revolutionary civil war, material conditions be damned, the RCP uses the front group “Refuse Fascism” to sell a class collaborationist line identical to that of the CPUSA. They reason: 1) fascism is the greatest threat to the workers movement 2) Bob Avakian says Trump is a fascist. Thus, it follows that it must be defeated by any means necessary. For the RCP that means mass demonstrations devoid of Marxist criticism. They want to unite as wide a section of the population as possible. So, they focus on the threat of radical Republicans. The fact such tactics failed to end the Iraq war when the RCP tried them before doesn’t factor in. They don’t treat fascism as a physical threat to be crushed, they treat it as an existential boogieman.

Empiricism is useful for all social scientists. It is useful for Marxists in particular. Marxists are social scientists of revolution. Dogmatism is useful too: it is useful for bureaucrats, abusers, capitalists, and cult leaders. When all your truth comes from an authority like a book or the wisdom of a teacher, it’s a lot easier for those who offer the “correct” interpretation of those doctrines to set themselves up in a position of power.

These people have social capital stemming from their supposed theoretical expertise. They can extract income, respect, submission, and even the freedom to abuse members of their organization. Imagine you’re verbally abused by leading cadre in your party. Take a real example, Socialist Alternative, which had recently won the first city council seat for a socialist in decades. You believe the organization is responsible for the emancipation of humanity. It’s hard to do anything but internalize it as a failing on your end. You’re in the FRSO. Your tiny group wields the four swords of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism-Gonzalo Thought. It’s easy to accept the claims that your party officer, who the new member says preyed on her while drunk, is being targeted by an FBI frame-up. After all, it’s the state’s job to target the one true revolutionary party. You’re in the Socialist Equality Party. Your organization decides that unions are counterrevolutionary. The party chairman begins a union-busting campaign at his privately-owned printing company. It’s hard to dispute this line when everyone who does is purged. And there’s plenty of choice quotes from Marx, who is of course in your eyes the greatest mind to ever live, to support the chairman’s line. Accepting received interpretations of the world trains us to do it more and more in all areas. Dogmatists follow and accept things on the basis of fitting their complete worldview. This worldview includes the formal, or informal, hierarchy of their organization. These are all real scenarios and. While there’s other factors, each was enabled by dogmatism. This doesn’t mean that curing dogmatism will fix all problems of abuse on the left. But, when a body is sick with a poison like dogmatism, other diseases more take root.

Further illustrating this is a choice passage. It’s taken from “A Critique of Ultra-Leftism, Sectarianism, and Dogmatism” by the Movement for a Revolutionary Left:

“Trotskyists almost never learn from practice, their strategies and tactics almost never change as a result of trial and error and sum up. Instead changes in their positions occur through intellectualist dogmatic debate of the order of who is loyal to the true Fourth International (or to the Third), who has the correct interpretation of what Leon Trotsky (or Stalin) meant. Because of the rationalism of their theory of knowledge and the corresponding lack of and often disdain for practice trotskyist groups split into ever smaller groups all of which maintain hostile relations with all other trotskyist groups. The idea that correct thought, rather than current practice, will decide the issues dividing them is pervasive. Trotskyites often focus most of their energy on fighting each other rather than on actually organizing the working class. Because of their frequent obsession with ideological conversion, rather than with, mass struggles, trotskyists are often most overbearing in their attempts to badger people into endorsing their various lines. Out of fairness it must be noted that not all trotskyists groups share in this later categorizations, and hence that they are not defining characteristics of trotskyism. For example, the Socialist Workers Party works in many mass struggles (although some would argue only in order to recruit members) and the International Socialists seem to be rooted in the working class (if only because many of their former student members have taken factory jobs). The most prominent examples of pure trotskyist groups in the U.S. are the Spartacus League and the Progressive Labor Party.”

There are many flaws in the Movement for a Revolutionary Left’s analysis. One of which are the identification of dogmatism as an ultra left deviation rather than an error of both the left and right of the communist movement. Also, their commitment to unreconstructed Marxism-Leninism. But their exploration of the internal failures of the sectarian left is still worthwhile.

If Marxists want to overcome capitalism, we need to plan our strategies and tactics based on scientific socialism. We should look at past revolutionary experience but without treating theoreticians as prophets. Dogmatism would limit our ability to make concrete gains, hinder our ability to make analysis, and weaken our ability to deal with abusive members of our organizations. That’s why we must oppose it. With an empiricist foundation, supplemented by well-reasoned heuristics, we can resume the necessary work of our class.

Sylvia Smith - Mon Mar 19, 2018 19:44
By Sylvia Smith The working class movement is divided into many different trends. Oftentimes these differences are contradictions that have big implications for how to organize and must be struggled out. Whether to support a left wing populist candidate (or … Continue reading

By Sylvia Smith

The working class movement is divided into many different trends. Oftentimes these differences are contradictions that have big implications for how to organize and must be struggled out. Whether to support a left wing populist candidate (or even organize against them), how to relate to the trade unions, and other issues of strategy are questions that in the process of organizing can’t simply be brushed aside in the name of unprincipled “left unity”. Conversely, historical interpretation, political jargon, and other features that define “tendencies” on the Left are unimportant from the perspective of class struggle. Far too often, the latter are confused with the former. But, none of these tactical or strategic questions changes the fact of class struggle. Our goal is the destruction of the wage-system, not a particular strategy being the true means to do so. Anyone who is committed to the emancipation of humanity through the victory of the working class over the exploiting class, by overturning capitalist society, is a genuine revolutionary.

Principled unity between revolutionaries is a powerful weapon for our class. But if we are to achieve unity on a principled basis, we need to know who our enemies are. The first enemy is the capitalist class. This class is the group that pulls the strings and organizes our world for their profit. More abstractly, this enemy is capital itself as a process that turns us, and even the individual capitalists themselves, into tools for its own expansion. Then, there’s the boss. The boss is the capitalists’ task manager and enforcer in the labor process. They might be the nicest person in the world, or share your same gender, ethnic or religious identity, but at the end of the day, as long as they’re a boss, their interests are with capital not with us. Third, there’s the bourgeois State. The state presents itself as “democratic” and belonging to you and me but it’s a wholly owned subsidiary of the imperial capitalist elite. The state regulates and structures our world so that capital can accumulate and property is protected. Even the beneficial things the state does happen for the interests of capital by making us dependent on their bureaucrats and preventing social disorder. It might be that our class needs a state of its own, but the American state that exists now is the enemy of all revolutionaries everywhere. Fourth, like the capitalists’ lapdog the boss, the state has their trained dogs in the form of the cops. As long as someone is a cop, their duty is to enforce the protection of property, suppress the lives of marginalized people, and maintain order for the interests of capital. So, if these are our enemies, when a revolutionary is attacked by them, regardless of their tendency or tactical views, it’s a part of the class war. As revolutionaries, we have a duty to defend even those revolutionaries we may personally disdain or may have acted in uncomradely ways towards us when they’re the target of these forces.

This brings us to the events of March 9th in Austin TX. At midday, the cops arrested an individual whose politics align with the Maoist cell Red Guards Austin, who goes by Dallas, for illegally possessing a firearm as a felon. The laws which Dallas has been charged under are specifically targeted towards the working class and its ability to defend itself. Felons are disproportionately workers, particularly poor, unskilled laborers and people of color. This is not because these groups commit crimes any more than the petty bourgeoisie or white people but because they’re more actively surveilled and systemically targeted by the state. Black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same amounts, yet black people face drug charges at significantly higher rates; this is because the police are actively targeting working class black communities. Restrictions on gun ownership among felons are a racist anti-worker policy designed to maintain the social order that preserves the wage-system. There are countless actions the capitalist state inscribes as felonies which are good from the perspective of the working class and revolutionaries, while there are countless evil acts of the capitalists which are not criminalized but do serious harm. Go AWOL in the army or assault the slumlord evicting your disabled grandma, and you have your right to bear arms stripped away. If you order the massacre of people in an occupied country, or you throw a disabled elderly woman on the street to die, your right to own guns isn’t touched. Dallas “earned” his felony for merely spray painting on a wall as a kid. The right to bear arms, allegedly meant to protect us from a tyrannical government, is only left to those that willingly submit to our globally tyrannical government’s “order.” That the second amendment is a hollow sham based on the lie of bourgeois equality under the law does not mean we shouldn’t resist attempts to roll back what protections it does offer or concede to the disarmament of working class communities. We can’t be under any illusions that the second amendment exists for our class, but Marxists know that rights are asserted by the people, not granted by legal documents. Revolutionaries must demand by action our right to collective armed self-defense. This isn’t about Dallas as an individual; he needs to be defended as a part of the defense of our class as a whole.

As a member of the Communist Labor Party, which is a part of the Marxist Center current, I have very few nice things to say about RGA generally, or Dallas specifically. Red Guards Austin is a highly sectarian and dogmatic organization that embraces all the worst traits of the New Communist Movement of the 1960’s, and many of their dynamics are outwardly very reminiscent of Evangelical Christian cults.You can see how lavish and beatific their praise of Dallas is in their article on his arrest. (Linked below)

There are many examples of RGA’s sectarian practice against many groups within the Marxist Center milieu. For example RGA has launched repeated smear campaigns against Austin Socialist Collective members like Andrew Dobbs with outlandish claims of ASC’s alleged fascist nature (such as accusing Dobbs of being a cop with no evidence). They engage in childish name calling, referring to Marxist Center as “Menshevik Center” with no real understanding of what Menshevism was. RGA has a longstanding history of publicly harassing people who they perceive as enemies. Members of RGA have threatened physical assaults against members of the Communist Labor Party because the CLP runs dual power programs under the name “Serve the People” which is a name they believe should only be used by Maoists. These threats are just posturing, as there is no overlap between the geographic activity of either CLP chapters or any of the Red Guards’ affiliates. This hyper-sectarianism isn’t limited to being directed towards the CLP. RGA has repeatedly attacked as “revisionist” many other groups  that have very similar Maoist politics to them and which have also committed to the revolutionary victory of the working class. RGA has stated their intention to liquidate revisionists by force when they launch the Protracted People’s’ War in their text “Condemned to Win”. Instead of seeing these other groups as misguided fellow revolutionaries to be won over, they’re heretics to be burned in RGA’s righteous inquisition. Further, RGA has behaved extremely dishonestly about their relationship with their front groups like Serve the People Austin, Revolutionary Student Front-ATX, and the former RATPAC-ATX, now Stonewall Militant Front. These groups have leadership and personnel which heavily overlaps with RGA, and share an identical line on every issue. They allow in non-Maoists and non RGA members, but only insofar as they accept the political lines of RGA or are willing to subject themselves to struggle sessions. This defence of Dallas is not borne of any love for RGA, Dallas himself, or sympathy with their Marxist-Leninist-Maoist line; it’s a defence of Communists everywhere.

Many left wing groups act in a sectarian manner. They mistake differences between revolutionaries as differences between enemies. This is one of the worst legacies of 20th century socialist parties. For Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyism was taken not as a bundle of theories and practice that were counterproductive, but instead as an existential threat equivalent to fascism. Likewise, both sides of the Sino-Soviet  split around the world saw each other as threats to be physically liquidated. Even if their methods and analysis were mutually exclusive for the working class to adopt, their true enemy sat with glee in their mansions as our movement devoured itself. Our forerunners wasted essential energy on the wrong target.

A stark example of mis-identifying enemies is when the Communist Party, high on its relative success in the Popular Front against fascism, cheered on as Trotskyists in the Socialist Workers’ Party were thrown in prison under the Smith Act. The CP, under orders from Moscow, temporarily aligned itself with the populist liberal capitalist forces in the US government in order to defeat Nazi Germany and support the survival of the Soviet Union. The SWP, however, saw WWII as an inter-imperialist conflict rather than Nazi Germany being uniquely evil among capitalist powers. This meant it was the duty of revolutionaries to undermine the war-effort and attempt to overthrow their imperialist government.  The Socialist Workers Party organized strikes during WWII while the Communist Party helped break strikes in factories they had a strong presence in. Their line mirrored the line Lenin and the Bolsheviks took during WWI while the CP’s mirrored that of the majority of the Socialist parties of that era who backed their own governments against the threat of German aggression or Czarist despotism. But, the contexts of WWI and WWII were different and so those lines had different implications for the class struggle. Far from Nazi enablers though, the Socialist Workers Party was at the forefront of the fight to physically confront fascists in the United States in the run up to and during WWII. The Communist Party on the other hand, following Moscow’s line during the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, went from fierce opponents of fascism to apologists for German and Italian national interests while withdrawing from the fight against the American Nazi movement. The SWP defended Jewish workers from assaults by the fascists at the same time as the CP was accusing them of being aligned with Hitler. With hindsight, we know that the SWP was wrong to consider the Nazi government in Germany as just another imperialist power, but their line did not change their character as revolutionaries working to overthrow the capitalist class at home. Cheerleading the suppression of the SWP was cheerleading the suppression of the working class movement.

Shortly after the SWP leaders were rounded up, the leaders of the Communist Party were themselves thrown into prison under the same Act by the US government. The irony was not lost on the SWP, who to their credit, stood with their fellow revolutionaries in the CP and fought for all of their democratic rights. It didn’t matter that the CP backed the Stalin regime, had assaulted their organizers, or was aligned with the same forces that organized the murder of Leon Trotsky himself. The class struggle was more important. The SWP rightly saw the CP as fighters for our class, even if they were bitter opponents of their line, and them as an organization within the struggle to overcome capitalism. Even if the SWP’s actions indirectly aided the Nazi war machine, it was clear that they were opposed to Nazism, even more consistently than the CP. Would their their suppression have really helped defeat Nazism or increased the power of the working class?

The fratricidal conflict between the CP and SWP undermined both groups. Instead of cooperating when necessary on strikes or focusing on different parts of the struggle when their methods and ideas did run into conflict, they spent valuable resources focused on denouncing and undermining the other. For every page spent calling Earl Browder a Stalinist stooge in the SWP’s paper The Militant, or trying to show the SWP were Nazi fifth columnists in the CP’s paper The Daily Worker, there was a page not spent giving a voice to black sharecroppers organizing themselves or Italian immigrant meat packers leading a strike. That doesn’t mean laying out differences or criticizing other leftist groups with bad ideas wasn’t important, but denouncing in hyperbolic language, that misidentifies other communists as enemies, does nothing to explore the real stakes and differences.  Both parties held lines and organizational principles, inherited from the necessities of the Russian Revolution, that ultimately led to their degeneration, but defending one another from their common enemy was the revolutionary thing to do.


I have no interest in organizing alongside elements that are destructive and sectarian as Red Guards Austin or Dallas specifically. At least not until they begin acting in a non-sectarian and comradely manner towards their fellow revolutionaries. They represent a current within the working class movement that has destructive theory and practice, and which stands in the way of scientific socialist organizing. But, an attack on them by the state is an attack on a part of the working class movement, no matter how wrongheaded and small that part of the movement is. I hope that members of RGA are able to rectify the destructive aspects of their organizational model which lead them to sectarian attacks towards other currents in the working class movement, but whether they do or not, all revolutionaries have a duty to defend them, insofar as they’re revolutionaries, on principle. It’s clear from details like the cops leaving a “Make America Great Again” hat, and the possible use of an informant, that the police are attacking Dallas not for his faults, but because he is a revolutionary communist.

An injury to one is an injury to all!


More information about the arrest from RGA can be found here: https://redguardsaustin.wordpress.com/2018/03/14/defend-comrade-dallas-and-fi...


EDIT: it’s been brought to my attention that there’s also repression of similar degree against a member of NABPP-PC (New African Black Panther Party-Prison Chapter) and SPARC (Supporting Prisoners and Acting for Radical Change) named John “Mac” Gaskins. This isn’t an endorsement of Gaskins’ politics which are largely unknown to the author but both orgs do important work.

More information can be found here: https://www.gofundme.com/mac-gaskins-legal-defense


EDIT: It’s come to the author’s attention that members of RGA are confused as to who this historical analogy is about. I am not comparing them to the Popular Front era CPUSA. I am saying those that would let them hang out to dry are like them. I’d more aptly compare RGA to the ultraleft Bordigist elements that cooperated with the SWP in fighting fascism in NY while simultaneously acting in a viciously sectarian manner towards most of the left and with similar bloody aspirations towards other revolutionaries. But none of these historical groups cleanly map to today. The primary commonality between the historical Bordigist and MLM currents is their total disconnection from any kind of social base.

It’s also incedibly telling that in their criticism they cite my reference to history and past left groups as evidence of my lack of understanding of things when finding historical trends, analyzing sociology in a materialist way, and so on is the very essence of historical materialism. It betrays their lack of familiarity with Marxism as a social science rather than as a dogma. Appealing to Mao’s criticism of the Comintern in no way would free them from reproducing the same tendencies which manifested themselves then in the Comintern.

Dara McHugh - Mon Aug 14, 2017 19:54
David Sloan Wilson describes himself as an atheist, but, he insists, he is a “nice atheist”. The proviso is made necessary by the often acrimonious nature of evolution’s forays into religious study. In contrast to writers such as Richard Dawkins … Continue reading

York Cathedral ceiling. Lots of lovely arches.David Sloan Wilson describes himself as an atheist, but, he insists, he is a “nice atheist”. The proviso is made necessary by the often acrimonious nature of evolution’s forays into religious study. In contrast to writers such as Richard Dawkins who views religion as ‘a kind of mental illness’, Sloan Wilson thinks that the spiritual world has much to teach us about our grubby origins.

For most critics of religions, the operative concern is the truth or not of religious beliefs. For Sloan Wilson, however, that is not the point. The interesting questions centre on the roles that such belief systems play in human societies, and how they make human groups behave. In evolutionary terms, “even massively fictitious beliefs can be adaptive, as long as they motivate behaviors that are adaptive in the real world” [pp41].

This is where Sloan Wilson’s emphasis on the role of multi-level selection in evolution comes in. Natural selection is usually presented as taking place on the level of the individual – why does this dung beetle survive when another does not? But selection can also happen on the level of groups – why does this human tribe defeat the others? As Charles Darwin wrote,

“There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” [pp5]

In the long-run of evolution, selection among groups can mean that tendencies which make groups more effective (pro-sociality, for instance), win out against those that make individuals more effective at the expense of their group (selfishness, cheating, etc.). Religions enshrine the idea of a common good, encouraging believers to suppress selfish individual desires in the service of this corporate body. In the terms of multi-level selection, religions suppress within-group competition to improve competitiveness at the group level.

“A group of people who abandon self-will and work tirelessly for a greater good will fare very well as a group, much better than if they all pursue their private utilities, as long as the greater good corresponds to the welfare of the group. And religions almost invariably do link the greater good to the welfare of the community of believers, whether an organized modern church or an ethnic group for whom religion is thoroughly intermixed with the rest of their culture.” [pp175]

The human tendency to develop religions and other belief systems is useful because it enables us to develop social systems to deal with unique and difficult social circumstances. In this context, the sheer diversity of religious faiths is a sign of how belief systems can mobilise and organise basic human capacities to cope with different situations, be it the day-to-day existence of a forest-dwelling hunter-gatherer tribe, the water temple infrastructure of Bali, or the economic and social challenges of Korean immigrants to the United States. This capacity for variation means that religious groups can be seen as “rapidly evolving entities adapting to their current environments” [pp35]. Cultural variation enables our basic psychology to be organised in ways that are appropriate to a given social and material environment.

“Cultures are required to orchestrate human behavior in relation to specific environments. An infinitude of cultures are possible to channel our innate psychological impulses in different directions.” [pp204]

That is not to say that all religious systems will be adaptive to their circumstances; from the Protestant Reformation to the communes of Los Angeles, history is littered with the detritus of failed faiths. The variation of religious faiths, much like genetic mutation, constitutes “a process of blind variation and selective retention” [p122] and, similarly, will largely result in failure. The reason that explosions of diversification occur at specific historical periods is a question left unexplored here.

The book’s greatest attraction is in its case studies, which explore the ideas and practices of diverse religions and suggest how various features indicate the adaptiveness or not of that religion to its social environment. This requires a certain level of anthropological and historical rigour, and Sloan Wilson draws heavily on existing literature, applying his own interpretive lens to the findings made by others.

The greatest amount of time is spent on Calvinism and its influence on Geneva. After previously expelling the reformer, political tumult prompted the Swiss city to invite Calvin to lead the Church. Riven by factionalism and on the frontlines of an economic and military conflict, the Genevan authorities realised that they needed to shape up if the city was to survive. Material demands such as the funding of the army called for spiritual doctrine.

“Civic authority by itself was unable to forge such an unruly population into an adaptive unit, which is why the unifying effect of religion was needed. God’s will for citizens of Geneva was to shoulder the burden of the city’s infrastructure.” [pp109-110]

Overcoming division required loyalty and responsibility to shift upwards, to transcend factional groupings. Thus we see that Calvinism emphasises traits such as humility and an absolute faith in God’s will, such that believers will accept their station and role in life without question: “all of life’s afflictions have a purpose in God’s plan, however incomprehensible to us. Our role is to be utterly confident in God’s wisdom and to accept whatever he places upon us.”[pp100]

The tenets of the faith show a concerted movement from the personal to the public – self-direction is comprehensively displaced upwards, to the structures and processes of the Church. The cynical might say that such aggressive depersonalisation pacified the faithful the better to exploit them, but Sloan Wilson makes clear that part of Calvinism’s effectiveness was the willingness to enforce its strictures on elites and commoners alike. By ensuring that elites could not flout laws with impunity, the city could act more like a coherent and cooperative unit. This is an argument that meshes well with the historical work of Peter Turchin, who argues that the rise and fall of empires is closely related to the levels of inequality between elites and commoners. Ideologies that can mitigate against internal divergences can thus be powerful factors in social stability.

But as the Protestant Reformation certainly shows, there are two sides to group-based cooperation. Given the right encouragement, humans are willing to prefer the common good to our own, but we are equally good at dehumanising those outside our groups, all the better to attack or oppress them. Indeed, there are studies showing that football fans are unconcerned, even pleased by the physical suffering of their rivals. These capacities are often mobilised along national, rather than religious lines, and although Sloan Wilson acknowledges the similarity, it is not a topic he dwells on.

Overall, the book makes a compelling argument about the role that belief systems play in enabling human cooperation, offering a welcome corrective to those that simply dismiss religion out of hand. Spiritual beliefs, Sloan Wilson shows, play a crucial role in the material world, and deserve serious study. Moreover, the evolutionary approach he proposes can take us beyond religion and into a deeper understanding of ideology in general.

David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Chicago University Press, 2002.

Review first published in ThinkLeft Issue 2.

Spirit of Contradiction >>

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