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Arguments From Authority Are Not Scientific

One thing that has always bothered me about certain outspoken elements of the communist milieux is the over-reliance on arguments from authority. That is, the tendency to justify a political line based on the fact that Marx or Lenin or Mao or whoever wrote some things somewhere that "prove" this justification. Thus, in response to people questioning a particular political position those who rely on arguments from authority, rather than providing a thorough historical materialist argument for their position, cite Lenin or someone else as the de facto basis of their position. Marxist-Leninists and Marxist-Leninist-Maoists are particularly guilty of this approach, and arguments from authority are all too common across the revisionist/anti-revisionist spectrum.

The reason I'm thinking of this problem yet again is because of a recent encounter at the Toronto ILPS conference where some old ML dude in the revisionist milieu complained to me about having been told by Montreal's Maison Norman Bethune [MNB] bookstore that he couldn't organize for bourgeois elections or hold teach-ins about redirecting all communist work to the established unions. He was under the impression that I would be sympathetic to his position because those grouped around MNB had recently split from the rest of the PCR-RCP as if the organization's general line had changed. He complained that the organizers in MNB weren't "real" communists for rejecting Canadian electoral politics because Lenin had argued, in that one text I complained about before, of the importance of participating in elections. He further argued that their rejection of focusing on unions as the quintessential proletarian site of agitation was anti-communist because both Marx and Lenin upheld unions, as if trade unions at the centres of capitalism hadn't been transformed since the time of classical Marxism. That is, the entire political line he espoused was based on very particular statements made by Marx, Engels, and Lenin (and maybe Mao because he did complain that the MNB former comrades didn't understand Mao Zedong either) rather than a concrete analysis of concrete circumstances. His mode of thinking, the way he conceptualized a political line, is paradigmatic of many communists who locate their politics in the sacred texts of past revolutionaries rather than organizational work and social investigation.

The problem with this phrase-mongering approach to communism, which partially prompted me to write Continuity and Rupture, is that it is a complete rejection of historical materialism. If we take seriously the claim that historical materialism is a science (and I do take it seriously, and part of my project is to demarcate the meaning of "revolutionary science") then arguments from authority should be rejected outright since they are anti-scientific. To be clear, the problem is not that authority is referenced in an argument, because we should understand that there are authoritative claims that can and should be made, only that the basis of understanding what counts as authoritative is appeals to claims made by former revolutionaries in past historical conjunctures without any thorough assessment. A broader understanding of the science, and what qualifies as authoritative assessments, needs to be grasped. Moreover, a political line established by people who openly proclaim that there is such a thing as "revolutionary science" should never be based on phrase-mongering: we can find contradictory claims made by multiple important theorists within the tradition, and if it all comes down to memorizing quotations in this history multiple and contradictory perspectives can be justified.

Imagine being a physicist and basing your perspective on something Newton said hundreds of years ago. Thousands of laboratory experiments based on the transformation of the science over time would be rejected if this approach to science was correct: Newton said x so damn the theories of General and Special Relativity! Science does not develop according to arguments form authority; rather, the authority of scientific development emerges from those axiomatic moments of universalization that open up new vistas of investigation.

Hence, if we take the claim that historical materialism is a science seriously then we cannot undermine this claim by basing our political perspectives on arguments from authority. All of the great revolutionary figures can be wrong about a variety of elements; if they are scientists then they are like every other scientist––limited by their historical conjuncture. The trick is to understand what is universalizable about their contributions, what becomes axiomatic through the scientific process, as opposed to what is historically particular. It is on this basis that we can make real arguments to justify our political line rather than fall back upon those all too easy arguments from authority. For example, Lenin was correct about his analysis of the state because world historical revolutions have demonstrated this analysis as scientifically axiomatic. But Lenin's thoughts about electoral entryism lack the same universality: not only were they based on very particular circumstances that no longer existence, they were actually proved wrong at the time.

Scientists of revolution, like every scientist, also make mistakes; it would be idealist to assume otherwise. This is why the concept of "dogmato-revisionism" matters, and those who think it is useless are usually those involved in this anti-scientific phrase-mongering. If we take historical materialism to be a science then we must also recognize that a revisionist undermining of this science would be a practice that is anti-scientific, i.e. dogmatic. The moment you start enshrining every single word of past revolutionaries rather than understanding the science's development as a science beyond the thoughts of its progenitors is the moment you become an anti-science dogmatist.

With this in mind I would encourage communists everywhere to not base their analysis on arguments from authority but to instead understand what it means to apply universal developments of the science to particular instances. Above all, we must avoid dogmatism and push forward the science of revolution.