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Theoretical Eclecticism

There was a time when the charge of eclecticism was considered an insult.  A theoretical approach that drew haphazardly from multiple frameworks, picking and choosing the concepts that seemed the most exciting, and yet failed to express a clear and thorough analysis was treated as inconsistent and muddled.  When the marxists of yesteryear branded a theoretical framework eclectic they were claiming that it was spurious at best, revisionist at worst, and ultimately unscientific.  Eclecticism could not produce a concrete analysis of a concrete situation because it generally veered into a confused realm of speculation; eclectic theorists were more interested in theory-as-theory rather than a theory that possessed explanatory depth, let alone a theory capable of communicating the necessity of revolution.

Now, decades after capitalism proclaimed itself triumphant, theoretical eclecticism has become somewhat normative.  If the charge of eclecticism is even remembered as a charge, it is treated as an out-of-date insult; so many social theorists pride themselves in their ability to juggle conceptual methodologies, play with (or even invent) jargon, and fetishize theory at the level of appearance.  Hence the emergence of theory that is interesting only as theory, notable for its uselessness in the realm of social praxis: theory so in love with itself that it descends into the abyss of obscurantism; theory so obsessed with being theory that its creators treat every theoretical framework––even if they are contradictory––as a smorgasbord from which to sample concepts.

And yet to complain about this theory's lack of social utility becomes its own problem.  As innumerable chic theorists like to remind us, to speak of a theory's usefulness is to fall prey to instrumental logic which, apparently, is precisely the "hegemonic" way of thinking that we need to avoid.  For the utilitarians also spoke of what was and was not useful; we all know that their instrumentalization of rationality was essential to capitalist liberal ideology.  Hence, to even demand that a theory demonstrate its revolutionary usefulness is a demand that is in bad taste: only the oppressor, we are told, thinks within these boundaries.

While an analysis of instrumental rationality is important (and I am tempted to say useful), to equivocate the demand for radical theory to demonstrate its revolutionary usefulness with the capitalist notion of what is (and what is not) useful is a rather pitiful defense.  There was a time, after all, where radical theorists were required to explain how and why their theory served the oppressed––how and why it could be put to use in concrete instances of class struggle.  Theory emerges from concrete social situations––it is not a priori, it is not given to us by heaven––and if its conceptualization of a given social situation is to mean anything other than abstract theorization then it should be operationalized.

Theory that is eclectic, however, can never be fully operationalized; it cannot be placed in service to any concrete social movement as long as it remains eclectic.  Existing only at the level of theory, which is a level of abstraction, it barely communicates with the level of practice… And if anyone wonders why social theory should resonate with social practice then we only have to point to the qualifier social which should imply real people living in the real world.  We should demand a theory that demystifies and explains the social rather than a theory that renders the concrete abstract, or a theory that attempts to demystify by randomly picking and choosing from a variety of other theories like a four year-old building a lego monstrosity from various and different lego sets––it's endearing but it's also a jumble.

Theoretical eclecticism, however, is not mutually exclusive with theoretical opaqueness.  Indeed, there are examples of the latter that are not instances of the former.  Derrida, for example, is often accused of being theoretically opaque but I would argue that there is a methodological consistency in his opaqueness: even if he was, as Foucault once argued, an obscurantisme terroriste (i.e. he "terrorized" people with his obscurantisms so as to prevent them from understanding the poverty of his thought), at least he was theoretically consistent.  And while it is true that so many academics are producing theoretical work that is eclectic and opaque––by borrowing concepts from Derrida, Marx, Butler, Gramsci, Spivak, etc. and mixing them together in the most hodge-podge and toothless manner just for the hell of it––there is also the theoretical eclecticism that attempts to be readable but that is still, regardless of its ability to be understood, thoroughly eclectic.  Most importantly, this type of eclecticism attempts to hide its eclecticism by: a) refusing to recognize that eclecticism is a problem to begin with; b) by confusing the categories of eclecticism and creativity.

Marxist eclecticism is on the rise although it does not recognize itself as such.  Various marxist theorists and organizations are producing theories that, regardless of their readability, are stunning examples of a mix-and-match approach to social theory.  Concepts and ideas are yanked from disparate contexts and, without any apparent social investigation, grafted together in order to masquerade as a concrete analysis of a concrete situation when they are anything but.  Imagine someone who decides to be a chef because s/he loves food and who wants to make a unique dish particular to hir concrete circumstances.  Now imagine that this would-be chef, instead of studying the basis of hir favourite recipes and what made them work as particular recipes, decides to take various ingredients from hir favourite recipes and just throw them together randomly because s/he liked how they tasted in those different and particular instances.  The result of this fusion will indeed be unique, but it probably won't be anything that anyone would want to actually eat.

This mix-and-match approach to theory appears creative, because the result resembles an innovation, but it is only the illusion of creativity.  One is not creative simply by randomly reassembling disparate elements of other and various creative theories and then branding this assemblage with a new name.  Just because you like certain concepts from various contexts does not mean you have synthesized them in a way that is applicable to your specific context; clever borrowing is not necessarily creative––plagiarists are also clever.  While it is true that there are many concepts that possess a universal dimension, this dimension is undermined by a simplistic application in an eclectic framework; and it is rather uncreative, even though it might seem otherwise, to just throw a bunch of concepts together and hope they produce something unique.  Creativity demands a certain amount of rigor and eclecticists are anything but rigorous: rigor is difficult, throwing a bunch of random ingredients together is the antithesis of rigor… this is why I generally feel that marxist intellectuals such as Slavoj Zizek are often guilty of eclecticism––their theory has elements that are quite radical, and there are points that are agreeable, but on the whole they provide nothing useful for actually existing class struggle.

None of this is to say that creative articulations and applications of marxism––that is, concrete applications of the universal to concrete particular circumstances––are not required.  The inverse of eclecticism is dogmatism; the latter might be a larger problem than the former.  Mao, after all, warned us of book worship and the need to avoid stereotypical theory.  At the same time, however, Mao also argued that marxism could only be creatively applied by a rigorous particularization of the universal.  One does not combat dogmatism by eclectic theoretical iterations; rigorous creativity requires a thorough assessment of one's social context and a theory that is synthesized and placed in service of this context.


  1. The fundamental issue of eclecticism is the lack of rigor, but also the appropriation of the charge of eclecticism by dogmatists - which led to a crying-wolf situation.

    Like in the children's story, the more the dogmatists screamed "eclecticism!" as a defense to their equally destructive embrace of metaphysics, the more the environment became one in which truth was more often than not derived not from careful study, but blind adherence to a team.

    Thus, inside of Marxism, it became impossible for a self-identified Maoist to even consider a work by a self-identified Trotskyist, or vice versa, without this resulting in immediate outcry and even worse (in cases of power, even petty power, being held by one or the other "team").

    This severely limited the ability of communism as a whole to advance.

    For example, Mao's declaration of Milovan Đilas as anathema, led to Maoists ignoring his work on the New Class theory - which provided a solid Marxist basis to the political perspective on the degeneration of the USSR into a bureaucratic State capitalism. Without visiting the value or not of his theories, what few Maoist critiques one sees of it amount to name calling and hot air... and charges of eclecticism! There is no real consideration or scientific pondering of his argument.

    Since eclecticism is the favorite charge of the dogmatist, and vice versa, thus remains the glaring conclusion:

    The problem is not only both eclecticism and dogmatism, but also the claims and counter-claims of dogmatism and eclecticism themselves.

    What we need is a culture of demonstrating that something is dogmatic or eclectic - not by weight of the simple polemic (although it does have its uses), but by the rigorous scientific demonstration in evidence that there is eclecticism or dogmatism afoot. Less assertion, more demonstration.

    Mao did this in his youth and middle age, but as he became a leader of State, he more and more relied on the shorthand and the ghostwritten. He advised us to avoid book worship, but tens of millions ended up worshiping his Little Red Book of Quotations.

    The historic reduction of Maoist culture to this style - what one could call dogmatism - is perhaps one of the major obstacles for Maoist hegemony in the world today. Of course, here I fail my own prescription: assertion without evidence. Yet I do intend to promote the adherence to this principle otherwise: only practice will tell where the truth lies.

    1. But is eclecticism the favourite charge of the dogmatist now? Perhaps a few people with the dogmatic ML spirit of the previous generation of communist struggle might trot out that term, but like a lot of this terminology it has generally fallen by the wayside. And I would argue that, while it is important to take note of the dogmatism in our own tradition (it's hard to miss since it is constantly pointed out to us), the dogmatism that is most prevalent in the mainstream left is a blind adherence to movementism and neo-reformism––and in this adherence a very religious rejection of anything that questions this practice––meaning that perhaps we have reached a point where eclecticists *are also* dogmatists and these are not necessarily separate poles.

    2. Yes we agree that the self-conscious eclecticism has become dogma. But isn't that stating the obvious?

      That said, you point out the flipside of the crying wolf: that of describing people as dogmatic when they are not. The worship, specially in academia, of the "new" as necessarily better by the simple fact of being new leads to the conclusion that anything "old" must in effect be dogmatic. We agree this is wrong.

      However, I do not agree we have actually studied correctly what is dogmatic in us, because a lot of what has been pointed out as dogmatic is actually not dogmatic, yet we somehow believe it so, and a lot of what is indeed dogmatic is seen as not a problem because it has not been pointed to us.

      I will take an easy example that any Maoist doing any kind of actual political activity knows its current: the identification of US imperialism as the primary imperialism in the world today. That is dogma, yet it is more often than not it is not seen as such. This has had serious disorientations regarding the Arab Spring, Venezuela, the Philippines etc - the emergence of a world in which the USA is not going to be top dog, in which Imperialism is back to being multipolar, and in which the easy contrasts and team loyalties of the cold war are rendered invalid, creates a theoretical, and hence practical, void in the international communist movement. And there is precedent: the incorrect and discredited Three Worlds Theory.

      That asks a question: why is Marxism Leninism in general (trot, tankie, etc) and Maoism in particular so prone to dogma? When addressing the tension between eclecticism and dogma, that question should be at the front.

      I do not claim to have an answer. Yet it is worth acknowledging the question, and it is worth investigating it.

      And ultimately, at the level of practice the theoretical eclecticism and the theoretical dogmatism become liquidationism in practice and irrelevancy in practice, which is why the question is important. We want to win, not liquidate or be irrelevant.

    3. At the risk of encouraging infinite regress, it almost feels as if you are dogmatically invested in this problem of dogmatism that you feel hasn't been thoroughly investigated. Partially joking, here, but I bring this up in an ironic manner because I do not think, as noted in the previous reply, that there is this tension between the problem of eclecticism and dogmatism. That is to say, it may indeed sometimes be a tension but I do not think the issue of dogmatism is directly related, as an inverse problem, to eclecticism. In fact, I feel you might be confusing a formal relationship with an essential relationship and in doing so making a category mistake.

      This is not to say that eclecticism and dogmatism are not at times related to each other (either inversely or sometimes, as noted, identical) but I do not think that the problem of eclecticism necessarily has to do with the problem of dogmatism. Yes they occasionally overlap, but they are also separate issues. Which is to say, you're making this post about eclecticism be about something it isn't. So I don't think this tension is as much of a fact as you imagine it is.

      In any case I do agree that there is a problem with dogmatism. Indeed, a couple weeks ago in a book I've been working on I just finished a chapter about this problem. I think it is a very complex problem, though, and I feel that people who overly worry about it are themselves drawn into their own types of dogmatism or, at the very least, imagine that it is a bigger problem than it actually is. I feel that in the last round of anti-revisionist marxism there was an explosion of dogmatism that ended up becoming a significant problem, but at the same time this dogmatism was also conditioned as a response to the widespread revisionism creeping into the movement and the lack of foresight that Marxism-Leninism had reached its boundaries. We have inherited this from the past, but those old school dogmatists that are still around are generally understood as being dogmatic, and I would argue that our inheritance is not as much of a problem as you might think. Inversely, I feel that sometimes the fear of some sort of communist dogmatism conditions our way of engaging with problems.

      I think Tom Clark's *The State and Counter-Revolution*, despite its problems, has done a very thorough investigation of the problems surrounding dogmatism in the left during that period. Also it is worth noting that En Lutte! saw the main problem facing the left in that period [in the Canadian wave of anti-revisionism] was dogmatism and sectarianism and that the Workers Communist Party denounced this line as being left opportunist––and not just dogmatically but for good reason... And yet, at the same time, En Lutte [which was not accused of being eclectic even though it accused others of being dogmatic] was also correct in its assessment of the WCP's dogmatism surrounding key aspects of theory.

    4. Yes, we disagree on these questions being separate - and I bring up their relationship with practice as a way to show their relationship. Liquidationism and irrelevancy exist in the realm of practice an analogous way to how eclecticism and dogmatism affect theory. The rectification of all four appears to be related and dialectical - if they are not, why?

      And yes, you do not bring this up your article - I do, because I saw it what was missing in the discussion - and I find the argument that this tension is not a dialectic unconvincing.

      As to dogmatism being a thing of the past, I will say that the emergence of the Maoism-Third Worldism and the degeneration of Gonzaloism and the historical liquidation of the NCM in the USA to the liberals and to revisionism, demonstrate otherwise. I do not simply imagine a tension - it is patently present in the political struggle in the USA, where I am located.

      Thinking about it, this might beg a more thorough exposition than the comments, but I already owe you a post (which is in the works) on the theses on identity politics. So it will have to wait a bit longer.

      To recap, the difference is basically that you see eclecticism as existing independent of dogmatism?

    5. First of all, I do not think dogmatism is a thing of the past. I do not think it is as big of a problem as you suggest, but I still think it is a problem–-which is why, as I indicated, I was dealing with it in a more academic manner in a book I'm working on (that might or might not see the light of day).

      Secondly, I don't think dogmatism and eclecticism are in a primary dialectical relationship. So yes, I do think eclecticism generally exists independently of dogmatism but that the two sometimes overlap. In other words, eclecticism is not simply the opposite of dogmatism and vice versa, nor do you have to have one to have the inverse of the other. These are separate issues that sometimes, like many issues, bleed into each other. Dogmatic rejections of creative theory are not always rejections that are premised on the charge of "eclecticism", after all, nor do all moments of eclecticism worry about dogmatism.

      Thirdly, whether or not dogmatism is present in the US has nothing to do with my rejection of the tension you are presupposing. I am claiming that there is no dialectical tension between eclecticism and dogmatism, not that you are imagining the existence of dogmatism––again, I feel this is something of a category mistake. The fact that you claim this is a dialectic is even more unconvincing than my argument that it isn't. You speak of "their relationship with practice" but I don't see how this relationship is proved in practice––you haven't given any scientific assessment for me to think so. At most there is an argument from ignorance: you are claiming this tension exists and so the burden of proof falls to you to prove that it exists, and not to me to prove that it doesn't exist, when it seems that all you are doing is citing two problems that sometimes overlap and claiming, because they both exist and sometimes interrelate, that they are dialectically interconnected.

      In any case, the point is that I do not think that dogmatism isn't a problem but just that: a) it is not a problem specifically connected (and inversely so) to the problem of eclecticism; b) it is not precisely the problem in the way that you indicate because the dogmatism of movementism is far more prevalent. Otherwise, I was pretty clear in my previous comment that the problem of dogmatism does need to be addressed; I just don't think that addressing it in relation to eclecticism makes scientific sense––this, in my opinion, is a forced dialectical tension that in itself is rather dogmatic.

    6. Yes, I recognize the insufficiency of scientific rigor in my comment, which is why I said it deserved a more thorough examination in a later blog post. Put simply, I am unconvinced - for the same reasons you are unconvinced by my argument - that this relationship is so separate, but it does deserves further elaboration.

      However, you misunderstood my comment on "dogmatism is a thing of the past": I meant it as shorthand to refer to this:

      "We have inherited this from the past, but those old school dogmatists that are still around are generally understood as being dogmatic, and I would argue that our inheritance is not as much of a problem as you might think."

      In other words, I was naming the discussion, not saying this was your argument.

    7. Okay...

      Maybe another way to look at it is this, which is generally the way I was looking at it when I was writing about dogmatism in that chapter: there is and has been a dialectical tension between revisionism and anti-revisionism in marxism; dogmatism is a symptom of this tension. Perhaps we could add that eclecticism is also a symptom. But this would not mean that the dialectical relationship is between dogmatism and eclecticism––these are elements on the level of appearance (and there other symptoms as well I would argue) that should not be mistaken for the substantial contradiction.


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