“Revisionist.” If you have ever visited an online Leftist community, chances are you have been called this at one point or another. For those unfamiliar with the term, revisionist is somewhat of a pejorative which is common among the Leftist communities meant to express that the recipient is “not Leftist enough,” “not my comrade,” or perhaps even “a traitor to the revolution.” But why must this be a dirty word? I mean, there are people who identify as Trotskyists for goodness sake. Wisecracks aside for the time being, what is the trouble with revision in regards to established theory? Sure, there are basic universal tenets which distinguish us as Leftists, but should we not revise our opinions when a sound argument is made which we have not considered or when new information comes to light? Is it bad to admit that a previously-held belief is incorrect? Is it worse to have to temporarily confess that we are fallible humans than to take a step back and question how parochial we might be behaving? I claim it is an affront to my quest for knowledge to not admit when I am wrong or ignorant on a subject and then update my opinion according to the information I have gained. That acquisition and subsequent application of knowledge is called learning, after all.
To learn, the prerequisite is that you must not know something. It is not always bad to be ignorant. Sōkrátēs thought that ignorance was evil, but I would argue that only willful ignorance is wicked. In common usage, ignorance is only the absence of knowledge, and I guarantee that the most intelligent people who ever lived were ignorant about a number of topics. However, neither were they born with all the knowledge they gained throughout their lives. Hence, I am sure they were revisionists. I am among comrades here, for a strong tradition of revisionism has always permeated the Left. Lenin and Mao were revisionists of Marx. Hell, even Marx himself revised Hegel, and Hegel revised Kant and Fichte, who revised others before them, and so on. Revisionism is the name of the game when it comes to philosophical rigour and political activity. Learning, updating, acquiring new knowledge—this is all revisionism means, and not only is its negative connotation totally absurd, but I am pleased to bear the title revisionist like a red badge of courage.
There has always been disagreement and disorganisation on the Left. The old joke goes that if three socialists enter a debate, three new ideologues emerge. Unfortunately, the truth of this joke is not a far cry. Leftists, especially on the Internet, are all too ready to disagree about petty issues. For me, the most radical position is to say “despite our differences, you are my comrades because our struggles are intertwined; only a truly unified Left can genuinely emancipate people from millennia of alienation.” This is why I am radically opposed to sectarianism. Condemning potential comrades with whom you disagree about individual topics leads nowhere. You will never agree 100% about everything with anyone, so you have to find things in common. What Leftists have in common is that we care about the commons we all experience.
However, as I have said elsewhere, Marx did not have all the answers. He did not live in the reality we do, where nuclear winter is a tiny-handed button-press away or a viable socialist movement can be bribed away via capitalist enterprise. Perhaps it is time to come to terms with the fact that maybe everything within the Marxist canon is not enough to deal with the animus before us. We need to explore new avenues of theory. To do this, Leftists should aspire to be students of Marx, for there is a considerable distinction between being an acolyte and a student. Ambitious students have the potential to surpass Marx¹, whereas the acolytes dogmatically adhere to his words—unless those words are in his letter to Arnold Ruge in Letters From the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, wherein he wrote “I am not in favour of raising any dogmatic banner. On the contrary, we must try to help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves.” The message is clear: Marx realised that holding fast to a belief without proper assessment is a danger; this is why he favoured “ruthless criticism of all that exists.” Marx did not want those who would come after him to perfunctorily obey his propositions; he wanted that prospective communists should instead revise, improve, and go beyond him.
- We should not, however, revise to such a degree that our theory no longer resembles or is compatible with the general aims of socialism. Theory should not be revised to fit the coordinates of one’s personal opinions which have not been adequately thought through and are thus at the level of primitive notions.