Theory and practice

Theory and practice

I want to start a discussion about the relation of theory to practice in building a revolutionary socialist movement. I have encountered a great deal of hostility online and in passing in everyday life to activity and work that is theoretical. I have posted philosophical musings online only to have such content met with derision for being complex or immediately inaccessible to ordinary people. One such post I made about the meaning of “materialism” in Marxism was met with the reply, “How would you explain this to a working class person?” as if the post was not of any value unless it could be immediately understood by an ordinary worker.

I recently left a Facebook group because the leadership team of the group adopted the position that theoretical education was not a necessary component for the development of communist activists. I responded in the main thread of this discussion that I thought that education and some gaining basic literacy in theoretical debates is an absolutely necessary process that every communist activist needs to go through, and I was threatened with expulsion from the group for supposedly being ableist. My insistence that comrades read and discuss Marxist theory was met with the uncharitable response that some people who identify as communists cannot read, and therefore cannot be expected or forced to do something they cannot do.

I am becoming very dismayed at the hostility many non-Alliance comrades are adopting towards education and theoretical training. Education and theory have a very important place in building the communist movement in Australia, and they cannot be ignored. A popularly used reason for dispensing with theory is that building a communist movement is fundamentally a practical activity. It is insisted that frequently theory has been used to stifle self-organisation, mobilisation, and democratic practical activity. I don’t dispute this observation. It is my personal position that neoliberalism has transformed academia into a weapon to be used against the worker’s movement. I hold that post-modernism and moral anti-realism has been used to dismantle, fracture and demobilise the left. Even before this, in the second wave of feminism and during the life of the New Left middle class, university educated organisers percolated to the leading positions of organisations and movements. The result of this process was frequently disastrous for the left. Organisations became little fiefdoms. Many organisations transformed into cults. If groups succeeded in not transforming into a cult, they were still very likely incredibly sectarian. This overall consequence of all of this process of middle class corruption spelled the estrangement of left from the working class.

Surely we want to avoid all of these terrible things. We are beginning to move into the end of neoliberalism. All over the world left wing ideas are beginning to gain popularity and relevance again. I certainly go around saying that the end of the great downturn that neoliberalism caused is beginning to end. But despite intellectualism and the academy being a force that contributed to the collapse of the left in the late 1970s and early 1980s, theory is still an incredibly important component of the revolution we must embrace. I want to argue in this piece not just that we should not relegate theory to a position of secondary importance to practice, but for a specific formulation of just how theory is important for working class revolution. I want to argue in this piece that theory is just as important as practice, and that both theory and practice need to be applied properly in the correct situations and contexts.

We, as communists, need to grasp both theory and practice as the only two categories of the metaphilosophy of revolutionary communism. They exist in a unity-in-difference, the two dialectically interrelated components of the revolution which when fully and mutually developed necessarily lead to the success of the worker’s revolution.

Gyorgy Lukacs and “Orthodox Marxism”

In this piece I will adopt Gyorgy Lukacs’s formulation of the relationship of theory and practice to one-another. The first chapter of Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness is exclusively concerned with exactly how theory and practice are to be related in order to ensure the success of communist revolution. Lukacs states this explicitly:

… the point is the need to discover those features and definitions of both the theory and the ways of gripping the masses which convert the theory, the dialectical method, into a vehicle of revolution (Lukacs, 1971, p. 2).

This is the most basic way of stating what the relation of theory and practice to each other are. Despite the insistence of many activists that communism is first and foremost a practical activity, and despite Marx’s insistence in Thesis 11 that the point of communism is to change the world, communism is first and foremost a science. The starting point of all communist organisation should be the acknowledgement that Marxism is a body of theoretical deductions which should not be adopted at anyone’s personal whim. Marxism is first and foremost a critical movement, one which aims to transform the world based upon its scientific formulation.

But this doesn’t say very much. This quotation from Lukacs says Marxism is a theory which needs to be transformed into a force which grips the masses. Really we haven’t developed anything here which isn’t a truism for communists. Any communist could agree with Lukacs’s claim—the point of Marxism is to understand the world and then set about actively changing it so it becomes better. Any theory-hostile voluntarist would agree with this, they would just greatly circumscribe exactly what counted as acceptable theory. The question at this point is—how do we transform theory into practice? How does theory become a real practical force which transforms society? How does it move beyond writing on the page?

Luckily Lukacs goes on:

We must extract the practical essence of the theory from the method and its relation to its object. If this is not done that ‘gripping of the masses’ could well turn out to be a will o’ the wisp. It might turn out that the masses were in the grip of quite different forces, that they were in pursuit of quite different ends. In that event, there would be no necessary connection between the theory and their activity, it would be a form that enables the masses to become conscious of their socially necessary or fortuitous actions, without ensuring a genuine and necessary bond between consciousness and action (Lukacs, 1971, p. 2)

Lukacs here outlines the beginning of the answer. The theory of communist revolution must contain some ‘practical essence’—what does this mean? The science of Marxism needs to contain some sort of guide about how to transform it into a practical force in the real world. The theory cannot just be passive, it needs to actively prescribe the ways in which people are to go about bringing about revolution. This again is a truism, but this is not the full meaning of the above passage. Not just must the theory prescribe certain kinds of action. The theory must have a necessary connection between its deductions and the objective state of the real world. There is a very specific meaning to this claim. This claim isn’t the truism: “The theory needs to be correct about the action is prescribes”. The claim is not analytic, it is dialectical.

The practical essence of the theory of Marxism is the concept of the working class—the sole objective feature of the world which is able to actively transform the world. The concept of something is its dialectical essence. Everything has a concept. There is the concept of money, the concept of gender, the concept of cats, the concept of tables, the concept of revolution, the concept of poverty—and so on. Normally we take the essence of something to be the list of properties that an object must necessarily possess in order for that object to obtain actual existence. This is the analytic definition of essentialism—it holds to an alethic definition of necessity.

But dialectical essentialism holds to he concept of deontic necessity. While it too is a kind of essentialism—it holds that an object is a set of properties, which, when those properties obtain, the object actually and necessarily exists. But, the meaning of the word ‘necessary’ in this context is teleological in causality, not efficient. Dialectical essentialism holds that things go through a process of changing from one essence to another in the real world. This kind of essentialism doesn’t just want to analyse what actually exists, and what these things are like, but what a good kind of thing is, what a perfect form of something is.

So the point of Marxist theory is not just to pick out its practical essence (the working class), but how to transform the working class into its most perfect and best-developed form. This is what Lukacs means when he says the theory of Marxism needs to make sure it is the actual theory gripping the masses when they go about changing the world. This is what he means when there needs to be the correct connection between the consciousness of the masses and their action.

Lukacs gives textual evidence from Marx about how this understanding of Marxism is true:

In the same way, Marx clearly defined the conditions in which a relation between theory and practice becomes possible. “It is not enough that thought should seek to realise itself; reality must strive towards thought” (Critique of Philosophy of Right). Or, as he expresses it in an earlier work: “It will then be realised that the world has long since possessed something in the form of a dream which it need only take possession of consciously, in order to possess it in reality” (Nachlass) (Lukacs, 1971, p. 2).

But what makes the working class improve as a revolutionary force? What makes them ‘more perfect’? What improves the working class? What makes them more identical with their concept? Lukacs doesn’t just explain how these quotations support his formulation of the relation of theory to practice, but he shows how this textual evidence actually helps push his explanation further, and actually answer this question:

Only when consciousness stands in such a relation to reality can theory and practice be united. But for this to happen the emergence of consciousness must become the decisive step [original emphasis] which the historical process must take towards its proper end (an end constituted by the wills of people, but neither dependent on human whim, nor the product of human invention). The historical function of theory is to make this step a practical possibility. Only when a historical situation has arisen in which a class must understand society if it is to assert itself; only when the fact that a class understands itself means that it understands society as a whole and when, in consequence, the class becomes both the subject and the object of knowledge; in short, only when these conditions are all satisfied will the unity of theory and practice, the precondition of the revolutionary function of the theory, become possible (Lukacs, 1971, pp. 2–3).

Only when the theory of Marxism actually becomes the content of the consciousness of the working class can theory and practice be united. This is the exact formulation of the relation of theory to practice. The theory of Marxism helps the working class grip reality, help understand its relationship to the rest of capitalism, and helps it take control of its own situation and therefore push the revolution further.

So this is the role that theory plays towards practice. This is their dialectical interrelation—the content that the consciousness of the working class needs to embrace is the analysis of the reality of capitalism outlined in the theory of Marxism. The active practice of revolutionaries is guided by theory and helps them analyse the objective conditions. If they use the theory correctly, the revolution will be advanced. This is why theory is important, and plays an equal role alongside practice in bringing about the necessity of the revolution. When I specify that the revolution needs to become necessary, I mean it in terms of its dialectical essence—what would make the revolution not just actual, but actual and non-defective; perfect.