The dialectic of theory and practice

Chris Nineham argues that theory is too important to be left in the hands of the enemies of change

In the midst of a discussion of mainstream economics in Capital, Marx comments, ‘all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided‘. In other words things are normally not as they appear on the surface or in our immediate experience. This is why we need theory.

Capitalism in particular works in a way that conceals its own dynamics. The market makes it appear as if the economy is simply an exchange between things. Marx called this ‘reification’. It hides the robbery at the heart of capitalism which is in fact not a collection of things but a series of relationships. The ‘cloak’ of the market conceals the way these relationships really work: who makes the goods, who sells them, where the money goes.                           

Look at pay. If you are getting the market rate for a job it can feel as if it is a fair deal. But in reality, the boss is not paying you the full value of what you produce, only approximately the amount it costs to maintain your upkeep. He or she is pocketing the rest of your output in profit or surplus value. This is called ‘exploitation’.

Politics and power

Take another example from the realm of politics. The atomisation and sense of powerlessness that most of us experience in society encourages us to believe that the easiest and most sensible way to change things is to vote better people into parliament.

There are two fundamental problems with this idea. In reality, power is not centred in parliament but in corporate boardrooms and state institutions like the civil service, the courts, the media, the police, even the military. All of these institutions are committed to defending the status quo, and they are all outside of democratic control. The people who run these institutions will use their power to block any attempt at fundamental change through parliament. The constant attacks in the media on Jeremy Corbyn and last year’s threat of a coup by an unnamed general if Corbyn became Prime Minister give us a glimpse of this reality.

Secondly, many of the most important changes – including the vote – have not been handed down from above by parliaments, but won by great struggles from below. Unusually, two recent films, Suffragettes about the fight for votes for women, and Selma about the struggle for black rights in the US, illustrate this process very well. Politicians like to take credit for change, but the reality is that history is made up of popular struggles rarely discussed in schools, university or anywhere else. This is what Marx was referring to when he said that all history is the history of class struggles.

These are all theoretical insights  in fact some of the essential ideas of Marxism – but they are not of merely academic interest. They are insights that, if taken seriously, have a decisive effect on the kind of strategy we adopt in trying to get change.

Understanding that capitalism rests on exploitation leads us to the crucial, structuring role of class in capitalist society. Grasping the limits of parliament’s power and the hidden strength of the state should make us realise that, though electing a left wing government would be a huge step forward, it would create a crisis in society rather than delivering fundamental change in itself. The history of effective popular struggle on the other hand, points to the possibility of a revolutionary strategy for change.

Learning from life

If everyone had to be convinced of these things by reading or going to political meetings we would never change society.  In reality people learn a lot of this through their own experience.

Times of crisis like the present expose the irrationality of the system and the self interest and hypocrisy of those that run it.  Hostility to big business has grown massively in the last few years. Trust in state institutions, including the police, the courts and the media, has plummeted. 

When people are involved in struggle they learn particularly quickly. Going on protests and demonstrations and being involved in campaigns and strikes gives people a sense of confidence in the possibility of change. You learn that you are not alone, you learn who your potential allies are and who are your enemies. When the police attack demonstrations or the media ignore them people quickly see that these institutions are far from neutral.

The limits of experience

But we can’t rely on people learning from experience alone. Working people’s lives have a lot in common, but they are all different. Some people’s experience leads them to challenge ruling class ideas more than others. Some get involved in protest, or industrial action, others don’t. Unevenness in experience leads to unevenness in people’s understanding.

It even means that people can hold radical ideas and backward, establishment ideas in their heads at the same time. People can rebel against their immediate experience without immediately developing a wider understanding of how the system works. There will be people who sympathise with the junior doctors’ strikes but also think too much immigration is to blame for some of our problems. There will be people who react against racism but don’t challenge homophobia or stand up for women’s rights. This is what Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci called ‘contradictory consciousness’.

Unevenness continues even in revolutionary crises when millions of people become radicalised. Revolutions are in fact almost always characterised at first by popular unity against the government, and then by big divisions over how to take the movement forward. Some argue to deepen the movement and challenge the very structures of power, others that compromise with the old order is necessary. The past still haunts us even in new conditions.

If we simply hope people will learn everything they need to know in the heat of the struggle, it will be too late. This is one of the reasons why developing the widest possible understanding of how capitalism works now is important.

We need to go into this kind of period with the largest possible number of people convinced of the need to dismantle existing state institutions, to fight all oppression, to put our emphasis on the mass movements and not just rely on politicians to change things for us. 

The past and the present

This means it would be crazy not to study and learn from previous highpoints of resistance. This is exactly what Marxism is; capitalism understood through the condensed experience of popular struggles, from the point of view of the working class.

This accumulated understanding helps guide us now, too. There are different ways of understanding the wars in the Middle East at the moment for example. The pro-war lobby want us to believe that terrorism is a product of fanatical ideas and that the current wars are lining up the forces of democracy and humanitarianism against backward-looking religious forces. As well as leading to disaster at home and abroad, such a view involves suppressing history and even the very ideas of cause and consequence.

If, on the other hand, we see the wars of the last fifteen years as the modern expression of the Western powers’ imperialist ambitions, we come to a radically different view. We then begin to understand that it is the series of devastating Western interventions – driven by geopolitical interest – that has created the conditions in which Isis and other jihadi groups can thrive.

Such an anti-imperialist understanding rests on an intellectual tradition that has been developed by socialists in opposition to generations of colonial apologists. In Britain over the last decade and a half it has been popularised through a combination of argument and mass action in the anti-war movement.

The use and misuse of theory

Theory is crucial in a number of different, connected, registers. Many people are finally convinced to become socialists because of something they read or a particular argument they hear. Socialist organisation exists to try and popularise left wing ideas and create a new, radical understanding of the world. Gramsci explained the significance of this undertaking in his Prison Notebooks:

“For a mass of people to be led to think coherently and in the same coherent fashion about the real present world is a “philosophical” event far more important and “original” than the discovery by some philosophical “genius” of a truth which remains the property of a few intellectuals”.

But Marxist theory that loses contact with the struggle to change the world will become empty dogma. We must never be fighting last year’s struggles. Unless theoretical understanding is constantly tested and refreshed through involvement in and analysis of the struggle, then formulas that were meaningful when they were developed can become mantras that have no resonance with people, or worse still, misdirect them.

Academic Marxism, produced from the relative isolation of the university, can be an extreme case of this. Clearly a lot of valuable work is produced in the universities, but the danger is it can be shaped by the requirements of the education system, not the struggle. Hence the tendency to use unnecessarily complex language and to concentrate on difference and particularity rather than trying to identify common ground on which working people can unite.

Finally, revolutionary theory should not be conceived – as it too often is – as simply something that differentiates revolutionaries from the wider movement. Revolutionaries need to have their own organisation in order to be able analyse developments from a revolutionary perspective, to have a platform from which to challenge reformist ideas and develop and popularise revolutionary strategy. 

But such a strategy is in fact nothing but the real interests of the movement made conscious. This is above all why theory needs to be brought together with action. Criticising or theorising from the sidelines is pointless. If it doesn’t help to take the movement forward socialist theory is a waste of time. We have to prove in practice that revolutionary methods are the best way to win partial victories. If such methods are not proven in practice they are never going to win popular assent.

Marx argued that when it grips the masses, ‘theory too can become a material force.’ This is the point at which fundamental change appears on the horizon. For this to happen depends on a general radicalisation, it depends on there being a serious organisation of revolutionaries with the ability to make socialist ideas accessible and relevant, and it depends on those same socialists being actively and creatively engaged in trying to shape mass movements for change.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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