Opposing austerity is vital, but to bring about meaningful change we need to understand the nature of capital, says DEREK WALL
POLITICAL tasks often seem simple. We on the left fight for justice, democracy, equality and ecology.
Donald Trump is the iconic right-wing villain; opposing him is a plain necessity.
We have seen Iain Duncan Smith resign after an impressive campaign from disability activists against his cuts to the most vulnerable in society.
Politics, though, requires theory. Lenin famously, and to my mind correctly, argued that “without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.”
A new generation is embracing socialism in many countries, but the change required needs intellectual tools to win.
Politics can look like good girls and guys against evil but it remains far more complex than first impressions suggest.
Ideas can have a material effect and principles alone are no substitute for detailed strategic thinking.
Marx and other socialist thinkers are not merely dead Germans or images to go on posters and badges but have a living contribution to make to change.
Our economic system cannot be easily reformed to create a more equal society. It is a complex structure based on the pursuit of profit.
Opposing austerity and especially disability cuts is vital, but capitalism is based on the exploitation of the majority by a tiny minority.
Capitalism is just a form of economic and social organisation and can be replaced. However, in a capitalist society it is difficult to understand that capitalism is far from natural.
Marx noted in defence of theory that “if essences and appearances coincided there would be no need for science.”
The appearance of capitalism is a system that rewards hard work and promotes competition; its essence of exploitation may be less obvious.
Marx spent decades studying capitalism. Since his death in 1883 capitalism has evolved, and to transform it we, like Marx, need to study its inner workings.
Political action demands theoretical understanding too. Often oppression has led to apathy rather than action.
Political movements have often been transformed into supports for the injustices they oppose, the Blairite takeover the Labour Party is one relatively recent example.
Sophisticated communications have been used to maintain elite rule. Emancipation requires a detailed and clear understanding of how power structures that serve a minority are reproduced.
The need for theory covers other areas. Ecological concerns suggest that we need not just social but natural sciences. Simply being concerned to protect the environment is not enough, ecological problems are complex.
While the left is growing at present, there is a danger that theory will be forgotten. From elections to direct action to daily trade union work, there is much for new enthusiastic activists to undertake. Reading and studying such complexities as capital accumulation might seem like a distraction.
However, unless action is shaped by theory, action will be insufficient. The promotion of theoretical work and political education is an essential role for political organisations.
If there is a danger of theory being forgotten, this may be partly as a result of the misuses of theory by the left over many decades.
Theory can act as a disciplinary measure, particular points of theory are used to establish a culture of obedience, rather than to promote the open and ongoing pursuit of liberation.
At one point, various left groups distinguished themselves over often obscure descriptions of the Soviet Union, this tended to promote sectarianism rather than a sober debate about what went wrong and right about the experience after the Bolshevik revolution.
Texts from socialist thinkers are used almost like religious icons, rather than tools for social change.
Theory can be elitist and used to create a distinction between a political class of intellectuals and the rest of us.
There is at least one political organisation on the left in Britain that requires would-be members to pass an exam before they can join.
There is also an academic industry where Marxist theories are refined, debated and developed.
This is fine, but the fact that much of this theory has no connection to actual political practice is worrying.
Theory can be commodified, bought and sold as the basis of university careers and successful journals.
Promoting collective learning and socialist self-education is essential and difficult.
Theory can also develop formal systems that may make change appear impossible.
Elinor Ostrom, the first and so far only woman to win a Nobel prize for economics, noted: “What is true in practice can also be true in theory.”
She was referring to the formal models such as the prisoner’s dilemma and the tragedy of the commons, which suggested that collective co-operation was impossible.
There is also the problem, in the words of the great working-class socialist literary theorist Raymond Williams, that the pursuit of “theory” can be more “compensatory than emancipatory.”
Because we are politically marginalised we seek to read more theory to compensate for the fact that we are politically ineffective.
Practice without theory is flawed, theory without practice is in turn inaction in the face of evil.
There are some good examples. There are political organisations on the left with a long history of promoting working-class self-education.
At present, the Marxist geographer David Harvey is doing a wonderful job of making Marx’s Capital more accessible. Theory should not be limited to Marx. Yet as Harvey has shown, Marx’s key texts written in the 19th century are perhaps even more vital in the 21st century as tools of liberation.
All of us on the left need to refine our understanding and sharpen our analysis, the work of Marx, Engels and other key socialist thinkers needs to be dusted off, read and acted upon.