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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 65August 2017

Linking theory to practice

A response to David Matters

I. Introduction

In the April issue of Australian Marxist Review, David Matters published an essay entitled “The study of theory is necessarily linked to practice”.[1] While attempting to make a contribution to our understanding of revolutionary struggle, in many ways what is most important about the essay is what it leaves unsaid: why is theory important for practice? While its title promises to teach us something about the nexus between the two, the essay ultimately fails to adequately deliver on that promise. Matters presents some of the material conditions of contemporary 21st century capitalist life, albeit in a confusing way, but tells us little about why theory might be important for us as we confront that material reality. In the interests of dialogue and allowing Matters’ essay to fulfil its latent potential, I offer here a few thoughts about theory and why we need it for our engagement with contemporary capitalism.

So let me suggest that what is important about the nexus involves developing, briefly, four themes, each of which is raised in a rather inchoate way in Matters’ essay. First, before we can proceed very far with an exploration of why theory is linked to practice, we need to understand what those terms mean, how they are related to one another and why they matter as part of that relationship. That involves an examination of theoria and praxis. Second, we need to understand the relationship between praxis and the internal contradictions of capitalism; that involves understanding what those contradictions are and why they matter. Third, we must understand the relationship of theory and contradictions to the issue of class consciousness, and why that relationship is important. And, finally, only when we grasp the meaning of theory, contradictions and class consciousness can we then apply them, as part of practice, to the materialist evidence presented by Matters. While Matters adverts to each of these four points in his essay, he leaves them somewhat underdeveloped. I want briefly, then, to say something about each of them, with a view to explaining why theory is, indeed, necessarily linked to practice.

II. Theoria and Praxis

To understand theory, we must begin with practice, or praxis, the Greek word for “doing“. Praxis lies at the very heart of Marxism, capturing the essence of what it means to be human as engaging in activity. For Marx and Marxism, praxis refers to action or activity as in

free, universal, creative and self-creative activity through which man creates (makes, produces) and changes (shapes) his historical, human world and himself: an activity specific to man, through which he is basically differentiated from all other beings. In this sense man can be regarded as a being of praxis, “praxis” as the central concept of Marxism, and Marxism as the “philosophy” (or better: “thinking”) of “praxis”.[2]

The final part of this passage is significant, for it identifies “philosophy” or “thinking” as related to praxis, in the sense that what lies behind praxis, action, is thought, philosophy, or theory, theoria, the Greek for “thinking”. There exists a nexus between thinking and doing, the source of which for Marx and Marxism we find in the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The whole of Marxism, then, is philosophy, theory, or theoria – thought – aimed at praxis, doing; or, put another way, the whole of Marxist theoria, thinking, aimed at praxis, doing, with the aim of changing the world. Antonio Gramsci said of Marxism that is was simply “the philosophy of praxis”.[3] Marxism, then, is theoria informing revolutionary praxis. And what is our praxis aimed at? Capitalism.

III. Contradictions of Capitalism

Our revolutionary praxis ought to be aimed at capitalism and, more to the point, towards its internal contradictions. To be frank, the whole concept of contradictions in Marxist thought is devilishly complex; I do not seek here to clarify the conceptual messiness. Rather, we can begin by saying that while the concept can “be used as a metaphor for any kind of dissonance, strain or tension, it first assumes a distinctive meaning in the case of human action, where it specifies any situation which allows the satisfaction of one end [goal] only at the cost of another, i.e. a bind or a constraint”.[4] And Marx “employed [contradiction] to designate inter alia: (a) logical inconsistencies or intra-discursive theoretical anomalies; (b) extra-discursive oppositions, e.g. supply and demand as involving forces or tendencies of (relatively) independent origins which interact in such a way that their effects tend to cancel each other out – in momentary or semi-permanent equilibria; (c) historical (or temporal) dialectical contradictions; and (d) structural (or systemic) dialectical contradictions.”[5] Devilishly complex, this theoria! I propose, though, to simplify this by listing some of the internal contradictions of capitalism, which has the dual benefit of making the theory much easier to understand, while at the same time directing our revolutionary praxis.

David Harvey, a contemporary Marxist theorist, lists seventeen contradictions of capitalism, which he divides into three major groupings: 1. foundational contradictions, 2. moving contradictions, and 3. dangerous contradictions. While I highlight only a few from each category here, consider whether you can see any of these in the world around you. In 1., we find the staple of Marxist thought, including (i) the difference between use value and exchange value, (ii) the social value of labour and its representation by money, and (iii) private property and the capitalist state. In 2., we find (i) technology, work and human disposability, (ii) monopoly and competition, and (iii) disparities of income and wealth. And in 3., we find (i) endless compound growth, (ii) the relationship of capital to nature, and (iii) universal alienation.[6]

Have you looked at the world in which you live? If you have, you will see that capitalism, in short (!), achieves contradiction in every aspect of its relationship to the person and the earth: the micro-economic creation of the commodity and exchange, the macro-economic distortion of human relations through wealth disparity, monopoly and competition, and the disposability of humans as part of that dubious “progress”, and geo-political achievements of endless growth, despoliation of the earth, and, ultimately, total alienation. In understanding the contradictions, we see revealed the object of our revolutionary praxis: capitalism, in all its manifestations. Once we know that, though, we need also to know something about class consciousness.

IV. Class Consciousness

The Marxist understanding of class consciousness emerges from the canonical sources: Marx and Lenin. Marx made a distinction between the objective class membership and subjective class consciousness. Ownership of or exclusion from the means of production determines the former, and from this we find also the corresponding bourgeois and proletarian classes. Class consciousness, however, only occurs as a consequence of political struggle, when an “initially limited conflit [sic] (e.g. a trade union struggle in a particular enterprise or branch of industry) is widened on the basis of an identity of interests until it becomes a common affair of the whole class, which also creates an appropriate instrument, in the form of a political party.” To this, Lenin added the idea that a political class consciousness occurs from the outside, developed by intellectuals, but can only be adopted by the working class. It is here where the party and its role emerges.[7]

But as we consider the distinctions between classes, and the emergence of party, we might also find more apt in our 21st century world another concept related to class introduced by Marx: the lumpenproletariat. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx wrote that:

[a]longside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the Society of December 10. A “benevolent society” – insofar as, like Bonaparte, all its members felt the need of benefiting themselves at the expense of the laboring nation. This Bonaparte, who constitutes himself chief of the lumpenproletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in this scum, offal, refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally, is the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrase.[8]

Marx demonstrates that in a socio-political movement, such as that led by Louis Bonaparte in his struggle for power, distinct class groups can be gathered together, forming a much vaster form of the proletariat, the lumpenproletariat. This “draw[s] attention to the fact that in extreme conditions of crisis and social disintegration in a capitalist society large numbers of people may become separated from their class and come to form a ‘free floating’ mass”.[9] In other words, in our modern world, rather than bright lines of demarcation we find fuzzy boundaries between classes. As such, a single consciousness might prove elusive; instead, a consciousness of many classes together, in a free-floating mass, might emerge. And it is this free-floating mass, and its consciousness, as opposed to a fragmentation of classes, each with its own consciousness, that will provide the greatest potential for directing revolutionary praxis at capitalism.

With an understanding of the nature and goal of revolutionary praxis, and those who are called to it, either as a class or more broadly as a free-floating mass, we can turn to the specific material conditions identified by Matters.

V. Conclusion: Application to Material Conditions

What I believe Matters may have been attempting to identify in his essay is the march of history, and the conflicts that emerge between classes as a result of the emergence of capitalism; he writes that the struggle is “still principally between the imperialist bourgeoisie and the revolutionary proletariat.”[10] What I think he is identifying is nothing less than the struggle against capital and capitalism and its inherent contradictions. But we can really only understand the point of his work through the lens of Marxism as theoria informing a revolutionary praxis directed against capital.

Matters identifies the reality of the ongoing struggle against capitalism and its evils. In this light, our hope for the future must undoubtedly be one tinged with concern: “[i]f there is an end to capital ... its immediate consequences are unlikely to prove happy for anyone.”[11] We must, with Harvey, “hope ... that the mass of humanity will see the danger before the rot goes too far and the human and environmental damage becomes too great to repair.”[12] To counter our fear, we can but only respond with a revolutionary praxis, which

[c]annot, of course, tell us exactly what to do in the midst of fierce and always complicated struggles on this or that issue on the ground. But it does help frame an overall direction to anti-capitalist struggle even as it makes and strengthens the case for anti-capitalist politics.[13]

You see, then, theory and practice are linked, but if we are to harness the powerful engine for change inherent in the revolutionary theoria of Marxism through our revolutionary praxis against capitalism, we must understand the relationship between the two. And we must do this work now, for the task before us is enormous, and grows more so with each passing day.

[1] David Matters, “The study of theory is necessarily linked to practice”, Australian Marxist Review, #64, April 2017, pp23 - 27.

[2] Gajo Petrović, “praxis” in Tom Bottomore, Laurence Harris, VG Kiernan and Ralph Miliband (eds), A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Blackwell Publishing, 2nd ed, 1983, 1991) pp435-440, p435.

[3] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, (Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed and trans), Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), Part III.

[4] Roy Bhaskar, “contradiction” in Tom Bottomore, Laurence Harris, VG Kiernan and Ralph Miliband (eds), A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, (Blackwell Publishing, 2nd ed, 1983, 1991), pp109-110, p109.

[5] Ibid, p110.

[6] David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, (Oxford University Press, 2014).

[7] Iring Fetscher, “class consciousness” in Tom Bottomore, Laurence Harris, VG Kiernan and Ralph Miliband (eds), A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, (Blackwell Publishing, 2nd ed, 1983, 1991) pp89 - 91, pp89 - 90. And see Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party, (Verso Books, 2016).

[8] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, (Friedrich Engels (ed), Progress Publishers, 1937 [1885]) ch V.

[9] Norman Geras, “lumpenproletariat” in Tom Bottomore, Laurence Harris, VG Kiernan and Ralph Miliband (eds), A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Blackwell Publishing, 2nd ed, 1983, 1991) p327, p327.

[10] Matters, above footnote 1, p26.

[11] Harvey, above footnote 6, p293.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid 294.

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