Making Theory Meaningful–Abolishing Theory

Reprinted from Freedom Toast (April 2003)

“There are no revolutionary thoughts, only revolutionary actions” (1, 2)

As university students, especially students in the humanities, much of our education consists of the study of various theories and theory has become one of the major topics of study at the university, transcending lines separating the disciplines to the point where it is not common to see Foucault’s discussions cited in anthropological studies, historical studies, in literary criticism, and in sociological studies. The use of theory in academic studies outside of the disciplines traditionally associated with theory has certainly contributed different perspectives and allowing for new insights; however, theory has simultaneously been reduced from its previous position as a catalyst for revolutionary change in society, instead becoming an easy way for intellectuals to satisfy their academic ego without affecting the world. Theory, which once enjoyed a close relationship with revolutionary movements, has become little more than an intellectual pursuit of what remains, for the majority of people, an abstract discourse with little bearing on the reality experienced by most people. Within this context, it is not unsurprising that students who have been exposed to various revolutionary theories have completely neglected the very essence of the theories they purport to study–the desire to transform society. In recent years, the reduction of theory has paralleled a decline in student activism, where students have become content to “study” conditions in society without doing anything to change society. They “study” growing poverty which comes during a time of unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, the destruction of the natural environment, and the continued perfection of forms of domination and social control–all of which seem to exist on an abstract level for many. Increasingly, students are content to identify these problems and ignore solutions—the sociology major identifies the causes of poverty and does nothing to combat them, the psychology major examines the mental conditions in society which come as a result of the insanity of capitalism and hierarchy without trying to address the core problems, the history major identifies the historical origins of these problems and does nothing about them, the biology major does not work to alter the systemic causes of environmental degradation, and the political science major studies how to perfect forms of control rather than working towards genuine democracy. Just as academic study has become completely separated from society, casting aside any type of serious effort at affecting society, theory has experienced a similar decline–becoming something that is confined to academic books and discourse, rather than being a catalyst for social change.

Now that theory has largely become the province of academics and students, existing only within the context of the university, theory has become increasingly useless. Theory’s existence is meaningful only if it becomes a catalyst for change, if it is simply a subject of study, effectively breaking off any hope of “praxis,” theory must be abolished (3). In the late 19th century, revolutionary theory was closely linked with movements to transform society, including theories such as socialism and communism (4). The same was true of anarchism, in that the theory existed both in theoretical discourse and among a movement of people that sought to transform society, not simply writing about and discussing problems without attempting to change them. In the 1960s, after decades of revolutionary theory becoming increasingly separated from any attempt to change society, especially within the Marxist canon, the theorists of the Situationist International, based in France, made it their project to create a revolutionary theory which would not exist simply for academics, but rather to be a catalyst for action. For the situationists, theory was not just for academics, but rather it existed to “transform the world and change life” in a revolutionary manner (5). Situationist writings were a call to Marxists, anarchists, and other “revolutionaries” to be revolutionary–a challenge to rediscover what was truly revolutionary about those theories–the desire to change society. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to evaluate the extent to which the situationists call for a unity between theory and praxis was heeded by revolutionaries, the situationists were elaborating on a critique set forth by other marxists, who had become fed up with the absorption of Marxism by academia and parliamentary parties (6). However, in the post-May 1968 intellectual milieu, theory in France has once again reverted to inconsequential ramblings with little bearing on the world outside of academia.

Perhaps the most prominent example of the deterioration of theory is the whole “postmodern” project, a theoretical body that claims to be revolutionary, yet functions as little more than a testament to the present poverty of theory. Postmodernism makes no attempt to be accessible to the general population; instead, it is steeped in rhetorical blabbering and exists almost exclusively within the confines of academia. Where postmodernism has any influence beyond academia, it tends to be found within pseudo-intellectuals and nihilists who have little interest in any unity between theory and practice. Moreover, postmodernism is often described as a form of Marxist theory, citing its roots in Marxism, and it very well may–but in reality, it provides little more than cover for intellectuals who do not want to change society in any concrete manner, yet want to be associated with Marxism. This lack of enthusiasm for changing society is most certainly not a legitimate legacy of Marxism, and instead of cultivating a revolutionary theory derived from Marxism–which would entail working towards revolutionary change, postmodernism makes no effort to create a better world. Instead, postmodernism promotes a type of intellectual fatalism in which there is a fascination with the absolute power of television, consumerism, capitalism, and hierarchy, yet there is no genuine attempt to abolish the aforementioned forms of domination. This follows from the fact that postmodernism’s rejection of any type of “absolute truth” can be used as a convenient way to dismiss revolutionary movements, as revolutionary movements that proclaim a better way to live are really little more than false proclamations of truth. Postmodernism represents the most perfected form of a theory made entirely irrelevant to revolutionary struggles.

While postmodernism may be the heir of Marxism (7), Marxism still exists as a somewhat popular form of theory within academic and “activist” circles. In its present state, Marxism is a theory that has outlived its usefulness, as it has become so diluted that there is little point in dragging its dead corpse along. Marxism, once explicitly linked with class struggle and movements for a revolutionary reconstruction of society, has become a philosophy of inaction. Marxism has become “safe” for academics and “activists,” as it has been completely confined to books that do little more than gather dust on bookshelves, while to be a Marxist one need not make a serious effort to change society, as such an effort would certainly be seen as abnormal by one’s comrades. Moreover, Marxism has become a theory to which elitist intellectuals and “activists” can cling, as much of the twentieth century development of Marxism has centered around the idea of “vanguard” groups and the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” under the absurd claim that “professional” revolutionaries must lead the masses in the revolution and in any post-revolutionary period–assertions which are a complete bastardization of the democratic and libertarian tendencies within Marxism (8). Marxism has become a cult-like religion devoted to the study of Marxist texts, which have become akin to the dogma of the Christian church. This cult-like reading of Marxist texts and the ensuing arguments over minute details of theoretical writings nearly 150 years old, run contrary to Marx’s intentions. Marxists would do well to remember Marx’s rejection of “personality cults (9),” as well as his statement, “Je ne suis pas Marxiste” and instead of focusing on his words as dogma, they should focus on revolutionary movements (10). Indeed, it is also true that much of the problem with Marxism, especially in the United States, is that Marxists have allowed its legacy to be shaped by critics from the right and academics, both of whom have rendered Marxism a theory that exists only within a specific historical context. Moreover, the conditions that led to the development of Marxism, the intensified production and exploitation of the industrial revolution, has been removed as capitalism has become rationalized, which is of course not true, but such an interpretation have nonetheless become quite common (11). Marxism has lost its revolutionary potential–it has been reduced to a “theoretical lens” which can be applied to history or literature, in order to construct “Marxist Interpretations” of history and literature or a “badge” which one can wear–completely eliminating its previous relationship with class struggle and revolutionary movements (12).

Anarchism, historically the “alternative” to Marxism, although few ever saw it as such due both to the misunderstanding of those on the “left” as well as outright distortions by mainstream society and history, has experienced a decline similar to Marxism. Anarchism no longer has any ties to revolutionary struggles, beyond the participation of anarchists within larger movements. The lasting legacy of anarchism is bomb throwing and violence–the involvement of anarchists in the struggle for the 8-hour day, the involvement of anarchists such as Emma Goldman and Voltairine De Cleyre in the development of feminism in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the development of militant trade unions in Europe during the same period, and the struggle of anarchists in Spain against the fascism of Franco and the collectivization and organization of Spanish industry along libertarian lines in the 1930s, have all been ignored by history books. Anarchism, unlike Marxism, has been almost completely neglected by academics and instead it has been made irrelevant to the majority of people by the actions of people on the “left” who have dismissed anarchism as being an absurd quest for utopia, by historians and governments who have dismissed it as violence, and by anarchists themselves who have made little more than token attempts at outreach outside traditional “left” circles. Indeed, if people have any knowledge of contemporary anarchist activity, it is only in relationship to the use of the black bloc tactic at protests, which effectively replaces the legacy of bomb throwing with that of window smashing. There have been few serious attempts to make anarchism revolutionary; instead, most anarchists have remained within the ghettos of the punk scene, the middle-class, and the so-called “dropout” culture (13). While there have been interesting projects coming out of the anarchist milieu in the past ten years, including the development of infoshops to share information across the world, the development of the Independent Media Centers on the internet, the non-hierarchical forms of organization that have been used in the movement against capitalist globalization, and numerous theoretical journals–anarchism, like Marxism, is not currently a revolutionary movement.

Both Marxism and anarchism, as they currently exist, are not revolutionary–just as there is no theory that is innately revolutionary. Theory is kept within the small ghettos of academia, published in journals nobody reads, and dominated by people who are not serious about bringing about the revolutionary changes that must be at the core of all theory. As university students, we play a key role in the system that reproduces theory as a means of intellectual masturbation while removing its revolutionary potential. If we recognize this role, we can confront and abolish theory as theory, instead making theory something revolutionary—by making it a catalyst and component of action. Theory can no longer afford to be an irrelevant academic sideshow to reality; instead, it must intertwined with genuine and serious efforts aimed at the revolutionary transformation of society. Let us take theory out of the books and reclaim it from the intellectuals, let us bring theory into our hearts and minds as inspiration for revolutionary action–let us abolish theory!

Notes

(1) By theory I mean the revolutionary theories found on the “left”, the most common of which is Marxism.

(2) Graffiti painted on the walls of Nanterre University during the events leading up to the revolt/insurrection during May and June of

1968 in France—cited in Angelo Quattrocchi and Tom Narin, The Beginning of the End, (Verso, 1998), 49.

(2) “Praxis” is a word that seems to have been forgotten by the majority of people who consider themselves theorists or proponents of theory, an increasingly fatalistic tone taken by many “theorists” who argue that any attempts to radically change the world are destined to fail because of complete and total domination of power. Many theorists have, rather than confronting power, been increasingly interested in simply observing the complexity of power without making any substantive effort at challenging it.

(4) This was of course before they were bastardized by the authoritarians, and later, by a dogmatic adherence to the writings of Marx, along with an almost cult-like fascination with everything Marx ever did, where once directly linked to mass movements designed to transform society.

(5) “On the Poverty of Student Life” in Situationist International Anthology, ed. and trans. Ken Knabb, (Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995), 337.

(6) I am thinking specifically of the critiques of Stalinism and the calls for a more democratic marxism in journals such as Socialisme ou Barbarie, journals that had much wider circulations than the writings of the situationists. These journals were more interested in the spread of revolutionary Marxism than inconsequential academic debates. Furthermore, the use of “marxist” with a lowercase “m” is to show that these theorists were more interested in marxism as a way of transforming society than the cult-like worship of Marx that is common among “Marxists.”

(7) According to some academics postmodernism is the heir to Marxism, although postmodernism really has little in common with Marx. See Arthur Marwick, The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language, (Lyceum, 2001), 241. This association of postmodernism with Marxism is quite common among critics of postmodernism coming from a “right-wing” perspective while many on the “left-wing” find that postmodernism offers a convenient tie to Marxism without requiring one to actually do anything to change the world.

(8) See: V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution, (International Publishers, 1943) for a development of the idea that revolutions can be led by the few and that “dictatorships” can be instituted in the post-revolutionary period. Also see, Friedrich Engels, “On Authority,” in The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (W.W. Norton, 1978), 730-733, for an early defense of consolidating power in the hands of the few.

(9) Karl Marx, “Against Personality Cults,” in The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (W.W. Norton, 1978), 521.

(10) “Engels to Eduard Bernstein in Zurich,” 1882, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1882/letters/82_11_02.htm

(11) Of course, anyone who opens their eyes can see that such assertions are absolute rubbish. Exploitation is still, and will always be, an essential component of capitalist production. Moreover, the absurd notion that we live in a “classless” society, therefore rendering Marx’s class analysis useless, is ridiculous.

(12) This is not to say that there are not many “activists” and groups around the world that call themselves Marxist. However, the majority of these “activists” and groups make no serious attempt to make Marxism a theory for revolutionary change. There is more to being a Marxist than being able to provide citations for his famous quotes or using his writings to simply interpret the world or works of literature. Most “Marxists” would do well to remember the following: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it,” something which most “Marxists” are all to eager to forget. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” in The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (W.W. Norton, 1978), 145.

(13) This is not to say that anarchism has not been growing in popularity in the past few years, and indeed it has, but there has not been a large-scale movement to appeal to people outside of circles traditionally sympathetic to anarchism.

Advertisements

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org