Saturday, 15 July 2017

Well in Theory

 “During the past nine years the International has developed more than enough ideas to save the world, if ideas alone could save it, and I challenge anyone to come up with a new one. It’s no longer the time for ideas, it’s time for actions.” Mikhail Bakunin 1873,

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it" Karl Marx

For the past couple of days Left Twitter seems to keep stumbling back into an argument over the role of theory. Some good points were made, but as usual they tended to get drowned out and it wasn't long before the disagreements became embittered.

I have some thoughts on the subject but think it best to outline them here rather than on the 140 character limit platform. To summarise in an admittedly unfair but sadly not that unfair manner the debate boiled down to everyone should read big bulkly and inaccessible tomes to have an opinion worth listening too, or a complete rejection of theory if it can't be explained in an easy way for a contemporary and virgin audience.

Now that didn't apply to everyone but that was where both poles were placed and as the argument drew on they started pull more users closer to each of them. Personally speaking I find this divide to be largely arbitrary and not really helpful.

I personally struggle with theory, as I said in my post on the Discourse Collective, I don't really like dealing with abstract concepts, I understand and remember the words, but usually they don't really mean anything to me until I'm more acquainted with it. One way I've found make theoretical works more accessible to me was to got to it from history. The first texts by Marx, Bakunin and Kropotkin I read were their essays on the Paris Commune. I read them because I was familiar with the events of the Commune so when they used terminology I wasn't familiar with I had an image I could link it to. And from there I worked my way up.

I think a lot of the difficulty lies in finding the best way to come at something.

Lets start with theory;

Theory: Theory (the concept I mean) is a bit misunderstood. When we use the T word we usually refer to big bulkly tomes full of abstraction and a language unique to the author. A good example would be the word state, nearly every political outlook under the sun means something a bit different by that word, for Weber the state was a monopoly on violence, for Marx and instrument of class domination, for anarchists a hierarchical power relation that props up and defends other hierarchical power relations like class rule etc. And yes these books are an example of theory and the criticisms levelled at what we can call pure theory are quite accurate. They can be impenetrable, they assume you've read multiple other books before hand, even if they're supposed to be an introduction, the text is mostly abstract or to heavily linked to an event or process, the language has become outdated etc.

But that isn't all that theory is. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, is a novel about painters in 1910's England. And yet its full of socialist theory and criticism of capitalist economics. So long as you can read you don't need any background knowledge to understand the theory in Philanthropists its does an incredible job using its narrative as a teaching tool. You don't have to agree with its ideas my father certainly didn't when he read it, but you know its theory and you understand the argument being presented.

The same is true of The Jungle or the Grapes of Wraith, I often find recommending these three novels to people interested in social history but not necessarily socialist theory is a good first taste. But not everything can be turned into a novel, but there are other ways to learn theory in a more accessible form.

Capital was a big offender in the twitter storm, it is pretty hard to get into, but there are a few ways to lessen the workload. For example, their is a Manga that adapts part of the Capital. In addition to imagery to associate with the idea it uses a narrative to demonstrate and explain some of the concepts like surplus value, and so on.

It doesn't cover everything but its a light read and it does give you a frame of reference for the rest of the work. It certainly helped me with Volume One. There is also an abridged (60 or so pages) version compiled by Otto Ruhle, That does a similar thing without pictures, but with more concepts.

There are also many introductions to Capital and reading guides online. I've never used them though so can't comment.

Society of the Spectacle:

Society of the Spectacle (SOS) is without doubt the most impenetrable text I've ever come across. Indeed Debord deliberately wrote in as opaque a manner as possible. He came to regret that as he spent the last years of his life complaining about how misused and misunderstood SOS was. I've read a lot of Situationist texts and they are all much easier to understand than SOS which is the introductory text!

 For example,


In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false.

Fortunately other Situationists were less willing to play silly games with their readers, their are several ways to break it open.  Tiernan Morgan and Lauren Page came up with an illustrated guide to SOS

In addition to the graphics the pair take the time to explain several of SOS thesis's, like the manga and the abridgement in addition to explain several specific concepts they provide a point to access the rest. Though its still pretty hard going.

In addition the group Audio Anarchy have done something interesting with SOS. Instead of just turning the text into audio like they usually do, the group instead had readers read out a thesis, explain it and then relate it to their lives. Well except for the one title the Anarchists, he just reads it out and says he agrees with it, which is basically useless, but the rest is good.

Action as Theory:

Another issue with this divide is the obscuring of action as a form of theory. This is I feel one of the greatest strengths of syndicalism, much of its theory is developed and taught through action. To take the IWW as an example they mainly do education through practicals and workshops. The organiser training is not only a tool to build confidence and help members learn how to organise, its also a demonstration of class dynamics and the use of solidarity and direct action.

The Wobblies were also pioneers of other forms of teaching without relying solely on reading. Joe Hill, arguably the most well known Wobbly organiser, wrote songs to teach theory and bind workers together through singing. And he wasn't alone, the Wobblies had a large roster of singers and song writers, in particular Ralph Chaplins most famous song written in 1915

When the union's inspiration through the workers' blood shall run
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one
For the Union makes us strong

Solidarity forever, solidarity forever
Solidarity forever
For the Union makes us strong

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite 
Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?  
Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?  
For the union makes us strong
It is we who ploughed the prairies, built the cities where they trade
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid
Now we stand outcast and starving 'mid the wonders we have made
But the union makes us strong 
All the world  that's owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone 
We have laid the wide foundations, built it skyward stone by stone 
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own  
While the union makes us strong
They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn
We can break their haughty power gain our freedom when we learn
That the Union makes us strong
 In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold
Greater than the might of armies magnified a thousandfold
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the Union makes us strong
And then there's our old friend Mr Block. Mr Block was a comic strip character whose daily misadventures explained the obstacles of class society to workers in a very accessible format. He gets screwed over by the bosses he admires, he struggles to get anywhere despite being a model worker and his attempts to break into the upper class all fall flat.

To be perfectly honest I think the only way out of a bottleneck is to develop a plurality of education tools, audio, video, graphics, books, practicals, music and even games. Relying on the same texts that even by 1939 where considered partially obsolete isn't going to be enough.


There is one other aspect to this that I think is worthy of commenting. The issue of gatekeeping. I'm not really happy with the term but its the one in general use so I'll go with that. In my experience there is an attitude that someone's opinion isn't worth hearing if they haven't done the same reading everyone else has. This is a fairly common thing but it amazes me how common it is amongst Communists.

Communism is supposed to use a scientific analysis and rooted in materialism i.e. economic reality. So if your discounting a view because it doesn't tally with your own reading list that is neither scientific nor material its just another form of literary elitism. The whole point of communist theory is to relate to the material world in some way. If it doesn't do that, then either the theory is poor or the person extolling it isn't as familiar with it as they like to assume.

One of the worst behaviours I've seen in left wing discourse is this fundamentalist approach of reciting quotations without substantiation or grounding in reality. If Marx/Kropotkin/Mao/Debs/Debord/Lenin/Bakunin/Bookchin etc said it, it must be true and you are wrong if you disagree for any reason and that's the end of it, is what this approach is saying. Its very frustrating dealing with these people, especially if you do know the works their quoting too. Even if the quotation is correct by some fluke, its not an answer and once someone starts reciting from the good book(s) the conversation is over. There's no point continuing it, even if what they're quoting was disproven by the course of events, unless it was retracted by the author at a later date its just walls made of words that they'll use again and again and again.

I believe a worryingly large number of people who bury their heads in texts have forgotten the point of the endeavour. Quotations are fine but of themselves all they prove is that you have read the text and can remember it. Without applying its lessons to the real world and seeing how it measures up, you're just using up your free time. To go back to the quotes at the top there for a minute, that's the point Marx and Bakunin were getting at, theory divorced from action, or rather theory that can't be translated into action is pointless.

Then there's the issue that since Communism is materialist by far the greatest teaching tool is practical experience with the economic system, and the class struggle itself. Who understands the concept of alienation of labour more? Someone whose read of it or someone who lives it? What about surplus value, someone whose calculated the national averages or someone who compares their wage packet to the projected profits of the company? and so on, and so on. You can understand the workings of capitalism without reading economic texts, you can understand oppression without reading anti authoritarian literature, you can understand the importance of the environment without subscribing to Greenpeace's email lists etc. And to be honest if someone can't tell another person who does understand the subject from someone who doesn't without the use code words (same terminology) then I don't believe they've understood the theory either.

Just as it its important to have a frame of reference for understanding theory, its important to have a frame of reference for applying it. Often what happens in arguments the views of some will be written off simply because they don't use the approved terminology favoured by the approved reading lists. That's another warning sign the conversation is going nowhere, by the way, when one side starts getting really picky with the word choices of the others. To be honest if either start happening your better off breaking it off.

The idea that we must all study the same texts to have ideas and opinions worthy of consideration is put bluntly just a form of snobbery. And a symptom of a closed mind, its one of the reasons this left unity thing won't work because a large number have nothing but contempt for the theory of schools of thought that aren't their own.  Left unity in practice usually means everyone should listen to us.

This is why a lot of interleft criticism is just insults and mischaracterisations, why bother learning what the others actually think when its all trash anyway? The point of the majority of lefty  criticism isn't to help everyone improve and develop its to discredit competitors so everyone ends up joining your "side".

This theory/action divide is often just another excuse to do the same.

Give and Take:

But of course this isn't one sided, both sides have justifiable frustrations. It isn't fair or practical to expect those familiar with a work to dispense knowledge on demand. But on the other hand dumping a book in someone's lap and expecting them to not only muddle through but come to the same conclusions you have (I speak from experience here, often disagreement is seen as a sign of incomprehension or you being overly emotional) is simply daft.

But there is a potential solution, rebuilding study groups and book clubs. In the past most parties and radical unions and propaganda groups developed programs to not just read books but to help members and sympathisers understand them. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense is famous for confrontation and wearing berets and waving shotguns around, but much of what they actually did was provide community services and support for members. Most large Chapters had reading and discussion groups for the texts on their reading lists.

The IWW has had some success reviving the Working People's College and summer camps and workshops at branch levels. And the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) has maintained a fairly consistent study program and summer school. But these are exceptions really, the trend has been to just leave education to individual members in their off time or have members follow the lead of important members.

The internet has seen a bit more of a revival though, had a Capital reading group, the Something Awful literature sub forum has a book of the month reading and discussion thread that occasionally reads political and philosophical books. And I discord I recently joined has a book club channel. I think rebuilding discussion and study groups are the way to overcome most of these problems.

It'll open up texts to more readers, allow the community to develop their analytical and critical thinking skills, limit the tendency of theory reading to lead to group think and mindless recitations and remove the burdens from our shoulders.

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