Getting to a common language: On producing & testing communist theory

The recent contribution by the Tennessee FRSO collective-- which appeared here under the name Reinventing the wheel? For a strategic communist method of work -- has explored important questions of theory and mass struggle in the last few days.

We will try to develop the discussion on this essays three particular reasons that communist mass work is valuable. For the moment here questions about views on theory and practice.

by Mike Ely

One thing that strikes me about this discussion is the lack of a common language. On one level, people are literally using some of the same words, but it becomes clear that many of them ("struggle," "practice," "mass struggle," "theory") may have very different meanings.

It is true (as Fieval writes) that many of us have probably read Mao's "On Practice" several times -- but I get the sense that we may have drawn different meanings from it. I even get the sense that some think that whatever Mao said should (automatically?) be assumed true or that it expresses the most important truths to affirm about some of these matters.

In a very short thread, we have repeatedly misunderstood each other, and (as a result) apparently argued from mischaracterizations. So one of my main reactions is to back off a bit, not assume I know what is being said, and be a bit patient at unraveling the meaning.

* * * * * * * * *

Let me just start with one strand of the discussion concerning theory. And I will quote various parts of it in what follows.... to gather what was being said.

Wayne writes: We need to have a theory for understanding capitalist restoration (because we need to develop a communist movement now that is built in ways that, hopefully, can prevent restoration later). So some of us develop (say in the next three years) a theory of how socialism operated in previous attempts, and a theory of what we might do differently (how planning might operate, how political power struggles might be unfolded, how decision-making might unfold).

In putting forward this theory, how do we carry out this responsibility to test "theory in the agency that is producing it"? What happens if we can't do that?

People in this conversation

  • Guest - Wayne

    Unfortunately my paid work, and my unpaid political work, prevent me from having the time for now to respond to this at great length--or anyway at the same level that you have.

    I write in just to clarify that our original writing was to an audience of revolutionaries, not an audience of academics. Setting aside your thought experiments, which I think are helpful, I just want to assert that I think no matter what we do--and here I mean we as in people committed to some kind of fundamental overthrow of the current social/political/economic order and who are willing to work toward that end--there will also be people producing sociological, historical, social scientific analyses of how the world works, etc.

    I don't think that <i>academic analyses</i> and <i>theory about making revolution</i> should be presumed to be the same thing--and I don't think that they are going to be done by the same kinds of people with the same kinds of interests. As opposed to a thought experiment, I will provide you with a very real and lived example:

    I had a professor in college who did a lot of thinking, writing, research, theorizing/analyzing of ethnicity, terror, and globalization. I found his work to be extraordinarily useful and insightful for apprehending and processing the realities of this terrible world. But this guy was not a revolutionary--aside from his abstract and academic commitments to 'anti-capitalism'--and his work was not <i>towards</i> anything. It just, kind of, <i>was</i>. That is radically different than, say, Lenin's attempting to understand the global dynamics and situation of an inchoate socialist country--which of course would draw on the academic analyses, the conglomeration and reading of data, the research of other people, but was <i>for</i> something very different, and from a social location and context that required very different things.

    When we talk about theory, we're talking about theory that helps us sharpen our practice. We may draw from a variety of sources, but there is no academic that is writing about how we build a struggle, how we antagonize our enemies, and how we eventually overthrow them. Nor are there very many academics who are writing about how to improve our work, better our method, etc.

    Look: <i>there are precious few of us</i>. We're talking about what the tasks of us few should be. Often on this site I feel like we're speaking not with two different meanings, but about two totally different worlds. Yesterday in our discussion about our piece, you asked about the potential role of "secret couriers." Well, I think that we will find ourselves in a time one day (or, rather, I sincerely hope we find ourselves in a time) when we need secret couriers; similarly, I think we will find ourselves in a time needing to have revolutionary academics doing primary research and analysis. I don't think that's where we are right now, and I don't think that's the priority of our theoretical work.

  • <strong>Again on the question of common language:</strong>

    By discussing "secret couriers" i was not assuming that we should develop them today.... but just that in having a sophisticated communist movement (the one we need to create) there will be need for more than mass organizers, and some functions that will be inherently distant from the "mass movement."

    And certainly there are places and conditions (even today) when this is not a bizarre or unthinkable idea. (We have as many readers in India as in the U.S.)

    That is not "two totally distant worlds."

    <strong>On academics: </strong>We have all met academics who were not revolutionaries. But you seem to imply there can be no revolutionary theorists who are academics.

    Sure so you met a radical professor or two. And you write:

    "But this guy was not a revolutionary–aside from his abstract and academic commitments to ‘anti-capitalism’–and his work was not towards anything."</blockquote>

    But who says that is all that is possible?

    If you look at the work of Jorge Palacios (the leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Chile) you will see that he was both a professor of philosophy, the author of remarkable work of revolutionary theory, and a front rank practical organizer.

    Similarly Abimael Guzman (Chairman Gonzalo of the Shining Path) was a working professor (at the teachers college in Ayacucho), a PhD holder (in philosophy, topic of thesis: Kant), leader of a revolutionary party and its (very practical) launching of a peoples war, and finally author of a body of theoretical work. And actually his work combining roles of a professor and organizer turned that college into the red center from which the revolutionary attempt in Peru started.

    I have known lots of professors who were active revolutionaries -- and I work with several today who I respect tremendously (including Bill Martin obviously). And some of those professors were active in the sense of doing revolutionary mass work, and some were actually engaged in theoretical work in their fields (and some have been guilty of both).

    In addition, there are quite revolutionary contributions that have emerged from academic communists -- i would mention Badiou and Althusser, but not just them. You yourself mentioned Foucault as an exception.

    I am aware that there is a swamp of academia.... where there is endless talk and little action. I am aware that many radical professors are less radical than their students (but not always). But, there is also a swamp of mass organizing where there is endless routine and no revolution.

    It seems a little one-sided to be absolute in our verdicts. There is room for many kinds of people to make many different kinds of contribution, right?

    * * * * * * * *

    <blockquote>"When we talk about theory, we’re talking about theory that helps us sharpen our practice."

    I'm not sure I know what that means. Which practice? What does "sharpening practice" mean?

    Doesn't theory have other roles? It is only about a better bag of tricks for organizing?

    Should we have a theory of science (or of evolution)? And is that merely about helping us sharpen our practice?

    Is our theory so functional? So narrowly focused on immediate tasks?

    Don't we need a larger communist theory of history (not to sharpen our practice in some immediate sense)? Isn't that indispensable? Wouldn't reducing theory to what serves our practice in fact gut large parts of our necessary theory? Is everything we think or understand reducible to organizing and struggle?

    I'm not denigrating the need for organizing or struggle, i'm protesting the seeming denial of anything else.

    * * * * * * * *

    I would like to actually engage more on your "three points" above... and on what it means to do communist mass work. So will think about how to go there.

  • Guest - Wayne

    I think it would be good for you to not deal in what you read as my implicit meaning. I did not say, nor do I think, that no academics can be revolutionaries, and your argument based around such an interpretation isn't really interesting to me.

    Let me repeat, and summarize: When we talk about theoretical work, we're talking about theory that relates to the building up of our revolutionary movement; the identification of its tasks; thinking about how we ought to do our work (the "method" we've been talking about) and where and when; how we struggle against the intersecting historically constituted structures of oppression; how we move forward a revolutionary politick in the mass work. What we are not talking about is developing shared analysis of, say, imperialism. <i>Please do not, as I fear some might, read this as thinking that such an analysis is unimportant, or not necessary.</i> We think that it's important! But...We don't think that's the most useful allocation of the time of the limited few people trying to be active revolutionaries developing communist theory about struggle, mass work, etc. We're talking about a theory of mass work, a theory of making revolution.

    I don't know that I can be any clearer than that.

  • <blockquote>"What we are not talking about is developing shared analysis of, say, imperialism. Please do not, as I fear some might, read this as thinking that such an analysis is unimportant, or not necessary. We think that it’s important! But…We don’t think that’s the most useful allocation of the time of the limited few people trying to be active revolutionaries developing communist theory about struggle, mass work, etc. We’re talking about a theory of mass work, a theory of making revolution..... I don’t know that I can be any clearer than that."</blockquote>

    That is without a doubt, the clearest you have been. Thanks.

    It also illustrates that when we have been using the word "theory" in the discussion so far -- we have been talking about two rather different things -- since, as I can now see, you have a very specific (previously unarticulated) assumptions about theory's purpose and focus.

    I have to say that i think that "a theory of mass work" is only a sliver of the necessary "theory of making revolution" -- and the part (which is certainly important) should not be allowed to eclipse the whole.

    I look forward to focusing a bit more on the questions surrounding such a theory of mass work.

  • Guest - Carl DAvidson

    When Jerry Harris and I wrote on the theory of the rise of global capital as a truly transnational capitalist class, it helped at great deal that he had been a steelworker laid off by high tech in manufacturing and that I had been a computer tech and network install, and a teacher on technology. Others without this experience came to similar views, but they came up a little short when it came to expressing them with a degree on concreteness that was more widely understood. So yes, connecting theory with one's practice, while not always necessary, is almost always very helpful.

  • Guest - Wayne

    I don't have a very specific assumption about theory's purpose and focus, I have a priority for a particular type of theory in the current period, and it's what we were talking about when we wrote the piece.

    I also don't think--and didn't say!--that a theory of mass work is the totality of what we need in terms of a theory of making revolution--though I find it clarifying that you think it is just a sliver of that, and I strongly disagree with that notion.

  • <blockquote>"I also don’t think–and didn’t say!–that a theory of mass work is the totality of what we need in terms of a theory of making revolution–though I find it clarifying that you think it is just a sliver of that, and I strongly disagree with that notion."</blockquote>

    Given the discussion so far, I suspect we (and others) mean different things by the term "theory of mass work" -- which may explain possible differences over its priority.

    <strong>Just an example:</strong> Understanding what communists should <em>do</em> (now), how we <em>prepare</em> to seize revolutionary possibilities in the mid-range, is not reducible to a question of how we should speak to the people now, or what kinds of organizations we should seek to build, and how we should present ourselves in the present. (All of this is important and part of our emerging methods of mass work).

    But don't we need to ask and know how we expect revolutionary opportunities to emerge? Conjuncturally? Where? Among whom? Do we just "dig in wherever we are" -- where we happen to be? Or should we focus on specific places and specific sections of the people and the specific fracture points of politics most likely to product revolutionary consciousness and organization (as opposed to struggles and sectors that are less likely to get tied to radical consciousness)?

    Another example: How do communists understand the likelihood that cutbacks will lead to radical ruptures in politics? Do we assume it? (If so based on what?) Who do we believe will be affected by restructuring? What is the likelihood that the current offensive on government workers will produce radicalization (or a deeper and even more narrow embrace of Democrats)? What does history teach on this? What does a communist theory of consciousness and economics (and of economism) have to say about this?

    To understand the radical potential of different strata, and the likely fate of working strata -- don't we need a deeper understanding of modern imperialism (including its stratification among the people, and its eroding of previous social contracts)?

    Without that where would we dig in, among whom, with what assumptions?

    We have spoken about these matters here on Kasama -- as part of <em>our</em> theoretical work, and as part of our own preparation for practical organizing. We have paid more attention to "where to begin" than we yet have on "how to present ourselves" -- in part because presentation of communist politics depends on where we focus and who we take as our audience (and what objectively our mass line approach teaches us about them).

    Related: I am a bit confused by your talk of "struggle" -- which struggle? There is (frankly) little struggle in the U.S. right now. There are sharp episodes (Wisconcin, eruption over Arizona). There are a couple genuine sociali movements (over gay marriage and over immigrant amnesty) -- but many other potential movements (antiwar struggle, the African American liberation struggle) are in a deep ebb (in part because of the impact of Obama's rise). So which struggle are we talking about?

    It seems to be (again I'm trying to speculate on the unarticulated) that you may assume that (in the absense of spontaneously emerging struggle) it is the job of communists to cull it into existence. Is that possible or is it "pull on the sprout to make it grow"? Is it the task of communist to invent movements that stubbornly resist coming into being -- and do we run the risk of confusing networks of sincere activists with "mass movements" and "mass struggle"?

    How do we prepare best for revolution in a period not marked by struggle (but marked by emerging potential and marked discontent)? And what is the role of organizing struggle in that context? And is all struggle the same? Or are some more suitable for revolutionary work than others?

    All of these are both political and theoretical controversies.

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