Do Activists Really Need Theory?

This is a difficult time for activists in Canada. There are few strikes and protests, and even fewer wins. We haven’t seen the kind of radicalization that’s been expressed in support for Sanders in the U.S. and Corbyn in the U.K. Organizing for change is a hard slog, and organizers are sometimes skeptical when people like me say that we need theory. Some people see it as a mistake to devote time to learning theory that could instead be spent mobilizing people for urgent actions. Still, I think theory really matters in this moment.

We all have theory, whether we realize it or not. We all have beliefs about how society works. Some of us have ideas about how society could be changed. That’s what social theory is: explanations of how society works and how social change happens. Most of us learn that the way society is organized today is natural or fundamentally good – a belief challenged by radical social theory.

Most people’s ideas about these things are a mix of conclusions drawn from our own experiences and what we’ve picked up from other sources. Our experience is often a valuable source of insights about how our society works, at least for the majority of people who endure sexism, racism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression, and spend hours working for pay in places where we have little or no control over what we do. Unfortunately, the forces that shape our everyday experiences – flows of capital investment, government policy decisions, and how gender and racial power are organized, for example – are harder to understand.

Does this really matter? It’s true that you don’t need to understand capitalism to unionize your workplace, for example, and you can oppose capitalism even if you don’t understand the system really well. But to grasp why union officials rarely encourage member-driven unionism and what keeps capitalism going, we need ways of thinking systematically about how society is organized. In other words, we need social theory. Without insightful theory to guide us, people working for social change are more likely to adopt ineffective or even counter-productive strategies and tactics.

We also need theory to grapple with questions like, “Is it possible to replace capitalism with a better society?” and, “If it is, what should we do in the here and now to work toward that goal?” Too many people give up fighting for change because their expectations turn out to be wrong; a better understanding of what we’re up against helps people to stay in the struggle.

If you’re convinced we do need theory, then we face another question: what kind? Most social theory today is written by and for academic researchers or for university students, informed more by concerns important to the academy than those of people on the front lines of organizing for social and ecological justice. Much of the best radical academic writing is inaccessible to non-academics. But not all theory is useless for activists, and it doesn’t have to be written in an academic way.

The starting point for the kind of theory we need is the understanding that many forms of oppression exist, that people who produce goods and services – from impoverished peasants in the Global South to the highest-waged workers in the Global North – are subordinated in various harmful ways. It needs to be not just a theory of these realities but also a theory against them. It should also recognize that they happen simultaneously, so that even if we sometimes have to talk about, say, class exploitation, we never lose sight of how this never exists separately from different kinds of oppression.

This theory should be materialist. Materialism doesn’t have anything to do with being preoccupied with money or what money can buy. The kind of materialism we need understands humans as an animal species distinguished from the rest of nature by how its members work together as conscious makers of tools and culture. This kind of theory starts from material contexts to understand how societies are organized and how they change, rather than from ideas, which never exist separately from people.

The theory we need must also be historical. So much of what most people today take for granted as natural or “just the way things are” isn’t natural at all. Theory that takes history seriously can reveal how such things as gender oppression, capitalism, and racism haven’t always existed. This helps us see just how much social arrangements can and do change.

To be most useful, the theory should be critical, not dogmatic. Some theory that has the qualities I’ve mentioned avoids some of the toughest questions facing those of us who yearn for social transformation or offers glib answers. This may be reassuring but in the end such theory isn’t the most effective guide to action.

I think the strongest social theory is one that fuses the best ideas of Karl Marx and some of the people who have worked with Marx’s concepts with the best ideas developed by thinkers whose foremost concerns have been sexism, racism, heterosexism, colonialism, and other kinds of oppression. It’s not a new approach, but it’s usually overshadowed by other theories that have more academic or political backing (these range from perspectives that defend the status quo to those that are critical of oppression but don’t grasp the central role of capitalism and class to versions of orthodox Marxism). I call this fusion reconstructed historical materialism. There’s lots to debate, but I’m convinced that activists need to read and use this kind of theory as we try to change the world.

People who use it are involved in a range of efforts; one interesting political initiative informed by such theory was the 2017 International Women’s Strike in the U.S.

Some reading suggestions and a video:

David Camfield, We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society
David McNally, Another World is Possible: Globalization and Anti-Capitalism
Alan Sears, The Next New Left: A History of the Future
Himani Bannerji, Thinking Through: Essays on Feminism, Marxism, and Anti-Racism
“Beyond Everyday Feminism,” a recent talk by Kate Doyle Griffiths

Readers like you keep Briarpatch alive and thriving. Subscribe today to support fiercely independent journalism.