November 13, 2013

Peace, love and the need for theory

Antoine SteMarie,
Guest commentary

A recent discussion with friends over facebook had me thinking about why we should consider theory important for the direction of social movements and activism. Here are just a few thoughts.

First of all, theorists and their theories are not simply some separate intellectual strata of people whose ideas have little bearing on the state of the world; at least, not substantial theorists. Theory is an attempt to understand the world.

That's not to deny that a good theory also needs to be easily digestible. Theoretical ideas need to be put in as accessible a format as possible.

Needless to say, a good understanding of the world is required for effective action. It is the same as a doctor requiring real understanding of the body to give an accurate diagnosis and thus a cure. Just taking any theory won't achieve the desired result.

When a theory doesn't reflect actual conditions then strategies for changing societies are bound to fall flat on their faces. Strategy is of course itself an application of theory. Theory, ideology and philosophy are strongly intertwined.

Even those who have not read many theoretical works -- whether of radical socialist theorists or establishment theorists -- are strongly influenced by past and present thinkers and, of course, through society.

After all, whether or not someone obtains their perspectives on life directly, through reading specific philosophers, they have certainly been influenced by people who know those thinkers, having countless formative interactions through their lifetime with people and institutions that have been influenced by well-known theories.

As Lenin said, all people have an ideology and theories. But capitalist ideology is dominant and ever-present in societies institutions. If working people and youth are not learning and searching revolutionary theory then they will inevitably fall into pro-capitalist theory, even if in a very passive way.

No individual stands alone and is completely self made in their thoughts (sorry Ayn Rand, that's you as well!).

For example, not to disparage hippies, but many people I've met who identify as "hippies" have their own theories of social change as well. "Peace and love will change the world" is a common one.

However simple that may appear, it is a theory; just one which needs a lot of expanding on.

Marxists wish the struggle could be so simple! However for so many reasons, especially the strength of the capitalist class, good will and spontaneity clearly is not enough.

Real change requires concrete and immediate demands not just lofty aspirations alone. This is why Occupy was relatively unsuccessful.

To be sure, when I say Occupy was unsuccessful, it is more in terms of what I think it really could have been capable of -- which was much more than was accomplished. (Some cities, no doubt, were much better than others and our understanding of the various camps was certainly distorted by the corporate media).

The main thing that could be said for Occupy is that it provided experience, energy and to some degree a leftwards shift in critical debate. Hopefully this will contribute to a stronger movement in the future. But it will only be stronger in the future if it is not just "Occupy 2.0."

It must substantially move forward.

And while the all-too common fall-back on overly simplistic solutions like peace and love come from a lack of clear theoretical understanding, better analysis of the realities our capitalist society and the complex requirements of class struggle and revolution will help solve that problem.

And I don't mean to single out hippies as the reason Occupy failed.

At worst, poor theory means that well-intentioned working people with energy can instead be channelled into populist but reactionary movements. If the outraged social base of the Tea Party were not brainwashed with right wing theory, ideology and solutions, could they instead have been active members of a more progressive movement?

My experience of an Occupy camp was in Moncton, New Brunswick, where I got to learn how, if you fold an American dollar bill in the correct way, it somehow made some sign that showed what the government was really up to!

These sorts of ideas maybe have one of their strongest expressions in the theories of American "crazy man" Alex Jones, one of the main hacks driving an unfortunately large amount of people up a dead-end-street.

With no exaggeration, this is where confused theory can and has led.

Future broad mass movements will need to have powerful unity around specific immediate demands coupled with wider issues. And to have effective immediate and long-term demands, movements need an accurate analysis regarding society which can only come through the combination of theory with practical activity.

Antoine SteMarie is a member of the Kamloops Socialist Club

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