October 20, 2011

Do youth and student activists need Philosophy?


Philosophy.  Do youth and student activists, and progressive-minded young people in general, need a philosophical approach to their struggles in the movement?

Put the question a more practical and concrete way. Can we understand exploitation, oppression and class, the conflict of “the 99 and 1 percent” without knowing what is a contradiction?

Marxist philosophy seeks to understand the world as it really is, and to change it.  There are two interrelated elements involved here –the need to understand the world as it really is (materialism)  and the need to understand this material world as a world of interconnected change and development, a world of universal conflict and contradiction between what is old and dying and what is new and struggling to be born – an approach Marxist’s call dialectical.

Still, when I was a student activist before I joined the Young Communist League, I thought of philosophy as something abstract, complex, and difficult. And of course, philosophy can be all of this.

Capitalism pushes to make learning and education elitist and inaccessible for the majority of people. To make liberation just that step harder.  Plus, the subject matter is difficult. Philosophers, living off the dime of the ancient lord or modern boss, have generally reflected needs and principles of the powerful. Philosophy seems remote from real life.

But whether it is particularly well understood or not, ideas like “people are basically evil,” “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” “God rewards ” or “life sucks and then you die” are all philosophical.
Widely held philosophical world outlooks have existed for time immemorial in what is now Canada – going back to aboriginal people’s (the ideas of the Six Nations about democracy influenced Ben Franklin and the American revolutionaries, as well as the first Marxists like Engels).

I would say everybody, young and old, has a philosophy whether they are aware of it or not. 

So we can distinguish between two kinds of philosophy. Philosophy as a way everyone has of looking at the world and understanding it in general terms. And abstract philosophy, conceived by ruling class philosophers.

Can you blame youth activists for having nothing but contempt for such philosophy, so elitist, so complex, an off-ramp from struggle into arm-chair debate?

Nowadays being a young person in Canada is sort of like a quest. It is a rough-and-tumble scrabble for life, experiences, knowledge, and figuring out who you are.  For millions of youth in Canada, at some point many of their hopes and aspirations are frustrated or crushed.  Isn’t training the young to fit into society (what sociologists call “socialization”) partly about the squeezing out of hope and “dreams” of justice and a better future?

It’s natural that a great many youth would reject this dominant ideology, condemn the obvious immorality of corporate power and even capitalism, and gravitate to the side of the people’s struggle and working class politics.

A commendable sense of impatience propels the youth movement.  Change must be now. Action must be concrete. Tactics should be direct. Common slogans bravely announce total, radical opposition – anti-racism, anti-G20, anti-capitalism.

Tactics are primary. We’ve got to do something! Action speaks louder than words! (Never mind that words can also be action – sexist slurs, for example).  But after a while, most youth involved in struggle recognize a collection of specific tactics aren’t enough.  A broader strategy is needed, which requires more general analysis and theory.

Dialectical materialist philosophy, when practically applied to the concrete study of concert conditions, is a guide to action.  It does not provide answers but helps us ask the right questions, find what causes to look for, and grasp the particular links.

Strictly speaking, purely spontaneous action that hasn’t been thought-out is not possible. Regardless whether it is at the front of our mind or not, all theory is rooted in philosophy, some overall view of the world.

You don’t need to look far on the internet to find eclectic philosophers, young and old. Many dislike science and prefer more of a hodgepodge of critical ideas. Many have little practical activity. Some use Marxist jargon. Others would say “Take three cups of a radical, critical theory of society (like class struggle or another choice from the smorgasbord of ideas about oppression), pour-in the methodologies of science, and a tablespoonful of scepticism for seasoning.”

Aren’t these good enough recipes?

Truthfully, no. And this debate is not insignificant. Politics and action based on false or inadequate philosophy can only lead to defeat and despair.  Even if people hit on a correct policy, unless the philosophical basis of our policy is also correct, we will make serious mistakes in carrying it through.

Most youth activists rely on a kind of gut feeling for that philosophical basis.  Common-sense, however, is notorious for being deceptive.  Neither is science alone adequate. Scientific knowledge and methodology changed radically from Galileo to Curie to Hawkins. And while science can understand reality, since reality is infinite knowledge learned from experiment is never complete.

Skeptical youth activists may be drawn to rejecting anything that presents itself as truth, but whatever thinking we do operates on the basis of general conclusions. While we can seek to wish-away philosophy, the problems posed will remain.

In this sense, constructing a theory is like constructing a house; not only must the walls be sound but also the foundations.

This article draws on and expands ideas from Philosophy and Class Struggle (South Africa, 1987) by Dialego. It is an early version of a series for People's Voice newspaper. Discussion and comments are welcome.
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