From Socialist Voice, September 2009

Workers need political theory

The main difference between the present global crisis and the previous one eighty years ago is the absence of a relatively united left with an alternative to capitalism, in practice and theory. The Cold War saw off the existence of the USSR as the main practical alternative, but the battle over theory continues. Indeed many a right-winger will know the difference between the Marxist movement and Marxist thought.
     The last thing capitalists want is for workers to develop their own theories, ideas, or class consciousness. Capitalism is defended as the natural development of “human nature.” It dictates that when everybody (including workers) is free to pursue their own selfish interests, the “neutral” market will act as the great regulator.
     In fairness, this is a fantastic idea—in theory. Such a theory claims that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” or that greater wealth creation will have a “trickle-down” effect that will benefit everyone. Leaving aside such watery metaphors, this gigantic pyramid scheme is presented as structurally sound by those at the top, or those who wish to be.
     That said, the purpose of this article is a repeat call for workers to develop our own theories and, once developed, to put them into practice. Theory, however, as described by Richard Hyman, “is seen as something indulged in by people in armchairs or in ivory towers, a luxury which practical men [or women] cannot afford.” He continues: “Explicit theoretical discussion and argument which seeks to locate individual happenings in their broader context can inform and illuminate action: it is thus a highly practical activity.” (Emphasis in the original.)
     Theory is often dismissed as a form of navel-gazing and thus removed from the practicalities of real life, from reality. However, theory is nothing more than the realignment of thought with reality, and practice is nothing more than the realignment of reality with thought.
     Notwithstanding such realignment, some opponents of communism claim that it is “fine in theory but can’t work in practice,” because of “human nature,” as mentioned above. Howard Selsam scoffed at the notion that “human nature is human nature.” He described such a statement as tautology.
     He continued: “The slogan ‘You can’t change human nature’ is today simply a key device for maintaining the existing economic and political structure . . .”
     In response to the existing economic and political order, the distinguished Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called on workers to engage in “wars of position” to challenge the dominance of capitalist theory. When workers fail to create their own theory they end up taking someone else’s fundamentals for granted, and thus “are more interested in the state of the roads than their place on the map.” Such social questioning is not self-indulgent theorising but can lead us to convince ourselves that “what is” need not mean “what must be.”
     When workers are “asked” to accept wage cuts or are made redundant in order to “develop their career opportunities,” the last thing the employer wants is for their workers to have a collective consciousness. Far better for the employer if the work force responds with a collection of individual wants than with the want of collective action. For example, workers are distracted into fighting (where they can) for improved redundancy terms rather than resisting the principle of job cuts in the first place.
     Workers will suffer in this crisis because they have failed to develop an alternative consciousness, an alternative theory to the status quo. Capitalists, by their nature, are in competition with each other in the short term. The weaker will go to the wall, and the stronger will survive and indeed prosper. The result will be a lowering of wages and an increase in unemployment—a cheaper and a more replaceable worker, respectively. Therefore the current crisis is only a crisis within capitalism, not a crisis of capitalism. The employed and unemployed workers will pay the price for the readjustment within capitalism.
     The alternative is for workers collectively to develop their own ideas and put them into practice—for a realignment of their thoughts with their own reality. But isn’t that just theory?
[JC]

Fox, Alan, “Beyond contract: Work, power and trust relations,” in Mary Weir (ed.), Job Satisfaction, Glasgow: Fontana, 1976.
Gramsci, Antonio, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2005.
Hyman, Richard, Industrial Relations: A Marxist Introduction, London: Macmillan Press, 1975.
Selsam, Howard, What Is Philosophy?: A Marxist Introduction, New York: International Publishers, 1938.
Tawney, R. H., The Acquisitive Society, London: Fontana, 1961.

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