Theory and the Left: A Nighttime Reflection

The following piece by Matthijs Krul has been re-published, with permission, from The North Star. You can check them out on Facebook here.


In this post, I intend to do something perhaps unpopular among the contemporary left: that is, to provide a conditional defense of Theory, with a capital T, and by implication the academy from the point of view of the radical left and its critiques. While the first part of this reflection will focus on the latter, this sets the stage for my discussion of the former; it is the need to defend theory for its own sake, the virtues of abstraction, and the recognition of the nature of knowledge and what this means for a radical view that animates my thoughts.

Much has been written about the ‘academic turn’ within Marxism – and radical thought more widely – as a corollary of the decline of a radical workers’ movement. Everyone is familiar with the way in which Marxism besides moved increasingly within the domain of professional theorizing from its previous points of emphasis: economic history, economic theory and political theory are less and less Marxist, whereas (at least in the Anglosphere) many Marxist academics have either abandoned it altogether or sought refuge in the ‘safer’ domains of literary criticism, cultural studies and so forth. This is, however, in a certain sense a battle within the academy, and takes its institutional framework for granted. While I believe that this shift is a major part of the defeat of Marxism in the 20th century, both as cause and effect, this is not the view in many parts of the contemporary left. Rather, it is often questioned whether academia itself is a worthwhile thing for Marxists to pursue and to engage with, and more strongly, whether Marxism today does not suffer from an excess of theory compared to a paucity of practice. The academic left is easily blamed for this perceived state of affairs; not just individually as Marxists, but especially as those responsible for perpetuating Marxism’s academic turn in the first place. Everyone is probably familiar with the exasperated activist’s complaint that all these supposed Marxists are just writing abstract stuff in the ivory tower and that they should come down to join the streets for a picket or a placard instead.

In order to provide some different thoughts on this topic, let me first make an important distinction, one I think is often wrongly missed in discussions about the role of academia in and for the left. We must distinguish between the academy as an institution, a part of the division of labor of capitalist society, and the academy as the form in our present times of more universal human pursuits. While these are in our society one and the same thing, they can be analytically distinguished. By this I mean: one can certainly critique the academy institutionally, with its rules, practices, procedures and norms. But one must take care not to dismiss its raison d’être and how it expresses this in our times. For good or for ill (and I think both are present), academia is essentially the only institution in our life-world that is dedicated to the pursuit of human understanding for its own sake. Those who, like me, are still wedded to the idea that the greatest pursuit of humanity is its coming to self-understanding should not lightly dismiss the significance of academia in this sense.

It is in principle possible, of course, to be an independent scholar, but with enormous barriers to entry very few succeed at this and those who do are overwhelmingly of independent means. (E.P. Thompson retired early on his independent income, for example.) Similarly, while a large section of the value produced in our society that is spent on research is spent on R&D and technological applications, this is done within the context of corporate pursuit of profit; it is rare that any kind of theorizing or ‘blue sky thinking’ is funded in this way, and when it is, it is generally still within the narrow realm of applied natural science. For Theory with a capital T, one has to be at the universities and nowhere else in our present times.

Of course, it could be objected that in the era of neoliberalism the universities themselves have increasingly been hitched to the wagon of the coercive market. This is undeniable, and a deeply worrying trend for many within and without the universities. But this also reveals something about the nature of the academy as a social institution of modernity. The unprecedented aggression against universities and their students in the form of inducing competition by impact scores, vast increases in tuition fees, and so forth, are themselves an indication of how the academy’s own aims and structures were not already fully part of the logic of capitalist reproduction. Indeed, often universities – especially at lower-level degrees – have functioned as higher level skills training for the workforce that capital increasingly came to demand in the postwar boom. But beside this, the university was and is still also something else, something which envisions human aims beyond the quantifiable and the commodifiable, and it is precisely this that the neoliberal offensive attempts to destroy. In the context of a larger war on education, the university is one of the last strongholds of the humanistic spirit, one fundamentally irreconcilable with the spirit of accumulation – which for capital is “Moses and all the prophets”.

Elitism, the Academy, and the Left

This too could be objected to: hasn’t the university always been an elite institution, both by and for elites? Much of the left’s skepticism towards the academy is a byproduct of the great anti-authoritarian and anti-elite revolts in the 1960s and 1970s against what one could call the Western consensus of the Party of Order and Reconstruction after WWII. This rebellion against the legitimacy of elites was a tremendous step forward in consciousness and practice, and that it has left a residue of distrust of institutions seen as serving social differentiation and legitimizing certain kinds of authority is by no means to be lamented. Moreover, it is fundamentally historically right. Originally this humanistic spirit I refer to was politically speaking the spirit of the lay and clerical bureaucracies of state and church, reformed in the 19th century to serve the purposes of enlarging the prestige of competing European powers in the sphere of knowledge. There is no need to romanticize its origins. But the remarkable thing is that unlike in the period of the rise of the workers’ movement in the West, the contemporary left critique of the academy is not phrased in terms of wanting to open up these institutions to popular participation – to take up their aims and contrast these with their state-bureaucratic practice.

The frequent implicit or explicit suggestions that the pursuit of theoretical abstractions or general principles is harmful, elitist, or at best unhelpful to the ‘real struggles on the ground’ is impossible to square with the traditional critique, which was that the universities should be opened up more to the working class and serve the interests of the working class. One would have to condescendingly and wrongly assume that the ideal-type worker has no capacity for and no interest in theory, and that such pursuits can never serve the workers’ movement. In essence, this contemporary critique is a conservative critique, one which in pursuing the aim of exiting the left from academia is otherwise content to leave the theorizing to the theorists, and let the workers do the working, struggling, and so forth. I do not think the left should aim to reproduce this division of labor, but rather to overcome it. Instead of arguing against the academy as such, thereby dismissing its content as well as its form, we would do better to aim to change the form to make its content a possibility for all: rather than the obscurantist notion that nobody should pursue Theory for its own sake, it should be desired that everyone, or as many people as are willing and capable, can do so.

This is no illusion: a useful analogous example can be found in Dutch history. In the Netherlands, the independent gymnasia were traditionally the highest levels of secondary education, with classical education at a high standard and with a reputation for both producing elites and having an elite student body. When educational reform became a big topic in the context of the 1960s and 1970s, various New Left figures from the Dutch Labour Party and from liberal parties suggested to abolish the gymnasia and merge them with the other types of schools, arguing that the gymnasia were an elitist institution and therefore contrary to the aims of the left. But in this, they were vigorously opposed by Marcus Bakker, the leader of the Communist Party of the Netherlands (and himself of an impeccable working class background and without a university education). He is said to have exclaimed in frustration during the parliamentary debate: “Finally the children of the working class can go to the gymnasia as well as the elite. And what do they do? They abolish them!”

The Virtues of Abstraction

In order to strengthen this argument, something must also be said about this concept of Theory itself. I do not think that many on the left have any issues with the ideal type of the worker-intellectual, nor with the concept of free and open universities (and indeed there has been much experimenting with this among leftist students, in the 1960s and now). But it seems to me, and I say this in the spirit of ‘whoever fits the shoe should put it on’, that this vague notion is rarely reconciled with the hostility of many activists to the concept of theory itself and its value beyond ‘applications for the struggle’ or the like. Some of this is perhaps a result of the distrust not just of elitist institutions, but also of the legacy of Leninist forms of Marxism which – fairly or not – have often been seen as operating on the basis of one infamous sentence in “What is to be Done?”: where Lenin (following Kautsky) proclaimed the need for the workers’ movement to acquire its theory from without. This has by hostile interpreters (within and without the left) been seen as the roots of the often arrogant, manipulative, and indeed elitist practices of Leninist ‘vanguardism’. The conclusion would then be that theory should not come from without, or cannot come from without, and that therefore legitimate theory is something produced by activists in the course of their struggle rather than by those paid to produce abstractions. And some find support for this attitude – I think often more tacitly present than consciously voiced – in Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” and its emphasis on knowledge as self-transformation in practice, as well as perhaps certain interpretations of Gramsci.

But Theory with a big T, i.e. in the sense of abstractions and laws not immediately reducible to or intuitive from singular everyday phenomena, is far from innocent of consequences for any political practice. There are three ways in which this is true that I want to explore here. The first is because of the politics involved in the intra-academic struggles themselves. The structure of the academy is determined by its staff, those who – in the sense of the Third Thesis – do the teaching. As universities have increasingly become competitive institutions, the struggles over who runs what department, what the curricula are, hiring and firing decisions, the editors of high-ranking journals, the rankings of said journals, and so forth, are all part and parcel of the political struggle of the academy.

What’s more, these political struggles are no less politics of the workplace than are those of the shopfloor or the retail experience. They have, if anything, a greater political dimension because of the impact of university work on the world: not just the transformations wrought by new technologies and discoveries in natural sciences, but equally the ideological and theoretical resources and vocabularies that are the form of expression of any political struggle. As Marx said, “the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which people become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.” This is not a terrain that should be ceded to our enemies, especially not in the era of the general weakness of the left.

It could perhaps be argued that such struggles reproduce, regardless of the subjective intentions of those involved, the elitist structure of the university, and thereby reproduce capitalism. This goes all the more so for the general distrust – again, not an inherently harmful one – of those who are paid to think and write, which expresses a justified opposition to the strong mental/manual differentiation in the modern division of labor. (Indeed, as Marx suspected, the onslaught of modernity’s technological transformation of the world brings with it a deepening rather than an overcoming of this differentiation.) But of course, so does all labor under capitalism, and especially the work of those producing surplus value – as Marx noted, it is a misfortune rather than a blessing to be a worker who is ‘productive’ from the point of view of capital. It is precisely the definition of the subsumption of our social relations under capitalism that their practice reproduces it. This accusation is therefore not wrong, but equally redounds on those who make it, and is therefore too general to be useful. The history of the movements to democratize the universities in the West has shown, I think, that it is both much more difficult to overcome this differentiation than expected and that it is worth doing.

That said, this brings me to my second point about the significance of Theory. This has to do with the consequences of theoretical debates. Of course it is, or at least should be, a banality to say that academic disputes make a difference to the practice of radical politics. But the left has also often been characterized by a tendency to anti-intellectualism, something that goes back to its very origins in the struggles of 1848 – something which manifests itself in a selective appreciation of theoretical work. That is to say, for many of the ‘activistic’ left, this or that favored radical author can pass muster as inspiration for particular struggles or for understanding personal experiences and their translation into a political register: one can think here of the theorists of autonomism, or social reproduction feminist theory, the various canonical figures of the Marxist party left, and so forth. But this does often not then translate into a regard for the process and the practical status of theorizing and its institutional requirements.

Indeed, Marx was never an academic, and neither was Engels, and neither were many of the great figures of the history of Marxism. But few who have studied the way Marx moved in his own time and thought from his early observations in newspapers and political debates to the culmination of his life’s work in Capital and its associated manuscripts can doubt that this would have been impossible without Theory and its auxiliaries: from his use of the collection of the British Museum Reading Room to the much-praised statistical and practical studies of the factory inspectors, from the theoretical works of the British and French political economists to the studies of Charles Darwin, Lewis Morgan, or the like. It is a curious fact how it is accepted as a commonplace that everyone engaged with a subject stands on the shoulders of giants when it comes to the theories and discoveries of natural science; but in the humanities and social sciences, theory as part of the process of such work (even for radicals) is routinely derided.

The same goes for its practical implications. One would be hard put saying that it does not matter whether Marx was right or wrong about his claims about the social and historical world; the same is just as true, if sometimes by aggregation, about the many scholars working today in all the fields of the social sciences. Of course, in Marx’s time it was probably more possible than now for a genius to achieve a kind of general overview over scientific knowledge and to do so outside academic constraints. But geniuses are few and far between, and the promotion of a view of the accumulation of self-understanding as occasional geniuses, legitimated after their time, and in between a need to focus on the ‘practical’ is precisely a conservative one, not one of the left. We cannot rely on geniuses, so we must construct a collective genius. This can only be done by accumulating and integrating the work of the many, and this in turn requires that we take theorizing seriously as a pursuit and a contribution to this end in its own right.

One practical example can be offered here. Marx’s value theory has often been the most disliked part of his work, and outside a relatively small number of Marxist (or Marxian) economists, the general tendency even for left scholars and scholar-activists has been to either dismiss it as outdated 19th century verbiage or ignore it as irrelevant to practical work. Who cares about this abstraction, this Theory with a capital T, if we know who the enemy is? And yet, as Alan Freeman makes clear in his admirable history of the vagaries of Marx’s value theory, this neglect has had considerable consequences both within and outside the academy. This attitude, that Freeman calls “Marxism Without Economics”, “regards this as matter of no consequence. The real importance of Marx’s contribution, they say, lies not in his arcane economic theory but in his political analysis: his theory of class, historical materialism, culture, psychology and so on. But if Bortkiewicz’s theory [a classic critique of and alternative to Marx’s value theory, MK] is used, not only Marx’s theory of exploitation is lost but his theory of class. If the income of the capitalists derives from a source other than labor, they no longer depend for their existence on the laborers. Following the thread of theoretical dependency the fabric of historical materialism, followed by all his main social, political and historical conclusions, unravels.”

In other words, on these apparent minutiae of value theory, perhaps a paradigmatic case of ivory tower Theorizing for many on the left, very much indeed depends – if we are willing to take it seriously, as Marx did. Marx’s entire argument regarding labor and exploitation depends entirely on his value theory. As Freeman says, if you give away his value theory and replace it with marginalism, or some approximations or empirical claims about inequality and so forth, you give away his framework for demonstrating why capitalism is exploitative, what the role of the working class is, how capitalism reproduces itself, etc. Basically, you concede what makes Marxism Marxism. Why should we do this? Surely it cannot be for the sake of ‘practice’, since radical practice is not aided by ceding the whole terrain of its purpose, its justification in our own eyes as much as anyone else’s, to the opposition. Indeed, none of this is to suggest that one should stick with orthodox theory forever, or with received opinion. Rather the contrary: the very act of challenging received theories is already predicated on taking them seriously as theories, i.e. on believing that it matters whether they apply or not. (This also does not require, in my mind, a ‘realist’ theory of truth and representation, but that’s a subject for another time.)

On Uncertainty

This brings me to my final point, and perhaps the one that is for me most important in this discussion, and – going by my impressions – the least appreciated within the left, whether Marxist, anarchist, or whatever else. This has to do with the status of theory under conditions of uncertainty. It is a part of the human condition that in our life-world and our comprehension of it there is a great deal of uncertainty. It is indeed this lack of certain knowledge, not a lack of theories, that has propelled humanity forward in attempting to understand and thereby control and change our environment; and through our environment, ourselves. This has always entailed a need for abstraction, to understand a reality behind the everyday appearances of things, which intuitively seems random, uncontrolled, and uncontrollable – a few straggling humans in a state of stark terror under the naked sky. It is this uncertainty that from the origins of humanity has produced our desire as well as our need to know not just what things are, but what this might mean. “All science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.”

One can read the history of (natural) philosophy and the development of natural and social sciences in a more or less Whiggish way, and believe in the cumulative nature of knowledge to a greater or lesser degree. I don’t intend to revisit these debates in the history and philosophy of science here. Rather, I want to emphasize that even with our greatly enhanced knowledge and our endlessly multiplied powers of control and change over our environment (and ourselves), we still live under conditions of uncertainty. Difficult as it is to develop a theory that has explanatory power, it always more difficult still to prove that it has that ineffable virtue over competing theories and views, that peculiar kind of applicability that goes beyond prediction alone, that we call truth. This is a fortiori true in the social sciences, where we are by the nature of the subject robbed of almost all possibilities of experimentation and controls, which does not necessarily lend them a qualitative difference to the natural sciences (‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ or other masculinist phrases), but do greatly reduce their precision and our degree of practical certainty in the smallest elements of the theory. And if the many debates in philosophy of science have shown anything at all, then it is surely to make apparent to everyone how difficult and contested a process the ‘testing’ of theories really is, and equally how necessary these tests (and their contestations) are, given our world of uncertainty.

In one of the last episodes of his series “The Ascent of Man”, a series whose gendered title does not do justice to the inspirational and humanistic qualities of its content, the series presenter Jacob Bronowski – a genius in his own right, mathematician and Blake expert alike – visits the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. For someone with the name Jacob Bronowski, one can imagine what this means, and indeed what this symbolizes for all of us. All the episodes of the series have a theme, and Bronowski chose for this episode the theme of uncertainty. For Bronowski, the Nazis represented not the absolute of evil, which is a theological concept, nor the absolute of wrongness, which is impossible to say. They represented the absolute of certainty. The greatest danger, says Bronowski here, is the danger of false certainty.

What Bronowski then does in this camp is stunningly moving, and a lesson I would impart on everyone in the left when I try to speak, in however flawed a way, about the meaning and importance of Theory. After going to the muddy pool at the back, where the ashes of a million victims of the Holocaust were thrown as if the very residue of history itself, he returns once more to the theme of uncertainty. And here he quotes Oliver Cromwell, who in arguing with the Synod of the Presbyterians in Scotland – men of absolute certainty in their own right, certain of their views and of the righteousness of their cause – wrote the following: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken!” His final words of the episode, bent over this pool of mud representing the death of a million, are to implore the viewer not to seek false certainty, but rather to use the powers of thought and theory to move people. This is the work of thinking and writing, of human communication, not that of the certainty of action.

I say this not as a form of emotional blackmail or to appropriate someone else’s grief. Rather, I say this because I feel this lesson has been ill taken by the radical left, who least of all can afford to ignore it. I include in this just as strongly the left that rejects the legacy of ‘really existing socialism’ as those who claim that legacy. Nor is the pursuit of a middling centrism the intended outcome of this parable, as so many ex-Marxists have claimed. What I mean to say is this: we need to take seriously our uncertainty about our knowledge on the left. We may have strong moral views and personal experiences that propel us politically in this or that direction. But when it comes to any political activity at all, anything which aims to change the world not just for ourselves but also for (and on behalf of) others, we must take the problem of uncertainty seriously. It is baffling and frustrating to me how often false appeals to certainty are made on the left, as much in internal disputes as with those critics from outside. But equally it is incomprehensible how people can argue against the importance of taking the methods, justifications, and consequences of theories seriously, favoring instead the importance of ‘action’.

I am of course all for the unity of theory and praxis, that idée fixe of the left, and everyone else when challenged will claim the same commitment. But this must have some real content. And for me, the first and foremost guiding principle of this must be the possibility that we are wrong, and the recognition that we do not know as much as we might think about the social world, and that the more we think we know something to be right, the more we must ask the question how we know this. How we know what we think we know is for myself the most interesting and indeed eminently practical question that could possibly be asked in any human endeavour that aims at something universal, or even just anything that regards not just the self, but also the other.

One can put this very practically. It is of course easy to say: why do all this abstract stuff, when there is a strike to go to? When there’s a picket to run? When there’s the Party to build? When there’s a war going on? And so forth. But whatever we do in any of these, this may yet be wrong. We may be wrong to build the Party. We may be wrong to go on strike. We may be wrong about exploitation, about human nature, about politics, about the possibility of change, about the history of the world. It is both intellectually and practically inconceivable that this possibility of being wrong, this uncertainty, should make no difference to our politics – including the politics of everyday life. We need not celebrate this uncertainty, as neoliberalism is said to do, and as indeed the orthodox economists accept. But we must recognize its consequences.

“Philosophy is its own time comprehended in thought”, it has been said. Indeed, I think all human thinking that aspires to generality, that achieves abstraction, can be said to be this. With the passing of this time, the thought that underlay our actions, our practical struggles, our battles in politics and every sphere of life may come to be seen in a very different light than we see them now. And with the passing of more time still all thought may indeed be superseded by other thought as long as humans exist, and in each case we look upon our place in the world and the possibilities and meanings of our actions anew – it is a process we, as homo sapiens, the knowing human, cannot do without. We may be the only part of the universe, ancient and vast, to have the possibility of self-knowledge; a possibility predicated on the uncertainty that forces us to realize it. Outside us there is the enormity of darkness. Before us there was darkness, and after we are gone, there shall only be darkness. So do not dismiss theory for its own sake too lightly, in whatever form it may be imprisoned by our political and social institutions. Because all our works may pass to dust, our statues crumble, our names forgotten. But what remains as long as our species does is the valiant attempt at chipping away, bit by bit, increment by increment, at the cage of uncertainty in which our minds are imprisoned. Dixi et salvavi animam meam.