People who are committed to radical social change and who are trying to work towards that goal, whether as community, union or campus activists or supporters of a left-wing candidate, are sometimes skeptical when people like me say that we need theory. If we’re building the fight for $15 and Fairness, organizing against the racist far right, campaigning against sexual assault, or supporting Niki Ashton’s bid to lead the federal NDP, do we really need social theory?
The first thing to recognize is that all of us already have social theory, whether we realize it or not. We all have ideas about how society works even if we’ve never read a book about it. Everyone who’s working for social change has ideas about making change. That’s what social theory is: explanations of how society works and how social change happens.
Most people’s ideas about these things are a mixture of what we’ve heard from people we know, been told by teachers or other persons whose views we pay attention to, picked up from the mainstream media, and learned from our own personal experiences. But often we don’t realize how we’ve come to believe what we do. Also, our thinking is often inconsistent – for example, someone might believe that capitalism and inequality exist because humans are naturally competitive. Yet at the same time this person is cooperating with some of their coworkers to unionize the place where they work because they’re fed up with how they’re being treated by management.
People know their own experience very well. Our personal experience is a valuable source of insights about how our society works, at least for the great majority of people who endure sexism, racism, and/or another form of oppression as well as 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. Most people don’t have a good handle on such questions as what capitalism is, how it’s intertwined with different kinds of oppression, the relationship between the state and capitalism, and what the most effective ways of fighting for change are.
Does this really matter? It’s true that you don’t need to understand capitalism to unionize your workplace, and you don’t need to know what patriarchal gender relations are to force your student union executive to put resources into hard-hitting feminist education for students about sexual assault. You can want capitalism to be replaced with a better system even if you don’t understand very well how capitalism works.
But to grasp why it’s so damaging for union officials to buy into employers’ plans for competitiveness, why educational campaigns alone won’t put an end to rape, and what keeps capitalism going we need ways of thinking systematically about how society is organized. In other words, we need social theory. A good theory of how state power operates in a capitalist society helps people organizing for reforms to craft a strategy that can win. A good theory of what kind of party the NDP is will help us to understand why the party has never worked to build social movements. Without this kind of theory we’ll draw the wrong conclusions when governments headed by left-wing leaders who promise real change fail to deliver, and when the NDP tries to channel the energy of protest into preparing for the next election. It makes a big difference if we look at the low level of active support among non-indigenous working-class people for indigenous efforts to decolonize Canada and conclude that the working class here will never fight to transform society or if we reject that conclusion (as I do). We need a good theory of the working class and settler-colonial capitalism to help us here.
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 towards that goal?” Too many people give up fighting for radical change because their expectations – founded on faulty assumptions – 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 you face another question: what kind? Most social theory today is written by academics for other academics or upper-level university students because their jobs require them to publish books or articles. Most of it has a far from radical outlook on the status quo. The questions it asks are often of little interest to radicals. This is why many activists are turned off by theory. Most of it is useless for efforts to change society for the better. Theory that is potentially more useful is often written in ways that are hard for most people who haven’t studied social theory in university to understand. But it’s a mistake to think all theory is like that, or to assume that theory has to be written in an academic way.
So what kind of theory do radicals need? For starters, it has to begin from a global recognition of all forms of oppression (gender, racial, imperialist, settler-colonial, sexual, of the disabled…) and of how everyone who directly produces goods and services — from impoverished peasants in the South to the highest-waged workers in the North – is subordinated to employers in various ways. Before thinking systematically about these things, it has to deeply appreciate that they’re real and harmful. 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 in reality class never exists separately from different kinds of oppression.
The theory we need has to do more than analyze the exploitation and oppression we face. It also has to help us see where potential power to change society is and how it can be organized. It should allow us to identify weaknesses in the system we’re fighting so we can take advantage of them. Our theory has to be able to recognize the hidden potential for a society beyond capitalism that has come to exist under capitalism – a possible future in the present – and be useful for developing political strategy.
All this rules out most approaches to social theory. Most aren’t theories against oppression and exploitation. None of the most influential schools of thought in the social sciences fit the bill, from evolutionary psychology to neoclassical economics (and most of its critics). Nor do theories that are against class exploitation or one or two kinds of oppression but don’t try to provide an integrated theory of and against them all.
Another quality of the theory we need is that it should be materialist. This doesn’t have anything to do with being preoccupied with money or what money can buy. Materialist theory, in the words of the socialist writer George Novack, acknowledges that “Everything comes from matter and its movements and is based upon matter. This thought is expressed in the phrase: ‘Mother Nature’… nature is the ultimate source of everything in the universe from the galactic systems to the most intimate feelings and boldest thoughts of homo sapiens.” Materialism is the alternative to idealism. Idealism comes in many varieties, include theories that talk of “Western” and “Muslim” cultures with fixed essences and theories that treat ideas as the driving force of history.
The theory we need must also be historical. It has to be very sensitive to the ways societies have changed over time. So much of what most people today take for granted as “just the way things are” or think is natural isn’t natural at all and hasn’t always existed. Male domination and the division of society into exploiting and exploited classes have only existed since the late Neolithic Era (roughly 4500-3000 BCE). Capitalism only emerged in England in the 1400s and didn’t become dominant there for another two centuries. Racial oppression was spread around the world by Europeans’ capitalist colonialism. For people to live with a “heterosexual,” “homosexual” or “bisexual” “orientation” is even more recent.
To be most useful, the theory should be critical, not dogmatic. Some theory that has the positive 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 with the necessary qualities 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 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 (my name for this fusion is reconstructed historical materialism).
In my book We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society I’ve tried to introduce this approach and use it to answer some of the questions on the minds of activists today. I’ve tried to do this as clearly as I can, so that people who aren’t academic researchers can understand the ideas. Social theory is too important to be left to the academic publishing industry. Radicals need to read and use theory (which sometimes involves writing) to change the world.
David Camfield lives in Winnipeg and is a member of Solidarity Winnipeg.
Elements of this article appeared in a shorter piece published on the Briarpatch website.