Chris Harman

Thinking it through

From common sense to good sense

(January 2005)

From Socialist Review, No.292, January 2005.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

What is the role of complex ideas in the day to day struggle? Chris Harman, editor of International Socialism, explains

’Practice without theory is blind, theory without practice is sterile.’ What is the relevance of this old adage today? That is something I have had to think about since I switched jobs five months ago. After working on our popular weekly paper, Socialist Worker, for 30 of the last 34 years, I took over the editorship of International Socialism, our ‘quarterly journal of socialist theory’.

The general issue is discussed very well in the section of Gramsci’s prison notebooks called ‘the study of philosophy’ – although as with all of his prison writings, Gramsci was forced to use deliberately obscure language at points so as to prevent his guards knowing what he was referring to.

The hotchpotch of notions

His starting point is that most people’s ideas are shaped by a hotchpotch of differing and sometimes contradictory notions. These flow from the interaction between people’s experiences and the prejudices of the society they live in. The hotchpotch is what is usually referred to as common sense. But in fact it makes it difficult for people to fully understand the forces shaping their lives and the possibilities of confronting them. Activists who say they do not need theory, and follow the dictates of common sense are, in reality, failing to take the effort to understand the world and their place in it.

At the other pole are specialist intellectuals who are involved in erudite discussions with other intellectuals. If they do not attempt to relate such debates to what is happening in society at large, they can easily fall into ‘Byzantinism’ or ‘scholasticism’ – ‘the regressive tendency to treat so called theoretical questions as if they had a value in themselves, independently of any specific practices’. But theoretical questions are never just that. They arise precisely because different groups of intellectuals reflect the experience of living in a certain society in different ways – some by identifying with that society and usually benefiting accordingly, others by rejecting it to varying degrees. The second group tend to develop critical notions that go against existing ‘common sense’. But they often do so while still believing that ideas generate ideas without any connection with the material world in which people live and think. They continue to see theory and practice as two completely different realms. The struggle to change the world can only be effective if the connection between the two is re-established.

Those active in day to day struggles have continually to try to clarify their ideas. They have, Gramsci writes, to try to separate out and bring into coherence those elements emerging from struggle that unite them ‘with their fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world’. By doing this, they fasten onto a new view of the world which raises the possibility of self-emancipation and drives out prejudices that bind people to existing society. There has to be a struggle to replace ‘common sense’ by ‘good sense’. This cannot take place without continual confrontation on the ideological as well as the practical plane.

Gramsci points out that there is always a hierarchy of arguments. Existing society with its long working hours and poor educational facilities rules out a worker activist being able to become an expert on every aspect of every argument. He or she will take up certain points, but can easily be browbeaten by the paid apologists for the other side over some important issues. But the worker can usually follow an argument sufficiently to see that one of the more experienced people on their side can beat the best apologists on the other side.

‘The man of the people thinks that so many like-minded people can’t be wrong, as the man against whom he is arguing would like him to believe; while he himself is not able to uphold and develop his arguments, in his group there is someone who could do so. He has no concrete memory of the reasons and could not repeat them, but he knows the reasons exist because he has heard them expounded.’

So the argument takes place at various levels. It is put across in the simplest terms in the workplace or locality. But those putting it across can only do so with conviction because they have seen it argued at a more sophisticated level against the ideologists of the other side.

To take a simple current example. One of the major arguments against socialism is the claim that human nature is intrinsically selfish and warlike. The socialist worker in the factory or office is faced with people putting this argument who will refer to ideas they have heard on television about ‘naked apes’, ‘territorial imperatives’ and ‘selfish genes’. The worker can only hold his or her own with confidence if they have seen people on their side take on these arguments at a high level, even if they personally cannot do so.

The specialist intellectuals of the left can play a role in this, providing they see that the debate with other intellectuals is not simply for the sake of debate, but is part of an ideological struggle. What takes place at one level (for instance, in a journal of socialist theory) can have an impact at another level (in terms of the credibility of the arguments of the popular socialist paper). This means using the most refined theoretical tools to confront other ideas, though not as ‘traditional intellectuals’ operating in a purely intellectual space, but as ‘organic intellectuals’, tied to one side in the class struggle.

The role of the intellectuals is not, however, simply to justify the arguments carried out by the activists. It is also to develop their understanding, so as to raise the level of the struggle.

‘If it [Marxism] affirms the need for contact between the intellectuals and ‘simple’, it is not in order to restrict scientific activity and preserve unity at the low level of the masses, but precisely in order to construct an intellectual-moral bloc that can make possible the intellectual progress of the masses and not only of small intellectual groups.’

There has to be the utmost theoretical rigour in taking up and confronting ideas. But at the end of the day the only test of these ideas is their efficacy in changing the world. The ‘proof’ of the ‘universality ‘ of a ‘theoretical truth’ consists ‘precisely in it becoming a stimulus to better knowing concrete reality’ and to ‘incorporate itself in this reality’. It cannot do so without making connections with practical struggle.

The postmodern downturn

Gramsci’s account is particularly important today, because the revival in struggles against the system over the last five years takes place against a background in which the divorce of theory from practice often became extreme. What we have called the ‘downturn’ – the defeats and demoralisation of the 1980s – created a climate in which talk of revolution or of working class self-emancipation came to seem unreal to many activists from earlier years. At the same time, however, the expansion of higher education absorbed a considerable number of those activists. A layer influenced by Marxism began to rise up the academic hierarchies just as the struggle to transform the world in a Marxist sense went into decline. Some soon made an adjustment of their own, moving in stages to embrace a theoretical system, postmodernism, that denied the possibility of using theory to grasp the real world at all and used the most obtuse language to bedazzle people with its sleight of hand.

Others held out in besieged enclaves, continuing to use bits of Marxist terminology. But they did so by increasingly adapting themselves to the academic industry, with its extreme fragmentation of disciplines, its tendency to produce papers to comment on papers by other academics and its reliance on obscure terminology. Academic Marxism survived even while the Marxist movement stagnated in some countries and virtually disappeared in others.

This is part of the legacy for the present new wave of anti-war anti-capitalist radicalisation. It can be a positive one, in that there are many thousands of people worldwide who regard themselves as Marxists and have access to the intellectual tools needed to combat the ideologists of the other side and to advance the understanding of the new movements. An indication of the way some people in the academic world are pulled by the new radicalism to an interest in Marxism was shown by three day schools in London at the end of last year. But for this interest to make a positive contribution to the struggle there has to be a break with the negative side, the Byzantinism and the obtuseness.

Marxist intellectuals have much to contribute to the development of the new wave of opposition to the system. To do so they have to learn as much as they can from the studies carried out in the academic milieu. But they also have to learn to explain these things in as intelligible a way as possible, so that people who are not from that academic milieu (or, for that matter, are from a different academic discipline) can understand them.

This does not mean trying to reduce Marxist intellectual debate to just being a defence of established orthodoxies or of the immediate tactical turns in the struggle. Such things are necessary. Many of the supposedly ‘new’ arguments against the possibilities of socialism or the efficacy of the Marxist method are simply old arguments regurgitated, and should be treated as such. But there is also an important creative job for Marxist theory. There are new trends in the capitalist system that need analysing, and new forms of resistance to it that need to be generalised.

Nor does it mean that Marxists can always simply use terminology that everyone understands. If you are trying to refute reactionary interpretations of gene theory, you have to use the terminology of gene theory. Similarly, if you want to deal with the supposedly most sophisticated ‘refutations’ of Marx’s analysis of exploitation and capitalist accumulation (his labour theory of value) you have to go into the mathematics of the ‘transformation problem’ (i.e. of how values express themselves in relations to prices). So there have to be some arguments that can necessarily seem remote from the latest battles on the factory floor or in Iraq. In every case there has to be an effort to re-engage with those involved in the practical struggle to change the world.

The task of bringing theory and practice together is not always an easy one. The chain of connections binding one to the other will not always be short. But it has to exist. That is why we have three interconnected publications – Socialist Worker, which should be accessible to everyone interested in beginning to fight the system; Socialist Review, which deals with things in greater depth; and International Socialism, which is prepared to take on arguments and analyses in all their complexities.

You can go so far in the practical and ideological struggle just with one or the other. But truly to confront the system, you need the range of coverage you can only get from all three. You need to go full spectrum.

Last updated on 27 December 2009