Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Theoretical Review

An Introduction to Theoretical Practice

Published: Theoretical Review, Vol. 1, No. 4, March-April 1978.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Since its inception the “new communist movement” has been caught in a contradiction of its own making. On the one hand, it has correctly recognized the source of the failure of the old communist movement to be located at the theoretical level (CPUSA–revisionism, Progressive Labor Party–dogmatism, Socialist Workers Party–Trotskyism). Paradoxically however, it has simultaneously asserted that the primary activity necessary for the construction of a new communist party should not be theoretical, but rooting itself in the masses, building a base in the workingclass, fusion, etc. The unspoken assumption behind this emphasis is the notion that the theoretical errors of the past are generally understood by the movement while the theory necessary to overcome them is already present for us in Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao. Much more difficult, so goes the assumption, is winning workers to the communist movement and building the party in the workingclass.

In one sense this assumption has been right on target. As we discuss elsewhere in this issue (see the article: The Distinguishing Features of Leninist Political Practice and especially the Theoretical Review introduction to it) the conjuncture in which communists work dictates the degree to which they will find receptive responses from broad sections of the workingclass to their activity and ideology. Given the relatively stable conjuncture of the present in which the “new communist movement” has operated from its beginning, building a base for itself in the workingclass has consequently proved to be no easy task.

But in another sense, this assumption is seriously in error when it presents the theoretical tasks of our movement as if all the means necessary to undertake them were present and accessible to us. It is argued that sufficient anti-revisionist consciousness is present in our movement as a whole and that the revolutionary principles of Marxism-Leninism are likewise available to our movement in the classics and in the practice of the movement itself. Not only available, but present in a form we can directly assimilate for our present and future needs.

The “new communist movement” is already nearly ten years old. Yet, in spite of claims to the contrary, the theoretical tasks remain as pressing as ever. No one who holds to the assumption outlined above has been able to adequately explain why our movement has so spectacularly failed (given this wealth of allegedly widespread and developed theory) to create from it a party and a program and strategy for revolution in the USA.

As long as one continues to hold to the view that the theory for a genuine communist party in the USA does not have to be produced and learned but only assimilated, one remains trapped within the theoretical failure of the “new communist movement”, and not only its theoretical failure, but its political failure, its failure as a communist movement. An alternative view, a conception of the theoretical and political tasks of our movement which starts with the primacy of theory in this period of party building, is constituted on an entirely different foundation, beginning with its very definition of theory itself.

Theory: Ideological and Scientific

Marxism-Leninism recognizes the existence of two distinct types of theory, each with its own specific characteristics and laws of development. One type is ideological theory, or theoretical ideology; the other type is scientific theory. Under capitalism theoretical ideology is the result of the effort of bourgeois philosophers, politicians and social scientists (in short bourgeois intellectuals) to organize, systematize and consciously articulate the spontaneous ideology which capitalism reproduces and disseminates.

The character of theoretical ideology is determined by the ideology of the social formation to which it corresponds and to the objective requirements of the dominant class in that social formation. The development of theoretical ideology is a process whereby certain ideological notions are accepted as givens (“man”, “free will”, “democracy”, etc.) and around which are constructed theoretical systems to which these notions appear to give meaning and coherence.

The theoretical ideology of humanism (even in its “socialist humanism” varieties) for example, begins with the abstract concept “man” as its given and constructs from it a theory of human nature and the corresponding nature of society. The bourgeois theoretical ideology liberalism, which is also a political theory, begins with the ideological notions “liberty”, “democracy”, and “property” as givens and constructs from them a defense of capitalist relations of production and bourgeois political hegemony.

Scientific theory is radically different from ideological theory. First, unlike the latter, its character is not determined by the ideology of the social formation in which it finds itself. Scientific theory is determined by its relationship to knowledge. This means that while theoretical ideology is still ideology (even if systematized), that is it only organizes ideology without transforming it; scientific theory breaks out of the mystifying circle of ideology. What for ideological theory is are givens or absolutes, for scientific theory are only elements, raw data, raw materials which have to be transformed, through a difficult process of production, into knowledge.

Marxist science, like the other sciences, and unlike bourgeois ideological theories, develops on the basis of the constant development and rectification of its methodology and conceptual system in relation to its theoretical objects. One has only to have a passing knowledge of Marx’s writings on political economy to know what he did to the notions of labor and value which the theoreticians of bourgeois economics had uncritically adopted as givens for their own work from the capitalist ideology of their day.

Instead of taking “labor” as a given, Marx transformed it entirely by constructing in its place a series of scientific concepts: labor power, abstract labor, concrete labor, etc., all located in a scientific system or problematic–historical materialist political economy. What for the bourgeois economists was no problem, since it was obvious (ideological), was for Marx precisely the problem because of its obviousness (non-scientificity).

Conclusion: the construction of scientific theory in the place of ideological theory, or rather the displacement of theory from the bourgeois ideological to the revolutionary scientific, is the meaning of Marxist theoretical practice.

On the Relationship Between Theory and Practice

To end on this conclusion, to consider it a sufficient definition of Marxist theory, would be committing a theoreticist error. For it lacks what distinguishes the Marxist science from the other sciences; it lacks the necessary relationship between theory and practice, or more correctly between theoretical practice and the other practices.

Let us be more explicit. The formulation would be theoreticist because it presents the production of scientific theory as an end in itself. It equates Marxist scientific theory with the other sciences which are organized around the production of their respective knowledges primarily as ends in themselves. Marxist science is different in this regard. For Marxism the production of scientific theory is not an end but a means. Theory is produced, not for itself, but as a guide to the practice of communists.

n this way Marxism-Leninism, in constituting itself as a science, simultaneously created a new relationship between theory and practice – a complex two-sided relationship. First, Marxism-Leninism abolishes the characteristic dichotomy existing in bourgeois thought between theory and practice by turning theory itself into a practice alongside the others. By making theory scientific instead of ideological, Marxism-Leninism makes its production the result of a determinant practice–a scientific practice–a practice of the transformation of raw materials (raw information) into a finished product (knowledge) through the application of determinant tools (scientific methodology and concepts). Theory becomes a practice alongside the others.[1]

Second, Marxism-Leninism establishes a definite relationship between theoretical practice and the other practices. The social practice of society as a whole (its economic, political, and ideological practices) provides theoretical practice with the raw data with which to work. This is what Mao meant when he said that correct ideas (and incorrect ones too, we might add) come from social practice and it alone. After transforming this data into knowledge by theoretical practice, that knowledge is returned to the other practices in the form of analyses, strategy, tactics, slogans, etc., to guide communists operating in those practices.

The function of Marxism-Leninism is to produce theory in a new scientific way to combat bourgeois ideology (1. theory itself becomes a practice) and to use that knowledge to transform the social practice of society in order to make revolution (2. theoretical practice guides the other practices). This is the two sided relationship between theory and practice, between the theoretical and the other practices. Consequently the truth of theory is tested in practice twice, first in theoretical practice and then in its guidance of the other practices.

Theory and the Conjuncture

The concept of the totality, of an organic whole which determines the position and character of the various parts which constitute it, is central to Marx’s scientific discovery. The concept “mode of production” is a totality which assigns a definite character and place to its components, the economic, political and ideological levels. Louis Althusser has argued that the constitution of that particular totality, the conjuncture, was central to Lenin’s production of a scientific (Marxist) political practice.

The conjuncture, or present moment, is the particular state of combination of the social contradictions and balance of class forces in any social formation at any particular time or period of time. The conjuncture defines the relative strength of the various classes, their forms of consciousness and struggle, their relation to each other and to the state. Since the character of the conjuncture tells communists the nature and degree of social contradiction and class struggle, it also dictates the character, forms and extent of communist intervention in the social practice of that formation.

The concept of the conjuncture embodies the unity of theoretical practice and political practice, of a scientific understanding of social reality and a scientific intervention in it. If it is to serve and extend the unity of theory and practice, all communist theoretical practice must be directed ultimately toward producing knowledge of the conjuncture and the requirements of communist intervention in it.

Given what we have just said, the failure of the “new communist movement” stands out even more sharply. For, if we ask: “precisely what is the character of the present conjuncture for US capitalism and our movement?”, and then examine the literature of our movement with this question in mind, we will come away empty handed, having found nothing which remotely approaches a theoretical answer. What is the nature of the connection between the different sectors of the world capitalist system and the connections with the USA in particular? What is the state of capital accumulation in the USA and the effect of the current struggles of the workingclass upon it? What are the prospects and options for the bourgeoisie in the present economic crisis? For the workingclass?

All these questions require answers if we are going to be able to successfully intervene in the class struggle, if we are going to have some real communist theory to guide our work, and to fuse with the workers’ movement. At this point, however, the US communist movement is not prepared to answer these questions; it is not even prepared to tackle them: for the simple reason that it has no understanding or experience in theoretical practice, in the production of theory.

Mastering Theoretical Practice

The decisive step forward for our movement will come only when it resolves to begin to master theoretical practice to produce theory and a program which alone can provide a communist foundation for the unity of US Marxist-Leninists and their party. While for much of the movement this step is a long way off (and for some an impossibility) given the entrenchment of bourgeois ideology; collectives, study groups and even individuals can begin to reorganize their work along theoretical practice lines.

As we stated above theoretical practice is the transformation of raw materials (raw information) into a final product (knowledge) through the application in a difficult process of production with specific tools (methodology, a conceptual system). Keep in mind that the key to the entire practice is the process of production itself in which the methodology and the conceptual system are the primary factor.

Starting with this basic idea, it is possible to draw up some tentative guidelines for approaching theoretical practice. Most important, given what we have just said, is the development of an understanding of the primary factor–methodology and the conceptual system. Nothing can take the place of the study of the Marxist-Leninist classics and contemporary works of Marxist-Leninist theory in this regard. By classics we mean the works of Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, and Mao. By contemporary works we mean the writings of Althusser, Bettelheim, Poulantzas and others.

In studying these works the main attention should be given to attempting to grasp, not the conclusions arrived at in them, but how such conclusions were reached. The value of a work of Marxist-Leninist theory, after one has gotten beyond the basics, can only be ascertained by a rigorous reading which examines the text with an eye to reconstructing from it the definite area of knowledge and its corresponding methodology and concepts within which the text poses its problems and derives its solutions.

For example, one can read Capital to master the method and concepts of political economy; one can read Lenin’s What is to Be Done? or Letters from Afar to master the method of Leninist political theory; one can read Althusser’s For Marx to learn the method and concepts of Marxist philosophy. Yet, present in all these works, as well, are lessons in the practice of Marxist theory as such, regardless of the specific terrain (political economy, politics, philosophy). These are lessons in the handling of ideology and raw ideas and their transformation, lessons in the use of the dialectic and in the limits of concepts, lessons on the function of concepts within a conceptual system. Mastering these lessons from the theoretical practice of others is a necessary precondition for tackling our own theoretical practice.

The next element of theoretical practice requiring discussion is the ideological information to be transformed. Bourgeois social “science” has a long and inglorious history of gathering ideas and facts, of constructing charts and statistical tables. Unfortunately many Marxists, too, have adopted the bourgeois statistical or laundry list approach and substituted it for theoretical analysis. How many groups have proved the existence of the Black nation by reprinting census figures, county population maps and government statistics on Black-owned businesses in the deep south?

It is an undeniable fact that to some degree we will have to use government figures and information and ideas gathered by the bourgeoisie or its intellectuals, in analyzing the present conjuncture. Marx did in Capital and Lenin did in The Development of Capitalism in Russia. It is our approach to this information which is all important. The central concept of the Marxist-Leninist approach to such information is that by itself, data, statistics and raw ideas and facts mean nothing. Data itself can explain nothing, it can only illustrate the knowledge produced by theoretical practice.

Information which is gathered by the bourgeoisie is information conceived, gathered, and interpreted (organized) from a bourgeois ideological perspective which informs the data and gives it its sense. Marxists cannot simply take over such information for it to become of use to us. We must transform it. We must create in its place information and ideas which function within a structure created by Marxist-Leninist scientific practice. These two points, that data by itself means nothing and that bourgeois data cannot function in a Marxist-Leninist theoretical system without being transformed, are the cornerstones of the Marxist-Leninist understanding of the utilization of information gathering.

The Production of Knowledge

Turning information into knowledge is a problem of its transformation through the working of theoretical concepts and methodology in a rigorous and disciplined scientific manner upon it. The information itself, however, cannot be the focus and starting point of theoretical practice. Instead the focus must be a theoretically defined object.

Theoretical practice begins by defining its object of study, be it a conjuncture, the degree of capital accumulation in a particular country, or the rate of profit in a particular industry. The object is defined first at the level of theory. This means that the area of knowledge in which it is located is defined and the concepts appropriate to it delineated. Thus the problem of the rate of profit in the coal industry is located within the field of the political economy of the capitalist mode of production, and the appropriate concepts (surplus value, rate of profit, production of labor power, etc.) are defined rigorously, free of bourgeois (utilitarian, neo-Ricardian) and vulgar Marxist notions.

From this starting point the wealth of general and technical data is critically examined. It is evaluated as to its character and to the degree to which it provides specific information pertaining, no longer to the general theoretical object (the rate of profit) but to the specific theoretical object (the rate of profit in the coal industry). In thus evaluating the data we have to remember that it was originally gathered to illustrate concerns other that the rate of exploitation of the coal miners. Therefore the data itself will have to be evaluated equally as to its bourgeois character, and its necessary transformation so that it can provide useful information appropriate to the new theoretical object of study.

The actual transformation of the information itself is affected by the dialectical splitting of the bourgeois conceptual content of the data, and its reconstruction (transformation) in harmony with the Marxist conceptual structure into which it must be integrated. In this way the actual factual content of the information, hitherto expressing itself through a bourgeois definition or relationship, is now transformed so that it exists in a direct relationship to a Marxist constructed theoretical object.

This having been done, the mass of the newly produced information is again critically examined as a body for the contradictions and problems it presents with regard to the theoretical objects to which it corresponds and with regard to the conjuncture to which it also corresponds. Finally the information is examined to ensure that methodologically and conceptually it functions within the Marxist-Leninist theoretical system or problematic and not in contradiction to it.

We now have made a concrete analysis both of a general theoretical object (the rate of profit) and of a specific aspect of the conjuncture (the rate of profit in the coal industry today). This analysis, and the data illustrating it, are then organized into a rigorous theoretical discourse which ties the results to the broader questions of the character and effects (economic, political and ideological) of exploitation in the coal fields on both workers and capitalists. Connections also need to be made to the broader questions of the conjuncture and its corresponding level of workers’ struggle.

Naturally the discourse must also deal with the opportunities presented by the situation of the coal miners for communist intervention in their struggles and their receptivity to communist ideas and action. After the discourse has been produced, debated and discussed by the militants connected with it, various of its components can be used to produce in turn ideological texts or popular articles to communicate its lessons to various elements with whom communists are working and where ever possible to the coal miners themselves.

Without advanced methodology and concepts, analyses become dependent on the empirical data itself and lose their theoretical character. Instead of subordinating the data, the analyses are subordinate to it. On the other hand, without the empirical data itself, analyses remain abstract, about ’things in general’, and never pertain to the specific conjuncture. In either case the process of theoretical production is halted. In either case there is not theoretical practice.

Which leads us back to our starting point. For most of the US communist movement pragmatism is the order of the day. And, what is worse, this pragmatism is practiced primarily in economist mass work. For these communists it is not a question of ideas being correct or not, it is a question of whether or not they are immediately useful in intervening in economic struggles. It is a question of their success in immediately giving communists influence in the workers’ movement.

For these communists truth is measured by success, communist organizations by their influence in the trade unions, and their theory by its relevance to the practical problems of day to day mass work.

To these forces all talk of theoretical practice as posited in this article is abstract, isolated from the workers, and even elitist. The need for genuine theory in our movement asserts itself nonetheless in the demand for unity among Marxist-Leninists, in the demand for a national movement as opposed to a series of sects, in the demand for a long term strategy for proletarian revolution, and in the demand for a Party and a program. As long as the need is there, communists will respond to it and take up the struggle for theoretical practice.


[1] “Economic practice is the transformation of nature by human labor into social products, political practice the transformation of social relations by revolution, ideological practice the transformation of one relation to the lived world into a new relation by ideological struggle.” For Marx, by Louis Althusser, p. 253.