by DAVID CAMFIELD / October 16, 2017
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
Originally published by Briarpatch Magazine (blog).
This is a difficult time for activists in Canada. There are few strikes and protests, and even fewer wins. We haven’t seen the kind of radicalization that’s been expressed in support for Sanders in the U.S. and Corbyn in the U.K. Organizing for change is a hard slog, and organizers are sometimes skeptical when people like me say that we need theory. Some people see it as a mistake to devote time to learning theory that could instead be spent mobilizing people for urgent actions. Still, I think theory really matters in this moment.
We all have theory, whether we realize it or not. We all have beliefs about how society works. Some of us have ideas about how society could be changed. That’s what social theory is: explanations of how society works and how social change happens. Most of us learn that the way society is organized today is natural or fundamentally good – a belief challenged by radical social theory.
Most people’s ideas about these things are a mix of conclusions drawn from our own experiences and what we’ve picked up from other sources. Our experience is often a valuable source of insights about how our society works, at least for the majority of people who endure sexism, racism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression, and 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.
Does this really matter? It’s true that you don’t need to understand capitalism to unionize your workplace, for example, and you can oppose capitalism even if you don’t understand the system really well. But to grasp why union officials rarely encourage member-driven unionism and what keeps capitalism going, we need ways of thinking systematically about how society is organized. In other words, we need social theory. Without insightful theory to guide us, people working for social change are more likely to adopt ineffective or even counter-productive strategies and tactics.
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 toward that goal?” Too many people give up fighting for change because their expectations 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 we face another question: what kind? Most social theory today is written by and for academic researchers or for university students, informed more by concerns important to the academy than those of people on the front lines of organizing for social and ecological justice. Much of the best radical academic writing is inaccessible to non-academics. But not all theory is useless for activists, and it doesn’t have to be written in an academic way.
The starting point for the kind of theory we need is the understanding that many forms of oppression exist, that people who produce goods and services – from impoverished peasants in the Global South to the highest-waged workers in the Global North – are subordinated in various harmful ways. 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 this never exists separately from different kinds of oppression.
This theory should be materialist. Materialism doesn’t have anything to do with being preoccupied with money or what money can buy. The kind of materialism we need understands humans as an animal species distinguished from the rest of nature by how its members work together as conscious makers of tools and culture. This kind of theory starts from material contexts to understand how societies are organized and how they change, rather than from ideas, which never exist separately from people.
The theory we need must also be historical. So much of what most people today take for granted as natural or “just the way things are” isn’t natural at all. Theory that takes history seriously can reveal how such things as gender oppression, capitalism, and racism haven’t always existed. This helps us see just how much social arrangements can and do change.
To be most useful, the theory should be critical, not dogmatic. Some theory that has the 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 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, colonialism, 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 (these range from perspectives that defend the status quo to those that are critical of oppression but don’t grasp the central role of capitalism and class to versions of orthodox Marxism). I call this fusion reconstructed historical materialism. There’s lots to debate, but I’m convinced that activists need to read and use this kind of theory as we try to change the world. People who use it are involved in a range of efforts; one interesting political initiative informed by such theory was the 2017 International Women’s Strike in the U.S.
Some reading suggestions and a video:
David Camfield, We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society
David McNally, Another World is Possible: Globalization and Anti-Capitalism
Alan Sears, The Next New Left: A History of the Future
Himani Bannerji, Thinking Through: Essays on Feminism, Marxism, and Anti-Racism
“Beyond Everyday Feminism,” a recent talk by Kate Doyle Griffiths
Originally published by newsocialist.org.
This is not an attempt at a full assessment of the campaign or its outcome, only some initial thoughts mainly about Niki Ashton’s solid but disappointing result and what next for radicals who aren’t advocates of a parliamentary road to change but who voted for her.
Originally published by socialistworker. org, August 14, 2017
IT'S GREAT that more people on the U.S. left are embracing a politics of social class. But too many supporters of class politics still argue as if working-class struggle is separate from struggles against sexism, racism and other forms of oppression, or treat struggles against oppression as not all that important.
We can see this in the way some on the left criticize "identity politics." In the wake of Donald Trump's win, Bernie Sanders' call to "go beyond identity politics" got lots of attention. Writing in Jacobin that "Identity politics can only get us so far," Roger Lancaster argues for "an inclusive and universalist socialist program" because of the limits of demands by communities of "marginalized people" "for autonomy or for rights and recognitions."
Similar arguments crop up in other countries too; it's not just a U.S. thing. But it's time for people on the left to stop arguing about "identity politics" in this way.
The first problem is that the meaning of "identity politics" is far from clear.
As Richard Seymour helpfully notes, the right uses the term to mean "any concession whatsoever to the idea that anyone other than white bourgeois men are 'created equal.'" Used this way, it's "part of a whole vocabulary including 'thought police,' 'politically correct,' and 'liberal elites,' whose main intention is to undermine the legitimacy of liberal and left politics," as Linda Burnham argues.
Seymour adds that "a wing of the liberal center" uses "identity politics" "to criticize what they think of as the overly clamorous and over-hasty demands of women, gays, African-Americans, migrants and others for justice."
These meanings propagated in the mainstream media are by far the most influential ways the term is understood. No wonder, then, that some people who experience racism, sexism, heterosexism and other forms of oppression identify "identity politics" with their struggles against the specific ways in which they're harmed.
This is reason enough for people who mean something different than these understandings of "identity politics" to find another way of talking about it. "Identity politics" isn't like "working class" or "socialism"--terms with highly contested meanings that we have to stick with because today we don't have better words to use to communicate these ideas.
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BUT THE problem goes a lot deeper than terminology. Sanders called for Democratic candidates--"Black and white and Latino and gay and male"--with the "guts to stand up to the oligarchy," who will "stand with...working people," who understand how many people's income and life expectancy are declining, and who get that many people can't afford health care and college.
Lancaster is more radical: he praises the "original, radical outlooks" of the Black, women's and gay and lesbian movements of the 1960s and 1970s. However, the content of the "inclusive and universalist socialist program" he contrasts with "identity politics" isn't clear. He observes that what "socialist and working-class movements have usually demanded" are such things as "universal health care, free education, public housing, democratic control of the means of production."
What both these lines of argument have in common is the idea that the left should champion a universalist politics instead of "identity politics"--and that universalist politics don't include demands directed specifically against racism, sexism, heterosexism, settler-colonialism and other kinds of oppression.
Action against gender violence, free contraception, free abortion on demand, free public child care, a federal and state jobs program for economically marginalized Black people, permanent resident status for all immigrants, full legal equality for queer and trans people, self-determination for indigenous nations – these and other reforms to weaken oppression are downplayed or sometimes even excluded as "particular" "identity" demands.
This approach "not only presumes that class struggle is some sort of race- and gender-neutral terrain but takes for granted that movements focused on race, gender or sexuality necessarily undermine class unity and, by definition, cannot be emancipatory for the whole," as Robin D.G. Kelley argued 20 years ago.
The history of struggles against oppression disproves those notions. The abolition of slavery in the U.S. inspired organizers for the rights of wage workers and women. "As slaves acted to change things for themselves, horizons broadened for almost everyone," notes David Roediger.
The liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s loosened the grip of ruling-class ideology on U.S. society and influenced some of the broader struggles of workers and students of the time. The May 1 "Day Without Immigrants" protests of Latinx people in 2006 showed that political strike action is possible in the U.S.
Today, Black Lives Matter is encouraging some people who don't experience racism to organize and fight for change. As we saw at Standing Rock, Indigenous land defenders are mounting some of the most effective resistance to capitalist energy industry projects that would make climate change even worse and contaminate water sources.
This history demonstrates that the freedom struggles of the oppressed can advance unity among workers by chipping away at material inequalities and reactionary ideas that divide the class. They've shown other people the power of militant collective action.
They've also inspired some who receive relative advantages because others are oppressed--men, white people, straights--to question our role and join in the struggle, leading us to recognize that perpetuating oppression is wrong and strengthens our enemies, and that these movements are ultimately about our freedom, too, as many of the demands in the platform of the Movement for Black Lives make clear.
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YES, SOCIALISTS need to fight for demands like free education, dramatic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions along with a just transition for workers negatively affected, and single-payer health care in the U.S.
But for socialist politics to be truly universal, they have to do more than advance such demands and link them to a vision of transforming society. We must also propose measures that specifically target different forms of oppression. That's the best way to put the old workers' movement slogan "An injury to one is an injury to all" into practice today.
To shy away from such measures because they're unpopular among some of the people we want to organize is to avoid the hard work involved in forging unity in societies in which the working class is deeply divided and oppression is still very real in spite of gains in legal rights and cultural norms.
When carpenters union officials report workers without status to ICE; when many union leaders were on the wrong side at Standing Rock; when many white people act as if people of color are a threat to them; and when cis women and trans people are routinely denied control over their bodies; "race-blind" and "gender-blind" politics won't help us get where we need to go.
Unity built on the foundation of such politics will be fragile and shallow. It will always remain vulnerable to divide-and-conquer tactics used by employers and politicians.
None of this means that a politics whose aspirations for oppressed people don't go much beyond cultural recognition and fair representation in the power structure of neoliberal capitalism aren't a problem. They are, as the records of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton reveal so clearly.
Some supporters of these politics opportunistically use insinuations about Sanders and "Bernie Bros" being supposedly hostile to women and Black people to smear anyone who criticizes the Democratic Party establishment from the left. But attacks on "identity politics" in the name of a "universalism" that underestimates the importance of oppression or that doesn't explicitly take on oppression in every form aren't the way to persuade people swayed by that kind of liberalism to embrace socialist politics.
Dru Oja Jay and Nav Kaur are absolutely right about what left electoral campaigns can sometimes accomplish in terms of education and mobilization. And their caution that there’s an enormous difference between “winning victories in debates” and “facing down international capital” is vital. But should we be working “to turn the NDP into a party that is willing and able to confront capital and win”? I think not.
It does matter who leads the NDP. A win by Niki Ashton would be a blow to the party establishment because, as they note, she’s been the most vocal left critic of the NDP status quo. The emergence of a dynamic new left inside the NDP would be welcome (and should affect the tactics of radicals). But I don’t see either as likely anytime soon, sadly. Political circumstances in Canada today are different in important ways from those that made Corbyn’s election as Labour leader and the Sanders campaign possible.
If we take “getting into a confrontation with capital with a real possibility of winning at least a partial victory — something that can begin to turn the tide” as a strategic goal, then our top priority should be organizing in workplaces and communities and on campuses to build power through collective action.
The reason is simple: it takes a lot of power to win even partial victories. That’s one lesson we should take from the 2012 student movement in Quebec (which made Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, recently elected as a Quebec Solidaire MNA, so popular). That kind of power can only come from disruptive mass mobilization that’s driven by grassroots organizing and becomes infectious, drawing in many people who’ve never before been involved in anything like it.
The $15 and Fairness campaign in Ontario deserves credit for pushing a weak provincial government to boost the minimum wage and improve workers’ rights. But let’s not kid ourselves: to win far-reaching changes will take mightier organizing and mobilizing. Naomi Klein is right: “only mass social movements can save us.”
That’s true whether it’s the NDP or another party that forms the government. I think Dru and Nav’s article really underestimates the obstacles to changing the NDP. The party is highly undemocratic and the people who control it would do all they could to crush a left force that threatened their grip, as they did with the Waffle in 1972.
Even if radicals somehow took over the NDP and the federal NDP formed government, it would be in office, not in power. A left-led NDP government would buckle under the pressure of its enemies — capitalists who’d refuse to invest, top state managers, the pressure of bond and currency markets — as SYRIZA did in Greece in 2015 unless it was driven forward by a powerful social movement that it couldn’t control.
Unfortunately, the forces that understand what kind of struggle will be needed and are working with others to build power are very weak in Canada. How we relate to the NDP (and Quebec Solidaire too) should be shaped by the goals of strengthening these political forces and social movement organizing. We should work towards a political organization of a new type, one that brings together like-minded people (whether they’re members of the NDP or not) to build movements and argue for anti-capitalist politics.
David Camfield is the author of the forthcoming We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society and a member of Solidarity Winnipeg (this article is written in personal capacity).
The University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) went on strike on November 1 and returned to work with a new contract on November 22. UMFA is the union for around 1200 workers: people classified as professors, most librarians, and instructors (teaching staff whose contracts are open-ended or longer than a year; teachers and librarians hired on short-term contracts are members of CUPE 3909).
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