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Instrumentalizing Theory

If you are studying and/or producing marxist theory as a marxist then the logic that guides this activity should be the necessity of class struggle.  That is, if the point is to transform rather than interpret the world, then any approach to marxism that is not about furthering revolution––that is divorced from practical action aimed at making revolution––is a marxism that is opposed to the essential point of marxism, a dead marxism.  Hence, I think we can say with confidence that the vast amount of people studying and producing marxist theory on an academic level do so as marxists in appearance rather than substance: this amounts to role-playing marxism, reducing it to a theoretical game.

In at least one previous post I've complained about the "intellectual resignation" that is often commonplace amongst academic leftists (a population, to be fair, in which I place myself), but it is a problematic that continues to bother me.  While I am not interested in endorsing an uncritical anti-intellectualism, I am generally more annoyed by how and why theory that was intended to be revolutionary has been reduced to a hermeneutic, one choice in a vast smorgasbord of theory, a practice of talk-shops, and the basis of innumerable books by theorists whose work on marxism has nothing to do with actually making revolution.  I am even more annoyed by those who study marxism but whose interest in praxis is little more than a curiousity.  But since I have complained about the problem of the over-academicization of marxism more than once on this blog, this is not yet another post about this problem.

Rather, this is a short post about the need to properly centre our theoretical practice in marxist praxis itself.  Thus, I am not interested in complaining again about the failure of marxist intellectuals––let alone passing myself off as somehow being beyond this critique––but in discussing how marxists who are engaged in theoretical practice should understand this practice as marxists.  This is a problem with which I have to constantly grapple since so much of my life is submerged, rightly or wrongly, in a context that is academic, abstract, and obsessively theoretical.  My main point is this: for marxists, the degree to which theory is useful is intrinsically connected to the practice of bringing communism into existence.

Unfortunately, the moment someone throws out the word useful in a space occupied by well-read theorists who are overly obsessed with theory-as-theory is the moment when one is dismissed.  Some will argue, after all, that to even speak of usefulness is to speak the language of capitalism since capitalism's logic is that of "instrumental rationality".  Here we are meant to think of those liberals who obsessed over concepts such as "utility" as well as the instrumental logic of the factory and the market that reduces all human relations to the relationship of machinic use.  This critique seems to make sense theoretically, and has often succeeded in silencing those who demand a focus on what needs to be done to make revolution, but is ultimately non-sensical if we bother to think about capitalism and its ruling class, as we should, as our enemy.

Oh Adorno… No wonder you never gave a shit about any real world revolutionary movement!

After all, those dedicated to preserving capitalism do not want marxists to think about how their theory can and should be useful for revolution; they are not stymied by the rejection of their supposed "instrumental rationality" just as they are not frightened by those marxian theories that focus their critique on this abstract level of thought.  In point of fact, to ask how revolutionary theory can be useful for a revolutionary movement, and thus to practice marxism as marxism, is what the capitalist actually fears.

Indeed, a revolutionary movement requires a level of "instrumental rationality" if it ever hopes to succeed.  It needs to know how to instrumentalize revolutionary theory, how to build itself into an anti-capitalist machine capable of producing revolutionary hegemony, how to construct a military policy that can possibly wage war on the armed bodies of men and women who defend capitalism.  A theory that does not instrumentalize itself in practice is a theory that is dead, that is incapable of doing anything except critique… And capitalism will not implode because of an insightful critique.

None of this is to say that critiques of instrumental rationality, or any other abstract theorization, are without merit.  Rather, I simply want to indicate that any merit they possess is limited and must bow, if they are to remain marxist, to the necessity of making revolution.  And to make revolution means instrumentalizing a theory, demanding that it be useful for the masses engaged in a revolution, and accepting that a revolution does not emerge out of some enlightened shift in consciousness––this is idealism.

According to its core logic, which claims that class struggle is the motive force of history, marxism is a crude theory.  Although it is capable of sophistication, and some people have made their careers by pursuing sophisticated iterations of marxism, it is primarily a crude theory that demands instrumentalization.  To argue otherwise is to reify marxism, to make it into something that it is not, and return to interpreting the world when the point, as Marx told us long ago, must be revolutionary transformation.  If you don't like this core fact about marxism––if you find its crudeness offensive––then you aren't pursuing marxism as a marxist but as a hobbyist.

Thus, all exercises in theoretical practice that claim the name of marxism should be guided by the logic of making revolution.  Nor should this logic be some abstract "I-like-the-idea-of-revolution-and-hope-it-will-happen-one-day" bullshit but, instead, be premised on these questions: how can my work be useful for a revolutionary movement; how can I be of use to a revolutionary movement; what can I do to concretely bring the end of capitalism one step closer?  For if we don't ask these questions then we don't really care about the aim of marxism––we will be more than happy to tolerate capitalism, just as long as we are allowed to publish and study our supposedly devastating critiques.