The Importance of Theory

(Last edited 2/6/13)

Theory: Everybody Has One

A theory is a foundational belief about how the world works.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we each live our lives according to our own personal, internalized philosophical theory. Our personal theory is a contradictory jumble of assumptions, beliefs, intentions, and hypotheses about the nature of the universe and our place in it. Each of us has ideas about the nature of existence, motion, and relationships. Our ideas come from everywhere and blend together: our experiences, our conversations, reading, mass media, advertising, teachers, family, friends, and foes.

Each of us has a philosophy, ideology, and political line–ways of comprehending the world and responding to the situations we find ourselves in. Our theories may not always be coherent or rational (or have anything to do with reality whatsoever) but we hold them whether we acknowledge that fact or not.

The Purpose of Theory

The purpose of theory is practice. We don’t need to interpret and understand reality for its own sake, but to act upon (practice) and affect it. Our presence and actions always affect reality (positively or negatively) no matter what. Left to spontaneity, this usually occurs in ways that reflect our conditioning by our class enemy, and serves them. Proletarian theory allows us to affect reality in a more conscious way, in accordance with our own class interests.

Theory Constantly Changes

Theory is not permanent or fixed. It is constant—dynamic and constantly being constructed, as we keep trying (but never fully succeeding) to catch up in our understanding of reality. Reality is constantly changing and so are our understandings of it. All our theory is constantly tested, verified (or not), and rectified according to newer and deeper understandings of what exists.

Our thoughts don’t originate inside ourselves, arising whole like shiny fish from the murky depths. Our thoughts are more like milkshakes, blended concoctions of everything we experience, perceive, read, and discuss. One conversation provides the strawberries; another encounter adds ice cream. Someone takes a sip and points out that it lacks a banana, so we throw one in. We try to avoid adding anything too poisonous. We affect and are affected by one another in a never-ending, back-and-forth process.

We could leave our ideas and beliefs unexamined, unarticulated and incoherent, but this is not advised unless we enjoy being brainwashed lumps acting out the programs of others. If instead we question and consider our thoughts and their patterns, then our reward is being capable of behavior that is conscious, deliberate, consistent, and most importantly, effective.

We can think through these theories, try to break them down and understand them, and experiment putting them into practice to determine what is correct and incorrect. As we learn to apply theory, we are able to increasingly align our actions with our thoughts. As we discover alternatives, we are more likely to make choices and define priorities that support our values. We increasingly align our action and thought.

Creating our own theory is important or else we will be ideologically dominated. We ought not to passively accept the premises and outlook of the system, which we’ve been trained in since birth. These premises are products of the system’s ideological hegemony, and they lead to spontaneous total identification with the system. If we passively accept them, we will meekly follow the path our enemy has laid down for us: school, work, unemployment line, prison, FEMA camp, nursing home, death. It is also important to critically examine the theories of progressives and revolutionaries from the past and the present, because despite their good intentions, their theories may not be appropriate or correct for this historical moment.

The process of writing and editing theory is a form of theorizing. That includes this document, which is malleable and has been shaped by many people who reflect, criticize, and affect each other’s thoughts at a particular historical moment. This document could be edited by others as time goes by, because it should be relevant to the historical moment of the readers.

Theory Helps Us Understand Where We Are

Theory is the topography of our strategic map, determining our starting point and our destination, where we lay down paths, and how we focus and direct our energy. At the start of our journey, we don’t need to get bogged down in ultra-complicated minutiae—better to zoom out for an overview of the major contours. As we develop our theoretical skill (which takes practice, like anything else), we can zoom in to explore ever more detailed levels of abstraction. One can pursue any concept to infinite complexity, but first we should sketch some basic outlines.

In every situation, we use theory to see patterns and tendencies, to discern potential trajectories (insofar as that’s possible) and to decide on appropriate responses and strategies. We use theory to determine on any given day whether it’s better to feign compliance, to take up arms, or to stay in bed with the blankets over our heads. We might still manage to fight the enemy even if we’re not in control of the theories guiding us, but we’d be blindfolded, flailing in all directions. Emotion sets us in motion, and willpower fuels us, but without navigational tools we are lost.

What determines our political line, which in turn determines our goals, our plans, and our actions (and often their success or failure), is how we think—our ideology and theory.

Theory: A Crucial Weapon in Our Arsenal

Philosophical theory has a bad reputation as a tedious and useless intellectual exercise, as distant from the chaotic happenings of the real world as classical ballet is from punk rock. Many consider it best left in the classroom along with chewed-up gum under desks and curiously slow clocks. Indeed, ideas isolated in a cage of academia, unconnected to practice, are useless intellectual exercises. Ideas must be connected to practice, or they must influence practice, in order for them to have value. Revolutionary theory is our greatest weapon, infinitely more important than the gun. Without revolutionary theory, no one can know where to point the gun, or when.

Ask yourself this: if you aren’t in charge of the ideas that guide your life, who is?

Limits of Theory: Abstraction is a Tight Squeeze

No matter how detailed, theoretical concepts are inherently reductive and incomplete. Trying to contain reality with words is like trying to stuff a size 10 body into a size 6 dress. We do the best we can, letting out material and inserting panels, but reality will always strain at theory’s seams.

Descriptions of categories of ideas, like any abstractions, can’t capture the infinite complexity of reality. They are useful only insofar as they describe aspects of reality successfully enough to aid us in our understanding of it.

A concept is a type of theoretical expression. Concepts are abstract distillations, ideas articulated in words. If concepts fully represented reality, they would be as infinitely complex as reality itself. They would be impossible to wrap our minds around, which would defeat their purpose. The purpose of a concept is to have a collective understanding of the thing the concept is defining, insofar as that is achievable.

Theory bubbles up from the collective social mind as we struggle to understand our changing conditions and to correct previous concepts that no longer apply. But then the next concept, in turn, inevitably has its own limitations, and will also be replaced.

Our social practice verifies or disproves our theory. In turn, our theory (revised, if necessary) becomes a guide to further practice. Which then verifies (or not), the refined theory. This should be a constant dialectical (back-and-forth and advancing) process.

Unless we accept the limitations and unstable nature of theory, we risk turning it into rigid doctrine or religion. Then we become the annoying true believer who follows people down the street waving a leaflet, wanting to enlighten (insisting upon it!) the ignorant world with the one and only Truth. No one likes that person.

Class Position Determines Ideas

Theory does not belong to any individual, but is constructed through class struggle, and is comprised of our collective interpretation of experiences and observations. This is true even if it is articulated by particular individuals. Historically, when individuals have contributed significantly to proletarian theory and have been able to exert social influence as a result, they have done so not as isolated “great” individuals above everyone else—instead they synthesized what they observed in the social realm as a whole, what many others were doing and thinking.

There has been a widespread misconception that because theory has been articulated by individuals, that it comes from outside the class struggle (specifically from petit bourgeois intellectuals to the proletariat). This is an erroneous, idealist view. Proletarian theory is always constructed through the actual struggles of the proletariat, even when intellectuals with origins outside the proletariat have synthesized these experiences and articulated the resulting theoretical concepts.

The way we understand things as individuals is rooted in our relation to the economy as a whole, combined with the extent of ideological domination we have succumbed to. For example, was the BP oil spill caused by the innocent accident of a faulty valve, or by bought-off government agencies enabling BP to operate without proper regulations and regard for safety, or was it an inevitable consequence of capitalists’ drive to pillage the planet at the lowest possible cost? Was the spill no big deal (profit was way up by the following year and BP’s stock price recovered, so all is well), or did it destroy countless lives? Our answers will correspond to a combination of our class position and our level of consciousness.

People who live on the Gulf have experienced the oil spill differently from the people who work for BP who do not live there. “Our culture was that we ate from the water. We fished and fed our families, but we can’t now because it is a risk to our health. I see dirty shrimp gills. Who wants to eat that?” asked Adren Bailey, a third generation oyster fisher. Gary Barthalemy, an oyster fisher for forty-five years, said, “Our community has lived off of the water and now our community is dead. We have no cash flow.” The economic position of these fishers affects their perspectives of the BP spill.

On May 18, 2010, Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP at the time, minimized the effects of the BP spill saying, “the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest.” While the oil spill was occurring, he was asked the same day if he could sleep at night. He said, “Of course I can.” On May 31, 2010, Tony said, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.” In other words, he wanted to return to his usual routine where he could avoid any negative consequences of his corporation’s misdeeds. Tony Hayward’s experience of the BP oil spill is in conflict with that of the people directly affected by the disaster. His economic interests are in direct opposition to the interests of the workers and fishers. Tony Hayward is part of the ruling capitalist class. The capitalist class requires the subordination of the working class in order to reproduce itself, to continue to exist.

The prevailing ideas of any social formation correspond to the economic interests of its ruling class. Due benefits enjoyed by those who control and run an economy based on fossil fuel use, damage to the earth is not taken seriously. A healthy earth runs counter to the economic interests of capitalists, who profit from converting natural resources into commodities as quickly, and as on as vast a scale, as they possibly can. They will try to shape the ideas of society so that the masses do not care about the earth either. This is an example of how the political and ideological fields are shaped by the economic base.

All human thinking is rooted in our social conditions. Our ideas are largely shaped by the economic system in which we live in, and by our class position in the economy. Though ideas arise which can affect and challenge the economic structure, and there is some interplay between the two, overall the influence is weighted the other way, with the economic base having a determining effect on the ideas that arise within a culture.

Capitalism is the context in which our individual and political ideas are shaped. Ultimately, the economic base determines the superstructure (not mechanically, but in a back-and-forth process)—the ideological and the political fields. Whether we realize it or not, the social processes of how goods are produced determines even our ideas about love and beauty, as well as resistance to capitalism itself. People are social animals. Our thoughts, while felt individually, are at the same time collective; we exchange them between each other. None can be born whole in one isolated brain; they may be re-mixed but always come from other people. At the present time, they are formed within and shaped by the system of global capitalism.

Our task is to construct and use theory to minimize the influence of the dominating class, so we can strengthen our capacity to liberate ourselves.


Theory: foundational hypothesis about how the world or society works.
“Our destiny is determined by the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”
“The Earth is being destroyed because of corporate greed.”
“Capitalism impels perpetual industrial growth. Ecocide is an effect of capitalism.”

Ideology: a set of convictions comprising an approach to life.
“We should not question the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”
“Corporations have too much power.”
“My enemy is the capitalist class.”

Political Line: positions on particular topics that determine an approach to action.
“We should pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster every night.”
“To reform capitalism, we should limit the power of corporations.”
“To destroy capitalism, the working class must seize the means of production.”

Mode of production: the definition of a type of economy, determined by the dominant ways that the social product is produced, accumulated and distributed.

Capitalism: a mode of production in which the dominant way that the social product is produced is through the exploitation of workers (as they convert natural materials into commodities through the application of labor power), plus the private accumulation and private control of distribution of surplus value.

Economic base: how a society meets its needs, and materially reproduces itself.

Superstructure: the dominant ideology and the exercise of political power, that together justify, sustain, support, protect, and perpetuate the economic base.
Surplus value: the social process of capital production, which manifests as the theft of labor power (exploitation) during the conversion of natural materials into commodities. Surplus value is the essence and purpose of capitalism. Surplus value is the portion of exchange value of commodities that is appropriated by the capitalist after underpaying for the labor power it took to make them (left after fixed costs such as machinery and inputs).
Social formation: all of the internal contradictions within the structures and practices (economic, political, ideological) comprising a coherent group system that reproduces itself in a constant dynamic of construction and destruction.

Epistemology: the theory of knowledge.

Science: the systematic organization of knowledge.

Objective reality: what actually exists in the world, no matter what we think about it (though reality does include our thoughts).

Subjectivity: our interpretation of objective reality, comprised by sentience (feeling) + consciousness (awareness + theory).

Idea: a subjective construct, which can correspond relatively closely to reality or be insanely distant from it.

Idealism: the belief that the world is a projection of our mental activity, that the nature of reality is determined by ideas.

Materialism: the belief that reality consists of matter in motion (which includes ideas).

Animism: the belief that the world is alive and comprised of interconnected subjectivities.

Postmodernism: the belief that each individual subjectivity creates its own reality. If you’ve ever heard anyone say, “Everyone’s point of view is equally valid,” this is a postmodernist denial of the existence of objective reality. It disarms us by making judgment impossible. In fact, everyone’s point of view is not equally valid—some are closer to reality than others, and some correspond to hostile class interests.

Mysticism: the belief in a reality that is beyond the ordinary perception of sentient beings.

Class consciousness: an appropriation of the ideas corresponding to one’s class interests.
A working class person who votes for a bourgeois politician (of whatever party) is submitting to the domination of the enemy. This is not a class conscious act.

Types of Knowledge:

Empirical: based on perceptions and experience. Empirical knowledge is primary or embryonic, apprehending the surface level of a phenomenon.

Rational: the logical analysis of empirical knowledge can reveal the underlying core nature of a phenomenon. As we define solutions to problems, the practice of deliberately rationalizing empirical knowledge is the opposite approach from relying on preconceived formulas or jumping to metaphysical conclusions. It helps us avoid pragmatism (which addresses effects and appearances rather than cause or internal contradiction).

Metaphysical: a purely speculative understanding of a phenomenon, not based on empirical knowledge or verifiable facts.

There is a dialectical (mutually contradictory and interdependent) relationship between empirical and rational knowledge. Both kinds can be direct (your own), or indirect (someone else’s that you learn from). When enough empirical data is acquired, this lays the basis for rational understanding (quantitative change becomes qualitative).

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