Herbert Marcuse on the Unity of Theory and Practice

In Counterrevolution and Revolt (Beacon Press, Boston, 1972), as part of his critical take on the New LeftHerbert Marcuse writes:

The pertification of Marxian theory violates the very principle the New Left proclaims: the unity of theory and practice. A theory which has not caught up with the practice of capitalism cannot possibly guide the practice aiming at the abolition of capitalism. The reduction of Marxian theory to solid “structures” divorces the theory from reality and gives it an abstract, remote, “scientific” character which facilitates its dogmatic ritualization. In a sense, all theory is abstract: its conceptual dissociation from the given reality is a precondition for understanding and changing reality. Theory is furthermore necessarily abstract by virtue of the fact that it comprehends a totality of conditions and tendencies, in Marxian theory; a historical totality. Thus, it can never decide on a particular practice–for example, whether or not certain buildings should be occupied or attacked–but it can (and ought to) evaluate the prospects of particular actions within the given totality, namely, whether a situation prevails where such occupations and attacks are indicated. The unity of theory and practice is never immediate. The given social reality, not yet mastered by the forces of change, demands the adaptation of strategy to the objective conditions–prerequisite for changing the latter. A non-revolutionary situation is essentially different from a pre- or revolutionary situation. Only a theoretical analysis can define and distinguish the prevailing situation and its potential. The given reality is there, in its own right and power–the soil on which theory develops, and yet the object, “the other of theory” which, in the process of change, continues to determine theory.

Well. That’s quite a mouthful, but still a pretty wise one, despite being written back in 1972.

Here, Marcuse deftly defuses some of the standard rhetoric against theory in favor of an exclusive focus on praxis, and shows instead, how political practice uninformed by a suitably rigorous theory is fundamentally undermined. Furthermore, he dismisses the claim that the abstraction of theory is a handicap; instead, it is a feature necessary for its applicability and use. That abstraction is what enables its generality and ability to inform a variety of practical strategies; an insufficiently abstract theory is worse than useless; it may be dangerous in provoking misguided and wasteful action. Lastly, theory plays a vital role in development of a ‘non-revolutionary situation’ into a ‘pre- or revolutionary situation’, precisely because it enables the recognition of those features that make it ripe for such movement and ‘progress’.

Almost anyone that has engaged in any form of sustained political activism has entered into disputes about the relationship of theory and practice; these in their worst moments, devolve into a species of crippling sectarian warfare. Marcuse’s calming note above is not unique; the unity of theory and practice is perhaps just as often preached as it is debated. Still, as a concise summation of its central principles, it bears rereading by all those engaged in the struggles where it is most required.

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