I saw a great northern diver for the first time last month. Actually it was the third time I had seen it. But I had never seen one before and at first I thought it was a great crested grebe. In their winter plumage they look familiar, especially viewed from a distance without binoculars. But once I was alerted to its presence I was able to identify it correctly and even point it out to other birdwatchers.
Previous experience had not prepared me for this encounter. I needed the benefit of other people’s experience. I also needed my bird books to study the differences between grebes and divers. Most of the time we learn like this, a combination of theory and practice. All the book learning in the world is no substitute for experience. But, without the transmission of previous learning, every generation would have to start from scratch, and we would make very slow progress.
When it comes to politics, theory has a bad name. And it is all capitalism’s fault. In the early years of capitalism it was a revolutionary system that transformed the world, harnessed technology to produce untold wealth, and great thinkers were fascinated by the questions it raised. Where does the wealth come from? How does money get its value? What can governments do to make the most of it? Stuff like that. One of them, Adam Smith, wrote a book, ‘The Wealth of Nations’. Now we have an Adam Smith Institute, a right-wing think tank made up of people who have probably never read Adam Smith.
Radical reformers did read Adam Smith. They were just as fascinated as he was by Capitalism. They were also shocked by the misery that went hand in glove with the extreme wealth it produced and wrote books and pamphlets with their solutions, which were taken up by groups like the Chartists who wanted a political system that would guarantee their share of the wealth of nations.
Some socialist thinkers went even further. Karl Marx showed that all this wealth did not arise from the genius of the capitalist entrepreneurs and their factory machinery. It depended on a working class that toiled to produce all this value and was paid only a fraction. Instead of a fair day’s pay we were entitled to it all.
That is when the capitalists decided that all this theory had gone too far. What we needed instead was common sense. And common sense told us that bosses created the wealth by investing their money. Workers got a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, and all the profits belonged to the bosses.
Some in the socialist movement fell for this. Marx wrote about the relationship between wages, prices and profits when another socialist in the First International was saying that striking for higher pay was a waste of time because the bosses just took it back in higher prices. Furthermore, trade unions were an obstacle to socialism because they diverted workers’ energy with their fruitless battles over wages. That was in 1865. A hundred years later a Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, was using the same argument to oppose the trade unions. “One man’s pay rise is another man’s price rise” as I recall.
Socialists did not have to reinvent the wheel to answer Harold Wilson. Instead we turned to Marx who had already worked it out. There is a problem with theory though. Sometimes it is very hard reading. That is why most of us don’t read scientific articles on quantum physics. Instead we rely on scientists like Brian Cox to explain it to us on TV. But there aren’t many documentaries explaining scientific socialism on TV. Don’t ask me why.
So what can we do? Socialists who have the time and the energy to study our theory have two jobs. First we have to understand the stuff. Then we have to present it to busy people, who don’t have the time to read it for themselves, in language they can understand.
Brian Cox and David Attenborough and all the presenters who make popular science programmes have the advantage here. First, they have access to the media. They can get on the telly. Second, we all learned some science at school, which gives them a head start. The only lessons on socialism I can remember from school were telling us why it couldn’t work, and I was one of the lucky ones. Most schools didn’t teach it at all.
So we need our theory. We also need to understand that it did not just pop out of the brains of clever people reading books. They were reading the books to answer questions posed by the class struggle in their day. They tested their theory on the barricades and some of them died doing it. Now we read their books. But socialist theory did not end with them. It is not fixed like the Bible or the Koran as holy writ.
We are not waiting for God or a Messiah to deliver us. We are still trying to work out how to save ourselves. So we start with the old theories. We argue about them and test them against the world as it is today. We develop them to reflect the fact that the world has changed. And we don’t just do this in libraries and meetings or in front of our laptops writing articles.
We turn our theory into slogans and inscribe it on the banners we take to the picket lines and demonstrations. All our theory is an argument about how to win. And when we do win, that will be the time to proclaim, “No More Theory Anymore.”
Life long socialist. Now retired, I have been an office junior, a bookseller, a docker and a teacher. I write a lot and read a lot more. Committed member of the Society of Authors, English PEN and the National Education Union. Never voting Labour again.