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Within the tedium of leftist discourse lies the age-old issue of theory and praxis—which should we focus on? Theory refers to texts written to analyze and critique capitalism, either by giving historical context to the modern day or by providing tools that allow us to better understand our current situation, as Karl Marx famously did with his method for analyzing the capitalist economy. Praxis, on the other hand, is the action counterpart to theory. Praxis involves committing to the betterment of the working class—aiding unionization efforts, promoting mutual aid, and providing education to those in need. Theory tells us what's wrong and how to fix it, praxis is the act of going out and fixing it. 

Thankfully, leftists have largely decided that the praxis of bettering the lives of workers is more important than theory. This decision, however, largely disregards the important role of theory, which I hope to layout here. While many would argue that this is a good thing—theory books are so old and dogmatic that they often barely apply—it's important to look at what theory offers in the first place.

Theory has its issues, especially when taken at face value. Undying supporters of the USSR and its authoritarian regime read books like The State and Revolution or Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong as if they were religious texts: ideas to take and distribute wholesale. This perception of theory leads to idealization of politicians and takes us away from our actual goal: helping those who need to be helped. Doubly, when these ideas are taken as gospel, we’re left with fire and brimstone preaching full of jargon and complicated phrasing, alienating those who need communism the most.

Given these issues, it makes sense that most practical leftists discard theory and make praxis their work—it’s more useful, especially in the short term. So why would we ever need theory? The answer lies in the principle that an uneducated workforce is a subservient workforce. Sure, having a general understanding of communism or socialism works in the interim, but there's a limit to how far sentiment can take us. We need to collectively understand our goals as leftists—what policies to make, which paths to take, where we want to end up. Bringing socialist knowledge to people in the real world is itself a form of praxis.

To read theory and use it in your analysis of the world is to better understand what you're dealing with and how to deal with it. For instance, a piece of theory such as First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Žižek can help us examine how global events are portrayed and processed: first as a tragedy, and then as an exaggerated recreation. On top of this, it describes the inherent immoralities in the system that produces these issues. In talking about the2008 financial crash and the subsequent billions of dollars that were thrown into the global banking system, Žižek points out that a comparable effort could have been made to address world hunger or poverty—after all, if it wasn’tpossible, how did we tackle the economic crash?

Žižek uses 9/11 and the 2008 market crash as examples, but one could easily compare Trump’s allegations of Russian collusion and the Mueller Report to allegations of voter fraud in 2020. First, as tragedy, the integrity of a United States election is brought into question, raising decades-old fears and political stigma against Russia. Then, as farce, the crisis of election fraud was reenacted four years later by republicans in the2020 election. Even less based in fact and all the more in populism, needless resources were used to “rectify” the issue. Through theory and the claims Žižek makes, we can view this cycle in an illuminating way: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.

Žižek’s text is not meant to betaken as scripture, but as a blueprint for analysis. If we can look at how our country or the world portrays crises, we can more easily point out the flaws in them. In being able to unlearn and recognize late-stage capitalist propaganda, we can do our best to denounce and act against it. The goal is not to idolize Žižek, or any political theorist for that matter, but to see what we can learn from his view of the past.

Another way to look at theory is as a historical account of politics and economy. Reading excerpts from Proudhon’s Confessions of a Revolutionary, which speaks about the Paris Commune of 1871, or Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which discusses Napoleon’s rise to power, allows us a much deeper appreciation for our modern society and the systems that allow it to prevail. It’s easy to wave away these historiographic texts and say they aren’t theory but rather an account and analysis of the past, but, in many ways, isn’t that exactly what theory is? These historical accounts teach us how history repeats itself and how historical issues continue to affect modern life.

To these ends, historical pieces of theory can be extraordinarily useful to use in making pragmatic decisions about our views. Lenin, love him or hate him, made great strides for popularizing Karl Marx in Russia and Eastern Europe. While his ideas were never fully actualized, reading about his interpretation of Marx and how he viewed the complex socio-economic systems of his time can be invaluable to modern socialists. In many ways, it acts as both an analytical and historical tool for us to use.

Theory isn’t everything, but theory is still important. It can build enlightening frameworks through which we view our world or give us analytical tools to see where propaganda is and how it’s affecting us. Theory lets us better understand the world around us, and without it, we leave ourselves vulnerable. If we don’t understand where we are or how we got here, how can we ever meaningfully move forward?

Theory affects us in the real world by lessening the internal effects of the propaganda state. It lets us see past the veil of propaganda that’s been placed in front of us, the veil blinding us from the full reality of late-stage American capitalism. Theory, possibly most importantly, affects us by giving us tools to analyze the world with. Acting on good conscience and trying to help as many people as possible sounds good on paper, but without theory to back it up, sentiment will run forward haphazardly, without a long-term plan. Praxis can win a battle, but without theory we cannot win the war.