Is there a revolutionary method?

This is an article critiquing the idea of a single revolutionary method that leads to truth and revolutionary action drawing from dissonance between choosing how to act and the emergence of large scale forces in capitalism.

Submitted by s.nappalos on March 29, 2015

Is there a revolutionary method than gives us a secure route to the truth? Political concepts are supposed to help us figure out how to bring about the society we want. Theory constructs frameworks of political concepts to understand the past, carve out answers for our present, and project into the future. As agents of political change the ability to think and act in real time is critical. With dramatically changing circumstances revolutionaries have to navigate rapid fluctuations in the political field where friend becomes foe, foe becomes friend, and dark or liberatory potentials lie within us all. Ideally the tools we chose should expand what we’re able to do, opening up a wider field of action than was previously available or obtained by politics as usual.

Our conceptual frameworks are then tools and should be evaluated in part by their ability or inability to help political agents act across time, and should be altered to improve their capacity to do so. Concepts do things, but they are imperfect and have to be weighed against other potential alternatives. Just like we don’t use a hammer to bind a screw to a board, we use different political concepts for different tasks.

Sometimes political theory is compared to science, but this is misleading or plain false. Politics deals with two different but related things: social forces struggling for power and the world of political agents. As militants we have to decide how to act and this is not merely a technical pursuit of whatever will bring us to victory, but inherently involves ethical dimensions and values. In physics the behavior of sub-atomic particles differs radically from the world of people or the world of galaxies. Similarly the questions and problems political agents encounter are radically different from an analysis of world capitalism. If politics is science, it is many sciences and it's unclear how the different fields relate. In fact, one of the main challenges for social change is that the political militant has to navigate both their role as agent and the unfolding of large-scale political forces beyond their immediate grasp.

Though this may seems logical, it goes against a deep thread in political tradition where there’s an identification of conceptual frameworks with politics itself, particularly in a fixed form. That is to say not that theory and conceptual frameworks are tools we can check against what we want to do with them, use different ones, alter them, etc., but that some privileged framework is taken not only as a way to do politics, but the only way to do politics. This is about the elevation of political method to the level of ideology or worse cult-like religiosity.

The clearest example of this is the identification with dialectics as the only method and framework for revolutionary politics and thinking itself. Dialectics could be viewed as an approach, a theory that allows us to do certain things, evaluated for its ability and inability to do so, and used alongside other tools for thinking through how to act as militants. Turning a framework into ideology goes a step further by taking the ideas of the method as exclusive components of a political ideology and insulating them against other potential contributions. However you define that method, it takes substantive claims about particular concepts (contradiction, dialectics, class struggle, classes, etc.), and connects them to actual movements working for emancipatory goals.

In this case a conceptual framework is taken out of its context (of tools for action) and placed into the evaluative realm of political ideas, traditions, and principles. Tools can be compared to each other, and evaluated against what we’re trying to do. If a tool doesn’t work for the task, we grab or invent another. This is largely how science works. Relativity could do things in some specific spheres Newtonian physics couldn’t. Quantum mechanics could do things relativity couldn’t, and vice versa. The key for scientists is to explain and make predictions about what they are working on. Taking the method of relativity and elevating it to an ideology would be incoherent. Relativity is just an attempt to get at something, and when it runs up against its limits, we modify or replace it. In some cases we utilize multiple theories when each is inadequate, which is the case in recent physics with the clash between relativity and quantum mechanics both of which are useful (pending some grand unified theory).

Perhaps this is the goal of people who elevate their method to ideology. Still by fixing particular conceptual tools (say dialectics, specific theses about class struggle, law of value, or whatever) and making them immutable items of ideology, it closes off our minds to critically understanding new events in terms that may go beyond whatever tools we’ve happened to have inherited from previous generations. There’s no justification for thinking whatever we ended up believing today must be true, and politically it’s a dangerous path because it encourages stagnant and dogmatic approaches to understanding new events. Today we find ourselves in an environment where large shifts are happening that are changing the political landscape, but it is unclear exactly how and where; making an open and critical approach that much more important. Turning frameworks into ideology or even faith disarms our ability to evaluate our beliefs that serve or hold back political agents, as all analyses and action become evaluated by their conforming or failure to conform with the framework that defines the tradition.

Bizarrely this sort of error generally coexists with an obsession with science, which is strange because no equivalent exists in science where theories becomes elevated to an ethics. This is a problem specifically for today, because the existing divisions within revolutionary thinking are probably worse off than they’ve ever been. Recent decades have thrown existing politics into unknown territory, and forces are shifting while sectarian labels are fixed or even misplaced. The geo-political changes in an era of crisis and recomposition make independent militants capable of thinking and acting in real time not merely a bonus, but a raw necessity. Our political thought needs to reflect that reality and push its adherents towards critical reflection and adaptability, something which ideologizing method insulates against.

The alternative is to look to using whatever methodology and assumptions helps us achieve our aims. The objectives, goals, and ethics of the pursuit of anarchist or stateless communism ultimately is the defining feature of our task. Different concepts, methods, and traditions should be evaluated against their ability to help take us there and avoid dead ends, not the other way around. The uncomfortable truth is likely that there is no single approach we can take that will reliably solve problems for us. To decide how to act in the whirlwind of the moment shouldn’t be seen as applying steps like a recipe, but more like training for a marathon. Action is not about simple deductions or pseudo-scientific blueprints. Our minds and bodies learn together as our thoughts and experiences mutually influence each other, and we create knowledge that is only partially conscious and rational. Perhaps the primary question today is what experience and thinking expands the capacity to act and what restricts it?



8 years 6 months ago

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Submitted by Pennoid on March 30, 2015

Some of the ideas in this piece are reminiscent of what Pannekoek talks about in "Materialism and Historical Materialism" where he contrasts "bourgeois materialism." with "historical materialism" and highlights the frustrating irreconcilability of human actions and social forces, to laws of biology, chemistry, physics. I think that is basically correct.

A lot of Marxists claim "dialectical/historical materialism" as their method of investigation, interpretation etc., and I haven't read any Dietzgan (ought I?) but it's clear that this "method" has suffered from poor elucidation at least in that it runs from ultra-left council communism to good 'ol fashion smoke-and mirrors Maoist poetry. That seems like it points to an inherent weakness? But I guess it's a bit like Social Darwinism vs. evolutionary theory, maybe, where it has been rigorously applied in a lot of interesting ways (by historians) but not popularly...

I've been thinking a lot about education recently, but not reading enough about it maybe. But I do think it's important to relate education to action in a way that's a bit more complicated then a lot of the platitudes handed down from the past.


8 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Croy on April 1, 2015

I totally agree with this post as I am sure most people reading will do but in practice I think a lot of those same people will still not act as such. I think certain aspects and trends in modern feminist practices and rhetoric fit the bill to be honest, but no one wants to be seen to say that for fear of being called misogynists.


8 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Auld-bod on April 1, 2015

I read this and found it very difficult to follow. Some things I agree with, as I would argue our knowledge is provisional, however some of the turns and twists in the argument required some elucidation, or at least examples. Some generalisations leave holes big enough to drive a bus through.

An example of what I mean:
‘Bizarrely this sort of error generally coexists with an obsession with science, which is strange because no equivalent exists in science where theories becomes elevated to an ethics.’

The ‘Hippocratic Oath’, dating back to the ancient Greeks surely contradicts this assertion? Unless of course medicine is excluded from ‘science’. A number of scientists have argued against the notion of science as ethically neutral ground, Albert Einstein, etc.

Of course I could just be a thick git!


8 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Ed on April 2, 2015

Mate, I beg you start putting images in your blog posts so we can share them..


8 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by s.nappalos on April 3, 2015

Apologies on the lack of images, rectified!

It seems like I botched the passing ethics reference and made it too obscure or jumbled. What I was trying to describe was when people use their method as a litmus test to judge everything against. For example some people might say "That's non-dialectical" as a way of saying something is bad, doesn't fit with their political values. The hippocratic oath one the otherhand is about ethical guidelines for how you carry out medicine not the method itself though it's a good example to raise.

Science is one tool we can use in some contexts. The thrust of my argument is that we have to act in different capacities and from different frames of reference as revolutionaries, and I don't see a single framework fitting them all science included. This division between our agency in terms of figuring out what to do and the world of large-scale emergent forces is something I've been obsessed with and think is really important. Science largely fits in on the global scale, but for our agency only in certain contexts maybe.


8 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Ariege on April 4, 2015

Good post. Echoes a lot of the pragmatism of 'Anarchy in the Age of Dinosaurs' doesn't it? :)


8 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by syndicalist on April 4, 2015


Good post. Echoes a lot of the pragmatism of 'Anarchy in the Age of Dinosaurs' doesn't it? :)

The sequel to that book is "Caveman Communism"

Joseph Kay

8 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Joseph Kay on April 4, 2015


Bizarrely this sort of error generally coexists with an obsession with science, which is strange because no equivalent exists in science

I think this reflects the gap between the popular image of 'Science' as some monolithic entity, and the practice of science which is an overlapping mesh of contestation and consensus (and careers, petty rivalries, vested interests, political/ethical commitments etc). 'Scientific socialism' would be a lot less shit if it was more like actual science, though that's no panacea.


the identification with dialectics as the only method and framework for revolutionary politics

Obviously there are some pretty dodgy leftist cults around, but I think this happens a lot in good faith too. My impression is people read Marx and are (understandably) impressed, and then see 'the dialectic' as some kind of theoretical skeleton key. Of course Marx himself warned against this:


the method of presentation must differ in form from that of inquiry. The latter has to appropriate the material in detail, to analyse its different forms of development, to trace out their inner connexion. Only after this work is done, can the actual movement be adequately described. If this is done successfully, if the life of the subject-matter is ideally reflected as in a mirror, then it may appear as if we had before us a mere a priori construction.

So Marx is stressing that first, detailed inquiry is needed, second, the 'inner connexions' between forms need to be traced, and finally, this can be presented (as in Capital, dialectically). The thing here is that only internal relations afford a dialectical presentation. Insisting on dialectics as the method thus presupposes conclusions which can only be the result of inquiry. I like Roy Bhaskar on this, but can't be bothered to type it all up, so here's a photo:

Thing is, here Bhaskar is talking about natural and social science. (Activist*) political theory is often a lot more pragmatic and engaged than that, as you suggest. It's one thing if we have plenty of time to research and write something up (an analysis of a historical movement, or a struggle we were involved in). Then we can take our time to work out a method and a framework, if we want. But in the course of actual struggles that's rarely the case, and theory often acts more like a set of rules of thumb, in the face of uncertainty and no clear optimum decision, yet a necessity to make one nonetheless.

So while I'm sympathetic to Bhaskar's arguments to unify natural and social sciences (with caveats), I agree there can be no single 'revolutionary method' and that the question is the extent to which theories or methods make sense in a given context. Incidentally that's quite like science - there's legitimate scope for different methods, which is why scientific papers typically have a section detailing and justifying their choices.

* Activist in the sense of informing political activity, not in the sense of 'Give Up Activism'


8 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Pennoid on April 7, 2015

There are questions that cannot be answered as formulated by bourgeois science. Unless you want to take a crack at "Why did Napoleon invade Russia" at the level of biology. I take that to be essentially what Scott is saying.

This isn't to say the method of inquiry utilized by science is inherently bourgeois or does not fit into questions regarding social issues ( the general approach is the same; conjure a hypothesis, test it in a controlled investigation, deliberate and discuss the results/observations.)

As Pannekoek puts it:

The axiom of materialism, that the mental is determined by the material world, has therefore entirely different meanings for the two doctrines. For bourgeois materialism it means that ideas are products of the brain, of the structure and composition of the brain substance, in the last instance, of the dynamics of the atoms of the brain. For historical materialism it means that the ideas of man are determined by his social environment. Society is his environment which acts upon him through his sense organs. This postulates an entirely different approach to the problem and a different direction of thought; consequently, also a different theory of knowledge. For bourgeois materialism the question of the meaning of knowledge is a question of the relationship of spiritual phenomena to the physico-chemical-biological phenomena in the brain matter. For historical materialism it is a question of the relationship of the ideas in our mind to the phenomena which we view as the external world.

Dawkins is perhaps maybe the best contemporary example of the follies of applying narrowly useful scientific laws willy nilly in social investigation.


8 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by noclass on April 8, 2015

Pennoid, what you say is also under the category of science, I have no problem that communists must rely on science, and nothing else. Your quotation, is also an argument in that category.

Then, what is this:

Science is one tool we can use in some contexts

What other tools are we suppose to use, a tool that is not science?

Now, in this one:

I don't see a single framework fitting them all science included .

What other framework other than "a" scientific framework?

And finally, in this:

Science largely fits in on the global scale, but for our agency only in certain contexts maybe

In certain contexts science does not fits in on the global scale? What is this?!


8 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by s.nappalos on April 24, 2015

Noclass, I didn't intend to negate science. It's more that there are different perspectives forced on us as revolutionaries and realistically as intentional actors. In our day to day existence as agents acting in specific seconds and minutes, science has more limited value since our rational ability is pretty limited for individual acts. We're not very good at applying reason and large scale thinking to daily minutia though obviously scientific reasoning can help guide our actions over a larger scale. To give a concrete example let's say you find some trajectory that's likely for society on a macro-scale like potential conflicts around energy in the next ten years. Those tools don't necessarily help you make specific decisions about your daily activities except in broad brush strokes. Maybe they can help you pick targets or focus energy, but it doesn't help you talk to a shy coworker, or settle jealousy between neighbors, etc. Nor can you really apply the scientific method to solve your issues with say your daily issues in a neighborhood committee. Science also doesn't settle ethical issues. So to me the issue is that our lives as individual agents trying to pick specific actions in fleeting moments have gaps from scientific predictions, and part of politics is trying to bring them closer and managing those gaps.


8 years 4 months ago

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Submitted by ocelot on April 30, 2015

Which part of ethical/normative frameworks != scientific domain, did you not get noclass?


"revealed many truths by hard scientific works"

Why always with the phallic imagery?