Primer Red (Part 5): Praxis

“Primer Red” is our political education series on some basics of radical thought and history. See Parts I (dialectics), II (alienation), III (class), and IV (value). Please share questions and suggestions for future discussions!

Society doesn’t change because people’s attitudes improve. It changes because people change it “materially”—because people change the physical world and change how people relate to each other, not just person-to-person, but group-to-group and class-to-class. This is what Marx meant when he said that philosophers had spent their time describing the world, when the purpose was to change it. It is also what people mean when they talk about “praxis.”

Praxis is just the ancient Greek word for “practice” (or “doing”). Usually, when a perfectly usable English word is available instead of a Latin or Greek one, you should use it. But over the years, “praxis” has taken on a deeper meaning among Marxists. Nowadays, “praxis” means the process of transforming the theory and ideas of socialism into concrete “practice” done by people in the real world. So when we take the ancient Greek root and the plain English meaning among socialists, “praxis” literally means “doing socialism.”

Okay, so how do we “do socialism”? Well, there are a lot of ways of turning the ideas of socialism into socialism in the world. We can “do socialism” in lots and lots of ways. There are two major types of activities people mean when they talk about “praxis.” First is “doing socialism” by what we can call “making socialism,” that is, creating structures and relationships in the real world. The second is what we can call “pursuing socialism,” or fighting for political or social outcomes that strengthen workers in the struggle against capitalists.

“Making socialism” could include building representative democratic organizations that account for historical imbalances, where we learn how to make decisions through discussion, debate, ordered process, and voting. Another way we “make” socialism is by organizing our workplaces into democratic unions in order to force democracy into the workplace, or by aiding and supporting others who are organizing their workplaces (engaging in “solidarity”). Teaching ourselves how to actually construct equitable organizations and institutions is “doing socialism.” It’s praxis. So people engage in “praxis” by trying to actually organize their social, political, and economic worlds in ways that are socialist—that is, equitable and democratically controlled. When DSA chapters pool their knowledge and time to engage in direct service provision, like brake light replacement or disaster relief, that is a form of praxis intended to make the world we live in closer to a socialist world, with people contributing what they can afford to contribute to the commonwealth so those in need can directly benefit, all the while building personal and community relationships between individuals and groups of workers, and between socialist organizers and unorganized workers.

“Pursuing” socialism is “praxis” by fighting for policies and outcomes that further the causes of socialism. That is, that bring an equitable, democratically controlled world closer to reality through societal-level policy changes. When socialists debate radical versus superficial reforms, it is really an argument about which is better socialist praxis. For example, one of the major reasons socialists support single-payer (or nationalized) health care is not because it is morally right (though it is!), but because socially controlled healthcare also helps shift the balance of power to workers from capital. When workers rely on their bosses for their healthcare, either through wages or benefits, they are not only in a weaker bargaining position with their bosses, but the “commodity value” of labor (wages) is kept low, because workers always have to bargain for healthcare as well as wages. What’s more, socialists pursuing and winning a popular policy like Medicare for All attracts workers to socialism as a movement. So fighting for Medicare for All achieves many goals at once, all the while making a structural change to the relationship between workers and capitalists: It takes away one of capitalists’ strongest bargaining chips.

Pursuing Medicare for All is therefore “good praxis” in the sense that it is a reform that doesn’t just paper over one of capitalism’s abuses but eliminates it, while at the same time strengthening the political movement of socialism.

There is at least one element common to all “good praxis,” though: praxis and ideology are a cycle. It doesn’t just go one way, from theory to practice. We let our ideas inform our work, but we have to also let our work inform our ideas. We test our theories out in the world, and as we gain experience, we develop our theories further. This is a dialectical process that helps to make sure that we do not just become stubborn ideologues who try to read the world to fit our ideas.

Socialism has to accommodate the lived inequities we encounter in real life. When we find, in our real-world democratic organizations, that men tend to dominate groups and women are predominantly left to take on administrative tasks, we have to develop our theory to acknowledge the reality: “Neutral” democratic structure doesn’t itself make things equitable. We now know that there are real-life dynamics that result in an inequity that nobody may intend, but that is present nonetheless. So we acknowledge that social conditioning doesn’t check itself at the meeting-room door, and include principles of shared responsibility and shared work into our theories. In turn, to engage in good “doing” of that theory, we need to organize ourselves to make sure we have a process that develops equity in leadership and distributes work equitably.

Socialist feminism and anti-racist socialism are two of the most dynamic areas of the praxis/theory cycle, which shouldn’t be surprising since the lived experience of women and people of color engaged in socialist action should provide to organizers a lot of information about actual inequities not experienced by advantaged groups. We use “feminist process” in our work as a result of the study of group dynamics by feminist organizers who identified inequity in day-to-day work and developed theory as a result. We apply that theory to our work—we do socialism better.

Praxis is a bit of jargon that gets thrown around a lot, often just for good old-fashioned ha-ha’s (which is fine, since laughing at ourselves is also good praxis). But don’t let the jargon get in the way of its useful application: Praxis is practice—that is, doing. Our “doing” should reflect our theories, and our theories should reflect our doing.