Discussions of the recent communist conference have me thinking about the relationship between theory and practice, again. Conveniently, I was reading Poulantzas today on the role of theories of the state in revolutionary action:
They can never be anything other than applied theoretical-strategic notions, serving, to be sure, as guide to action, but at the very most in the manner of road signs. A “model” of the State of transition to socialism cannot be drawn up: not as a universal model capable of being concretized in given cases, nor even as an infallible, theoretically guaranteed recipe for one or several countries…. One cannot ask any theory, however scientific it may be, to give more than it possesses—not even Marxism, which remains a genuine theory of action. There is always a structural difference between theory and practice, between theory and the real (State, Power, Socialism, 22).
There’s something odd about the criticisms of the conference for failing to propose practical solutions, a simultaneous desire to be given solutions and a disavowal of that desire: “these intellectuals won’t tell us what to do; and who are they to tell us what to do, anyway?” But there is a slightly unsettling paradox; the proper orientation of theory to practice is for theory to not seek to substitute for practice, that is, for theory to remain theoretical, rather than proposing programs or organizations. This is Badiou’s point in his claim that there is no such thing as political philosophy; philosophy is never, as philosophy, directly political. Badiou also suggests the coverse of this statement is true: that politics is always philosophical. It seems to me this is also a consequence of Poulantzas’s idea of a gap between theory and practice. Practice is always stretching towards theory, attempting to read the road signs, as it were.