What is theory for? What good is it, in the fight against capital and state? For much of the left, the Marxist left in particular, the answer is obvious: theory tells us what to do, or what is to be done, in the strangely passive formula often used here. Theory is the pedagogue of practice. Thus, the essential link between Comrade Lenin and his putative enemy, the Renegade Kautsky, the master thinkers of the Third and Second Internationals: despite their storied disagreements, both believed that without the special, scientific knowledge dispensed by intellectuals and dedicated revolutionaries, the working class was doomed to a degraded consciousness, incapable of making revolution or, at any rate, making it successfully. The task of theory, therefore, is to weaponise proletarian consciousness, to turn it toward right action. This didactic view of theory extends across the entire range of Marxist intellectual work in the 20th century, from the comparatively crude Bolshevist programmatics of Lenin and Trotsky to the sophisticated variants offered by Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser.
There are other, non-didactic theories of theory, however. We might look, for instance, to Marx’s own very early reflection on such matters. There is no need to play teacher to the working class, Marx tells his friend Arnold Ruge: “We shall not say, Abandon your struggles, they are mere folly; let us provide you with the true campaign-slogans. Instead we shall simply show the world why it is struggling, and consciousness of this is a thing it will acquire whether it wishes or not.”1 The final turn in this formulation is crucial, since it implies that the knowledge theory provides already abounds in the world; theory simply reflects, synthesizes and perhaps accelerates the “self-clarification…of the struggles and wishes of an age”. Theory is a moment in the self-education of the proletariat, whose curriculum involves inflammatory pamphlets and beer-hall oratory as much as barricades and streetfighting.
In this regard, theory is more a map than a set of directions: a survey of the terrain in which we find ourselves, a way of getting our bearings in advance of any risky course of action. I am thinking here of Fredric Jameson’s essay on the “cultural logic of late capitalism”, and his call for “cognitive maps” that can orient us within the new spaces of the postindustrial world. Though Jameson must surely count as an exponent of the pedagogical view of theory — calling for cognitive maps by way of a defense of didacticism in art — part of the appeal of this essay is the way his call for maps emerges from a vividly narrated disorientation, from a phenomenology of the bewildered and lost. Describing the involuted voids of the Bonaventure hotel, Jameson situates the reader within a spatial allegory for the abstract structures of late capitalism and the “incapacity of our minds…to map the great global multinational and decentered communication network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects”.2 Theory is a map produced by the lost themselves, offering us the difficult view from within rather than the clarity of the Olympian view from above.