As section officers and general Marxist scholars, sometimes we receive questions regarding Marx and his work. I really appreciate these questions because they allow me to contemplate issues I have not really considered, or speak to issues about which I have great passion. The following is a brief email exchange, edited slightly to fit the format of our website. The questions are from Pavle Pavlović, a PhD student from the Philological Faculty, University of Belgrade.
What is the relation between “theory and practice,” and what is the meaning of the unity of theory and practice? Does Marx identify practice with the idea of engineering society, so that the knowledge of the laws that govern economic forces serve as an algorithm, to construct, engineer, in a technical way, a new and better political and economic system?
My impression of Marx’s understanding of theory and praxis is that the unfolding of a transition from capitalism to socialism is contingent on the historical circumstances at any given point in time. The logic of capital creates certain preconditions that set the stage for the transition, but the transition is by no means guaranteed to unfold, or unfold in a clearly predictable manner. One of the preconditions is the concentration and centralization of capital into the hands of few, and the general tendency toward increasing relative poverty of workers. Another precondition is the gathering together of labor together in factories and other firms. In this way, capital is increasing the social character of labor in the respect that workers are now producing together under one roof. There are others such as the tendency toward economic crisis, but this gives you the general idea.
Marx’s understanding of theory and praxis is the ability to discern these tendencies in the current economic system to provide an analysis of a future economic system that does not contain the flaws of earlier systems. By understanding, scientifically, the contemporary economic system, the hope is that this knowledge can be used to guide the transition to a more equitable social system. The transition to socialism, and ultimately communism, will be guided by the concrete historical circumstances people have to promote the transition. Marx would not assert that it is possible to “engineer” a new society, but that social movements, the social interaction of people to control and direct the means of production in society, must unfold in ways that are specific to the historical circumstances that those people encounter. The form, speed, and character of any revolution will unfold historically in a dialectic relationship between the movement and the forces that oppose the movement.
Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is an example of how Marx analyzed a potential proletarian revolution. This is the text where Marx asserts, “[People] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” I think this is a great text to get a sense of how to analyze a historical event through a historical materialist lens, but it may not answer your question directly. You can find the text here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/index.htm The chapter on the Paris Commune may also be helpful in this respect. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm
There is a collected work that may better answer your question. If you can find a copy of Marx, Engels, Lenin on Scientific Communism, you may find a good resource to investigate your question a bit further. In this collection, Marx and Engels discuss the inevitability of the self-destructive nature of capital. For example, one quote states, “On the one hand, it has eminently developed the productive forces of society; on the other hand, however, it has demonstrated its own incompatibility with the forces that it has itself brought into existence. Its history is a history of antagonisms, crises, conflicts and disasters.” In addition to describing the preconditions for the development of socialism, they outline the necessary requirements of socialism and communism. Under communism, production is social production, controlled by no single individual, but by the will of the people in society. “Communism as the positive transcendence of private property, as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being–a return become conscious, and accomplished with the entire wealth of previous development.” In this way, Marx outlines what is necessary in a communist society, but not a rigid process for achieving a communist society.
Personally, I would caution against using Marx and Engels’ more inspirational works like “The Communist Manifesto” to understand their perspective on historical transition. Popular works like The Manifesto of the Communist Party are meant to incite workers to action and are written without the depth of Marx’s more academic writing. While The Manifesto is rooted in Marx’s conceptualization, the ideas contained in it are more thoroughly investigated in his later work. In chapter 5 of Marx, Engels, Lenin on Scientific Communism, Engels outlines specific policies in the transition from capitalism to communism. These policies are asserted historically, and not as a means to engineer society. If you want the sources for Engels from the text, let me know. When using this text, I would also suggest viewing Marx and Engels’ views on the transition differently than Lenin’s. Marx and Engels worked very closely together, while Lenin had his own interpretation of Marx’s ideas.
In general, Marx did not attempt to engineer a new society, but argued that the current economic system contained fatal flaws. If we are to overcome the current system, we must work toward the end of private property and toward social forms of meeting society’s needs. Because Marx understood society historically, he also understood any transition would have to depend on the historical conditions under which it occurred. The scientific understanding of the laws that govern any historical economic form do not necessarily provide the blueprint for a transition to a different economic form. The tendencies of any economic form may outline the flaws, but not necessarily serve to guide revolutionary practice. The unfolding of the crisis in the contemporary economic system may lead to a transition, but this transition may only result in a move to socialism if people act to create the necessary conditions for socialism, and ultimately, communism. Any “engineering” would need to be specific to the transition as it took place in a specific geographic region at a specific historical moment in time.