Revolutionary Horizons and the Role of Theory

An Interview with Sam Salour of the Marxist Education Project

Every week, Sam Salour sits down (on Zoom) with a couple dozen other intrepid readers, and works through Marxist texts, each member of the week’s gathering reading a few lines at a time, out loud. It’s a slow way to get through Capital, but one can really get a handle on concepts like commodity fetishism or primitive accumulation if you have the patience and dedication to talk it out over two months in a context where no question is too basic. It is indeed Sam’s patience, careful explanations, and guidance that carry these reading groups forward. Upping the Anti’s Sharmeen Khan—herself an attendee of these reading groups—sat down with Sam to talk about the project, and more importantly, the role and place of theory in radical movement work.

A contentious issue that I’ve experienced, and I think a lot of our readers have, is the role of theory in organizing. I’ve heard some people say it’s important, but there’s also a lot of dismissiveness, and they claim that theory isn’t accessible, or that working-class people don’t read theory, that it’s the realm of academia. We really wanted to have an interview with someone to talk about why we, as organizers, engage in political theory. So, can you introduce yourself and talk about your political journey with Marxism and revolutionary organizing?

Sure. I’m from Iran and I grew up in a radical Marxist family, but my parents never had me sit down and read Marx or any type of politics. I actually did my bachelor’s in mathematics, and a master’s in theoretical physics. But by the time I was doing my master’s, I had tensions between what I was doing and what I thought was important in terms of social justice and various problems in the world. I was at Cambridge, this small college with highly intellectual “smart” people, but they didn’t really care much about the fact that, for example, so many people don’t have the opportunity to study there, even though they may be much smarter. These sorts of social issues didn’t really bother them. But it bothered me a lot, and that’s where I decided to shift and do other things. So I started reading history and philosophy on my own at home. After a couple of months, for the first time, my mom was like “well, maybe you should read Marx.”

Unlike most who start with the Communist Manifesto or other popular texts, those actually didn’t appeal to me. The text that really affected me was Capital, and for the first time I felt that this is a text that can help me understand the world.

I eventually started a master’s degree at the New School for Social Research. I spent a couple of years in New York, and for most of it, I was in my room reading. It was all very new to me; I had no background in social sciences and humanities. I was lucky to find the Marxist Education Project (MEP), an institute dedicated to Marxist education. With a group of comrades at MEP we read a lot of Marx—Grundrisse, the three volumes of Capital, Theories of Surplus Value—and many Marxist writers.

In 2018, I came to Santa Barbara and joined the PhD program. I continued to read with comrades at MEP and became active with the grad student labour union when we had a strike in early 2020. I came back to New York when COVID happened and participated in the BLM protests where I met some folks who created this revolutionary collective called Tempest. I joined Tempest in October 2021 and alongside the MEP, it has been the place where I’ve been doing most of my organizing.

You put in a lot of your personal time in these reading groups and your style of facilitation also means helping with explaining difficult concepts and helping with analysis. And you mostly do this for free. Why do you choose not to charge for the time you spend teaching people? Also, what is your theory on pedagogy and creating mechanisms of understanding?

These reading groups have been very educational for me, and I just don’t see a need to ask for money. Although, if I felt that extremely rich people were coming to these classes, sure; I would take their money! Why not? But yeah, otherwise I don’t see a need to ask for money. Hopefully, after I finish my PhD I can do this full time, and maybe then I will have to ask for some money just to pay rent.

As for teaching, I don’t really have a teaching theory or style. I honestly never thought of myself as a good teacher, but I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they find my explanations helpful. I don’t use a technique or have a specific way of teaching. I’ve been doing the reading groups at the MEP and, over time, what I’ve found most useful, is reading together. We don’t ask anyone to read or prepare beforehand. It’s definitely slow; it takes a year, or even more, to read a 300-page book. But I’ve found it to be the most useful way because when we read one or two chapters each meeting, what usually happens is that half of the group has read it and the other half hasn’t. Even the half that has read the book, they may only remember a few main concepts, so usually discussions tend to move away from the reading to general topics that people are concerned about. But when we are reading together, we actually discuss what we’re reading, and sometimes even stay on a paragraph or even a line for a long time.

Yeah, it’s the first time I’ve done a reading group where we read in class, and it’s definitely slower, but I’ve gotten the sense that participants can actually understand it. This leads to my second question about expertise. You said you’re pretty much self-taught, so I’m wondering how you balance new readers and those who have experience in Marxist theory in a shared space. How do you create space for questions?

My reading groups are mostly oriented toward non-experts. If someone has a lot of experience in Marxist theory, they’re probably not going to take much out of my class, or they wouldn’t be interested.

One kind of response I get a lot to reading Capital is why it is relevant right now to our current conjuncture in politics and organizing. You talked about being active in BLM and Tempest, and a lot of militant organizers, even people who say they are anti-capitalist or socialist, ask “Why go to that old book?” How do you respond to people who think Capital is not relevant or necessary to read anymore?

Honestly, there are many layers and many different responses to that question. One is that for immediate day-to-day organizing, it’s not relevant at all! I helped organize a wildcat strike here in Santa Barbara among the University of California campuses’ grad students. Honestly, Capital was not relevant at all there. I was just organizing, and in that kind of organizing, there are immediate objectives that you need to get done.

It’s ironic that we have a lot of people who read about social movements, and they constantly want to impose their theories and the readings on actual day-to-day organizing. It becomes extremely frustrating because, rather than just being in the moment and doing what’s necessary, there’s the constant “oh, I’ve read that this is how we’re supposed to do things…” So actually for me, a big tension in our strike was fighting against those who wanted to impose readings on day-to-day organizing.

Let me put it this way: a big thing that came up in our strike was the defunding of state universities. Some science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students who may not have thought a lot about these issues were intrigued by a set of data on the trends in state funding of universities. The discussion, at some point, turned to questions about macro factors, like “What’s neoliberalism? Has this happened in other universities? Has this happened in other countries?” This is the nub of the issue: human beings think about and try to make sense of their social condition. Faced with new experiences, particularly those derived from struggle, they begin to question commonly held beliefs and look for different answers. The side with the most convincing answers and feasible solutions has the best chance of winning them over.

The relevance of Marx’s Capital, like any theory, is in its ability to explain the world, to help us make sense of our world. This is not about being or not being a Marxist. I no longer identify with Marxism nor with any other -ism, since it is simply not helpful.

The question for me is this: does Marx’s Capital, or explanations provided in Marx’s Capital, help us understand the socio-historical reality of the past 200 years? Does it help us understand the creation and defunding of the welfare state, growing under- and unemployment, financialization, the great recession, growing inequality, and so on? My answer is “yes.”

Coming from the sciences, I would say that Marx’s Capital has the same place as Newton’s theory of gravity or Einstein’s theory of relativity: it’s something that explains the world, and the moment that explanation is wrong, then it should be discarded. But I think the empirical reality of the past 200 years actually shows that it’s not wrong, and therefore, it’s valuable. This is not just an academic question. Forget about academia; I do think most academics are irrelevant to the world, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. They have fun with each other; they create their own jargon; they think they are very knowledgeable. So putting them aside, in what sense, and how, does revolutionary theory and knowledge matter?

I feel this was also part of your question, and I would say that it does matter. But let me just say it this way: if we take some 50-year period, you might find that in an entire 50 years, a book like Capital doesn’t matter. But in the year 52, it could become relevant! And that has to do with the creation of revolutionary moments, which are very rare. We are not living in a revolutionary moment, and so it is the experience of many of these organizers to find Marx’s Capital irrelevant. They are correct in finding Capital irrelevant because they were born, they grew up, and they organize in a society that has never experienced a revolutionary moment.

Let me put it a better way: when we live in times of defeat, in times where there is no revolutionary horizon, where there is no revolutionary perspective, it’s very understandable that Capital is appealing to neither normal people nor organizers. The horizon doesn’t exist, the possibility doesn’t exist, so when there is no hope of changing society from its roots, Marx’s theory cannot be turned into a material force.

For the past 50 years, we have been living in such a period. People don’t see the possibility of an alternative world, of a better society, and we sort of forget about the historical dynamics explained by Marx, but they exist nonetheless. There is such a thing as capitalism. Capitalism does impose its own rules of reproduction, relations of domination and exploitation. As we forget about it, we also lose an understanding of why institutions have been shaped the way they have been. We even forget to see the link between those larger dynamics and our micro-organizations. All of this wouldn’t matter if a revolutionary horizon was never to develop. But I think the crisis-ridden nature of a capitalist society and the class conflict arising from it does create revolutionary moments, and this is where a well-developed revolutionary theory becomes crucial. In the absence of such a theory that can help people make sense of their changing social reality, the desire for a better world may end up in catastrophe, either in a right-wing ascendancy, or it can relapse into reformist attempts that will result only in failure.

What do you think of the emergence of right-wing talking points? What is stopping left social movements from being able to fill up that space that people are craving, something that’s different from the status quo? How is it that so many people, working-class people, are turning to more right-wing fascist ideas?

I think that’s an incredibly difficult question and I cannot really have an answer to it. What I can emphasize based on what I said before, is the importance of developing a revolutionary theory that can account for people’s experiences and explain, in day-to-day language, why things have happened the way they have. Let’s say a white working-class American goes to find a job and then gets out-competed by an Indian or a Chinese person. If someone comes up and says, “I’m going to get rid of that Chinese and Indian who’s taking your job,” I think that will appeal to them. That doesn’t happen because they are stupid; it actually happens because it fits their lived experience. A key role for the Left is to develop its theory so as to make sense of people’s experiences, but unfortunately, due to the crisis of a revolutionary perspective over the past 50 years, we have failed to develop our theory in many ways.

Obviously, developing a theory will not solve all our problems nor can it create a powerful Left. How is the Left ready to be reconstituted? What form of organization should we have? How can we unite different sectors of the Left, when most of the time we are fighting with each other more severely than we fight with the Right? I don’t really know. I joined this collective, Tempest, because, as opposed to some others, they don’t assume they have an answer to these questions. They actually define the purpose of the collective as a collective attempt to find answers.

Political texts can’t encompass everything, but one of the critiques of Marx that comes up in our readings, and also generally, is around issues of women’s labour and social reproduction, and also colonialism. We know that Marx was writing during a certain time, but should we be reading more feminist social reproductive theory, in order to get the whole picture? Or read more anti-colonial Marxists? I’m just wondering how you respond to people who ask about those limitations around social reproduction or lack of analysis around colonization.

Right, this is obviously an issue filled with tensions and people get extremely defensive, which is unfortunate. I’m not at all an expert in issues of race or gender. Sure, I’ve read some things and I’m familiar with the literature, but not in the way that I have studied monetary theory, economic development, and economic history. I guess to me, part and parcel of the problem is that many people sort of assume that Marx claims to have explained everything. Then they correctly find, for example, that Marx didn’t really explain how or why racial and gender oppression are reproduced and take the forms they do. The conclusion is that we should either abandon Marx or modify his fundamental categories to account for all these other phenomena. To me that’s a mistaken understanding of Marx’s work. Marx does not claim to explain everything.

Now, we can and must do research to analyze and explain how a phenomenon such as race began, or how gender oppression is reproduced under capitalism. But this does not mean that we need to modify or complete Marx’s work unless we find that Marx’s theory is incapable of explaining its own object of analysis. I have not yet read a book on social reproduction or colonialism that convinces me Marx’s analysis of the laws of motion of capitalism, of its tendencies to overaccumulation, overproduction, and crisis are wrong

Reality is complex and there are many issues, but Marx has a certain object of analysis, and his object of analysis is to explain and try to understand a new form of society and its differences with the old forms of society. This new form of society is a society that has an immense tendency to increase productive forces and it has an immense tendency to innovate technologically. This is a society that is regulated by the rate of profit, where competition of capitalists imposes certain movements on people, and so on. This is what he tries to understand, and in my view, none of the theories of environment, race, gender, or colonialism are actually capable of explaining these phenomena, nor have any of them refuted Marx’s explanations of these phenomena.

They are actually trying to explain other phenomena, which can be directly related to what Marx is talking about. Obviously, capitalist exploitation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Obviously, if capitalists find out that they can exploit women or Black people more than white people, they will do that. And obviously the reproduction of gender relations, domination, and racial relations is not purely explainable under capitalist laws of motion, but I would just say: so what?

But having a concept of capitalism at the back of your mind that distinguishes, for example, a capitalist society from ancient Rome, from ancient Persia, from ancient China, is incredibly helpful to understand new forms of, let’s say, gender domination. Gender domination is nothing new to capitalism; it has existed for thousands of years, like colonialism. The interesting question for me is how capitalist society does it differently, how it justifies it differently. To understand that, to be able to think about that, in my view, you need to have a conception of what a capitalist society is, separate from these other things.

So, we don’t have this emergence in Canada, but do you think that the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has been something to be excited about in terms of that revolutionary horizon?

It’s definitely interesting. I mean it’s riddled with contradictions. For example, one of the most recent ones is that the leading voices in the DSA and Jacobin are defending a politician’s actions in support of Israel. Essentially, they are saying that a principled position on Palestine is not politically expedient. For many, perhaps that’s horrible and for me that’s also horrible. But, the DSA is something that didn’t exist 10 or 20 years ago. I think that the DSA, amongst the rise of the Right and the rise of Bernies and Corbyns, are all signs that things are changing.

When it comes to organizing and when it comes to thinking about revolution, we would be wrong to base our analysis on our experiences of the past 40 or 50 years. How are things changing and how should one organize in this changing environment are difficult questions. But I think the importance of theory, to some extent here, is that it can offer an historical perspective to tell us how things are changing and in what direction. Could that, in turn, inform organizing? I don’t really think there are easy answers, but I do think organizers should be aware of this changing context.

One other kind of emergence that has been exciting is the politics of abolition, people going after police budgets and defunding prisons. I never thought that abolitionist politics would be as popular now, even as close as five years ago. So I’m wondering, would that be an example of how theories of abolition, which aren’t explicitly anti-capitalist or Marxist in name, could be galvanized, and could inspire new activists and revolutionaries?

Absolutely. What is interesting are the contradictions that these theories and the organizing coming from them fall into. So, I certainly identify as an abolitionist, but what does abolition really mean? To me, abolition really means abolishing capital. Because you cannot abolish the police force without abolishing capitalism, right? So I think the development of this and, particularly, how this was pushed by the BLM protests is really fascinating. Again, it’s a sign of things changing. Although I think this, on the one hand, and the development of theory on the other hand, shows the crisis of the Left in its theory and organizing. Many people adhere to the notion of abolition, and being a Marxist or an anarchist is a point of pride, a point of identity that I’m an abolitionist and nothing less. And then you have those on the other side of the Left, perhaps what we call reformers, who say that if you go to normal people and tell them police should be abolished, they’re not going to find that appealing or even acceptable. That’s not because they are white supremacists, or because they are racist, right?

Now, I kind of agree with that, because to the extent that we live in a capitalist society, the idea of abolishing the police is not a very reasonable idea. So, then the question becomes, how do we deal with these sorts of conflicts? Unfortunately these two sides of the debate would mostly insult each other, and there really is no communication between them anymore. But how do we deal with these conflicts, how do we think about these things? That this idea has managed to find its way into the streets through the BLM protests was so joyful and interesting for me. But, even when I was flyering and talking to people, I could never say “abolition.” I could, for example, tell them “hey listen, it’s not right to send police when someone has a mental collapse,” and they would be like “oh yeah, that’s acceptable, that’s reasonable, we agree with that.” But at the same time, if I were to use the word ‘defund’ or ‘abolition’ they wouldn’t even listen. So all of this to say that this again brings in questions regarding theory and organizations.

On the theoretical side, it’s not very clear to me that many understand very immediately that to say abolition is to say “abolish capitalism.” One cannot exist without the other. And on the organizing side, it is not clear to me if we know how to organize and advocate for these ideas without feeling obliged to say these words. To the extent that organizations such as the DSA want to remain within the existing political spectrum, such as the Democratic Party, they have to discard abolition. The problem to which no one has an answer even those who say that we should break from the Democratic Party is that, well: how do you do it? How you do it is by being relevant, of course. You know, I can say “hey, I’m a third party” and get 0.1 percent of the vote. Then the argument from the other side says you are irrelevant. They’re not incorrect, but then in supporting the Democratic Party, they end up discarding abolition, they end up supporting someone who supports Israel against Palestine. So how do you resolve or get out of these conflicts?

I think this debate is important though. You have to speak to people where they are at, but I don’t know what barometer to use; I don’t know how to judge that. When people say, “Oh, most people won’t understand Marx,” I don’t know what survey they’re using! Maybe it’s just personal experience, but it’s always a question for me. Approaching people where they are is important, but then being able to push forward your politics or theories, to not be afraid of challenging people . . . yeah it’s definitely hard. Where I’ve seen changes in Canada, specifically, has been around Indigenous sovereignty and also around migrant justice. Public opinion has changed in my lifetime, and I didn’t think it ever would. But I think people, rather than engaging with difficult ideas, get more inspired by the resistance in the streets, and not by taking the time to read and study together.

I think you will always find a few that will be interested in picking up a book and thinking more deeply. And I think it’s absolutely critical for there to be spaces for that, which I think we are generally lacking on the Left, spaces for those to really educate themselves outside of academia. Their knowledge may not be useful for a decade, maybe two or three decades, but if a revolutionary moment arises, if a revolutionary horizon arises, and there is no organization that is capable of turning that moment into something more, then that moment will just pass. I think a lot of Trotskyites and Leninist organizations think that that’s what they are doing, but if you talk to them, I think they have some serious problems. One is that they essentially think that they have resolved any sort of problems in the theory of organizing. So their position is essentially, “we have theory, and we know how to organize. All we have to do is wait for the revolutionary horizon to open up, and then we will seize the moment!” I think the reason that they’re not going to be able to do that is that we actually have not resolved the crisis of theory, nor have we resolved the crisis in organizing. So I think what leftists should do now is to form organizations that attempt to solve those problems. I think that is really the best we can do now. In such organizations, there will be a few who are interested in theory; not everyone needs to be interested, of course. Ultimately in certain things, many are allergic to the word “expertise,” but you need experts; you need people who sit down and who read 1,000 books. We need people who do that, so that many, many others don’t have to do it. But, the role of the intellectual is to serve, not to talk down, and not to “own” this space as an intellectual. So we need them, but we also need organizations that experiment constantly with different forms of organizing and always have that longer-term revolutionary horizon in mind. *

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