On Jan. 6, thousands of violent insurrectionists stormed the United States Capitol. For many political theorists and historians, this was not an ephemeral divergence from the trajectory of history, but rather an extension of the Trump administration and centuries of institutionalized white supremacy. Now, the most pressing question facing scholars and activists is how to pave a way forward.
As a progressive concerned with building a more just and equitable world, I view the cultivation of a robust theory as a prerequisite to any societal transformation. But critique should not stand on its own — it must principally be augmented by critical praxis: That is, deliberative action which seeks to realize a set of intended goals or ideals. Social change spurs from the dialectical relationship between theory and praxis. Hence, leftists must consistently center this interaction at the fold of our endeavors.
The desire to merge theory and praxis is not new. In fact, this was the precise objective of the Frankfurt School in the 20th century. This group of intellectuals, including Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse, sought to develop a truly transformative theory of politics that was grounded in Marxist critiques of idealism. In “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx famously writes, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Thus, from its inception, the Frankfurt School envisioned a critical theory that ought to be paired with a critical praxis. They not only wanted to critique society, but also to reconstruct it.
Yet, even the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School ultimately deviated from this vision. In “Critique & Praxis,” Bernard Harcourt traces the evolution of critical theory. He shows how novel threats in the 20th century — the rise of fascism and the Holocaust, the “gulag archipelago” and the collapse of Soviet communism, and the emergence of hegemonic neoliberalism — widely undermined faith in human progress, changing the essence of critical theory. Instead of seeking to liberate humans through action, critical theory turned toward mere contemplation. Praxis no longer served as a foundation of critical theory, but rather as a contradiction to it.
The historical parallels between now and the interwar period — pervasive economic insecurity, insurgent political extremism, and a crisis of democracy — were made particularly salient by the events of Jan. 6. And, similar to the obstacles of the mid-20th century, those we currently face demand a revitalization of critical theory and critical praxis.
Indeed, this tension manifests within our own student body at Yale. The nexus of theory and praxis is quickly dwindling on our campus, if it ever really existed at all. Some students choose to invest solely in forums for political thought, dissociating from activism and policy in favor of “pure” critique. Others focus exclusively on practice, denouncing theory as insignificant to material conditions. The debater is rarely also the canvasser, the columnist rarely also the community organizer.
This subsequently produces a disconnect in the types of careers Yale alumni pursue. We are left with academics who remain insulated from the pressures of everyday politics, and practitioners who are distanced from those who analyze and theorize about social progress. This is not to say that academia should be entirely instrumentalized, nor that activism on its own is for naught. It would serve us well, however, to remember that practice necessarily informs theory, and vice versa.
The past year underscores the extent to which our society yearns for such a combination. Raging forest fires and other natural disasters accentuated the urgency of the climate crisis; the brutalization of Black bodies by law enforcement and vigilantes forced an overdue reckoning with entrenched systems of racial subordination; and an unprecedented global pandemic unveiled the precariousness of our healthcare systems. But these crises must not yield despair — we cannot afford for critical times to be met with critical failure once again.
So, what do we do? First, we must elevate the work of figures who already embody this synthesis. Pioneers like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore have been at the forefront of political activism and abolitionist theory for decades, markedly shifting the Overton window while advocating for a better world. Importantly, their strategies can apply to a more expansive array of contemporary issues, ranging from social injustices to threats of authoritarianism. It is therefore incumbent upon leftists to now broaden the scope of our praxis.
To be sure, I am not immune from this objection. I, too, must work to align my life more closely with progressive ideals. This process requires continual introspection, for there can be no fixed roadmap telling everyone on the left how to uniformly embrace praxis. We simply must consider the ways in which our choices conflict with the values we espouse. While no individual nor group can be expected to personify these ideals perfectly, perfection is not a stipulation of progress.
A new year provides a profound opportunity for self-reflection, cliché as it is. Accordingly, Harcourt posits that the problems of the 21st century require a new mode of thinking: One that is not only critical of society, but also of ourselves. He returns to the classical question of “What is to be done?” and instead asks, “What more shall I do, and what work is my praxis doing?”
We each have a stake in these matters, with considerable agency in determining their direction. Let us begin by reimagining how we engage with one another here at Yale.
ANDREW SOROTA is a junior in Pauli Murray college. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.