Theory and Practice from the Point of View of Human Needs

Agnes Heller

Theory and practice always belong to the same productive and social unit (structure), as its constructive elements. This explains why theory and practice in different societies differ not only in their content but also in the way in which they interact, so that the function of theory differs too. There are quite a few social units (one can find many examples for this even among the so‑called "primitive societies" of the twentieth century) where theory and practice are not differentiated, but fulfil the function of social reproduction in an integral way. Thus, from the point of view of the problem presented here, one must not reduce the early‑medieval and bourgeois societies to a common denominator. In the former Christianity was not simply a homogeneous ideology, but penetrated the daily practice of men, whose conforming or divergent aims were motivated by, among other things, the hegemonic ideology. The general problem of the relation between practice and theory did not even emerge until the advent of bourgeois society. If it has emerged, it has never done more than simply raise the question why persons or groups of people did not realise their principles. However, this is not significant for our problem; at best, it is a secondary element of it.

So the general problem of the relation between theory and practice is a particular problem of bourgeois society, a product of its structure and of the manifestation of that structure. Therefore, precisely when the problem is posed in its most general form, we ought to be quite clear in our minds that we are confronting a particular problem, which is itself a product of history, and, as one might expect, bound to a definite historical period, however long and important that period is. [58/59]

I would like to make it clear from the beginning that in the course of my argument I shall not be dealing with the relation between the theory of natural science and practice, although the rise of natural science, from Galileo on, constitutes an integral aspect of the process to which I refer. In the following pages I shall limit my analysis to the relation between social theory and practice.

Posing the problem of this relation is in itself the consequence and the expression of the division of labour and of commodity production. The formation of the intelligentsia, as a particular social stratum whose task is to "produce" theory, is a result of the division of labour. The social forces which create theory will be separate from those which realise it. This is true even if the theoretician represents the interests of a certain class directly, for in bourgeois society even quite divergent theories conform to the schema of commodity production. Whether they directly express the interests of a certain class or not, theories still in every case end up on the market. That not all products reach the market is a fact so obvious that it does not call for any analysis. Such discussion is made superfluous by the very fact that in the latter case—if we take the structure of capitalist society as it is—the theoretical product does not even have the opportunity to be transformed into practice. So I shall discard this aspect from the point of view of the problem in hand.

The principal form in which theory arrives on the market is publication. This is the way in which theory becomes available and can attract the consumer. There are secondary forms such as propaganda activities, which are either mediated by personal contact or, as is becoming increasingly the case, by the mass media, or by both. In free market systems theory also comes on to the free market, and human beings take it or leave it, utilise it or not, according to their needs. Under conditions of a manipulated market, free competition in theories must also be limited. Most theoretical products put into circulation on the market are from the outset designed to manipulate public opinion in a predetermined direction. And what is more: in the bourgeois society appositional and even revolutionary theory is in most cases bound to follow the same [59/60] route, since it is channelled in that direction by the structure of society. Marx's well‑known statement that the theory which penetrates the masses becomes a material force, also presupposes—at least at some imaginary starting‑point—the existence of masses influenced by the ideology of the dominant class, and a revolutionary theory without masses.

In consequence of the modern division of labour, the theoretician (it does not matter whether he is an economist, a philosopher or a sociologist) is someone who offers his theory on the market. As we are working with an abstract model, let us put his various motives in parentheses, and suppose that all these "men of theory" appear on the market with their theoretical products because they regard their ideologies and the points of view expressed in their theories as true. Let us suppose that in selling their theories they are not led by the mere desire to gain money and high positions but rather by the hope that the circulation or acceptance of their ideas will influence society, either the whole or certain parts of it, in a direction that they regard as preferable. Obviously, this is not true in the great majority of cases, but for the analysis of the relation between theory and practice any motivation divergent from this can be put into parentheses. At this point, the problem is to determine the identity of the "purchasers" of this commodity, how they buy it and what motives drive them to acquire what they do.

It is universally known that even if the appropriation of certain ideas assumes mass proportions, this does not necessarily imply that the theory finds its way, through these mediations, into practice. The majority of those who adhere to a theory are ordinary consumers, who consume a theory as they would a toothpaste. This mode of consumption is the so-called "general culture", a condition sine qua non for belonging to a given social stratum, just as using a certain brand of toothpaste. Of course, the level of consumption itself can act as an index. It can indicate which theories are on their way to being transformed into practice in certain strata, because the market demand for these theories usually increases. All the same, the more manipulated the market becomes, the less are indices of this kind reliable. [60/61]

Since I am here analysing theory from the point of view of practice I must neglect all those "purchasers" who are consumers only in the above sense. Consequently, I have to limit my enquiry to an analysis of those who purchase theoretical products from the point of view of practice, their motives and the way in which they acquire theory.

This investigation, however, presupposes a previous definition of practice and of the practical efficacy of theory as well. It is possible to operate with a fairly general definition of the concept of practice which includes every type of social activity and, in the last analysis, human activity in general. This is one of the meaningful concepts of practice, but it does not make sense when one analyses practice precisely in its interaction with theory. If in fact we set out from so wide a definition of practice, all theoretical activities ought to be considered as practical activities as well, thus losing the differentia specifica.

That is why we have to find a more restricted definition for the concept of practice, without rejecting the general‑ontological concept of praxis. At this point, however, we find ourselves confronted with a new difficulty, i.e. the impossibility of formulating an integrated definition for the concept of practice in this narrower sense. For these kinds of practice in the narrower sense can be interpreted only in relation to their corresponding theories.

In the development of my analysis I shall not take into consideration those ideologies that directly express an apologia for capitalist society, and I shall not deal with the corresponding practice which keeps the existing society working. I do not regard these ideologies as theories, even if they aspire to be such. As direct manifestations of false consciousness, they can be described as pseudo‑theories, just as the corresponding practice, whose only function is to "keep things working", is a pseudo‑practice.

The various kinds of practice, and the various types of theory that correspond to them, differ from each other according to their aims and also according to whether they are or at least try to be realised in mass action or not, and if they are, what kind of mass action this is. In this respect, the problem of "means"—and in particular, whether to use violence or [61/62] not—has, in my view, no decisive importance. I am in fact convinced that if we put this problem above the others, a grasp of the real difference between the various types of theory and practice becomes impossible. Posed at this level of abstraction, the question whether the use of violence is right or wrong, is or is not admissible, is or is not necessary, seems to me altogether sterile. The dilemma can only be resolved concretely, from the standpoint of the aims and the character of the social movement of a certain practice and of a concrete situation. A given type of theory and practice always has its adequate means in every concrete situation. The use or avoidance of violence can be decided only by investigating whether its employment—and not in general, but in its concrete form—is or is not adequate for the aims and the movement of a given practice. It is not adequate if its use destroys the aims and the movement themselves or pushes them in a direction which diverges from the original intentions.

I repeat: I consider the aims and the character of the various movements as the real basis for classification. From this point of view we can distinguish the following types of practice.

(1) So‑called partial reform: a type of activity that sets itself the task of transforming individual sectors, institutions, or relations of society. In this case the original intention is actually partial reform, i.e. reform that does not transcend the presuppositions of the given society. Reformist theories and activities of this type can be directed towards quite different kinds of sphere, for example towards the economic system, the political system, the legislative system or the educational system. The partial reforms are in most cases worked out by experts (who are in the sector affected), although it is not exclusively experts who take part in the formulation of the theories of these reforms. Partial reforms are generally preceded by "critical campaigns" directed against those institutions which are regarded as obsolete. In cases of partial reforms the mass base of the practice can be very slender, restricted to the activity of experts, although in the majority of cases the situation is otherwise. The greater the resistance shown to a partial reform, the greater is the degree of mass participation, partly by exercising "pressure", partly by taking part directly in the realisation of the [62/63] reform (consider, for example, the institutions of divorce in Italy). All the same, in these cases mass actions are accidental, and they cease to exist after the reform has been realised. Movements that aim at partial reforms can easily become vehicles of manipulation (even when that was not the intention of their initiators or executors) simply by reason of the fact that, by channelling dissatisfaction against the existing social system towards the reform of concrete (individual, partial) institutions, they create the appearance of the transformability of the given social order.

(2) General reform. This second type of practice sets itself the object of transforming the whole of society by means of partial reforms. The theoreticians of the movements of general reform are characterised by a critical attitude towards the whole of the dominant social system. They are not experts and even if they are, they do not act as such. They are rather the leaders of movements, or they appeal to movements embracing the whole society. Movements for general reform are—at least in their ideal types—movements with a large, organised mass base, and they do not cease to exist after realisation of a partial reform but remain permanently "in action". Examples of this type of practice are the pre-1914 social democratic movements.

(3) Political revolutionary movements. The aim of these is the radical transformation of the whole of society, and the decisive moment in this is the conquest of political power. This can be considered by them as their ultimate aim, although for most political revolutionary ideologies it constitutes the point of departure. The mass base of political revolutionary movements can vary greatly in its size. If it is restricted from the beginning, the possibilities of victory are scant. However, the mass base of victorious political revolutionary movements is twofold. The force that guides the movement is in most cases a minority, ready for any action, prepared to run any risk: a revolutionary élite, but at the same time enjoying active mass support. However, from the moment of political victory onwards, "the tide begins to flow the other way": the activity of the masses decreases and later turns into passivity. This is the course of all the political revolutions that have matured on [63/64] the terrain of bourgeois society (and political revolutions mature only on the terrain of this society). The purest, most classical example of this kind of political revolution is French Jacobinism.

To interpret this dynamic I must refer to Marx's famous formulation about the split in man between "bourgeois" and "citizen". The "natural" existence of human beings in capitalist society is that of the bourgeois, of the private person who struggles for his own direct interests. This is evidently an alienated existence, since it is (among other things) the abandonment of any attempt to transform society. Citizen existence is no less alienated, in so far as activity in this political sphere is separated from everyday life: above all from the everyday life of other people, but from the citizen's own life too. In the orientation towards political revolution and in the practice that follows from it, this dichotomy does not disappear: the way of life of people remains unchanged. Therefore it is not surprising that after the conquest of political power the mass base gets thinner and thinner, and disappears altogether. The majority of the population turns back to the bourgeois way of life, and a minority is fossilised in an alienated citizen‑existence. To quote Engels: the realm of reason is transformed into the realm of the bourgeoisie.

(4) Total revolutionary practice. This fourth type of practice also includes revolution in the way of life. If there is a revolution in the way of life, the mass base of the movement extends permanently. Practice involves wider and wider sections of the population in the movement, and the everyday life of people undergoes a transformation precisely because of their involvement. That is why a revolution in the way of life is always irreversible within a foreseeable historical period. Revolution in the way of life is exemplified in the European history of Christianity and, in the case of certain countries, in the Renaissance.

However, while I am saying that total social revolutions include revolutions in the way of life, I am not saying at the same time that revolutions in the way of life invariably involve total social revolutions. On the contrary, we can be sure that in history there has not yet existed the kind of revolution [64/65] in the way of life which was, simultaneously, a consciously intended total social revolution embracing the economy, the political sphere and culture.

But when Marx wrote about the communist movement, he had in mind a total revolutionary practice of this kind. His conception was of course not founded on historical analogies. As the proletarian movement matures on die terrain of bourgeois society, it inevitably contains the element of political revolution, i.e. the necessity of conquering political power. But for Marx, the political revolution is only one of the stages, and human emancipation becomes counterposed to political emancipation. It is not possible here to go more deeply into this problem. We can only make the point that the total social revolution projected by Marx presupposes, right from the very first phases of the development of the movement, the transcendence of the bourgeois structure of theory and practice. All three kinds of practice analysed above—partial reforms, general reform, and the movements of political revolution—are based on a structure of theory and practice which belongs to bourgeois commodity‑production.

Let us inquire how, in the first three cases, the "theoretical product" comes to be purchased, how its realisation or attempted realisation is carried out, and for what motives.

A growing demand for a certain "theoretical product" manifests the need for it. And this circumstance—if we leave aside the plain consumption of culture—manifests the fact that the social theory in question has grasped and formulated an existing (and not only theoretically supposed) need.

If we follow this through, we inevitably have to analyse the concept of "social need", especially since the concept of “need”, though frequently used, is indeterminate, very vague and altogether empirical.

Need is a conscious desire, aspiration, intention, always directed towards a certain object, and as such it motivates action. The object in question is a social product; it does not matter whether it is a commodity, a way of life, or "another person", etc. Social objectivation and need are correlated to each other: the former fixes the "framework" of the needs of individuals who belong to a certain social stratum in a given [65/66] society. For needs are always individual (since only human beings can consciously desire, aspire or intend) and at the same time social (since all the needs are already "offered" in the social objectivations). "Natural needs" do not exist. For example, air is not an object of need, but a condition of our existence, though the fact that we prefer fresh, clean air to polluted air is already itself a need. All the same, we must also distinguish between the so-called "existential needs" or "conditions of life" and properly "human needs".

"Existential needs" or "conditions of life" are ontologically primary, being founded on the instinct of self‑preservation. They consist, amongst other things, of the need for nourishment, sexual need, the need for social contact and co‑operation, the need for activity. Even these needs cannot be defined as "natural" since in their concrete forms—as needs proper they are interpretable only within a certain social context. Not even the need for nourishment can be defined with "biological precision". It is enough to note, for example, the fact that in certain African communities the calorie diet has remained considerably below the minimum regarded as indispensable for survival, and yet they were not undernourished from the point of view of maintaining their social homeostasis. Undernourishment has developed solely as an effect of a disturbance of the social equilibrium. We can state, in general, that satisfaction of existential needs at a given level is guaranteed by the structure of the primitive societies. The limit of that satisfaction is nature: mass death through famine is the consequence of natural catastrophes. Capitalism is the first society that by its social structure condemns entire classes of the population to struggle daily to satisfy their purely existential needs, from the time of the primitive accumulation of capital up to twentieth‑century Europe, and up to the present day in the Third World. In this sense Marx speaks of the working class of his time as a class "without needs", that is, reduced to an animal level in the satisfaction of its existential needs.

In contrast to the "conditions of life", the "human needs" proper are directed towards objects, the desire for which is not motivated by natural drives. They consist, for example, of [66/67] more recreation than is necessary for the reproduction of labour power, cultural activity, adult play, meditation, friendship, love, self‑realisation in the objectivations, moral needs. They also consist of the alienated human needs, such as money, power, possession. With the development of capitalism, in parallel to the restriction imposed upon the working class to struggle for the satisfaction of its purely existential, needs, the alienated needs have obtained a position of dominance. The only change one can see in modern capitalist society (at least in Europe and North America) is that the dominance of alienated human needs reaches wider and wider strata, including the working class as well.

Non‑alienated human needs have a qualitative character. Their development is not distinguished by a practically infinite accumulation of objects that serve to satisfy needs, but by their growing many‑sidedness, which Marx calls their "wealth". I should remark at this point that the distinction between the existential needs and the non‑alienated human needs is relative. The non‑alienated human needs can absorb certain existential needs under certain conditions: take, for example, the mutual need of men and women for each other.

Alienated needs, however, have a quantitative character. The process of their accumulation is practically infinite. If we take purely quantitative needs into consideration, it is difficult to find the point at which they reach "saturation level". The infinite accumulation of quantitative (alienated) needs can be hindered only by the emergence and dominance of qualitative needs. From this point of view, there is no ambiguity in the conception that Marx had of communism: it is the social process that realises the ever‑expanding domination of qualitative (non‑alienated) human needs over the existential and alienated (quantitative) human needs.

Having completed this necessary digression, we can return to the various types of theory and practice. As I have already said, the practical efficacy of a theory depends upon its ability to "palpate" real needs. But why do needs have to be "palpated"?

The needs of the people in a given society are "offered" by the concrete and current objectivations of that society. The [67/68] objectivations demarcate the limits of the dynamic of needs. After all, this is also true for capitalism, even if in capitalist society the interaction between needs and objectivations is far more complex than that of the preceding non‑"pure" societies.

We have already seen one of the reasons behind this: the simple accumulation of purely quantitative needs assumed a radically dominant role from early capitalism on. In its turn, this is itself the consequence of a factor that acts at a deeper level: capitalism is the first essentially dynamic society, in which not only the sum total of available consumer goods increases, by means of an incredible acceleration of the rhythm of production, but also new goods and new kinds of goods are continually invented, and in consequence the needs for them as well. Furthermore, capitalism is the first "open" society, in which needs—in the given objectivations—are not “reserved” to a particular social class or stratum. If the object of a need takes its place among the objectivations, it can become, at least in theory, a need for everyone, regardless of whether everyone de facto possesses the means of satisfying the need in question. This is true for all kinds of need, and not only for those which are quantitative. So not only is one integrated structure of needs "offered" by a relatively homogeneous system of objectivations, and consequently of values, but at least in theory, one can choose from among the needs "offered" by heterogeneous objectivations. Thus the formation of different personal hierarchies of needs becomes possible. Furthermore, capitalist society is the first one that is not based on organic communities; the only "community" in it is the commodity relation. In earlier societies the value‑hierarchy of needs evolved within the community. and the individual more or less accepted the values of needs established for him by the community. Once capitalism has asserted itself, this is no longer possible—from this point of view, something relatively direct is substituted for a manifold system of mediations.

A member of the community was not constrained to "palpate" needs. He was simply aware of the needs of the members of his community and—if he had a certain theoretical capacity—he could express them, at different levels, with maybe more or less profundity and more or less coherence. When he expressed [68/69] the needs of another community, he was able to base himself on needs that had already been articulated in one community. This is the case in Thomas Aquinas and in Plato as well. But in capitalist society, where organic community does not exist. the theoretician—as intellectual worker—is subject, to an ever greater extent, to the division of labour, and therefore a similar direct expression of needs based upon stable and objectivations is no longer possible. The theoretician is thus compelled to visualise the structure of society and to elaborate his theory from his own individual viewpoint, and only post festum—on the market—will it be dear whether he has succeeded in palpating real needs, that is in expressing consciously or spontaneously such kinds of needs in his theory. Furthermore, since needs are "offered" by heterogeneous objectivations, the terrain of theoretical choice gets larger and larger, at least in principle.

A conscious choice of values (in this case: the personal hierarchy of values, or preference for certain needs rather than others, preference for the needs of certain classes against those of others) will play a decisive role in whether the theory will be purchased or not, whether it will be applied or not and, if it is applied, what social class or social strata will apply it. Insight into the social structure, especially when it is deep and many‑sided, can lead to the paradoxical result that no social stratum recognises in the theory in question the expression of its own needs, not even in cases where in reality the theory corresponds to such a stratum. This was the fate of Hobbes's Leviathan (among others). It can lead also to situations that are no less paradoxical, for example when certain aspects of the theory are transformed into practice and penetrate the masses (since they correspond to their urgent and fundamental needs) while the totality of the theory remains outside of that process. This has been the fate of marxism from the end of the nineteenth century onwards: for, from the rise of capitalism onwards, the quantitative "human needs" and purely existential needs degraded into quantitative needs have become dominant, and therefore it is precicely those theories (or aspects of theories) which express these quantitative and purely existential needs or appeal to them which find their way most rapidly [69/70] into practice.

I shall now try to summarise the relationship that links the four types of practice that have been analysed to the various ty of need and to the theories that express them. The theories and movements of partial reform are generally linked to needs that have already been articulated, formulated and expressed, and their objective is to satisfy or to channel these needs. In most cases their function is—consciously or unconsciously—to siphon off discontent, or to eliminate the social malfunctions manifested in the discontent of certain social classes or strata. They always appeal to existential or quantitative needs, but only if they have already become manifest, whether spontaneously or otherwise. Therefore, if it remains isolated, this type of theory is going to be organically integrated with the defence of the given society and with the practice which keeps it working. In this case the relationship between theory and practice (the "think‑tank" model is only the last phase of it) conforms to the structure of commodity production. If there is a demand for a theory of partial reform, it is always effective demand: that is, it does or may have the appropriate material background and means of power to satisfy the requirements of the theory.

The theories of general reform are equally linked to means which are manifest and articulated, but not in a direct way. By the general formulation of these needs, the movements and propaganda activities of these theories—that is, their specific objectivations—"provide" a large number of people with needs that hitherto were not present in their lives, people who were not up to that point conscious of the grounds of their discontent and dissatisfaction. These same objectivations, precisely because they raise the question of transforming the whole of society, can mediate new needs too. However, these new needs do not constitute an integrated, organic structure. The theory exercises its role as a mobiliser by formulating the contradiction between needs and the existence of the class (or stratum), the contradiction between needs and the failure to satisfy them The needs to which this theory appeals are first of all existential needs, and only secondarily quantitative or certain qualitative needs. The relationship between theory and [70/71] practice in this case conforms overall to the structure of commodity production (the "think tank" has no function in movements of this kind). The increase and expansion of demand tends more or less to assimilate the theory and to condition it mainly to satisfy existential and quantitative needs. The capitalist structure of theory and practice is not transcended. That is why movements of this kind show an affinity with the first model of theory and practice. The original idea of general reform is eclipsed behind direct action for the execution of partial reform. As I have already said, this was the typical career of the social democratic movements at the turn of the century.

The political revolutionary theories and movements, being based upon the modern separation between the bourgeois and the citizen, display their intrinsic dualism in the formulation of needs too. They make no efforts to raise the masses, through the movement, beyond the level of needs "offered" by bourgeois society. The mobilisation of the masses is based upon the structure of needs developed by bourgeois society. Great emphasis all the same is placed upon the mobilisation of passions, as the target aimed at is a rapid and radical transformation. But the passions set in motion (at least in mass dimensions) can only be those that have been formed and developed within bourgeois society. This very fact—the appeal to needs and passions developed within bourgeois society—is one of the decisive factors giving rise to the typical process that we have seen above: the ebbing of the mass movement after the conquest of political power. On the other hand, it is well‑known that the leading force of the political revolutionary movement is the citizen élite. The élite can maintain its capacity for action only by consciously renouncing the satisfaction of a part of its own (existential and quantitative) needs, at least for the time being. This sacrifice—revolutionary asceticism—can initiate the most heroic actions, which deserve the admiration of people. The objectivations of revolutionary political practice imply the transformation of the hierarchy of needs, but this transformation has its disadvantages. In the first place the double standard does not overcome but, on the contrary, reinforces the contradictions between [71/72] bourgeois and citizen. Secondly, the system of needs developed in bourgeois society remains intact—at least in the last analysis—in the case of the citizen too, with the sole difference that the satisfaction of his needs is projected into the future. And last but not least, the aim of transforming the hierarchy of needs is very effective in appealing to one of the quantitative needs dominant in bourgeois society: the need for power. That is why the asceticism of the élite cannot overcome alienation, and why, furthermore, in spite of its own heroism, it in fact preserves it.

Everything serves to show that even the political revolutionary movements do not basically transform the structure of the relationship between theory and practice in bourgeois society. Theory is based once, again on existing needs, and if it tries to develop new needs—even qualitative ones—the attempt remains as accidental as in the movements of general reform. This theory is incapable of elaborating an integrated structure of preference either. It is condemned—both in the mass movement and in the élite—to conform to needs that have already been developed within capitalist society, even if the forms are undergoing a change. The fate of the Jacobin ideology is a striking and classical example of this pattern. This is why political revolutions do not give rise to irreversible modifications in the daily life and in the system of needs of the masses.

Movements for total social revolution cannot either be formed or gain their "victory" in this way. I have put the word victory in inverted commas because the victory of total revolutionary movements cannot be fixed at some definite point in time. It is not an act or a complex of acts, but is invariably a process. It is a process whose vehicle is the people, on an even wider scale. In total revolutionary movements, people themselves transform their own structure of needs and values, in the permanent sequence of objectivations. Here theory does not "conform" to the existing needs of the masses, needs already formed or in the process of formation, it does not appeal to the contradiction between needs and existence, but develops and takes shape in the organised—structured—mass movements themselves. Revolution, in the sense in which Marx [72/73] meant the word, is a total social revolution that therefore presupposes or implies overcoming the structure of the relationship between theory and practice in bourgeois society, and the capitalist structure of needs in its totality.

This explains why the realisation of Marx's theory is such a complex matter. The total social revolution must be developed in a society whose structure is based upon commodity production and the division of labour, and in which, as a result, the relationship between theory and practice has emerged as a general problem and has been realised by the mediation of the market as a general practice. A universal restructuring of needs and values has to be realised in a society in which alienation is omnipresent, even if the working class "feels uncomfortable" within its framework; a society in which the needs of the masses are pre-eminently either existential or quantitative. In order to attain to these objectives, political revolution is obviously necessary. but by itself it is incapable of realising this radically new structure. Marx repeatedly tried to resolve this dilemma, first of all by means of the concept of "radical needs". The needs of the working class are "radical", since it is the class whose needs cannot be satisfied within the framework of bourgeois society, for a reason of principle: the satisfaction of the needs of this class necessarily transcends the whole structure of bourgeois society, and consequently the structure of needs as well. The working class can free itself only if at the same time it frees mankind, if it initiates a social dynamic that leads to the positive abolition of private property and the elimination of alienation. But the real problem comes when we realise that the "radical needs" are not proper needs in the everyday meaning of the word. They are not needs that exist, and they are not "extensions" of needs that exist, because they presuppose a working class which has developed a consciousness of its own historical mission (an "imputed consciousness", in the words of Georg Lukács), and which decides and acts according to it. Thus, by analogy, we can call "radical needs" "imputed needs". However, historical experience up to the present has demonstrated that without and end to the bourgeois way of life and the bourgeois structure, this kind of "imputed consciousness" does not develop in the masses, and [73/74] consequently "radical needs" do not develop either. It is their appreciation of this situation, and not the "falsification" of Marx's doctrine, that has led the various tendencies of the working‑class movement to appeal to existing needs (needs which have already formed or are in process of formation in bourgeois society), and chiefly to existential and quantitative needs.

If we take seriously Marx's programme of a total social revolution, we must open new paths, precisely because of the lesson history teaches us. The path must be total revolution in the way of life, and through this the formation of new lifestyles and new structures of need, which penetrate the lives of people from everyday life to the most complicated human activities. It is only people who consciously organise themselves in communities who can carry through the formation of this new structure of needs. But if the "radical needs" are not proper needs at all before this stage, does there exist any real basis for organising such communities? Is this kind of programme not a utopia?

I am convinced that the conditions of such a programme have already developed, they can be deciphered in the behaviour of ever broader sections of the population. Indeed, it may be said that ever broader masses of human beings are unsatisfied, feel lost in the world of quantitative needs, and are therefore spontaneously seeking a form of life in which quantitative needs are not dominant. Many groups of young people in the most developed industrial societies, and the best of them, abandon the refrigerator, car, and prestige‑values of their parents: masses of students, again the best, abandon the universities for similar reasons; new family structures proliferate, assuming the form of communes. All this manifests the rise of the need to transform the existing structure of needs. Whatever the nature of these qualitative needs which hinder the quantitative ones, they indicate that a community movement which develops radical needs is no longer, at least not necessarily, a utopia.

Obviously, the total social revolution—if it is to be realized—does not negate but preserves the activity for partial reform, general reform and political revolution as elements, though as means rather than as final aims. it falls to the socialist [74/75] movement to develop communities, embracing ever broader masses, in which needs come to be restructured under the dominance of qualitative needs. Only a movement of this kind is capable of eliminating the dualism between educator and educated, élite and mass, citizen and bourgeois, theory and practice, which have all developed within bourgeois society.

What would be the structural relationship of theory and practice in a total social revolution? As it would consist of organic communities, distinguished from the old types of community by the fact that they would be based on free personal choice, it is no longer the "market" where theory and practice meet. There would be the communities themselves—their aspirations and needs—to produce theory, expressing and formulating these aspirations and these needs more or less adequately, more or less profoundly and coherently, and the communities themselves would constantly control and correct this theory through the mediation of their own activity,  in which the activity of the theoretician would constitute an organic part. Theory would arise organically from everyday practice; this obviously does not mean that theory cannot correct or control the practice that produces it. But it would not be simply a question of theory exercising its influence on practice, but of the practice and the corresponding theory of one community influencing the theory and practice of the others. So the general problem of theory and practice—which is, as we have seen, the particular problem of bourgeois society—would lose its validity.


SOURCE: Heller, Agnes. “Theory and Practice from the Point of View of Human Needs,” in The Humanisation of Socialism: Writings of the Budapest School,  by Andras Hegedus, Agnes Heller, Maria Markus, Mihaly Vajda (London: Allison and Busby, 1976), pp. 58-75. Originally appeared in Hungarian in Uj Iras, no. 1, 1972.


The Question of Educational Work by Georg Lukács

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