Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Theory and Practice

by H. S. S.

It is a common ruse among those who dislike all innovation to pretend that there is something incompatible and antagonistic between theory and practice. “This is all very well,” they say, “in theory; but it would soon be found to be impossible in practice.” Yet it is not difficult to see that in reality such antagonism does not exist; theory and practice, so far from being incompatible, are perfectly harmonious, and indeed mutually indispensable. The very meaning of the words ought to teach us this; for how can there be any incongruity between seeing and doing? Seeing must necessarily and naturally precede doing, for it would obviously be calamitous to act without seeing or before seeing. Theory is therefore as important and as necessary as practice; indeed, if any comparison be instituted between the two, theory will probably be found to be the higher, because the rarer gift.

Let us now consider what value there is in that common retort to which all reformers are subjected—“Practise what you preach.” A little reflection will show that it depends entirely on whether this is a reasonable or unreasonable request. If the preaching refers to some matter of self-reform, which can be fully carried out by the individual reformer, and so be a useful example to others, then the retort is quite justifiable. But if the crusade is preached against some evil which is ingrained in the whole system of society, and cannot be extirpated by individual effort, then it is somewhat irrational to recommend an impossible and useless self-reformation. To take an example: the Food Reform and Dress Reform Societies advocate certain simple and personal changes which it is quite possible for any individual to carry out, though even here considerable inconvenience may result. On the other hand, there are some reforms which are so connected with all the intricacies of our social system that it is scarcely possible for any individual to practise them successfully. Of these reforms Socialism is the most prominent; and it is in the discussion of Socialistic questions that the retort of “practise what you preach” is most frequently made. When anyone who is not himself a working man ventures to advocate socialistic legislation, he is immediately advised to divest himself of all property, and himself become a working man; otherwise, it is argued, his propositions cannot be seriously entertained. Even the Saturday Review, in a recent article, gave expression to this astonishing piece of reasoning, which has often found its way into the columns of the Standard and other capitalist journals.

Now we have no wish to undervalue the power of an example of self-abnegation and poverty voluntarily endured. In all ages of the world there have been rare and splendid instances of men who have sacrificed everything in order to preach with greater effect the doctrines they had at heart. The Church of Rome may justly boast its Francis of Assisi, but it is only necessary to point to the names of Blanqui, Delescluze or Kropotkin to prove that Socialists are not deficient in such men.

The assumption that all Socialists must, as a regular rule, abdicate their social power and position, is about on par with that remarkable idea, often entertained by certain foolish people, that Professor Ruskin because he has condemned the present railway system, ought to travel entirely by coach. “First give me a proper system of coaching,” would, we imagine, be Professor Ruskin’s reply; and in a similar way, Socialists may answer that they are perfectly willing to divest themselves of individual property when all capitalists are ready to do the same. At present, as our adversaries well know, money is “the sinews of war,” and well-to-do Socialists are not so foolish as to play into the hands of their officious advisers by the suicidal policy of disarming themselves. We suspect that capitalist writers are not quite disinterested in giving this advice; for we observe that in the cause of bonâ fide working men who advocate Socialism, it is always suggested that they do so out of mere class jealously, and greed for the wealth of their betters. Either way, whether a Socialist be rich or poor, his motives are sure to be misrepresented by capitalist critics; from which we deduce the fact that Socialists will be wise to follow their own course, and do what they judge to be best for the cause, without paying the least attention to any captious objections about “theory and practice.”

Published: Justice, February 21, 1885 - No.56