The University Is Not Our Friend
For communists in the United States, it is time that we analyze the ways the University has attempted to control the narrative around Marxist theory, and its time we push back.
Communists have always had a complicated relationship with theory.
On the one hand, communists have historically struggled around developing a correct theoretical line. We have not condemned theory as simply irrelevant, but have instead argued that theory has to inform our actions. Marx devoted his life to the theoretical development of a scientific approach to socialism. At the same time, Marx insisted that communism is “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” Such a movement does not result merely from holding the correct theoretical line but by putting theory into action. Marx famously condemned the abstracted tendency of philosophy to remain in the realm of ideas when he wrote that, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
As communists, we are burdened with a difficult task. We must continue to undertake a scientific approach to socialism which investigates the material conditions in which we operate, theorize the correct response to those conditions, and further the development of Marxist materialism as a methodology for analysis and action.
This task demands that we resist two potential pitfalls. We cannot slide into a right wing opportunism which never moves beyond theory or ideas, but instead makes a career out of producing the best possible theoretical system. Many “marxist” academics have chosen to undertake this option, pursuing individual success over and against revolutionary struggle. We also must avoid sliding into a naive form of adventurism which fetishizes action over and against theory and seeks to pit them against each other. Adventurism offers us spectacle and the pursuit of individual attention while endangering our comrades and undermining long term organizing towards concrete goals.
It is a fine line that we have to walk.
The difficulty of maintaining a communist approach to theory is heightened by the current material conditions in the United States. A long history of strident anticommunist propaganda and state repression has eliminated any sort of popular knowledge of Marxist theory in the first place. Most people exposed to Marxist thought in the United States encounter it through the sanitized readings of it which occur within the halls of academia. Mainstream labor organizing purged its Marxist elements long ago, and we exist in a tragic situation where students are more likely to encounter Marxist theory than unionized workers.
This unique and unfortunate situation deserves a close investigation. It creates dynamics that hinder the ability for the communist movement in the US to properly approach theory, and undermines our ability to take action which is properly informed by Marxist theory. As such, I hope to provide an assessment of the conditions of Marxism within the US academy, and to interrogate the relationship between the academy and Marxism.
Given the relegation of Marxism to academic institutions, many students encounter Marxist theory of the first time in undergraduate classes. Marxism maintains some level of relevance within several fields of study including sociology, history, political theory, economics, philosophy, literature, and various other fields. As Richard D. Wolff once cynically noted, most departments will keep one angry Marxist around as a nod towards ideological diversity and pluralism. As a result of this, many students will encounter at least a single work by Marx, or secondary literature which references Marxist theory.
For students who encounter Marx in undergraduate studies, there are many possible responses. Some simply reject his work on face, choosing to default to a lifetime of anti-communist propaganda to justify a total dismissal of his work. Others will dismiss his work as overly simplistic. A whole host of theories ranging from post-structuralism to pragmatism dismiss Marxist work as inherently reductionist and offer students with left wing sympathies a more nuanced means of distancing themselves from Marxism. Of course, there are some students who will encounter Marxist theory and will recognize it for the revolutionary breakthrough that it is. This was my own experience as an undergraduate, and it is an experience that many of my comrades share.
Of that small group of undergraduates who actually latch on to the promise of Marxist theory, some will choose to take up Marx’s call to work to change the world instead of simply interpreting it. Universities offer a whole host of options for these students to pour hours of work into while never impacting the broader community beyond the university campus. Student groups who focus solely on student advocacy abound, many of whom adopt a radical veneer. Universities often offer a token space for more radically oriented student groups to organize, and most college campuses have some level of radical activist subculture.
Many have concluded from this that universities operate as hubs for radical and revolutionary organizing, but nothing could be further from the truth. Student activism rarely reaches out to the towns and cities in which universities are located. Many universities are located within fairly impoverished or working class areas. Student groups are rarely found working and organizing with the working class outside of the university, instead preferring to focus on student interests such as tuition. While the issues which impact students’ lives are important, they have a tendency to monopolize the organizational focus of student radicals.
At the same time that students rally around their own concerns, universities encourage private dorm expansion and general gentrification measures to displace local residents in favor of a never ending influx of new students. It is far easier for university admins to deal with a few students angry about tuition raises than it is for them to deal with a coalition of students and community members fighting university expansions which displace local residents. The university system is more than willing to tolerate and even slightly encourage student organizing which focuses solely on campus affairs, because it allows the university system to wreak economic havoc on the communities it operates within.
The fact that students who are attempting to operate with a Marxist approach end up working in student radical campaigns that do not actually create systemic change reveals one of the first issues that emerges from the academic monopoly on Marxist theory. Students first encounter this theory in the context of classroom lectures and discussions, rather than through seeing it applied to organizing and class struggle. The encounter itself is already in a context where theory is removed from struggle. Worse, the students who encounter this theory often end up involved in organizing which fails to properly apply Marxist theory, often opting for radical aesthetics in place of a scientific investigation into their material conditions. This should not surprise us; if a students interaction with Marxist theory has been within the halls of the academy rather than in the concrete struggle for class power, then it is unsurprising that students will not know how to properly relate theory to action.
For example, at the large state school in my town, there is significant political organizing focused on tuition rates, racial inclusion on campus, and equal opportunity for women in an academic context. Many of the students involved in these organizing efforts consider themselves Marxists. These efforts do address real concerns in those students lives. At the same time, you rarely see them theorized in the broader material context of this town. The focus on tuition raises is rarely tied to the ever rising rent near campus which is displacing residents just as tuition displaces poor students. The focus on combating racism on campus is rarely tied to the white supremacist actions of the local police, the neonazi militias which torment residents, or the functional segregation of communities of color to one side of the river. These radical students often completely fail to investigate the situation beyond the gates of the university campus, and thus fail to uncover the material conditions which produce the campus phenomena they seek to combat.
In this instance, we see students who have encountered Marxist theory who are not trained to or capable of taking actions grounded in materialist investigation. I do not intend to blame the individuals who operate in this context. As I have pointed out, universities actively encourage this development because it allows them to expand and operate without external opposition. We must recognize, however, that these conditions impose limits on what campus politics can offer to a revolutionary movement, and we must openly critique the failures of campus radicalism.
While many Marxist students pursue activist work which fails to meet the needs of the working class in their communities, others are pulled into another insidious direction. For many who excel at theoretical writing and thinking, graduate school is offered as a way to continue to develop theoretical skills. For many Marxist students, graduate school offers the promise of a platform for spreading Marxist idea in an academic context or through journal publications. Many Marxist graduate students justify their pursuit of professional theory by telling themselves that this platform will allow them to propagandize and educate from within the academy.
Of course, if this were actually the case, capitalist society would not tolerate the existence of radicals within academia in the first place. Instead, graduate school imposes a set of professional standards and expectations which are designed to pacify the critiques of Marxist academics. Graduate students are constantly subjected to an environment of “professionalization” where they are encouraged to pursue their interests without rocking the boat, upsetting the wrong people, or ruining their future hiring prospects. Radical graduate students are in effect told: keep writing but keep it abstract, someday when you have tenure you can be more concrete. As a result, a huge portion of Marxist theory developed within the academy is gutted of any clear revolutionary content, instead being understood as just another component of European philosophy and social theory which has utility as no more than an analytic method. Academic Marxism becomes nothing more than another way to interpret society, and Marx rolls in his grave.
There is something particularly insidious about this offer that the academy presents to radical graduate students. Graduate students, Adjuncts, and Non-Tenured professors live in a state of economic precarity. Their actual class position is one of aspiring towards the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia while being ruthlessly exploited as workers. The hope of inclusion within the intellectual class functions as a false consciousness which pushes radical graduate students away from open radical organizing. They are told that the time to be open about their politics will come, but that during the moments when working class power would most benefit them, they must play it carefully and remain silent. Of course, once these same students have reached the ever coveted goal of tenure, their class position will have changed. Tenured professors are usually thoroughly embedded within the petty bourgeois. The offer that radical graduate students are presented with is essentially: stay quite about revolutionary socialism until revolutionary socialism is no longer in your class interests.
Of course, many graduate students do not abide by this offer. Many choose to remain steadfastly radical and revolutionary. In these instances, radical graduate students will often find themselves unemployable in the academy, outside of the most progressive departments. Horrifically, graduate degrees can often over-qualify these students for many non-academic jobs, leaving them to pay a high cost for their lack of compromise. Other radical graduate students often drop out along the way, and are often burdened with serious debt as a result of their endeavor. For those who enter graduate school but refuse the demand to pacify their radicalism, there are serious costs.
Even worse than this, those who do make it through graduate school and into tenured positions will go on to teach the watered down form of Marxism that undergraduates are exposed to. There is a cycle at play here. The academy introduces students to a watered down Marxist theory and students who embrace it are either funneled into ineffective organizing, chewed up and spit out, or integrated in the system to continue the cycle.
One final way that the university perverts the proper communist relationship to theory is by scaring radicals away from theory. Many who leave the university after rightfully recognizing the impotence of the watered down Marxist theory it peddles confuse that faux-marxism with Marxism itself. So many radicals with a commitment to revolutionary change have completely abandoned the need for Marxist theory. The conflation of true revolutionary Marxism with the professionalized and pacified Marxism of the university pushes many radicals into a form of adventurism which understands action as the primary driving force within organizing. This emphasis on action above all else pits theory and action against each other and causes radicals see theory as a hindrance to revolutionary action. This horrifically undermines the effectiveness of a revolutionary movement.
I hope that I have demonstrated that the academy within the United States poses a fundamental problem for communists pursuing a correct approach to theory which avoids both right opportunism and left adventurism. The academy is not our friend. McCarthyism’s lingering effects have continued to keep Marxist theory confined within the hallways of the academy, and those of us attempting to do serious Marxist organizing must combat this.
These conditions are precisely why political education remains a crucial aspect of party organizing. Spreading Marxist theory outside the confines of the academy allows people to encounter Marxism in a truly revolutionary context where it is not defanged by academic respectability norms. Furthermore, this is why the left needs to continue to support leftist publications outside of academia which provide a platform for non-academics to do theoretical work outside the context of the academy. A vibrant leftist theoretical tradition needs to exist without any formal ties to professional academics.
Student radicals need to get serious about investigating the conditions in which they operate, which means looking beyond their campuses to assess the needs of the working class in their communities. Student radicals ought to reach out beyond the university to create coalitions with organizers operating within the community. Only such an approach can allow student radicals to properly apply Marxist theory.
Those considering graduate school as a means of propagandizing and furthering Marxist theory need to think about the material function of graduate school and professional academia. They must take seriously the dangers of the offer graduate school represents.
If we want to pursue a proper Marxist approach to theory and action, we have to recognize the academy for what it is: a site for pacifying radicalism and diluting to revolutionary theory of Marxism. We have to work to disentangle the left’s relationship with the academy and instead recognize the antagonisms which have been consistently glossed over. We need to build a left intellectual tradition which is inseparable from a broader revolutionary socialist movement.
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