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On Anti-Intellectual "Leftism"

Amongst leftwing academics, especially marxists, there is often an impulse to embrace a crude anti-intellectualism. Expressed in the form of radical politics, this impulse claims that intellectualism is "elitism", that academia and theory are ultimately bourgeois, and that there is some sort of authentic working-class way of being that is anti-academic and anti-intellectual. While I agree that intellectual elitism is a problem that needs to be confronted, I am increasingly concerned with this simplistic anti-intellectualism. Sometimes it takes the form of a general disdain for academia and academic texts. Other times it is a more specific type of disdain - that book, that work of art, that piece of music, that film is bourgeois.

My first problem with this position is that it is just as elitist as the elitism it is supposedly attacking: "You're bourgeois because you like to go to symphonies; I attend proletariat concerts of working-class folk singers." (And sometimes the person making this charge won't even care if the symphony costs a tenth of the price of the folk concert - apparently accessibility doesn't matter, a point I will discuss later, only some nebulous notion of proletarian/bourgeois identity and content.) Moreover, it is an elitism that is a product of the elitism it opposes. The most outspoken leftist anti-intellectuals I have encountered are academics who possess a certain amount of intellectual privilege and autonomy, a certain and learned theoretical commitment, to make their arguments in the first place. Most often they like to celebrate their supposedly working-class past, as if they will always and ever be proletariat simply because their parents or grandparents worked in factories. Their current class position and privilege, their elitist anti-elitism, is conjured away by appealing to some eternal class essence they will always possess.

Which brings me to my next point, the central problem with this anti-intellectual discourse: it presumes an ahistorical and amaterialist notion of working-class (or "the oppressed" or "the poor" or "the proletariat" etc.). In order to make these anti-intellectual arguments, or any argument about how the working-class thinks, one has to presuppose an authentic working-class essence - the proletariat must always be this, think like this, and must possess a monolothic culture that is different from bourgeois culture. In light of my first complaint, this presupposition of working-class authenticity is extremely elitist because it assumes the working-class does not want to be educated, is incapable of appreciating ideas and culture that are not simplistic, and wants to spend all day happily operating machines and listening to the Boss.

The assumption of a quasi-Platonic working-class essence ignores a historical materialist understanding of class in general, and of the working-class in particular. For one thing, it assumes a tributary and pre-modern conception of class: everyone is born into a class and will always be stamped with the identity of that class; class doesn't change/differ in time and space - the proletariat of 19th Century Europe is taken to have the same core identity as the proletariat of modern India. For another thing, this understanding of class misses one of the central insights about the oppressed classes first grasped by Marx and Engels: unlike the ruling classes, the oppressed and exploited classes are not committed to the terms of their class position. That is to say, class consciousness for the proletariat, unlike the bourgeoisie, is not to be the exploited proletariat.

Whereas the bourgeoisie does not want to fall to the level of the exploited classes (although this can happen, and class can indeed change - it is not an eternal essence), the proletariat does not like being oppressed. Obviously the desire to reject this class position can be obscured in problematic ways: the proletariat accepts that oppression is "natural" and that the only way out is to become part of the bourgeoisie. While, the revolutionary position is to organize and get rid of class oppression, the fact remains that - in either case - the proletariat has a vested interest in not being the oppressed class. It is not revolutionary to cling to some nebulous essence of the proletariat; the point is to overthrow class society and everything class society entails.

And class society entails the ideology that there is a proletarian and a bourgeois essence because its most reactionary ideologues like to say that everyone has their place - either by God's design or because they have worked hard/not-hard enough. Class society also entails a mental division of labour where education is more accessible to the wealthy, as well as the forms of culture this education permits. To reject academia as elitist, then, is to accept that this division should exist. The problem is accessibility not intellectualism. "Bourgeois culture" is primarily bourgeois because it expresses the values of the bourgeoisie and is produced in such a way that it is accessible only for a privileged few. Enforcing the division of classes is what is elitist and classist; thus embracing the terms of this division by accepting the notion of an authentic working-class way of being is doing the work of the bourgeoisie.

This anti-intellectualism is, in fact, a reactionary position. Right-wing ideologues consistently argue that art galleries, cultural programs, etc. should not be funded by the government and are a waste of tax dollars. Only those who can afford these institutions should have access; only those sites of cultural production that can survive in a cut-throat market should exist. Gouge the working-class with insipid blockbuster films that cost millions and make millions; if they really want to appreciate the fine arts they'll save up and pay. And at the point of production, the Hollywood movie is more bourgeois than the experimental film because it is owned and controlled by the wealthiest film companies and these companies condition the masses by telling them what their culture should be. Therefore, I have no patience for those who argue that some reactionary action or romantic comedy film is more "proletariat" than an experimental and underground film: this position lacks any proper class analysis of the material conditions of film making.

Furthermore, anti-intellectualism is fascist. Encouraging volk authenticism has always been an extreme rightwing tendency. Populist demagogues like Glenn Beck are intensely anti-intellectual and use this as a strategy for mobilizing the most disenfranchised against their own interests. Book-burnings, suspicion of intellectuals, skepticism of science - these are fascist strategies designed to make and keep the masses ignorant.

There is a reason why Lenin said that it was necessary to study revolutionary theory. That Marx spent years of research in order to write Capital. Why the Chinese Revolution pushed mass education and mass culture. They were not anti-proletariat by refusing to reject intellectual discipline.

All of this is not to say that academic elitism is not a problem. It is a significant problem: even Marxist intellectuals have been outraged by rectification and ideological remoulding campaigns that required them to leave their positions of privilege and work for the masses to close the gap between the mental division of labour. To argue that this division should remain but that "non-intellectuals" are superior to "intellectuals", however, does not solve academic elitism. Rather, a mass understanding of intellectualism should be fostered everywhere; those with specialized academic training should also be educated to understand that their education makes them no more valuable than anyone else.


  1. There's another good article on the anti-intellectual leftist phenomenon, but from a different perspective, here:

  2. This is a great post, Josh. I love the Boss, but I also love your dig at the Boss!

  3. Hi JMP,

    Have you considered that too much 'intellectualism' might create a university environment in which young adults from working class backgrounds don't feel at home? For instance, someone might drop out of university because everyone around them is going to experimental films and consuming other 'high brow' cultural products, and knows how to 'correctly' talk about such things, while they do not, and thus feel extremely left out and in the 'wrong' environment.

    1. Hello, I have indeed considered this problem––which is why I have many other posts addressing this directly. I think it is important to not be anti-intellectual while at the same time being wary of petty-bourgeois intellectualism. As for how to "correctly" talk about what are considered the right/wrong cultural products, I have little patience for that kind of discourse and that is not what I was celebrating and/or defending in this post. Rather, I was questioning the idea that there is a working class culture that is *x* and that this culture excludes intellectualism. For example, working class culture in Mexico in the 1960s (to cite one example) was a culture that embraced experimental art; there is a heterogeneity here that needs to be examined. Of course, this definitely does not mean producing an alienating environment. Again, you should check out my "anti-intellectual" posts (haha, not that they are this) where I attack precisely the problem you have noted––there are a lot more of those.


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