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On Intellectual Elitism Yet Again

Several years ago, back when nearly all of my activism had become firmly embedded within the context of my union local, I remember a General Membership Meeting where we tried to pass a motion that would socialize graduate student research grants according to needs.  The argument was that graduate students who received grants, especially those who received the largest grants, did not receive this money because they were better or smarter than other students and that the privilege of social class (here broadly understood as intersecting with other oppressions) partially determined the way grants were parcelled out to supposedly "deserving" students.  Obviously my local, which was a local devoted to contract faculty and teachers assistants, did not have the ability to pass a motion that would affect the standards of our university employer; the motion was meant to be politically symbolic.  Unfortunately it failed to even be symbolic since several graduate students at the meeting, all of them grant-holders of course, took exception to the initiative.  One of them even called quorum after the motion was tied up in excessive debate, leaving so that we lacked the requisite membership to have it passed.

And many of those members who were opposed to the motion were supposedly leftist, sometimes even marxist, scholars.  Regardless of the politics they professed, however, when you spoke with them about their funding they would argue––without recognizing the irony that social being determines social consciousness––that they deserved this funding because their research possessed greater merit than other academic research and that, most importantly, they were more intelligent and better than other students.  So much for the progressive principles supposedly evinced by their meritorious research––and one needs to wonder how they could even think that their research was still radical if it was deemed acceptable by those bourgeois academic bodies that parcelled out the grants in the first place.

Months ago, I posted an entry about the prevalence of intellectual resignation amongst academics in an effort to grapple with the problem posed by those academic intellectuals who sell-out, who refuse to take radical positions, or who think that theorizing is enough.  And who often, sadly and disappointingly, think of themselves as better than people who do not possess the time or privilege to become academics.  This is not to say that I don't recognize how the current state of academic labour can produce a certain type (within qualification) of worker consciousness––I spent months walking the line with other academic labourers fighting against the casualization of labour, after all, and this is the context in which I now work.  But I also think that the consciousness produced by the social context of academia is one that often pushes against revolutionary consciousness and often in an extremely contradictory manner: we have potential access to revolutionary theory, we can write on this theory, but our social needs as a class are often satisfied with grant systems, with freedom of speech, with publication possibilities––all of these things that socialize us into thinking that we are more deserving than others.  And those who receive the most grants, regardless of what supposedly radical theorist their academic work is focused, often believe they are the most deserving.

Let us be honest: the vast majority of the papers and books that are produced by the academic left are not entirely original and, quite often, are nothing more than creative acts of regurgitation.  (And I will be even more honest: I include my own academic work in this category and will not pretend, even for an instant, that I am producing some new and vital theoretical tradition.)  The problem is that most of us imagine that we are brilliant because we are taught to think, especially when we are given grants, that we are making significant contributions to our fields.  And yet our fields are usually insignificant and rarified terrains; our participation in these terrains, regardless of how radical we imagine ourselves to be, are far from revolutionary.  This is not to say that theory is unimportant, that the universe of academic debate should be shunted aside for some crude and instrumental notion of "revolutionary theory"… I am simply arguing that we should not imagine that we are on the same level as Marx and Engels, Lenin or Mao––let alone so many other theorists, especially those ordained by academia, that we regurgitate.

This academic context, however, produces a consciousness of uniqueness and expertise.  Clearly we have had the privilege to spend years studying our field, learning more about our tiny areas than anyone else, and this does possess a certain significance.  Our fellow activists who have not had the opportunity to spend six or so years finishing a doctorate on marxist philosophy, for example, have not had the privilege to concentrate on radical texts with the same focus.  This discrepancy between the theoretical experience of ourselves and others sometimes breeds an arrogance, especially in an activist context that occasionally celebrates theoretical ignorance.  So when the rest of the organized left outside of academia thinks it is good form to reject theory (and when some of this anti-intellectualism is pushed by our contemporaries within academia), those of us who are proud of our research may often respond by asserting our unique vocation as supposed theorists.

I have lost count of how many left-wing graduate students and academics I've encountered who are convinced of their own brilliance.  I have lost count of the times I've heard these people argue that they did not need to participate in the nitty-gritty of organizing, that they were too important to flyer and poster, that their vocation was to provide the thinking for whatever new movement would emerge.  Of how many academics believed that they were poised to produce new revolutionary insights (as if revolution comes from outside any revolutionary movement) that would change the field and hence the world (as if their field, if it was going to be changed by their supposed original offerings, was also the world).  Of academics who were under their impression that the books they planned to write would be the next chic radical texts.

What I find most interesting, however, is how this conviction of intellectual superiority is not easily dispelled by the reality of class struggle experienced by a large sector of academic workers.  Clearly the fact of the casualization of academic labour––that tenure is being replaced by contractually limited appointments in an effort to proletarianize the academic work force––is a serious problem for those of us who have spent years training to be academics.  And yet the experience of my local's recent strike, an experience I am re-documenting because I think that it is important to keep a record, demonstrated that the petty-bourgeois consciousness produced by academia, combined with trade union consciousness, is often extremely incompatible with even the radical positions some academics claim to uphold.  The bald fact that our future is tenuous does not prevent us from thinking that, against reality itself, we are somehow special.  I do not want to elaborate too much, since my next post will most probably be a continuation of my assessment of the strike, but this point needs to be made: the fact that some union members who study radical politics as academics were arguing in the first week of the strike that we should return to work, despite the fact that we were fighting for the minimum demands of a secure future, clearly demonstrates a resistance to understand the fact that we are being exploited as workers––even privileged workers––and a reliance on the myth of the uniquely special academic.

The idea that some people are better than others is an idea that is fostered in academia.  I'll go further: it is also an idea that is generally fostered in larger activist circles, regardless (and maybe because) of the allergic reaction to theory.  This is an idea that is contrary to radical politics because it assumes an intellectual division of labour––that some people are better thinkers and other people are better workers, and that the former should control the latter––as well as an over-valorization of theoretical aptitude.

There was a reason that during the height of the Chinese Revolution there was a demand for intellectuals to go down to the countryside, and this reason still strikes fear into the heart of so many supposed progressives who fancy themselves better than the people whose struggles they describe in their papers.  For those of us who are intellectuals often believe, regardless of our commitments, that we are better than the people we claim to represent; we do not want to cling to the illusion of academic security.  In Battle For China's Past, Mobo Gao investigates the ideology of those supposedly leftist intellectuals who, after the Cultural Revolution, complained that being sent to peasant villages was the same as being sentenced to a labour camp.  The point Gao makes is that it is utterly insulting to ascribe the normative life of the peasant as a prison sentence for intellectuals because it renders invisible the fact that these complaining intellectuals think that peasants should continue working as they had always worked in the fields and that the intellectuals––who had the privilege to be intellectuals in the first place––are the only subjects who can rightfully feel the oppression of hard labour.  The peasants essentially love to labour in the fields; the intellectuals are meant for something better––both groups are born for their lot in life.

I have had friends who, when reading about the Chinese Revolution, are terrified of "this type of revolution" because they claim they "know what it means."  And if those of us who are academics are terrified of a balancing sheet––of a context that is designed to foster anti-elitism in intellectuals and intellectualism in people who once lacked the privilege of being the intellectual elite––then we have no right to call ourselves progressive or radical.


  1. I thought the point of socialism was to lift people out of the grinding poverty and physical and mental exhaustion of what you refer to as the "normative life" of the peasant, not to thrust more people into that state as punishment for their former privileges. The obvious question that comes to mind is whether in practice forced relocation and forced labour of this kind truly liberates or educates people, or whether it merely serves as a means of controlling dissent.

    In any case, a strange conclusion for an article critical of the system for the distribution of academic grants...

  2. Thanks Jude... This is the problem with writing things at 2 or 3 in the morning!

    Clearly I agree and the point of asking intellectuals to go down to the countryside was to create educational programs, working alongside peasants to build schools and such, that would give the people at the bottom the same chances as the people at the top - rather than the people at the top just assuming they didn't have to help out, our use their privilege to aid others so these others could experience the same privilege.

    Despite the failure of this experiment, Dongping Han and Mobo Gao, both of them academics who were once peasants and who are only now academics because of these attempts, have done a good job of chronicling the successes that tried to bridge the gap between countryside and city.

    I kind of suggested this reading of my bombastic ending when I wrote about "a context designed to foster anti-elitism in intellectuals and intellectualism in people who once lacked the privilege of being the intellectual elite".... But as with all hastily written blog posts, especially those that meander on and on in the wee hours of the morning, it was probably lost in that haze that passes for post-midnight logic.

  3. Just reread my post and should add that the reason I referred to the Gao point, and rather sloppily on my part, was that he was complaining that people who were asked to help foster educational programs, because they had the intellectual resources to do so, were referring to helping raise peasants from their crushing life as "punishment".... (Or does this sound equally convoluted?)

    Also, the question about controlling dissent is apt, though I have a specific reading of the Chinese Revolution and the line struggle therein that rejects this easy reading... at the same time, I agree that it cannot be dismissed entirely and that these large scale socialist projects are always heterogeneous in this regard.

    On the whole, and in complete agreement with you I believe, I also reject the anti-intellectualism fostered by certain elements of the left, and briefly indicated this in the post (again sloppily, but with reference to a previous post), especially since it produces the mindset you've critiqued: let's be like some "authentic" working class person and working class people are "authentically" anti-intellectual. This position actually ends up being chauvinist since it ascribes stupidity as an eternal essence to exploited/oppressed classes rather than realizing that the problem is that these people have been denied access to intellectual resources.

  4. I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately. Last week, I was in Toronto for a union convention and found there to be a good deal of radical activism from a few people (and a lot of opinions from academics who aren't front line activists). We told the union members about a fundraiser for OCAP and only like 5 people (out of 1000) showed up even though they passed a motion to support their anti-poverty work.

    After a rally and a lot of discussion on direct action organizing, I came back home to prepare for an academic conference. Now, I can't help but think about how much more important the direct action work seemed in comparison to presenting some work to a bunch of academics who will likely spend more time criticizing my methodology or the theory behind my research as they will discussing the possibility of actual change that can stem from this line of work... to clarify, I don't necessarily mean change from my work directly as my current research is quite limited and specific, but my supervisor is a brilliant writer and a social activist who breaks all of the rules about profs staying in their stuffy offices and writing about social change instead of handing out flyers themselves.

    Still, I almost want to go back to Toronto and spend some more time with the OCAP activists instead of the conference. I know that the academic work is important too, as it can lead to social change, but I get into these mindframes where I have trouble seeing the importance of the work in comparison to the tangible results that I have seen through activism. I think it has to do with feeling as though the university exists within it's own little bubble, disconnected from the real world.

  5. Thanks for these comments and I clearly agree that the disconnect between activism and progressive academics is a problem. More importantly, and this is broader than academics being intellectual elitists, I have started to see the absence of theoretical unity in activist-left movements as a connected problem... Since academic leftists are often elitist and like to promote the mental-manual division of labour (you guys to the work flyering, we'll just think through marxist/radical problems that are becoming almost theological now), there is often a knee-jerk reaction amongst activists (many of whom might have a university background) to reject theoretical unity.

    As much as I love OCAP, and have participated in OCAP actions in the past, I have recently grown dismayed with the movementist ideology of OCAP and other groups that imagines that change can come from sort of swarm affect and limits itself to looking just at the immediate. This is not to say that OCAP has not done vital work, but more of a problem that so many of us in the Canadian left are caught up in, and perhaps comes from this schism between activism and theory because we're doing what the left a century ago realized didn't work to overthrow capitalism and actually theorized the reasons why - but no one cares to study it anymore. Least of all academics who are more interested in, to ape a comment left by Ed Mead on a friend's blog, "how many marxist angels can dance on the head of a pin." [Note that I'm not saying that these rarified academic questions aren't important, but there is also a general lack of bringing theory into the movement and the movement into theory these days.]

    This is one of the reasons I was drawn to the emergence of the PCR-RCP in Quebec, which understands the importance of theory but is not an academic group (and actually moved away from a student movement when it was Acion Socialist in the early 90s)... Or why I am also drawn, in the Toronto context, to the Basics crew - which is like an OCAP but that also is firmly embedded in the impoverished communities that it claims to represent and has been growing larger than OCAP and actually draws on people from the community as its activist corps rather than student or former student activists...

    As for unions, especially academic unions, supporting groups like OCAP, most couldn't care less because most trade unions these days are heavily bureaucratized. They come out to rallies and their reps speak, but they do not contribute any of their money to building something beyond their own narrow economic interests. Our local, for example, pays OCAP's rent and has done so for years but it is the only local that contributes money to groups like OCAP in a significant manner.

  6. Sure, and I truly admire educational programs that have attempted to address the issues you raise here--I think of Paulo Freire's work in rural Brazil and his _Pedagogy of the Oppressed_. The incredible advances in literacy and education in China during and following the revolution should never be dismissed either, of course.

    I know your point was not to justify the abuses enacted in the name of education, the _forced_ relocation of people and so forth, but rather to emphasize the fact that our current position as intellectuals is predicated upon the existence of a mass of people who are denied the possibility of education. In the face of such extreme injustice, it's not surprising that in moments of revolution intellectual workers might find themselves either persuaded or forced to relocate and take up new work, and that this relocation and forced labour might also take on the character of vengeance, or might be used for sectarian purposes, to isolate and silence dissenting groups. As you say, large scale socialist project are always heterogeneous in this regard. It is the question of force, and legitimate use of force in the name education that I find troubling, but then I don't deny that existing conditions amount to continual indoctrination/deskilling ultimately maintained by recourse to violence.

  7. Agreed: these are always important questions and the mistakes of the past, regardless of the achievements, must always be taken into account. Since we are often taught by mistakes and setbacks, as much as we are taught bu successes, we can't ignore the questions that are still troublesome.

    I appreciate this point you made: "our current position as intellectuals is predicated upon the existence of a mass of people who are denied the possibility of education." We are in complete agreement here and I thank you for making this clear, especially since I feel this point is often lost on: a) those of us who have the privilege of being intellectual workers (during the last 3903 strike, for example, people were saying really stupid stuff like how we were being treated "worse than Tim Hortons workers"); b) those of us who think the answer to this privilege is to just cling to some stupid anti-intellectualism rather than ask the hard questions about the denial of education upon which we are dependent.

    Good point about Freire... In my MA I did work on Freire and the philosophy of education: it's such an important text and it's no wonder that the Brazilian state tried to shut down his education programs.

  8. I was at the CUPE conference mentioned by Ms. marx when she

    "found there to be a good deal of radical activism from a few people (and a lot of opinions from academics who aren't front line activists)."

    Thats funny. How do you know who are front line activists or not out of the 1000 people there? What is your definition of front line activism.

    Were you the ones that were from the university local that were posturing and engaging in rhetoric. Telling the workers assembled what they need is "direct action" what they need is "general strike". I am glad you have recently discovered these terms but your sloganeering came across as what it actually was. The empty rhetoric of toytime revolutionary university students.

    Its funny when you say " We told the union members about a fundraiser for OCAP and only like 5 people (out of 1000) showed up even though they passed a motion to support their anti-poverty work."

    Maybe there is a reason for this? Maybe many folks have worked with OCAP in this city beyond this one off event.

    Also it didnt help that you did not know the address of the event and told people it was walking distance (it was quite far).

    Your post stinks of anti-worker ultra left university snobbery.

  9. I understand how misunderstandings can happen at these events and have been at similar events where such things have happened, but there is no need to take Ms. Marx's complaints so personally. While it is true that a lot of workers in unions support OCAP, it is also true that union bureaucracies have, aside from the odd symbolic gesture, often dropped the ball when it comes to material support for these sorts of groups.

    As for my post stinking of "anti-worker ultra left university snobbery," please tell me how, precisely, a post on intellectual elitism in university is anti-worker? The post is actually quite the opposite because it is about academics, who claim they are left, being anti-worker. In fact, the attitude that seems to frustrate you is precisely what this post is about. (And as an aside, it is funny that this post is being read in different ways by different people.... This is a sign that I need to work on my writing skills.)

    Nor do I really appreciate the way the term "ultra-left" gets thrown around these days because the use of this term is: a) generally a slur used by people who ascribe to social democracy to bad-jacket what was historically considered properly "left" and not "ultra-left"; b) a dogmatic reading of Lenin's LWCaID, probably the worst of Lenin's texts (and historically proved wrong - Pankhurst was right) and cited by people who read nothing Lenin says about opportunism.

    Also, I don't believe that trade unions are the main representative of the core of the proletariat considering that workers in these spaces are often more privileged than the majority of workers, and thus often do possess a labour aristocratic consciousness.... That being said, I would also argue, as I did in this post, that workers of an academic union often do possess the "snobbery" you suggest. I also support, and have always supported, union struggles - both my own, and those of other locals... I just understand their limitations (as the posts on the 2008-2009 strike are meant to interrogate).

    In any case, to be fair to your comment, I can understand your frustration. Having been a long supporter of OCAP, but now someone who does not usually attend their events, it is not always accurate to assume that one's absence at a fundraiser suddenly means that there is a lack of participation in front-line work or that OCAP is the prime representative of front-line work in Toronto. There are other struggles and organizations in Toronto that are not OCAP, some of which I now respect more than OCAP for my own reasons, and people who might not be familiar with the Toronto scene might not be aware of this.

    Although I don't want to speak for her, I don't think Ms. Marx intended to be offensive or insulting to anyone in particular. We in the left are often frustrated with this sewer of neo-liberalism, and you're probably equally frustrated - just as you're frustrated at being wrongly told that you aren't involved in the front-lines.

    In any case, I think it is best to try and keep comments on this string civil: there is a reason I have a comment policy and, unless someone is trolling, if there is a disagreement it is better to engage in a reasoned manner.

    Thanks for the clarification.

  10. Anonymous, I hesitate to engage in this debate but I don’t think I suggested anywhere in my post that anyone person in particular is or is not a front line activist… that is not for me to decide. What I meant by the comment was that there was a lot of talk, tons of rhetoric, and not a lot of action. I saw some of it at the convention, but, mostly I see it within the university. I think that my example was reflective of the business unionism that I see within much of the movement when only 5 people show up to that one specific event, but I don’t think I said anywhere that everyone who decided not to show up was not an activist, I was simply using that as an example.

    And yes, I was one of the people talking about direct action organizing (although I didn’t talk about the general strike)… I talked about developing a course on ways of organizing that don’t necessarily work within the system. However, I am not sure I follow you in how that is empty rhetoric… or how I have recently discovered these terms (I was engaged with these issues during the Harris Days of Action, so I don’t appreciate your assumptions that seem to pertain to my age).

    I also didn’t mean for this post to turn into OCAP cheerleading or to suggest that the only way to engage in activism is around OCAP’s work… I like John Clarke’s writing, I think he is a great speaker, and the work that I have seen from OCAP has gotten better results than anything that I have seen in my hometown, but I won’t pretend there aren’t better ways to organize… I do not live in Toronto and cannot be intimately familiar with OCAP organizing.

  11. Thanks for factoring in, Ms. Marx...

    I would also add, having reread your initial comment, that Anonymous was perhaps taking exception to only one sentence in what you wrote and that the majority of your comment was actually a complaint about the "university snobbery" that s/he does not appreciate. You also pointed out that a lot of the opinions that bothered you were raised by *academics* who might not have been front-line activists, not members from other unions.

    Really I don't see either of your positions as mutually exclusive: I understood your primarily to be aimed at the same frustration regarding university activism (the remarks about OCAP formed only the first few sentences), and I think Anonymous was might have misunderstood the point. We often tend to filter things through our frustration, and it seems like that convention was frustrating in a variety of ways.

  12. Apologies all around for the aggressive and unproductive tone of my clumsy post. I stand by the arguments, some, but not all of which have been distangled from my rant. I think its the background images of this blog filling me with missaplied revolutionary rage.

  13. No problem... and glad that the background imagery produces rage. Thank goodness that I changed the text colour from a bright white to a light grey, due to the complaints of some readers/comrades, which would have produced even more rage due to burning the readers' eyeballs.

    In any case, the comment was productive and if you want to disentangle your arguments further, feel free to keep contributing.


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