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Misadventures in Leftwing Academia

As regular readers of this blog will know, one of my constant obsessions has been with the role of leftist academics.  This obsession is primarily due to the fact that I am a leftist academic and so, because of the many years spent as a student (and now as semi-employed contractual labour trying to get papers published), I have a conflicted relationship with academia and the kind of leftism that is intimately connected to academia.  This conflicted relationship generally manifests itself as a critique of two positions vis-a-vis academics/intellectuals that I have always found troubling: a) the erroneous belief that leftwing academics/students are more inclined towards anti-capitalism and thus more advanced than the rest of the masses; b) the anti-intellectualism produced by the fetishization of a specific idea of the working class.  Although I believe that both positions are erroneous, criticizing one or the other often causes the misconception that I am supporting one rather than the other.  For example, if I attack position (a) then some readers think I'm being an anti-intellectual and cannot help notice the irony of such a critique since I'm an academic; if I attack position (b) some people think I'm being an academic snob and miss the entire point of what I was trying to say in the first place.

Since I am a leftist academic, however, I feel that it is necessary to return, again and again, to the problematic of the leftist academic and the contradictions this may or may not imply.  Clearly I do not think leftist academia should be dismissed with some sort of self-righteous revolutionary zeal.  I have little patience for those leftists who dismiss academia, along with so-called "high-brow" literature and art, as bourgeois because I feel it demonstrates a crude understanding of the concrete class questions.  Rather than declaring that this or that cultural/intellectual product is not proletarian, we should be asking about the accessibility of intellectual culture, what class is currently in command of the intellectual sphere, and investigating what steps are necessary to massify academic privilege.  Simply demonstrating contempt for that which is currently inaccessible to the masses also demonstrates contempt for these masses because it is little more than argument that the majority of people are incapable of enjoying complex concepts and that, rather, we should "go down" to their level rather than thinking through the problem that there are levels to begin with.

Moreover, those who push this kind of anti-intellectualism are, more often than not, individuals who are themselves the intellectuals/academics they supposedly despise.  Sometimes they are even privileged university drop-outs, still living on their parents' dime, who think that dumpster diving is "revolutionary" and have no tolerance for those, whose level of privilege is more or less equal, who have laboured their way through academia rather than dropping out and joining the "real struggle" that they are under the impression they represent.  Being an academic myself, I have little tolerance for those "self-taught" intellectuals whose activism is subsidized by their parents and yet think they are somehow more radical than those who bothered to use the same privilege to work their way through university.  Years ago I could easily be swayed by the argument of some anarchist drop-out whose subsidized life allowed them to spend most of their time in activist pursuits––I would even feel guilty when they told me that I was wasting my time being an armchair intellectual––but now, though it took me years to realize that there was a difference between activists and revolutionaries, I lack the patience to deal with this kind of baseless self-righteousness.

All of this aside, however, I generally find myself focusing on an interior critique of leftwing academia. This is because I have lived and worked through the academic world for years, have grown in my theoretical understanding of marxism because of this, and know that in some ways this will always be a place where I will, to some degree, be forced to engage in ideological struggle.  Thus, none of my critiques of academic leftism should be taken as some sort of self-righteous anti-intellectual garbage, but as conflicted reflections that also apply to myself.  We leftist academics are strange creatures: on the one hand we are able to theoretically develop due to our access to theory and history (as well as the time and pressure to study this theory and history); on the other hand, we often retreat into this realm of access where we can imagine that simply studying radical theory is the same as engaging in revolution. This tension is something I have experienced and will probably always experience, as long as I am still in some way engaged with the academic sphere, and so it will always be something that I return to obsessively.

Recently, because of this obsession, I have been reflecting on one of my long-standing grievances with leftist academia: the persistence of a so-called academic acceptability.  That is, the problem that persists in the academic sphere of considering some work academically acceptable and other work academically unacceptable.  Note that I am not trying to argue that there isn't a good reason for academic standards––I am not attempting to make an "anything goes" argument for the acceptability of anything and everything and thus treat pseudo-intellectual bullshit and parascience as equally important as that which has passed the academic test.  Rather, I am simply pointing out that sometimes this standard of what is or what is not academically feasible is also affected by bourgeois ideology.  Thus, I am often suspicious of claims that this or that work "is not considered academically acceptable" because I feel that the entire standard of acceptability is mediated by class considerations.

Furthermore, I am concerned with why those theorists who are treated with the most excitement by academic leftists are also those theorists whose involvement with concrete class struggle is marginal and who seem to go out of their way to be opaque.  Why is it that Badiou and Zizek are more academically acceptable than Lenin and Mao, even if they occasionally cite Lenin or Mao?  Why is the work of those who were intrinsically connected to actually existing class struggle pushed aside in favour of theoretical vanity?  These questions, I think, are rhetorical: leftist academics, like all academics, desire erudite abstraction.  They also have no patience for revolutionary historians––which is why William Hinton, regardless of the fact that he concretely investigated a living world historical revolution, will be considered as academically viable as someone like Maurice Meisner who, cleansed from revolutionary zeal and thus objective, is considered a "proper" historian.

If we are to believe some university marxists, this guy is more important than Lenin or Mao.

But, aside from Marx, I never really encountered the theory that I would truly excite me within the realm of academia.  I was forced to investigate this other theory on my own time, outside of the official classes, while I was trying to figure out what I wanted to write for my doctoral thesis.  There were no classes on Lenin and Mao; it was even difficult to find someone who would teach Frantz Fanon outside of some post-colonial course!  And yet I find this kind of theory––the theory that speaks to real revolutionary praxis––far more interesting than the majority of what passes as "radical" theory within the sanitized world of academia.

The kind of praxis that most often emerges from academia is barely even worthy of being called praxis.  Academic leftists and those enthralled by academic leftism tend to be the kind of people who are enamoured with a fragmented identity politics that fetishizes multiple isms, goes on and on about how they are uber anti-oppressive, and will speak forever about intersectionality without ever explaining how this analysis communicates to an actual and concrete revolutionary practice that can be applied, on a non-abstract level, in the real world.  Obviously I think that the legacy of identity politics is important insofar as it has provided a necessary critique of the kind of class essentialism that ignored the fact of other oppressions, but I don't think it is politically useful by itself.  Counting oppressions in order to develop a toothless stand-point ethics, going on and on about how your group is anti-oppressive not because of its political line but because of its theoretical identity (we are anti-patriarchal! anti-racist! queer-positive! etc.!) and because you use all the proper adjectives, doesn't do anything except describe what you think you are.  Nor is it anything more than banal to assert that you believe in intersectionality––yes, multiple oppressions intersect but if you can't explain the epistemic foundation for this intersection, then all you're doing is describing reality.  Such a political praxis, which is ultimately paralyzed because its core commitments prevent it from producing radical solidarity, is the last bastion for academic leftists who are still too enamoured by chic theory produced by non-revolutionaries who like to speak about radicality.

And then there are also those marxist academics who study a kind of marxism so divorced from the practice of class struggle that we have to wonder why they're studying it in the first place.  These speculative marxists, it must be noted, also turn up their noses at the identity politics discussed above; they think, because of their commitment to marxism, they're better than their post-structuralist peers.  And yet the vast majority of these marxist academics often have nothing but disdain for the actually existing socialisms of the 20th century and little more than ignorance when it comes to revolutionary movements of the 21st century.  Believing that they understand marxism better than communist movements that have applied marxism, they will claim that people like Lenin and Mao weren't "real marxists" and couldn't understand marxism as well as a doctoral student whose understanding of class struggle is arguing about the validity of Marx in a university class filled with post-modernists.

Being a marxist academic myself, I've become somewhat frustrated by my contemporary marxist academics who, while occasionally slumming it at a legal anti-war protest, think that their contribution to class struggle is writing on some obscure marxist problem distorted through the lens of whatever marxist theorist (who usually also does little more than posture and squabble in the ivory towers) that is currently hip.  My point is not that I think what they're doing is useless; I just have a problem with their fidelity to marxism when they show no interest in anything approaching the concrete practice of communism and, indeed, turn up their noses at the theorists who led the two world historical revolutions of the twentieth century.

Take, for example, the time I was riding the bus back from York and couldn't help but eavesdrop on a group of graduate students talking about their appreciation of theoretical marxism, and their theoretical marxist projects, who then went on to talk about their expensive wine collections and how they were "inconvenienced" by the recent garbage worker strike.  Then there was the time that my union local went on strike and a surprising number of "marxists" weren't even radical enough to qualify for proper trade-union consciousness––they even went so far as to find marxist sounding language to disparage the efforts of those of us who were trying hard to make the strike count for all of us.

In any case, I think it is useful, for someone like myself who is engaged in academia, to think through the problems this privileged positionality causes as well as the fact that since one is occupying a position of intellectual privilege they have access to a lot of resources, and time to study these resources, that others lack.  We always need to be critical of the class position we occupy; the difficulty, though, is being critical in a way that avoids a crude anti-intellectualism.  In other words, we should "go down to the countryside" [that is, whatever the countryside means in one's social context], but there is a reason to go down to this countryside in the first place––and that is to share our privilege with those who do not have access to the same resources while, at the same time, learning from those masses who can teach us about revolutionary praxis.


  1. Wow. Absolutely wonderful, JMP. I am totally with you on all of these sentiments being a Maoist in academia. The majority of my dealings are with liberal and social-democratic intellectuals, but on the occasions that I have interacted with Marxist intellectuals, I have found a lot of these same sentiments as you expressed in this article. I constantly try to remember how intellectuals were viewed in the socialist revolutions and what they contributed and where they fell short of being "radical" intellectuals. I have repeatedly battled with the idea that its "useless." Usually when reading some liberal academic's literature, I think "This is so utterly useless. Am I doing the same thing?" But you really bring up some great points. I disdain the idea of hiding away in the ivory tower. I absolutely think we Marxist intellectuals need to "go down to the countryside" and really need to focus on practice in Marxist thinking. I have noticed that the Trotskyist and post-Trot intellectuals that you mentioned in your other post are usually the ones most like to look down their smug noses at the masses. We really can stand to learn so much from the masses. There is a lot to learn from strikes and trade union movements (to specifically apply this to our North American countries). We academics are often utterly dumbfounded and lost and wouldn't know where to go without the masses. We need to embrace this wholeheartedly.

    1. Great points: I'm glad this resonated with you. Obviously, due to my relationship with academia, this will be a continuous topic on this blog. We do need to go down to the metaphorical countryside so that our ideas can be of use, while also being challenged, by the masses. At the same time, we need to figure out a way to wage ideological class struggle in these contexts––but a struggle aimed at opening them up.

  2. Great article. I remember when I tried to cite Lenin in a paper and ended up having to cite David Harvey or something instead. "Why is it that Badiou and Zizek are more academically acceptable than Lenin and Mao?". I think the answer is pretty simple. Lenin and Mao are revolutionaries, Badiou and Zizek are not (or at least not primarily so). They want to keep actually dangerous ideas out of the academy, which is why they ignore Mao and Lenin and when they look at Gramsci and Fanon its done in the most academic and least useful way possible. It's dangerous for schools and departments to let their people publish stuff full of explicitly revolutionary citations, lest they get read out on right wing radio and get their funding cut, hence professors saying they study "political economy" or "participatory democracy' or "social movements" instead of flat out admitting they are commies (if indeed they are commies). It has to do with the political economy of universities and their somewhat tenuous nature as semi-feudal carryover institutions in a capitalist society.

    1. Good points. The question you answered was generally rhetorical, but you covered the salient points I left unspoken. I think we can push this further, though, in order to gain an understanding of the [class] consciousness that affects those of us who are leftists in academia. Since all we need to persist as leftists in academia is job security, publications, and a low level of freedom of speech, then we can be bought off––and so of course proclaiming a more radical variant of our ideology undermines this buying off. This is, in some ways, a form of academic economism.


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