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Academic Training and Class Struggle

One of the topics I keep returning to on this blog, since it has to do with my social circumstances, is the role of academics vis-a-vis the revolutionary movement. As one of my old posts makes clear (and includes back links to previous posts) I'm always caught between the problematic of the over-valorization of academic expertise amongst some leftists and the anti-intellectualism amongst others, both of which are erroneous positions. Although what I'm going to write in this post will probably repeat my thoughts from these older articles, the reason I keep returning to this topic is because it concerns my job and training and the way I cognize this part of my life in relation to the politics to which this life is dedicated.

Mainly I want to focus on a question that I keep seeing raised, either online or directly to me, by other leftists embedded in academia, particularly those who come from proletarian backgrounds. "How is pursuing an academic career, or any form of academic study, useful for the revolution?" The assumption guiding this question––which, yes, is often stoked by anti-intellectual currents within the broad left––is that academia functions to de-proletarianize and that comrades are better off dropping out, getting traditional working class jobs, and spending their time organizing. There is, to be very clear, a stark truth behind this worry. We know that educational institutions in capitalist countries do function, like all capitalist institutions, to enforce ruling class ideology. Indeed, Althusser thought that schools and universities were the strongest "ideological state apparatuses" (which ironically described his own inability to support his students in May 1968), and anyone who has spent time in university pursuing radical political work at the same time is immediately aware of this fact. But we don't need Althusser to tell us this since, in one of my favourite passages of classical Marxist theory, Marx recognized the broader problematic in the third volume of Capital:

The way that the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages built its hierarchy out of the best brains in the nation, without regard to status, birth or wealth, was likewise a major means of reinforcing the rule of the priests and suppressing the laity. The more a dominant class is able to absorb the best people from the dominated classes, the more solid and dangerous its rule.

We thus need to be aware that academia does function to capture potential intellectuals and redirect their energy in ways that either directly benefit the ruling classes or misdirect them down ineffectual and individualistic routes of academic debate largely divorced from the broad masses.

Now here I could add the caveat, as I have before, that the state of modern academia is such that most of will spend our entire life working casualized jobs, that tenure is only achievable for a few because it has become something of a lottery. Does the fact that myself along with so many others work jobs without security, fighting for benefits through union struggles, change the meaning of what academia looked like traditionally? In many ways it does, especially when older tenured faculty think it is a clever insult to call us "the McDonalds workers of academia" (as if being compared to service workers is insulting), but this does not really escape the issue at hand. Are those of us who are lucky enough to get a secure job traitors, immediately depoliticized because they want work that they don't have to struggle for every year? Any worker will choose a secure job over labour insecurity when they have to pay bills and support dependents. Thus if we treat this caveat as a way to escape the charge of academic deproletarianization we have to classify those who accept a secure job as traitors and automatically politically compromised. Maybe in some cases this is the truth: let's not pretend that tenure and publishing deals do function as ways to buy off and/or neutralize many left-wing intellectuals. But so do many secure jobs, even those within the ranks of the traditional working class.

Marx in an academic setting that never existed in an FBI comic hating on philosophy.

What I find worth exploring here is the strange assumption and worry that academia is somehow more compromising than other forms of work especially since bourgeois ideology is reinforced at all levels of society. Of course there is at least one reason why academia is treated as more compromising: it promotes mental over manual labour, valorizing professionalization and skilled labour, and functions to crank out intellectual experts. And yet, and this is something I find very interesting, this leftish suspicion of academia is aimed primarily at those who study the Humanities and not at STEM, legal, or medical academic disciplines. That is, when well-meaning comrades complain about "academics" they mean academics who study theory, even Marxist theory, classifying them as divorced from the masses; they see leftists engaged in academic research around philosophy, sociology, anthropology, art and literature, etc. as those who are essentially compromised. Let's be clear, when Marxists complain about academics they are complaining about Arts and Humanities academics, a complaint that becomes pretty stark when it takes the form of a complaint about "post-modernism" since part of this latter complaint has to do with post-modernism's anti-science positions, which means they have far less of a problem with STEM academics research, only their ideology which is treated as epiphenomenal.

Here we end up with a very strange species of anti-intellectualism that accords with the harshest of bourgeois currents within academia. Nobody can dispute that traditional STEM research is only bourgeois ideology because, though it is affected by bourgeois ideology, it still generates truths that impact our lives. It would be mind-boggling for a leftist to claim that engineering expertise is merely bourgeois propaganda when any organizer should know that a movement needs people who possess expertise in knowing how to build shit. Neither can a movement generate the medical science of brain surgery outside of academic professionalization. We know that doctors, engineers, biologists, physicists, chemists, etc. have the requisite level of training that make them experts in their areas and that it would be anti-scientific to claim otherwise. (We also know that it is not enough to be simply expert but that we must all be red and expert. More on this later.) For Marxists to dismiss the so-called STEM disciplines as being useless because they are "bourgeois academia" is as silly as post-modern rejections of the totalization of science.

Indeed, anyone paying attention to the ways in which bourgeois ideology functions in academia would be aware that the annihilation of the Humanities is essential to creating the perfect bourgeois institution. The ruling class wants universities cleansed of the Humanities, reduced to STEM and professional schools, without anything that subverts pure positivism. The weird leftist complaint about the Humanities that preserves this STEM/professional positivism in fact capitulates to bourgeois ideology because it wants the university cleansed of any space that opens up critical engagement. And we must ask this question: why do we treat only the traditional STEM disciplines as being expert, when so many people in these disciplines are also beholden to bourgeois ideology, but like these STEM individuals imagine that a similar expertise (though also ideologically affected) does not hold for the historian, sociologist, philosopher, etc.? When we privilege these traditional STEM disciplines over and above the Humanities we are doing precisely what the neoliberal university demands of us and are thus also accepting the trend of the bourgeois university.

Although universities are indeed ideological state apparatuses that function to try and capture the brightest and best of us, the nuanced aspect of these spaces is such that it is mainly in the so-called Humanities that we find anything approaching resistance and/or the recognition that there is more to our experience as humans than legal/medical professionalization or STEM positivism. There is a reason the CIA has worried about the Humanities, working hard to push post-modernism over Marxism within academia: it saw this kind of expert training as an ideological threat. Training in the Humanities, with its emphasis on critical thinking and the rigorous study of ideology, is as useful to the struggle (and as equally compromised) as STEM training. The time and space accorded to study radical texts and the tools taught to think through these texts is no more or less important than studying Biology or Physics. Just as a communist movement must draw on the best and brightest of STEM thinkers, it must also draw on the best and brightest of Humanities thinkers, especially those who rigorously studied the science of historical materialism without being compromised because they were also connected to a living movement.

What seems quite odd to me, then, is the ways in which Humanities academics, even if most of them are not tenured, are dismissed over and above the expertise of lawyers and doctors within the same movement. The instrumental judgement is clear: lawyers can directly help the movement by defending our comrades, doctors can do the necessary work of helping injured comrades. But why are these professional roles seen as less petty-bourgeois than a casualized academic who has spent their whole life studying Marx treated as more valuable and less compromised by bourgeois ideology? Lawyers and doctors generally make more money and possess more stable jobs than the average Humanities scholar after all.

What we need to grasp is, as mentioned above, the importance of being red and expert. In the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) expertise in any area was not enough; it also had to be politically progressive. Joel Andreas' Rise of the Red Engineers, for example, charts the emergence of those engineers during the GPCR who were not only experts in the area of engineering but possessed the correct political perspective to implement their expertise within a revolutionary movement. But just as it was not enough for them to expert engineers, it was also not enough for them to just be red: one cannot be an expert engineer simply through politics just as one cannot be correct politically because of professional expertise. We need to recognize that academic study in all areas (both STEM and Humanities) does develop expertise but that this expertise requires the correct political line to combat the dominant ideology that prevails within bourgeois academia.

So what does this mean for comrades who wonder about the worth of their academic research in regards to proletarian struggle? It means that we should use this academic space for the struggle, just as an engineer should train to learn the skills to help the revolution, and thus not be concerned with contributing to the bourgeois dominated space of academia. Rather, we should be using this training for the revolution, not caring about our own academic careers, and devoting all of our energy and time in placing our work in service of the masses because we are part of these masses. So again: class struggle in the terrain of theory… And just as revolutionary medical scientists such as Norman Bethune used their expert training in bourgeois academia to contribute to the Spanish Civil War and the Chinese Revolution, we must do the same because our training does open up this opportunity.