Monday, June 3, 2013

Deflected Marxism: The Poison Of The Intelligentsia

I was thinking recently of an apocryphal story that was told to me many years ago as I sat in a dank basement drinking from a keg of beer. Apparently Lenin was listening to Beethoven with the Russian novelist Gorky and commented something along the lines: “ah, the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia. Sometimes they produce such beauty that one wants to reach out and pat them on the head. But you mustn’t, they must be beaten with a stick.” This also reminded me of Marx’s irreverence towards the German intellectuals, in particular the Young Hegelians, and his response to Bruno Bauer known as “A Critique of Critical Criticism” (or The Holy Family). What these recollections stirred in me was that true Marxism has at its root a disdain of the intelligentsia with their high falutin ways.

This has current relevance because the lack of working class radicalization and mobilization in the English-speaking world means that Marxism has largely become the preserve of academics. Marxism is no longer the ideology of the leading edge of the working class movement. On the one hand it is important that someone keeps alive the ideas of working class revolution and the powerful critical and theoretical tools of Marxism to analyze capitalism. On the other hand the dominance of intellectuals has a high cost.

I have seen over the years a number of arguments about how professors (and teachers) have become proletarianized, their control over their conditions of work eroded. There has been much discussion and analysis of how they face job instability and a curriculum, particularly amongst teachers in elementary and secondary education, that is more tightly controlled by the state. For sure neo-liberalism has eroded the conditions of work of teachers and professors. But, nonetheless, they continue to enjoy privileges and conditions of work that make them unique from other workers and this shapes both their consciousness and practice to the detriment of Marxism. I want to focus on professors here though a lot of this – other than ideological/theoretical production and its impact on consciousness – can also be said about teachers. The first thing that ought to be apparent is that teachers and professors are supervisors. They have a power over their students as the object of their work that is unique amongst workers. They develop a habit of speaking and being listened to, of disciplining others with deadlines, threats of punishment (even if they choose not to use that power), and grades that can determine the future success of their students. For most workers, their day-to-day work lives are about evading power, resisting discipline and even cheating the grading process. They have power over no one, except insofar as they bond together to resist their managers through implied or actual threats of strike action, workplace slowdowns, etc. To say that this doesn’t effect consciousness is to deny material reality.

It is true that the conditions of work of academics have been undermined with tenure becoming more difficult to attain as neoliberalism (and now with Massive Online Open Courses gaining popularity). But the irony of this increased competition for the privilege of a job for life is that it is likely to make academics more subservient to the more odious aspects of academic life, in particular the tendency towards splits over minutiae as well as the tendency to sycophancy towards those with tenure.

The tendency of Marxist organizations led by professors to split and fracture is a direct result of the fact that professors prove their merit at work by demonstrating the novelty of their ideas. You are expected to specialize to the point of spending your life exploring a niche discipline that is usually utterly obscure to the broader population. And you become successful insofar as you can generate some original idea that sets you apart from other academics. The easiest way to do this is not to use an existing methodology to more profoundly understand society so that the masses can more effectively win change. Rather, like the perpetual cycle of the fashion and consumer-products industry, you must come up with something unique – a fusion of this and that thinker, finding the fault in some elevated member of a canon or another professor who is respected in your own field. This leads to a pressure to seek out difference as an end in itself. Novelty sells books, gets you on panels at academic conferences and, ultimately, is how you get to be the head of your department, get tenure, junkets, sabbaticals, etc. For workers, being different and challenging the company’s methods gets you fired. In a similar vein, professors are rewarded for individual effort and work. If they can increase their output of books, papers and placement on prestigious academic panels, they are more likely to receive significant material rewards. For most workers, while some might be promoted to management, rewards accrue to the degree that workers can come together collectively to resist the discipline and conditions of the workplace. You want a raise – you go on strike or form a union. Professors want a raise – publish a book.

Professors have prestige. It may be more difficult to get a full appointment now than it was in the 1980s but the goal of every academic is that position in which people look to you for your ideas. Most workers have no illusion that doing their job well will get them listened to in anything more than the most cursory, tokenistic way (I remember well the suggestion box at Kodak Canada – you dropped in your ideas and never heard from them again). And, of course, it isn’t the sessional professors with unstable employment who, by and large, provide the modern ideological development of Marxism – it is the tenured professors with prestige and job stability.

And those professors have far more free time than do workers. Teachers get two months off every summer and professors get upwards of four months with a year off out of every five to pursue their field and publish a book. Most workers get two to three weeks off if they’re lucky. That has an impact, combined with the pressure to differentiate, in allowing academics to play a destructive role. Literally, they have more time to muck about.

Of course, I’m not the first person to notice this pattern. Besides Lenin, assuming the apocryphal story is true, Tony Cliff also wrote about the role of the intelligentsia in the context of third world revolutions as a critique and updating of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. This relatively recent article described Cliff’s argument about the intelligentsia as follows:

“The desire of this group is always to rise above society. These tendencies can be checked when the intelligentsia are involved in mass politics, but when they are free of the constraints and discipline of a wider movement, ‘they show clearer and much more extreme tendencies towards elitism, arbitrariness, as towards vacillation and splits’.”

As this quote suggests, it is not to say that professors (and teachers) can’t be useful participants and even leaders in the socialist movement. They have the luxury of developing ideas and analysis, with access to research assistants and other forms of resources, which are out of reach for the vast majority of workers. But their habits of domination and elitism, deriving from their day-to-day practice are a strong pull and leads them towards practices that are destructive to the socialist movement. They must be held to account in a profoundly sharp way. Like union officials – and the reality is that the most activist-inclined leftist or Marxist professors have a relationship to the workers movement that is mediated through the union bureaucracy – they are prone to high-handed methods and unused to democratic accountability. Challenge your professor and you’re likely to get a failing grade.

Insofar as they are allowed to hold offices of responsibility in the socialist movement they must be disciplined by the workers and not the other way around. Their habits of unquestioned authority from students who are desperate for good marks, especially grad students who hope to be the next in line for these positions, must be constantly challenged. The only real way to challenge the bad habits of intellectuals – the tendency to splitting over personal slights elevated to the level of theory, to authoritarianism and command rule, etc. – is a mobilized and confident working class with an organized leadership of worker-intellectuals, whose authority comes not from social power but from the respect of leading collective struggles. I’m often reminded of a story told to me by a postal worker militant who reminisced about my grandfather, also a militant. In the 1970s, when the postal workers were a powerful and leading edge of the Canadian working class, wildcat strikes were a regular occurrence. They would keep their bosses in line by having one of them pick a fight with a supervisor and when the supervisor lost their temper and disciplined them, the whole workplace would walk out (and go sit on a patio and drink beer). Workers who will risk their jobs to challenge people who have real social power over them will also challenge the pretensions of professors who want to provide ideological leadership to the movement.

And that brings us to the problem of today: the working class is not confident and mobilized. There are no significant rank-and-file movements in the English-speaking world, outside of a few pockets. The passivity of the working class has left Marxism to be the preserve of a few workers, students and academics, which gives the academics greater weight inside of Marxist organizations. That leads those organizations to becoming sclerotic and bureaucratized, to become inculcated in habits of deference and prestige mongering, where the brilliance of this or that individual is valued over the collective experience of the worker-members. And, of course, where individual “brilliance” and “achievement” become more highly valued, these traits tend to accrue to those from higher social classes, who have the confidence to dominate through wit and rhetoric. It isn’t an accident that few people from working class backgrounds become professors and where they do it usually is the result of “fitting in” to the predominant modes of advancement and recognition. From being the servants of the workers’ movement, giving it ideological strength and depth, they become more like a form of gout, weakening and hobbling the movement further, causing splits, acrimony and cliqueism (after all, in academia, currying favour, aka brown-nosing, is the next best thing to splitting hairs when it comes to winning personal advancement).

A quick survey of most Marxist organizations in the western world will illustrate this point. Until the working class begins to move in a serious way the tyranny of the intelligentsia will continue to make Marxism a form of career advancing rhetoric that lacks the kind of life that is necessary if it is to be a vital movement. Like my previous discussion of revolutionary bureaucracy, the lack of struggle can only lead to the dead hand of orthodoxy and cliqueism. To be a vital and revolutionary ideology, Marxism will have to smash the domination of what Lenin called the “committee men” and academics, whose experience tends to lead them towards a natural alliance. They will have to fear and revere the working class more than the dean of their department, the heads of the academic publishing houses or, indeed, the full-time leadership of revolutionary organizations.
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