Academics, Politics and Class Struggle

 Pothik Ghosh

“The Owl of Minerva flies only at dusk” is a Hegelian maxim that permeates our reflection on the everydayness of our modern living. Thinking for all of us here, thanks to this maxim, is now a process that is self-conscious – some would say painfully so – of its retrospective fate vis-à-vis an event, which this process of thinking seeks to make sense of, explicate and give a discursive rationality to, after it has happened. Thought and reason can then be said to be traces left behind by an event that has occurred and in occurringhas disappeared. What we, given our specific conjuncture, ought to do now is complete this Hegelian awareness by comprehending the fact that the “dusk” of post-facto cognition is a movement, yet again, towards the dawn of the event and its non-rational return. The flapping of the Owl of Minerva’s wings in flight should, in fact, be envisaged not merely as the thought on an event that has occurred thereby anticipating its return, but as the re-enactment of the event – which occurred in the moment of so-called political action – and its singular, synthetic, critical processuality in the moment or condition of human thought itself.

In the cognitively anticipated return of the event the event actually returns, of course, in that moment of thinking, even as it presages yet again its own non-rational return in another moment of political action or pragmatics. Hegel’s Owl of Minerva, through this self-reflexive optic, can morph into the revolutionary subjectivity of Marx’s proletariat. And ‘academics beyond academia’ is the conceptual common name that we could give to this emergence of revolutionary subjectivity in the moment of human thinking or knowledge.

It is this term that would, for us, serve to programmatically encapsulate the task of working-class politics on the terrain of institutionalised academics and the university it is constitutive of. But before we get ahead of ourselves, we must recognise why this task of academic revolutionary politics impinges on our consciousness with such pressing urgency. So much so that we have gathered here today, one must add belatedly, to thrash out the issues on that particular count.

The Political Terrain of Academics

Whether or not we on the Left agree with the specific programmatic unity of strategy and tactics posed by the Maoist movement in and from its agrarian-tribal location, it would certainly be disingenuous on our part not to accept the fact that the ongoing Maoist insurgency has posed the larger question of working-class revolution not merely as a passive object of a clinically discursive inquiry, but first and foremost as an agenda of active political action and expression. That said, we must also acknowledge that this insurgency – which is little more than a series of sensational strikes persistently launched by the Maoist PLGA and people’s militias in their areas of dominance – is symptomatic of the retreat the working-class revolution as a whole is in today.

Nevertheless, the unavoidable need to stage that revolution on the ground of the university and canonised academics is something that ought to unite both the upholders and left-wing critics of the Indian Maoist movement. That the former should see this as an unfolding of the revolutionary logic posited by the Maoist people’s war, even as the latter see in this an opportunity to rectify the distortion of the revolutionary project by the “Narodnik populism” of the Maoists does not detract from the given task and thus their unity on that count.

The task of envisaging the university and the institutionalised knowledge-production that is constitutive of it into a terrain of class struggle can be broadly divided into three formally specific but logically united levels or moments.

The first and the most immediately obvious and accessible is the moment of the struggle by students, teachers and other staff members to control the university – much like the history of workers’ struggles to control factories internationally – to run it in terms of both autonomous determination of curriculum and pedagogy, and administration of the larger social life on campus through a process of active and vigorous participatory democracy.

The second level is, of course, the moment of struggle to reconstitute the hierarchical pedagogical relation, and the concomitant monologic and univocal pedagogic modality that is constitutive of this relation, between the teacher and the taught into a completely horizontal space. A space where, following the lessons of critical pedagogue Paulo Freire, the educator himself has to be educated and where the univocal pedagogical relation is envisaged merely as a provisional one with which the reconstituted teaching process begins, only to be eventually abolished in the course of that process.

Last but not least, it is about transforming the grammar or logic of academic production of canonised knowledge and the subjectivity such knowledge-production concomitantly engenders. This transformation would be of a philosophised, a priori, transhistorical subjectivity – which is constitutive of a representative modality of knowledge creation that is contingent on the alienating and hierarchical rift between the subject and the object – into an autonomous expression of the concrete where subjectivity is nothing but the organic expression of the singular, synthetic, processual concrete. This expression of the singular, processual concrete is articulated only in and through a relationship of critique, vis-a-vis the reigning subjectivity of the dualised realm of pedagogic determination. It is this critically oppositional subjectivity of the singular that embodies a critique of political economy, wherein the differential circulation of value and thus differential distribution of power, and their constitutive productive logic of value creation is sought to be decimated through active, politically materialised critique, which is another name for revolution. There is absolutely no doubt that the three levels just described are discrete only in a conceptual sense and are, in the actual operation of materialised politics, not only simultaneously accessible but continually, if not continuously, spill over into each other. It is in that context that we would do well, as of now, to tactically privilege the third moment over the first two in terms of envisaging a programme of revolutionary working-class politics on the terrain of the university.

That the vigorously participatory democratic control of the university by students, teachers and other staff members is not essentially an administrative question, insofar as administration is the bourgeois mode of politics (or anti-politics), must be grasped by the collectivity of the movement that seeks to take such control.That collectivity ought to subjectively realise that for its movement the question of administration of the university is an epiphenomenon, an afterimage in Benjamin’s words, of the critical-oppositional impulse of the politics of autonomy. For, such democratic control, precisely in seeking to render pedagogical relations and techniques, curriculum, and the total modality of social life in and around the university autonomous by seeking to free them from the administrative determination of work, which is alienation of labour from its autonomous, creative and contingent human essence, expresses the tendency to abolish the totality of the process called capital accumulation. This process is embodied in the form of work, which splits human livelihood into alienated domains of production (work) and reproduction (leisure and work for leisure). The culture of administrative determination that completely permeates both these domains is intrinsic to and expression of the alienating logic of work. The university is, to that extent, an emblematic site of capitalism as it is one of those few domains of capital where the determination of alienating work is apparent both in the register of reproduction (for students-becoming-workers) and production (teachers, researchers, other staff members but also students). It is, therefore, one of those rare sites where labour can be seen in more than one of its alterities, sometimes in the same moment, and where Marx’s conceptualisation of the collective worker to indicate the always formational character of the working class becomes almost empirically discernible and possible.

Clearly then, a movement that seeks to take control of the university, if envisaged without any subjective realisation of its constitutive logic of positing a critique of political economy in its totality, is bound to reify its afterimage of administration and, consequently, be subsumed yet again into the very social configuration of capitalist class power it had sought to challenge and supersede. The subjectivity of the movement should be such that it envisages the movement as one that seeks to free the question of human livelihood from the grip of work and capital accumulation through a critical opposition to the bourgeois form of what is called the real economy, even as it in the same movement seeks to transform the pursuit of academics for students, researchers and teachers alike into a continuous expression of critique of the externally imposed discipline and drudgery of work it now is. Such a critique, needless to say, would simultaneously be constitutive of the unalienated human creativity that its operation as critique seeks in the first place.

The latter is nothing but the enactment of the total critique of political economy of capital at one local moment, even as through that enactment it indicates and moves towards re-enacting that essential critique yet again in another local moment manifest as the so-called real economy.

Academics beyond Academia or “Class Struggle in the Theoretical Moment”?

Our tactical privileging of the third moment of the struggle to transform the philosophised structure, and thus the hierarchised, invasive and instrumentalised grammar, of academic knowledge-production would enable the collectivity of the movement for participatory democratic control of the university to grasp and simultaneously subjectivise the essential link between the moment of the university and the form of the bourgeois ‘real’ economy as such. That is because constitutive of this process of transforming the instrumentalised and hierarchised grammar of academically canonised knowledge production is a critical and autonomous subjectivity. Something that embodies not only the manoeuvre of class struggle in the moment of theory but through the self-reflexive expression of its formation and emergence as an enactment of critical singularity at that moment becomes an allegory of negativity with regard to the moment of work in both the university and bourgeois ‘real’ economy. The critical and autonomous subjectivity constitutive of this struggle or process of transforming the philosophised structure and instrumentalised grammar of academic knowledge-production, due to the self-reflexivity of that subjectivity, is thus, very clearly, also an allegory for the unfolding of the unalienated processual logic through its determinate re-enactment at other moments of capitalist contradiction through a critique of and opposition to the alienated, dualised and antagonistic concrete situations at each of those moments. Needless to say that such self-reflexivity, which the form of the transformative struggle at the theoretical moment expresses, implies the negation of its form as such for other moments so that this form’s foundational and constitutive logic of infinite processuality can be generalised and then reclaimed in its multiple formal specificities at other different historical-ontological moments.

It is this double movement of the theoretical struggle, staged at the location of institutionalised academics, that renders its manifest form into revolutionary theory a la Lenin. We have chosen to call it academics beyond academia. But the perfectly legitimate question that arises here is why do we still choose to stick to the term academics, given that it is thoroughly implicated in a transhistorical, hypostatised and philosophised subjectivity, even as we seek to transgress the subject/object dichotomy constitutive of such subjectivity. We could as well ask, why doesn’t the formulation “class struggle in the theoretical moment” suffice.

That is because the form in which the struggle manifests itself at the theoretical moment is important insofar as it has a bearing on other moments, like that of pragmatics say, by way of allegorically alluding through its self-reflexivity to the logic of unalienated processuality, which its determinate affirmation of autonomy enacts through a critical negation of the subjectivated centre of the realm of alienation, duality, antagonism, representation and hierarchy. Clearly, the form through which the logic of unalienated and infinite processuality is critically enacted at the moment of theory needs to be conceptualised not so as to effect the pedagogical and externalised imposition of the concept on another moment but because that concept could allegorically remind us of the universal logic of unalienated processuality it enacted by way of critically asserting its autonomy in relation to the reigning subjectivity of alienation, duality and representation in the determinate condition of theory. That reminder to reclaim or re-enact the logic of unalienated, processual concrete is necessary as without that memory the opposition to the reigning subjectivated centres of alienation, duality and contradiction at other moments would remain caught in the constitutive antithetical fetish of duality and competition, and would fail to become critical. That would also mean the unfolding of the processual revolutionary logic, which emerged through the form of class struggle in the theoretical moment, has been stymied. Therefore, the concept of academics beyond academia is not a concept in the pedagogical sense but in the allegorical sense, whereby it is not a concept only by virtue of being one that is self-reflexively indicative of its own subsequent formal negation. So, the knowledge of unalienated singular processual logic of universality, which is encapsulated in ‘academics beyond academia’, the conceptualised form of class struggle at the moment of canonised academics, can only be remembered as that concept so that it can be repeatedly extracted and enacted anew at every other lived concrete moment of capitalist duality and contradiction.

It is this dialectical awareness of the concept about itself that is fatally absent from the formulation class struggle in the theoretical moment. For, even as that concept arises, not very differently from ‘academics beyond academia’, through the enactment and affirmation of the logic of autonomous and unalienated processuality in the process of critically negating the subjectivated centre of the total system of alienation, duality, hierarchy, externalised determination or representation, and invasive and false objectification of knowledge, it tends to reify the form through which the critical subjectivity of the processual had determinately appeared in the specific moment of theory. As a result, its relation with other historically different moments of capitalist duality and contradiction becomes pedagogical, thereby undermining the entire logic of reclaiming and re-enacting the working-class subjectivity of the singular-universal in a determinate manner.

Adorno’s formulation that his “was the theoretical moment of class struggle”, which informed not merely his own politico-theoretical practice and position but that of the entire post-war Frankfurt School, clearly illustrates a problem that one wishes to term his and his School’s Heideggerian tangle. This problem deserves our special attention because it plagues many of our comrades in the academia, who profess to one strain or school of leftwing radical politics or another. They clearly content themselves by restricting their politics of critique to the theoretical moment, even as they refuse to accept the fact that the form in which their critical politics has emerged in the academic moment of theory self-reflexively cries out to be unfolded through re-enactment of the constitutive processual logic of that theoretical form of critical politics into the messy moment of political pragmatics or, what some of them label with barely suppressed derision as, “mobilisational politics”. They usually meet the demands that the moment of political pragmatics, which for them is a realm of irredeemably uncritical and positivist abstraction, with disengaged pessimism and that classically Adornesque melancholy. This melancholic quietism of theirs with regard to the moment of pragmatics and political action is nothing but the manifestation of their failed attempt to pedagogically impose the form in which their critical politics emerged in the moment of academic theory. An attempt that would fail – even if it were not to be repelled by the dogmatic pedagogues of party politics and pragmatism – by undermining the entire revolutionary project of continuously unfolding the subjectivity of singular processuality by re-enacting it in a determinate fashion at various other concrete moments of capitalist contradiction.

As a matter of fact, this Heideggerian problem of our Adornoesquely academic Marxists, who have come to constitute a silent but rather resilient hegemony in the realm of so-called radical political theory at the academic moment, at least since the Soviet debacle, has turned out to be no less noxious than the problem of our dogmatic party bosses and their sundry organisational apparatchiks. The latter have reified and sought to pedagogically impose the form through which the revolutionary subjectivity of unalienated processuality expressed itself at either the Fordist industrial worker’s location or the agrarian-tribal location in the moment of pragmatics on other locations within the moment of pragmatics or, more dangerously, on the moment of theory and knowledge, thereby denying it its determinate specificity.

“Doing Philosophy under the Condition of Politics”

The working-class struggle is, not surprisingly, caught today between the rock of chronic quietism, as far as the relation as it unfolds from the moment of theory to the moment of pragmatics goes; and the hard-place of dogmatism, as far as the unfolding of the essential relation from the moment of pragmatics to that of theory is concerned. The result, for the project of reconstituting a revolutionary theory, has, as a consequence, been dismal. Theory, in the specificity of its moment of theoretical practice, has become a deconstructionist game of constantly proliferating pluralities, which certainly talks of power but means nothing as it refuses to ground that power in the relations among its various configurations of materiality. On the other hand, pragmatics, in the specificity of its moment of various practices and thus also positing the theories of those various practices, has fallen prey to the tyranny of pragmatism, which has repressed all possibility of constructing a revolutionary theory.

The contradiction between the two positions – of quietist deconstructionism in the theoretical moment and dogmatically positivist pragmatism in the moment of pragmatics – is, as we can see, merely apparent. In reality, they are embedded in the same structure of transhistorical and instrumentalised subjectivity of canonised (bourgeois) philosophy. Our conceptualisation of ‘academics beyond academia’ is an attempt to conceptualise the manoeuvre of dialectically negating and superseding this contradiction. And on this score, one could argue, that this project of academics beyond academia has a stronger affinity to Althusser (and Alain Badiou’s) classically Leninist concept of “doing philosophy under the condition of politics”, than the one-sided formulation of Adorno of “this” being “the theoretical moment of class struggle”. True, Althusser, in his later writings, did dub philosophy as a state-form. But the question he repeatedly broached through the totality of his politico-theoretical practice, and which remains even today the most important politico-theoretical question for working-class politics, is, can there be a philosophy in the negative? Something that becomes, for the theoretical moment, the Leninist transition-state-form? That is, can philosophy be a modality to affirm the unalienated, singular processuality implicit in the critical negation of the subjectivated centre of the horizon of alienation, duality, hierarchy and contradiction?

In other words, can the logic of unalienated processuality be located in a form, idiom, ontology or subjectivity, which has emerged to express its autonomy through critique of the realm of alienation, hierarchy and representation? Can there be a philosophically affirmative explication and description of what such a form or subjectivity says in terms of why and how it says what it says and not merely in terms of what it apparently says as a form or subjectivity per se? It is the constant posing of these questions that our project of academics beyond academia is tasked with. This, and nothing else, is the task of revolution today.

In that context, we would do well to delineate the exact difference between Adorno’s critical theoretical idea of class struggle in the theoretical moment with Althusser’s apparently similar project of envisaging the academic discipline of philosophy as a terrain of politics and class struggle. And this one intends to do through a rather schematic comparison between the politico-theoretical practices and stances of these two luminaries of Western Marxism, if only to show that Althusser’s practice, notwithstanding its ‘theoreticist’ misinterpretation by both his followers and detractors, enables us to stake out a much more militant working-class position than Adorno’s infamous theoretical melancholy would ever allow. Of course, this exercise is not supported by an exegetical mining of their respective texts, something that is par for the course in rigorous academic debates but something from which an interloper is exempt, considering that most ‘academic’ Marxists expect no more than the ‘dilettantish’ and schematic forays into the realm of theory by their brethren from the world of pragmatics. One has every intention to live up to that reputation and no intention to prove otherwise. So, without any further ado one would wish to rush like a fool in the direction of one’s schema, even as one beckons, fruitlessly perhaps, at one’s angelic academic friends to follow suit.

Let us begin with the negative example of Adorno first. The philosopher’s essay on Brecht, to cite Brazilian cultural theorist Roberto Schwarz, “knows and criticizes Brecht’s political-aesthetic positions, places greater emphasis on the work than on the theory; or rather it sees the role of the latter inside the former”. Clearly, Adorno in his reflections on Brecht hails theory as the operation of autonomous Dionysian enactment at a moment and its simultaneous codification that, in turn, would enable another such autonomous enactment at another moment. Yet, in spite of that dialectical and allegorical awareness of theory in working-class politics he falls prey to the Heideggerian problem in his own practice where he temporalises the sense of the moment and hypostatises it. It is a problem that is born out of having to defend the logical universality of class politics in a moment of revolutionary retreat, when the antithetical fetishes comprising the various contradictory junctures of a capitalist conjuncture are sought to be overcome by positing the universality of the singular (and synthetic) revolutionary logic. But Adorno ended up positing that universal logic of revolutionary processuality by seeking to pedagogically transmit the conceptualised form, through which he had enacted that logic of critical autonomy in the determinate moment of theory and discursive discourse, on to other concrete moments of capitalist contradiction.

This imposed transmission of the conceptualised form through which the revolutionary logic manifest itself determinately in the moment of theory destroyed the singularity of universality, for real universality is possible only when there is no alienated duality that implies a struggle between competing particulars intrinsic to the horizon of alienated duality. That Adorno pedagogically imposed a conceptualised  form of the universality of the one (singular-universal) determinate to a particular moment on other moments is evident in his theory of negative dialectics that sees every act of resistance, the moment it is enunciated, as being antithetical and thus governed and articulated by the capitalist logic of competing fetishes. His negative dialectics displaces the synthetic process so completely into the domain of the absent that he cannot ever distinguish between the symptomally materialised critique of the total system in a local moment of its appearance from the fetish it is destined to become in the next moment. His negative dialectics, in fact, has no place for envisaging power or dialectics in their determinate materiality. To that extent, his vision robs the dialectical logic of the materiality that Marx had conferred on it while rescuing it from the distortions of Hegel’s teleologised and phenomenologised prison.

It is no wonder then that Adorno always sees the importance of a form in terms of what it cannot say. He, thanks to his negative dialectical vision, cannot ever see that a form, in the moment of its critical emergence, vis-à-vis another ontologically fixed form that affirms its logic of form as such thereby establishing duality, domination and externalised pedagogical determination, is enunciated in the realm of the positive even before it can become a form there. The figuring of such an enunciative register in the realm of the positive shows that the unalienated logic of the singular processual, which is the logical inverse of ontologised forms and their formal logic of domination and duality, can and does appear in the positive by breaking with the ontologically fixed forms and their logic of alienation, duality, contradiction and domination. The melancholy Marxist, as a consequence, could never see what a form says in terms of how and why it says so. His negative dialectics, wherein the synthetic always resides in the elsewhere of the negative and the absent, actually implies that this elsewhere of synthetic negativity appears only in the mental moment of human thought. The hypostatisation of the form in which the processual synthetic logic appeared in a determinate fashion to the mental-theoretical moment, something that was built into Adorno’s temporalisation of the sense of the theoretical moment of class struggle, made it impossible for him to envisage the unfolding of the processual synthetic logic, which was constitutive of the form of critique determinate to the mental-theoretical moment, through its repeated determinate re-enactment in the specificity of other moments of capitalist duality and contradiction. It was this that led Adorno’s theoretical practice in the direction of radical negativity that precluded all revolutionary hope and made optimism of the will an impossibility.

Adorno, even while being critically enactive in the theoretical moment of institutionalised academics, turns pedagogical in taking the conceptualised form of that enactment rather literally with regard to other moments, especially the moment of political pragmatics, of capitalist duality and contradiction.

That now brings us to Althusser, whose project of doing philosophy in the negative, or philosophy under the condition of politics gave us a revolutionary and mobile ‘metaphysics’ that obviated his theory’s pedagogical reception, and made the re-enactment and refoundation of the logic of unalienated processuality, which was constitutive of his form of critique in the moment of theory and canonical philosophy, inescapable. Althusser’s defence of the revolutionary horizon – as it is encapsulated in a conceptually elevated form through which critique and the coeval logic of unalienated processuality were enacted at the moment of philosophy – is simultaneously a call for re-enactment.  The fact that they are not discrete ideas renders Althusser and Badiou’s notion of philosophy as anti-dialogic combat quasi-Stalinist, a stance that working-class politics would do well to adopt today.

Lecture notes for the Seminar on “Dismantling Democracy in the University”, Hindu College (Delhi University), March 04, 2010.

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