Academia as a site of class struggle

Raju J Das

The recent student demonstrations in Britain, Quebec (and elsewhere) against neo-liberal education cuts (and fee increase) is an encouraging sign of sentiments of legitimate class anger brewing among students. This prompts one to think critically about academia as such. The academia must be a site of class struggle. And funding cut is only one issue. There are major problems with the academia itself. Students should fight not just for more educational opportunities, for an educational system that is not to be treated as a commodity. They should critically think about the very content of education being given to them by their professors.

One of the problems with the academia – universities, research institutes, etc – is that it is a great ‘leveller’, a ‘bourgeois-democratic terrain’. Take any topic, say, child labour. Lots of professors talk about the social-cultural identity of children (e.g. what does it mean to be a younger person, and all that). If you, as a Marxist, question them saying, what about how capitalism creates conditions for child labour to exist, these academics would say ‘yes, that is one approach, and ours is another’. Take the environment. Nature/environment gets transformed into ideas about nature/environment. So, anything and everything goes.

Marxism, as Terry Eagleton correctly remarks in Why Marx was right is ‘the most theoretically rich, politically uncompromising critique of … (the capitalist) system’. Marxism, however, gets constructed as one among several approaches. Irrespective of the intellectual merit of an approach, all approaches are considered valid within academic, on an apriori basis. Often, approaches which have little to do with Marxism at all are constructed as Marxism with a pre-fix (as in ‘post-Marxism’): those who do this practice double standards. They want to enjoy some prestige associated with Marxism’s rigour while denying the validity of every major principle of Marxism’s theory and politics. The history of the academic world, of production of social knowledge, appears to be a history of running away from the class question and its politics which define Marxism.

The effect is this: Marxism is forced to live in peaceful coexistence with other ideas. Here is the problem though: Marxism cannot naturally live that mode of life. No peaceful existence is possible (just as socialism in one country co-existing with capitalism in other countries is such a stupid idea in theory and practice).

There are only two types of approaches in the world, as Lenin says in What is to be done: socialist/Marxist and capitalist. Because Marxism lays bare the exploitative, destructive and oppressive character of capitalism which is the most dominant feature of our life, which is the most important cause of major world problems, therefore Marxism must be the dominant approach in society. To think otherwise is to fool ourselves.

It is not the friendly battle of ideas – Marxism vs the rest – that leads to this sort of peaceful coexistence. It is partly the structure of the academia which allows this to happen. And it is a structure whose main function is to reproduce capitalism and blunt class struggle.

Within this structure, then the agency of non-Marxists to weed out Marxists in various ways works. Within this structure, what works is the agency of bourgeois professors – which is what nearly all the professors are, although sometimes they give themselves a ‘critical’ name – in imposing nonsense and semi-ignorance, packaged as knowledge, on ‘helpless’ students (who constitute a ‘captive market’). This includes making students or encouraging them to do intellectually non-stimulating and politically infertile research, by making them read nearly-rubbish things in the class room, by holding out the threat of a low grade if students write radical stuff about society, and so on. Many students, thankfully not all, are complicit in this sort of game being played.

Within this structure – the supposedly democratic terrain – some ‘Marxists’ also get seduced and turn to non-Marxism (in the name of theoretical innovations to be peddled in the knowledge-market) or do not critically object to the non-Marxist nonsense on the pretext of collegiality, etc. This collegiality is in a way a reflection of crass class-collaborationism on an ideological plane: to the extent that non-Marxists represent the interests and ideas of the bourgeoisie and to the extent that Marxists represent the interests of the working class, poor peasants and all those still engaged in communal modes of life, collegiality is equal to collaborationism which is given a sweet-sounding name.

It is said that professors’ research should inform their teaching. But what kind of research do professors indeed do? To the extent that professors’ research is driven by a critical agenda – and note that being critical is as mandatory as younger students taking a writing course – their critique is a critique of those aspects which can be changed a bit: talking about things which cannot be changed are off their radar and therefore of their students. Professors ‘find fault’ with society (more accurately, they find fault with superficial aspects of society which can be modified a bit through the drama of so-called human agency as expressed in the form of NGOs, governmental action or union bureaucracy). But they get very edgy if someone points fingers at them. Much of their research agenda is primarily driven by whether their research will, for example, obtain a grant in the grant market, whether from business or from a bureaucratic state, which often sets its own agenda for giving money, and whether their research conforms to the agenda (‘strategic research plan’) of their institutions. Much of the research – funded or not – celebrates economic individualism or cultural individualism (the identity stuff, abstracted from the sheer material conditions). Poverty is replaced by ideas about poverty. The child is replaced by ideas about the child. And so on. Research has attained magical powers. If some workers think that they are not workers, the professor declares that the working class as a reality does not exist, and therefore class is as defunct as Stalinist USSR. By touching the keyboard on their laptops, professors can make an entire reality disappear at an instant.

Much of the research even by so-called critical scholars is about everything else other than capitalism’s class and systemic character. Research is about how to make the existing society look a little progressive on the basis of a little gender parity here, racial or regional equality there, and so on. Much research is purely descriptive: attempt to find causes of things is not a worthwhile project any more. No need to penetrate the structure of the world. Penetrate the minds of people around you. The entire reality is there. What and how people think about things is the main thing. ‘Ies’ (geographies, sociologies), ‘ality’ (governmentality), and a plethora of similar words decorate the academia, which signify multiple realities and social (=mental/emotional, etc.) construction of realities.

If a student garnering some courage tries to talk about class, or the state, the immediate response of the professors is: that’s old stuff or that is too orthodox or that has been done. ‘Do new things, man!’ is what a student is told. What to research is not to be determined by the lives and struggles of ordinary people, by people in their flesh and bones, as they produce and reproduce their lives. What to research is to be determined by ‘silences’, by what has not been researched (I will not be surprised to see a research project that will study the physical and socially constructed average distances among people defecating at dusk on the outskirts of a village in India).

The ‘democratic’ character of the academia will be put to test if lots of professors honestly follow the Marxist approach in a university. One or two Marxists can be allowed in a University as a token existence of radical dissent. The ‘law of dialectics’ will work if the number becomes large, too large. The quantity will change into a quality. The democratic character of the academia will also be tested if students start challenging their bourgeois professors, including in terms of what they make the students read and what is the content of what professors say in the class-room (which is supposedly based on their research). It is not too difficult to see students at the forefront of a renewed class struggle.

Raju J Das teaches at York University, Toronto.

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