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Academia and Social Change


The American Historical Association (AHA) is the most prominent professional organization for American historians.  Its annual meeting, held recently in Atlanta, featured abstruse panels and presentations with titles such as “Disciplined Bodies and the Production of Space, Place, and Race: Atlanta’s Latino Day Laborers at the Cusp of the Twenty-First Century” and “The Desire for Modernity: Masculinity, Mexican Migration, and the Dynamics of U.S. National Belonging.”  If academic work like this bears no relationship to concrete political realities, a group called Historians Against the War (HAW) injected some activism into the conference.  Formed several months after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, HAW opposes “the expansion of United States empire and the doctrine of pre-emptive war that have led to the occupation of Iraq.”  HAW proposed a resolution against the Iraq war, which passed after an hour of debate.  The resolution enumerated the measures taken by the administration which are inimical to historians or historically-minded people, such as “condemning as ‘revisionism’ the search for truth about pre-war intelligence” and “re-classifying previously unclassified government documents.”  With the passage of the statement, the AHA effectively endorsed its conclusions: that members of the AHA should “. . . take a public stand as citizens on behalf of the values necessary to the practice of our profession; and . . . do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion.”  The success of the resolution means that the AHA is, for the first time in its 123 year history, taking an anti-war stance.  In 1969, a previous resolution, supported by some of the same historians as the 2007 one, was defeated.

Why should activists care about the internal proceedings of the AHA, the professional association of a discipline increasingly removed from the public sphere and relevant political engagement — as demonstrated by the paper titles reproduced above?  The HAW resolution is useful to examine because it begs several important questions.  What is the relationship between politics and academia?  Is the rosy perspective for the possibilities of political organization within the academy, recently detailed by Chris Dixon and Alexis Shotwell in “Leveraging the Academy: Suggestions for Radical Grad Students and Radicals Considering Grad School,” justified?  How should activists conceptualize expedient action to build truly mass movements, such as the anti-war movement?  What will it take to fight and win a world without war and oppression, and what is the relationship of students and academics to this struggle?

The HAW resolution politicized the generally anodyne business meeting at the AHA.  In what was reportedly a packed room, debate proceeded for an hour on the question.1  In keeping with public opinion in the country, not one historian who spoke — even against the resolution — did so from a pro-war perspective.  The objections to the resolution, based on reporting from the meeting, came from two places: those who felt the wording vague and potentially misleading — that historians should “do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion” could be misinterpreted as support for escalation; and those who argued that historians should only “use our political influence in those areas that directly have to do with scholarship, with our lives as professional historians,” as Stanford professor James Sheehan stated from the floor.  To my mind the first objection is unfounded.  As 70% of the country knows, according to a recent poll, Bush’s escalation of the war with a troop surge will be far from “a speedy conclusion” to the Iraq war.

The second objection, which draws lines between professional and political, is the more interesting question for consideration.  As the rantings and ravings of David Horowitz on this subject suggest, the intersection of academia and politics is a contentious one.  A rough typology of the many minds on this issue include 1) those who think academia and politics should never mix, 2) those who see academic work as a political avenue in itself, and 3) the minority who acknowledge that, while intellectual production in the academic sphere can yield useful information for activists, fundamental social change will not, ultimately, come from academics.

I’ll dispense with the mythologies surrounding the first category immediately.  Although scholars — like activists committed to a certain position or set of politics — can and should operate with openness and without dogma, politically neutral academic work is both impossible and undesirable.  Behind David Horowitz’s quest to push the “Academic Bill of Rights” through state legislatures, despite his thin rhetoric of “objectivity,” lies a decidedly rightist agenda.  Among liberals, the purported commitment to value- or politically-neutral scholarship obscures the fact that their liberalism is an ideology.

The second category is marked by the notion that scholarly production is a political end unto itself.  This distinguishes historians and other scholars of the second and third categories — which I’ll discuss below.  The prevalence of this idea is not surprising, given the sustained decline of the left and social movements since the early 1970s.  The demoralization resulting from these defeats, which impelled some former ’60s radicals into the academy, has also set the terms for subsequent generations of leftists.  For those in and around the academy arriving at radical conclusions today, the failures of the 1960s era social movements are easily intellectualized as the historical futility of change from below.  This provides justification and rationalization for absenting oneself from the daunting task of rebuilding social movements and the left and leads to alternative theorizing about the origins of social change.  For instance, some left-wing academics consider their teaching to be a viable political strategy.  To borrow a phrase from a comrade of mine, one could deem this “socialism in one classroom.”  Others, taking their lead from Eugene Genovese’s essay “On Being a Socialist and a Historian,” posit that the appropriate role for left-wing scholars is to counterpose academic and activist work, abstaining from the latter and instead producing “rigorous” and “air-tight” scholarship.  This tendency, profoundly idealist, presumes that practice and theory can be abstractly severed — assuming that all we need for social change are good ideas to be consumed by the public (never mind that academic journals are often inaccessible without a university affiliation and increasingly purvey work which is abstruse and unreadable to anyone outside of their narrow academic trend).  Successful political action demands a relationship between theory and practice and strategies for building movements.

What’s left for radical scholars?  We need a realistic assessment of the academy and academic production — its possibilities, but especially its structural and ideological limitations.  Finally, we need to determine how fundamental social transformation occurs — and the role of intellectual work in this process.

Although often pitched as purely an intellectual endeavor, academic production is burdened by structural entailments — increasingly specialized and narrow disciplinary structures, publication for inaccessible academic journals, and membership in an institution whose ultimate function, regardless of how many “radical” or liberal professors inhabit it, is to produce and reproduce dominant ideologies.  Moreover, the dominant myth in academia, even among many leftists, is of the solitary and “independent” intellectual.2  In this atmosphere, commitments to social movements or membership in radical organizations are considered naïve at best and inimical to intellectual independence and integrity at worst.

Yet some leftists maintain illusions about the transformative potential of the academy.  As two graduate students, Chris Dixon and Alexis Shotwell, argue in “Leveraging the Academy: Suggestions for Radical Grad Students and Radicals Considering Grad School”, “Grad students, as we have argued, are in a unique structural location where political work can have powerful effects.”  Unfortunately, Dixon and Shotwell provide only “suggestions” which sound like corporate motivation jargon with a left-wing veneer, such as “Understand the Academy as a Nexus for Organizing and Capacity-building,” and “Build Accountability to Movements into Research and Teaching.”  The evidence they provide for the unique structural location of students is weak: that universities are connected to the military-industrial complex or are consumers of sweatshop-produced school paraphernalia.

The social group with a “unique structural location” with respect to military industries or sweatshops is not the student consumers (particularly graduate students who generally have a different relationship to the academy), but the workers in these industries — the only class with the power to shut the system down.  This is not to suggest some sort of crass economic determinism or “workerism” — indeed, as the global movements of the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated, students can play a instrumental role in fighting for progressive change; however, these struggles cannot ultimately succeed in widespread transformative social change without the power of the working class, through its numerical majority in capitalist society and “unique structural location” under capitalism.

Are graduate students and professors workers, as Dixon and Shotwell seem to suggest?  This is a complicated question.  Most full-time professors are not, given the high degree of control they have over the labor process.  But one thing the Dixon/Shotwell piece does well is to detail the ways in which the academy is adopting an increasingly corporatized structure, replacing full-time jobs with part-time adjunct positions.  Adjuncts are poorly paid, receive little or no benefits, and serve at the pleasure of department chairs.  In order to make ends meet, adjuncts are forced to cobble together several part-time jobs.  Current graduate students will inherit this casualized and contingent labor system, which will have fewer full-time positions as the baby-boomers — including many “tenured radicals” of the 1960s generation — retire, producing more adjunct workers.

Another consequence of the corporatized, neoliberal academic model is the use of graduate students as labor.  Graduate students perform a significant proportion of teaching and grading and have formed unions in order to fight for higher wages, better benefits, and greater control over their labor.  But the amount of work which graduate students perform varies among universities.  For instance, I am a PhD student in history at the University of Pennsylvania, a ruling class institution whose professional schools — such as the Wharton business school — quite literally produce the ruling class’s next generation.  The funding package for history PhD students — $18,000 per year, health insurance (no dental), and tuition and fee waivers — requires two years of Teaching Assistantship in exchange for three non-working years of fellowship funding.  The administration refuses to recognize our union, but even if they did, each PhD student would only remain in the bargaining unit for two years in the middle of our education.  For the remaining three “non-working” years, we have no economic relationship to the university — apart from collecting our fellowship stipends every month.  The analogous funding package at the University of Maryland, a public institution, requires four years of assistantship and provides a $15,000 per year stipend.  In other words, there is tremendous unevenness in the work experiences of PhD students, both within programs and when compared to other institutions.  Contrary to what Dixon and Shotwell assert, it appears that graduate students hardly occupy a “unique structural location where political work can have powerful effects”; rather, graduate students taken as a whole occupy a sort of purgatory between classes, as evidenced by our failed attempts at building and sustaining unions.

Again, this is not to suggest a “workerist” approach to social change.  I am not advocating that graduate students should drop out and “industrialize” in order to be effective activists — on the contrary, students and academics have been at the forefront of some important struggles.  I am arguing, however, that we need a more realistic assessment of not only the limitations of academics, but the role that intellectuals can play in social movements and in struggles for fundamental societal change.

To return to my initial point, the Historians Against the War resolution at the American Historical Association represents the tensions within academia and the larger struggle for social change.  While denigrated by academics of the first and second categories outlined above — those who think academics should never engage politically and those who consider academic work itself to have discrete political value which should be uncorrupted by activism (such as Genovese, who resisted radical historians’ attempts to introduce political resolutions into the AHA in the 1960s and ’70s) — forming groups such as HAW within the historical profession and introducing anti-war resolutions in the AHA is progressive.  But academics must recognize the limitations of such a strategy, and what it will actually take to end the war in Iraq.  In this instance, a comparison with the Vietnam war is useful.  The US was forced to withdrawal from Vietnam for three key reasons: the military defeat suffered by the US at the hands of the NLF, the massive revolt of soldiers — “workers in uniform” — in Vietnam, and an increasingly militant anti-war movement at home which raised the political cost to the US ruling class to unacceptably high levels.  Today, our task is the third: to build a grassroots anti-war movement of workers and students, independent of the Democratic party, capable of providing support to soldiers’ resistance and demanding “troops out now.”  Graduate students and academics can play a role in building this movement, and, as intellectuals, can use their time and training to write applicable history and theory.  But we must maintain no illusions that our classrooms and campuses, and journals and academic presses are somehow themselves political means and ends.  If we are to build a better world after capitalism — one without poverty and wars — intellectuals and students can play an important part, but the roots of this struggle ultimately lie with forces outside elite academic institutions.

1  Note: Fortuitously, I did not have to subject myself to the AHA conference this year.  For an account of the meeting, I am relying on a History News Network report.

2  I am using “academic” and “intellectual” interchangeably in this essay.  There are important historical distinctions to be drawn between the two, but that subject falls outside the purview of this piece.

Matthew Richman is a PhD student in history at the University of Pennsylvania.

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