Dan Oudshoorn has a long post on what boils down to the old problem of hypocrisy, the connection between what one says and how one lives. His targets in particular are the ‘tenured radicals’ of academia, and his favoured examples are those who hold to Marxist theory but not a Marxist ‘lifestyle’ (I wish Dan had chosen another word here, since ‘lifestyle’ has that foul odour of bourgeois ‘freedom of choice’). He compares them with biblical scholars who assume some normative claims from the Bible and yet steer clear of any collective religious involvement with marginalised people.
This fault line turns up in all sorts of places. For example, as one self-professed Marxist said to me a couple of years ago, standing at the front door of a sprawling mansion in the US northeast, ‘why can’t a Marxist be rich?’ By contrast, there was the grizzled and scarred front-line activist, with a long goatee and shaved head, beer-gut and cigarette propped in one ear, who said to me at a left congress, ‘if you’re not an activist, you’re not a f&*cking Marxist’.
I don’t want to deal with all of the points Dan raises, but rather focus on two or three. To begin with, the problem he addresses is not an anomaly but crucial to the self-definition of academia. One needs to take the mythical ‘step back’ and analyse a situation from a ‘critical’ distance. This move goes back to the time when the academic disciplines hived off from theology and sought to establish for themselves an independent basis. In this situation, ‘objective’ meant ‘free from theological dominance’. Eventually biblical studies and theology themselves tried the same trick, ending up with ‘secular’ biblical criticism and ‘scientific’ theology. What is usually missed in this standard account is that it was part of the process by which the bourgeoisie came to class dominance. One of the signal marks of that rise was the shift from the church as the dominant cultural power to education, which became a distinct zone outside church control and under bourgeois control. So those who hold to objective, secular, critical, scientific approaches, especially on matters religious, are enthusiastic ideologues of the bourgeois project.
But that means Marxist intellectuals and others are a little caught, especially if they are involved in some way in the educational system. The structural criteria by which that system operates are fundamentally bourgeois and yet the position they espouse seeks, to invoke Lenin, to ‘smash’ the bourgeois system. Yet this is not unique to Marxists, as Dan observes in passing, for it applies to any praxis-oriented approach, that is an approach that has an explicit and (more or less) radical political dimension to it. You are left with three options: buy into the system as it is, opt to be an activist, or live a contradictory life in which both are in some way held together. The pressures towards the first are immense. Journals that have the title ‘socialist’ in them are regarded as less-than-academic. Activists routinely are denied promotion and influence. Anyone who writes from a committed position is derided as ‘ideological’ or out to ‘save the world’. Or, on the theological side, academics continue to sneer at theology as a pseudo-discipline – as though they are still living the crude battles of half a millennium ago.
The solution? I will never forget a moment at a left conference, in the midst of a heated discussion about ‘what is to be done?’, about the integration or ‘merger’ (Kautsky) of intellectuals and the global proletariat. One person stood up and simply said, ‘does anyone here know how to dismantle and reassemble a rifle?’