In the first of a two part essay on the problems of modern socialist thought, Conter editor David Jamieson looks at major developments in the reproduction of intellectual life in the last century. In the second part he will discuss the consequences for how socialists tend to think about their world today, and an approach to overcome some of our weaknesses.
“…We continue our intellectual work because we believe that, in the last analysis, ideas matter; it is man’s business, if he is not to be the mere victim of involuntary reflexes or of a predetermined historical flux, to strive to understand himself and his times and to make reasonable and right choices.” – EP Thompson
The idea of a distinctive intellectual life, categorically different from other forms of political action and, depending on vantage point, either superior or inferior to those other forms, is of course itself an item of ideology, determined by material developments in society.
In The German Ideology Marx traces the most fundamental split between physical and mental labour right back to the development of urban civilisation and its relationship to the rural economy. In thousands of years since, the alienation of intellectual life from the wider human social experience has augmented and altered consistently. In capitalist society where this split is institutionalised at the level of distinct social classes, the changing status of intellectual endeavour is rapid and profound.
Far from the image of the timeless scholar, lost in books and detached from every-day reality, intellectuals have become a large social layer, and intellectual work a significant component of the modern economy of labour. But the proliferation of intellectual labour, resources and institutions has had a deeply contradictory impact on the modern left. Rather than simply fuse intellectual life with political activism, it has tended to generate new forms of compartmentalisation.
In the following notes, which are inevitably partial, I want to first quickly sketch the attitude to intellectual life during the ‘heroic phase’ of socialist organising in the UK in the first half of the 20th century, before examining the extreme changes brought in the second half, and the resulting disruption and decline of independent working class and radical intellectualism.
The Academy and Working Class Independence
When we discuss the decline of working class self-organisation, we tend to focus on unions. As well we should, given not only their (currently badly needed) capacities to wage defensive (and sometimes offensive) struggles but also, at their best, as centres of learning, of political, tactical and strategic dispute. But we sometimes neglect the world of working class self-education that blossomed in past decades.
By the time of the 1926 general strike, well over 30,000 students were enrolled in working class colleges across the UK. By the next year they were established enough to create a city-centre London campus. Interestingly, this working class college movement was a reaction to the ‘extension movement’, whereby ruling class campuses including Cambridge and Oxford sought to cultivate a layer of working class support by offering a limited programme for free to workers. The extension movement was itself a response to Chartism, a workers movement which haunted the memories of the British elite even after its final defeat.
Thus in past times self-education movements were a native component of the cycle of class conflict. Militant movements, once suppressed, re-emerged as a hunger for learning about economics and philosophy, language, science and foreign affairs. Likewise, education was viewed as part of the work of suppression, and of capturing layers of workers for a defence of the social order. No classless analysis of the merits of education as self-improvement, nor demerits of intellectual inquiry as self-indulgence, was possible to early 20th century socialist intellectuals.
Nor was the separation of thought and action into distinct ‘temporal’ zones – into stages where, for example, action was urgent and intellectual life secondary. For Scottish socialist leader John Maclean, the intellectual life of the socialist movement could not wait upon action; by then it would be too late. This is why his Capital reading classes, which attracted hundreds, operated concurrently with his other prodigious organising activities. Those hundreds who read dense works of economics and methodology by night became the backbone, first of the militant workers’ movement in Glasgow, and then of the Communist party from 1920 on.
Busy with this work in 1917, he wrote: “The very antagonisms in society that called into being the Co-operative organisation in production and distribution, the Trade Union movement, the Socialist parties, and the Labour Party, make it equally urgent that the workers should forge their own educational machine for their own class ends.”
“The greatest ‘crime’ I have committed in the eyes of the British Government and the Scottish capitalist class has been the teaching of Marxian economics to Scottish workers.”
The intellectual capacities furnished by book learning and discussion, writing for an audience through the blossoming movement press (we are eliding here the world of left wing publications, which may have to be addressed elsewhere) were essential to the working class militant in factory and rent strikes, anti-war meetings and demonstrations, electoral campaigns and co-operatives. Intellectual self-confidence, the ability to conduct and win arguments, and fitness to make tactical and strategic decisions were all inexorably bound-up with formalised educational and intellectual activities.
Probably the greatest innovations (and certainly the most high-quality work) of British theoretical socialism emerged from the Communist Party Historians Group. It was this project – an explicit attempt to overcome the divides between academic scholasticism and working class organic intellectualism, which gave English socialism its reputation for history writing, with figures like Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Brian Pearce, John Saville, AL Morton, Dorothy Thompson, and EP Thompson exchanging insights about the formation of social classes and the state over time. This was toward the close of the wave of experimental and fruitful independent intellectualism.
Academic Expansion and Decline of Independent Intellectual Life
The massive expansion of higher and further education in the post-war 20th century was tightly connected (though it lagged somewhere behind) wider economic, social and class developments. The expansion of key state functions with welfarism, improvements in the technical level of British industry, the rapid growth of populations and expansion of cities, and eventually, the process of de-industrialisation, saw the size of campus populations grow dramatically.
In many ways, the rise of the university set the stage for the decline of a certain kind of mass, independent working class intellectual culture. To be clear, this was primarily achieved by the decline of mass organisation. But the effect was more than compounded by the intellectual culture of the campus. The generalism of relatively independent intellectual life (and which was a definite feature of independent working class thought, education and intellectual output) gave way to increasingly intense specialisation and compartmentalisation.
Reflecting at the turn of the century on this accumulated tradition, thinking members of the ruling elite like Richard Posner in the US could see the problems: “The modern university is the symbol and the principal locus of the division of intellectual labour. Knowledge is divided into disciplines, and disciplines into field, and fields into subfields…the depth that specialisation enables is purchased at the expense of breadth…”
Even as the middle class expanded rapidly with post-war economic developments (including the development of what sociologists termed the ‘new middle class’ often with some intellectual and managerial functions), layers of independent intelligentsia were subsumed by the growth of the academy. Translation, history writing, even art and creative industries were swallowed almost whole. An entire journalistic tradition spanning generations is currently being stripped and collapsed as part of these, and related, processes.
By the 21st century the continued expansion of Higher education had new motors: saturation levels of commercialisation in the sector, the value of cultural capital, the new importance of student housing, of foreign students and the campus economy more generally in the terraforming of ‘campus cities’ around the western world. Fears plague some state managers (and are whipped-up in the right wing press) that under these pressures higher education has partially detached from the needs of the wider economy. Whatever the extent of that dynamic, the sector appears chaotic and unstable. A commercial ethos has replaced a traditional educational one, and working conditions have deteriorated.
These and (many) other forces have drastically re-organised the cultural expectations in society surrounding intellectual life. They have also deeply impacted the left, at a time when its historic defeats rendered it vulnerable.
Above all, even as the level of education in society increased dramatically in the recent decades, they broke the relationship between theory and action. As the apparent prospects for a rupture with capitalism declined, anti-capitalism retreated on to campuses where it became a cultural signifier for new intellectual layers, but lost a coherent relationship to mass radical politics.
The sheer scale of the academic sector and the inroads it provides into other areas of culture and media (public intellectualism now almost exclusively resides within this nexus, with the decline of everything from print publications to pulpits) militates against the efforts of intellectuals towards independent endeavour, and working class defeats have undermined this capacity elsewhere. Many modern left intellectuals treat academia as the zone of intellectualism, and organisation – stripped of any sovereign intellectual life – the zone of action.
This is part of the reason for the loss of interest in the ‘organisation question’ on the left. Political action is increasingly viewed as something requiring only simple virtues: empathy, a lack of egotism, a down-to-earth ‘of the people’ character, unity, hard work and so forth. If there is an intellectual component it takes place elsewhere, on campus, in academic journals, or in mainstream media publications.
The first task of a new intellectual life is to close this gap, and return theory to political action. But this is by no means adequate.
We must also understand how changes in the structure of intellectual production have impacted how the left thinks about thought, and the barriers they have constructed to rebuilding a fighting socialist left. I will address these specific problems in the second part of these notes.