Between the Ivory Tower and the Assembly Line

As academics began to debate Nicholas Kristof’s recent attack on their profession, I was interviewing a few of the literally thousands of American radicals who left the university for the factory in the 1970s. Inspired by the new wave of autonomous workers’ struggles exploding across the US since the late 1960s – between 1974 and 1975, for example, there were were 9,000 coal miner strikes, 99% of them wildcats – thousands of young radicals, many issuing from the student milieu, began to seriously rethink how their politics related to the struggles of workers outside the university context. It was imperative, they argued, to forge stronger ties with workers. So they decided, in what was called “industrializing,” or “colonizing,” or sometimes just “going to the people,” to get jobs in factories, docks, mines, and even hospitals to help organize at the point of production. David McCullough, who was a philosophy graduate student at Berkeley, told me that in 1969 he “went to work as a wireman at Western Electric in Oakland, CA, installing telephone cables in a central switching building.” After getting fired the following year for trying to “organize a takeover of the union local from the company men running the union,” he moved to Detroit, where he worked in a steel mill, then at Chrysler.

It’s a stark contrast to what many people have in mind today when they talk about going beyond the ivory tower. Today, critics like Kristof generally start by bemoaning the disappearance of the “public intellectual,” arguing that this noble figure has become tragically separated from society as as whole. Sequestered in a world apart, intellectuals carry on an endless discourse about themselves while the problems of public life only grow worse. For these critics, of which Kristof is only the most recent, the burning questions become: why have intellectuals abandoned the public? How can these intellectuals reach beyond the confines of a specialized field of knowledge to engage with a broader audience? How can professional, qualified, and unbiased intellectual scholarship be redirected towards solving society’s universal problems?

Leaving the ivory tower, for people like Kristof, means bringing knowledge and expertise to the public. For the industrializers, it involved an entirely different strategy. Although many of their efforts may have ended in failure, and while I’m not calling for a new wave of “industrialization,” their courage, candor, and commitment nevertheless forces us to completely reframe the question: in what ways can those of us formed in the universities reach out to workers on the “outside” in a political, organized, and strategic way?

The industrializers framed this problem in terms of labor, and directly confronted the question of organization. Remembering their experience challenges us to think with different categories. Instead of talking about individual intellectuals and the public, we’ll have to think in terms of strategically bridging the gap between different kinds of workers. Instead of trying to solve the objective, impartial problems of the “public,” we have to try to understand how to unite the different segments of a fragmented working class into a coherent political force.

Before we get there, however, we have to change our conceptual language. In fact, even defensive responses by left academics, which point to the material conditions preventing knowledge workers from doing the kind of public engagement Kristof advises, often also accept the category of the public intellectual. To begin to make these questions comprehensible, we need to abandon this category, and start thinking again in terms of work, capitalism, and struggle.

Hand-drawn maps from those who would later constitute the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters (RWH), a Maoist grouping that split from the RCP in 1977-1978, indicating those areas in the United States where non-electrical machinery was being produced. These militants completed literally hundreds of these, for all major sectors of production, to guide their shopfloor organizing work, and to develop a meaningful political strategy for that work. (“Non-Electrical Machinery 1970.” David Sullivan U.S. Maoism Collection TAM.527, Box 5, Folder 24; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.)

Who Are These Intellectuals?

The social category of the intellectual is torn apart by internal tensions, apparent in the academic division of labor that produces it. At one end, there are adjuncts. Paid by the course, which average no more than two or three thousand dollars, adjuncts have practically no hope of advancing their “careers.” As of 2007, 70% of instructors at American universities were adjuncts or “contingent” employees. Some make less than custodial workers, others are on food stamps. There are even stories of PhD’s sleeping in homeless shelters.

At the other end of this spectrum, there are the tenured full professors who make several hundred thousand dollars a year, travel internationally, and command armies of research assistants and graduate students. These days, many are expanding their repertoire by filming online courses. Whether they know it or not, these tenured professors, most of whom can afford to be the public intellectuals Kristof calls for, rely on the labor of all these other knowledge workers: teaching assistants who grade, answer student emails, and make photocopies; graduate students in the sciences toiling away in labs who will lay the groundwork for discoveries, but will never see themselves attain the positions of their mentors; or junior faculty who are pressured into taking on endless administrative obligations.

The tendency to describe intellectuals as a single coherent group papers over these experiences of exploitation, and conceals the very real struggles that condition intellectual production. The antagonisms of the institutions of knowledge are resolved into a myth of unity, in which all knowledge workers –  whatever their labor conditions, requirements of social reproduction, and so forth – are part of a common community, one whose pursuits are so pure they transcend all differences.

The illusion of this common community hides another reality: intellectual production does not only happen in universities. In fact, increasingly, most knowledge work is done outside of them, with a great deal of research being conducted by private corporations. Moreover, various forms of serious research and scholarly inquiry – beyond publishing, web design, or media work – are actually just done by people working independently on their computers after their day jobs. Recent years, for instance, have seen the growth of community biology hacklabs, where the goal, in the words of Cory Tobin, LA Biohackers co-founder, is to provide lab space “for people who want to learn biology for any reason.” The blurring of the boundaries between the capitalist university and the broader community have resulted in the increased policing of knowledge; attempts to build mass public intellectuality are often violently attacked, sometimes with very real casualties like Aaron Swartz.

Even with all its constructed borders, the university is still not a world unto itself. Entangled in finance, aeronautics research, and so forth, the university is structurally very much a part of the broader social world of production. The University of Pennsylvania, where I work, is the largest private employer in Philadelphia, where the role of the university as a pole of accumulation is perhaps only rivaled by that of the medical industry, which is in many cases closely linked to the university.

But perhaps the most important thing the university produces is a specific composition of the public: according to the 2012 census, about one third of all American adults hold a bachelor’s degree, and well over half have taken some college courses. Most of what many knowledge workers in the university do revolves around teaching, not writing clever articles. They teach future office workers how to write clearly, they teach future lawyers how to read statutes, they teach future call center workers how to communicate ideas in a convincing manner. They don’t need to write New York Times articles in order to share their insights with the broader public. Instead, they engage intimately with members of the public on a daily basis.

If universities are sites of labor and accumulation, academics will have to struggle within them as workers of a particular kind. This means winning formal contracts, setting limits on our work, fighting for better health care, getting a union. There are already some encouraging signs. Graduate students at NYU voted to unionize by a blowout margin of 620 to 10 – a real first at a private university, since these institutions do not legally consider graduate assistants to be employees. As for adjuncts, 18,000 have already been unionized through SEIU’s Adjunct Action. If the benefits aren’t immediately obvious, a recent survey showed that adjuncts protected by a union make 25 percent more per course than those without one.

But struggling where we are has its own tensions. Universities don’t just employ teachers. The university employs an endless staff of librarians, custodial workers, security guards, cafeteria workers, and all the other workers who keep the institution running. Knowledge workers come into contact with these other workers every day. Yet, despite the fact that they all work for the same boss, the internal divisions resulting from these different roles are quite pronounced.

An immediate political task, then, would be for knowledge workers to reach out to others who are involved in the production, dissemination, or archiving of knowledge, as well as those whose labor maintains the institution, like custodial workers. And since universities are not islands, but are in fact tied to towns, neighborhoods, and cities, often in antagonistic ways, uniting with other workers in the university also means connecting with those workers who may not necessarily work there, but whose lives are closely tied to it: bartenders at the local bar, workers at the fast food restaurants surrounding campus, or simply those living on the boundaries of the university community, always afraid an expanding campus will expel them further out.

The fundamental question, then, remains that of “linking up” with other workers outside the university in a coordinated, strategic, and organized way. Of course, this was precisely the problem faced by the industrializers, who concluded that the existing forms of socialist organization had become completely inadequate, and new organizations had to be built on the basis of this new strategy. It’s for this reason that we should return for a moment to their particular solution.

Going to the People

In the 1960s and 1970s, militants found work with the express aim of organizing the working class at the point of production. Many, though by no means all, had been educated in universities. Some were Trotskyists, others Maoists, still others unaffiliated. Some intended to reform unions by building grassroots caucuses, while others planned autonomous committees to bypass them altogether. Whatever their differences – and there were many – nearly all felt that some kind of revolution was on the near horizon, and that the working class, especially those working in factories, would be at the center.

A template for an investigation into workplaces around Cleveland by the Revolutionary Union (RU), an American Marxist-Leninist organization that would later become the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). The RU, along with many other revolutionary groups, sent militants into workplaces across the country throughout the long 1970s. (“Guidelines for Investigation of Plants,” Revolutionary Union, Cleveland 1973. David Sullivan U.S. Maoism Collection TAM.527, Box 1, Folder 14; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.)

It was through working on assembly lines, in steel mills, or down in the mines that these radicals slowly became a real part of  workers’ struggles. Together with their coworkers they put pressure on bureaucratic unions, formed oppositional caucuses, and went on strike. They fought for higher wages and better working conditions; they combated racism and sexism in the workplace. And while some of these projects quickly collapsed, others, like Teamsters for a Democratic Union, exist today.

But despite many real victories, industrialization in the 1960s and 1970s came up against certain limits. It was exhausting, isolating work, with a high risk of burnout. And while their respective organizations provided a vital support network, bitter party rivalries made national coordination impossible. In some cases industrializers worked at cross purposes, even denouncing each other. Miriam Pickens, a member of the Revolutionary Socialist League who worked at General Motors in Detroit for 30 years, recalls how “one Maoist in my plant organized a caucus (a bit larger than ours) and in one of his leaflets claimed he was not ‘a Communist, like Miriam and Lisa.’” To make matters worse, many radicals began to industrialize just as the United States was starting to deindustrialize, placing the whole strategy on shaky grounds.

Most significantly, however, industrialization may not have been the best way to articulate the struggles of different kinds of workers, as it was basically premised on the idea that one sector of the working class took priority over the others. Though this may have had some strategic efficacy at the time, such an assumption risked aggravating divisions within an already fragmented working class, making it much harder to achieve class unity down the road.

Industrialization, therefore, did not exactly mean uniting different workers – namely knowledge workers based in universities on the one hand and manual workers in the factories, mines, and docks on the other. Instead, it tended to dissolve the former into the latter. In some cases industrializers tried so hard to become the workers they wanted to connect with politically that they actively changed their appearances. “It is an irony,” Mike Ely of the Revolutionary Union recalls, “that many communist organizers, including me, had ‘cleaned up’ in order to ‘go to the working class’ — cutting our hair, toning down our styles—to match certain pre-conceptions of working class culture, and then found out, on arrival, that many of the more militant workers were growing their own hair out and smoking lots of weed.” But the problem could be more serious than just a matter of appearances – a number of industrializers began to recognize that they could easily end up simply substituting their own conception of militancy for the workers’ self-organization.

In short, industrialization generally rested on a certain conception of the working-class vanguard. Few who went to the factories, for instance, considered themselves knowledge workers, or workers at all; many believed they could only belong to the working class if they found jobs in factories. The true workers, those whose struggles really mattered, whose unions had real power, were in steel, coal, auto, or transportation. While some industrializers headed to post offices, hospitals, or found other service jobs, it was basic industry that tended to stand for all of the working class. Dan La Botz of the International Socialists recalls:

We intentionally promoted industrial work over jobs such as teaching or social work, in which some of our members, myself included, had been involved. We pressured our members in those white collar professions to quit and get a job in auto, steel, telephone or trucking. In retrospect, we may wonder if this was the right decision. Should we have attempted to build a political organization with a broader conception of the working class?


This kind of mass organization, which might have provided a much-needed space for encounters between different kinds of workers to take hold, was never built. In this context, Perry Anderson has recently remarked, even today’s resurgence in radical thought, exemplified by the proliferation of leftist publications, has taken the form of a kind of “apolitical anti-capitalism.” I think we can more precisely speak of a lack of strategic thinking – theories, protest reports, and cultural critiques abound, and certainly have their place, but the “absent center” is solid, reflective, partisan strategy.

This may just be because many knowledge workers, although themselves very much a part of the working class, are often unaware of or uninvolved with the plurality of struggles other workers are waging all the time. In order for these knowledge workers to contribute their technical skills to the formulation of concrete strategy, they have to first fully root themselves in the different struggles of their class. In the 1960s and 1970s militants in the United States and abroad recognized how essential this connection was: even if they didn’t work at the factory, they would go to the factory gates, learn from workers, and share experiences.

When these militants appeared at the gates, they put their specific skills as knowledge workers to use, redirecting the technical composition of their labor to different ends. “It’s been a sort of team effort,” a FIAT worker commented in 1970:

Usually what we do is find out the facts of the situation, write them out in rough form, and give them to the external militants to print because they’re good at that sort of thing and they have more time than we do to work right through the night. We hope that later on we shall begin to do the leaflets ourselves, and already we are starting to do more of the work like typing and so on, as well as some of the distribution outside the gates.

With the contemporary displacement of such massive, centralized workplaces along a global supply chain – as well as our far more nuanced understanding of just how complex the working class really is – this kind of organized, collaborative struggle has become a lot more complicated than just chatting with workers outside the plant. Engaging with other workers, who are often spread across a highly heterogenous patchwork of production and social reproduction, poses a real problem. But perhaps this means that an organization that is structured and coordinated, while simultaneously flexible and capillary – one that adequately responds to today’s specific class composition – is needed more than ever to make these kinds of encounters happen.

Today there are many journalistic protest reports that do embed themselves into the struggles of other workers, and this kind of journalism is a real example of the particular skills, experiences, and conditions of knowledge workers being applied to politics. But there is nonetheless a certain structural limit to this medium, which can only be pushed past reportage or commentary by concrete, collective, and sustained organizational practices. As Sergio Bologna, who himself worked at Olivetti and struggled within a number of organizations, commented in 1977: “we’ve had enough of ideology-merchants! Let’s set to work again as ‘technicians,’ inside the theoretical framework of class composition.”

In a certain way, we have to return to the experiences of the industrializers. Their guiding idea – that militants, no matter how radical, would be ineffective if they weren’t anchored to the real struggles of other workers – has to be taken seriously. But the question for us today is not how we can support the struggles of the most “advanced workers,” or how we can best recruit them to our vanguard parties, but how we can link up with other struggles outside the university in a way that preserves the distinctness, recognizes the strategic value, and respects the specific needs of all these different struggles, including our own.

Author of the article

is a founding editor of Viewpoint and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania.