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 postdoctoral fellow in History at Bowdoin College.