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