Petty Bourgeois Romanticism and Neoliberal Austerity Collide: Response to a Recent Jacobin Article

“At the New School, two visions are colliding: one of its student body and faculty who want to keep true to the university’s progressive history, and the other of its Board of Trustees and presidential leadership, who want to trim down the New School to only those parts which pay the most.”

The New School Is in Crisis, Jacobin

Jacobin’s December 2020 article, “The New School Is in Crisis,” addresses the latest aggressions of that university against its staff, this time in the form of over 120 layoffs during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Not insignificantly, 37% of the positions eliminated were union jobs. MDSO is familiar with The New School’s attitude towards organized labor: our organization was founded by a group of students who initiated and led the May 2018 occupation of the New School cafeteria after the university threatened to fire all 32 of the unionized dining staff.

The authors of the Jacobin article eulogize the progressive “old” New School, upheld in contrast to the institution as it exists today, burdened by a bloated administration and shackled by financial interests. While they are correct to point to the profit-driven character of the school, their depiction of the institution’s early days indicates a petty-bourgeois romanticism of academia as a “neutral” space that exists outside of class society – and of a “golden age” of higher education that corresponds to the period of capitalism preceding the neoliberal era.

The New School Is “Different”

Today, students are still attracted by the narrative of a school that encourages political dissent and that the New York Times called an “unabashedly left-wing institution.” But while the small group of intellectuals who founded the school may have bucked the restrictions imposed on them at Ivy League schools, it should be made clear that their “rebellion” had nothing to do with anti-capitalist – much less socialist – politics.

The co-founder and first director of the New School, Alvin Johnson, emphatically expressed his interpretation of the school’s guiding principles: “Often we are asked what is the fundamental doctrine of The New School? Are we seeking to indoctrinate our students with radicalism, conservatism or what? We are not seeking to indoctrinate our students at all. We leave indoctrination to Stalin and the Devil. We love liberalism; we love democracy.”

The New School was established in 1919 to develop new leaders who could tackle the political and social problems stemming from America’s booming economic development. World War I reinforced the domination of US capital, both domestically and abroad, as production expanded rapidly to meet wartime needs. The post-WWI era of state monopoly capitalism brought new forms of struggle between capital and labor. The New School founders grasped capital’s growing need for an educated stratum which could devise “progressive” new ways to handle potentially volatile class contradictions. This pressing task is addressed on the first page of its founding document: “Our corporations and industrial enterprises are asking for trained workers of scientific insight and generous opinions who can deal with problems of employment and the relations of the employer with labor and the public,” (our emphasis).

It is simply nonsense to claim, as do the Jacobin authors, that radical thought “was the original purpose of The New School at its inception in 1918.”

In fact, the “original purpose” of the New School founders was to educate students who could develop new methods to manage the “problems of employment and the relations of the employer with labor and the public”– that is, the problem of capital and labor, the perennial problem of capitalism, born with the separation of direct producers from the means of production. It is clear that the current New School faculty have long since lost the autonomy from administrative oversight and financial interests that its founders sought. But it is equally clear that the school’s core mission has always been squarely in line with the interests of capital, which is to say: antagonistic to the interests of the working class. In bourgeois society, the university as an institution belongs to the bourgeoisie.

A Radical Legacy?

The Jacobin authors reference a handful of former New School instructors divided up into two groups: the “eminent Marxist scholars” and the “progressives.” This classification is significant: by characterizing thinkers like Eric Hobsbawm as a Marxist and Hannah Arendt as progressive, they are only sowing confusion.

Correctly recognizing class struggle as the motor of history does not make you a Marxist – as we know from Marx himself: “… no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic economy of the classes.” To be a Marxist means taking up the revolutionary proletarian political perspective. But according to Hobsbawm Marx himself apparently never had a revolutionary agenda! “I don’t believe that Marx ever had, as it were, a political project. […] What Marx had written about simply amounted to little more than clause IV-style ideas about public ownership.” The “Marxist” historian Eric Hobsbawm, who taught at The New School for over a decade (1984 – 1996), may have called himself a communist, but seemingly only for sentimental reasons: “Communism is one of these things and I’ve done my best not to delude myself about it even though I was loyal to it and to its memory. The phenomenon of communism and the passion it aroused is specific to the twentieth century.” But rather than judge him by what he thought about himself, let us instead judge him by his practice. Hobsbawm’s actual politics tell us all we need to know: he was a longtime member of the revisionist Communist Party of Great Britain, and then in the 1980s became “the unofficial philosopher and intellectual conscience of the Labour Party.” Nomenclature aside, theory and practice should be the basis on which we judge intellectuals.

As for the classification of Arendt as progressive: this is simply shocking. Two examples that reflect her racist and reactionary views should be sufficient to make our point. In On Violence, she called African literature a “nonexistent subject” that should not be taught in US universities. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she referred to Africa as a “continent populated and overpopulated by savages.” She was no friend of the masses in struggle, as we see with e.g., her hostility to the French Revolution, her evident sympathy for Apartheid in South Africa, and her equation of the Soviet Union with the Nazi regime, etc. etc.. The fact that Arendt is viewed positively today by most liberals – including the liberal writers at Jacobin – should be seen as a symptom of the current political climate and the resulting absence of a revolutionary proletarian perspective in academia.

The New School excels at the art of depoliticizing the revolutionary energy of youth. The various idealist, postmodern, and metaphysical doctrines peddled by academics – even when dressed up in the garb of “Marxism” – benefit the bourgeoisie. It is through the dissemination of professorial nonsense that the spontaneous revolutionary consciousness of young people, who recognize the moribund and decaying nature of US imperialist society, is transformed into healthy “dissent.”  

The Way Forward

We agree with the Jacobin authors that “the school’s response to the current crisis […] fits squarely within fifty years of neoliberalism.” In our own program we also recognize “a four-decade long process of privatization of public universities, corresponding to a prolonged crisis of profitability for the ruling class.” We join with the concrete demands of New School students and faculty to restore all of the eliminated positions and stop any further cuts to staff or salaries. 

However, we must resist a historical orientation that looks to return to a New School that never existed. It is typical of the petty-bourgeois “left” to romanticize US imperialism before the austerity policies of the 1970s were brought on by the global falling rate of profit. How many times have we heard the likes of AOC gush about the high marginal tax rates of the Eisenhower era? The post-war years are often upheld as an ideal, a time when unions were strong and professors could easily secure tenured positions. In reality, those features should be seen as a kind of temporary social anomaly, made possible by (1) US hegemony in the imperialist chain during the round of accumulation following the massive destruction of capital during WWII; and (2) the militant and organized labor movement of the 1930s and 1940s.

We must be crystal clear. While it is anarchist childishness to reject the struggle for reforms, only fools think that reforms can persist in a durable manner as long as capitalism exists. The revolutionary proletarian view is that the working class must win reforms in order to intensify and expand the revolutionary struggle, not in order to go back in time to some period in which capitalism was allegedly “just,” – or as Hobsbawm described it, “capitalism with a human face.” The bourgeoisie will attempt to use reforms for the opposite end: to reinforce exploitation by corrupting and eroding the capacities of the working class, at which point they will weaken or nullify the reforms. At every step of the class struggle, we must distinguish the deception of reformism from the necessary work of winning reforms in the line of revolution.

The idea that returning to that time of relative “security” should be our goal – or that going back is even possible – is deeply symptomatic of the views of the middle-layers (students, employees, small business owners, etc.) in a time of crisis and ferment.

Students and workers need to unite in their fight against cutbacks and layoffs. Workers need to organize solidarity across sectors and unions. We need to be specific and clear in our analysis and our alliances, or we risk making tactical errors. We know why these cuts at The New School took place, and it is not because the vision of the founders was betrayed. We can only be effective in our fights on this front if we proceed from a clear-eyed understanding of what the university is and always will be, as long as the bourgeoisie are masters of the class struggle.