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How can Marxism help us change higher education?

The need for utopia, just like the need for collective and deliberate action, seems to move to the centre of today’s agenda of philosophy of higher education. Not only the worsening climate crisis, common droughts, food crises, and perhaps most of all the COVID-19 pandemic and its social and economic consequences – all of this requires an effort of our imagination. There is a growing need for finding paths that lead beyond the limits of the status quo. However, crucial matters are generally left to run on their own. The apparent/so-called „solutions” that led us to the present predicament – greed, individualism, rule of private property, competition between countries – all are presented nowadays as a remedy for the existing ills. Meanwhile, the shape of our future depends on our ability to question them at their roots. Or even more. The very possibility of having any future whatsoever relies on this task.

In this context, global higher education seems to have a special responsibility. It is in universities that thinking about the alternative should flourish in a particular way. And yet, every day we learn about the deepening crisis in the sector. In Anglo-Saxon universities, the loss of tuition income from international students is driving increasingly severe employment restructuring. In the Hungarian and Polish systems, the crisis caused by the pandemic justified far-reaching transformations of the relations between higher education and the government, which, in the Hungarian case, resulted in deepening the privatization of public universities. At the same time, the spread of online education, accelerated on an unprecedented scale by the pandemic, has paved the way for capitalist actors to increasingly dictate how the distance learning processes are performed. The current order seems to be undermining the foundations of the academic enterprise. A manifestation of this process is the intensity with which various types of capitalist entities penetrate the walls of the university, which, striving for profit and its maximization, contribute to the transformation of the traditional practices of students and academics around the world. Learning in an educational platform environment, the ubiquitous presence of metrics and indicators for measuring effectiveness or creating comparisons between students, employees or institutions have now become the norm. All this contributes to the gradual individualization and atomization of students and employees, and to the increase of the competition between them. As such, it requires an intervention. Therefore, contemporary process of capitalist structuring of universities is the right moment to develop a Marxist perspective on higher education. In our opinion, the need to develop this perspective emerges in at least three areas where broad Marxist traditions have something to offer to the philosophy of higher education and the university in crisis.

The statement that today higher education depends on a huge network of cooperation is certainly hardly controversial. In this context, the university does not limit itself solely to its institutional form or idea, but has to be seen rather as a knot in a dense network of relations, a point where the enormity of global connections and dependencies intersect. However, succumbing to ontological primacy of individual, we are unable to perceive the revolutionary potential that is inherent in the nature of academic endeavour, i.e. a constant drive that pushes us to establish new relations and expand existing connections in order to enhance the potential of science and higher education. Thus, instead of creating favourable conditions for its further development, leading beyond today’s limitations, we allow the forces that we must hold responsible for the crisis affecting the university to parasitize it. The ontology proposed by Marxism allows us to look at this process from a different perspective. By making the isolated individual an object of critique, it makes visible how deeply the university is immersed in these relationships and how it is shaped by them. What’s more, it argues that by giving a different character to existing relations and connections, we are able to transform the university, no matter how impervious to change it may seem. Making the relationship itself the main object of interest allows us to identify which relations are responsible for increasing the potential of the academic venture, and which, conversely, only override it in order to use it for purposes that are fundamentally alien.


First, Marxism offers a political perspective on ontology. Although the ontological primacy of individualism – the dominant assumption that individuals exist as already given and only as fully formed establish relations with others – can only be surpassed through practice, this practice must be accompanied by a parallel effort of thinking and philosophizing. An effort that we may call the work of denaturalization. By this, we mean undermining and questioning our assumptions about reality, that underpin every form of interaction with it. We believe that the problems we face in all their severity today stem precisely from our individualistic tendencies. These individualistic tendencies, however, are much more than a mere synonym for greed. It is an objectified assumption, which forces us to see only an entrepreneurial individual as agent, always ready to heroically face upcoming adversities. This perspective limits our capabilities to uncover a wealth of relations in which every individual is embedded, as it marks the horizon and at the same time sets the limit of our thinking about reality. Meeting today’s challenges depends on our ability to abandon the individual as a privileged point of view. It is exactly why we need Marxism today. Not because, contrary to popular stereotypes, it counterpose the collective to the individual, but because it goes beyond this opposition. Instead of the individual, it relies on the social individual, that is, the individual that exists only within the plurality of relations that constitute it.

Critique of political economy of higher education

Second, Marxism offers a critique of political economy. Marxism is based on the legacy of critical thinking about the economic foundations of social institutions, higher education included. The processes of education and research do not take place in a socio-economic vacuum, but are rather traversed by capitalist relations and gradually transformed by them. How to understand the changes that these processes entail? Expansion of the market and commodification that follows is hardly an answer. In contrast, Marxism offers means to undertake an inquiry into the experience of being within the university subsumed under capital, which reveals the fundamental antagonism upon which every capitalist relation is established. Again, contrary to popular stereotypes, Marxism is not only the nineteenth-century perspective on the Western development of industrial capitalism, the theoretical foundations of which were developed by Karl Marx. It is a strong current of thought on the transformations of modern economies and all social institutions. Marx conceived of the modern economic relations as a network of antagonistic connections between dead, constantly evolving capital and living labour – the energy to create the common, the realm of living ties between ourselves and the world around us. Looking at today’s university through this prism, we can not only better understand the economic relations that dominate it, but also better cooperate to overcome and change them.


Third, Marxism itself is a form of praxis. A Marxist perspective transcends the avant-garde model of leadership of academics or intellectuals over the protesting crowd, it goes beyond the rule of the public intellectuals who are enlightening the masses. Thus, it also favours avoiding the limitations of the understanding of resistance only in its institutionalized forms, its co-opting by representation or the betrayal of the causes by the movements’ leaders. On the one hand, the work of the critique of political economy renders visible the contradictions within which the present system can be thrown off balance, making the status quo vulnerable. On the other hand, the ontological recognition of the strength of the common – the strengths of relationships – and the principles of its development and reproduction allows for focusing on the accumulation and extension of positive conditions for cooperation and collaboration – on various geographical scales.

Taken together, these three areas allow us to think of Marxism as a project of emancipation of the imagination, which is trapped in twenty-first century capitalism. The future, as something undetermined and open to what is new, is not and cannot be reached through simple form of knowing. It is not a lack of knowledge that stands in the way today. First of all, we have to be able to imagine a different future. A future that we are no longer in control of, as crisis of imagination manifests itself in the loss of control over what we define as possible or impossible. The strength of the Marxist perspective in this context again lies in making the imagination not an individual capacity, but something common, shared, occurring in the interactions between us. We have seen that the very matter of science and higher education is the kind of space in which the imagination as a joint venture can fully develop, pushing the boundaries between what is real and what is possible. The promise that Marxism gives us is a hope to free the imagination from the shackles and influence of those forces interested not in opening the horizon of the future, but in entrenching the present status quo. The status quo, which today in science does not have much more to offer than deepening the existing divisions and dependencies. Where the accumulation of knowledge has its permanent reverse in the form of accumulation of misfortunes and injustice. The importance of Marxism for the challenges faced by the university in the 21st century is therefore nothing else than the hope to break this dependence. It is subordinating the process of knowledge accumulation not to profit, but to the fulfilment of collective needs in constantly expanding conditions.

Krystian Szadkowski & Jakub Krzeski

Published inUncategorized