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Marxist classics on science and higher education. Part 1

Discussing the recent contributions to Marxist scholarship on higher education will be pointless without identifying the historical roots of this reflection – the classics. It is no easy task. As higher education remains a marginal object for full-scale Marxist studies, the pieces forming the debates are scattered.

In the series of posts, I would like to put some order (or at least propose a list with small excerpts and commentaries) to what I consider forming a set of classical references of Marxist reflection on higher education. It is necessarily subjective and selective and far from being complete. First, it will be limited to Anglophone contributions and debates. Second, it will deal with the literature up to 2015. Third, it will mix articles with books and chapters.

In short, I will put here what, over the years, I have found most valuable and most influential on my research and my understanding of how to operationalise Marxist critique for researching higher education. This time I would like to refer you to two classical texts.

Science as a prefiguration of communism

The first thing that comes to mind is J. D. Bernal’s (1939) pioneer book Social function of science. Strongly influenced by the rapid development of science and higher education in the Soviet Union, Bernal’s contribution is one of the first attempts in the Anglophone world to compile statistical information on the governments spending on science, as well as it offers a materialist analysis of the organisation of science and higher education enterprise. It served as an inspiration for the development of scientometrics science of science. It influenced many mainstream non-Marxist scholars, amongst them well-known figures like Eugene Garfield, inventor of the Science Citation Index and the “famous” impact factor. In a sense, one could argue that Bernal’s analysis gave the vital impulse to restructure the university along the lines of further penetration of capital rather than contributing to its change for the better. 

Nonetheless, what is more substantial and lasting, we can find in Bernal’s work a specific ontological assumption about science as a prefigurative of communism, which he put at the end of his book (you can read a short essay containing the core argument): 

Already we have in the practice of science the prototype for all human action. The task which the scientists have undertaken — the understanding and control of nature and of man himself — is merely the conscious expression of the task of human society. The methods by which this task is attempted, however imperfectly they are realized, are the methods by which humanity is most likely to secure its own future. In its endeavour, science is communism. In science men have learned consciously to subordinate themselves to a common purpose without losing the individuality of their achievements. Each one knows that his work depends on that of his predecessors and colleagues and that it can only reach its fruition through the work of his successors. In science men collaborate not because they are forced to by superior authority or because they blindly follow some chosen leader, but because they realize that only in this willing collaboration can each man find his goal. Not orders, but advice, determine action. Each man knows that only by advice, honestly and disinterestedly given, can his work succeed, because such advice expresses as near as may be the inexorable logic of the material world, stubborn fact. Facts cannot be forced to our desires, and freedom comes by admitting this necessity and not by pretending to ignore it. These things have been learned painfully and incompletely in the pursuit of science. Only in the wider tasks of humanity will their full use be found.

Bernal 1939: 415-416

In other words, for Bernal studying science offers us an insight into the reality of the Marxian social individual, a commonality of interdependent actions of actors whose individuality does not disappear but is rather co-constituted through the expression of the ensemble of social relations that gives science its form. Bernal’s ontological discovery will then become a target of Merton’s famous attempt at political de-activation of this communism of science. Yet, Marxist reflection on this field needs to consider its original formulation.

Marxist critique as a weapon against university transformations

When we move forward historically and a bit towards the West geographically, we will find Hal Draper, a Trotskyist librarian at University California, a well-known witness to and source of inspiration for massive US student protests in the 1960s. In 1964 he published a notable essay, being a substantial critical take on Clark Kerr’s idea of the multiversity. It is hard to find a single person amongst the active higher education researchers that have never heard about Kerr and his reforms in California. Yet Draper remains largely unknown within this field. Nonetheless, the pamphlet “The Mind of Clark Kerr” is worth revisiting. It presents the core arguments against Kerr’s proposal as expressed from within a historical conjuncture and the wave of struggles. Although it contains many good points and arguments against Kerr and his actions, it can be seen as problematic if we would like to use it for analytical purposes. Draper’s take became an essential source of the Marxist reductionism in thinking about higher education that spread amongst the researchers willing to address the issues of capitalist transformations of the sector. As polemically Draper put it:

The use of the university, or the role of the multiversity, is to have a relationship to the present power structure, in this businessman’s society of ours, which is similar to that of any other industrial enterprise. There are railroads and steel mills and supermarkets and sausage factories – and there are also the Knowledge Factories, whose function is to service all the others and the State.

Draper 1964

The analytical layer of this work is relatively thin, and it could serve as an excellent example of bad practice of mobilising Marx’s metaphor of education enterprise focused on profit generation, as yet another capitalist factory (like the famous “sausage factory” mentioned by Marx in the section on productive and unproductive labour of Das Kapital). Draper’s pamphlet was first and foremost a potent political weapon in agitating against Kerr and his vision of the university’s transformation. As mentioned in Kerr’s memoirs from the heated period of the 1960s, this pamphlet haunted the University of California’s president for a long time. He put it: “Each place I went I was met with that pamphlet, The Mind of Clark Kerr, supplied free of charge, with its allegations against me”. Draper’s Marxist take will remain a must for everyone studying the Californian model of higher education.

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