The alt-right and their campus red scare

August 24, 2017

The far right's paranoia about Marxists on campus flows from a recognition that universities are a place where the left-wing ideas and organizing can develop--and the left shouldn't forget that, writes Pranav Jani, an associate professor at The Ohio State University.

"NO TO Marxism in America."

That's the name of the event being organized by fascists and white supremacists on August 27 in Berkeley, California--as they continue their months of targeting the famously liberal city with far-right protests.

The online description of the event more directly targets the teaching of Marxism in the U.S., with University of California (UC)-Berkeley allegedly being "ground zero":

In America we have Marxism being taught in our schools and communities. Berkeley is a ground zero for the Marxist Movement and we need to speak out and say NO to Marxism. This event is our chance to speak out and expose the plan of purging our nation from a free nation to a communist nation. We will not tolerate this in America. So we are asking people to come stand against Marxism.

How seriously should we take this peculiar title for what is supposed to be a mass protest for the right? Does anyone care that much about the few Marxist classes in the academy?

The response of anti-fascist protestors has been spot on. Everyone knows that the right wing uses the term "Marxism" to refer to pretty much everyone from the far left to progressives and liberals of all types--pretty much everyone to the left of Hitler.

Fascist flyers attack "cultural Marxism" on college campuses
Fascist flyers attack "cultural Marxism" on college campuses

That's why dozens of organizations with different political views have endorsed the call by the coalition organizing a Bay Area Rally Against Hate on August 27. Numerous unions are involved in the Berkeley mobilization, while International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 voted to approve a stop-work action in solidarity with anti-racist protesters on August 26, when the far right plans to show up in San Francisco.

The call for broad solidarity and a national weekend of action on August 26-27 is sure to be heeded by a nation shocked and angered by the frighteningly large showing of the fascists and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, two weeks ago, including the car attack that murdered Heather Heyer and injured 19 others, and the assault on protester Deandre Harris.

The estimated 25,000 who came out and dwarfed the far right in Boston on August 19 is a clear sign that the people care more about protesting explicit racism and Nazism than they do about red-baiting.

CLEARLY, NO one thinks the far right is only after Marxist academics. But then again, why target Marxists at all?

The simple and straightforward reason might be the idea--clearly a miscalculation--that if the alt-right scapegoats "Marxism" and make appeals to anti-Communism, they will be able to pull the country behind them.

After Charlottesville, we're in a moment when the opposite is happening--the label "Nazi" is galvanizing opinion.

Even ruling-class magazines like The Economist, Republicans in Congress and the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. military are scorching Trump for defending the fascists.

Even James Murdoch of 21st Century Fox--the owner of Fox News, which is as responsible as anyone for the current upsurge of the far right--went after Trump for not denouncing Nazis thoroughly enough!

Meanwhile, the mainstream Washington Post is running sympathetic profile articles on the militant anti-fascist protesters known as Antifa and opinion pieces criticizing liberalism for being insufficient for fighting fascism.

But whether the targeting of Marxism is a bad tactic in the current moment or not, the slogan and the far right's repeated focus on Berkeley does tell us something significant about the importance it places on the ideological and cultural wars on campuses for its struggle to become visible.

The anti-Marxist agitating is part of an effort to play the "long game"--going after Marxists and left-wing academics now in order to build the presence of the hardcore far right on campuses. The fascists don't only want to broadcast the ideas of white supremacy--they want theorists and historians who can use the legitimacy of universities to propagate fascist ideas.

Imagine the influence, for instance, of a Richard Spencer-type who was teaching day in and day out, rather than making occasional and heavily protested appearances on campuses?

The far right's cynical use of the slogan of free speech has been directly connected to their efforts to gain a foothold on campuses--whether in Berkeley over the past year, at the fascists' pitiful rally in Boston on August 19, or in Fox News discussions every night.

In reality, the far right couldn't care less about free speech--they have taken a prominent role in shutting down academics who support Palestine, who tweet against white supremacy, and who criticize Trump. Not coincidentally, most of these faculty are people of color.

We on the left need to both understand their strategy and develop our own campus strategy in order to defend faculty and others who speak out and to maximize the potential that radicalized students can have for the movements, both on campus today and in workplaces and communities for years to come.

But first, that means understanding the importance of campus organizing right now--and challenging left-wing dismissals of that work.

IT'S EASY to both overestimate and underestimate campus organizing, based on a misrecognition of the many different strands that make up campus life.

Campuses are not simply open, utopian spaces where everyone can enter and participate in the free exchange of ideas, but hierarchical, undemocratic institutions whose function in society is to reproduce mainstream ideology, along with workers and functionaries for mainstream institutions.

As U.S. campuses have become more dependent on private funding and more closely tied to the state since 9/11, administrators have become less and less tolerant of faculty who challenge the status quo.

In the introduction to the excellent book The Imperial University, editors Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira write that the liberalism of universities--which make them appear to be a counterweight to the ruthlessness of the state and capital--actually serves to stymie radical and left-wing politics, using the guise of "academic freedom" to shut down efforts to critique imperialism, colonialism and militarization.

Any understanding of campuses as being automatically friendly to the left because of the heavy presence of liberal administrators, faculty and curriculum minimizes the way a certain degree of liberalism helps cement the connection between students and mainstream U.S. institutions.

Such an understanding ignores the role of universities in capitalist society: Heavily policed spaces in which students are given some room as they develop into workers and bureaucrats with better skills.

The empowerment of police on campuses and the undermining or outright repression of campus movements--from Occupy Wall Street to Palestine solidarity work, from Black Lives Matter to movements against sexual assault--is simply a reminder of the tight controls on campus activism.

BUT DESPITE all of these limitations, campuses have historically been an important space for left organizing, and they remain so today. There are a number of reasons why this is the case.

First, the attacks on professors, whether by the far right or by administrators, need to be challenged and pushed back. Examples include the un-hiring of Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign because of a critical tweet about Israel that angered Zionist donors; the suspension of Johnny Eric Williams at Trinity College for tweeting an angry post about racism; and the Fox News campaigns against George Ciccariello-Maher and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor for their critiques of white supremacy and Trump, leading to death threats.

Fighting attacks like these is going to take some hard-nosed and dedicated organizing by faculty and students. Administrators, even liberal ones, have mostly remained silent, a result of the converging interests of pro-imperialist politics and corporate universities.

The new fascist threats will make the climate for left-wing academics worse--but the widespread revulsion against the fascists is sure to reverberate on campuses as well.

Second, beyond defending openly progressive and left-wing professors, colleges and universities, even with all the limitations on campus dialogue, remain one of the last places where left-wing ideas can be discussed openly and freely--in classrooms, in articles and books, and among co-workers.

Whatever limitations on this freedom--and they are many with the development of the corporate, neoliberal university--it is unimaginable in most workplaces to be able to talk about what is commonly discussed in the academy: alternative sexualities, feminisms, racism and racialization, white supremacy, immigrant rights and anti-deportation measures, reproductive justice, the devastating effects of capitalism and imperialism, and so on.

The fact that "Marxism" isn't often the starting point for these discussions--in fact, many left academics are staunchly critical of Marxism--is beside the point. What the right is targeting is this left-wing and progressive culture within academia.

THIRD, YOUNG people have always been at the center of emerging periods of radicalization, in the U.S. and around the world, and a section of youth--exposed to the freedom of ideas that campuses can potentially generate--can develop into organizers within the workplaces and cities they inhabit after graduation.

At universities, very often, these young people include students of many racial, ethnic, national, sexual, and gender identities. The mixing and educating of students through these various and unique interactions contribute to the exponential growth of their potential as organizers.

The relatively closed space of the campus--with its own administrators and bosses, its own media, its own community centers--provides an excellent ground for radicalizing youth to train themselves in organizing. Numerous campus demands emerge each year, as students have far more access to administrators and their peers than they will to the powers that be outside of campus.

Rising student fees and tuition; the absence of attention to sexual assault and rape; police brutality; inadequate or nonexistent health care and services for disabled students; the rhetoric of "Diversity Inc." without the reality of racial justice; attacks on campus workers, from graduate students and faculty to student workers and custodial staff; the need to educate peers about the events of the day occurring in the city or in the world--all of these ever-present issues can lead to explosive movements from below,

And they certainly have in the past. Indeed, departments like Black Studies and Women's Studies are tangible legacies of the organizing of past generations of students who demanded these programs as part of the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.

Finally, campuses are closer than ever before to the issues that impact the communities around them. More and more students attend college as workers--part-time workers who then need to take out loans to make ends meet. In some cases, campus organizing of student workers has been a part of broader labor organizing on campus.

The so-called "town/gown" divide is real, because many universities continue to be major owners of real estate and operate along with the ruling elites and politicians of their cities. But even as this is true, those who attend and work at universities are connected, ever more increasingly, to the lives of those outside them.

Recent articles arguing that campus organizing has particular limits and challenges unnecessarily counterpose campus organizing to "real-world" organizing.

Colleges and universities are distinct spaces within capitalist society, but they are not "ivory towers," cut off from the rest of the world. Organizers need to emphasize and illuminate those connections, while taking campus organizing seriously.

AS A Marxist professor who has had my own brushes with the far right, let me clarify what I mean by engaging in campus activism and organizing--because the McCarthyite right wing is eager to jump on any such declaration as proof of left professors' sinister agendas.

While my literature classes are inherently political--I teach postcolonial studies and ethnic studies, which requires an understanding of politics and history--I actively enforce freedom of respectful discussion and debate in my classroom. I value and encourage students challenging each other--and me--on ideas and arguments. I see the classroom as a space in which young people can learn to formulate and defend their ideas and I grade them on their ability to defend their arguments.

I do introduce topics and positions that my students have never heard of. But I do this to expand their range of knowledge and curiosity beyond the spoon-feeding they get from school, media and the like.

If I were use my classroom as a place to cram my ideas down students' throats, I would betray my own principles of critical and independent thinking. My classroom would become a place for conformity--exactly what radical academics like Paolo Freire have taught us to reject.

The far right loathes such open and frank discussion within classrooms. So do administrators, generally speaking, though they may sometimes turn against the far right, too. There are no "metrics" for critical thinking.

For me, campus organizing mainly happens outside the classroom. In my experience, whatever work we do in class does not translate directly into organizing, even when there are overlaps--whereas in organizing spaces with students and faculty, questions and debates are very much geared towards putting ideas into practice.

UC Berkeley and other universities haven't even come close to achieving their potential as places where Marxism is taught on a regular basis or where student activism continues and builds and grows, rather than coming to a halt each time semesters end.

And actually, the fascists, with their out-of-touch slogans and messages of hatred and violence, are creating more opportunities to build Marxist and left organizations across academia.

Students and faculty who want to take the plunge should join their local International Socialist Organization chapters, groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and the Campus Antifascist Network, and other formations.

For fellow faculty members, I cannot emphasize it enough: Now is not the time to be in isolation from movements and political communities, even with pressures of tenure or the risks of visibility in this dangerous climate. Indeed, these circumstances require ever more collaboration and support.

Further Reading

From the archives