Comradeship, criticism, and collegiality

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When did “comradely” come to mean “collegial”?

Part of the academicization of Marxism, I’d contend, has involved the gradual replacement of frank, unsparing polemic with chummy, backscratching collegiality. This can be seen in all the gentle nudges and polite asides, with authors practically tripping over themselves in order to point out how “thought-provoking” and “insightful” their critics are. Flattery of one’s peers is now almost as institutionalized as the periodic paradigm shift — the cynical, cyclical revolt against the old guard.

Academics’ egos bruise easily, you see, and they’re all chasing tenure and book deals in an increasingly dried-up market. So they need to be mollified from time to time, reassured of how much they’re enriching the “discourse,” lest they become demoralized and drop out. “Keep at it, son. You’re doing good work. Just a few more asses to kiss and gushing reviews to write; then you’ll have it made.” Ball-washing cajolery has been elevated into a principle, becoming for all intents and purposes de rigueur.

I miss the days when Marx would inveigh against the Young Hegelians (Saint Max, Saint Bruno, the Rabbi Moses Hess) for their “theoretical bubble-blowing,” accusing Malthus of plagiarizing James Steuart and calling Herr Vogt a fat bastard. Or Engels declaring that Herr Dühring’s contributions to theory “haven’t even the weight of a fart.” Radicals had thicker skin and more bile in their bellies back then.

Nor it end with the founders, Marx and Engels. Luxemburg wasn’t mollycoddled at all in the Second International; she was simply more bloodthirsty than the boys, calling for Bernstein’s head and ruling the Polish section with an iron fist. Even Feliks Dzherzhinskii — founder of the Cheka, certainly no shrinking violet — was terrified of her. And he worshipped the ground she walked on.

Don’t you think it’d be great to go to an academic conference where a panelist says she supports her critics “in the same way a rope supports a hanged man,” as Lenin did?

7 thoughts on “Comradeship, criticism, and collegiality

  1. I guess you leftists better quit academia, get proper jobs like the rest of us & do your debates in your spare time, in pubs or on blogs or with your new mates on the workfloor. It’s not like academic marxism is accomplishing anything anyway, except comfy bourgeois lifestyles for the winners in the institutional ratrace.

  2. Academic conformism is not only about being nice, though. Stabbing people in the back is an integral part of it, if usually done very quietly. Another reason to prefer upfront verbal aggression. Yet of course this is just bourgeois morality at play, which is always conceited and treacherous at heart.

    Getting a ‘proper job’ won’t help, and there is nothing wrong with cheating one’s fellow bourgeois subjects out of some money. Keep at it.

  3. Speaking of Dzherzhinskii and the Cheka, having recently read “The Man Who Loved Dogs” wherein Trotsky’s thoughts imagined by the author turn to Kronstadt, expressing some serious regrets. Being an old school lapsed Canadian Trot from the late sixties and early seventies, I felt in order to revitalize some of the old synapses, I’d better do some further research, which set my head spinning; each side quoting historical sources supporting its point of view. By the way, for years following the October revolution, conditions in Russia and the nascent Soviet Union were a total cluster fuck. There was not just a lack of polemical collegiality, opponents with the broadly “socialist” left were not always adverse to shooting each other.

    I suppose whatever the “true” facts are here, it is worth noting that the director of the Cheka between 1917 and 1926 when he died of natural causes was as Ross mentions, Dzherzhinskii; that is he remained at his post under the auspices of Lenin and Trotsky and Stalin during the last two years when Stalin began his consolidation of power. Even staunch Leninists and Trotskyists will admit to the ruthlessness of the Cheka in support of Bolshevik control of the revolutionary state and are not embarrassed to rationalize its activities in the name of preserving the germ of the future international world-wide workers paradise.

  4. Well, this is nonsense about academia, there’s plenty of vitriol out there if that’s what you’re after. If people are more polite that they used to be (in academia) bear in mind that the jobs used to be more secure and the assessment of ‘impact’, ‘output’ and other horrors less pervasive, plus everyone got long summers to rest up and recuperate. It jolly well is a ‘proper job’ Thomas Dekkers.

    I take your point that Marx, Engels, Luxembourg etc might have used a less ‘collegial’ tone, but it’s hardly a fair comparison to an academic conference.

    I think we’re all capable of getting angry when necessary. Also being kind. Yes, go on, scoff.

    • Conformism is something quite different from politeness.

      Secondly, nobody is impressed by the ‘horrors’ you speak of, since they are pervasive in the economy at large. I always love reading the reactions of non-academics when some academic complains about the horrors they are subjected to. Life is pretty shitty outside the Ivory Tower folks.

      Of course, the public interest is hurt by a culture of conformism in intellectual life and by weird applications of taylorism. But you know, academia as a system (if not many individual academics) is quite complicit in this, as is also reflected in patterns of behaviour.

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