Radical Teachers or Radicals who teach, was Re: Being and consciousness in academe

Carrol Cox cbcox at SPAMilstu.edu
Sun Dec 17 12:56:08 MST 2000

Louis Proyect wrote:

> George Snedeker:
> >  [clip] these are also not the
> >best of times to be a propagandist. the best we can do in the class room is
> >to present alternative ways of thinking and information to students.
> On the substantive point, perhaps it is a mistake to think that one can be
> an effective "propagandist" in a classroom. The most important benefit of
> being a professor, from the standpoint of the revolutionary movement, is
> the free time it gives you.

I think Lou is essentially correct here. [Both George and Lou leave out
research & thinking: I would not want to do without the contributions that
(for example) Richard Levins, John Bellamy Foster, & David Harvey have
made through their published work. But that is another topic.] What was
more or less my point of transition from a gradually increased dabbling
in political activity to socialism came at a conference in Ann Arbor in
1967 of "Radicals in the Professions." At a plenary of the conference a
grad student in econ asked us to make a distinction between "radical
teachers" and radicals who are teachers." The latter would be equivalent
to "radicals who are [earn their living as] janitors," "radicals who are
[earn their living as] welfare mothers" etc etc etc. That was my decision:
I was a radical (and before long a communist] who earned his living (barely)
as a college teacher.

Now I did increasingly (as I learned it) take a marxist attitude towards
the materials I taught -- but not as a political act but on the simple basis
that a professor is supposed (I presume) to profess the truth as he/she
sees it. And some results of my teaching in the '70s throw some light
on the present topic. Even the fairly undeveloped historical perspective
I brought to my teaching at that time had a considerable impact on a
goodly sprinkling of students. (The activties of the '60s were still in
active memory and students had not become as politically unresponsive
as they were to become in the '80s.) A fairly steady stream of students
would flow through my office wanting to discuss politics, materialist
views of history, etc. It was lots of fun, but its political impact was, I
believe, more or less zero.

[My vocabulary here is from WITBD] Agitation presupposes ongoing
political activity into which the objects of the agitation can be drawn.
Propaganda assumes a body of (politically and theoretically) active
men and women needing to expand their understanding in order to
expand and strengthen their practice. In other words, both agitation
and propaganda assume an active response, active because the
response of those who are already active or already in a situation
(as in a department store bubbling with discontened and angry
clericals) where they are prepared to respond actively. But no
matter how inspiring the teacher or how anxious to participate
the students, the relationship of students to professor is essentially
(objectively) a passive one, and there is (ordinarily) no ongoing
political struggle outside of but linked to the classroom to which
the agitation/propaganda and its recipients can contribute. Had
there been (as in the '30s) both a living CP & a growing and
militant workers' movement, classroom activity might (I believe
at the time did at some institutions) feed directly into that
political process. Not under 'ordinary' conditions.

And that brings us back to Lou's, "The most important benefit of
being a professor, from the standpoint of the revolutionary
movement, is the free time it gives you." One earns one's living
as a teacher (and gets what personal pleasure one can out of
the work or the salary), and commits one's primary energy (under
some conditions) or at least some energy (under other condtions)
to political activity. One is a radical/communist who earns one's
living as a teacher.

This has touched only on a few of the questions raised in this
thread, but I think the perspective provided here can help
clarify many of the other questions.


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