[Marxism] [SUSPICIOUS MESSAGE] Fascism and the University

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 4 06:17:47 MDT 2018

Fascism and the University
Higher education has historically been a bulwark against 
authoritarianism. Or its pawn. What’ll it be this time?
By Jason Stanley SEPTEMBER 02, 2018  PREMIUM

In recent years, several countries across the world have been overtaken 
by a certain kind of far-right nationalism; the list includes Russia, 
Hungary, Poland, India, Turkey, and the United States. The task of 
generalizing about such phenomena is always vexing. But such 
generalization is necessary now, when patterns have emerged that suggest 
the resurgence of fascist politics globally. Increasingly, attacks on 
universities and conflicts over their policies are a symptom of this 

I use the label "fascism" to describe any ultranationalism — ethnic, 
religious, or cultural — in which the nation is represented by an 
authoritarian leader who claims to speak for the people. As Donald J. 
Trump declared in his Republican National Convention speech in July 
2016, "I am your voice." In particular, my interest is in fascist 
politics as a mechanism to achieve power. Once those who employ such 
tactics come to power, the regimes they enact are in large part 
determined by particular historical conditions. What occurred in Germany 
was different from what occurred in Italy. Fascist politics does not 
necessarily lead to an explicitly fascist state, but it is dangerous 

Honest politics needs intelligent debate. One of the clearest signs of 
fascist politics, then, is attacks on universities and expertise — the 
support systems of discussion and the sources of knowledge and facts. 
Intelligent debate is impossible without access to different 
perspectives, a respect for expertise when one’s own knowledge gives 
out, and a rich enough language to precisely describe reality. When 
education is undermined, only power and tribal identity remain.

This does not mean that there is no role for universities in fascist 
politics. In fascist ideology, only one viewpoint is legitimate. 
Colleges are meant to introduce students to the dominant culture and its 
mythic past. Education therefore either poses a grave threat to fascism 
or becomes a pillar of support for the mythical nation. It’s no wonder, 
then, that cultural clashes on campuses represent a true political 
battleground and receive national attention. The stakes are high.

For at least the past 50 years, universities have been the epicenter of 
protest against injustice and authoritarian overreach. Consider, for 
example, their unique role in the antiwar movement of the 1960s. Where 
speech is a right, propagandists cannot attack dissent head-on; instead 
they must represent it as something violent and oppressive (a protest 
therefore becomes a "riot"). In 2015 the Black Lives Matter movement 
spread to university campuses. Given that Black Lives Matter gained 
strength after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo., it is no 
surprise that the first campus it touched was the University of Missouri 
at Columbia. The Missouri student movement was named Concerned Student 
1950, after the year in which the University of Missouri was 
desegregated. Among its aims was to address the incidents of racial 
abuse faced by black students on a regular basis, as well as to change 
curricula that represented culture and civilization as the product 
solely of white men. The media largely ignored those motivations, and, 
representing protesting black students as an angry mob, used the 
situation as an opportunity to foment rage against the supposed liberal 
excesses of the university.

Fascist politics seeks to undermine the credibility of institutions that 
harbor independent voices of dissent. One typical method is to level 
accusations of hypocrisy. Right now, a contemporary right-wing campaign 
is charging universities with hypocrisy on the issue of free speech. 
Universities, it says, claim to hold free speech in the highest regard 
but suppress any voices that don’t lean left. Critics of campus 
social-justice movements have found an effective method of turning 
themselves into the victims of protest. They contend that protesters 
mean to deny them their own free speech.

These accusations also extend into the classroom. David Horowitz is a 
far-right activist who has been targeting universities since the 1980s. 
In 2006 he published a book, The Professors, naming the "101 most 
dangerous professors in America," a list of leftist and liberal 
professors, many of whom were supporters of Palestinian rights. In 2009 
he published another book, One Party Classroom, with a list of the "150 
most dangerous courses in America."

Horowitz has started numerous organizations to promote his ideas. In the 
1990s, he created the Individual Rights Foundation, which, according to 
the conservative Young America’s Foundation, "led the battle against 
speech codes on college campuses." In 1992 he founded the monthly 
tabloid Heterodoxy, which, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 
"targeted university students whom Horowitz viewed as being 
indoctrinated by the entrenched Left in American academia." Horowitz is 
also responsible for Students for Academic Freedom, which was called the 
Campaign for Fairness and Inclusion in Higher Education when it was 
introduced in 2003. The goal of Students for Academic Freedom is to 
promote the hiring of professors with conservative worldviews, an effort 
marketed as promoting "intellectual diversity and academic freedom at 
America’s colleges and universities," according to Young America’s 

Some will argue that a university must have representatives of all 
positions. Such an argument suggests that being justified in our own 
positions requires regularly grappling with opposing ones (and that 
there was no room for those views in the first place). Anyone who has 
taught philosophy knows that it is often useful to confront cogent 
defenses of opposing positions, and universities unquestionably benefit 
from intelligent and sophisticated proponents of positions along the 
political spectrum. Nevertheless, the general principle, upon 
reflection, is not particularly plausible.

No one thinks that the demands of free inquiry require adding 
researchers to university faculties who seek to demonstrate that the 
earth is flat. Similarly, I can safely and justifiably reject ISIS 
ideology without having to confront its advocates in the classroom or 
faculty lounge. I do not need to have a colleague who defends the view 
that Jewish people are genetically predisposed to greed in order to 
justifiably reject such anti-Semitic nonsense. Nor is it even remotely 
plausible that bringing such voices to campus would aid arguments 
against such toxic ideologies. More likely, it would undermine 
intelligent debate by leading to breakdowns of communication and 
shouting matches.

Universities should supply the intellectual tools to allow an 
understanding of all perspectives. But the best way to achieve that is 
to hire the most academically qualified professors. No method of 
adjudicating academic quality will be free from controversy. But trying 
to evade that difficulty by forcing universities to hire representatives 
of every ideological position is a particularly implausible fix, one 
that can perhaps be justified only by a widespread conspiracy theory 
about academic standards being hijacked by, say, a supposed epidemic of 
"political correctness."

For decades, Horowitz was a fringe figure. Now his tactics and aims, and 
even his rhetoric, have moved into the mainstream, where attacks on 
"political correctness" on campuses have become commonplace. Jesse 
Panuccio, acting U.S. associate attorney general, began his remarks at 
Northwestern University in January by declaring campus free speech "a 
vitally important topic, and, as you are probably aware, one that 
Attorney General Sessions has made a priority for the Department of 
Justice. It is a priority because, in our view, many campuses across the 
country are failing to protect and promote free speech." Since then the 
Department of Justice has filed suits against universities for their 
alleged failure to protect the free-speech rights of right-wing 
speakers. Top officials, including the attorney general and the 
secretary of education, have appeared as featured speakers at a Turning 
Point USA conference, an organization that keeps "watch lists" of 
supposedly dangerous leftist professors, hardly a hallmark of 
free-speech advocacy.

Trump’s presidential campaign is sometimes described as one long attack 
on "political correctness." It is not accidental that the rhetoric of 
the Trump administration overlaps with the talking points of some of the 
well-funded institutions that have arisen to attack and delegitimize 
universities as bastions of liberalism. These broad criticisms have real 
impacts on academic careers and academic freedom. In January 2017, 
Missouri State Representative Rick Brattin, a Republican, proposed 
banning tenure at all of Missouri’s public universities. After calling 
tenure "un-American" in an interview with The Chronicle, Brattin added, 
"Something’s wrong, something’s broken, and a professor that should be 
educating our kids, should be concentrating on ensuring that they’re 
propelling to a better future, but instead are engaging in political 
stuff that they shouldn’t be engaged in. Because they have tenure, 
they’re allowed to do so. And that is wrong." When Brattin was asked 
whether he was concerned that eliminating tenure would damage academic 
freedom and lead to professors’ losing their jobs for political reasons, 
he responded, "In what area do you have protection of your job for 
whatever you say, whatever you do, you’re protected? You don’t have that."

In the classic style of demagogic propaganda, the tactic of attacking 
institutions standing up for public reason and open debate occurs under 
the cloak of those very ideals.

Within universities, fascist politicians target professors they deem too 
political and often denounce entire areas of study. When fascist 
movements are underway in liberal democratic states, certain academic 
disciplines are singled out. Gender studies, for instance, comes under 
fire from far-right nationalist movements across the world. Professors 
in these fields are accused of disrespect to the traditions of the nation.

The nation is the top priority of fascist education, and fields that 
don’t align with the nation’s identity are typically denounced as 
"Marxist indoctrination," the classic bogeyman of fascist politics. Used 
without any connection to Marx or Marxism, the expression is employed to 
malign the equality represented by even small amounts of space being 
given to marginalized perspectives. Fascism is about a hierarchy ordered 
by the dominant perspective, and so, during fascist moments, there is 
strong support for figures who denounce disciplines that teach 
perspectives other than the dominant ones — such as gender studies, or, 
in the United States, African-American studies or Middle Eastern 
studies. The dominant perspective is often misrepresented as the truth, 
the "real history." Attempts to allow space for traditionally 
nondominant perspectives are used to foment panic about an attack on 
tradition; when English departments add Ngugi wa Thiong’o to the 
curriculum, it is represented as an attack on Shakespeare.

Fascist opposition to gender studies, in particular, flows from 
fascism’s patriarchal ideology. National Socialism, for example, 
targeted women’s movements and feminism generally; for the Nazis, 
feminism was a Jewish conspiracy to destroy fertility among Aryan women. 
In fascist attacks on universities, the universities play the role of 
the Nazis’ "Jewish conspiracy" behind the women’s movement.

According to fascist politics, universities subvert masculinity and 
undermine the traditional family. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has gone on 
the offensive on this issue, repurposing universities into ideological 
weapons directed against the supposed Western excesses of feminism. In 
her 2017 book, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed 
Russia (Riverhead Books), Masha Gessen describes how Russia’s antigay, 
antifeminist university agenda emerged out of a 1997 conference in 
Prague called the World Congress of Families, organized by Allan C. 
Carlson, then a professor of history at the "ultraconservative Hillsdale 
College in Michigan." The conference attracted a large audience. Gessen 
writes, "Inspired by the turnout, the organizers turned the World 
Congress of Families into a permanent organization dedicated to the 
fight against gay rights, abortion rights, and gender studies."

As one example of policies inspired by the conference, the Russian 
government persecuted the European University at St. Petersburg for its 
liberal inclinations; Russian authorities had been trying to close it 
down for years and finally succeeded in 2016, when its teaching license 
was suspended. According to the university, "the inspections were 
instigated by an official complaint from Vitaly Milonov," a member of 
the Russian parliament for Putin’s United Russia Party. Milonov, who is 
responsible for some of Russia’s antigay legislation, has expressed 
concern about the teaching of gender studies at the university: "I 
personally find that disgusting, it’s fake studies, and it may well be 
illegal," he told The Christian Science Monitor.

In Hungary and Poland, gender studies has also been a flash point of 
political controversy, drawing the ire of political leaders seeking to 
paint universities as bastions of liberal indoctrination. As Andrea 
Peto, a professor of gender studies at Central European University, 
relates in her study "Report From the Trenches: The Debate Around 
Teaching Gender Studies in Hungary," the undersecretary of the Hungarian 
Ministry of Human Resources, Bence Rétvári, compared gender studies to 
Marxist-Leninism (again, the standard bogeyman of fascist regimes).

Attacking gender studies is also an explicit tactic of the far right in 
the United States. In 2010 the state legislature of North Carolina was 
taken over by Republicans affiliated with the Tea Party movement. 
Together with the Republican governor, Pat McCrory, they went after the 
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A newly appointed Board of 
Governors of the university dismissed its widely admired progressive 
president, Tom Ross. Governor McCrory said in an interview that public 
universities should not teach courses in "gender studies or Swahili" 
(Swahili is spoken by 140 million people as a first or second language). 
He added, "If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a 
private school and take it."

In fascist ideology, the function of the education system is to glorify 
the mythic past, obscuring the perspectives and histories of those who 
do not belong. In a process sometimes tendentiously called 
"decolonizing" the curriculum, neglected perspectives are incorporated, 
thereby ensuring that students have a full view of history’s actors. In 
the fight against fascism, adjusting the curriculum in this way is not 
mere "political correctness." It is an essential means of protection 
against fascist myth.

Higher education can either stand as a bulwark against fascist politics 
or be a weapon of fascist politicians.

Governor McCrory did not stop with his suggestion that some courses 
should be removed from the public curriculum. He also called on the 
university to focus more on the type of skills-based education that 
employers supposedly need, to the detriment of subjects like sociology, 
which aid students in becoming better citizens. He was backed up by what 
was then the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, run 
and funded by Art Pope, a powerful and wealthy Republican donor. The 
Pope center has successfully urged the University of North Carolina to 
raise its tuition. This move will lead more students away from 
humanities and social sciences and into majors that will give them 
"business skills."

At the same time that it denigrates subjects that would enable a greater 
understanding of human cultural diversity, the Pope center (now known as 
the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal) also urges the teaching 
of a "great books" curriculum, which emphasizes the cultural 
achievements of white Europeans. The priorities here make sense when one 
realizes that in antidemocratic systems, the function of education is to 
produce obedient citizens structurally obliged to enter the work force 
without bargaining power, and ideologically trained to think that the 
dominant group represents history’s greatest civilizational forces. 
Conservative figures pour huge sums into the project of advancing 
right-wing goals in education. In 2017 the Charles Koch Foundation alone 
spent $100 million at around 350 colleges and universities.

When universities restrict their required offerings to European cultural 
touchstones, they risk suggesting that white Europeans constitute the 
core of human civilization. Our universities must not be complicit, even 
unwittingly, in promulgating such a myth.

Across time and place, as fascism rises, so too do figures who call for 
stacking colleges with professors more sympathetic to nationalist or 
traditionalist ideals. What has been happening in Hungary is a classic 
example. When Viktor Orban assumed power, he condemned universities as 
sites for liberal indoctrination. The best university in Hungary is 
Central European University, which retains independence from the 
Hungarian state. Orban presents CEU as a foreign institution that seeks 
to displace local Hungarian schools, spreading liberal universalist 
values such as pro-immigration sentiment. In April 2017, the Hungarian 
parliament attached legislation to an anti-immigration bill seeking to 
strip CEU of its ability to operate as an American university in Hungary 
and regulating the movement of its faculty and students for 
national-security reasons.

Similar efforts to shape curricula to nationalist ends are underway 
around the world, including in Turkey, where one of the first actions 
that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan undertook after the attempted coup 
against him in 2016 was to dismiss more than 5,000 deans and academics 
from their posts on suspicion of pro-democratic or pro-leftist 
sentiments. Many were also imprisoned. In an interview with the Voice of 
America, Ismet Akca, a political-science professor who was removed from 
his position at Yildiz Technical University, in Istanbul, said, "These 
people being purged are not just democratic left-oriented people, they 
are very good scientists, very good academicians. By purging them, the 
government is also attacking the very idea of the higher education, the 
very idea of the universities in this country."

The replacement of a varied curriculum with a narrowly proscribed one is 
a renunciation of knowledge and expertise. Rush Limbaugh has made this 
explicitly clear on his radio show, denouncing "the four corners of 
deceit: government, academia, science, and media. Those institutions are 
now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate 
themselves; it is how they prosper." Limbaugh provides a perfect example 
of how fascist politics targets expertise, mocking and devaluing it. In 
a liberal democracy, political leaders are supposed to consult with 
those they represent, as well as with experts and scientists who can 
most accurately explain the demands of reality on policy.

Instead, fascist politicians call upon universities to bolster their 
preconceived messages rather than to inform and shape policy. Across the 
world right now, we see right-wing movements attacking universities for 
spreading "Marxism" and "feminism" and failing to give a central place 
to far-right values. Even in the United States, home to the world’s 
greatest university system, we see Eastern European-style attacks on 
universities. Student protests are misrepresented in the press as riots 
by undisciplined mobs, threats to the civil order. In fascist politics, 
universities are debased in public discourse, and academics are 
undermined as legitimate sources of knowledge and expertise. Instead 
they are represented as radicals spreading a leftist ideological agenda 
under the guise of research. By debasing institutions of higher learning 
and impoverishing our joint vocabulary, fascist politics reduces debate 
to ideological conflict, thereby occluding reality.

History suggests that when the central government targets universities 
in ways we are now witnessing in the United States, it is a signal of 
encroaching authoritarianism. We would do well to take such signals both 
literally and seriously, if we are to preserve what history teaches is a 
bulwark against authoritarianism — a vibrant, robust, and independent 
university system.

Jason Stanley is a professor of philosophy at Yale University. He is the 
author of the new book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them 
(Random House), from which this essay is adapted.

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