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The Problem With College Educated Revolutionaries

Travelers Today       By    Arturo Castillon

Updated: Jan 31, 2014 07:52 AM EST

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There are many college-educated revolutionaries in cities and towns all through the United States. Whether they work at cafes, wash dishes, teach in public schools, or drive trains, they share the common experience of a college education. Their experiences in college have profoundly shaped their politics in a variety of ways and these revolutionaries have never broken from these experiences. Worst of all, these college-educated revolutionaries unknowingly impose their particular experiences on the revolutionary movement, and particularly, on working class people. They have played a crucial role in unknowingly preventing any working class leadership from developing.

Most people in the college educated left learn about Marxism in the university, and it is often discussed as completely male, Euro-centric, etc. What is missing is any mention of Marxists like C.L.R James, Rosa Luxemburg, Grace Lee Boggs, etc.. What first develops as a critique of Marxism, leads to a criticism of theory in general. Theory becomes a stand-in for the white straight man. What stands in the place of theory is the romanticism of the individual experiences of queer people, women of color, transgender people, men of color, etc. The economic class dimensions of these identities are usually hallowed out, because class also becomes the bogey man.

If revolutionary theory is not totally hollowed out, what is learned at best is an incomprehensible academic Marxism. This kind of academic Marxism tends to view working-class people abstractly, leaving college-educated revolutionaries unable to speak plainly to anyone outside of academia. As soon as they step out of school, they discover that no one understands a word they speak unless they speak plain. This further deeps the idea that revolutionary theory is not for the working classes. Ultimately, this notion keeps revolutionary theory out of the hands of the working class. Reflection and theory becomes something that militants do in elite circles, in unintelligible language, rather than something that is practiced alongside working-class militants.

These college educated revolutionaries have fundamentally accepted, in a-historical terms, the profound devastation of the working class. Every bit of historical evidence shows that the working classes in the US, before the 1970s, had a profoundly rich culture of political theory, whether socialist, communist, anarchist, etc. It was a political defeat of epic proportions that these currents were separated from the working class. It is accepted as eternal that working class people cannot read, do not like to read, do not like to think, etc. This ignores the fact that the weapon of theory has been vital to oppressed people's liberation, from illiterate slaves risking their lives to learn how to read, to Malcolm X discovering the power of knowledge while sitting in his prison cell.

Where overthrowing capitalism will require excellence, the revolutionary left is the home of intellectual mediocrity. For working class people who have had education denied to them, the revolutionary left is not an option for freedom, but for ignorance and death. Healthy working class politics do not exist in the revolutionary left. Much of how we treat each other reflects the experiences of college educated people, not a movement rooted in the working classes. Something new has to be built. Revolutionaries should work to make theory relevant to working class militants outside universities. They must demonstrate how theory can be used to grasp everyday experiences and struggles.

At times in this essay it might sound like it is the college educated revolutionaries who will teach the working class. As if the only relationship that can be developed with college educated militants is one of them as teachers and the working class militants as obedient students! What college-educated revolutionaries have to teach the working class is fairly limited today. Largely because of the degradation of revolutionary theory. In many ways, the working class is on its own and has been abandoned by the revolutionary left. But even if the college-educated militants did have things to teach, it would be a dynamic relationship between student and teacher. College educated people, especially from the middle class, will tend to have a leg up in terms of reading, writing, and speaking skills. There is no point in denying that. The question is, toward what ends are those skills used? Currently little of those skills are used to organize with working class revolutionaries.

To be clear: in no way is this meant to say that working class people can only learn through reading and writing. There are a thousand ways to learn and revolutionaries should ferociously support and develop all such ways. The only reason this piece is so one-sided is because many revolutionaries today are anti-intellectual, anti-reading, anti-writing etc., except when it comes to their private lives. The revolutionaries who argue in public against theory and reading, read and theorize privately!

So this essay was forceful in emphasizing key dimensions. Everyone learns through experience. And to be more precise, we learn through mass struggle and through our daily lived experiences. The challenge is to connect this to a broader understanding of capitalism, anti-capitalism, and revolution. Hard work to develop ourselves as better humans and revolutionaries is the only path forward.

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