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Can Marx retake the academy?

With interest in Ralph Miliband’s work high after the Mail’s attack, could Marxism regain academic ascendency? asks Martin McQuillan

Dale Edwin Murray opinion illustration (17 October 2013)

Source: Dale Edwin Murray

Before the Daily Mail began to take an interest, the academic writing of Ralph Miliband was, for the most part, sitting neglected on some of the more obscure shelves of our university libraries. However, thanks to the newspaper’s notorious depiction of him earlier this month as “The man who hated Britain”, the distributors of his books in the UK are now reporting that they have sold out of his oeuvre.

This might not be quite the outcome the Mail had in mind when it published its article as a way to attack his son, the Labour leader Ed Miliband, during the party’s conference. But now that the media circus has moved on, how likely is it that the spike in readership posthumously enjoyed by the former University of Leeds and London School of Economics academic will spell a sustainable resurgence in the Marxist sociology of which he was a leading light in the 1960s and 1970s?

In those days, Marxism was a dominant idiom within the humanities and social sciences, and Ralph Miliband was widely read alongside fellow heavyweights of academic socialism E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. It was a time of social change, when progressive voices were much more closely aligned to an explicit reading of Marx as the pre-eminent resource for political commentary. Despite what the Mail claims, socialist academics were not (for the most part) apologists for the Soviet Union. Rather, they sought to retain a supple social critique that explicitly condemned Stalinist totalitarianism and distanced itself from the Communist Party of Great Britain. The mature title of the journal founded by Miliband and several others in 1960, New Left Review, is a clear reference to that desire for an alternative radicalism.

Those times are long gone, but their disappearance owes more to the questions that feminism, post-structuralism and post-colonialism asked of the narrative of class struggle than it does to the fall of the Berlin Wall and decades of Reaganism, Thatcherism and Blairite economics. The humanities and social sciences now have a broader and more nuanced range of critical concepts to draw on for social critique. An identifiable Marxist inheritance remains within academic social analysis, but the unreconstructed and the undeconstructed are now an ever-shrinking minority.

This has been compounded in the UK by the rise of research assessment audits, robust university research management and regimes of inspection – including Ofsted in schools of education – which have led many university departments to eschew theoretical social commentary in favour of conventional disciplinary scholarship. For instance, the official reason for the University of Birmingham’s controversial closure of its world-famous Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in 2002 was its desire to concentrate its efforts on mainstream sociology.

Since the economic crisis of 2008, a version of academic Marxism has enjoyed something of a mini-revival. The new Maoism of thinkers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek has a dedicated, if limited, following. As celebrity academics, they regularly pack out lecture theatres and set the agenda on some course reading lists. Academic publishers in the humanities are keen on the works of such critical superheroes, whose radicalism appeals to a generation of graduate students facing uncertain career prospects in a global economy. The more complex the moment, the more appealing the seemingly simple answer becomes, and communism is once again being discussed in the more outré seminar rooms.

This is in contrast to the new McCarthyism afoot in political circles and the right-wing media. The personal and distorted nature of the Mail’s attack on Ralph Miliband seems to have something in common with the “birther” movement in the US, which attacks Barack Obama for not being a “natural-born” US citizen despite all evidence to the contrary. The US president, who has an academic background at the University of Chicago Law School, is also regularly and absurdly labelled a Marxist by the American Right. For his part, Ed Miliband was at pains to point out in his outraged response to the Mail that while he loved his father, the leader of the modern Labour Party did not share the scholar’s commitment to radical socialism.

Meanwhile, the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, writing in the Mail in March, felt sufficiently emboldened (or threatened) to condemn a mass of “Marxist” teachers and academics as “the enemies of promise”. This vulgar use of the term “Marxism” is, of course, a politicised and opportunistic term of abuse. Sadly, it is more revealing of the low tone of media debate and political spin than of the real extent of Marxist and critical thought in the modern humanities and social sciences. As well as the new Maoists, there are some excellent thinkers on public sociology and progressive social criticism writing in universities today, but they are fewer in number than in the past and are certainly not calling for the imminent establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. That said, the Mail and Gove might come to regret rattling the crypt of academic Marxism: if sales of Ralph Miliband’s works are anything to go by, it may be the quickest way to conjure a spectre that could yet haunt the academy again.

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