The University Against Fascism

Mark Steven

Tear down the platforms.

The debate around permitting far-right speakers to lecture on university campuses is by now well worn. We all know how it plays out. Preachers from the right are invited onto campuses, resulting in mini Nuremberg rallies. Or else if they disinvite these speakers, they are pilloried for failing to uphold free speech absolutely and therefore being insufficiently liberal. In both scenarios, the real targets of fascism disappear from the narrative, ultimately creating a union of liberals and fascists.

Meanwhile, those of us who would see far right speakers disinvited and who want their rallies shut down and disrupted are forced again and again to make our case. When universities and their representatives insist on free speech for fascists, or indulge any sort of free speech absolutism, they are championing the very same people that would use their speech to legitimize, sanitize, and encourage violence—to silence others by force of terror. To insist that fascist views are up for debate not only enables fascism, it also reveals a willingness to debate the lives and livelihoods of fascism’s human targets. Against further development of these genocidal ideologies, antifascists insist upon “no-platforming,” a term and policy first developed in 1973 by the National Union of Students in the United Kingdom in their efforts to shut down members of the fascist National Front organizing on campuses.

In essence, no-platforming is a cordon sanitaire—a protective barrier—against fascism. Enforcing this policy means that invitations for right-wing and racist speakers must be forcibly withdrawn or prevented before they happen. It also means that university venues are made off-limits to any such speakers and, similarly, that fascist organizations are not allowed to have any physical presence on campus. No-platforming is eminently practical and emphatically not top-down; it is not the tool of university management but rather a democratic expression of collective will by means of pickets, blockades, noise, and disruption.

Despite no-platforming’s successful track record (neo-Nazi Richard Spencer explicitly cited the presence of consistent, disruptive Antifa demonstrations as the grounds for cancelling his 2018 college tour, for example) the so-called “free speech” debate is at a standstill. No-platformers continue to have to defend their tactics against the same old “free speech” platitudes. No-platforming arguments have been well made, again and again. They don’t need to be repeated here.

While we must expend our collective energies driving out fascists who recruit in our midst, the horizons for imagining a more profoundly anti-fascist university life are limited. No-platforming is ultimately necessary but also insufficient; it is a reactive, defensive tactic in want of communist strategy. Faced with the whack-a-mole challenge of shutting down each and every fascist campus rally, the question of what a university more thoroughly and essentially inhospitable to fascism could look like gets lost. No-platforming contingently turns the campus into an unwelcoming terrain for far-right recruiters, but only a drastic reorientation of the university and its role—a thoroughgoing communization—will render the institution incompatible with fascism.

Can the university be used to fight fascism? What does it mean to work or study at one against the gathering forces of fascism? How can we organize from a position within institutional power when the institution itself is aiding and abetting the enemy—when the institution is the enemy? Any worthwhile answers to these questions must begin with the collective realization that those of us working within the university or college system now face a redoubled imperative to make good on political responsibilities and opportunities.

Contrary to right-wing myths and in spite of small pockets of radical history, the university systems in the United States and United Kingdom are not, and have never been, institutions of the left. The higher-education industry is, above all, a bastion of status-quo maintenance; the university, especially in its most elite iterations, is an institution of capitalist hegemony: a corporation. This is what the French Marxist Louis Althusser sensed in 1970 when he claimed that the dominant ideological apparatus of mature capitalist social formation – that is, the way a ruling class reproduces its ideas – is no longer the church but, instead, the education system. And since fascism is not and has never been an aberration from capitalism, but rather continuous with it, it should be no surprise that the corporate institution of the university is amenable to fascistic ideology, even on the most diverse and seemingly left-wing campuses.

If the terrain of the university is to be truly wrested from the far right, the left will have to envisage and make good on the kind of anti-fascism that can only belong to a partisan, left-occupied university boasting radical education—a communist pedagogy. This means more than simply teaching communist ideas in capitalist sites of knowledge production. Lecturing on emancipatory ideas is not the same as generating the material conditions for emancipation.

The university has long served a conservative institutional role while housing a committed and active left. Some of us work and learn within the university because it can provide time, resources, and (sometimes) a living wage with which to develop and test critical and communist thinking. The university’s hospitality to the left is, however, restricted insofar as its business model is ultimately shaped by market imperatives. As literary critic Stefan Collini phrased it in 2012, “the greater part of public discourse about universities at present reduces to the following dispiriting proposition: universities need to justify getting more money and the way to do this is by showing that they help make more money.” This is the same dangerous logic that abjures real conflict with fascism and indulges free speech absolutism—lest a money-making entity alienate any one market—while also playing into the exclusions, resentments, and divisions of labor upon which fascism depends.

The fight for a communized university must therefore be a fight not only against the fascists and their ideology but also against the institution’s ties to the market. This fight would need to have, as its immediate goals, the abolition of fees and the provision of stipends; a meaningfully socialist commitment to community outreach programs; a transformation of the material conditions of academic labor; and a general cultural shift in what a university can and should be, and for whom it exists in the first place.

One path that action might take is to establish a counter-university within or around the standing institution. “Were academics to see ourselves as comrades,” notes political theorist Jodi Dean, who recently called for such action, “we would need to see ourselves on the same political side against, say, austerity-oriented, tax-cutting state governments and neoliberal, financialized, corporate-minded boards of trustees.” What is needed, then, is a forceful disruption of the university apparatus in the form of a secessionist program that develops dual power, the creation of an independent group that governs from within whilst vying for power against an established status quo. In practical terms, this would mean exploiting university resources—from buildings and technology through communities and expertise—to deliver a mass pedagogy outside of its structures of domination and exploitation. This is not a utopian program but something that is well within our grasp, because it is already enacted frequently in the form of teach-outs, teach-ins, and campus occupations whenever a university workforce goes on strike.

If strikes make our conflict with the institution visible, they also open up time and space for university work to be undertaken at a forcible remove from the university as market. The learning and teaching that takes place on and around the picket line is democratically open to all, reaching beyond the securitized and elitist institution. Here education is maintained and guarded by a collective whose interests are political and affirmative as opposed to financial and cynical. Moreover, the context of the strike—combining mutual care and open antagonism—orients all to social transformation, even if the demands of a strike tend towards the local and economistic. It is here, in the increasingly frequent moments of actual class conflict, that we might begin to reclaim and reconstruct the university under the sign of communism.

The recent wave of strikes organized by the University and Colleges Union (UCU) in the United Kingdom provides opportunities for this kind of teaching, learning, and social arrangement. My union branch, Exeter, in England’s southwest, was exemplary of this. Beyond the picket, striking workers and their comrades commandeered an old church, where we thought collectively about labor justice, trans solidarity, decolonization movements, and climate crises. There, poems were written, art was made, around two-hundred people were fed and watered, and a whole lot of money was raised for some good local causes. Organized according to strict communist principles—from each according to ability, to each according to need—this event and others like it serve as proof that a vastly different kind of university is within reach.

There’s also historical precedent for this form of university education tending towards revolution. It is precisely what took place in Russia during the “popular gatherings” in the autumn months of 1905, when, in Trotsky’s narrative, “for several weeks the doors of the universities remained wide open,” so that both students and non-students were freely educated in revolutionary thought. This situation culminated in “nothing more nor less than the all-Russian political strike—the strike which started over punctuation marks and ended by felling absolutism.” Today’s universities require nothing less than this transformative measure of reimagining, reinventing, and reenergizing themselves as commune and all of their participants as comrades if they are going to survive the fascist onslaught that is already upon us.

To make better sense of the call for a radically partisan university and for the institution’s rebirth as a commune with explicitly antifascist values, we might look to the writings of Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish intellectual whose thinking from the 1920s and ’30s was preoccupied with the cult of war that would ultimately lead to his death. That Benjamin was never employed as a university lecturer, having withdrawn his postdoctoral thesis over fear of its rejection by the academy, is perhaps a lesson in itself: teaching, for him, was a practical act that took place outside of the classroom or lecture hall.

There are two modes of education for Benjamin. On the one hand, colonial and capitalist. On the other, revolutionary, emancipatory, or communist. The former mode acclimates students to domination and immiseration, preparing them for a politics whose horizon is fascism. In contrast, a communist education is intended not only to counter these fascistic tendencies, but to model a kind of schooling that enkindles the desire for revolutionary emancipation from the cultural and economic system that gives rise to fascism in the first place. As its name suggests, communist pedagogy means anti-capitalist education, and not only or even necessarily anti-capitalism as a subject but instead anti-capitalism as the material form of teaching. For Benjamin, capitalist childhood education found its apotheosis in grotesquely wholesome-seeming institutions like the Boy Scouts, which would, in his time, mutate into the Hitler Youth. “What are the hidden but precise functions of elementary and vocational schools, militarism and Church, youth organizations and boy scouts, if not to act as the instruments of an anti-proletarian education for proletarians?” Benjamin wrote. “Communist education,” he continued, “is class struggle on behalf of the children that belong to this class and for whom it exists.” While Benjamin’s focus here was childhood education, his schema can be usefully applied to the functions of higher education.

As with communism proper, communist pedagogy takes proletarianization as the premise from which to proceed toward a revolutionary outcome; it begins with the collectively dispossessed in order to abolish dispossession itself, as opposed to striving for anything like class mobility for individuals or collectives. “Only if man experiences changes of milieu in all their variety,” Benjamin tells us, “and can mobilize his energies in service of the working class again and again and in every new context, will he be capable of that universal readiness for action which the program opposes to what Lenin called the ‘most repulsive feature of the old bourgeois society:’ its separation of theory and practice.” Understanding this emancipatory if not revolutionary imperative will help us grasp the essence of communist pedagogy: it not only resists but actively contradicts the fascist cooption of universities.

What Benjamin is saying here is that education’s essential experience refers to something that goes beyond anything available within capitalism. Unless it encourages us to think practically about the end of capitalism and about inhabiting an altogether different society, education is simply not worthy of its name. Radical structures of learning must urge their subjects to think and desire beyond the circumscribed variety of consumer choice, the cosmopolitan worldliness of travel, or a panoply of rarefied cultural fields and artefacts.

The university as commune proposes an entirely different social arrangement, wherein one must live one’s life into a new way of doing things. Concretely, this means relocating knowledge production from the safety of the classroom to known spaces of anti-capitalist social transformation: pickets, protests, occupations, unions, and other more specific means of mass organization. It means developing ways of thinking and communicating that don’t just include but begin with persons typically excluded from elite venues such as the research university—from immigrant workers to prison inmates to housewives and so on. It also means reevaluating the classroom, those elite venues, and the university in general as contiguous with a market society that will have to be overcome through riots, insurrection, and revolution.

Bringing academics and students as well as much wider communities into “universal readiness for action” involves developing the capacity to embrace, not just theoretically but also practically, the absolute transformation of social life. It requires us to offer a glimpse of life beyond capitalism and to provide some basic tools for getting there. To educate ourselves and others is to make that possibility both real and desirable—to develop a collective understanding of what change would mean concretely, in the emancipation of billions, but also of what it requires from all of us at the level of strategy, commitment, and action. This is not just an anti-fascist but also a communist vision of the university. It is a vision of what the university will have to become if it is to contribute to fascism’s defeat.