Kuhn & Lauesen (2018) - Radical Theory and Academia: A Thorny Relationship

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Quotes from this article.

If we take a historical perspective, the impact of academics on radical theory has been marginal.

This is largely true.


Overall, the relationship between struggles on the ground and academia is a complicated one. There are barriers in both directions. We meet academic arrogance as much as vulgar anti-intellectualism. At times, it seems that we are dealing with two parallel worlds with very little interaction and no common political commitment.

One issue I have with this is that how we view and define "vulgar anti-intellectualism." I say this because I've been called "anti-intellectual" for critiquing academics and universities, especially considering how they do little to nothing in the face of the precarity of their institution. They also rarely speak up about the multiple abuses academia participates in. People like myself, who realise that academia is not a necessary institution and believe in full school abolition, often get put in the same box as people who are genuinely anti-intellectual.

Also, even groups that are consistently "anti-intellectual" (see: fascists) still support people they deem as "intellectuals" because they put forward research that supports the fascists. People need a more nuanced view of anti-intellectualism.

But academic arrogance is astoundingly common and does not fuel helpful relationships between themselves and people on the ground. Even academics have realised this, as there are people who have done what they could to bring their work to the community, to organise with their communities, and to support causes that support people.


As a consequence of the student and youth rebellions, radical theory became an academic career path. The decade saw a boom in the publication of academic books and journals edited by Marxists. Even when the overall appeal of Marxism decreased in the 1980s, this trend continued, as a significant number of Marxists had entered the ranks of academia. Today, this is true even for anarchists who were almost entirely absent from academia until the 1990s. Today’s two best-known anarchists, Noam Chomsky and David Graeber, are both academics. Only in the Global South does the personal union of militant and theorist still exist, exemplified by the likes of Subcommandante Marcos or Abdullah Öcalan.

I think, as well as the radical theory becoming an academic career path, the fact that a lot of academics saw themselves as the radical students and assumed that because they moved into positions as academics? They were still creating change in the world rather than further cementing their position in a system that co-opted a lot of work and research, watering down a lot of ideas and actions.

As much as I adore Graeber's work (and it is fantastic), I think there is an irony in how he and Chomsky became the 'voice of anarchism' at different times. Especially Chomsky, who had some questionable takes that didn't really align with basic anarchism. (Side note: I do need to spend some time re-reading Chomsky. Also, I need to go back and review both Subcommandante Marcos and Abdullah Öcalan. Among many others.)

Probably in the vein of "bad for Chomsky," a bunch of dorks look to him as the authority on anarchism, which is a whole fucking irony of not understanding anarchism. In that regard, I feel bad for the man.


It is no coincidence that the conflict ended with neoliberalism finalizing the distinction between struggling and thinking about struggling. Neoliberalism turned universities into market places of self-promotion rather than terrains of intellectual growth.

Because I don't know many people who went to university prior to the 1980s (I was the first person to attend and graduate university in my immediate family, and I was the first to get a Masters degree; the only other people in my family who attended university were two cousins who were 3 and 5 years older than me), I want to know how true this statement is. Were universities ever really "terrains of intellectual growth?"

I say this because the history of schools and universities often indicates that they weren't, and many of the people that I've read seem to show that the people who saw them as such were either left alone to do whatever they wanted (more or less) or had to fight in order to do the work they wanted to do. In the former case, they saw little to no issue with how things were operating (because it worked for them and they were part of the dominant culture); in the latter case, the people recognised that it was their fight that allowed them to have that "intellectual space."


When academia takes control, theoretical work shifts form and content. Today, the term political is almost an antonym to the term scholarly. Academics fear that political engagement discredits them. They write exclusively for a small circle of other academics. The question of “What is to be done?” is no longer raised, let alone attempted to be answered.

This keeps making me ask the same set of questions: Who made a big deal about politics in schools? Who continually kept claiming that schools shouldn't be political? And did they recognise their work as political? Did they recognise an ability to "be apolitical" as being political? Did they not see their work as inherently political?

These always need to be addressed, I think. We really need to point out the root cause for this.


Academic publishing has become a lucrative industry. Paywalls separate an exclusive academic audience from the rest of us. To read academic articles, we must “pay per view.” Alternatively, academic authors must > pay up to USD 3000 to make a piece publicly accessible. This is particularly odd if we consider that the salaries of academics, and the infrastructure they use, are largely paid for by the public. So, while the public is denied access to the work it has financed, private publishing companies cash in on poorly produced and heavily overpriced publications that collect dust on the shelves of university libraries. In order to publish in respected academic journals and presses, academics also have to agree to formal demands that further alienate ordinary folks. It is therefore not surprising that the vast majority of academic articles circulates among a couple of hundred professionals at best, satisfying only the economic interests of parasitic publishing companies and the reproduction of a self-involved intellectual elite.

When I critique academics, this is kind of something I go back and forth on. I recognise that their work is often difficult to make freely available because of the structures they're doing it in.

But I also wonder: How much of a fight is going on about this? I rarely see tenured academics putting up a fight on this front. Instead, the only people I've heard discuss this include people working on their PhD (such as @johntheduncan, who openly said that his institution "doesn't even pay for lecturers" to have their work published in open access journals while recalling discussing the possibility of making his own work freely available).

If academics want to claim they're "part of a movement," they need to be breaking down the walls of their institution while learning that their career simply may not exist by doing so. (But that the world will be better off for it by making learning openly accessible to all.)


One of the reasons we don’t know is that these questions are often sidestepped. People seem afraid of stepping on each others’ toes. There is an esprit de corps in all social circles, academic ones included, and this affects even radical academics. No one dares to cast the first stone, because everyone sits in the same glass house. It is striking that people who passionately come to the defense of open access and commons against the norms and values of neoliberalism turn very pragmatic when their most immediate environment is concerned.

This last part is largely why I have so much disdain for academics (as a group). I also think this element is what made someone like David Graeber so widely appreciated among many anarchists; he showed up, he put his own career on the line for his values, and he paid for it in the US academic circles (where he couldn't find employment).

He wasn't perfect by any means, but that's an example that more academics need to be following.


We have no detailed knowledge of the professional and personal situation of individual academics and cannot judge their choices. We don’t know how much they resist the tendencies discussed above in their daily work. But there seems to be no concerted effort to name, denounce, and alter these tendencies, and, subsequently, very little collective resistance.

This is, again, why I have such a problem with academics as a group, and I genuinely find the same amount of frustration for those who call themselves anarchists and academics. If you are not organising to make learning accessible, what is the point? There are people with fewer resources and more to lose fighting for what you should be, and we're often met with disdain from academics.

Do not think it is lost on me that early years, primary, and secondary teachers often face incredible amounts of disgust and condescension from academics but that they are suddenly making a bit more noise now that Critical Race Theory bills are going out and it impacts them, too. Academics rarely show solidarity with those they see as "beneath" them, and this has to change. And this also applies to anarchist academics.

Note: I'm glad there is more solidarity, but this needs to be consistent and wide. People with tenure need to do a hell of a lot more to support the people in their very institutions who are put into positions of precarity and poverty existence. They need to stand up more for more people who are targeted and break the institution when it shits on someone. Until that's there, I cannot feign happiness over one instance where they're doing something where it also impacts them directly.


Yet, throughout history, workers with much more to lose – and with much less ideological pretense – have found ways to protest. They unionized, they organized campaigns, they engaged in sabotage and direct action. Why is this seemingly no option for radical academics? A common response to anti-academic sentiments is that the struggle needs to be everywhere, also in academia. That is a valid argument – as long as there is indeed any struggle in academia.


Other radical academics have become prominent enough to act as celebrity supporters – or even unofficial spokespeople – of social movements. The above-mentioned Noam Chomsky and David Graeber are examples, and so are Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek, or Vandana Shiva. Radical celebrities serve a purpose, and we are glad that the media grants them a platform to voice their opinions. But celebrities are by definition exceptions to the rule. They do not change the pattern. And, at times, they distract from the problem.


A list of suggestions for moving forward:

1/ There is no radical theory without practical experience. Theoretical work cannot be separated from movements against capitalism and imperialism. It must respond to the questions posed by struggles on the ground. We cannot afford non-activist theory.

There is no way that theory can be developed without on-the-ground knowledge and experience.

It's also relevant to say that academics need to stop co-opting the work of marginalised people on-the-ground, particularly as they are so often the people that academia dismisses and excludes. Make it known who you are working with and whose work you're pulling from; stop making it about your own career.

2/ There is no radical practice without theoretical reflection. We must evaluate the effects of our struggles and reflect on our experiences. We cannot afford anti-theoretical activism.

I think there is so frequently a misunderstanding of what people mean when they say that they're "doing praxis" or "doing practical work" instead of theory, and it needs to be recognised that a lot of people who've been intentionally excluded from the spaces that "create theory" without practical knowledge feel that their practice is grounded in the theory they learned on the ground.

Which is true.

Yes, activists need to spend more time reflecting (everyone does) and may need to work together to build theoretical practice (which is fine), but I think we need a better understanding of how activists feel excluded (especially people from marginalised and historically excluded communities).

3/ Radical theory must contribute to radical practice. Its purpose is not to understand things, but to change things. This requires the development of strategy and tactics.

I think it's worth repeating something that Francisco Ferrer once wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed: "Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed – even in part – the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world."

He also provided an 'equation', which is: Action + Reflection > word = work = praxis Sacrifice of action = verbalism Sacrifice of reflection = activism

4/ We must raise our view. The outside of academia is much more interesting and relevant than the inside of it. Radical theory must not be limited by academic conventions, disciplines, and norms.

Precisely this. Being outside of academia also allows us to free ourselves from the walls everyone has built (that only continue to get smaller as people seek to carve out careers as much as humanly possible).

5/ We must actively seek out non-academic sources. Many of them are excluded from academia due to geographical, cultural, or language-related reasons only.

Seek out and not co-opt from. There are far too many academics to actively steal work and take credit from it.

And it's not even that many of the people they steal from ask for credit, but it should just be considered proper behaviour to include them and make people aware of the people you're working with instead of claiming their work as your own. Not only should academics seek out non-academic sources (and include them), they need to treat them with respect.

6/ We must defy the formal restrictions put on academic work, since they confine the contents.

Most definitely.

7/ We must change the academic environment itself. It must be freed from the yoke of both the state and capital. Academia must be seen as the institution of power it has become. Today, “academic freedom” mainly refers to relative personal privilege, not a space of free intellectual development.

By change, we really should encourage everyone to actively dismantle the institution. These institutions are now claiming they're "decolonising," but they're built on colonialism. (This is a paraphrased version of this tweet by Judicaelle Irakoze.)

8/ We must be aware of and counteract the impact that hierarchies of class, gender, and race put on the production of radical theory. This effort must be led by those affected by them.

Agreed, and we really need to include other axes of oppressions: ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and casteism.

9/ We must make academic work accessible to everyone. There needs to be free access to libraries and conferences, and free distribution of academic writing.

Yes! 100% yes. And we need to include non-academic work. We also need to stop holding people up as celebrities and figures.

10/ We must establish counter-institutions, that is, places and networks that allow for scholarly work beyond academic restrictions.

Learning centers, study groups, everything. We need spaces of education to be based in community, which is something that academia (and schools) most certainly are not and will never be.