What does it mean to be an academic / activist?
Or in other words, in relation to the title of my presentation, “what is to be done to be an academic /activist?”
I believe that in the world of today, being an activist as well as an academic is combining the theory and the practice of constant critic and mobilization for a society that respects democratic and social rights. I understand this struggle in within a framework of Universalist and humanist principles.
In my opinion, this created dichotomy between activist and academics, where a line is drawn treating intellectuals as the patriarchs and activists as the hapless masses who are in desperate need of direction , should not exist,. On the opposite, there is a truly dialectal relationship between the two that should not be dismissed or ignored.
The activist / academic should constantly be challenging mainstream ideologies, as well as prejudices and discrimination produced by the system of the ruling power. The activist academic’s role is to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma, to be someone that cannot be easily co-opted by governments and corporations, and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are forgotten or discriminated. Activist academic Howard Zinn was right when he said that to obey a government without questioning it is to basically act or behave against democracy.
In addition, an activist academic is someone who participates actively in the struggle, in being actively part of building movements against any kind of oppression, injustice and exploitation. He comes along and brings support for example to the workers or students in their strikes or occupations whether being in the streets, in their work places and universities. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu for example in 1970 came to a demonstration in the packed train station of Lyon and made a speech supporting the rail workers, while some academics in SOAS taught in the occupation zone. The activist academic supports the various protests and social movements by delivering to them as well the theoretical arguments or weapons to struggle against their adversaries, not in an elitist way but in a constant rationale of dialectal exchange.
The theoretical basis of such model of activist academic comes from Antonio Gramsci. He was an activist, organizer of the Italian working class movement, member of the Italian Communist Party and an academic, a social analyst. He was imprisoned by Mussolini’s regime from 1926 to 1937 and at his trial actually, Gramsci’s prosecutor stated: “For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning”. They knew the threat he represented to the fascist system.
Gramsci used to define the democratic philosopher, which we could understand as an activist academic; as the philosopher convinced that his personality is not limited to himself as a physical individual but is an active social relationship of modification of the cultural environment. The democratic philosopher should not be viewed or defined in terms of separation from the life of the people but as an expressive element of that life which it aims to cultivate, increasing its capacity for active relations of knowledge and practice.
He also argued the way new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence or restricted to its ivory tower, but in joining actively in practical life, as constructor, organizer, and permanently active persuader among the masses.
Gramsci would defend the role of active academic on the field, writing about the way the philosophy of praxis does not tend to leave the “simple” people in their primitive philosophy of senso commune, but rather it tends to conduct them to a superior conception of life: exigency of contact between the intellectuals and the people, in order to construct an intellectual moral bloc that renders politically possible a mass progress and not only a progress of small intellectual groups.
Their role, Gramsci said, is to become permanently active persuaders, engaged in demonstrating the capacity of the practices of one group hegemony, in his case the proletarian, to form the basis for a new society. These permanently active persuaders find their intellectual resources in their organic integration with the masses, in a reciprocal relationship of democratic pedagogy in which intellectuals with the social function of an intellectual are at least as often the educated as the educators. They are intellectuals who are organically the intellectuals of these masses, working out and making coherent the principles and problems which the masses have posed in their own practical activity.
The activist academic has two main components in order to play a significant role in society.
Firstly, the research we make are our main tools to raise awareness and knowledge, as well as to oppose or not to let half truths, received ideas and prejudice steer one along and form full lies. The French singer Jean Ferrat, who was close to the Communist Party and a humanist, used to have a song called “je ne chante pas pour perdre mon temps”, which meant I don’t sing to waste my time. Jean Ferrat in his songs used to criticize society, as well as the Stalinism of the USSR. We, as activist academic, do research also not to waste time but to challenge mainstream ideologies and clichés. We use our research as a tool to build our argumentation for change.
Research from activists academics are crucial to support arguments with opposite bodies, especially in our times when we have to face so called bureaucratic or technical decisions as put forward by ruling powers and ideologies. The depoliticization of politics, that is the conversion of formerly expressly political debates into purely bureaucratic or technical questions, is used by the ruling elites to prevent or tear down opposition. We can observe this phenomenon in the so called structural economic adjustment implemented around the world directly advised and pushed by IMF and World Bank’s institutions presented as technical policies and not politically directed. Our research has to show that the objectives of these policies are to implement neo-liberal policies which impoverish societies as a whole and where only a small minority serving foreign financial and political interests profits from it. The current uprisings and revolutions in the Arab world are partially a revolt against the neo liberal policies that harmed considerably the people in the region.
We should also denounce the economic austerities measures put forward by the current English government of David Cameron presented as inevitable and necessary, which is not the truth and are actually a neoliberal attack on the welfare state.
These so called bureaucratic or technical decisions are actually very often implemented in the interests of a small minority group or to discriminate some sections of the society, assisted also by other academics serving the interests of a group.
Gramsci actually did put it blankly “there does not exist an independent class of intellectuals, but every class has its intellectuals.” Intellectuals do not form a homogeneous social group distinct from social classes. We do have today a lot of intellectuals or academics that sell their services between the intellectual marketing in the press and advices to the Prince.
The conservative academics Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis were for example consulted by President Georges Bush for their advices in term of foreign politics, of which we see the catastrophic results.
In Harvard University, Professor Alan Dershowitz constantly defends the interest and the wars of the racist, settler and colonial State of Israel. He has presented the different wars of aggression of Israel, and especially the 2006 war on Lebanon, as a right to defend itself.
In France in 1995, when 2 millions of demonstrators were in the street to protest against a plan to reform the Social security and pensions suggested by the Prime minister of the time Alain Juppé, we had two groups of intellectuals opposing themselves. The first ones were a group of intellectuals close to the government and the ideas of neo liberalism saluting these reforms while the second one denouncing this anti social reform gathered researchers, university teachers, unions and associations members.
Academics activists should use their research as a way to legitimate and justify the struggle of social and anti imperialist movements, as well as to raise awareness and knowledge among the mass, and not only the students.
How to break now this barrier between activist and academia?
Activist academic should participate directly and actively on the ground and in building movements. Activists academic should not restrict themselves to speak or make conference in academic frameworks with only specific academics and students. They should reach people from all the strata of the society, going in workplaces, community centers, schools and elsewhere.
Georges Tarabichi, a Syrian scholar and activist, said that to reach the masses, make our message go through and mobilize people, we have to go where people gather, and he added if this means going into mosques or churches as well we should go, a direct message to some leftists, at the time considering at the time there should not go in so called “retrograde places”. There is always a need to spread knowledge and not only produce it, otherwise it has no utility.
Nowadays, we cannot say unfortunately in many ways that the academics form a “counter intellectual society”, the way it was in the beginning of the 20th century the cadres school of the German social democrat or later the one of the French Communist party. These institutions established a permanent link between political leaderships, ideas producers and mobilized social forces. Following the second world war, the influence of the French communist party weakened considerably in the higher education, notably due to Stalinism, a destructive characteristic where no innovation and democratic debates are allowed. Also, the decline of training centers inside unions undermined considerably the last refuge of organic intellectuals from the labour movement.
Unfortunately, we have to say that there is a silence of some academics also on a number of issues, due to different reasons. Some academics are obviously more interested in academics advancement than the outside world, for two main reasons: personal interests or the threat to sound too controversial or too political.
Edward Said explains very well this feeling in the following quote:
“Nothing in my mind is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political, you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.
For an intellectual these habits of mind are corrupting per excellence. If anything can denature, neutralize, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life it is the internalization of such habits. Personally I have encountered them in one of the toughest of all contemporary issues, Palestine, where fear of speaking out about one of the greatest injustices in modern history has hobbled, blinkered, muzzled many who know the truth and are in a position to serve it. For despite the abuse and vilification that any outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights and self determination earns for him and her, the truth deserves to be spoken, represented by an unafraid and compassionate intellectual.”
There is need to change this, to see activists academics play again a leading role in society and social movements. Academic activists cannot take a back seat when policies impoverishing, discriminating and harming people are implemented. They have to react by producing knowledge and spread it, in other words play an important role in the resistance.
Two personal case-studies in my activist academic experience
I have been involved in the Palestine cause for a few years now and especially in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the State of Israel. I consider that our research must show the ongoing and daily violation of Human rights by the State of Israel for more than 60 years. We need through our research to denounce and condemn the crimes of Apartheid, colonization, its denial of the right of return and put an end to the rhetoric of Israeli officials and western Medias that the Zionist State is the only democracy in the region. It is not a democracy.
Secondly, as academic activists, we have to be involved in an international movement, such as BDS, to refuse the normalization with the state of Israel until it fulfills the rights of the Palestinians. It is important that we, academic activists, take a clear stand, just as in the past with the movement against South Africa Apartheid State, for justice, equality and international rights. We, for example, should not accept welcoming any academics affiliated with Israeli state institutions, which support the colonial and Apartheid State and who is not speaking in his personal capacity, in our universities, just as we refused university teacher from South Africa Apartheid State institutions in the past.
My second experience as activist academic was and is still in the British student movement. The State is actually resigning of its role to deliver education to all; creating a system where only the most privileged would have access to higher education. They also want to assess each department and branches of education to observe their economic profitability, and if a department is not, it should be suppressed or greatly diminish. Not only is Education no longer considered a public good and a human right, but is gauged on its economic profitability. Anyway, what could we expect from a government which is composed of 22 millionaires on 29 ministers, claiming the hand on the heart that “we are all together facing the cuts”. I am quite sure they are not feeling the cuts in public services and education the same way than the British people. Other financial resources are as well ignored by the government such as the tax area where the firm Vodafone has let off a potential £6bn tax bill. The money also spent to wave imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which had been catastrophic in terms of humans’ lives in these countries, could have been used for the education sector in the UK. We should also observe the current government with more than 40 representatives of arms companies is on a trip to the Middle East, which just witnessed two revolutions, to sell weapons to authoritarian regimes that will use them to repress their people.
This is why, we academic activists, started to occupy a part of our university, organize demonstrations, actually four in less than a month gathering more than 25000 people each time. We did teach out in train stations, as well as conferences in the occupation zone. The next step should now to organize and build with other sectors of the society a large movement against this government and the cuts, such as the Coalition of Resistance. We need to show the people that alternative policies are possible and that these neo liberal policies are destructive for the society. We should also mobilize people to demonstrate on the 26th of March to demand the end of this government.
In conclusion, I believe academic / activist is an interconnected relationship, but it was unfortunately a tradition lost through the years. The truth need to be outspoken, silence in front of injustice is not possible, just as Gramsci said: in politics of the masses, to say the truth is a political necessity.
We need to put an end to this identity conflict between the academic activist, and this means going back in the streets and elsewhere to be part of the resistance. We want our universities as well to be centers of resistance, just like they were in Tunisia in the Revolution, because it is in the struggle that we learn the more. The Ben Ali regime actually closed universities, because of their active role in the revolution, few days before his resignation in an attempt to prevent more uprisings. I hope to see the same in England few days before the 26th of March, government closing universities; this would mean we did a good job in transforming our campuses in centers of resistance like the Tunisians and others.
Finally I would end on this quote of Karl Marx, which in my opinion represent well our role or dilemma as activist –academic: the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.