I’ve been meaning to put my thoughts on the role of intellectualism, education, and independent media for New Zealand socialists for a while now. Folk who know me well know I tread an awkward position denouncing both the barren anti-intellectualism that pervades New Zealand (to which the left is often no oasis) and the ivory towered academy. While this may seem wildly incoherent, and I admit it is sometimes unclear even to myself, the matter deserves (needs) serious consideration. Tearing down the walls of the academy, demolishing the paywalls and any other restrictions holding the collective weight of countless thousands of thinkers on an effectively endless number of topics, should be a basic demand of any socialist movement. I hardly see how this could be a controversial demand for the left, and it is in this that the distinction lies.
Intellectualism must be for everyone, and it should be enthusiastically supported by Kiwi comrades in the face of the bleak ‘pragmatic’ anti-intellectualism of New Zealand society. It is not out of consideration to say that intellectualism is in opposition to the academy itself, and it’s certainly the case that some of the fiercest of that very Kiwi anti-intellectualism I’ve ever encountered has been at university. This may seem anathema to the very idea of academic pursuit, but that would be to think that the university is much more than a for-profit specialist training center. High workloads and strict borders between subjects encourage students not to venture far beyond a niche chosen field. With that in mind English students believing pseudo-science, Chemistry students believing pseudo-history, or economics students being terrible at economics, all get a little easier to understand.
It is in this context that I make it plain that intellectual engagement must be front and center for Kiwi commos at present, especially given the prolonged degeneration of the socialist movement over the past three decades. Importantly, this need not mean putting a several foot high stack of books at the feet of those interested in socialist politics and wishing them good luck. While some core texts may be a reasonable expectation for eager beginners, the most important matter needs to be fostering an encouraging environment for intellectual engagement to take place. I don’t mean that to be a vague platitude. I mean that to be a concrete necessity. It entails the production of reading lists and readers on various topics; doing whatever possible to source as many texts as possible; the formation of reading groups in the long term that can annually introduce new people to particular texts; building welcoming and regular social events for people to casually discuss what they’ve been reading, listening to, or watching. It also has implications for leftist media, which I may get to writing about later.
In the clearest possible terms the left needs to ditch prolier-than-thou rejection of theory, hyper-activist admonishment for spending time reading rather than BUILDING THE MOVEMENT, and at the other end the snide elitism of impossibly dense, thoroughly useless bongrip academy speak. What must be done is to meet people where they’re at, and actually go somewhere from there. It should be no surprise that I’m rather taken to the model of the Canterbury Socialist Society. It is precisely the focus on the intersection of social and educational events that make an engaging and open intellectualism not only possible but fairly welcoming to those simply curious about socialist politics. Such a model is easy target for accusations of Armchair Marxism, and so be it. Not only is the armchair rather comfortable, it’s bloody well necessary. More so in this period of advanced decay than ever.
Social events can’t just be a recruitment trap to bring in fresh coal for the boiler of the activist sect, it burns people out and leaves them disillusioned to ever reengaging in socialism as an intellectual school or a political movement. There need to be socialist institutions which consistently maintain regular social and educational functions, quite separate from but preferably on good terms with activist bodies. It must be the case that people are simply allowed to down a pint and chat about a podcast they’re listening to or an essay they just read, without feeling the overwhelming weight of expectation to go sell papers or hand out branded placards at a march. Throwing people straight into the activism circuit often entails demands of time far higher than could reasonably be expected alongside consistent education efforts to introduce them to the ideas of socialism in any seriously vigorous sense. More often than not there seems to be a weariness to trying to get people to read into theory deeper than broad introductions to particular topical events of the day. At worst spending time just exploring and debating the intellectual archives of socialism is directly rejected as an elitist expectation to have of working people. How this logically implies anything beyond the presupposition that proles are all morons who don’t and won’t read escapes me, and the whole matter often strikes me as extraordinarily insulting if not wildly out of touch.
These institutions can start small, little more than the drinking clubs in Christchurch and Dunedin (which, disclosure, I’m involved with) or discussion groups on any number of topics that socialists might take an interest in. It should be hoped that they grow both in the numerical sense (more clubs, in smaller towns or multiple per city) and structural (more ambitious educational efforts). A specific program might aim to have social clubs in all major cities, with reading groups and education initiatives coordinated at a national level. Such forums could supersede sectional divisions among the far left without falling on impotent calls for left unity that fail to acknowledge actually existing ideological and interpersonal differences among what’s left of the socialist movement.
Some level of national coordination could be vital in ensuring support for educational initiatives in towns with smaller numbers of interested people, or inexperienced people who need the help from those more familiar with the theory and organisation. Reading guides, readers on various topics, or reading groups organised online are all perfectly possible at present but only intermittently exist across the country – often in isolation. Being able to help interested people scattered throughout smaller centers by coordinating particular readings that have high interest at a national level will be of great use to those isolated individuals in less active towns. Small things like sourcing the material for free or connecting people to others interested in it will go a long way in getting people outside the high walls of the academy involved in intellectual debate. Most anyone can read (or listen!) to this material if they have the support of those who’ve gone before, and the more people who are actually engaging seriously with the ideas of socialism the better.
Such an education initiative would not just involve endless Capital reading groups ad infinitum. Necessarily it should develop to conduct educational lectures, and be able to host tours at a national level. Indeed producing programs of classes on political economy, theory and history which are contextually relevant to New Zealand or Pacific conditions are a decent aim. This indeed could and should have an eye toward reinvigorating (perhaps modernising) the workers education initiatives once conducted by unions on a mass scale, the fortunes of which have declined alongside the unions themselves.
It is likely the case that much could be gained from the feminist consciousness-raising model of the 1960s-’70s. Specifically, it must be said, because it created a site of politically intellectual development where the shop-floor organising of union militants was simply not an option. It indicates the possibility of fostering or reviving left-wing intellectualism in the conditions of a precipitous & prolonged downturn in industrial struggle, in which ‘organic intellectuals of the working class’ are perhaps less likely to spontaneously arise. Furthermore, having the educational (as well as social) infrastructure in place to accommodate any growth in social struggle is probably more vital than having the activist infrastructure to absorb the keen and the curious into the cogs of endless movements. I’m not meaning to bash the dedicated activists too hard, nor to argue that activism is entirely useless. Whatever my myriad critiques of activism or ‘the activist’ as a social role, it is still a necessary column of political activity for the socialist movement. But I have to say that a socially welcoming and intellectually open movement is one we should be aiming for. One which allows the flourishing of socialism as a project in pubs, cafés, and lounge rooms; as much as one of the streets, institutions, and workplaces.