Has Karl Marx left the university?

The last two decades have not been good for the status of Karl Marx in the university system. As communism fell in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, institutes of higher education named after its founder were quickly re-named, and university programmes focusing on Marx’s writings and theories were either dropped or had their frames of reference changed radically. Some academics who used Marxian (or more likely, Marxist) analysis in their teaching or research either recanted or made subtle changes to show awareness that the world in general had abandoned Marx and moved on. And then Francis Fukuyama, in his book The End of History and the Last Man, finally suggested that the ideological warfare in which Marxism had been one of the key perspectives was irreversibly over.

Karl Marx, who was born 190 years ago this year, had actually intended to be an academic, and was prevented from following this career path only because he had already acquired the reputation of being a radical. But it is in universities in particular that his influence was most keenly felt in Western European countries after the Second World War. Quite apart from the scholars who devoted themselves to studying Marx and the theories which he initiated, many others used Marxism as a tool of analysis in a whole host of other areas and disciplines, including sociology, law, literature, politics, arts – even science and engineering. This cluster of academic Marxism within the academy was able to observe various campaigns, parties and movements in the outside world that were heavily influenced by Karl Marx – in the trade union movement, in politics, in voluntary organisations and elsewhere. If you lived your intellectual life inside this cluster, you could easily believe – say, in the mid-1970s – that the final victory of Marxism was only a short distance away.

But even then, if you were at least a little detached from the movement, you could see signs that it would not be quite that easy. For a start, Marxism (and in particular the Marxism that was visible in universities) was extraordinarily faction-ridden. Every Marxist movement had its disciples, its martyrs, its heretics, its detractors, its traitors and its sworn enemies who were all also Marxists, or said they were. Marxism had its parties, its societies, its ‘tendencies’ and so forth, often serving up a bewildering array of impenetrable theory and with a strong body of demonology – of people and groups who had betrayed the faith. 

And yet, Marxism was a powerful intellectual force. When I was a young lecturer in industrial relations in the 1980s, some of the academic writers I most admired were Marxist. Richard Hyman, for example (then in Warwick, now at LSE in London), wrote accessible but extremely well argued books and articles that influenced generations of academics, most of whom would not have adopted Marxism as a frame of reference. Where Marxism itself often appeared intellectually forbidding, Marxist academics were able to stimulate debate and sharpen discourse in a way that benefited higher education very considerably. So for example, Marxist analysis of literature by writers such as Terry Eagleton produced a rich intellectual rejuvenation in that field; and Helena Sheehan produced a fascinating history of Marxism and the philosophy of science.

But after the fall of the Berlin Wall the fire largely went out in the Marxist camp, and many Marxist academics actually quietly abandoned Marx and moved on. Every so often, someone pops up to suggest that there is now a brighter future for Marxist analysis – see e.g. Andrew Levin in his 2003 book A Future for Marxism? – but the question mark betrays the continuing lack of confidence in the project. Some others argue – like the feminist academic Nancy Fraser – that there is a future for Marxism in a post-Marxian context that will focus on gender and race rather than class.

I suspect that Marxism will never return, either to the universities or indeed to political life, and that the analysis of Marx and the theories he influenced will mainly have an historical dimension. But a significant part of me regrets that – not because I am in favour of Marxism, but because Marxism was a good framework for the assessment of alternative views of a number of branches of learning. Higher education without ideology loses a lot of its analytical punch, and scholarship loses out in that setting. Politically, I would never wish to turn the clock back; but a part of me feels nostalgic for the old days of fiery debates. Maybe we need to find some new frames of reference that can restore some of the edginess that gives academic discourse its real energy.

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4 Comments on “Has Karl Marx left the university?”


  1. Perhaps marxism isn’t gone just yet.

    Some of us never went away, you know.

    Although I have not quite got the measure of it yet, there is something of a revival going on, if I can judge by the number of invitations I get to speak about it these days and the new interest being expressed by younger academics at some of these conferences and events.

    Marxism still has an explanatory and ethical power beyond anything else on the horizon.

    We could definitely do with more of that energy and edginess that you (and I) miss.

  2. Patrick Kinsella Says:

    Perhaps our president is more of a marxist than he realises, judging by this technologically determinist extract from a previous post of on this blog:

    “I continued on PCs in DCU from 2000, but began to look again at Macs after the arrival of OS X (and Steve Jobs was back, Hallelujah). I began to realise how much I missed Apple, and how the quality of my thinking and writing had deteriorated while I was on PCs.”

    Quality of thinking determined by type of machine (or: operating system and GUI)?


  3. Patrick Kinsella has reason to know better. Marxism is not technological determinism.


  4. David Harvey, Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York (CUNY), has been teaching Marx’s Capital Volume I for nearly 40 years. Now his entire course is being made available for free online at:

    http://davidharvey.org


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