Posted tagged ‘Marxism’

Guest blog: Dissidence

January 18, 2010

By Helena Sheehan

Until her retirement last year, Helena Sheehan was an Associate Professor in the School of Communications, Dublin City University. Her personal website can be found at

When Ferdinand asked me to do a guest blog here, it was to provide a dissenting point of view. This has provoked me to reflect on the subject of dissidence.

The image of the dissident is either that of the heroic critic of dictatorial regimes who may be martyred or imprisoned for their outspoken views or else that of a cynic or crank who is weary of the world and would never be satisfied with anything. However, much dissidence is neither. I want to focus not so much on the grand gestures, but on the everyday reality of dissidence, dissidence that is serious, rational, engaged with the world, not dissenting for the sake of dissent.

Let me take three broad areas in which thinking and engaging with the world has forced me into a life of dissidence.

1)    Religion. I am an atheist. Although I was once a fervent catholic, my philosophical development led me to consider the arguments for the existence of God, to reject theism and to come to an alternative view of how the world came to be. For decades now I have lived in a world in which theism was routinely assumed. In Ireland this has been particularly acute. It is not as bad as it once was, but it is still a problem. The existence of God is enshrined in our constitution. The angelus on RTE, although now more artsy and multicultural, still puts it in your face every day, as do phrases routinely pronounced on auto-pilot such as ‘God bless’ and ‘God willing’ in daily conversation. During the holiday season just past, there were once again the references to ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ and the constant presence of songs asserting a particular origin myth as if an agreed story of the history of the world. When and how to dissent is a question posed to me and to many others every day. If someone I hardly know in a shop, says ‘God bless you’, I let it go, but when a colleague in a university constantly says it, I sometimes do say that I think not. Some years ago, a university president habitually said ‘God willing’ at academic meetings and in individual conversations. I once pointed out to him that it was inappropriate to assume such a shared belief in an academic environment. Trinity still confers its degrees ‘in the name of the Most Holy Trinity’ in a way that is insincere and  objectionable, as it does not reflect the actual beliefs of many involved. My PhD was conferred in such a way as was the BA of my son and we are both atheists, as have been many others so conferred. Does it matter? I think that it does. Otherwise, words lose their meaning and gestures lose their point. Much of religious speech and practice in Ireland is hollow these days. Many come to church only for baptisms, communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals without ever giving a thought to the belief systems underlying these rituals. I have to let much of it pass, as I don’t have the time or the power to contest every inappropriate practice or assertion. I can’t accost every parent on the street asking them what they think they are doing dressing their daughters as brides and telling then that they are eating the body of a dead god.  Nevertheless I do feel called upon to take every appropriate opportunity to speak up and to act. I have joined Atheist Ireland, which is campaigning for a secular constitution and against the new blasphemy law. I make my argument on the media and in classrooms and in publications as opportunities arise. For example: on Christmas day in 2008 I was on radio engaged in a panel discussion with clerics on the truth status of biblical stories. I have written the story of my disbelief in Portrait of a marxist as a young nun.

2)    Politics. I am a socialist. Day after day I listen to a discussion of the current crisis that fails to engage in any kind of systemic analysis, that incorporates all of the assumptions of capitalism without articulating them or scrutinising them. The crisis has resulted in an intensified redistribution from below to above, as private debts are converted into public obligations. There is fury at the greed of bankers and property developers and the complicity of the politicians and regulators. Many see how the government is using the state as the instrument of an oligarchy against their own interests. What is not so widely perceived is that it is in the nature of the system. The greed and the complicity are not simply matters of individual immorality (although they certainly are that too), but they are bred and sustained by the system itself. What to do about it? As do many, I often feel quite powerless in the face of these forces. However, I take every opportunity to speak, to write, to demonstrate (and in the cold and dark and rain of December, it was not easy). Has this made any difference? Not that I can see. Still what is the alternative? If I didn’t do the modest bit that I can do, there would be one less voice saying what I believe needs to be said: that capitalism can be transcended and that there is still a case to be made for socialism. Perhaps occasionally I plant some seed somewhere, so I have to keep trying.

3)    Academe. I am a marxist. I am opposed to many of the current orthodoxies dominating our universities. Philosophically I engage in critiques of both positivism and postmodernism. Both inhibit systemic thinking. These days they do so in a way that is so taken-for-granted. There was a once – in my lifetime – strong and impassioned debate between conflicting paradigms. There were well articulated rival theories regarding questions at the theoretical foundations of most academic disciplines. Today this has nearly disappeared. It is not as if all of these problems have been solved or that the current orthodoxies have won in intellectual terms. It is a matter of power and not of knowledge. Universities have become ever more closely harnessed to the dynamics of a system that does not call attention to its nature as a system. The ethos of commercialisation that has overtaken our universities does not serve the advance of knowledge or the good of society. On this too I have been a dissident. It has been hard here too not to feel powerless, but the fact is that academics do have power, not to immediately defeat this trend, but to query it, to undermine its hegemony, to articulate and live by alternative values. Academics have power to oppose the commodification of knowledge in how they teach their courses, in what they write in their publications and how they address the direction of universities in many fora. I took every opportunity to do this in my years at DCU, primarily in teaching and publishing, but also in debating the president on the commercialisation question. For Ferdinand’s position, many entries in this blog give expression to his point of view, the dominant position. For my arguments, see Are the humanities threatened by the increasing commercialisation of universities?

In the autumn I was at several events at Harvard or Boston University where students asked such eminent radicals as Howard Zinn ‘What should we do?’ as if some guru from dissident movements of the past could give them the answer, could give them the key to unlock their frustration and powerlessness in the face of a world order alien to their emerging sense of things. Another person on a panel, Chris Marin, a producer on the history channel, told them not to expect some master answer from a sage, but to focus on what they care about, who else cares about it, what they can do about it and to do it every day ‘like exercise’.  Wise words, I thought.

When I was young, I was a 60s generation activist and I wanted to change the world. Much older now, I still do. The ensuing years have brought many disappointments and defeats. It has been difficult to sustain dissidence over the decades. The secret of doing so was to learn not be so all or nothing about it as I was then, to find what I believed and what I could do about it and to do it every day ‘like exercise’.  I haven’t changed the world in any grand way, but perhaps I planted a few seeds that made it just a bit different than it would have been otherwise.


This blog’s hit parade

December 7, 2008

This blog has been coming to you, on a more or less daily basis, for six months now. My approach to it is that I am willing to spend 10 minutes each day on it, and on the whole I keep to that; it would not be sensible for me to become a full-time blogger, I have other things to do. But even with those limitations, it has (so far) been a hugely positive experience, and I have in particular welcomes the feedback I have received, and the comments that readers have made.

I am not too focused on the statistics, but today I have, out of curiosity, looked more closely at which posts have received the most attention. And this has revealed an interesting pattern. The posts which have had by far the greatest number of readers are ‘Has Karl Marx left the university?‘ and ‘Personal pursuits‘. In fact, all those posts which have looked at issues of political philosophy and ideology have been widely read, as have those that have focused on the arts and literature. Given my own liking for the band A Fine Frenzy, I am also pleased that all posts that contain references to them immediately pick up a strong readership. The other topic that is always popular is consumer electronics and technology – any post that mentions various desirable gadgets gets numerous hits.

Blogging has become a global phenomenon, but for most bloggers (including this one) it is not a mass medium. And just as I firmly believe that while everyone may have a book in them on the whole it is good that not all of these are published, so I suspect that bloggers should avoid the temptation to believe that what we want to say in public always deserves to be put out there. It was stated a while ago on another site that this blog is ‘unbelievable drivel’ – and that’s quite possibly a reasonable judgement.

I may look at the possibility of developing this blog a little, perhaps inviting other bloggers to join as additional authors to provide some variety of content and style, and maybe some diversity of opinion.

Has Karl Marx left the university?

July 22, 2008

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.