SWP "relative autonomy"

James Turley reviews Alex Callinico's Universities in a neoliberal world (Bookmarks, 2006, pp41, ?2)

Within the small pond of the British left, Alex Callinicos is something of a big fish: undoubtedly the most prolific and prodigious theorist in the Socialist Workers Party/International Socialists tradition, and thus one of the key figures in leftist academia. His short pamphlet on the contemporary higher education system, then, bears some scrutiny.

It is a work which plays very much to Callinicos?s strengths, displaying a clear idea as to where universities are going and why, while making clear the limits of the SWP?s method of resisting such developments (and, in an oblique way, the necessary constraints on the theoretical practice of the ?SWP intellectual? as such).

Besides a brief and banal preface from Paul Mackney, UCU general secretary, the text can be divided into a long section on the recent evolution of the higher education system and the political-economic pressures placed upon it, and a very light couple of pages which explain that ?resistance?, contra the Borg of Star trek, ?is not futile? (evidently, AC is down with the kids - p34).

For the first part, I found his analysis convincing and illuminating. His thesis essentially runs thus: the demands of the world economy are such that Britain, in order to remain ?competitive?, must build up a ?knowledge economy? - that is, in the words of former Downing Street advisor, the one-time Eurocommunist Charles Leadbeater, ?the drive to generate new ideas and turn them into commercial products and services that consumers want? (p8). This has led, in the first instance, to a significant concentration of resources for research as opposed to teaching - in the second, this support has been contingent on ever greater cooperation with corporate research and development departments (in Callinicos?s phrase, ?strip mining? - p16).

The tendencies towards concentration of capital - ?knowledge capital? no less than anything else - inherent in capitalism have led to a situation where only a half dozen ?world class? universities can be fully supported in Britain, by some estimates (p20). The upshot of all this, when it comes to the rest, will come as no surprise to anybody involved in HE today - undervalued teaching staff; a focus on ?star thinkers? with no real teaching commitments, supported by general patterns of overwork; marketisation of HE, with students being viewed as consumers and (crucially) paying consumers; in short, the proletarianisation of staff and the increasing precarity of student life.

This is all cogently argued, and backed up (for the most part) by quotes from the very people who built the system as it stands, and cheerleaders particularly from The Financial Times. It is also demonstrably above the tiresome, brain-dead dross which makes it into Socialist Worker and Lindsey German speeches (?When Tony Blair was elected in 1997 ...? - you know the rest).

More revealing, however, from our point of view is the concluding chapter, ?Resistance is not futile?. The solution offered by Callinicos, in a rather confused fashion, amounts to ?look to the movements?. He lists off the various protests and conflicts of significance: Chiapas, Seattle, Genoa, the anti-CPE riots in France ... but seems to think this is enough, somehow.

Yes, these were all in their ways great events and showcases of resistance, but they were also flawed. Capitalism is still here (and still in Chiapas). The pamphlet, so incisive on the problems facing the university, tails off into a supreme anti-climax, with clich?d rhetoric (?Another world is possible!?) mired in abstraction.

Yes, the social movements are certainly progressive, and must be engaged with - but no mention is made of how these discrete groupings can be made to move in accord: that is, of the need for a revolutionary party. For the leading theorist of a self-proclaimed revolutionary party, this strikes me as a bit of an oversight.

This, however, is the Socialist Workers Party, and the logic of Callinicos?s book reflects its tailist political logic. This focus on ?social movements? in general may strike some trainspotters as a bit 2003 (where are the muslims?), but the current wave of uncritical islamophilia that has gripped Callinicos and co is simply a single permutation of this broader issue of tailism. What it is redolent of is the old ?official communist? movement, whose popular frontist method led it to attempt to out-Labour the Labour Party, out-bureaucrat the trade union bureaucrats and - in the final days of Eurocommunism - approach the logic of the ?movement of movements? pursued by the SWP today.

What is an interesting comparison to be made here, particularly with regard to the dichotomy I have identified between the analysis and the programmatic elements of Universities, is the place allocated to intellectual and theoretical production within both groupings. After de-Stalinisation, the standard approach for ?official communist? intellectuals was one of ?relative autonomy? (in the words of Louis Althusser, who fought tooth and nail to establish this autonomy, and whose work was incidentally feted enthusiastically by the young Callinicos). The party would hand down the political line, but, provided it was not explicitly questioned, intellectuals and artists could do what they liked (within strictly demarcated professional boundaries) without the threat of a new Lysenko disaster or Zhdanovschina hanging over them.

The split in Universities reflects this - on the one hand, a concise and perceptive analysis of higher education after Thatcher; on the other, an abstract, flailing and idiotic recapitulation of the SWP?s opportunist strategy.