Intellectuals and Activism
There were people running, falling over each other through the dusty street. The Pakistani police, embodying the lessons passed on by their British overlords, swung their lathis as they rushed ahead. Some aimed their pistols while running, yelling, pulling the trigger at every other step. The screaming never stopped.
“Next stop, Edison,” the automated announcement exclaimed, followed by a loud thud of the train’s underbelly hitting the tracks. Aslam Kakar suddenly woke up, jumping in his seat, immediately clutching his briefcase to his chest. He cleared his throat and wiped the sweat off his head with a handkerchief, and the fog begun to drift away, and the here and now flowed back into him, steadied him somewhat.
The sun cast an orange glow across the train compartment, as everyone else was either glancing at their phones, or snoring, their dress shirts creased. Hunched over. Aslam had just finished teaching another class for his global politics course at Rutgers Newark, where he had his students discuss the possibility of international solidarity. Although the emphasis was on how certain African American civil rights leaders conceptualized their linkage with others across Asia and Africa, he introduced his mostly African American and Latino students to what the Pashtun people, his ethnic group in Pakistan, had also been experiencing under the domination of the Pakistani military and its secret service.
Although it was not part of his plan for class, once he was standing in front of the room, listening to his students debating and discussing, their faces expressing defiance but also heartbreak, their voices sometimes high, then low, he couldn’t help but reflect on his time growing up in a Pashtun town miles away from the major cities, always the hair on the back of his neck rising at the sight of a Pakistani military pickup truck rolling by.
“My own experience and the collective grievances of the larger Pashtun society against the system left me with lingering questions,” he once explained to me as we chilled at the local Dunkin’, open 24 hours, with people staggering in between drives for Uber or wandering in after long shifts at the nearby gas stations and diners. The experience of Pashtun people had been the main reason for why Aslam pursued higher education, and eventually, a Ph.D. at Rutgers, where he now is comparing the experiences of the Pashtun in Pakistan to that of the Kurds in Turkey.
“Why did one group remain relatively non-violent and the other plunge into militancy?” he asked in his standard calm, his eyelids half-lowered, his beard trimmed always, as someone outside kept yelling into their phone. “What are the obstacles for each people?” he went on. Soon, such questions evolved into broader critiques, such as what the connections between the experiences of each group is to concepts like imperialism, US empire, local conditions of poverty and inequality, etc., concepts and topic which Aslam and I have taught at Rutgers for the past four years.
Aslam and I met during our faculty and grad worker union struggle for a better contract, and since then have bounced ideas off each other, sometimes at the Dunkin’ late at night, sipping stale coffee, or while grabbing snacks at the H Mart and eating them on the car hood, the cold air helping our brains cool after a whole day of squinting at a laptop screen, transcribing.
A major topic we’ve discussed consistently, especially at the peak of the Trump administration and now with the perpetual crises under global neoliberalism, has been our roles as “intellectuals,” as people trained to research and think critically, with respect to the causes and left-wing politics we’ve been motivated by. Both Aslam and I joined doctoral programs with a deep interest in pursuing knowledge about the issues we’re interested in, wishing to answer questions we have about the world, but also, with a deep abiding loyalty to progressive change in society. To play some role in generating a path ahead for the progressive politics we believe in, such as creating a society in which oppressed groups have power, and a new political system that meets peoples’ needs can start to take root.
But what should that be? What about our own interests as scholars? Must our research always align with the needs and interests of movements or of exploited peoples? Won’t there always be some tension, or “misalignment,” between scholars on the left and left movements, regardless of shared political beliefs?
Isn’t there the danger also of scholars/intellectuals overestimating their influence and importance?
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci spent a chunk of his time, during and prior to his arrest and detainment by Mussolini’s fascists (which would ultimately lead to his untimely death), exploring this issue of knowledge and class struggle. According to Gramsci, all people are intellectuals since most people can reflect, and think critically, e.g., Wow! my job sucks. However, that is not the same as someone who’s studied at university to be a researcher, an educator, and so on. “All men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals,” he stated.
There are, ultimately, those in society who are recognized as “intellectuals,” which includes having been legitimated by their time in dominant institutions, such as universities. Such individuals receive the training, even if it’s not as thorough as it should be (think of all the business graduates roaming this country), to be more in-depth critical thinkers or, at the very least, to have some knowledge that others may lack. Of course, there are also people who are self-taught, who read history, sociology, philosophy, and do so without formal training. Nonetheless, the person with institutional training will embody certain types of critical thinking that some of their peers won’t have. The reality is that most people who seek a graduate degree in subjects like the social sciences have access to a type of training and knowledge with the potential to help them see the world more differently, and more clearly at times, than the average person would.
Martina Manicastri has been a leading organizer in our Central New Jersey DSA chapter and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree, studying rape culture in the US “I think intellectuals can offer political knowledge that can help connect people’s personal experiences to a larger struggle,” she said, in one of our many conversations. “I see value in that, perhaps the role of consciousness raising. That isn’t to say that ‘non-intellectuals’ are incapable of being conscious of their political realities, but I do think it can be hard to receive a political education and maybe intellectuals can help with making that education accessible.”
Nearly everyone in the US has faced some type of fucked-up situation, or known what it’s like to face hardship constantly. Some are able to realize that what they’ve been experiencing is not only wrong but can be changed. This might lead them to shift into activism work, or vote for progressive candidates. But the personal experiences are not always enough. Sometimes, hardship can simply reinforce in someone that they have to keep their head down, or keep viewing the act of voting as the extent of their political expression.
People who are oppressed racially or by gender, and those of us who have to work to pay for basic things we need like a roof over our heads, can still lack the broader view about what exactly we’re up against. Perhaps some of us realize how shitty our situation is, but may not attribute that to particular policies, or to broader political systems, such as capitalism—which is understandable, given how overwhelming life already is, and how little time people have to read and research about such demanding topics. This is where, as Martina says, the left intellectual should and could step in, even for leftist groups and movements.
Providing some clarity in the midst of insurmountable odds and instability, like what we’re enduring now, is critical, and something that intellectuals have done so in the past. Marx is the most obvious example, perhaps, with his works on capitalism being critical for socialist and communist leaders to grab onto as they waged their struggles against Russian tsarism, colonial oppression, and the misguided belief among some—as was the case during the height of the New Deal—that capitalism, once regulated, will no longer generate social crisis.
There have been others, too, who had the skills and training and time to stitch together insights that are crucial for many inside progressive movements to carry on if they hope to be effective. Frantz Fanon and Walter Rodney received their scholarly training at university, developing the wherewithal on how to track down archives, what questions to ask their respondents, and work out the histories they and their peoples were tangled in. With this knowledge, Fanon and Rodney produced works on colonialism, imperialism, class and race and gender, that would inspire struggle throughout the globe (including some among the co-founders of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords).
It is the left intellectual’s responsibility to use the training they’ve received and the knowledge they have to help make visible the political landscapes that left movements must maneuver in, as well as use their “recognized” intellectual status to promote left ideas and principles. In Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said wrote, “I say or write these things because after much reflection they are what I believe; and I also want to persuade others of this view,” adding, “There is no such thing as a private intellectual, since the moment you set down words and then publish them you have entered the public world.”
As intellectuals, we have the capacity and platform to generate ideas and knowledge that people need to hear, whether they are students or people within movement struggles. It is up to the left intellectual to view their immediate role as supplementing the capacity for people to change the world in a progressive direction, to help them see the world, objectively, as one in serious need of a new political system that is more just and less destructive. To be able to clarify the fact that capitalism is untenable, that neoliberalism is a delusion, and that the US empire remains the number one danger globally.
“I also do this research for political reasons, since I believe in social change,” Dilara Demir explained to me. She is a fellow social scientist, who has been focused on helping others comprehend the brokenness of the private healthcare system in the US “Understanding how medical expertise can be used as a tool for social change or if the physicians want to use their knowledge as a tool for social change became a very important academic and social issue for me,” she added.
In her research, Dilara has interviewed medical professionals in-training, from working-class and historically oppressed backgrounds, about their experiences working in the US healthcare profession—what they’ve seen as its major flaws, restrictions, and what people should be thinking about in terms of alternative medical systems. Dilara’s interviews include activist professionals, exploring their shared ends of changing healthcare in the US. Thus, her effort is aimed not only at receiving her degree and moving on, but, once more, at providing clarity for others within and beyond academia who would be interested in this fight and need.
A left intellectual must be connected in some way to left movements, organizers, and communities that would benefit from socialist and communist prescriptives. As Martina puts it, “The role of the intellect is to educate and unveil injustice and possibility, but to do so in a collective process.”
There is a tendency, including among scholars like Said, to view the intellectual as important to fostering change but at the same time as a singular figure with a special expertise that needs to be respected: as an individual speaking so-called truth to power. This idea is an ahistorical one. Marx would have been a forgotten thinker if he didn’t intertwine himself with the various communist leagues and trade unions as he did. To take a more perverse example, the neoliberal diehards, such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, would never have mattered if they hadn’t connected themselves to business interests who found their cruelty appealing. Indeed, it wasn’t Friedman’s ideas that would later shape the world. It was the major businesses who felt that being taxed was akin to some kind of genocide and who had the material resources to push against labor unions and the welfare state that recruited neoliberal intellectuals to help justify their tactics as connected to “expanding freedom” for everyone.
Intellectuals are stranded anyhow, especially those on the left, when they fail to build a relationship with the material forces that can have an impact on the world, such as workers’ movements. Intellectuals themselves turn into meaningless simulacra without this, and end up publishing reports for the same group of five people at conferences and panels, regardless of how “monumental” their ideas and research might be. Instead, as Gramsci pointed out, left intellects must view themselves as what he deemed as “organically” connected to social movements, promoting ideas and principles that movements are also inclined to fight for, such as socialism, or the need for neoliberalism to cease being the “common sense” of our era. Intellectuals must help to protect the ideological gains made by left movements and organizers. To quote Gramsci again, “One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to assimilate and to conquer ‘ideologically’ the traditional intellectuals, but this assimilation and conquest is made quicker and more efficacious the more the group in question succeeds in simultaneously elaborating its own organic intellectuals.” We must therefore view ourselves as intimately part of the broader collective struggle against capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, in the hopes of generating momentum for a better society for all.
Something that makes it easier for the professional intellectual to be engaged in leftist politics is the need to earn a living. Currently, university jobs are far less stable than what they were decades ago, before the advent of neoliberalism. Tenure-track jobs are now extremely rare, with more adjuncts and part-time lecturers part of the larger pool of educators that includes Aslam, Dilara, and I, so-called “teaching assistants.” Money is tight for many of us. “Nearly a third of the 3,000 adjuncts surveyed for the report earn less than $25,000 a year,” Colleen Flaherty writes in Inside Higher Ed, “That puts them below the federal poverty guideline for a family of four. Another third of respondents make less than $50,000.”
Dilara, when she hadn’t yet reunited with her husband in Greece and was still struggling inside the US, would rarely go out to eat. Mostly, she would budget every cent, sometimes making the same meals, such as soup, repeatedly and heading to and from the library to finish her research as soon as possible. I myself have also had to find ways to make extra money on the side, from teaching extra classes to writing articles for magazines that actually pay. I’d like to do more, but my main priority is the research I am doing, and I cannot complete my degree unless there’s a physical dissertation to finally hand in.
Prior to COVID-19, Aslam spent many nights driving for Uber. This involved chauffeuring people from one bar to another in and around New Brunswick, the city hub for the surrounding suburbs. Sometimes, he’d drive for hours, immediately after teaching a class. Aslam would return to his apartment and try to rest his head, to sink into the sheets and disappear for a moment, but instead, his heart would keep racing as he’d keep thinking about the bills that were due, and the fact that his own research hinged very much on his being able to travel to Turkey, where he could interview Kurdish activists and compare their lives to what he and other Pashtun people had been experiencing.
It is true that the immiseration that many intellectuals in universities are faced with has left them more open to socialist and class-struggle politics. Working non-stop for shit wages makes one rethink the type of society they actually would benefit from. This is one of the main reasons why I’ve been so committed to our faculty and grad worker union, having taken part in our previous contract fights, spending days staring down administrators across a conference room table, followed by days knocking on members’ doors, informing them of their power within a collective. For many of us, the class war is personal.
One night, Aslam received news on WhatsApp—in a group chat with Pashtun academics and activists and other people anxious about the recent Pakistani military crackdown on Pashtun activism—about another protest in front of the Pakistani embassy in Manhattan. More Pashtuns were being rounded up by the Pakistani military. Others had been shot. Aslam had been taking a five-minute break at the local Dunkin’, between taking passengers to and from the main train station downtown, which would whisk them away to Manhattan or, for those who were less aspiring, Hoboken.
“I was feeling so…” Aslam explained to me, his voice drifting, as he gazed through the Dunkin’ window at the people milling outside, cigarette smoke swirling. I noticed he was tapping his feet, scratching his beard. Eventually, he ended up attending the protest, but after only a few hours sleep, and spending money on the train ticket, and even on a dinner with the activists after their event. Later that day, after the rally, Aslam went to his apartment which overlooks a residential street, and didn’t even feel the urge to read anything or write down notes. He just looked out his window, tapping his feet, until it was dark out, and he went to his car, and popped open the Uber app.
On the other hand, the way academia works can create distance between the left intellectual and the broader struggle. Even those of us struggling financially and frustrated by our circumstances must attend conferences, panels, and other academic-oriented events. We must know how to network and with whom, subscribe to various journals, develop a knack for being part of a particular discourse on a particular topic. In fact, within academia, as Said also highlighted, there is the push for people to become niche experts. You are taught to read and research only a strand of thought, such as—in my area, politics—becoming invested in patterns of voting behavior. There are people who can tell you who won the city council election in Chicago in 1892, but are unable to connect the dots between voting and broader questions about power and the limits of liberal rights. This is due to the reality that you must focus on politics divorced from sociology, while sociologists believe that to be a historian is not to be concerned with contemporary social issues. When a new scholar comes into contact with this world, they are forced to pick a side, and subsequently position themselves similarly for the sake of finding work and legitimacy.
This is the great irony of academia. You gain access to skills and knowledge others need and don’t have. And yet, you are also susceptible to developing a narrow understanding of the world after a certain point, since that’s how researchers are rewarded. Great researchers who seek knowledge beyond the bounds of their field, such as W. E. B. Du Bois or contemporary scholars like Ruth Wilson Gilmore or Dorothy Roberts, are rare. “The higher one goes in the education system today, the more one is limited to a relatively narrow area of knowledge,” Said observed in Representations of the Intellectual.
Over time, to be seen as an expert by other so-called experts, you focus on niche subjects, and start to speak in a tongue that is unfamiliar to others outside the academic realm. “There’s almost a separate different language certain scholars speak in, and do not care about things like class politics either,” said Dilara, as we chatted about our experiences navigating conferences, feeling overwhelmed and insecure about fitting into this milieu. I admitted to hiding out during conferences at the book stalls, or exploring the conference city, knowing full well that I should be networking, especially since I want an academic job. “Sometimes, I have to input concepts into my work that don’t always make sense to me,” she also said, “But then again, if I speak clearly as I do now, I’m not seen as ‘smart.’ So I need to act? If that makes sense? I need to add another layer of language, almost.”
In my first few years, that is how I also approached academia, tossing around rhetoric. After some time, as I regrew my relationship with my union and groups like the DSA, I shed that type of speaking and replaced it with something that I myself could comprehend. Yet I still feel the pressure of wanting to sound “smart,” capable in the eyes of those who will be hiring me for research and teaching. Sometimes, I wonder if I should just dress up my language on topics in a way that won’t push away possible employers at universities.
After all, to be a leftist who is anti-imperialist and hyper-critical about academia, to be a communist like myself, is not the norm, to say the least. As Said reminds us, it was during the Cold War, especially in its first few decades, that Marxist and “radical” thought were repressed. Either you were kicked out of a program for being a “subversive,” or you were never hired at all. Some of this is improving and yet those of us who are Marxist and radical, those of us who clearly see the US empire as our major obstacle, are still few and far between. Most often, we are to work as adjuncts and are not likely to be hired on a tenure-track path. If you are an academic who sees no issue in taking money from the CIA or US State Department, even if you claim to be a leftist, you will find more support materially within academia than in the opposite case. Indeed, there are opportunities for us, but those opportunities are often less-paying, or within a restricted pool of universities and colleges, such as in the CUNY system.
“Are you thinking of coming back to the States someday?” I asked Dilara, as our internet connection started to break up, and she sounded far more distant. I could hear her chuckling. “All I know is I’m with my husband, and I’m trying to finish my degree and…” her voice started to break again. “And, all I want is to take it one day at a time. It’s already been a struggle to finish what I’ve started,” she said and laughed. “It’s been too long!” she exclaimed, and I chuckled as well. Sometimes, what else is there to do but laugh at the nearly ludicrous dilemma of seeking knowledge in a time when so much is in flux. It is increasingly difficult to conduct the type of necessary research, such as qualitative work that’s focused on interviewing people rather than simply downloading publicly available data on voting polls, that can be relevant to peoples’ lives while climate disaster looms, and one’s paychecks dwindle. To seek knowledge that breaks beyond niche confines among people and institutions that are more likely to desire the opposite, among people and institutions that still pretend like we didn’t just have a madman as president, or there isn’t a global right-wing campaign butting heads with worshipers of neoliberalism.
Dilara continued to laugh, then asked me about my own research. On cue, I drew a blank. I started to laugh as well, but cleared my throat, smiled, and answered to the best of my ability, as if I was already in a job interview, while the trees outside the window were on fire.
So far, Aslam, Dilara, and I have sustained our connections to various progressive groups and to our labor unions, etc. We’ve led political discussions with our peers inside such groups, organized political education sessions on various key topics (ranging from learning the history of indigenous struggle in the US to US federalism and how it works). Martina, as co-chair of our DSA chapter’s political education committee, has organized slides filled with information she has learned about various forms of feminism within the university, passing that knowledge on to the rest of the group. Sometimes, our role has been to present what we’ve been researching, as I’ve done, and to see whether it is something relevant to peoples’ lives beyond academic circles.
In “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought,” sociologist Patricia Hill Collins explains, “Not only must individuals develop their knowledge claims through dialogue and present those knowledge claims in a style proving their concern for their ideas, people are expected to be accountable for their knowledge.” Yet, the role of the left intellectual and their relationship to progressive groups or communities will not always align.
After all, for the left intellectual to be valuable to the movement, they must retain some level of autonomy. It cannot simply be the case that a left intellectual’s role is to simply absorb whatever the community wants, and parrot it to the rest of society. Often, what the left intellectual learns about history and politics will conflict with what the community or collective see as obvious. This is what Marx did, pushing the collectives he was in to adopt a much more critical analysis of capitalism, even when it frustrated people. This is what Angela Davis did when she argued for prison abolition ahead of many others on the left or in broader society.
Aslam himself has been at odds with the groups he’s been in, arguing for them to appeal to a more internationalist crowd, while others restrict themselves to appealing to the hearts and minds of the Pakistani authorities. I’ve also had differences within my DSA chapter, pushing back on ideas that I feel would push us further into obscurity, such as focusing exclusively on local organizing at the expense of developing connections at the state and national level.
The left intellectual’s interests and passions will not always be beholden to the collective interest. I, for instance, love to write fiction. Fiction in its own way can be useful for movements and for people in comprehending politics and the world around them. But, of course, I would be lying if I suggested the fiction I write is as pragmatic as writing articles on how neoliberalism operates, articles that can provide clarity for our members. Also, even some of the research that I do end up focusing on is very much tied up with my own curiosity on a subject, my own passion for learning—for learning’s sake. If I were to focus only on research that “matters,” I would start to lose that necessary interest in the work that I do. However, where’s that fine line between following one’s passion as a critical thinker and still being “useful” to others, and becoming someone who is a caricature of an academic? Someone immersed in knowledge, addicted to the “debates” surrounding them in certain circles? And yet, what about the fine line between being of service to a movement while maintaining some personal interests and passions and being someone who refuses to abide by any professional standard in academia, warring with the world constantly and losing one’s job? Said again: “This is far from an easy task: the intellectual always stands between loneliness and alignment.”
What about all of this effort being wasted? The time spent studying, teaching, learning, at a time when broad social forces are leading us to doom? What would be the usefulness of another political education session when people are faced with eviction, their own personal apocalypse? What is the usefulness of the intellect when Asia and Africa are underwater, and millions of people are desperate to find refuge? Will there be a point when the crisis is so evident, so stark, that the left intellect becomes arcane? An historical artifact?
According to Gramsci, crisis offers up opportunities for communists and radicals. Crisis itself does not organically lead to the rebellions we hope for, including against capitalism. Instead, it can lead to worse fates, such as the rise of fascism in Europe at the time of a global capitalist meltdown. This is why Gramsci viewed intellects, whether as academics or as reporters or writers, as necessary. But what if we ourselves, since we are human like everyone else, cannot rise above the crisis? What if we too become consumed by it, rushing from one event to the next, trying to keep our jobs, feeling drained and lost? Given the current circumstances, self-doubt creeps in, clouding our judgment, as for anyone else.
“A part of me didn’t want to come back,” Aslam said and laughed, a couple of days after landing back in the US after spending several months at Istanbul’s Koc and Bogazici Universities as a guest researcher, where he interviewed Kurdish activists while also exploring the city and some other parts of Turkey, particularly the Kurdish region in the southeast. It was a brief period in which funding wasn’t a problem, given the low costs of living in Turkey. For the first time in years, Aslam felt weightless, interviewing people he found interesting, writing articles on the side for extra cash, going to the café as Dua Lipa was pumped through the speakers, sipping an endless supply of tea.
Now, he was back to teaching, researching at the library, driving for Uber. He was back to attending rallies in front of the Pakistani embassy, to handling disputes among activists. To being pushed by them and to be pushing back. “Sometimes, I do wonder what I’m doing here,” Aslam said, “I should be back with my people in Pakistan instead. But then, I realize that they need me and I need them. And also, what else am I going to do? I do love my job. I do love learning, you know?”
Some nights, Aslam still can’t fall asleep at the usual time. Thoughts are whirling, clashing. His Whatsapp is filled with messages. Piles of books from the library sit on his desk by the window, the moonlight dyeing them silver. One night, a week after he’d returned, just as he was settling back in his place at the border of Edison, where the streets are lined with Chinese takeout places, car garages, and strip malls, he decided to take a stroll instead. The wind caused the hair on his arms to stand up. He dug his face into his scarf, as he hopped over holes in the sidewalk, as cars whipped past him. A part of him wanted to keep walking forever. Another part wanted to stop somewhere and weep. Another part wanted to go back and watch movies until his head felt heavy.
But soon, his phone began to ring and kept ringing. It was a friend from the WhatsApp group. He had texted Aslam too, looking for his insight on something to do with their attempt to organize Pashtuns in the US Aslam was fortunately only a block away from home, the lights from the nearby lampposts dimming, even though all of the stars were hidden behind clouds. He sighed but also smiled at the question, and after the next ring, answered.