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Thursday, October 3, 1996

Those Who Would Lead

Successful revolutions are commonly regarded, in retrospect, as having been inevitable. You might therefore want to bookmark the two-day convocation of labor and academe which begins today at Columbia University as significant. Commingling will be the top echelons of labor and left/liberal academia and representatives of the student organizers who comprised the recent Union Summer. Invoked as "The Fight for America's Future," the teach-in will have corresponding events throughout the month at 10 other schools nationwide, all aimed at forging a link between the long-atomized constituencies of labor, academics and students. I alluded to the word "revolution" loosely and haltingly, of course; and share your sheepishness in observing that any assemblage these days which aims higher than stuporous Whither The Left? discordancy qualifies as a prodigious milestone.

There are clearly far off echoes of the 1960s surrounding this mustering, when the academy in the best traditions of its medieval heritage provided the wedge of apostasy to government's imperium. Most of the grubby societal chotchkes which tumbled out of the Pandora's box the Vietnam War opened, however, academics and students alike either fleetingly addressed or ignored. Campuses abounded with the trill of pithy Camus aphorisms applied to a questioning of the morality of the war, and that rhetoric was expressed in action; by comparison, the tumoral underbelly of national policies that the war revealed was only perfunctorily acknowledged and often disdained. The relations between intellectuals and labor is a fundamental case in point. By the time the war in Vietnam had escalated, a half-century of unity between labor and intellectuals had dissipated. Through the '60s much time was spent in macro analysis of U.S. policy with draftees at induction centers, and precious little with workers at factory gates, and doubtless among those notables spilling out of their faculty warrens and slouching toward Morningside Heights today is the niggling memory of embittered hardhats championing Richard Nixon. The corporate liberalism of 30 years ago is today an engorged beast with all of government as its brokerage-house hireling, and the common language now sought by a renewed labor union militancy and academics seeking a rallying-point around which to become engage again might begin with a Camus admonition we overlooked. There are but two aristocracies in life, he noted, that of intelligence and that of labor, and the former must always be at the service of the latter.

Such sentiments, contrasted with the academy-spawned rhetoric labor was infrequently hearing circa 1969, currently seem benignly and charmingly (to say nothing of lyrically) social democratic. It is an approach whose appeal has become evident as organized labor surrenders its memorandum of understanding with government and corporate America; the guarantee of prosperity which accrued from fealty against the homeland's perennial external threat vanished along with the external threat. Cut adrift and battered from all directions, labor has undergone a monumental internal housecleaning and tentatively moved left. To its credit it is receptive to building alliances with academics and intellectuals, expecting it will take a basting from them on a number of bromidic beliefs labor still holds dear. In return, the moldering ennui and inefficacy of the academy gets a B-12 shot of relevance. Given the recent annals of the learned caste, at this juncture I wonder who could ask for anything more.


There are tantalizing endgame projections to all of this, of course, readily implicit in the high-stakes collision now beckoning: Two distinct versions of democracy (and let's finally be precise, economic democracy, not the procedural travesty) -- the corporate model, which goes to the high bidders; and the sole version afforded to working people, which utilizes what is potentially the most equitable mechanism of the democratic process -- trade unions, singularly and in consolidation. It warrants careful emphasis that it is primarily on this basis -- the inclusion of as many workers as possible in labor unions -- that the AFL-CIO and other unions have approached academia. What will be requested of intellectuals is a complementary contribution toward strategy and policy research via publishing and national forums and in conjunction with labor unions' emerging presence on the Internet.

Therein, simply, lies the caveat: Don't blow it again. The authoritative mien distinguishing the thinking class has also brought it low; and however rousing and corrective the appeals from the lectern have been of late, they haven't exactly been reverberating through the malls and corner bars, apropos an old refrain. Only rank pathos seems a suitable docent for memory-lane assessment of the few and feeble attempts by the academy to connect with working people. It was tortuous enough to have once witnessed "vanguard" types waving their Little Red Books and making blanket pronuncios to sheet metal workers, only to have this same self-declared elite eventually commence with their Richard Perle imitations. Leave it to our era's academic left to have blithely crested both swings of the pendulum and stopped nowhere in-between. Is it any wonder working people have felt alienated and confused?

Is this a call for "moderation," that most despicable of conditions? Well, you know me, I'd probably phrase it less harshly. (And in any event, as the expression goes, I take full responsibility.) But let's be clear: The inclination of academia to prescribe from on high -- assuming a social institution or cause is worthy of its ardor -- has produced an abysmal track record. In linking up with labor, it ought not only be self-evident that scholarship-as-decree won't wash, but that labor itself is cogently analyzing its own situation. Labor's revitalized trans-border organizers certainly understand the rubric about thinking globally and acting locally, and more than likely could hold their own in academy-like pedantry on the distinctions between globalism and internationalism. Similarly, the progressive new leadership which has emerged from the shop floors of the 1980s is as intimate with the repertoire of dirty tricks as the corporate vicars who devised them. As to the students who spent the summer organizing unions in the South, they have little to learn from their professors on that score, of that you can be sure.

It's to be expected that academicians who want back into the action -- among them many who'd like to rehab their acquired anti-class reputations -- might find the limitations of junior-partner status in this alliance difficult. Indeed, the prescriptive inclination is an occupational hazard, and consensus-building has been traditionally absent from their required duties. The late Saul Alinsky used to impart a cardinal rule to each organizer he hired: If you want to successfully organize people to stand on their own, then be prepared to work yourself out of a job. If such advice begins to resound throughout faculty lounges, that at least would be a start, and maybe even a historic one after all.

Copyright John Hutchison 1996
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