Bourgeois Education and the Reproduction of Common Sense

By Christian Noakes

Despite right-wing conspiracy theories depicting universities as a communist threat to capitalist society, academia serves as a primary institution in the reproduction of the bourgeois common sense on which capitalism relies. Furthermore, it presents its own version of knowledge as not only self-evident but “progressive,” while denouncing any effective attempt to confront capitalism and imperialism.

With a few flips of intellectual gymnastics, it often asserts that Marxism is the “master’s tools.” As such, it presents Marxism as an oppressive force and bourgeois thought as a force of liberation—albeit one in need of periodic reforms. Fundamental to this inversion is the complete misunderstanding—or at least misrepresentation—of both Marx and the larger historical tradition of Marxism.

Marx is typically treated as a class reductionist who never addressed the interrelated issues of racism, colonialism, and slavery. However, all three of these are given significant attention by Marx and were in fact treated as fundemental to the capitalist processes of accumulation, dispossession, and exploitation. One needn’t delve deep into Marx’s writings to begin to see this. In the first pages of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels state:

“The discovery of America, the rounding of the cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie... The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.”[1]

Elsewhere they state:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of negroes, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.”[2]

Marx and Engels do not equivocate the role of racial oppression and colonialism which are both a means of capitalist expansion and an outgrowth of it. Not only are these pervasive forms of oppression central to the birth of capitalism, but confronting these twin evils of racism and colonialism are essential to combating capitalism today. This is no doubt what Marx means when he noted that, “labor in the white skin cannot emancipate itself where the black skin is branded.”[3] In other words, capitalist exploitation cannot be eradicated so long as racial oppression remains intact.

To even talk about class within the hallowed walls of the academy is too often assumed to be a “white issue”—a convenient assumption that obscures the material reality of racial oppression. The explicitly anti-racist, anti-colonial, and anti-slavocratic sentiments in the writings of Marx suggest that many who, in good faith, claim Marxism is implicitly “white”—and therefore conserving racial oppression—are drawing such conclusions without doing the readings. Under the influence of bourgeois thought that pervades capitalist educational institutions, “one knows it is absurd without reading it and one doesn't read it because one knows it is absurd, and therefore one glories in one's ignorance of the position.”[4]

This fundemental misunderstanding—premised on hubristic ignorance—goes far beyond Marx and Engels to encompass all of Marxism. The Guyanese guerrilla intellectual Walter Rodney argued that the perennial debate on the relevance of Marxism across time and place is both an outgrowth of the dominant bourgeois ideology and a fundamental misunderstanding of Marxism.[5] Contrary to an understanding of Marxism as a static manual of revolution, Rodney points out that Marxism is a living thing—a methodology and ideology which concerns itself with material relations in the service of the oppressed and exploited classes.

As a methodology or a scientific lens of analysis, Marxism concerns itself with the material conditions of society, the relations of production which exist—in various forms—across time and place. Marx, and the Marxist tradition which has developed from his contributions to the revolutionary struggle, give considerable attention to the particular relations of production under capitalism—a system into which the Global South has long been forced at gun point. Rejecting Marxism as irrelevant to any context outside of 19th Century Europe follows the same logic as if one were to claim that the theory or relativity—and other developments in physics built on such understandings—only applies to the world Einstein inhabited.[6]

To deny the relevance of Marxist methodology is to inadvertanly suggest that relations of production (especially the predominant capitalist relations) do not exist—a bourgeois position that serves to preserve capitalist exploitation and the racial/colonial relations which underpin it. Despite the often good intentions, such assertions are inevitably in line with bourgeois ideology in that they serve to reproduce the common sense of capitalism which both naturalizes and obscures the social relations of capital. Such academic positions also ignore the historical role of Marxism in national liberation struggles throughout the Global South—an historical fact that makes the question of the relevance of Marxism itself irrelevant.

However, the relationship between Western academia and the Global South is not simply a matter of the erasure of national liberation struggles; it is also openly antagonistic in that the former provides the intellectual justification for imperialism under a facade of progress.

For the sake of brevity, we will limit ourselves to recent events in Bolivia.

On 10 November 2019, the Indigenous President Evo Morales was ousted in an apparent coup. Support for this coup—which would quickly reveal itself as deeply anti-Indigenous and reactionary—included a letter signed by several US academics. Signatories included the anthropologist Devin Beaulieu, a vocal opponent of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party. Beaulieu—like many other academics—framed their opposition to MAS in pro-Indigenous language. Central to this position has been the reduction of Indigeneity to a monolith in opposition to Morales.[7] This has, in a sense, included the construction of the Indio permitido (the authorized Indian). Under a progressive facade, academics like Beaulieu sit comfortably in the imperial core, deciding for themselves which Indigenous voices are legitimate. Not unlike their colonial predecessors, they rely on a deeply imperialist conception of progress as a modern “white man’s burden.”

Other academics are not so blatantly imperialist. For instance Fabricant and Postero correctly point out how treating Indigenous peoples as a monolith is akin to defining Indio permitido and Indio prohibido (the prohibited Indian).[8] Their acknowledgement of heterogenous Indigeneity is markedly different from the treatment seen in the likes of Beaulieu. However, despite this difference they too fall into the dichotomous thinking which frames MAS as both a capitalist movement for the mestizo and an opposition to Indigenous Bolivians. Despite their apparent attempts to provide balanced analysis, they conflate efforts toward self-determination via the utilization of the country’s natural resources and the fostering non-US trade relations as “capitalist” and “neoliberal,” when in reality not utilizing national resources means a continued subjugation of Bolivia to the imperial core—a position these academics ponder from relative comfort. These (not-so-blatant) imperialist academics also refer to concerns of Indigenous groups over national development as a concern of “further colonisation by Andean coca growers.”[9] Where these coca growers are, in fact, Indigenous, this position only succeeds in weaponizing anti-colonial rhetoric against the colonized.

All of the above is emphasized to say that bourgeois academia’s primary social function is to reproduce capitalist common sense and to reinvent capitalist society with ever-new, illusory facades of progress and liberation. As a central institution of the capitalist superstructure, the university as a whole cannot help but be anything else.

As Jose Carlos Mariategui observed:

“Vain is all mental effort to conceive the apolitical school or the neutral school. The school of bourgeois order will continue to be a bourgeois school. The new school will come with the new order.”[10]

This is not to say that individuals or groups cannot exist in opposition in such institutions or that no revolutionaries should attend university. Institutions of higher learning can and should be treated as sites of struggle from which guerilla intellectuals can, in a sense, redistribute the resources and means of knowledge production otherwise kept from the public.

Following in the footsteps of revolutionaries such as Marx and Rodney, Marxists should utilize capitalist institutions to better understand and combat capitalism. However, the bourgeois academy should never be treated as something that can be adequately reformed under capitalism; or, further, that bourgeois academia is the only source of knowledge production under capitalism. Indeed, a true guerrilla intellectual need not be of the academy at all, and, in fact, cannot be a true guerrilla intellectual if they are confined to the bourgeois institutions which serve only to reproduce capitalist common sense in opposition to the true struggles of liberation.


[1] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. In The Marx-Engles Reader (2nd ed.) Robert C. Tucker (ed), 275-276. [2] Karl Marx. Capital, Vol. 1. (Chicago 1952), P.372. [3] Karl Marx: On America and the Civil War (New York, 1972) p. 275. [4] Walter Rodney (1975). “Marxism and African Liberation.” walter/works/marxismandafrica.htm. [5] Ibid. [6] Jose Carlos Mariategui. “The World Crisis and the Peruvian Proletariat.” in Selected Works of José Carlos Mariátegui.