Teaching Marxism

In this summer’s much-anticipated movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the titular Professor Jones is forced to stare into the hollow eyes of the equally titular artifact. As Indy’s will breaks under the skull’s strange hypnotic gaze, a Soviet agent (Cate Blanchett) fantasizes about how she will use the mystical object to control America’s media, leaders, and (perhaps most terrifying) teachers to indoctrinate the country with Communism. At this point in the film, those who were seated around me heard a cynical chortle — the snobbish hoot of an academic who knows all too well the Marxist leaning of American higher education.
Blanchett’s character succinctly describes the Ideological State Apparatus, (affectionately known by Marxists as an “ISA”). Made prominent by Louis Althusser, the ISA is the means by which the State controls the thoughts of its citizens through education and entertainment. Because the ISA is a principal source of power, it becomes a key battleground for the socialist revolution. Set in 1957, the Indiana Jones movie intends to play up Cold War McCarthyism and make the fear of socialist indoctrination seem the stuff of B-movie villains. Yet in today’s academy, such threats are ironic jokes. Real Marxism is a dominant force in many Humanities departments, without the help of any trans-dimensional ancient relics.
It is hardly news to point out that Marxism is an underpinning of liberal ideology or that the liberal ideology dominates academia. David Horowitz’s efforts to champion the Student’s Bill of Rights have been largely to thwart leftist indoctrination of students. One can read Mike S. Adams’s weekly (and often flippant) satires of his plight as a conservative professor at UNC Wilmington, and also petition him for legal representation if victimized by liberal prejudice in an academic setting. But aside from such provocateurs against the liberal status quo, there have been academic studies to prove the bias. It’s a bit like using a magnifying glass to look in the mirror. As recently as February 2008, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on research by Matthew Woessner of Penn State to understand how academia became a field where “90 percent of professors called themselves liberal or moderate.” Woessner’s interest was in causation; the percentage quoted actually comes from another study conducted by Solon J. Simmons of George Mason. The situation has become so extreme that, as you have probably heard, the University of Colorado, Boulder has decided to hire a chair of conservative thought, just to make sure conservative ideology isn’t completely forgotten.
As Catholics, the prevalence of Marxism in our universities and colleges should be deeply disturbing, if only because both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have written so eloquently and intelligently against the ideology, which takes subversion of authority and the dismissal of religion as two of its key principles. The widespread and often invisible dissemination of Marxist ideology in our classrooms should also concern students and parents, but at the moment, I’d like to focus on the ethical dilemma that it poses to teachers. My question is whether I can teach Marxism sincerely without accidentally indoctrinating my students for or against it. (Admittedly, it would take more than this single column to answer this problem).
From my vantage point as an English professor, I know that the field of literary study essentially has laid its once noble crown at the foot of Marxist critical theory, often under the mantle of “cultural studies.” Much of what my field does, as the venerable Harold Bloom lamented, has become a tortured form of political theory, asking whether a literary work subverts or buoys an oppressive, capitalist, heteronormal, and usually white patriarchal regime. Marxism is about class conflict, and a Marxist literary approach asks a reader to evaluate on which side of that conflict a work of literature stands or could be made to stand.
If a professor such as myself seeks competitive publication, employment, tenure, or promotion, he will address the concerns of class struggle and sound sympathetic to the oppressed party’s interests, if only in footnotes or poignant postscripts. If he wants his undergraduate students to be prepared for graduate school, it behooves him to teach them to do the same. Thus, I find myself often having to teach a methodology that grossly disagrees with my own worldview, and the classroom becomes ethically complex. To dismiss Marxism entirely does my students a professional disservice. To teach my personal judgment of Marxism means that I am guilty of counter-indoctrination. To simply teach Marxism without critique seems socially unhealthy. One feels the eerie stare of a crystal skull upon one’s back . . .
My first answer to this problem is to teach Marxism explicitly. In my undergraduate career, my teachers made no effort to expose the critical underpinnings to their interpretations. If not for a particularly exceptional high school teacher, I would have waited until my senior year at college to find out that different critical theories even existed. Thus, I name various critical methods to my introductory literature students so that they see that Marxism is one of a wide array of critical theories. Nevertheless, my personal experience consistently indicates that Marxism stands apart for my students and heightens the ethical stakes.
The students might not recognize those stakes immediately, as I find that many classes have an extreme ambivalence to the Marxist critical approach. Some students have an appetite for socialism (one of my pastimes is to count how often Che Guevara’s face appears on shirts and posters on campus), but the aesthetes who love to read and write complain that Marxism essentially saps the pleasure found in lofty things like Truth and Beauty. Non-liberal arts majors often complain that Marxist theory proves assumptions that the English department is full of left-wing political radicals. However, when I ask my students to write a paper using a critical method of their choosing, the majority of the class typically gravitates toward Marxism. Even those who claim to hate Marxism find themselves wielding it with bravado.
I suspect several reasons for this. First, Marxism comes with a fully loaded tool box of handy, and often large, vocabulary words: Ideological and Repressive State Apparatuses, fetishization, commodities, capital, phenomenology, ideology, appellation, etc. Secondly, Marxism is rhetorically attractive. A student who writes an entire paper from a sexual-Freudian perspective runs the risk of looking too enthusiastic about the subject matter. A student who attempts a post-modern approach that deconstructs meaning often has a hard time explaining why his paper deserves reading. A student who writes from a Marxist approach, however, can always fall back on rhetorical guilt trips. In this age of social lethargy, what teacher wants to squash a student’s call for political action? When schools are demanding we be more accepting, who wants to condemn a paper that advocates a voice for the downtrodden? Marxism must seem like a no-brainer to the undergraduate: it should flatter the teacher by showing how much one has paid attention to lecture notes and by showing how one has been “inspired” to save the world.
Thus, I am left with two fears. The first is that I’ve taught my students how to cobble together jargon rather than how to interpret. The second is that after years of writing in the Marxist mindset, a student might someday actually start believing in the philosophy. Thus, the problem becomes not so much whether Marxism can be taught, but if there is someway to “baptize” Marxism so that it can be reconciled with the Faith without creating a monstrosity.
Marxism can (and perhaps even should) often appear to us as the serpent in the garden, tempting those who feel disenfranchised to rebel against authority by offering seductive yet ultimately empty promises of power. But we should not, like Professor Jones, live with an irrational phobia of serpents. We should rather follow the course of Paul, who miraculously found the viper’s venom to lack death’s sting (Acts 28:3-6). Indeed, with its complex academic jargon and poisonous social ideologies, Marxism parallels both the strange tongues and the serpents to which Mark refers when he describes the signs of true believers: “In my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents (with their hands), and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them” (Mark 16:17-18).
These figures reflect the Christian scholar’s responsibility to address ideologies that may at first glance seem alien or antithetical, in the faith that a heart sincerely bound to Truth will not be led astray. Unlike Truth, Marxism’s strength lies not in itself, but in its adherents’ worship of it. If it truly were an all-powerful and all-corrupting ideology, Marxists (real and fictional) wouldn’t be desperate for a crystal skull to disseminate its beliefs.

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Peter Freeman is an assistant professor of Renaissance English Literature at a liberal arts college in the United States.

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