Russell Jacoby and the anemia of academia

Russell Jacoby has always been a pot-stirrer, and he’s at it again. This time, Jacoby has taken on what he considers the convoluted composition and inane scholarship of a new book on utopias, which happens to be one of his own favourite topics.

Jacoby, a UCLA Professor of History, has long criticized his academic and Marxist political colleagues on two fronts — their trepid politics and their insipid scholarship.

It’s no accident that he was a major source and inspiration for Chris Hedges’s Death of the Liberal Class (which I reviewed here in February). With books like Dogmatic Wisdom and The Last Intellectuals, Jacoby has long traced what he considers the political abdication and academic irrelevance of the American professorial class.

It was Jacoby who in the late 1980’s coined the term “public intellectual” to distinguish the engaged academics (the ones whose disappearance Hedges laments) from the ingrown and inbred hyperspecialists who populate university Arts departments. (Stanley Fish, subject of last Wednesday’s posting, notably disagreed with Jacoby, changing the term to “cameo intellectual,” to describe those thinkers who are hauled out periodically by CNN or PBS to speak on this or that current issue.)

What prompts this article is an entertainingly intense dispute between Jacoby and Michael Burawoy, Past President of the American Sociological Association, over the worthiness of Envisioning Real Utopias by Erik Olin Wright, Burawoy’s successor at the ASA. Burawoy and Wright are the kind of academic for whom Jacoby has little time and less patience, as is clear from the content and tone of his review, which started the row. Calling his review “Real Men Find Real Utopias” (Dissent, Winter 2011), Jacoby begins disarmingly with an avowal of interest: “A BOOK on utopias by a Marxist sociologist seems promising, perhaps even courageous.” This disingenuously benign introduction continues with full flourish:

Even more promising, Wright wants his book accessible to those “not steeped in academic debates.”
Everything suggests Wright has the talent to pull it off. After all, he is no old-school Marxist crank or
outsider. He is a chaired professor who has just been elected president of the American Sociological
Association, the premier professional organization of the field. He often lectures at universities across
the globe.

It isn’t long before Jacoby takes off the sheep’s clothing and bares his teeth:

The book is startling and depressing evidence of what has happened to American academic Marxism,
at least its sociological variant, over the last thirty years. It has become turgid, vapid, and self-referential.


Wright’s gargantuan theoretical edifice, with its multiple appendages, add-ons, and attachments steals all attention from “real utopias,” about which he shows little enthusiasm. He is more eager to pronounce on how to think about how to approach the preconditions that underlie the claims that support “real utopias” or on the numerous principles and subprinciples of social transformation they infer than to tell us anything about these practical ventures. “Real utopias” for Wright exist as a subset of the broader enterprise of developing an emancipatory social science. It is dirty and difficult work but some conceptually rugged professor has to do it.

To get the full flavour of the bombardment Jacoby unleashes, you really have to read the entire review. One more passage, this one a nasty caricature of the theory-laden thinking of the academic hyperspecialist, will give enough of the tenor of Jacoby’s blast that we soon can move on to the responses:

We are only on page thirteen and already we have utopias that depend on a social science that depends on a theory of justice that breaks down into two parts, social and political, the first of which subdivides in three ways. The second task of Wright’s social science envisions alternatives, which can be evaluated by three different criteria: desirability, viability, and achievability. Some things can be desired, but not viable, and viable but not achievable. In case this is opaque, Wright thoughtfully diagrams it. … So far, Wright’s book might be classified as an Undesirable Nonviable Alternative.

Jacoby’s is no right-wing assault on a leftist enemy. He is a noted and long-time Marxist himself. His attack is not on the goals of Wright’s book, but on what he sees as its mushy ineptness. Jacoby ends his rant with this sarcastic observation:

With Wright as elected president of the sociological profession, the conservative nightmare of radicals taking over the university has in part come to pass. But if this book exemplifies academic Marxism, conservatives can rest easy. We should all fear, however, what it suggests about the contemporary university and its scholarship.

Michael Burawoy jumped quickly to Wright’s defense. In a response to the Dissent review, Burawoy scolded Jacoby:

Erik Olin Wright may not be Russell Jacoby’s favorite person—and indeed this is not the first time he has let fly at Wright—but that is no reason to put such enmity at the center of his review. As a historian, Jacoby has made his own important contributions to the study of utopias. Sadly in his review he chose to ridicule Wright rather than to engage constructively with one of the most important projects of twenty-first century social science. Jacoby loves to be a bad boy, but here he is just an anti-intellectual.

And, with his typical restraint and politeness, Jacoby had the last word for Burawoy:

You hardly say a word about the book itself. Everything is about the “project” and “context.” This might be called bait-and-switch: let’s not talk about the book that I reviewed, but the estimable project of which it is a part. I like the project too. So? The project does not redeem the book, which remains what I said it was: sociological gibberish.

No wonder Chris Hedges likes Russell Jacoby. The criticisms Jacoby makes of academic leftists lie at the heart of Death of the Liberal Class. I can’t imagine Hedges’s having written his book at all had he not first read Jacoby. In The Last Intellectuals, Jacoby wrote what Hedges’s book later would echo:

Younger intellectuals no longer need or want a larger public; they are almost exclusively professors.
Campuses are their homes; colleagues their audience; monographs and specialized journals their media. Unlike past intellectuals they situate themselves within fields and disciplines. … Their jobs, advancement, and salaries depend on the evaluation of specialists, and this dependence affects the issues broached and the language employed.

And to the complaint from the political right that universities are rife with radicals, Jacoby makes the sarcastic offer of a trade, one in which conservatives trade the levers of real power they control for the little, punchless fiefdoms of the left:

If life were a big game of Monopoly, one might suggest a trade to these conservatives: You give us one Pentagon, one Department of State, Justice and Education, plus throw in the Supreme Court, and we will give you every damned English department you want.

Jacoby’s new book, Bloodlust: The Roots of Violence from Cain and Abel to the Present (The Free Press), will be published in April. According to one available summary, Jacoby will once again take a contrary view, arguing that violence is rather a consequence of close familiarity than of clashes with strangers or outsiders.


One thought on “Russell Jacoby and the anemia of academia

  1. Prof. Jacoby is a sharp, provacative thinker who has often skewered the Academic Left. I say keep up the good analysis – and dam the “critical thinkers” who want to bring on social change (even Revolution) but for God’s Sake don’t double park outside the Quad building.

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