Dialectics of Revolutionary Learning

Against the Current, No. 193, March/April 2018

Mechthild Nagel

Revolutionary Learning:
Marxism, Feminism and Knowledge
By Sara Carpenter and Shahrzad Mojab
London, Pluto Press, viii + 152 pages, $28 paperback.

THE MAIN FOCUS of Revolutionary Learning, articulated in the Intro­duction as well as all six chapters, draws on Lenin’s theory of imperialism as a stage that haunts the contemporary lifeworld (monopoly capitalism, dispossession, finance capital).

The authors argue that educational theory needs the standpoint of revolutionary feminist praxis to transcend the shortcomings of intersectional feminism focused on discourses and “micro-power” analyses. Furthermore, this book refocuses adult critical education on the process of humanization, foregrounding consciousness and praxis, and shows an epistemological commitment to dialectical materialism.

The authors are co-editors of an earlier collection Educating from Marx: Race, Gender, and Learning. Sara Carpenter is assistant professor in educational policy studies at the University of Alberta and previously worked as an adult educator in both community organizations and higher education. Shahrzad Mojab is a scholar, teacher, and activist. She is professor of adult education and women’s studies at OISE/University of Toronto, and the editor of Marxism and Feminism (2015). [Professor Mojab’s article on capitalism and the refugee crisis appeared in ATC 183, https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/4693 — ed.]

Carpenter and Mojab undertake a critique of mainstream uses of ideology, its ontological reduction to class identity and concerned about the de-politicization and de-radicalization of ideology in educational theory. (12-13, 134). Their reorientation of ideology in Marxian terms is quite useful, and chapters 6 (“Capitalist Imperialism as Social Relations: Implications for Praxis, Pedagogy and Resistance”) and 7 (“Learning by Dispossession: Democracy Promotion and Civic Engagement in Iraq and the United States”) give rich illustrations.

I am quite sympathetic to their reading (as against Hardt and Negri’s more optimist rendering in Empire) of imperialism and colonialism, and its contemporary global violent, oppressive forms. Helpfully, they critique buzzwords such as “globalization” and “decolonization.”

In the context of introducing the oppressive mechanisms of neoliberalism, Carpenter and Mojab discuss the growth of the military-industrial complex, but surprisingly don’t mention the new forms of global surveillance and policing by something that activists have called the prison-industrial complex (cf. 131).

Similarly, one citizen is missing in their typology of different citizens as learners. While they mention the identities of the poor or marginalized, the entrepreneur who espouses the capitalist spirit, and finally those who are racialized and migrants, I am thinking here of the citizen who is a prisoner within a nation-state — or cast away as “enemy combatant” as a new form of global prisoner.

Learning by Dispossession

I find their novel term “learning by dispossession” very useful, in particular, by thinking of imprisoned intellectuals who get a dearth of adult education, e.g. in the apolitical form of correctional education in the United States. Their case study of “democracy training” (is it education?) in U.S.-occupied Iraq reveals the dynamics of gendered, orientalist, racist, colonialist story-telling to win over the captive audience to U.S.-centric ideals of authority and capitalist democracy. (136-39)

Their second case study foregrounds quite exquisitely the authoritarian ideology of the philosophy of civic engagement in its signature institution of AmeriCorps, referred to as a “domestic Peace Corps.” They point out how federal guidelines, conservatively interpreted by a state under their review, speak to silencing discourses of the participating students, who are indoctrinated to adhere to a neutral, nonpartisan viewpoint. (140, 142)

Learning by dispossession, drawing on David Harvey’s formulation “accumulation by dispossession,” gives us this important insight:

“(L)earning in capitalist social relations produces both new skills and knowledge as well as alienation and fragmentation of self/community. Ultimately, this “learning by dispossession” confuses learning, or the production of new knowledge, with the subjectification of capitalist and imperialist relations. In this way, the subject of learning becomes the object of dispossession.” (145)

The authors prove their critical point that the subject is forced to abide by the normative order of capitalist democracy while unable to critically analyze the miseducation they have received.

The majority of the chapters are republications and suffer from a repetition of the authors’ Marxist-feminist commitments and their adherence to frameworks (or pathways — not theories or methods) ranging from Lenin, Vygotsky, Mao, Paula Allman and Himani Banerji. (The advantage of repetition, of course, is that all chapters can be read independently from each other.)

In their version of Marxist feminism, Carpenter and Mojab draw repeatedly on Banerji’s analysis of the gendered, racialized subject, without explaining in detail how that analysis looks differently from an intersectional approach concerned with other diversity markers, such as gender expression and gender identity, which are missing in this book. In reviewing and trying to understand their emphatic insistence that they reject economistic reductionism, I come away with the feeling that insisting on this utterance does not make it so (cf. 82-83).

Their examples always focus on work and labor in a capitalist system without theorizing the obsolescence of work in a de-industrialized Global North. Dorothy Smith’s work is featured in the context of a critique of epistemic privilege espoused by non-Marxist feminists (62-63) and in the chapter on institutional ethnography (Chapter 5), but I do not get a sense of a nuanced analysis of subjectivation in terms of the triad of race, class and gender.

Paulo Freire’s analysis is mentioned only in passing while describing the problems of understanding reality in fragments. (60-61) Popular education discourse seems dominated by discussions of Freire’s famous critique of the banking method (discussed briefly in the Introduction, 17), and it would have been very useful to see how the authors critiqued the cooptation of certain ideas of Freire in the (neo)liberal education system.

Implications for Activism

As a former graduate student employee union organizer, I was eager to delve into this book dedicated to revolutionary learning in adult education. Our organizing drive drew inspiration from principles of Marxist feminism and a healthy suspicion of state labor laws that discounted our employee status and relegated us to the status of prisoners or mental health patients, both captives of the state.

We proceeded to organize outside the legal parameters, driven by the hope that the university administration would just have to cave in to our demands, if we had overwhelming support. We forced the issue by winning a strike for recognition, and later the state legislature followed suit by agreeing with us that graduate student at a public research university who get paid to work are in fact workers!

I was therefore surprised to read in Chapter 3 (“Learning and the ‘Matter’ of Consciousness in Marxist Feminism”) that Carpenter and Mojab seem to endorse Lenin’s critique of trade unions as bourgeois politics. (54-56) I would have hoped at least for some discussions of social unionism in the tradition of Cesar Chavez’s organizing food workers or Jobs with Justice.

Still, in Chapter 2 (“What is ‘Critical’ about Critical Educational Theory?”), they do offer the examples of “great adult education projects,” namely, the Antigonish movement and the Highlander Folk School, which influenced U.S. trade union progressive politics. (34-35)

The authors’ rather cautious exploration of revolutionary learning, in fact, only appears in the book’s later chapters (cf. Chapter 4, 86). Much of the analysis is dedicated to wholesale dismissal of intersectional feminism and, to a lesser extent, a critique of Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2000).

While revolutionary resistance is lauded in principle, few examples are mentioned: the failed Paris Commune of 1871; the Occupy movement; and a cursory discussion of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous peoples’ activism against femicide, the murder and disappearance of women in their communities.

Some discussion of the Movement for Black Lives would have been helpful, in particular to guide readers on whether the group’s manifesto is “guilty” of intersectional feminism or perhaps emulating some of the Marxist feminist tenets that the authors espouse.

The authors’ focus is quite clearly on negative critique, although they gesture at promises of resistance, even articulating the opposite to dispossession being reparation and the possibilities of unlearning. But I am still not sure what their version of decolonizing of consciousness looks like, and perhaps in their next work they will flesh out these practices in greater detail.

March-April 2013, ATC 193