Still Crazy After All These Years: Marxists at the Modern Language Association Convention

If a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, an academic Marxist is a Leftist who’s been mugged by reality but is still doing his best to fight it off. An interesting selection of these folks could be seen at this year’s annual convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA), billed as “the largest gathering of teachers and scholars in the humanities.”

Last Thursday evening’s “Cash Bar Arranged by the Marxist Literary Group” was a dreary-looking gathering. I stopped by so I could say I’d been to a Marxist cash bar, but also to see what our homegrown Leftists are up to, 16 years after the spectacular collapse of Marxist theory on the world stage. (It turned out there was no nonsense about “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need” at the Marxist cash bar—soft drinks were $4 each, regardless of economic class or ability to pay.)

I introduced myself to a professor who said he was the author of “Hard-Boiled Masculinities.” This is a book that’s just been published by the University of Minnesota Press and, according to its publicity material, explains the “tough guy” in the American literature of the ’20s and ’30s as “a product of cultural fantasy, one that shored up gender and racial stereotypes as a way of lashing out at the destabilizing effects of capitalism and social transformation.” I tried engaging this expert on tough guys in some discussion about “Light in August,” the Faulkner novel he said he had used in his book, but he kept looking down at my conference badge, which had no university affiliation on it. He seemed nervous about talking to me, and finally told me he just wanted to make sure I wasn’t a reporter who might write something negative. When I answered, “Well, I might,” he declined further conversation and sped away. Demonstrating his soft-boiled masculinity, I guess.

Earlier that day the MLA delegates had—to no one’s surprise—voted to oppose the Academic Bill of Rights that David Horowitz and Students for Academic Freedom are trying to get incorporated into legislation in several states. “[S]peaker after speaker,” Inside Higher Ed reports, “rose to complain about ‘right wing’ attacks on higher education”; but moderate delegates did manage to delete language characterizing the aim of the Academic Bill of Rights as “the teaching of ‘conservative’ ideas that cannot win support through their own merit” from the resolution.

Horowitz is clearly scaring the Left. He was the bogeyman repeatedly invoked the next afternoon by the panel organized by the Radical Caucus in English and the Modern Languages, the folks who had originally proposed the anti-Academic Bill of Rights resolution to the MLA delegate assembly. This was the second of two panels at the convention addressing “Academic Work and the New McCarthyism.” Montclair State University’s Professor Grover Furr, the respondent for the panel, is known for his vigorous defense of Stalin and for his view that we need more Marxists, not more conservatives, teaching in American universities (“we can never have too few ‘conservatives’” as professors, is Professor Furr’s position). The panelists and the audience may possibly not have been as enthusiastic about Stalin as Professor Furr, but they were clearly thinking along the same lines on the subject of who ought to be teaching in our colleges. Michael Bennett of Long Island University got some laughs by dismissing “conservative ideas” as “an oxymoron.”

One member of the audience stood up to share her discouragement since the fall of Soviet communism: She now finds herself wondering whether communist or socialist worlds are really possible. Professor Bennett did his best to cheer her up by pointing out that a Radical Caucus panel is planned for next year’s MLA convention with the title “Other Worlds Are Possible.” I wouldn’t count on any of these folks’ coming to terms with the world we’re actually living in, between now and then.