Flow of Ideas
When the Bowers Break


Glenn Rikowski, London, 22nd February 2007


Bower: "a shady leafy shelter or recess, as in a wood or garden" (Collins, 1989, p.148).


Introduction

The recent debate between C.A. "Chet" Bowers and Peter McLaren in the pages of the journal Capitalism, Nature Socialism (see Bowers, 2006 and 2007; and McLaren 2007) has raised significant issues regarding the relationships between struggles for socialism, a commitment to critical pedagogy (especially that based on the work of Paulo Freire) and attending to the ecological crisis. However, I shall not summarise these debates here, but rather raise some questions about Bowers' approach to Marxism and education which touches on my own work.


Confessions in the Shade

According to Bowers (2007, p.109), Peter McLaren has got him seriously wrong when he claims that he (Bowers) is a "rabid anti-Marxist". Bowers wishes to remain within an extremely broad church that is 'Marxism', for him. Bowers stakes his claim to be some kind of Marxist thus:

"I read Marx and used several of his books in my graduate classes up until the mid-eighties, as well as the writings of the major critical theorists when most radical educators were still focused on the economic determinism of Bowles and Gintis" (2007, p.110).

So, our erstwhile Marxist read Marx amongst many other major critical theorists. I wonder who these theorists were. Max Weber? Max Horkheimer? But for Bowers, there was nothing special about Marx: he was just one critical theorist amongst many that he checked out during his postgraduate days.

My own commitment to Marx and Marxism was much deeper and more long lasting. I did not view Marx just one amongst many critical theorists that I could use to understanding and critique capitalist education and training: I decided over 30 years ago that Marx was the theorist for getting to grips with the role and significance of education in capitalist society. Through reading Marx, I discovered that education and training in capitalism are implicated in what I have called, since the early 1980s, the social production of labour power in capitalism. Labour power is the unique commodity in capitalist society: its utilisation in the capitalist labour process creates greater value (which is incorporated in commodities) than it takes for its own social reproduction (for more on this see: Rikowski, 2006). It is the basis of capitalist production. But for Bowers, Marx was just one amongst many critical theorists for understanding education: of no special significance. Then he reveals his real attitude to Marx and Marxism:

"However, I decided that using the language of various interpretations of Marxism would prevent me from being taken seriously by the larger audience of educators whom I hoped would recognize the importance of the early scientific warnings about the degradation of the natural systems that human and other forms of life depend upon" (Ibid.). This says a lot about Bowers' attitude to Marx and Marxism: he viewed these as academic embarrassments. Either that or he entirely wimped out and hid any insights he had gleaned from his readings of Marx. Or, perhaps, he made a careerist calculation: that if he used the language of Marx and Marxism then that would put his academic career in jeopardy. I don't know; only Bowers can really tell us about his motivations.

Yet his feeling that the language of Marxism wouldn't be taken seriously is a phenomenon I have encountered a number of times from my own experience. Bowers yearned to be taken seriously by the academic community; and his careerism dashed any possibility that his Marxist readings might usefully inform his writings. In education departments in higher education, in career planning within said departments, in education journals and amongst managements in education departments in universities, there is no doubt prejudice against Marx and Marxism. I have witnessed it. Yet it shows intellectual cowardice to pander to these prejudices, and this is what Bowers ends up doing according to his own account: he seems to be a careerist, and an intellectual coward.

Being charitable, perhaps Bowers felt that his knowledge of Marxism was insufficient, so he could not bring it to bear sufficiently on explaining and critiquing what was going on in education. In the late 1970s, my own knowledge of Marxism was deficient: so I just read lots of Marx! Yet, if indeed Bowers' knowledge of Marxism is not up to much (by default), then he is not in a great position to criticise Peter McLaren's Marxism. He claims (2007, p.110) that he is not doing so, yet on the very same page he argues that:

"It's interesting to not that in McLaren's recent book, Capitalists & Conquerors, his [McLaren's] attempt to link a critical pedagogy with ecosocialist scholarship fails to identify strategies of resistance in classroom practice that even Marxist teachers would fail to find useful and they are such a minority that they could not be counted upon to reverse the environmentally destructive pathway that public schools and universities now perpetuate" (2007, pp.110-111).

This sounds like a criticism of McLaren's Marxism to me: he (McLaren) is apparently not providing Marxist teachers with 'strategies of resistance' that they can use in the classroom which is a bit rich when the likes of Bowers refuse to use the language of Marxism at all, and thereby marginalise this language and effectively despise it. This hypocritical and twisted argument by Bowers takes another turn when he argues that Marxist teachers are a minority; they are therefore not worth bothering about. The shady Bowers wants a following of millions, it seems:

"I think I was correct in this decision to not use the language of Marxism. Unfortunately I erred in my judgement about educators taking seriously the early warnings about the environment" (2007, p.110).

So Bowers might have used the language of Marxism after all! With hindsight, he had nothing to lose: the great mass of educators took no notice of his ecosocialism either, it seems. But then, the poor man was so confused about Marxism:

"There were just too many interpretations of central issues of Marx's thinking, and with the exception of Murray Bookchin, there were few if any Marxists at that time [the mid-1980s] addressing environmental issues" (2007, p.111).

This is similar to the kind of plaintive cry I sometimes get from first year undergraduate students: "Oh, there are so many interpretations! Which is the right one? How do I choose?" Simple solution in Bowers' case: read Marx! Rather than bleating about the "many interpretations" of Marx why did not Bowers just read Marx and make up his own mind?


Industrialism and Capitalism: Graduate Classes Forgotten?

It does appear that Bowers' reading of Marx had virtually zero impact on his thinking, despite his own claims to have taken this mighty thinker seriously. He still prefers to use the notion of the "industrial system of production" rather than the concept of "capitalism" in his analyses (see 2007, p.111). With this brush, he paints the old Soviet Union, China, North America and Europe all the same, along with any future, emerging or possible societies incorporating industrial production. Yet it is difficult to see where Bowers can go with this concept. It would seem to me that any radical and useful ecosocialism must start out from a critique of capitalist society: the sort of society we live in and which now defines our known social universe. I would imagine this is another of Bowers' nods to mainstream sociology, where the notions of industrial society and industrialism come from.

Bowers' quaint association with the concept of industrial society hampers his critical insight. It also establishes a barrier to his linking up with truly radical ecosocialists such as John Bellamy Foster. Bowers' traditionalism and conformism is debilitating, theoretically and politically. In his article (Bowers, 2007), he breaks his own bowers: his leafy shady cover in conventional social science when he ventures to mess with something he clearly does not understand: Marxism.


Conclusion

Chet Bowers has a very confused, hypocritical, careerist, and opportunist attitude to Marxism in educational thinking. He means well, perhaps. Yet I fail to see why others should work with his limited and weak conception of critique when he fails even to recognise the goal of his own critical moments: capitalist society.


References

Bowers, C.A. (2006) Silences and Double Binds: Why the Theories of John Dewey and Paulo Freire Cannot Contribute to Revitalizing the Commons, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, Vol.17 No.3 (September), pp.71-87.

Bowers, C.A. (2007) A Response to McLaren's Revisionist Interpretation of Freire, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, Vol.18 No.1 (March), pp.109-118.

Collins (1989) Collins Concise Dictionary, London & Glasgow: Collins.

McLaren, P. (2007) Peter McLaren Responds, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, Vol.18 No.1 (March), pp.99-108.

Rikowski, G. (2006) Education and the Politics of Human Resistance, Information for Social Change, No.23 (summer): http://libr.org/isc/issues/ISC23/B3%20Glenn%20Rikowski.pdf


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