Ron Radosh

Unfortunately -- He's Back, or You Can't Keep a Good Van Down

He’s back. In fact, he never went away. The Center for American Progress, John Podesta’s left/liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., announced that Van Jones has been appointed Senior Fellow working on Green policy initiatives. And then Princeton University announced that Jones has been appointed as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, as well as the Center for African-American Studies.  Jones has scored a “two-fer,” two appointments — two big salaries — all because of his outspoken left-wing views, and the notoriety he obtained largely due to Glenn Beck’s expose of his background before he was appointed to his former White House job as Obama’s Green Czar.  No wonder Jones keeps thanking Beck!

Princeton is particularly excited about their appointment: “We’re looking forward,” Princeton said, “to a year of intense engagement with Van. We hope to model the give-and-take that is a hallmark of a genuine learning environment.” Perhaps Van will start with a seminar on how 9/11 was a set-up orchestrated by the Bush administration. Oh yes, on a TV talk show last week, Jones explained how he has no idea how his name got on that “truther” petition, because of course, he does not hold such nutty ideas.

Immediately, the organizers replied that he had signed the petition in full knowledge of what he was signing. Of course they are right. The ideas behind it were perfectly consistent with the left-wing milieu that Jones was part of at that time. And what about Jones’ now well known espousal of ultra-left communist ideas, and his active work from1992 until 2002 in the small West Coast Marxist-Leninist organization STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement)? Jones has never been asked to repudiate those views, nor has he in the recent past disavowed them or even commented on them.

These ideas too are most welcome in the academy, especially in the ranks of some of our most elite schools. In other words, Jones should feel very much at home at Princeton and in their  Center for African-American Studies.  Eddie Glaude, the Chair of the African-American Studies Department and the William S. Tod Professor of Religion, stated that “for close to two decades, he has been addressing the complex issues of environment, poverty, race and politics.  His tenure at Princeton will bring to the Center for African American Studies and its students a nuanced understanding of these issues.”

What Glaude’s statement makes clear is a hidden truth about our universities today. They are, of course, private institutions that are free to make any appointments they choose. This is not the White House, where the public at large has or should have a say in the type of figure hired to represent the nation.

But what Jones has been known for is, in fact, the very opposite of a “nuanced understanding” of the issues. Indeed, it is precisely the opposite. In the 1920s, the late Italian Communist scholar and leader Antonio Gramsci developed his theory of “hegemony.” As Gramsci saw things, the leading front of revolutionary struggle was the culture. Revolutionary social and political change, he argued, could never be obtained without a prior cultural struggle for hegemony in the existing institutions, in which revolutionaries had to work to make the culture at large ready for social revolution.

So while most people saw political change taking place via elections and the ballot, the Gramscian Marxists believed that the proletariat would never reach the necessary stage of fomenting a revolution until intellectuals worked first to create an intellectual and moral leadership that would transform the culture at large. The result would be creation of what he called a “historic bloc” that could successfully challenge the control of social relations by the bourgeoisie and lead to the moment when revolution could become a reality.

To Gramsci, it was the role of the intellectuals to mold the thought of those influenced by them, and to help create  a group of “organic intellectuals” tied to the forces of social change and representing their true – i.e., revolutionary — interests. Little, I suspect, did Gramsci imagine that this role would be taken up within the major Ivy League institutions of higher education in the United States. But it has, and Princeton’s appointment of Jones reveals precisely this development.

The Gramscians believed that no revolutionary change could take place until civil society was first transformed by the intellectuals, after they had changed the culture. It was in the culture that the modern battle for revolution in advanced capitalism takes place — not in the factories where a steadily declining blue collar working class led their lives, as in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

So in moving to the academy, Van Jones is only carrying out what he said in a now famous East Bay Express 2005 interview: that while his goal was still revolution, he was going to work for it within the system, or as he put it, “ I’m willing to forgo the cheap satisfaction of the radical pose for the deep satisfaction of radical ends.”  Jones may have been forced to abandon his White House perch, but Princeton has given him a pretty good one. Gramsci might be smiling from his grave, but this isn’t something to celebrate if you are concerned about the state of America’s higher education.