When going over the remarkably few discussions of the university as an institution in Marx’s writings, one is struck by how much importance he attaches to it as being tasked with forming and shaping the minds and habits of society’s educated classes, who, due in part to their educational privileges, are destined to become members of society’s ruling class. Marx is not particularly interested in a detailed examination of the university and how it fulfills its aforementioned role of producing and reproducing the ruling class. Rather, he ascribes that role to it by subsuming it under his categories of the economic and political, which are brought together in his conception of ideology. Put simply, universities produce the creators of ideology, which in turn are an expression of the ruling class’ ownership of the means of production. As Marx states in The German Ideology, “[t]he class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” (Marx 2010 [1845-46], 59). In a remarkable passage following shortly after, Marx describes a split in the ruling class emanating from this division between material and mental production. On the one hand, there are the intellectuals who occupy institutions of ‘mental production’ like the university, and on the other, there are those who work in the sphere of ‘material production’. It is worth quoting this at some length, as it goes to the core of Marx’s conception of the university as an institution with a crucial functional, reproductive role within his broader conception of capitalism. Moreover, it also reveals the contemporary significance of it for debates concerning the university and its potential for being a site of radical emancipatory politics. Marx goes on to say:

The division of labour […] manifests itself also in the ruling class as the division of mental and material labour, so that inside this class one part appears as the thinkers of the class (its active, conceptive ideologists, who make the perfecting of the illusion of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood), while the others’ attitude to these ideas and illusions is more passive and receptive, because they are in reality the active members of this class and have less time to make up illusions and ideas about themselves. Within this class this cleavage can even develop into a certain opposition and hostility between the two parts, which, however, in the case of a practical collision, in which the class itself is endangered, automatically comes to nothing, in which case there also vanishes the semblance that the ruling ideas were not the ideas of the ruling class and had a power distinct from the power of this class. (Marx 2010 [1845-46], 59-60)

Marx’s pessimistic view, that universities are essentially institutions of mental (re)production whose products are intellectuals perfecting the illusions of the ruling class about itself, is reiterated in his later work as well. While discussing the measures taken by the Paris Commune, he favorably refers to the establishment of “free universities [italics in original]” which are “no longer State parasites”, that is, tools in the hands of the ruling class (Marx 2010 [1871], 474). This also provides a clue as to how he imagines the cleavage between the intellectual and its “active” other in the ruling class can be resolved: by cutting off the university from its functional, reproductive role in capitalist society and its ties to the state. But for Marx this requires a revolution from outside the ruling (and hence also intellectual) class, namely by the proletariat—which, while it may find allies among intellectuals, must remain wary of their fickle, collaborationist nature. After all, intellectuals occupy a structurally distinct position from the proletariat in capitalist society, with the latter having no ownership over any means of production, while the former make their living from their ownership of the mental means of production. Marx’s distinction between these two different kinds of means of production is not often commented upon, yet it offers a key insight into his pessimistic view of the role of the university, and by extension intellectuals, as a distinctive social class in the praxis of emancipatory politics.

Is this pessimism warranted, and what is its relevance for contemporary debates concerning the university and the intellectuals it produces? The pessimistic thesis derived from the structural position of intellectuals within the broader capitalist system has had prominent recent and contemporary adherents, notably Noam Chomsky (2008) and Pierre Bourdieu (1988).1 But attempts have also been made to take a more optimistic approach, while maintaining elements of the structural critique of intellectuals and their institutional role. A prominent expression of this perspective can be found in Sartre’s A Plea for Intellectuals (1975), wherein he accepts the structural impediments standing in the way of intellectuals—and by extension the university—to be on the side of emancipation, but argues that it is possible to transcend these by constantly working toward adjusting one’s structural position, gearing it toward the subaltern (Sartre 1975, 261-262). How exactly is this to be achieved by the intellectual? According to Sartre, two elements are required, which directly engage with Marx’s pessimistic account:

(1) Perpetual self-criticism: he must not confound the universal – which he practices as a specialist in the field of practical knowledge […] with the singular efforts of a particularized social group to achieve universalization. If he poses as the guardian of the universal, he lapses at once into the particular and again becomes a victim of the old illusion of the bourgeoisie that takes itself for a universal class. He must strive to remain aware of the fact that he is a petty-bourgeois breaking out of his mould, constantly tempted to renourish the thoughts of his class. Thus an intellectual cannot join workers by saying: ‘I am no longer a petty-bourgeois; I move freely in the universal.’ Quite the contrary; he can only do so by thinking ‘I am a petty-bourgeois; if, in order to resolve my own contradiction, I have placed myself alongside the proletariat and peasantry, I have not thereby ceased to be a petty-bourgeois; all I can do, by constantly criticizing and radicalizing myself, is step by step to refuse—though this interests no one but myself—my petty-bourgeois conditioning.’ […]

(2) A concrete and unconditioned alignment with the actions of the underprivileged classes. […] How can a specialist in universality best serve the movement of popular universalization? Both in his capacity as one who can never be assimilated, and remains excluded even during violent action, and as a divided consciousness, that can never be healed. The intellectual will never be either completely inside the movement (thus lost within a too great proximity of class structures) nor completely outside it (since as soon as he begins to act, he is in any case a traitor in the eyes of the ruling class and of his own class, one who uses the technical knowledge they allowed him to acquire against them). Outlawed by the privileged classes, suspect to the under-privileged classes (because of the very culture he puts at their disposal), he can begin his work. (Sartre 1975, 261-262)

One could argue that the democratization of education over the course of the twentieth century, which greatly expanded access to the university for those with working-class and other subaltern backgrounds, along with the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which opened up space for more ‘radical’ intellectuals of the kind described by Sartre to join faculties and, at times, become influential within certain academic disciplines,2 there may be good reason to be more optimistic about the role of the university today. Whichever view one takes on the university and its potential for acting as a site for radical emancipatory change, one has to engage and grapple with Marx’s powerful analysis on the subject.