The Workers and Punks’ University

The Workers and Punks’ University (WPU) is a collective of students, researchers and activists who organise series of public lectures, workshops and seminars on issues that are both theoretically crucial and politically urgent. Located in the Autonomous Cultural Centre Metelkova and affiliated with the Peace Institute (Ljubljana, Slovenia), the WPU provides a radical local alternative to the academia as well as politics. Instead of degrees it offers public debate, and instead of expert knowledge – theory.

The WPU was established in 1998. Its board comprises students and activists who practice, in their organisational work, the politics of self-management. The core of the WPU represents a series of lectures on a topic selected by the board. The lectures given by both academic and independent researchers run each year from November till May. Tackling politically and socially relevant issues in an accessible and at once rigorous manner, they are aimed at a broad audience that actively contributes to discussions. The lectures are accompanied by reading seminars that either supplement the lectures or develop their own problematics, fostering in each case the interaction between the WPU and the community. To that aim, week-long symposia have been organised in recent years around May Day. In collaboration with Workers and Punks’ University, this year’s May Day School is organised by the Institute for Labour Studies with the support from the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.  Representatives of the WPU are also engaged in social struggles such as student demonstrations, union strikes and activist movements.

The topics of the WPU series of lectures have been:

Revolution (1998), Neo-conservatism (1999), The New Right (2000), The Left (2001), Utopistics (2001-2), May ’68 Revision (2002–3), Love and Politics (2003–4), Post-Fordism (2004–5), Political Ecology (2005-6), On Sin (2006–7), Totalitarianism (2007–8), Stupidity (2008–9), School as an Ideological Apparatus of Economy (2009–10), Class Struggle after Class Struggle (2010–11), Financialization (2011–12) and The Double Crisis of European Integration (2012–13).

A brief history of the Workers and Punks’ University

The WPU was formed in Ljubljana in 1998. It began as an attempt to break the stupefying silence that took over Ljubljana’s intellectual life in the 1990s after the intellectually and politically intense 1980s. When dreams and desires of the leftist intellectuals of the 1980s met, a decade later, with the cold reality of nationalism, ethnic chauvinism and restoration of capitalism with corresponding destructive social and political effects, there ensued a substantial withdrawal of intellect from the political field and public space in general. Of the once impressive intellectual movement of the 1980s remained but isolated cries for the preservation of the welfare state and against the cruelest forms of ethnic exclusion, but they were quickly lost in the all-pervasive wilderness of liberal and capitalist triumphalism. In such circumstances, the WPU tried to counteract the prevalent intellectual trend and reestablish a base for independent and critical thought. Its name referred at once to the leftist intellectual and cultural movements of the 1980s (punks) and a critique of the misery and conformism of the leftist thought in Slovenia in the 1990s (workers). At the same time, the WPU was formed as an independent intellectual and educational institution outside the university, which by the end of the 1990s has become a bastion of conservative nationalist and technocratic liberal ideology precluding any possibility of genuinely leftist theory except for a few miserable attempts to impersonate Western cultural studies.

Alas, the move from the official university to the NGO scene that was forming in those times of ample Soros funding proved to be no less problematic. In fact, despite its sincere benevolence and dedication to such noble causes as promotion of human rights and the rule of law, the NGO scene was at the forefront of the transformation of classic humanities theory into practical, applied, problem-solving and issue-related knowledge. The WPU therefore formed in most unfavourable circumstances as it was caught between the decadent university system and the NGOs that were eager to replace all historical achievements of the continental thought with second-hand Anglo-Saxon imports, unreflexive legalism and anti-theoretical discourse of discrimination, social exclusion, monitoring, European integration, etc. Nonetheless, the WPU managed to bring political issues back into the forefront of public space and debate – it spoke about revolution, May ’68, the New Left and New Right in the times when political topics, particularly those concerning revolutionary and leftist political legacy, were explicitly unwelcome in the political and academic sphere.

A few years later, the WPU grew and expanded its programme. At first, the programme consisted of only a few lectures each year, which progressively grew to about twenty  lectures, with reading seminars and film projections added as well. Today, the WPU organises each year 5 to 6 reading seminars, a film seminar, a lecture course and an intense workshop during the May-Day week. Reading seminars so far consisted of reading Adorno, Althusser, Benjamin, Hegel, Lukács, Marx and other classics, as well as diverse authors from several relevant fields such as biopolitics, the Knowledge Society or the Asian mode of production. Together, reading seminars and lectures present a socially conscious, politically engaged and theoretically rigorous alternative to standard university teaching in both content and institutional form. Regarding content, the WPU focuses on reading classics and selecting texts pertinent to relevant social and political processes, thus offering an alternative to the repetitive and largely irrelevant body of knowledge taught at the university. And as for the institutional form, the WPU is egalitarian and inclusive as all WPU events are free of charge and open to everyone regardless of age, social status, financial situation or education. There are also no formal exams and titles; anyone who shows enough interest and skill can attend, teach and organise events.

The WPU has managed to activate an entire generation of young intellectuals by offering them a space to organise reading groups, lectures and discussions outside the stifling, gerontocratic and status-driven academic milieu. Recently, it has also began to expand its scope and collaborate with workers, teachers, immigrants, cultural workers, journalists, trade unions, etc. While the problems with the university and the NGO scene persist and were not corrected by the WPU’s activities, the WPU nonetheless offers an alternative form of education and a platform for developing critical leftist theory.

In recent years, members of the WPU have focused on the critique of political economy. Annual series of lectures have been devoted to issues of Ideological state apparatuses, Class struggle, Financialisation and, in the year 2012–13, to the Euro crisis. Accompanying these lectures are reading seminars devoted to Marx’s Capital, Class theory, the Knowledge society and the Value form. Pledge to Marxist theory is also seen through the themes of our May Day Schools: the most recent of these week-long annual workshops have been devoted to Marx’s Grundrisse; the heritage of Yugoslav Socialism; and the Left perspectives on European integration.

We strongly believe that beside theoretical considerations, Marxism must also entail a commitment to a specific political practice – socialism. As members of the WPU, we have been actively engaged in the protests and upheavals against the ruling élites and the austerity measures that have been brutally intensified in Slovenia in recent months. We have argued that the rule of law, the fight against corruption and for more honest politicians will not solve the structural problems caused by capitalism. Instead, we are protesting under the banner of ‘Democratic Socialism’, arguing that only a socialist party that will embody the rank and file organisation as well as the platform for expressing the interests of various social movements can truly challenge the rule of capitalism.