Nineteen sixty-seven, the year of the centenary of the publication of the first volume of Capital, was in some ways an embarrassing time. Suddenly, the derided minority who had struggled to win recognition for this work as the only effective analysis of capitalism were overwhelmed with friends of a doubtful kind. There was the Marx exhibition at the British Museum; the press treatment which, with the predictable exception of the Daily Telegraph, was reasoned and fair; there was the accolade of publication bestowed upon him by profit-conscious Penguin Books. Socialists welcomed this publicity but we were uneasy about the abrupt change of attitude. What did it all mean?
To appreciate the size of the change it is necessary to look back a little, at the ignoring of Marx, at the rejection and the deliberate distortion of his ideas and what he stood for. Greatest of these was the association of him with the Russian revolution and what came out of it. When the Cold War was at its most intense, it was almost impossible to find any assessment of Marx which read as if the writer had got past the first sentence of any of his works. Whatever exploit the Russian ruling class were involved in — their secret police, their show trials, the Berlin Wall — all were tagged with the name Marxist, implying that Marx would have approved and even supplied the theoretical justification for such crimes.
Then there was the misrepresentation of his ideas, the selective quotes which made him the discredited prophet of doom who foresaw the working class progressively dying of hunger and exposure while capitalism got on with cosseting them with cars, washing machines, televisions. Economists who daily ground out their narcoleptic commentaries on the futile gyrations of capitalism’s commercial machine busily put about the notion that Marx was a dull writer, a guaranteed cure for insomnia. There was a market for books which were a sort of compendium of this rubbish, books which purported to examine the Marx family life and which wrote him down as a demanding, irascible, petulant boor of a man. A Tory Cabinet Minister explained it all to an adoring audience by telling them that Marx suffered from boils on his bottom.
Socialists had grown wearily familiar with the need to hack away the undergrowth of this nonsense before we could begin to get over the idea that Marx’s works are essential to anyone who wants to understand society — how it came to be as it is and how it must be in the future. That is why we were uneasy at all those new friends and when we saw how acceptable he had suddenly become.
In fact, it had never been possible for Marx’s opponents to ignore him. The difficulty had been to persuade them to criticize what he wrote rather than what somebody else wrote that somebody else wrote that Lenin wrote that Marx wrote. It was rather like the party game when a phrase is whispered into an ear at one end of the line and comes out completely different at the other end. Now, it seemed, Marx’s critics had suddenly decided that as they couldn’t beat him he would have to join them. But on what terms, and what contribution were they asking from Marx?
Part of the explanation is in the post-war upheaval in education, which is responsible for more members of the working class being subjected to the hothouse treatment in universities. Students are paid to learn and to think — even about Marx. At the same time capitalism has seen the need to invest more resources into what can only be called people management. Industrial psychologists are a vital part of any intensive production unit. No company of any size can operate without its trouble-shooting personnel men. None would dream of trying to sell its goods without the help of advertizing agencies. Outside the workplace, the harsher effects of working class poverty are supposed to be deadened by the Social Work departments of local authorities.
These are all fields of operation for the sociologist, which has meant that the study of sociology has had its share of the great education boom. Sociologists might end up earning their living helping to compose ads for baked beans, but to do that they need to spend some years studying rather wider concepts of social affairs. This is where they run up against Marx, whose analyses uncovered the laws of motion of society and laid bare the workings of capitalism.
But at the same time as Marx became more acceptable there is an attempt to make him more respectable, to emasculate him, to shear off the revolutionary conclusions of his analyses and to treat him as just another contributor to the theories of sociology. Prominent among those who attempt this is T. B. Bottomore, whose book Karl Marx — Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy was first published in 1956 and came out as a Pelican in 1967. Bottomore appears to be fascinated by Marx:
In fact Capital is, among other things, one of the earliest, and still one of the most valuable, works of social history conceived in a sociological manner, i.e. as the history of social institutions.
but elsewhere (Sociology — a Guide to Problems and Literature — 1962) it is clear that he goes along with the vulgar misinterpretation which associates Marx with the overthrow of almost any government:
. . . in China and Cuba, the whole social structure is being refashioned under the influence of Marxist thought . . .
So it is unsurprising, that he can put Marx on a par with men more properly described as sociologists, with the more limited scope and application to capitalism’s needs which the description implies.
To expand on this point, let us look at the uses which Bottomore thinks a sociologist can put his knowledge to:
. . . dealing successfully and humanely with the complex problems arising from revolutionary advances in technology and sustaining an elaborate network of social services.
Or perhaps they will be attracted by the current advertisements for sociology graduates to become lecturers at the Civil Service College, where they will have to teach subjects with the chilling names of Human Resources Management and Organizational Behaviour.
These are the very stuff of sociology. A politician looking for more votes may well employ them to work out a more winning — in other words a more deceptive — line for the voters. A government looking into the resiting of industry or the development of communications will use them, to plot and to manipulate the movement of working-class population. In the advertising world the sociologists work upon strange gradations of workers, into herds which they tag with letters and numbers to denote their wage level, or describe confusingly as upper middle class, lower middle class, upper-lower middle class . . . Bottomore quotes one reviewer’s opinion of sociology (which even then has to be in sociological language): “. . . slick, bureaucratized, establishment-supported, computer-supported, computer-based, and status-quo orientated.” The reviewer meant to say that sociology fits in perfectly with, and is indeed a necessary part of, the capitalist machinery of exploitation.
The same cannot be said for Marxism. The analysis of society which it supplies is not there for its own sake; neither is it there to deal with the trivia of capitalism nor to make the wheels of exploitation run more smoothly. Marx did not examine history only to discover how and why human society works and changes as it does. He did not examine capitalism only to conclude that it is here. He followed it all through to the unavoidable end and emerged as a committed and active socialist, working for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a social system based upon common ownership. What could be more explicit than this, one of countless similar passages in his works:
The essential condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of all classes . . . The working class in the course of its development will substitute for the old order of civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will no longer be political power, properly speaking, since political power is simply the official form of the antagonism in civil society. (The Poverty of Philosophy).
And what could more clearly label Marx as a man who saw the need for political action to end capitalism than this, the final words of the Communist Manifesto:
Let the ruling class tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries unite!
The works of Marx are an essential tool to a revolutionary party, to be used for the overthrow of the social system whose exploitation and ugliness Marx examined so effectively. A small part of that ugliness can be seen in the discipline of sociology — the study of human environment, reaction and movement in order to manipulate it for the benefit of the ruling class, to tighten the chains about the workers. Marx simply cannot be associated with that. We should not be deceived by our new friends; they have not been able to beat Marx but neither can they pretend that he has joined them.