The Poverty of Sociology

A member has written to us as follows:


   “I have just started a WEA course in Sociology and have purchased a copy of the book recommended by the author—Sociology: An Introductory Course by P. Selfe (Nelson £2).
Page 1 defines Sociology. ‘It studies the behaviour of people in a careful and scientific way. Sociologists study the way in which a society is organized’, and so on.
On page 55 we get a photograph of Marx and a chapter entitled ‘The Marxian Theory of Class’. It starts with definitions of the two main class groups and that Marx ‘argued that to own the means of production is to be in possession of political and economic power’. It goes on to say: ‘In his interpretation of history (which he claimed was a scientific interpretation) he placed a great deal of emphasis on the struggle between the owners of the means of production exploiting the class of wage earners. He predicted that after a succession of crises capitalism would collapse, a revolution would occur and power would be transferred to the proletariat, and a more egalitarian society would emerge. His concept of class was based on the single economic dimension — that of economic power. But sociologists do not consider that this alone is a satisfactory way of defining class membership. Furthermore, many of the predictions made by Marx in relation to his theory of class and social evolution have not been borne out. One can also question the extent to which it is possible to develop a “scientific view” of the unfolding of history and a blueprint for the ideal society. If you were to draw up a plan for the perfect society, how many of your friends would find it acceptable? Marx looked towards a society in which there would be complete equality between all citizens, no distinctions of status or class, total co-operation between all members, and the gradual elimination of any form of organized govrnment — the state eventually “withering away”. Some of his ideas have been put into a novel by William Morris entitled “News From Nowhere”.’

So much for Marx!
As this purports to be written in ‘a careful and scientific way’, would you care to comment?”


The most illuminating thing about this summary is that practically every sentence is wrong, and a WEA student who learned it by heart would have acquired a collection of erroneous ideas about Marx.


Classes and History
“The Marxian theory of class” is a theory Marxists have not heard of before. Marx laid down two detailed propositions: the materialist conception of history and the labour theory of value. The first deals with the reasons why societies take the forms they do and why they change, and the second is his analysis of capitalism.


Marx did not argue “that to own the means of production is to be in possession of political and economic power”. The contrary is true. A class cannot make itself effective as the owners of the means of production and distribution until it obtains political power. A large part of political history is about struggles to that end. Numerous examples can be given. In Britain, the upheavals of the 17th and 18th centuries were for the breaking-down of the rule of the monarchy and aristocracy as an essential to the replacement of feudalism by capitalism. The French Revolution had the same purpose. Similarly, the establishment of Socialism requires a political act, the conquest of the powers of government, to replace class ownership with common ownership.


Nor is it correct that class is based on “economic power” (or that this phrase has any meaning). Class is the relationship of groups of people to the means of production. In capitalism there are two classes only, owners and non-owners — capitalist class and working class. Rather loftily, the writer says “sociologists do not consider” that this is a satisfactory definition of class — without explaining why. Certainly society is riddled with “false consciousness” of class: do sociologists accept these conditioned evaluations, or do they seek categories in “a careful and scientific way”? However, the alleged concern is to render Marx’s view, and this is done—wrongly.


The writer shows another misconception in saying that “in his interpretation of history” Marx “placed a great deal of emphasis” on the struggle between those two classes. Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Prior to capitalism, many classes were involved. The critical struggles were not between slaves, plebeians or serfs and their masters, but between existing and aspiring ruling classes. Each time the outcome was, as The Communist Manifesto says, “either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” It is the class struggle under capitalism that is a confrontation between the owners of the means of production and wage-earners.


These mistaken observations are followed by a string of assertions which might be headed “fallacies about Marx”. First, Marx did not claim that as a result of crises capitalism would collapse. The idea of capitalism collapsing is drawn from a section in Volume III of Capital, “The Theory of the Law of the Falling Tendency of the Rate of Profit”; included in the chapter is a list of “counteracting causes”, which operate separately or together at different times against the tendency Marx described. Second, the sole avenue to revolution for Marx and Marxists is the working class organizing consciously: not to get “power transferred” to it (by whom?) but to take ownership and control of the means of living.


New World
To speak of a “more egalitarian” society “emerging” is completely misleading as to the nature of Socialism. Inequalities in society all arise from the single fundamental inequality between owners and non-owners of the means of production. When common ownership is established, all people then stand in the same relationship to society and its wealth. There is no question of inequalities being removed by degrees, as the words “more egalitarian” and “emerge” imply: they all go, as an organic consequence of the change.


The writer says Marx “looked towards” a society of complete equality in which there would also be “gradual elimination” of the state. It is true that when The Communist Manifesto was written in 1848 Marx and Engels had to take into account conditions which are now different; their preface to the 1872 edition observed that some measures they had proposed would be “very differently worded” after twenty-four years. They were perfectly aware, however of the state’s nature as “the executive committee of the ruling class” and that its function would end after the establishment of Socialism. Today we can say that would not be a gradual abolition but an immediate one.


The writer attributes to Marxism the idea of “a blueprint for the ideal society” and asks if people would find it acceptable. A reasonable question — only there is no blueprint; indeed, Engels pointed out that is was not Socialists’ business to provide “recipes for future cookshops”, or tell the working class what it was going to be like. The outlines of Socialism, implicit in common ownership, are: complete equality; free access to all the wealth of society and consequently no money; the absence of the problems of capitalism — wars, economic crises, poverty and the countless problems associated with it. People are at liberty to infer or surmise details about work, social life and effects in personal relationships. The important point is that whatever vision is formulated is not a strait-jacket for the entire community; Socialism will afford not a single way but many ways of life. In that connection, a final error must be pointed out. News From Nowhere is Morris, not Marx. Morris said he had never read Marx; conceivably, Marx might not have cared for Morris’s enthusiasm for the mediaeval. But does the writer not think Socialists capable of independent thought?


This is, of course, only one of a great many cockeyed accounts of Marx. The majority are found in weightier works where the author is concerned to push an economic or political viewpoint and claims “scholarship” for misrepresentations. The serious thing about this book is that it is an elementary work for students, and for a good many will provide their only information about Marx. Where do these garbled snippets masquerading as “careful and scientific” knowledge come from? They are notes, passed on in endless scrappy courses. A lecturer who hasn’t read Marx gives out the notes and comments he took from his lecturer; his students reproduce them, and any who become lecturers hand them on; one writes a study-course incorporating them, and they are turned into notes again . . . It is like the party game where a message is whispered from ear to ear round a circle, for the fun of the inevitable distortions — “Going to advance, require reinforcements” comes out as “Going to a dance, need three and fourpence”.


Any WEA student is recommended to write to us for some pamphlets and issues of the Socialist Standard that will put him in the picture, as well as Marx’s own work. There is no substitute.


Robert Barltrop