Sociology or Socialism?

This is the era of the social worker. Over the last twenty years in Britain the number of welfare workers, probation officers, and social workers has quadrupled. In addition to these 20,000 fieldworkers there are now about 87,000 home helps and a similar number of residential workers in homes for old people, children, the disabled and the mentally disordered. All of these are employed by the state and local authorities.

In industry too, there has been a steady growth in personnel departments, while in the voluntary field there has been the growth of what might be called the new charities. Organisations like Shelter, The Samaritans, Child Poverty Action Group, Help the Aged, British Pregnancy Advisory Service, refuges for battered wives, groups to help alcoholics and drug addicts agoraphobics, organisations to give advice on marriage problems, legal problems, sexual problems. They have all grown up to try to deal with the casualties of capitalism.

When the post-war economic boom finished and the amount of money available for social work began to dry up, social workers in particular found themselves in a very different position. While the needs, as they saw them, were increasing on every side, their numbers and the funds at their disposal were cut or held ruthlessly in check. For those who had entered social work full of idealism it was a considerable shock. They were sandwiched between pressure from their bosses above and the clamour from their ‘clients’ below. In addition, they found that there was still a pressure from outside: a large number of people with idealism like their own, wanted to do social work and get paid for it.

Like the craft unions of the past, like doctors and teachers and psychologists, social workers have begun to defend their position with qualifications. With these they have started to set themselves above and apart from those people forced to go to them for help. and to warn amateurs like friends and neighbours and relations against offering ‘inexpert’ help. They are the experts because they have studied the social sciences especially psychology and sociology, and they think they know how society works and how people should be treated.

When we look at the social sciences, however, it becomes clear that they are unscientific in a number of ways. As mental training for social workers, modern sociology and psychology serve the purpose very well, because they provide an ideology which persuades a large number of idealists to work hard at the interminable task of patching up and supporting capitalism. But as objective studies of what goes on in modern society they are in many senses worse than nothing because they promulgate fictions and obscure the facts.

Social scientists have responded to the criticism that they are unscientific over the years in two ways. Some have striven to make their work as similar to the natural sciences as possible in trying to construct experiments in which every factor is controlled and only the variable being studied is altered. The trouble with this approach is that it too often confines itself to the trivial. In the first volume of the European Journal of Behavioural Analysis and Modification, April, 1975, is a seven page article which gives an account of an experiment in which twenty homosexual men were shown slides of erotic pictures while the changes in volume of their penises were measured with a “mercury-in-rubber strain gauge’. In following pages, a critic observes that the five researchers were really measuring the change in the diameter of the penis, not the volume, and so their results were not very reliable. He also goes into detail about the experimental methods he used with ‘unco-operative subjects’. The silliness of it all does not obscure the sinister implications in the title of the journal.

The other stance taken up by social scientists (notably sociologists) is to admit that a human study like theirs cannot be scientific in the same way as physics and chemistry because of the complexity of the phenomena. But there is a very strong tendency for sociologists to use this as an excuse for being less scientific than they could be. What really causes them to be unscientific is something quite different, something not related to the inherent difficulties of the study at all. And this is simply that they avoid studying any aspect of capitalism that would bring out radical criticism of it. Superficial criticism occurs in abundance. They discuss crime, job dissatisfaction, aspects of poverty, aspects of alienation, and many of the pointless ways in which workers try to make their lives tolerable and meaningful in this society.

Such sociologists only ever examine the working class and various groupings and strata within it. When they talk of class they mean sub-divisions of the working class. What they never study is the capitalist, the member of this society who, because he owns and invests wealth employing workers, has no need to work, and can be unconcerned about all the sociologists’ fetishes of role and status because his wealth ensures these things. The capitalist class form roughly 10 per cent of the population. Their interests lie in direct opposition to the people the sociologist studies. And yet it is their ideas and attitudes that are the dominant ones in this society and are fed down to the workers, including the sociologists. It is even a capitalist idea that there is no such thing as a capitalist, that we are all workers: some of us work hard in factory machine shops or offices or mines; others work hard at fox-hunting or polo or yacht racing. And sociologists behave as though capitalists do not exist. The consequence of this is that, if we have a grouse about our own living standards, or if we make a more calculated criticism of the pollution, repression or destruction that are part and parcel of the modern capitalist world, the social scientist will explain that we are simply reacting against ‘society’, an aggregation of individuals like ourselves. Under the guise of an objective science, sociology, together with its related disciplines, is really a system of apologetics for capitalism. From Auguste Comte down to Talcott Parsons, sociologists and social psychologists have obscured the irreconcilable conflict of interests between the working class and the capitalist class. They have diverted attention away from what really makes like boring, stressful, frustrating and dangerous for the majority of the population. Even ‘left wing’ sociologists, who dimly perceive that they serve this purpose, and criticise the superficialities of life in capitalist society even more bitterly, serve capitalism all the more faithfully. Their function is to sound the warning bells about its weak points.

It is perhaps a sweeping generalisation to say that all sociology is a reaction against Marxism, but the number of times that Marx is mentioned and then ‘brought up to date’ or ‘corrected’ is uncountable. Talcott Parsons, in his essay “Social Classes and Class Conflict in the Light of Recent Sociological Theory” (Essays in Sociological Theory, Free Press, 1964) puts it like this:

    “Thus class conflict and its structural bases are seen in a somewhat different perspective. Conflict does not have same order of inevitability, but is led back to the interrelations of a series of more particular factors, the combinations of which may vary. Exactly how serious the element of conflict is becomes a matter of empirical investigation. Similarly, the Marxian utopianism about the classlessness of communist society is brought into serious question. There is a sense in which the Marxian view of the inevitability of class conflict is the obverse of the utopian factor in Marxian thought.

    It should, however, be clearly noted how important Marx was in the development of modern sociological thought. All three of the writers who may be regarded as its most important theoretical founders—Vifredo Pareto, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber—were profoundly concerned with the problems raised by Marx. Each of them took the Marxian view with great seriousness as compared with its utilitarian background, but none of them ended up as a Marxian. Each pushed on to a further development in a distinctive direction which in spite of the diversity of their backgrounds contains a striking common element.”

That common element, of course, is support for capitalism to which Parsons also devotes himself. And when Parsons talks of ’empirical investigation’ to see ‘exactly how serious the element of conflict is’ it is plain that he is indulging in pseudoscientific talk, or else he has never properly understood what Marx was saying.

It is quite true that Marxism, the approach of the revolutionary socialist, looks at societies, past, present and future in all their aspects from the point of view of one class — 90 per cent of the population of the industrialised world. The Marxist declares: ‘These are facts; deny them if you can: the privations and frustrations and dangers suffered by so many thousands of people — all of the working class — cannot be talked away. They are necessary features of a class dominated, exploiting society’.

But the socialist goes further and says it is not enough merely to study capitalist society. Any member of the working class (and that includes most sociologists these days) should want to replace it with a better society as soon as possible, and so should be politically active towards this end. It is not enough, either, to be a social worker, because the task of trying to care for the casualties is hopeless in the long run. Capitalism will continue to cripple far more than can ever be coped with.

Ron Cook

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