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Socialist Party of Great Britain Polemic - From an Open University to a Closed Mind


Marxist Subversives” at the Open University

In the late 1970’s, after a hard day’s night studying to meet an essay dead-line, students would crash-out in front of the television-set to watch the Open University begin its early morning transmission. There they would watch, through glazed eyes, monochrome coloured philosophers discussing the almost impenetrable prose of Hegel’s Logic or demonstrating Hume’s missing shade of blue.

At the time the OU was a trendy and radical university attracting to its courses mature students some with Socialist backgrounds. And if the Daily Mail was to be believed, a place full of hardened “Marxist” lecturers and outrageous Summer Schools whose activities were reported by this scurrilous rag with mock shock-horror to feed the censorious but often empty and bored lives of its readership.

The conservative politician, Keith Joseph, later Lord Joseph, was informed by his Centre for Policy Studies and other odd-ball Tory “think tanks”, that the Open University was teaching “Marxism” as though that in itself should have been controversial in a “seat of learning” where there is supposed to be the active pursuit of disinterested scholarship and the search for the truth. Without studying the facts, in October 1984 Keith Joseph launched a hysterical and vitriolic attack against “subversives” and “Marxists” in higher education, particularly at the OU.

What was the “Marxist subversion” being taught? The material in question was being used for the OU’s Social Sciences Foundation Course on economics. The course printed material using a mongrel system – i.e. on one page there was a description of the Adam Smith/David Ricardo version of a labour theory of value while on another page there was, what students were told, the ‘Marxist’ version – only it wasn’t! It was early Marx – before he had understood how exactly surplus value came about. Marx was to later remark that “the price of labour” when taken in context with his labour theory of value was as “irrational as a yellow logarithm” (CAPITAL VOL. III Ch. 48 Section III). Students on the course were told that workers sold their labour rather than their labour power– something many on the capitalist Left in their ignorance still think is the case.

The Course leader was Stuart Hall who was at the time associated with the theoretical journal, MARXISM TODAY, published by the Communist Party of Great Britain. Under the editorship of Martin Jacques and with contributions from Hall and the unapologetic Stalinist historian, Eric Hobsbawn, the journal created the paper tiger known as “Thatcherism”.

Thatcherism was a convenient political myth by which to hide the intellectual bankruptcy of the capitalist left; the failed nationalisation and Keynesian programmes of the Labour Party and the totalitarian horror of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries. Then after 1989, MARXISM TODAY became MARXISM YESTERDAY and its editor and contributors left to set up pompous sounding policy institutes around the Labour Party and to cheer on Tony Blair’s government as it went from one war to the next.

Ironically, in April 1975, Lord Joseph had previously debated with The Socialist Party of Great Britain where his woeful lack of understanding of Marx’s critique of capitalism was clearly demonstrated. Such was Joseph’s ignorance of Marxian economics that after the debate he rushed out the following day to buy a copy of CAPITAL to best understand the Marxian account of money and inflation. Yet, here he was, ten years later, unable to appreciate the difference between “labour” and “labour power”. At the time, Joseph was the Tory Party’s leading intellectual and expert on all things Monetarist. He had recently set up with Margaret Thatcher the Monetarist think tank, the Centre of Policy Studies to counter the hold Keynesianism had on the mainstream capitalist parties and to boldly go and “think the unthinkable”. The problem though with all conservative thinking; it was the highest form of ignorance and the lowest form of thought.

What of the “Marxists” at the OU? Neither Stuart Hall nor whoever wrote the course material understood the important distinction Marx made between labour and labour power. As for Keith Joseph, we still do not know to this day his and Margaret Thatcher’s reaction at being told by Professor Milton Friedman, the leading Monetarist of his day, that, misleadingly, Marx was “one of us”. And did Keith Joseph ever open the copy of CAPITAL he bought in 1975 or does it still remain unread somewhere in the basement of the Centre of Policy Studies in Tufton Street, London subject to the gnawing criticism of the mice.

He’s back”!

In recent years, right up to the economic crises of 2008, the OU, like most universities became increasingly business friendly. Its economic courses often celebrated “the Joy of capitalism” and an uncritical teaching of neo-classical economics centred on the process of commodity production and exchange for profit.

Then came the economic crisis; economists were largely discredited for telling politicians that capitalism would no longer be subject to “boom and bust” and the economic profession was held in contempt for producing mathematical and statistical models which could not explain the economic movement of the real world. Begrudgingly, Marx’s works were begun to be read again, even by the former French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who was photographed leafing through a copy of CAPITAL on the way to a European conference to discuss the economic crisis, while THE TIMES in October 2008, screamed out to its readership “He’s Back”.

In September 2012, the BBC in conjunction with the Open University broadcast a three part programme on the MASTERS OF MONEY which included a one hour session discussing the economic and monetary ideas of Karl Marx. Marx was given a one hour slot written and presented by the BBC’s economic editor, Stephanie Flanders, now on her way to a comfortable job in the City, who then set about to largely trivialise and distort his ideas.

It is doubtful if Ms Flanders had ever read Marx’s CAPITAL, even when she was studying at Oxford University in the late 1980’s alongside the two Ed’s, Balls and Miliband. This was a time of “market fundamentalism” and the belief in the magic of the market. All forms of planning was being criticised by market evangelists while the ideas of F. A. Hayek and the free market prevailed over the discredited ideas of Keynes.

If Ms Flanders could be excused for her ignorance in respect to Marx and money then there was no excuse for the BBC’s OU consultant who should have known better. However, the economist, Alan Shipman’s own research background gives no evidence as having been acquainted with the works of the mature Marx and he seems oblivious to the central presentation and methodology of Marx’s critique of political economy; a case of the blind leading the blind.

And it showed. True, there was only one hour to put across Marx’s ideas, many of which are unfamiliar to a general audience, but how can you begin a discussion on Marx and Money without first introducing his labour theory of value? For Marx, the value of a commodity is the socially necessary labour time that goes into its production and it is only after the value-form of the commodity, including labour power, is analysed in detail that you can move on to other economic categories like money, capital and banking.

Then there is the glaring absence of an explanation of the generation of surplus value in the productive process through class exploitation. Surplus value was considered by Marx as one his most important discoveries in his critique of political economy. How can you discuss wage labour under capitalism without first explaining class exploitation? Perhaps this was a step too far for the BBC?

And surely if you are then going to discuss economic crises, trade depressions and high levels of unemployment why not discuss Marx’s account of the trade cycle. An awareness and understanding by Marx of the anarchy of commodity production and exchange for profit during the trade cycle led him to show economic crises were a periodic necessity in order to resolve the contradictions inherent in capitalist production.

And why not give an account of how Marx demolished Say’s law and the economic belief in the harmony of the market? And why give the impression that Marx was an underconsumptionist when he clearly rejected such an account as a cause of economic crises just as he never stated that capitalism would collapse? In fact, in THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE he said quite the opposite; “there are no permanent crises”.

As for Flanders central thesis that Marx’s explanation that the cause of crisis was that wages were too low, then it was answered in the negative by Marx himself in the second volume of Capital where he pointed out that on the eve of a crisis wages are actually going up.

This is what Marx wrote:

It is pure tautology to say that crises are caused by the scarcity of solvent consumers, or of a paying consumption. The capitalist system does not know any other modes of consumption but a paying one, except that of the pauper or of the "thief". If any commodities are unsalable, it means that no solvent purchasers have been found for them, in other words, consumers (whether commodities are bought in the last instance for productive or individual consumption). But if one were to clothe this tautology with the semblance of a profounder justification by saying that the working class receive too small a portion of their own product, and the evil would be remedied by giving them a larger share of it, or raising their wages, we should reply that crises are precisely always preceded by a period in which wages rise generally and the working class actually get a larger share of the annual product intended for consumption. From the point of view of the advocates of "simple" common sense, such a period should remove a crisis (Chapter XX Section IV Kerr ed. page 476).

Then there were the visual images which linked Marx with the Russian revolution and subsequent events culminating with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The programme seemed to imply that because Marx was unable to give any “blue-print” for Communism, the absence of any detailed plan led straight to the failed economic experiment of the Bolshevik’s in Russia in 1917, then on to the totalitarian state, gulags and finally to the violence and oppression associated with the Stasi’s headquarters in East Germany. And the conversion of Marx’s’ family home in Trier into a museum selling tat to visitors, largely from China, also implied that Marx no longer had any intellectual or political relevance for the modern world except as a part of the German tourist industry.

Marx’s critics seem to want a detailed specification of Socialism/Communism right down to the last screw before deeming it a practical alternative to capitalism. Was Adam Smith ever asked for a detailed description of capitalism by his Feudal detractors; could he ever have sketched out from the 18th century what capitalism would have been like in the 21st century?

The usual suspects were reeled out in opposition to Marx and what they misunderstood for Socialism/Communism (both words mean exactly the same thing). First there was the former SWP activist, now Daily Mail journalist Peter Hitchens who claimed utopias are always and everywhere dystopias only ever reached across a sea of blood, conveniently ignoring the sea of blood capitalism has spilt over the last two centuries. And second there were a number of “talking heads” from the various free market think tanks which encircle Westminster, whose attachment to capitalism was theological in its blind and uncritical acceptance of the profit system. Their comments were tame but predictable.

Stephanie Flanders added her own “reasons” why workers should not subscribe to Socialism/Communism. “Workers had shares and private pensions” she opined, as though both income streams somehow protected the working class from the harshness, exploitation and unpleasantness of capitalism. As for those “defending” Marx’s position – Martin Jacques (one-time supporter of Russian State Capitalism until he reinvented himself as a Keynesian and New Labour devotee) and the perpetual adolescent rebel, Tariq Ali (a long-time contributor to the NEW LEFT REVIEW), the least said the better.

The politically charged images and poverty of the programmes’ contributors apart, that the BBC and the Open University were forced, kicking and screaming, to re-introduce Marx to a 21st century audience on a prime-time television slot, is an example of the serious repercussion of the 2008 economic crisis, described by the FINANCIAL TIMES as “the crisis of capitalism” (see the series of articles by Samuel Britten et al in the FT for January 2012).

The depth and repercussions of the economic crisis has meant that, outside Socialist circles, capitalism is being seriously questioned and criticised. And not for a very long time have politicians and economists been forced to defend the profit system – Cameron still is, with the headline banner of his speech at the recent Tory Conference screaming out: “Profit is not a dirty word” (DAILY TELEGRAPH 2nd October 2013).

And there is a search for alternative explanations of the economic crises seen in the growth of visitors to our Socialist web site The working class, and particularly students studying courses like economics, have been told for over two decades that Marx and his ideas had been long been buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall but, giving the recent events in world capitalism, it is now time for workers to “think for themselves. Workers should read what Marx wrote and not what his critics said he wrote and perhaps act upon his revolutionary Socialist conclusion; get rid of capitalism and replace the profit system with a society of free and voluntary labour just producing to meet people’s need.

“He’s Back” but as a two-dimensional cartoon figure of fun

Marx has now made another appearance at the Open University but not a flattering one. Under the heading “Is Religion a Virus or is it Social Control?” a sixty second cartoon depicting Marx and the Russian Revolution had this to say:

Karl Marx was a German philosopher, economist and the least funny of the Marx’s. In the snappingly entitled “A Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” he famously called religion the opium of the people. Religion was not only used by those in power to oppress the workers but it also made them feel better about being oppressed when they could not afford real opium. He thought that if the comport blanket of religion was taken away at last the workers would have to do something about their terrible conditions. In Marx’s dream of a Communist revolution, religion would be abolished and the workers would be so happy being equal they simply wouldn’t need it anyway. But unfortunately for Marx the revolution in Russia came after he died and go to where it is Atheists go. By then, Stalin and his gang proved there were other ways to oppress people which did not have any of the fun bits of religion or indeed opium.

Whether the cartoon was successful or not in persuading potential students to study religion at the Open University we do not know or care. But if this is indicative of their scholarship, interest in political ideas and understanding of Marx we feel sorry for those they will end up teaching.

What Marx wrote on religion was this:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people

If one reads the whole essay which makes up A CONTRIBUTION TO A CRITIQUE OF HEGEL'S PHILOSOPHY OF RIGHT, rather than just the quotation itself, then the themes Marx addresses owe more to the Young Hegelians and Feuerbach than the issues of class, class interest and class struggle found in his later writings like THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY of 1846 and the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO of 1848. His analysis of religion in his essay contains no reference to class analysis as inferred by the Open University extract although the passage does offer a social tension between a legitimation of existing social conditions and a protest against it, although that protest is non-political.

Not only has Marx’s comment on religion been taken out of its context but the political point being made in the Cartoon is wrong. Marx’s “Dreams of Communism” was not causally linked to Stalin’s Russia and the oppression of the working class there. There is no causal link between Marx’s conception of communism along with his insistence that communism must be established by the working class and the anti-Socialist policy of the Russian dictatorship under the Bolsheviks which repudiated Marx’s pivotal political role for the workers to establish Socialism for themselves. As for “Dreaming” about Communism, Marx did no such thing. He did not write “recipes for the future”. Socialism/communism came out of the conditions of capitalism.

Marx has now found his way back into the Open University but in a way that would have found approval with his Tory and DAILY MAIL detractors of the 1970’s. And as the playwright Edna Ferber marked: “A closed mind is a dying mind”. So it is, metaphorically, back to Sam Tyler’s bedroom in the BBC drama, LIFE ON MARS, “hooked to the silver screen” with those monochrome coloured philosophers interpreting the world in many ways but never changing it.

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