From the Western Socialist, March-April, 1942
"The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual process of life."
When Karl Marx presented this analysis to a confused world, back in 1859, he provided an explanation of cause and effect in the social world that still serves the needs of our more inquisitive minds today. The slovenly and the superficial will miss its meaning, the sycophantic drudge will seek to sabotage its lesson but, to the serious student of social affairs, it affords a meaning of untangling the snarls that disconcert his approach to the subject.
In our material life the system of producing wealth is known as capitalism. Every article of value in this society is made and exchanged by a class of workers theoretically free but practically enslaved. While the legend is that they are the possessors of inalienable rights and irrevocable privileges, yet the fact proclaims that they have very little to say and are hesitant to say even that. Their function is to work.
This work racket implies that they are kept busy changing energy from one form to another. They absorb such items as pork chops, pot roast, and sardines which, when duly assimilated, liberate a store of energy that can be connected, in a scientific way, with various natural substances and machines, with the result that wealth emanates from the process.
The owners of the whole shebang are human beings not entirely unlike the ones who do the work. They probably have a little more polish and poise, and are gifted with a gentler ennui, but basically they are similar animals. How these particular bipeds got control of the outfit originally is a long and interesting story, but is not exactly germane to this article. Enough to know, for the present, that the small group owns all that is worth while, and the large group produces everything.
It is this relationship, then, in the field of our material life that shapes the educational, artistic, political, religious, and all other institutions associated with our particular race. It will be noted that Marx, in this extract from the introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, tells us that it is the general character of those processes of life that is molded by our manner of producing and exchanging values. It is not unusual to find new students, mechanically minded enough to consider the formula as applicable to each particular case. They feel as happy as an owl in a blackout to find a yardstick to measure the precise distance between cause and effect. Analogies are invariably dangerous, but this one between the realms of mechanics and sociology is definitely so. It may well require a long and devious procession to trace the cause to its terminal in effect, so lengthy and intricate a course, in fact, that the one may never be successfully pegged as the responsible precursor to the other.
In a material world, where the few control the wealth and the many are divorced from ownership, it is valid to contend that the few will do their best to train the many to the end that property relationships, as they exist today, shall not be challenged. The comfort and security aligned with the strangle hold on the good things of life is surely sufficient inducement to cause the fortunate possessors to awaken in the minds of the dispossessed a reverence and respect for property and authority. This training is called, for lack of a more suitable title, education.
The educated man - the scholar - of today is a curious conglomeration of fiction and fact, with the scales toppling over in favor of the former. He must have a regular hash head full of all the things that are not so, and some of the things that are. There are certain subjects that can be taught and learned in capitalism as well as in any other form of society, and even the educated man is not allergic to those.
Mathematics, for instance, is a branch of science that does not have to be expurgated and bowdlerized in the interest of a class. Simple arithmetic is a requisite for every boy and girl intending to participate in the production or exchange of wealth. Without some knowledge of the subject they would be practically useless in the social apparatus of today. The figures, tables, and formulas must be correct.
Still, even here there is a catch in the thing in the mode of presentation. The psychology of business success must be driven home. The inevitable partners A and B seem to have acquired a mortal antipathy for red ink. The ledger is invariably balanced on the right side, profits accrue, and the victim is supposed to declare the percentage of gain, and the share of the profits due each of the owners. The query is never posed in this manner - A and B are partners in the rubber business. The Priorities Board curtailed their supply. They lost $10,000 the first year, how long will they remain partners?
Higher mathematics is essential to workers engaged in special activities. The engineer, draughtsman, machinist, and toolmakers must be acquainted with trigonometry, calculus, and algebra in order to function properly on the job. The surveyor, architect and builder cannot get by without the aid of geometry. There are properties of points, lines, surfaces, and solids in their relation to each other that must be known. No good purpose could be served by having a textbook to twist the axioms, theorems, triangles, and trapezoids and to confuse the artisan who requires their help.
Even in the natural sciences the curriculum is not too bad. A knowledge of these is needed more and more as capitalism advances. Back in the haunts of the bile belt, where evolution runs counter to religion, it is evolution that suffers but, in highly developed capitalistic circles, where a head on collision between science and superstition threatens, steps are taken to effect a compromise that gives science a right of way without forcing religion entirely to the ditch.
Where capitalism functions at its worst, educationally speaking, is in teaching those branches of science that have their roots in the social scene. The caricature and distortion of history, economics and sociology displayed in our schools, colleges, and universities is sufficiently glaring to move even an educated man to scratch his head and wonder what its all about. But this is exactly where he falls down. Being a well trained animal he absorbs and accepts the ritual in the manner in which it is inflicted upon him. Why should he take pains to utilize the same technical skill in his social studies that he found imperative in his manipulation of geometry and algebra? He does not require its assistance in making a living.
The ruling class is in another position. They find it necessary to make the dismal science remain a dismal science. Teach the fact of economics in our schools and social hari-kari would be encouraged. This would be unpatriotic and uncomfortable. The ownership of property and control of the social system is too precious a thing to jeopardize by exposing its mechanism to a bunch of dopes that keep on working without thinking, while and semblance of social thought on their part would seriously interfere with their work.
Political economy as a branch of science devoted to the production and exchange of wealth must be, like the little man on the stair, just not there. The labor law of value, and theory of surplus value if correctly stated to the youth of the world would spell disaster to capitalism, and give that dreaded socialism the excuse it wants to grow. A phony study must be substituted that does not conflict with the right of one class to exploit another. It works, that is, it works as well as anything else under capitalism.
The history studied and understood by our educated people is about as fantastic as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, minus the entertainment value of the latter. A series of names and dates, wars and murders, ruthless royalists and dumb democrats, expanding frontiers and clashing dynasties supply the human sweep across the ages.
The simple story of man, as he evolved from primordial slime, through the savage and barbarous periods, up to his civilized status, the inventions and discoveries that gave an added impetus to his upward journey; the various forms of slavery that afflicted him in his climb to the heights of his wage slave pedestal; these things are left in a nebulous mess. Some writers, emanating from the ruling class, have told them, and told them well, but those writers were not the rulers pets, they were free lance incorrigibles who could not be harnessed in the rulers yoke.
- J.A. McDonald