The years up till 1936 were years of conditioning for my joining the Communist Party in that year. By then I had mainly completed the law subjects and had read a good deal of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. My ever increasing participation in mass activity among the unemployed, in demonstrations, public meetings, in the Left Book Club (a movement promoted by the English publisher Gollancz who made a definite contribution to the struggle against fascism and war), to a limited degree in left university activity, in a body called the “Social Service Forum” which promoted lectures on socialist subjects by a man named Scott Bennett, in campaigns for assistance to the Spanish people, in friendship movements with the socialist Soviet Union, served to confirm for me the truth of Communism.
As a student I experienced the dual tactics of the university authorities. In the university law school, on three occasions I was summoned to a discussion with the dean of the law faculty. His line was that I had a “great career” before me but I would have to give up my radical ideas. It showed me the truth of Maurice Blackburn’s statement that the ruling class never neglects an opportunity to win back one of the left to capitalism. It also showed me the great “interest” the authorities took in left students. This was parallelled by a visit from a senior police officer to my employer, Slater. This police officer came to “warn” Slater about my left views. He checked on whether a “subversive” document of which I was suspected to have been the author had been typed on an office typewriter. Slater himself discussed the matter with the policeman, never with me, but a fellow clerk told me about it. And I had been aware of the visit of the policeman but not the purpose of the visit. The monopoly capitalists and their police “advisers” think the left students are a real menace to them (witness this investigation and knowledge of me, an insignificant student) whereas the truth is that many students are rather unstable. The great danger to the ruling class comes from the organised workers enlightened by Communism. It is always those workers who play the leading and decisive role. I had read Lenin’s What is to be Done? and never lost sight of his treatment of the relations between the workers and the intellectuals. In that book, he contrasts the indiscipline of students with the discipline that factory work compels on the workers. It is a book that always repays study and thought.
The tactics of the university authorities were also revealed during my study of the subject of Economics Part 1, in 1937. I undertook this subject because I thought it would be useful. To an extent it was. Part of the course required the students to submit essays on designated subjects. The first essay was on what was called the “theory of marginal utility” (the arbitrary creation of some “expert”, one aspect of which is that the value of commodities is determined by the “margin” at which the buyer of a commodity decides that he will not buy any more). This “theory” has no scientific basis. I said this in my essay. I criticised it from the standpoint of Marx’s theory of value; that the value of commodities is determined by the amount of socially necessary labour time required in their production, that labour power was a commodity the value of which was determined like that of all other commodities, namely by the socially necessary labour time required to produce the food, clothing etc for a worker and his family (wages) but that it had one difference from other commodities in that it was capable of producing a value greater than its own, that that greater value was surplus value and was owned by the capitalist because he owned the means of production and had bought for wages the labour power; surplus value was the source of profit and it was made by selling commodities at their value. In the sale, surplus value was realised. So naive was I that it never occurred to me that anything would come of my criticism of the theory of marginal utility. The economics lecturer was a gentleman well down in the hierarchy of teachers in the university. But I got a summons to see the Dean (Head) of the Faculty of Commerce, Professor Copland. I went to see him, not knowing or having the slightest idea what he wanted. The first thing that confronted me was a huge Alsatian dog (he seemed huge to me but as it turned out was really a kindly animal) lying on the rug in the good professor’s room. Whether or not the dog was there to intimidate people, I don’t know. However, the professor quickly got down to the subject of my essay. He started off with a bit of flattery but then got on to my rejection of the “theory” of marginal utility and my exposition of Marx and Engels. I asked him what the trouble with it was. He said that the teaching in the university was of the theory of marginal utility to which all students were required to adhere. But I said: “What if, as I believe, it is not correct and what if Marx and Engels expounded a correct theory of value?” He said he wasn’t there to argue and repeated that it was the theory of marginal utility that was taught and I was expected to adhere to it. I departed. Not very long after, an essentially similar thing occurred, still in the presence of the Alsatian; I recall him with affection. The conversation was on a different essay but it was much more threatening this time. I decided there was no future for Marxism or me in the university’s course on economics. I therefore abandoned it, probably to the relief of the professor.
Much of what I have written draws to a degree on hindsight; that is, some matters I appraise in the light of subsequent experience and knowledge. In those years my understanding of Marxism was somewhat abstract and academic I knew something of the Marxist books but not too much about what to do with them in the actual conditions in Australia. I came to understand something of this much later.
But before I leave the subject of universities, I make this comment. Very commonly in discussion people say: “It is all right for you, you have had a good education including a university education, but I left school when I was 12 (or some such age). I can’t read easily nor write easily”. I have reflected on this a good deal. Now I reply: “Well, we each have advantages and disadvantages. A university education has the advantage that it teaches people to read, write, study, even though it may be in an academic fashion. This is useful. But such an education has the disadvantage, particularly in the humanities, but even in the exact sciences because of the capitalist bias given to the teaching, of filling the students’ minds up with a good deal of rubbish (instance the theory of marginal utility and a great deal of the law). It distorts their method of thinking and is slanted so that they will accept what is taught!”
Not very many left students of my generation persisted in their Marxism-Leninism. This has several explanations. One is that they got good jobs and became “emancipated” from Marxism. Another is that they had difficulty in correct independent thinking. When a new political situation arose they could not cope. Another is the abstraction of the intellectual, born of the abnormal separation of physical and mental labour which in its turn is a product of capitalism. Lenin characterised it all very well, drawing no doubt on his own intellectual background and his experience, when he said: “This lackadaisicalness, this carelessness, slovenliness, unpunctuality, nervous haste, the inclination to substitute discussion for action, talk for work, the inclination to undertake everything under the sun without finishing anything, is one of the characteristics of the ’educated’; and this is not due to the fact that they are bad by nature still less is it due to malice; it is due to their habits of life, the conditions of their work, to fatigue, to the abnormal separation of mental from manual labour, and so on, and so forth.” (How to Organise Competition).
To the persons who have left school early in life, I say: “Of course there is a certain disadvantage because you do not have the training to read and write and study that the ’educated’ have, but on the other hand, you have the great advantage that your mind has not been filled up with so much rubbish as the ’educated’. Because of that and your day to day coping with life, your mind reflects reality much more accurately, you are much more practical, less vacillating. And you can learn to study!’” In fact, I can add now from a fairly extensive experience that the workers tend to grasp things more rapidly than the intellectuals. The workers do not wobble so much. True, we cannot idealise the workers as being without faults. There are very bad people among them and some of the worst renegades have come from their ranks. But it is not the point. The universities train people to serve capitalism as “experts” whereas the workers are trained to serve capitalism as wage slaves at a very much lower level. Their actual position as workers means they are brought together, organised, disciplined, by the very mechanism of capitalism and tied to its most advanced means of production, namely the big factories, mines and farms. They are therefore the most resolute and persistent opponents of capitalism. Some of the “educated” who joined the ranks of the Communist Party or the left in the days of the depression have largely by one process or another deserted to the ranks of the bourgeoisie. Some even have become top executives in the bourgeois state apparatus. Those who adopted a working class stand have made a great contribution.