From International Socialism (1st series), No.102, October 1977, pp.16-17.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Richard Noss’ article in IS 97, The Great Education Debate: A Socialist View, provoked considerable controversy. We publish here two critical comments from our readers.
A real socialist debate on education is essential, but Rick Noss’s piece in International Socialism 97 is a bad start. His attempt at a Marxist analysis is dangerously simplistic, and far from opening up the complexities of the area it ignores and obscures them.
The central theoretical problem is that Marx’s analysis of commodity production and the accumulation of surplus value does not relate in a straightforward way to the areas where labour-power is reproduced (schooling, family, media, etc.) One approach to this problem would be to see such areas of reproduction as unproductive and not directly related to capitalist production. Another approach would be question the validity of the classical concepts of productive/unproductive labour when state capitalism is increasingly encroaching on these areas of reproduction. Both Kidron and Smith in IS 100 explore this approach, categorizing reproduction as ‘necessary’ – neither productive nor unproductive, and in a much more direct relation to capital.
For Rick these contentious problems don’t arise at all. He makes a few crude generalisations, e.g.: ‘the education system is one vehicle for the transmission of bourgeois ideals and culture’; ‘the crucial function of education under capitalism is not the acquisition of skills but socialisation’. He then adopts a very straightforward and mechanistic view of such a transmission function: ‘The problems in the schools simply reflect the much broader problem in society as a whole.’
If this was just a theoretical problem it might not matter much, but it results in a fatal inability to relate what goes on in schooling to wider politics. In his conclusion Rick quotes Braverman on ‘the purposelessness, futility, and empty forms of the educational system’, where there is increasingly ‘less reason ... for teachers to teach and students to learn.’ Braverman’s comments here are at a very general level, and even if they are valid Rick has no adequate basis for linking such generalities with the specifics of comprehensives or ‘standards’. So, for those of us involved in schooling – all of us, at one time or another – Rick’s conclusion denies any strategy for struggle in school other than ‘don’t teach, don’t learn, join SWP’.
How does this help a child learning to read, or a teacher or parent trying to enable a child to do so? How does it enable students to make real sense of the oppression they experience in schooling, and of their real potential for learning? Rick’s comments on ‘modern maths’, for instance, make the whole exercise seem totally constrained by ‘the system’, and so, one can only presume, totally pointless. This approach denies any real relevance in themselves to experiences in schools. (I don’t believe Rick really thinks like this – but from his simplistic viewpoint he’s denying his own experiences as well).
It’s a similar position to that which dismisses involvement in sexual politics as diversionary, or sees that involvement as divorced from what we do every day. As Kidron and Smith point out, this too is based on a similar failure to relate production and reproduction. Comprehensives, ‘mixed-ability teaching’, ‘literacy’, ‘modern maths’ etc. are plainly bourgeois institutions – though the fact that this is now much more widely recognised than it was in the 1960s puts a much greater premium on everyday experience than Rick is able to.
How then do we struggle within such institutions? Marx wrote in the Grundrisse that ‘within bourgeois society ... there arise relations of production which are so many mines to explode it’ (p.159). Because capitalism is increasingly taking over reproduction, we must try to prime the fuses in homes and schools as well as in factories. To do so effectively we need a much more adequate analysis than Rick offers us.
In April, IS 97 carried an article by Richard Noss on The great education debate. Most of it was taken up with an informative and useful account of the political significance and recent historical background to the so-called ‘great debate’ on education, started by Jim Callaghan last year.
But Noss rightly chose to open the article with some remarks on the general issues to be faced today in Marxist theory of education. In doing this, however, he grossly misrepresented the ideas of M. Azcarete, a leading theoretician of the Spanish Communist Party. I want to defend the reputation of International Socialism and the Socialist Workers Party by putting the record straight, and by repudiating the kind of petty ‘sect-theory’ which Noss indulged in at that point of his article.
Noss quotes this from Azcarete’s article (which is called The New Role of Science, not, as Noss cites it, The Network of Science)
‘The role of, the need for, man as muscle power, as physical force, as routine (including intellectual routine) is diminshing. What production increasingly demands from man is his creative capacity; that is to say, the maximum development of the personality and abilities of man are becoming a necessity of production, an economic necessity’ (Marxism Today, March 1973).
And immediately Noss buzzes into battle with the CP’er, his every little sect-theoretical pin flashing. Amongst other things, he criticises an author writing four years ago because his theory wasn’t up to ‘analysing the changes that have taken place in the last two or three years.’ Not only is this criticism rather inappropriate; it actually doesn’t hold water, since, as we shall see, Azcarete has a rather better grip on the nature of the internal contradictions of modern capitalism than has Noss.
Azcarete sets out the way in which science is being increasingly drawn into the contradiction between capital and labour on the side of labour, naturally, he writes mainly about the way this had been developing in Spain in the final years of fascist rule, and about the political implications he thinks this should have for the Spanish Left. But Noss seeks by implication to condemn him for failing to give any account of the situation in Britain (in the years since the article appeared), where
‘the ruling class has chosen to launch a vicious attack on falling standards at a time when the level of skills and techniques acquired by most school-leavers has never been greater.’
Noss goes much further than this in distorting Azcarte’s thought. He attacks him as follows:
‘... the theory implies that capitalism is becoming more, not less, progressive. If the capitalist system is demanding more and more of the changes usually associated only with a socialist society, the need to overthrow that system is considerably lessened.’
And on the next page, he proceeds to correct Azcarete for going only half of the way with Marx on this question. Noss writes:
‘But this is only half the story. Marx’s point is that this development of varied aptitudes is incapable of being carried through under capitalism.’
Despite the lofty tone Noss takes, we can show that Azcarete understood this both elementary and fundamental point at least as well as his critic, merely by quoting the very next three sentences in Azcarete’s article, after the one cited by Noss and reproduced above:
‘... this trend.... is contrary, by reason of its inherent dynamic, to the basic demands of the capitalist system. Furthermore, the type of man which this new role of science demands and engenders ... is likewise incompatible with the capitalist system.
‘In contrast, this new kind of productive force, science as a force of production, which is created by the scientific and technological revolution, needs and demands communist society.’
Furthermore, Azcarete explicitly recognises and rejects the possible reformist misconstruction of Marx’s theory, with which he is charged by Noss, as follows:
‘From this fundamental truth of Marxism regarding the intrinsic incompatibility between science as the central force of production and the capitalist system, it would be possible to draw typically reformist conclusions. If scientific and technological development is opposed to capitalism, let us stimulate and organise scientific development and then capitalism (or its “evils”) will disappear. In one form or another this idea is the basis of the main ideological constructions which are opposed to Marxism today ....’
It appears that even a member of the Spanish Communist Party may not automatically be such a fool or an infant on the level of theory as Noss tries to make out Azcarete to be!
Rather is it Noss who, in supposing that Marx’s (and Azcarete’s) point about the capitalist system demanding more and more of the changes usually associated only with a socialist society must have a reformist implication in favour of the progressive nature of capitalism, betrays his own undialectical misunderstanding of the whole matter. Yes indeed, comrade, capitalism is the most progressive social system the world has ever seen – so far! Of course we’re here to make that false, but it isn’t false yet, unfortunately. Capitalism is so progressive, in its own backhanded and irrational way, that it builds the social and productive forces which must break out of it, destroy it and replace it, simply under the imperatives of their own survival and their own fulfilment, which cannot be accomplished without removing once and for all the anti-social barbarisms of capitalism itself. All this is well brought out by Azcarete in his discussion of passages from the Grundrisse in which Marx showed again and again how the contradiction which capitalism creates for itself can only be resolved by revolution, by the new material and historical conditions combining to ‘explode capital’, as Marx puts it (to Azcarete’s explicit approval). But onto this territory Noss, perhaps wisely, did not venture.
There is plenty to criticise in Azcarete’s article, such as his uncritical attitudes towards the sacred bourgeois cow of ‘science’, and the way he tails his whole discussion off down to the meekly reformist programme of the Spanish CP for mass popular action to bring about the ‘stage’ of ‘democracy and socialism’. But such issues would distract me from my main purpose here, which is to challenge the clumsy sectarianism with which Noss commented on Azcarete’s grasp of the fundamental theoretical issues, only to demonstrate his own weaknesses rather more successfully than he did those of Azcarete.
Meanwhile, if Noss can’t read CP theory without getting his wires as badly crossed as this, perhaps he should read up on the very same points as Marx and Azcarete were making, in the summary of them given by Paul Foot in the first two chapters of Why You Should Be A Socialist, from which I quote (p.13):
‘It’s not that we’re living beyond our means. The problem is that we’re not making full use of our means.
‘The factories are there, the industrial technology is there, the scientific know-how is there, the skills of the workers are there – and the needs and the wants of people are plain for all to see. The problem is that they can’t be matched up. We can produce what people need – but we don’t.’
Or, as Azcarete put it, ‘science as a force of production ... needs and demands communist society.’
Last updated on 26.12.2007