David Betteridge gives a personal account of reading Marx, with drawings by Bob Starrett.
Fifty years ago, when I was training to be a teacher at Neville’s Cross College of Education in Durham, I had the good fortune to be tutored in Sociology and supervised on school practice by Maurice Levitas (or, to give him his Hebrew patronymic, which he sometimes used, Moishe ben Hillel). Here was a veteran of Cable Street and the Spanish Civil War, a stalwart of the CPGB and the Connolly Column of the International Brigade, a former furniture-polisher and upholsterer, a plumber, a latrine-digger (with the Royal Army Medical Corps in India and Burma), a teacher of English (with plenty of Drama, in secondary schools in London and Louth), and now, in his middle age, a teacher-trainer appointed to the staff of the college where I was a student! He was just what we needed.
Seeing how green I was, with my head full of Red, Black, and Green ideas, and also some plain daft ones, loosely cobbled together, if cobbled at all, Morry (as he was widely nick-named) felt moved to educate me, and to educate me in more than Education.
He told me, I remember, in one of our tutorials, to question the Registrar-General’s designation of some workers - those in Social Class V - as “unskilled”. No, said Morry, all Labour requires skill, including mental skill. Try using a pick without knowing what you’re about, or a scythe! He himself had an impressively wide skill-set, acquired in his wide experience of work. He took pride in all of it, keeping into old age, for example, his curved needles (some semi-circular) from his time as an upholsterer, and losing none of his ability in sewing.
He told me also to be wary of the claims of psychometrics. Certain forms of it, he argued, were based on bad science, and served bad politics. Labelling some people sheep and others goats on the evidence of spurious tests was pernicious. He spoke with a mix of academic rigour and passionate engagement, referring me, I recall, to Brian Simon’s critique of Cyril Burt’s famous (or infamous) work on Intelligence, while at the same time citing personal experience. As a prisoner-of war in Spain, in one of Franco’s camps, Morry had been subjected to batteries of tests by visiting Nazis, keen to use him (and others) to further their racist, specifically anti-Semitic anthropology.
Educational failure was another topic that Morry opened up for discussion. When pupils fail an exam, he asked, is it their own failure alone? Could it also be the failure of hostile teachers, or careless schools, or impoverished homes, or an unjust society dedicated to maintaining its class distinctions?
I did not know then that Morry was busy putting his insights and knowledge and combative spirit into a book. This was published in 1974, with the title Marxist Perspectives in the Sociology of Education.
Supplementary to my college curriculum, and just as important, were the demos that Morry took me on, and the lists of public meetings that he said I must attend, and the books on political theory that I must read (and read systematically), starting with Marx’s early MSS dating from 1844 (The Paris Notebooks) and his Theses on Feuerbach from the following year. He thought it best that I start my journey-of-ideas there, where Marx started his.
See how the young humanist stood Hegel’s idealist philosophy on its head, making it materialist, Morry explained; see how he went beyond Feuerbach, committing himself to changing the world, not just interpreting it; see how he identified the deep structures and movements of history, class against class; see how he laid bare the alienation that workers experience under Capitalism, as they lose control of the products of their labour, and even lose contact with their own true selves.
This programme of accelerated learning that Morry set in train coincided with the crisis days of 1968, when the “evenements” in Paris (and beyond) shook Capitalism, and shook Socialism, too. Morry was charged with a great energy by these events, as if they spoke directly to him. He saw in the students’ movement a proto-revolutionary situation that cried out to be joined, and widened, especially through working class solidarity. I heard him argue this case again and again wherever people would listen, cheerfully rebutting the charge made by others in the CP that he was suffering from a rush of ultra-Leftism to the head. He was mistaking Paris for Barcelona, they said, and 1968 for 1936. Unabashed, he himself looked further back, to 1848, and directed me to read The Communist Manifesto and Marx’s other writings from and about that year of revolutions. Reading them was a revelation.
It was as if I had been given a three-dimensional model showing the layers of rock lying beneath a large and complex landscape, and giving it its shape. How swiftly the Manifesto opened up new understandings for me, and established new connections between things I had previously only half-known! How gleefully I embraced its use of strong metaphors, from a “spectre haunting Europe” early on in the book (that is to say, Communism), through “heavy artillery” (commodities being traded overseas), “fetters” (the constraints of the Feudal System), a “robe of cobwebs” (false consciousness), ending with “grave-diggers” (the forces of organised Labour burying Capitalism at some future date).
Before I left college, I was inspired to have a go at crystallising what I had learned so far from Marx and Morry, in the form of a short poem. I did not have the confidence to show it to my tutor, but here it is (below) for Culture Matters readers. Note: the “old mole” motto-text was added later:
Well grubbed, old mole!
- Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
Under the furrows of old Europe lay
the ruin and the saving
of its steady, backward way: coal,
coal upon coal.
In banks’ vaults,
as if an ocean underground,
full-fed by trade and the world’s toil,
a second Flood backed up, and broke,
of brutal gold.
the anarch Progress forced its change,
all-consumingly on every land
and every suffering folk
that came within the rampage
of its rule of smoke.
Breaching all norms and bonds,
the iron masters and their human tools
then went on to wreak their marvel
on the other continents of plundered Earth.
Their legacy to us:
they redefined and laid to rest
the past that they inherited,
and brought our doomed dystopia
to the titan fury of its birth.
Getting to grips with Marx’s later works took me longer. I approached them by a zig-zagging route of theory and practice, practice and theory, over a period of several years.
In the case of Capital, I made the initial mistake of trying to speed things up by reading other people’s summaries of Marx’s conclusions, without working through the real-life evidence and explanations and interpretations that Marx himself required, and provided in great quantity in his book. Only after campaigning on issues of economic justice in Scunthorpe, where I went to teach, and helping to organise a cross-party, cross-union Left Action Group, only then did I begin to build up the key-concepts and, just as importantly, the structures of feeling that Capital demanded.
A crucial stage in that process of building-up was attending a WEA class organised by John Grayson, and tutored by Michael Barratt Brown. Michael adopted a quite brilliant teaching strategy. He asked the steelworker members of our class to provide him with information relating to a pay claim then being negotiated with the employers. He showed exactly how certain costs and profits that were essential to a full social and economic audit never found their way into any published annual report. The employers’ so-called “balance sheets” were not balanced. Michael’s book What Economics Is About served as a primer for our class-work. Here was Economics, not as a ”dismal science”, as Thomas Carlyle called it - he should have known better, given the great contemporaries of his who were working in that field - but as a weapon in the struggle.
What a broth of a book Capital proved to be, when I came at last to immerse myself in its heights and depths and great length i.e. the teeming volume of Volume One. I found that it was, in some places, to some extent, exactly as Francis Wheen described it in his celebratory Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography. It was “a vast Gothic novel... a Victorian melodrama... a black farce... a Greek tragedy... [and] a satirical utopia”. These ingredients were mixed together in profusion, and richly interspersed with hundreds of quotations from (and allusions to) works of World Literature, factory inspectors’ reports, trade statistics, etc. How many square miles of printed matter did Marx have to scan, how many years of sitting and making notes did he have to put in, how many headaches and heartaches did he have to go through, before this epic and epoch-making piece of “congealed labour” was ready for publication?
Wheen reminds us that Marx was a failed poet, a failed dramatist, and a failed novelist, all these failures being accomplished before the end of his student years at Berlin University. “All my creations crumbled into nothing,” Marx wrote; but his literary ambitions did not crumble. He redirected them. The work in which they came to most vigorous life was Capital.
A good example of Marx in novelistic mode is his deployment in Capital of a large and varied cast of characters, reminiscent of Dickens. Here is one, a juvenile worker in the Potteries:
J. Murray, 12 years of age, says: “I turn jigger, and run moulds. I come at 6. Sometimes I come at 4. I worked all night last night, till 6 o’clock this morning. I have not been in bed since the night before last. There were eight or nine other boys working last night. All but one have come this morning. I get 3 shillings and sixpence. I do not get any more for working at night. I worked two nights last week.”
Regarding this wretched way of life and place of work, a local doctor, quoted by Marx, observed: “Each successive generation of potters is more dwarfed and less robust than the preceding one.”
Turning to Marx in dramatic mode, we can cite his use of a device similar to that deployed by Dante in his Purgatorio.
Let us leave the noisy region of the market, Marx wrote, casting himself in the same role as Vergil in Canto 5 of Dante’s epic. We shall follow the owner of the money and the owner of labour-power into the hidden foci of production... Here we shall discover, not only how Capital produces, but also how it is itself produced. We shall at last discover the secret of making surplus value.
Just as Dante did before him, Marx summoned up a succession of witnesses, in his case witnesses for the prosecution, from these “hidden foci of production”. His guiding principle was borrowed from Dante: Let the people speak. And speak they did, as in the case of J. Murray (above) and many more. (What a good template we have here, by the way, for readers of Culture Matters to use, by which to present your own present-day selection of witnesses for new prosecutions.)
And what of Marx’s exercise of his poet’s craft in the writing of Capital? We find no shortage of examples of metaphors here, and other forms of poetic imagery. Metaphysical poets of any era would be proud to have used them so creatively. Here is one: vampires. Marx wrote: Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.
It does not matter if the vampires, imagined or real, feed on others’ blood or others’ labour, the phenomenon is the same: it is a ceaseless and exponential series of acts of taking, of expropriation, and sometimes of killing cruelty. We see it in the busts and booms of the markets, in the losses that many suffer that others might profit, in the recurrent immiseration of whole sections of a country’s population, sometimes of whole populations, while the elites and their darlings flourish, and we see it bloodiest of all in the almost permanent state of war that so unstable an economic order (or disorder, rather) gives rise to. Marx’s metaphor is precise and complete. It conveys the essential motive force that rages at the heart of Capital.
To sum up: Marx and Morry: two warriors, both engaged in their own times, but aware of all times, past and future; both embattled thinkers as well as thoughtful activists; both possessing a warm-heartedness as well as a hard-headed realism; both exponents of an integrative vision, in which no aspect of human enquiry or interest is deemed alien; internationalists; dialecticians; passionate wordsmiths... Getting to know the former warrior through the good offices of the latter was the best part of my student years.
Maurice Levitas, Irish academic and communist.
David Betteridge is the author of a collection of poems celebrating Glasgow and its radical traditions, 'Granny Albyn's Complaint', published by Smokestack Books in 2008. He is also the editor of a compilation of poems, songs, prose memoirs, photographs and cartoons celebrating the 1971-2 UCS work-in on Clydeside. This book, called 'A Rose Loupt Oot', was published by Smokestack Books in 2011.