Martin Nicolaus speaking at rally at Simon Fraser university in Canada, 1968
Below is a withering critique of sociology which Martin Nicolaus delivered to the 1968 American Sociologists Association conference. Radical students threatened to disrupt the gathering unless Nicolaus was allowed to speak. 1968 was the year of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the May-June worker-student rebellion in France, the Prague Spring, the student rebellion in Yugoslavia and student rebellions in Mexico and elsewhere. The US government, one of whose members was the special guest at the sociologists’ gathering, had massively escalated the Vietnam War and was regarded by the anti-Vietnam War movement as a bunch of war criminals.
Imagine the conservatives at the conference seething with rage – and all the liberals squirming with embarrassment – when Nicolaus delivered these home truths! Nicolaus subsequently abandoned the university and went off to a factory and Maoism. He later wrote an excellent introduction to the Penguin edition of The Grundrisse. These days he seems to be a self-help/self-improvement advocate, but he hasn’t simply renounced his 1960s radicalism as some have.
These remarks are not addressed to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. This man has agreed voluntarily to serve as a member of a government establishment which is presently fighting a war for survival on two fronts. Imperial wars such as the one against Vietnam are usually two-front wars – one against the foreign subject population, one against the domestic subject population. The Secretary of HEW is a military officer in the domestic front of the war against people. Experience in the Vietnam teach-ins has shown that dialogue between the subject population and its rulers is an exercise in repressive tolerance; it is, in Robert S. Lynd’s words, a dialogue between chickens and elephants. He holds some power over me – therefore, even if he is wrong in his arguments, he is right; even if I’m right, I’m wrong.
I do address myself to the Secretary’s audience. There is some hope – even though the hour is very late – that among the (more…)