Martin Nicolaus 1968 speech: Sociology as apology for capitalism

Martin Nicolaus speaking at rally at Simon Fraser university in Canada, 1968
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 members and sympathizers of the sociological profession gathered here there will be some whose life is not so sold and compromised as to be out of their own control to change or amend it.

While the officers of this convention and the previous speaker were having a big meal in the hotel, I was across the street in a cafeteria having a hot dog and two cups of coffeee. This may be why my perspective is different.

The ruling elite within your profession is in charge of what is called Health, Education, and Welfare. Those of you who listened passively to what he had to say presumably agreed that this definition – this description of what the man did – carried an accurate message. Yet among you are many, including the hard researchers, who do know better or should know better. The department of which the man is head is more accurately described as the agency which watches over the inequitable distribution of preventable disease, over the funding of domestic propaganda and indoctrination, and over the preservation of a cheap and docile reserve labor force to keep everybody else’s wages down. He is Secretary of Disease, Propaganda and Scabbing.

This may be put too strongly for you, but it all depends on where you look from, where you stand. If you stand inside the Sheraton Hotel these terms are offensive, but if you gentlemen and ladies would care to step across the street into Roxbury you might get a different perspective and a different vocabulary. If you will look at the social world through the eyes of those who are at the bottom of it, through the eyes of your subject population (and if you will endow those eyes with the same degree of clear-sightedness you profess to encourage among yourselves), then you will get a different conception of the social science to which you are devoted. That is to say that this assembly here tonight is not a coming-together of those who study or promote the study and knowledge of social reality. It is a conclave of high and low priests, scribes, intellectual valets, and their innocent victims, engaged in the mutual affirmation of a falsehood, in common consecration of a myth.

Sociology is not now and never has been any kind of objective seeking-out of social truth or reality. Historically, the profession is an outgrowth of Nineteenth Century European traditionalism and conservatism wedded to Twentieth Century American corporation liberalism. That is to say that the eyes of sociologists, with few but honorable (or honorable but few) exceptions, have been turned downward, and their palms upward.

Eyes down, to study the activities of the lower classes, of the subject population – those activities which created problems for the smooth exercise of governmental power. Since the class of rulers in this society identifies itself as the society, in the same way that Davis and Moore in their infamous 1945 propaganda article identified the society with those who run it, the problems of the ruling class get defined as social problems. The profession has moved beyond the tear-jerking stage today: “social problems” is no longer the preferred term, but the underlying perspective is the same. The things that are sociologically “interesting,” are the things that are interesting to those who stand at the top of the mountain and feel the tremors of an earthquake.

Sociologists stand guard in the garrison and report to their masters on the movements of the occupied populace. The more adventurous sociologists don the disguise of the people and go out to mix with the peasants in the “field”, returning with books and articles that break the protective secrecy in which a subjugated population wraps itself, and make it more accessible to manipulation and control.

The sociologist as a researcher in the employ of his employers is precisely a kind of spy. The proper exercise of the profession is all-too-often different from the proper exercise of espionage only in the relatively greater electronic sophistication of the latter’s techniques.

Is it an accident – to name only a few examples here – that industrial sociology arose in a context of rising, “labor-troubles”, that political economy grew when elections became less predictable, or that the sociology of race relations is flourishing now?

As sociologists you owe your jobs to the union organizers who got beat up, to the voters who got fed up, to the black people who got shot up. Sociology has risen to its present prosperity and eminence on the blood and bones of the poor and oppressed; it owes its prestige in this society to its putative ability to give information and advice to the ruling class of this society about ways and means to keep the people down.

The professional eyes of the sociologist are on the down people, and the professional palm of the sociologist is stretched toward the up people. It is no secret and no original discovery that the major and dominant sectors of sociology today are sold-computers, codes, and questionnaires-to the people who have enough money to afford this ornament, and who see a useful purpose being served by keeping hundreds of intelligent men and women occupied in the pursuit of harmless trivia, and off the streets. I am not asserting that every individual researcher sells his brain for a bribe – although many of us know of research projects where that has happened literally – but merely that the dominant structure of the profession, in which all of its members are to some extent socialized, is a structure in which service to the ruling class of this society is the highest form of honor and achievement. (The speaker’s table today is an illustration.) The honored sociologist, the big-status sociologist, the jet-set sociologist, the fat-contract sociologist, the book-a-year sociologist, the. sociologist who always wears the livery – the suit and tie – of his masters: this is the type of sociologist who sets the tone and the ethic of the profession, and it is this type of sociologist who is nothing, more or less than a house-servant in the corporate establishment, a white intellectual Uncle Tom not only for this government and ruling class, but for any government and ruling class, which explains to my mind why Soviet sociologists and American sociologists are finding after so many years of isolation that, after all, they have something in common.

To raise and educate and train generation after generation of the brightest minds this country’s so-called educational system has let survive in this sociological ethic of servility, to socialize them into this sociocracy, is a criminal undertaking: one of the many felonies against youth committed by those who set themselves up in a loco parentis situation that is usually far more oppressive than any real parental relation. The crime which graduate schools perpetrate against the minds and morals of young people is all the more inexcusable because of the enormous liberating potential of knowledge about social life. Unlike knowledge about trees, and stones, knowledge about people directly affects what we are, what we do, what we may hope for. The corporate rulers of this society would not be spending as much money as they do for knowledge, if knowledge did not confer power. So far, sociologists have been schlepping this knowledge that confers power along a one-way chain, taking knowledge from the people, giving knowledge to the rulers.

What if that machinery were reversed? What if the habits, problems, secrets, and unconscious motivations of the wealthy and powerful were daily scrutinized by a thousand systematic researchers, were hourly pried into, analyzed and cross-referenced; were tabulated and published in a hundred inexpensive mass-circulation journals and written so that even the fifteen-year-old high-school drop-out could understand them and predict the actions of his landlord to manipulate and control him?

Would the War in Vietnam have been possible if the structure, function, and motion of the US Imperial establishment had been a matter of detailed public knowledge ten years ago?

Sociology has worked to create and increase the inequitable distribution of knowledge; it has worked to make the power structure relatively more powerful and knowledgeable, and thereby to make the subject population relatively more impotent and ignorant.

In the late summer of 1968, while the political party currently in power is convening amidst barbed wire and armored cars, the sociological profession ought to consider itself especially graced and blessed that its own deliberations can still be carried on with a police-to-participant ratio smaller than one-to-one. This may be because the people of the USA do not know how much of their current troubles stem – to borrow Lord Keynes’s phrase – from the almost-forgotten scribblings of an obscure professor of sociology. Or it may be that sociology is still so crude that it represents no clear and present danger.

In 1968 it is late, very late, too late to say once again what Robert S. Lynd and C. Wright Mills and hundreds of others have long said: that the profession must reform itself. In view of the forces and the money that stand behind sociology as an exercise in intellectual servility, it is unrealistic to expect the body of the profession to make an about-face.

If the barbed wire goes up around the ASA Convention in a future year, most of its members will still not know why.


One comment

  1. I think Nicolaus’ speech is brilliant. But it’s also a product of its time. Sociology changed quite a lot in the period after the Nicolaus speech, as a whole new generation of sociologists emerged with different views and commitments to the people Nicolaus is mainly attacking.

    However, despite a kind of liberation sociology growing, the discipline today has fallen back into often acting as an apology for the specific features, especially some of the main political features, of 21st century capitalism. Sociology proved especially prone to postmodernism, “the cultural logic of contemporary capitalism’ as Jameson noted some years back. Identity politics and pomo theory, most especially the rejection of holistic analysis (like Marxism), are features of much sociology today. It’s one of the ideological reflections of the emergence of a host of new consumer markets and the partial disintegration of the working class as a class – ie a class conscious of its existence.


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