Allegations of Marxist bias in the 1970s and 1980s

Disputes about the content of a number of courses raged during the 1970s and 1980s.

In Sesame (5, 3 May 1976) Caroline Cox wrote a piece called, ‘D302:  a platform for blatantly political views’ and the course chair, Andy Blowers wrote a response, ‘Students have freedom to decide for themselves’.  The following issue (5, 4 June/July 1976) had two letters on this debate. 

In 1977 a study group of the CIA-funded Institute for the Study of Conflict produced a report which was critical of Open University courses, notably Schooling and society, E202 and in particular a course text book called ‘Schooling and Capitalism: a sociological reader’ edited by Roger Dale, Geoff Esland, and Madeleine MacDonald. There were a number of accounts in The Guardian, The Observer and The Times. The Daily Telegraph reported the publication of Julius Gould’s Attack on Higher Education: Marxist and Radical Penetration, 1977 as ‘several distinguished scholars have joined together to draw a map of hell’.

Joining Professor Gould in this exercise in fictional cartography were, among others, the director of the Nursing Education Research Unit, Chelsea College, London University, (Caroline Cox), academics from Reading (Antony Flew) Sheffield (K. W. Watkins) and the LSE (David Martin and Kenneth Minogue) and an honorary professor at the University of London, (Edward Shils).There were also a journalist, Brian Crozier, the founder of the Institute for the Study of Conflict and politicians including Rhodes Boyson, the co-author in 1977, with Prof. C.B. Cox, of one of the series of Black Papers on education, ‘Fight for Education’ and John Vaizey, a Conservative peer.

Open House ran a story headed ‘Marxist bias: authors hit back’ (OH 147 22 February 1977) and the Chancellor, Lord Gardiner, said that the claim of Marxist bias was ‘absurd’ (OH 153, 5 July 1977). In Sesame August 1977 (6, 5) Julius Gould and Geoff Esland presented their views about E202 and in the following issue (6, 6 September/October 1977) there was a postscript on the E202 debate by Robert Nicodemus, who had collected student views. There were also letters.  Bernard Crick in The Observer, 25 September 1977, commented that: ‘The study group seems to believe with Professor Hayek and his disciple, Sir Keith Joseph, that true liberty is possible only in a capitalist, free market civilisation’. In November Sesame (6, 7 November 1977) produced a summary of the issues and reactions in a piece headed ‘Marxist plot theory finds few takers’.

History Workshop Journal was targeted by Gould in his ‘Attack’, Its response was to suggest that Gould’s work was  

a covert invitation to blacklisting. It is not a rallying –cry to engage in the battle of ideas, but a sly whisper in the ear of the authorities… his report makes plain that marxists can’t be trusted with any teaching job. (HWJ, 4,Autumn 1977, Editorial, p.2).

Other came to similar conclusions. Robert Moss, editor of The Economist’s Foreign Report during the 1970s, a columnist with the Daily Telegraph and a founder member of the National Association for Freedom argued in ‘Free Nation’ (30 September 1977):

We need to insist that university vice-chancellors should represent the wishes of the community … routing out those who seek to use the lecture platform for promoting the class war.

The attacks on the Open University were part of a wider series of allegations about left-wing bias in the 1970s. In 1978 David Harris argued that ‘Marxist ideas and analyses are already effectively ‘balanced’ by ideas in general circulation’ and that anyway students did not arrive at university with blank minds but in fact came with many ideas. He added that students typically found Marxism ‘strange, counter-intuitive and ‘unrealistic, in my experience’. He noted that many of the OU students who were teachers were motivated to study as a way of gaining additional pay and did not seem very engaged with Marxist ideas;

among students of Education courses at the Open University cynicism about theory of any kind is widespread. It is thus perfectly possible for students to see the contents of even Marxist courses as consisting of a series of reified ‘facts’ and ‘recipes’ which must be acquired, exchanged for grades and then forgotten, while personal beliefs are left untouched.

In addition, the OU’s method of teaching ‘reproduces the features of advanced capitalism [and] sterilises the content of courses’. (David Harris, ‘On Marxist Bias’ Journal of Further and Higher Education, 2, 2, 1978, pp. 68 – 71).

Although the allegations were refuted other attacks followed. In 1981 Peter Harris criticised D324, Business economics in Sesame (74 September 1981) under the title ‘The anti-profit prophets’. There were responses from staff in the next issue (Sesame 75 October/November 1981). In 1982 the analysis of the relationship between art and politics of T J Clark and others was criticised in The New Criterion. Three years later Hilton Kramer wrote ‘T J Clark and the Marxist Critique of Modern Painting’, The New Criterion, 3, 7 March 1985, pp. 1-8. Clark was an external assessor of A315, Modern Art and Modernism: Manet to Pollock and in 1985 an anonymous complaint about A315, Modern Art and Modernism: Manet to Pollock was sent from the DES to the OU. It claimed that the course was ‘revolutionary and subversive … with the ultimate objective as the destruction of the democratic parliamentary system’. A Pro-Vice Chancellor investigated and found the complaint to be misconceived.

In the same week as the complaint arrived at the OU, George Walden, Under Secretary at the DES wrote ‘Painting and politics’, The Spectator, 13 July 1985 pp. 28-29. This too was critical of A315, Modern Art and Modernism: Manet to Pollock. He complained that ‘letting the ideologues loose on painting is dangerous enough; giving them ‘new interpretive tools’ as well is lethal. Semiotics in the hands of a leftist art critic are like computers at the fingers of sociologists: whole new permutations of misconceptions become possible’ (p. 28).

There were complaints about D102 and E200 Contemporary issues in education in 1982 but Sesame reported ‘left-wing bias story refuted by OU’ (82 September/October 1982) 1984 from economists Sesame reported that the ‘Bias bogey returns’(94 July/August 1984). The DES claimed that it received complaints about D102, the third foundation course in social sciences that the OU had produced. As a result the DES commissioned some unnamed economists to investigate. They concluded that the students could come away with a ‘bias towards Marxist perceptions of the primary importance of class conflict and inequality’. There was particular unease about the associated television programmes about which the DES claimed ‘it would not be surprising if they had given rise to considerable irritation’. Furthermore, Third Way September 1984, p9 reported, it also noted that monetarists are made to appear rather sinister’. There were a number of opportunities for students to contribute to this debate as there was both a large-scale survey of D102 carried out by IET and opportunities for correspondence (see for example Sesame No 94 July/August 1984 and No 98 January/February 1985). The Dean of Social Sciences, Frank Castles also addressed the issue (Sesame 84, January/February 1983).

The revolutionary tag was again mentioned by a politican on the occasion of the 40th birthday of the OU when the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Peter Mandelson called the opening of the OU was ‘the first step towards a genuine revolution in access to higher education in Britain’.

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