Review: “‘Human Relations’ Doctrine: Ideological Weapon of the Monopolies” – Nina Bogomolova

Before I read Nina Bogomolova’s book “‘Human Relations’ Doctrine: Ideological Weapon of the Monopolies” I had no idea what “human relations” doctrine was. A few pages into the book, however, I soon realized I knew exactly what “human relations” doctrine was and that I have personally experienced it — and I knew I was going to like this book!

“Human relations” doctrine refers to the psychological indoctrination of workers by capitalists. Have you ever been told at a workplace that the company was like a “family”, that each employee’s voice mattered, that management had an “open-door policy”, etc.? This is the essence of the human relations doctrine: “subtle psychological methods to create among workers the illusion that in present conditions employers and workers can become ‘equal partners’ with common interest in the success of ‘their’ factory and in the establishment of ‘good human relations’” (pp. 7-8).

Bogomolova traces the origin of human relations doctrine to the 1920s-30s, when the whole capitalist world was hit by an unprecedented economic crisis, and when production became increasingly capital-intensive. “The emergence of ‘human relations’ doctrine,” Bogomolova writes, “and its wide dissemination were called forth by the high level of productive forces at that time, when the high degree of mechanisation in capitalist production while reducing physical stress, involved considerable nervous stress. Employers found themselves compelled to focus their attention on the ‘psychological’ or ‘human’ factor in industry, in so far as the mental state of the workers and their interest in their work were starting to determine productivity levels to an increasing degree” (p. 9). The degree of capital investment in production also made strikes and employee turnover much more costly to capitalists. “At this period industry was becoming much more capital intensive. In the middle of the last century there was an average of $500 worth of equipment per worker in American industry, whereas by the 1930s this figure had risen to several tens of thousands of dollars. Any hold-up resulting from a breakdown of equipment for which workers were responsible or strikes or high labour turnover caused the monopolies enormous losses. It is thus not surprising that the giants of monopoly capital started showing so much more interest in ensuring that the workers showed a ‘dedicated attitude’ to their work and the interests of the company” (p. 10). Moreover, the passing of the Wagner Act (1935), which gave American workers the right to organize unions, made it more difficult, albeit not impossible, for capitalists to use more brutal forms of repression against workers and trade unions (think of the Ludlow Massacre, the Battle of Blair Mountain, etc.). Instead, as Robert Jungk wrote, an important human relations advocate, it was necessary to stem “the wave of anti-capitalist sentiment” among workers and “take the ground from under the feet of present-day movements for social revolution” (p. 12).

The first major study of human relations doctrines was conducted in Hawthorne, near Chicago, at a Western Electric factory, in 1924, known as the Hawthorne Experiment. Researchers found that when workers were convinced of the importance of their work and there was a more “democratic atmosphere” worker productivity increased. The success and popularity of the Hawthorne findings led to the establishment of various human relations departments at major universities in the 1930s, including Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and the University of Chicago. Monopoly capital’s interest in human relations continued into the post-WWII years. The American business journal Business Week reported that more than $178,000,000 had been allocated by major corporations including General Electric, General Motors, Ford, Standard Oil, and U.S. Steel, to human relations research in 1960.

Bogomolova, like any Marxist, is sharply critical of the Hawthorne Experiment and the Freudian psychoanalysis theory of human relations derived from it. “Like the neo-Freudians and the behaviorists,” Bogomolova writes, “so too do the advocates of ‘human relations’ minimise the role of consciousness in man’s behavior. Their concept of the way in which feelings, emotions and sub-conscious factors dominate human behavior were stated by Mayo and Roethlisberger [researchers at Hawthorne] who maintained that human behaviour was in the main non-logical and irrational” (p. 43). While conceding that “specific biological and psychological needs do indeed influence man’s behaviour, these needs do not exhaust the complete diversity of human needs and, what is more important, they are not the decisive factor in human behaviour. The whole course of history shows that the behaviour of human beings and in particular that of large social groups is determined by their material needs, the nature of which is directly dependent on the level of development and the requirements of social production, on the whole range of the conditions of life in a given society, on the specific socio-economic position of a group or individual in society, and above all on the relationship of the group or individual to the means of production” (pp. 41-42).

Under capitalism the means of production are privately owned and production is carried out not to satisfy human or social needs but to produce profit for the capitalist class. “The urge to extract profit is the subjective expression of objective economic laws of capitalist production and it is this which always determines the behaviour of the capitalist” (p. 42). Meanwhile the proletariat, deprived of any means of production and not possessing anything apart from its labour power “only has one path open to it: it can sell its labour power in order to secure its means of subsistence” (p. 42). Thus, Bogomolova writes, “Satisfaction of the working-class needs in capitalist society founded on private ownership of the means of production flounders against the narrowness of capitalist relations, which is one of the most important factors in the social revolution” (p. 42).

Because human relations doctrine advocates “choose to ignore decisive socio-economic laws of social development makes it impossible for them to probe the essence of social phenomena,” Bogomolova concludes. “As a result, many of the objective processes they have discerned in the workings of modern capitalist society are represented in a distorted light in their writings and the means they recommend for establishing ‘co-operation’ between labour and capital can only exert a temporary influence and are of an essentially reactionary utopian nature” (p. 152). Modern productive forces have attained such a high level of development to make legitimate calls for “a creative approach to work on the part of those engaged in it, respect for personal dignity of every worker and the establishment of democratic, free and genuinely human relations between all members of society” (p. 152). Capitalism, however, “being, as it is, based on exploitation is not able to provide the conditions indispensable for such relations to evolve,” contrary to the subjective and utopian theories of human relations advocates (p. 152).

This book reminded me so much of an incident at work. At the time I was working for a company where management incessantly said the company was “like a family.” Employees weren’t employees, they were members of “the [Insert Company’s Name] Family.” Because I was working full-time in an office during a pandemic and have a chronic illness I took quite a few sick days. I was called into the office of the General Manager, the most useless person I have ever seen work in an office (he made $100,000+ and the biggest tasks he dealt with were if the coffee machine worked in the lunch room and if the garbage was collected), to talk about my sick days. I’ll never forget how quickly his rhetoric of “we’re a family” turned into “we’re a business operating to make profit” in the course of that conversation. Ugh.

Anyways I seriously think this book should be required reading in schools. Too many workers defend capitalists like they are ‘equal partners’ in what is fundamentally an unequal and coercive transaction.