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In Karl Marx and Critical Librarianship, John Pateman, CEO of Thunder Bay Public Library, seeks to provide a Marxist framework for a “Needs Based” library model. In 2008, Pateman wrote in Information for Social Change on “Developing a Needs Based Library Service” which, while not naming Marx directly, did refer to Marx’s statement in the Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875) (taken from Louis Blanc). “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

For Pateman, it seems, Marx’s ideas are the bedrock on which the “Needs Based Library” could be founded. I say “could” because in neither document is the “Needs Based Library” posited as anything more than an abstract, aspirational model which returns libraries to a purported (but unsubstantiated) tradition of democracy and social justice which Pateman believes libraries have diverged from.

It seems to me that Pateman’s reading of Marx does not do justice to the sophistication and nuance of Marx’s theoretical contributions, but I don’t want get into a debate about relative interpretations of Marx. I do, however, want to point out a major absence in Pateman’s analysis, one which has always been considered fundamental to Marx and to Marxist analysis, the concept of materialism.

Pateman begins Karl Marx and Critical Librarianship by mentioning the base and superstructure, by which Marx meant the ways in which economic production was organized, and the culture, politics, social formations, etc, which develop out of a given mode of production. In his sketch of historical materialism published in 1859, Marx wrote:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. (Marx, preface to The Critique of Political Economy)

The important thing here is that the “base” is material. The ways in which we, as workers, interact with the world to satisfy our needs (through work) is the foundation of the superstructure, and therefore of all social forms and institutions (including libraries). The relationship between the base and the superstructure is, of course, dialectical, but Marxism is an economic determinism, and it’s important to remember the importance Marx ascribed to material reality and the relations that it engenders.

In this case, then, when Pateman states that “we can interpret the Superstructure as the organizational culture […] and the Base as the Strategy, Structures, and Systems” of a library, he is losing sight of the materialist basis of capitalist production, and therefore confusing what is an economic relationship, and what is, for want of a better word, cultural. Organizational culture is obviously (but not merely) cultural, but so are strategy (how and by whom is strategy decided), services (what services, aimed at whom, provided how), and systems (in Pateman’s view, systems are “policies and procedures”). We can see the “superstructural” nature of these categories in the fact that the actual relations of production (capitalist/funder, manager, employee, “consumer”) remain unchanged.

I have to keep reminding myself that Pateman’s “Needs Based Library” is not a description or a model of an actual existing library, but an imaginary construct described using quasi-factual statements which, I’m starting to realize, are not meant to be taken as descriptions of actual fact (this was part of my problem with the CAPAL statement on collegial governance). So that when Pateman writes:

A Needs Based Library Service is both democratic and accountable. Stakeholders include staff, partners, suppliers, service users, lapsed users and non users. (Pateman, 2008)

He doesn’t mean is in any kind of descriptive or ontological sense. By losing sight of the material forces and relations that actually exist in society, Pateman seems to free himself from any actual constraint, and confuse “should” statements with “is” statements.

So we end up back to the question I raised in my last blog post: who signs the cheques? If Pateman’s Needs Based model is actually meant to be realistically applied, how does his “constitution” deal, with the realities of capitalsit relations, for example, with collective agreements? How would a Needs Based public library convince a (capitalist) municipal government to fund an organization that tries to not base itself on capitalist relations of production? Does a Needs Based library manage to exist in some kind of non-capitalist space simply because it is an imaginable option? As Gillian Byrne asked, does getting rid of traditional hierarchies simply replace them with relations of personal domination? Pateman’s constitution seems to imply that this would, in fact, be the case:

The transparency of the Constitution means that you no longer have to depend on office politics to get things done. With the Constitution made accessible to everyone, anyone in the Library can quickly figure out who owns what, the decisions he or she can make, and who to hold accountable for which functions.

Somehow, office politics would “wither away” once everyone knows “who owns what”. This is precisely the idea that Lenin had which he belatedly tried to deal with in his testament against Stalin, but to no avail.

Further reading in Marx might have led Pateman to two other salient ideas, which appear in the same document as the discussion of the base and the superstructure:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.


No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society. Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.

This indicates that economic realities, material relations between people and classes, can’t be changed or overthrown simply by closing ones eyes to them. We must have no illusions about how the mode of production creates the labour and living conditions in which we find ourselves. And it is only by changing the material basis of production that we can permanently and thoroughly change the superstructure. By ignoring, as Pateman does, the material constraints on our agency, he loses a major component of the Marxist framework on which he bases his library model.

In my view, Marx and Marxism are both valid bodies of thought for critiquing the current model of librarianship, imagining alternatives and, hopefully, pushing forward the kind of change Pateman is looking for. But I don’t see the value in ignoring the very real material conditions of our working lives in favour of what seems to be little more than wishful thinking.

ADDENDUM: on applying Marxism to library work. In discussing Pateman’s article, Jane Schmidt pointed out that details of what an actual implementation of a Marxist model of libraries might look like is still lacking. I don’t have any fully-fleshed out thoughts or ideas on this topic yet, but the more I think about it, the more I think that some kind of dual power could provide a way forward. Dual power was a term coined by Lenin to refer to the fact that, while the Tsarist and Provisional Governments were still legally in control, the Soviets (councils) in Moscow and Petrograd were providing social services and making political and practical decisions without reference to the government. The Black Panthers too, have exercised dual power to provide social services to their communities in the face of an abdication by the US and state governments. I still need to think more about this, but I wonder if self-organization by library workers without attempting to overthrow the decision-making apparatus, might be a way forward.


Sam Popowich

Discovery Systems Librarian, University of Alberta

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