Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Marx (1818-1883) – Education as class war…

Although Karl Marx wrote little on educational theory, his influence on learning theory and practice has been profound. It was Marxism that underpinned the entire communist world’s view of learning in the 20th century, especially through Marxist theorists such as Gramsci and Althusser. In Soviet Russia and its satellite states, education was remoulded around political aims and when the Cultural Revolution in China between 1949 and 1966 was unleashed, it had devastating consequences. To this day Marxism, to a degree, persists in educational and learning theory, most notably in the social constructivism of Vygotsky, Luria and Leontyev.

Education the result of economic structures

As Marx believed that our very consciousness, as well as our theorising and institutions, were the result of basic economic structures, education is seen as the result of existing class structures. In practice, this means that the ruling class controls and determines educational theory, policy and institutional development.
For Marx, in The Communist Manifesto (jointly authored with Engels), education has a ‘social’ context, which is both direct and indirect, ‘And your education! Is not that also social, and determined by the social conditions under which you educate, by the intervention direct or indirect, of society’. The solution to the dominance of the ruling class was, first to abolish child labour, then introduce free, state-funded education. The ‘combination of education and industrial production’ is also promoted, what we’d call vocational training. Unfortunately, ‘dialectical materialism’ was the manifestation of struggles between these groups within society and led to the identification of educated people and groups as enemies of the state.

Gramsci and Althusser

It was left to later Marxists to expand Marx’s social theory of education into working models that relate to knowledge, intellectual development and education. Antonio Gramsci developed these ideas further through ideas such as ‘ideological hegemony’ where the ruling class determines what passes as knowledge or truth. Louis Althusser developed this further, exploring the way in which education, state, church, media and other institutions become the ideological state apparatus. Class structures determine knowledge and the means by which knowledge is transmitted, distributed and taught. Freire gave us a critical pedagogy for the oppressed, where education is always seen as political. These ideas were to literally shape education for a large part of the twentieth century, across entire continents and in some last vestiges, notably North Korea, the idea persists.

Technology and education

With remarkable foresight Marx also predicted the massive impact technology would have on the division of labour. His vision of a classless society would make such divisions disappear, with education as the driver. The breakdown of traditional academic and vocational should also break down, “free them from the one-sided character which the present-day division of labour impresses upon every individual”. Individuals will have several careers and through ‘education… pass from one branch of production to another in response to the needs of society or their own inclinations’. This, of course, proved hard to implement, even in hard-lined Communist countries.

Fragment on Technology

As technology takes over the role of ‘production, the new form of production is ‘information’. The economy then becomes a matter of control, not over labour, but knowledge. The nature of that control is social and he invokes the idea of a ‘general intellect’. Negri regards this as a radical shift in Marx’s thought into ‘info-capitalism’ or ‘cognitive capitalism’. Other commentators have picked up on this theme, such as Dyer-Witherford in Cyber-Marx and Bastani in Fully Automated Luxury Communism, where he takes Marx and bends it towards a contemporary vision of technological utopia. It is a thought experiment, where technology solves critical problems such as climate change, energy shortage and, above all, poverty. Capitalism does what it always does, automate, minimise and eliminate labour. Productivity goes through the roof and we can then sustain a population of 9 billion comfortably on the proceeds of this productivity. Capitalism, far from being a destructive force, produces abundance, a flourishing world of equality and happiness. 


Marxism has produced a useful critique of education as the vehicle for the implementation of power, whether by the state, capitalism or religion. But its darker side has been its prohibitions, dogma and sometime murderous consequences.
Marxism was put forward as a scientific theory, although it proved to be far from having the evidential and predictive power that science requires. This led to its core assumptions, notably dialectical materialism, being used, not only to shape psychological end learning theory but also, at times, the elimination of certain groups deemed to be class enemies, often the educated and educators. Its more benign influence has been in seeing education as always having a political dimension.


Karl Marx, (1988) The Communist Manifesto, ed. by Frederic L. Bender, Norton
Karl Marx, (1983) The Portable Karl Marx, ed. by Eugene Kamenka, Viking
Karl Marx, (1988) The Communist Manifesto, ed. by Frederic L. Bender, Norton
Karl Marx, (1992) Early Writings, tr. by Rodney Livingstone, Penguin
Karl Marx, (1992) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, tr. by Ben Fowkes Penguin.
Terry Eagleton, (1999) Marx Routledge
Francis Wheen, (1999) Karl Marx Fourth Estate

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