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Thursday, 24 May 2018 10:50

Is There a Marxist Perspective on Education?

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Is There a Marxist Perspective on Education?

Martin Brown considers what a Marxist approach can tell us about our education system.  

Like everything else in a class-divided society, education is a battleground. In present conditions, what is taught, how and to whom, is largely determined by the capitalist class. “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force” wrote Marx. That’s as true today as ever. Let’s start by looking at what Marx and his successors had to say about education.

In the Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and Engels argue (in a mock address to the ruling class) that education is: “determined by the social conditions under which you educate, by the intervention, direct or indirect, of society by means of schools, etc. They added; Communists “have not invented the intervention of society in education; they do but seek to alter the character of that intervention, and to rescue education from the influence of the ruling class.”

While Marx was alive, a fierce argument about the state’s involvement in education was going on within the British ruling class. On the one side was the view, expressed by the Bishop of London: "It is safest for both the Government and the religion of the country to let the lower classes remain in the state of ignorance in which nature has originally placed them."

On the other side of the argument, employers wanted a workforce who ‘knew their place’, but had enough literacy and numeracy skills to follow instructions, and an increasingly important and complex British industry also needed increasing numbers of skilled workers like mechanics, clerks and accountants. By the middle of the 19th century leaving the working class in ignorance was no longer an option. A chaotic mix of voluntary provision had emerged – church schools, non-conformist schools, charity schools, dame schools and factory schools and of course, many children in no school at all. Fearful of the emerging trade union movement and of radical organisations like the Chartists, the state was eventually forced to intervene to ensure that the gaps in the patchwork of provision by voluntary religious organisations was completed, ensuring that it was their ideology that prevailed and not that of the emerging working class.

In 1870, Marx applauded the Paris Communards’ action in making education free and for removing interference by church and state, and also having studied the educational experiments of Robert Owen, “placed great emphasis on the educative effect of combining productive labour and learning; presupposing a society in which labour had become a creative activity.” (Brian Simon, Intelligence, Psychology and Education)

When workers seized power in Russia in 1917, Marx’s theories were put into practice and education was a priority. Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet Commissar for Education and Enlightenment, spoke at the All-Russia Congress on Education, held within a year of the Revolution. He stressed the need for the workers and peasants to be given the education that give them the capacity to govern as the ruling class:

“When there came […] the October Revolution, the peasantry and the proletariat came forward without any skill in government, being as far removed from this as can be imagined. Now the power of the state has but one task: to give the people, as quickly as possible, the greatest possible amount of knowledge, to cope with the gigantic role which the Revolution has prepared for the people – to destroy the privileged right to knowledge, allowed before to only a small part of society …”

In a lecture ‘On the Class School’ given in 1920 at the Sverdlov University he emphasised that all children from whatever background should attend the same comprehensive co-educational school; “In a class society everything the state does has a strictly class character … what can we, as socialists, offer instead of this class school? … every boy and every girl, whatever family he or she is born into, goes to one and the same first class, to the unified labour school …” Lunacharsky promoted the understanding that children learn through play: “Play is a method of self-education. ‘Schoolroom’ teaching ignores this fact, it says: a child wants to run about – make him sit still; a child wants to make things himself, to occupy himself with something interesting – sit him down to his Latin! In a word it is a struggle against a child’s very nature. We take exactly the opposite standpoint … when children dance, sing, cut things out mould material into shapes, they are learning …”

Another feature of Soviet schools that was initiated by Lunacharsky was the importance of linking the school to human labour. A decree of 1918 declared that: “the principle of productive labour should underlie the whole educational system: the teaching in the schools must bear a polytechnical character”.

Soviet School

A Soviet poster describing the importance for all to be productive and help build new schools for the proletariat.

Cuba has applied and developed Marxist educational theory since 1959. Its education system is comprehensive, co-educational, secular and free from nursery to university level. Despite the US blockade Cuba spends a higher proportion of GDP on education than any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean, and has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

By contrast, Britain, or to be more precise, England, has led the world of education in the reverse direction. The Global 'Education Reform' Movement (GERM) is now largely controlled by the corporate world with deep connections to conservative politicians. The British 1988 Education Reform Act promoted standardisation, testing, accountability to central government, competition and privatisation. Initiated by the Thatcher government in Britain and the Reagan administration in the USA, GERM has become a global infection. In Africa and Asia profit-making, low fee-paying schools run by Pearson and other transnational corporations undermine national education systems.

The significant advances made in Britain after World War Two have been largely reversed. Selection, often under the guise of academies and 'free schools' is increasing, religious schools have increased in number and variety, and local education authorities (along with any semblance of local accountability) have disappeared. Tuition fees in universities are returning higher education into the preserve of an elite.

British education is in meltdown. Author and educationalist Peter Mortimore, writes: “Since 1988 our education system has been transformed into a market economy -- as if schooling is similar to shopping or using an estate agent. The ideological inspiration for marketisation stems from the work of Milton Friedman. His 'Capitalism and Freedom' provoked a new strategy for governing […] The key elements of this strategy are individualism, competition, choice, privatisation, decentralisation, deregulation and the use of the market in all public services.”

Along with these developments, governments, both Tory and Labour, have centralised control of the curriculum and established draconian inspection and testing regimes. As a result, the teacher's role has been reduced to that of technician with little control over what is taught and how. Austerity budgets have slashed education spending and while the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland have been able to resist some of these developments and retain a degree of local accountability (and Scottish higher education students do not pay tuition fees), both countries' education systems are massively underfunded. It is no surprise that there is now an acute teacher shortage. The Times recently reported “applications for teacher training have fallen by a third in a year, the government has missed its recruitment targets for the past five years and teachers are quitting in record numbers with a quarter leaving after just three years.”

A Marxist approach can help us understand how this situation came about and what has to be done to change it. Marx's views on school education were not elaborated - there are only scattered references in various of his works and there was no universal state education when he was writing, but later thinkers have developed his approach. Antonio Gramsci coined the phrase 'cultural hegemony' to describe the influence that the ruling class has over what counts as knowledge. The dominant class controls the subject class not with force but with ideas that conceal the true source of their power and the nature of the exploitation.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed radical Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, described conventional teaching under capitalism as the 'banking method', which he saw as mirroring and reinforcing an oppressive society. Under this model of teaching the teacher is viewed as knowing everything and the student nothing. The teacher talks and the student listens. The teacher (or rather the government) determines what is taught and how it is taught. Students become empty vessels and their role is to store the knowledge bestowed on them. Above all they are not required or expected as a result of their education to change the world by reflection and action. In contrast, the humanist, revolutionary educator will adopt another approach: problem posing education based on a dialogue between teacher and student in which both become responsible for a process in which they both grow. Their aim should be to become critical thinkers questioning and challenging what they encounter in the learning process.


At last the hegemony of free market education model is being challenged by the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s emerging policy on a National Education Service is a breath of fresh air, and the skeleton policy - currently out for consultation has refocused debates around what children should be taught, how, and by whom. It includes the aim that education should be free at the point of use, that all barriers to learning are to be tackled, that all areas of skills and learning deserve respect. It promotes collaboration and co-operation over competition, proposes a restoration of local accountability, of practice being based on evidence, of assessment and inspection being used to support teachers and learners. At this stage the policies imply advances but lack detail. One response from an alliance of educational campaigning groups that makes the proposals explicit is to be found at www.reclaimingeducation.org.uk. Abolition of student tuition fees is implied but on the future of academies and free schools – a key ingredient of the market model – the alliance is unclear as is how local accountability can be restored.

There are historical injustices that will have to be dealt with too. Private education buys privilege. Grammar schools, religious schools and above all so-called ‘public’ schools are used to exclude others and have no place in a society that is building a socialist future.

In A Life in Education Brian Simon, the late Marxist, campaigner for comprehensive education and educational historian, summed up what is needed:

“Up to the age of 16 all children should have the opportunity to experience a full all round education embodying the humanities, arts, sciences and technology - this is and always has been the aim of comprehensive education. In such schools there are no blind alleys, no once-and-for-all tests to cut off or divest children from access to learning. Opportunities remain open for all. Well-equipped schools of this type serve their own neighbourhood in every locality. Such is the objective. To achieve this schools not only need generous resources in terms of buildings, equipment and staff; they also need to evolve the relevant pedagogical means carefully honed to ensure that all children are effectively assisted in their learning. This is an area where much has been lacking in both primary and secondary schools.

Education should be holistic, should address mental and physical health and wellbeing. It should help pupils think rather than learn facts, it should encourage pupils to question everything, to be sceptical, to think. Philosophy should be a central plank of education, from the earliest age. It should enable pupils to live their lives to the full not simply enable them to join the workforce.” 

Here, then, is a programme for the 21st century for any government worth its salt. The need now is to go even further, and finally create a genuinely national system of education. Current provisions, historically based are no longer acceptable. Such must be the agenda for the future.


Read 9212 times Last modified on Friday, 28 December 2018 15:28
Martin Brown

Martin Brown is a retired teacher, a member of the National Education Union and Unify (a cross-union body campaigning for one union for all education professionals) and former editor of 'Education for Tomorrow'.

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