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What has distinguished Marxist from ‘orthodox’ views on education?

The MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY takes a look at how the capitalist class fights for control over our minds in the classroom

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, ie 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.” 

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,” they added.

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, while, of course, many children were 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, which “placed great emphasis on the educative effect of combining productive labour and learning; presupposing a society in which labour had become a creative activity.”

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 an education that would 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,” he said.

“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 his lecture On the Class School given in 1920 at Sverdlov University, Lunacharsky emphasised that all children from whatever background should attend the same comprehensive co-educational school. 

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

Cuba has applied and developed Marxist educational theory since 1959.  Its education system is comprehensive, co-educational, secular and free, from nursery level through to university.  

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.

Britain’s 1988 Education Reform Act promoted standardisation, testing, accountability to central government, competition and privatisation.  

Initiated by the Thatcher government in Britain and the Ronald Reagan administration in the US, 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 II — all fought for — 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 to the preserve of an elite.

Labour’s emerging policy on a National Education Service has refocused debates around what children should be taught, how, and by whom.  

Its national consultation ends on Sunday June 24 — see for details.  

Our next answer will look at how a Marxist approach might inform current debates around educational policy and provision. 


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