Marx and education
What did the classical Marxists actually say on the subject of education? James Tansey has been finding out, and draws some lessons for communist work today.
In February 1865, at the age of 24, Paul Lafargue first met Karl Marx in a visit to report on the progress of the International Workingmen’s Association in France. Marx was apparently enthusiastic about being visited by someone as young as Lafargue, since he was keen to train people to carry on communist work after himself.1 Liebknecht’s account of his time spent with Marx in exile in London strongly reinforces Lafargue’s assertion, with Liebknecht recounting Marx’s drive to teach the young émigrés in every field of learning, from political economy to philology.2 In addition to his apparent enthusiasm for educating young socialists, Marx’s work also contains various brief pieces of commentary on education in a political context. In spite of this, the issue of education policy is not one issue that gets much attention in Marxist orthodoxy.
The reasons for this neglect are probably manifold. Firstly, and mainly, because there were simply much more immediate and pressing problems to be worked out on the issues of imperialism, commercial crisis, the betrayal of social democracy, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the ‘official communist’ parties etc. With such immediate and world-historic issues weighing on the minds of revolutionaries, it can perhaps justifiably be said that an attempt to move into a realm such as that of education while the Comintern, for example, was pursuing its disastrous policy of alliance with the Kuomintang in China, would have represented a retreat away from the world of the concrete to the halls of abstract theory.
With the current government’s raising of university tuition fees however, and the fight back that has occurred, it can hardly be said at this point that questions of education are abstract, or not immediately practical. At some level they are now directly concrete. Of course, we should note that a focus on the concrete does not mean the repudiation of theory, but on the contrary: it is through mediation at the level of the concrete that world-historic outlooks find their battleground. In this connection Marx’s comments on the programme of the Gotha unity congress, through which he opposes his practical-materialist outlook to the legalistic philosophy of Lassalle, are particularly demonstrative.3
A second issue when writing about education policy is that it invariably brings up the question of education in a socialist society, and this in turn presents us with the danger of falling back into the errors of the old utopians, ie of devising a fantastic blueprint of how society should be, and then holding this up to existing society. In contrast to this, Marx and Engels attempted to consistently apply Hegel’s dictum that “what is rational is real and what is real is rational”.4 The task of theory is not to tell the world what it should be like, and how it fails to conform to the designs of abstract reason, but to show those tendencies immanent within existing society that drive it towards a socialist future. Only when it has learned this lesson does social science cease to be doctrinaire, and become revolutionary.
In this sense there is an unbridgeable divide between science and utopia. But we must be clear that science, understood along with Hegel to be the theoretical reflection of the self-movement of the object of study, can still show us an outline of the future. This future is now no longer conceived in the manner of the utopians as a blueprint, but rather the inevitable result of the movement. In this connection, Marx remarks in a letter to Arnold Ruge that “it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one.”5 Critique in Marx is thus not conceived merely as a pure negation of existing conditions, but as negation through the programme of the positive movement which is brought into existence by the conditions of the existing society.
It might be immediately objected that attempting to draw out the views of ‘the masters’ is a useless endeavour that reveals a sort of semi-religious mentality, according to which the works of Marx and Engels contain some kind of revealed truth which can be brought out through correct interpretation. This is a valid objection to merely assuming that what Marx and Engels have written on a particular subject must be correct, but nevertheless it is still instructive to look at their views on certain subjects. They were, after all, the founding fathers of Marxism, and as such their views on any particular subject must be integrated somehow into their larger worldview.
A simple interpretation of Marx and Engels cannot therefore present us with revealed truth, but it can give us insights. It can act as a guide, a signpost towards further research and critique. With this proper attitude to the material established, it is possible to go forward. Marx’s writings on the subject coincide with the two periods in his life in which he was directly involved in the politics of his day. The first was from 1848-52 as a member of the Communist League and a critical commentator on the revolutionary upheavals of the time, as well as the reaction incurred at the end of the period. The second was from 1864 to 1871, the period from the formation of the International Workingmen‘s Association up to the crushing of the Paris Commune.
The Communist League and European Revolutions of 1848
We can start the investigation by analysing two interrelated documents. The first is Engels’ draft programme for the Communist League, The Principles of Communism. This document was the basis for the Communist Manifesto, and itself based on Engels’ earlier Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith. The second text is of course the Manifesto of the Communist Party itself, which Marx and Engels were commissioned to write after sweeping all before them whilst arguing their positions at the League’s second congress. Given that Engels was in France at the time, this document was almost certainly written entirely by Marx’s own hand. (It should be emphasised, however, that this does not imply a split between Marx and Engels. On the contrary, Marx‘s document is based to a large degree on Engels’s Principles).
Engels’s original Confession of Faith6 contains only three demands to be implemented after the conquest of political power by the working-class to advance the transition to communism. The third of these concerns education, and is a very basic demand for education to be funded by the state and carried out in state-owned establishments. By contrast, the Principles7 contains a greatly expanded list of ten demands. The eighth demand, concerning education, reiterates the demand of the Confession for “national establishments at national cost.”8 However, added to this is the new demand for “Education and production together.”9
This demand of Engels’, repeated later by Marx in his writings for the IWMA, has often been called a demand for ‘polytechnic’ education10. However, Engels further comments in section twenty of the Principles give us a first glimpse as to why the interpretation of this demand as a demand for what we currently understand by ‘polytechnic’ education is highly dubious. Here, Engels remarks on the role of education in the breakdown of the division of labour, stating that it will allow “young people … to pass from one branch of production to another in response to the needs of society or their own inclinations.”11
In the final paragraph of the section he further cites “industrial education” as one of the means by which to achieve “the rounded development of the capacities of all members of society”12. As can be plainly seen then, far from the limited scope of modern ‘polytechnic’ education, Engels in the Principles is proposing the development of an education system which will allow for the full flourishing of each individual, a key aspect of which would be to train children in both mental and practical spheres. Indeed, this would also imply the abolition of education as a separate sphere of society – an education to which the youth are confined until they come of age and are permitted to enter the world of work.
Marx’s Manifesto13 contains as it’s tenth demand the same demand as Engels’ Principles for public education, the combination of education with production as well as an additional note demanding the “Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form.” Unlike the Principles however, the Manifesto does not mention the character of education in feeding into the rounded development of individuals and thus the overcoming of the division of labour. The document’s comments on education are found in the section which deals with the family. In this context, Marx slams the narrow parochial viewpoint which views the relation between children and their parents as sacred, giving the parents the divine right to control the education of the child.
In the same breath he notes that in actual fact bourgeois society itself tends even more towards the socialisation of education. Communists, he says, “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.”14 From this there may appear to arise something of a contradiction in Marx’s position. Marx and Engels both support universal education by the state, however they also recognise the role which state institutions play in perpetuating the domination of the ruling class. In this passage of the Manifesto Marx explicitly recognises the role which educational institutions play in the perpetuation of the ideology of the ruling classes.
In opposition to this apparent contradiction, it could be pointed out that up to this point the only positive demands Marx and Engels have made pertain either to what will happen after the proletariat has seized power, or to a society in which capitalist property relations have been abolished. However, the repetition of the demand for universal education in the Demands of the Communist Party in Germany15 would suggest that it was not only intended as a demand to be postponed long into the future, but also as an immediate demand around which the working class (with the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie in tow) could rally.
To answer this question of the apparently contradictory nature of this demand, it is thus not sufficient to look at Marx’s writings of the period. We must move forward in our investigation onto the politics of the First International Workingmen’s Association, where Marx’s conflict with the Proudhonists will allow the issue to shine in it’s proper light.
The First International
After the revolutions of 1848, the revolutionary movements were driven underground, their leaders exiled, imprisoned and executed, and a period of reaction set in on the European continent. Marx and Engels came to the conclusion that the period was no longer favourable to involvement practical involvement16 in mass politics, and confined themselves to their studies. Direct writing by Marx on the subject of education thus dwindles in this period. He starts his intervention on the subject anew in his writings for the First International.
The first piece to observe in this context would be his instructions to the delegates of the IWMA’s 1866 congress. Specifically the section on Juvenile and children’s labour (both sexes)17. Marx begins by discussing how the apparently rational tendency of modern society to allow children to participate in the social production process had been “distorted into an abomination”18 by capitalism (Here, obviously, given the title of the section, child labour is meant). He then begins to deal with how it would be possible for the working class to save its youth from the deleterious effects of capital. It will be instructive to pay close attention to this section.
He writes that such can only be done “by converting social reason into social force” and this can only be achieved by “general laws, enforced by the power of the state.” Marx then writes that “In enforcing such laws, the working class do not fortify governmental power. On the contrary, they transform that power, now used against them, into their own agency. They effect by a general act what they would vainly attempt by a multitude of isolated individual efforts.”19
I previously posed the question of how Marx and Engels could posit demands such as universal education by the state as immediate demands for the working class to rally around. I think this quote demonstrates the reasons quite well. For there is an unspoken assumption in the question I have posed, namely an anarchist theory of the state as an institution of straightforward domination over its subjects tout court.20 By contrast, for Marx and Engels the state has its origins in the functions of collective governance that naturally arise in any society. However, in a society divided into classes, these functions become usurped and take on a state character. This state is characterised by having the outward form of a normal institution of social administration (particularly in more modern state regimes with universal suffrage), but its content is nonetheless determined by class interests.
Large territorial institutions of governmental administration are not in themselves problematic. What is problematic is the role that these institutions assume in bourgeois society, where their functions are usurped by the interests of the dominant class. But despite this appropriation of these functions by the bourgeoisie – and precisely because these functions remain rooted in necessary social functions rather than an orchestrated conspiracy to dominate the masses – it is possible to wage a struggle to recapture them, expel the representatives of the bourgeoisie and refashion the state machinery in such a way as to make it accountable and controllable by the working class21.
For Marx and Engels, the state thus does not constitute an instrument of pure class domination which the working-class must stand outside at all costs. This would make their polemics against the Proudhonists and the Bakuninists both superfluous and incomprehensible. For them, the state in fact constitutes an arena in which class struggle can be conducted. More than this, it constitutes the highest arena in which class struggle can be conducted. As the previously quoted statement by Marx suggests, struggle over political issues has the potential to unite the struggles of the working class as individuals, or as members of a particular industrial sector, and to constitute it into a political class – ie, ‘for itself’.
In the capitalist epoch, states are organised on the basis of large national territories with administration centralised over these areas, as opposed to the decentralised feudal states with manifold local customs and laws. As such, state policy has the potential to effect, and gain opposition from, the entire working class – or at least a large section of it – within those particular national boundaries. Moreover, state policy cannot be fought against by the working class acting as members of a particular industrial sector, or as private individuals but only as a class and a class which is organised into a political party.
As we leave behind Marx in his IWMA era. It would be worthwhile to note a couple of telling passages from his magnum opus, Das Kapital, which clearly demonstrate his way of thinking on these issues. The first is from the chapter on machinery and notes approvingly the schemes of Robert Owen:
“From the Factory system budded, as Robert Owen has shown us in detail, the germ of the education of the future, an education that will, in the case of every child over a given age, combine productive labour with instruction and gymnastics, not only as one of the methods of adding to the efficiency of production, but as the only method of producing fully developed human beings.”
The second makes essentially the same point only now with reference to the Quaker John Bellers:
“John Bellers, a very phenomenon in the history of political economy, saw most clearly at the end of the 17th century, the necessity for abolishing the present system of education and division of labour, which beget hypertrophy and atrophy at the two opposite extremities of society.”
These quotes demonstrate how, far from being incidental, Marx’s views on education were central to his overall scheme, a part of his life’s work. They also underline how far Marx was from repudiating the basic vision of the organisation of the future society offered by certain of the pre-Marxian utopian theorists.
Education and communism
We may summarise the whole of the above somewhat as follows. The basic feature of communist society in all phases of its development is that the labour of the individual directly forms a component part of the total social labour, rather than the social character of the individual’s labour being affirmed and mediated through its exchange against money. This regulation of the social division of labour, which is really the abolition of the social division of labour as such will – so the theory goes22 – abolish the tendency of capitalist society to restrict the individual to a single branch of production, and allow them more time to develop themselves in numerous directions. This tendency towards rounded development is already present within capitalist society when the working class, through its struggles and through the slight increase in prosperity afforded to it in boom periods, gains a certain amount of leisure time to dispose of in it’s chosen way.23 However, this is continually counteracted by the opposing tendency for workers to be treated merely as the incarnation of a certain number of hours of labour, as mere machines for the valorisation of capital.
This tendency is also complemented in communist society in the sphere of education, which will no longer be subordinated to developing the workers as instruments of production, but rather as a means of furthering their own personal development in many directions. This is again partially the case under the existing capitalist education system,24 but is constantly curbed by various means. Only through the abolition of capitalism and, correspondingly, of abstract labour can this tendency of society be brought into the centre of development rather than being anterior and even hostile to it.
The reader will note that what Marx and Engels never provided in this sphere was a blueprint. A detailed plan of the organisation of the education of the future. Indeed, when the German intellectual Eugen Dühring presented a similar scheme, Engels mocked his nonsense, which pretended to gain insight into all the problems of social organisation and human life. (This is the basis of Engels’s Anti-Dühring.) This lack of a detailed scheme is not problematic, but is in fact a distinct advantage. Adherence to ready-made schemas always leaves the adherents stuck when they come across problems not foreseen by their schemas. Those who avoid schemas and take a dynamic approach to the problems of organisation of everyday life are better suited to creatively deal with problems when they arise, and indeed this lack of adherence to pre-set schemas is essential if the emancipation of the workers is really to be an act of the workers themselves.
Throughout this piece I have tried to emphasise Marx and Engels’s hostility to two closely interrelated trends – utopianism and sectarianism25.
On the other hand I have also tried to emphasise that Marx and Engels’s criticisms of the utopians in no way meant an abandonment of the basic goals for which they worked, but rather a new way of working towards these goals which – drawing at least implicitly on Hegel’s critique of utopian politics and the French revolutionaries – saw it as the product of the workers’ movement, a movement which is called in to being by the very basis of existing society. Despite the slander of ‘ultra-left’, ‘sectarian’ etc which is usually afforded to him, Amadeo Bordiga once made the point in a highly evocative way by pointing out that the continuity of the party ‘in space’ established by the principle of centralism is complemented by it’s continuity ‘in time’, the connection it draws between the immediate movement and the final goal.
The sphere of educational policy is no exception to the general rule. In their own time Marx and Engels exhorted the class to fight for universal free education. Since then this demand has been met to at least some degree in the western world. This was a generally progressive gain on the part of the class – after all it is difficult to seek the elimination of capitalism when you don’t even have basic literacy or numeracy skills. Nevertheless, attempts to roll back the gains we have made – as with all reforms we win under capitalism – constantly reassert themselves.
The immediate struggle to defend education is not a struggle for communism, or carried out under its banner. This is generally in the nature of things. But it does nobody any good to stand on the sidelines propagating communist doctrine in the hope that eventually enough people will have been convinced via propaganda to take up the struggle against capital. It is a superficial mode of thought to think in terms of irreconcilable antithesis like ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’, ‘immediate movement’ and ‘final goal’ or ‘defend access to education’ and ‘build an education system capable of developing the capacities of individuals in all directions’. In the communist, ie the dialectical materialist way of reasoning the two are not seen as opposites, but as moments of the whole process of communism’s becoming.
10. For example by Glenn Rikowski in his article ‘Marxism and the Education of the Future’, which also cites other examples of this usage: http://www.wwwords.co.uk/pdf/freetoview.asp?j=pfie&vol=2&issue=3&year=2004&article=10_Rikowski_PFEO_2_3-4_web. Rikowski uses this as an example of why Marx and Engels’s writings on education cannot be straightforwardly applied to present day conditions, citing existing work experience programmes as an example of the neat integration of such ‘polytechnic’ education into capitalist society. However, as I shall show, I believe the interpretation of this demand as a straightforward demand for ‘polytechnic’ education to be somewhat misleading.
13. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Manifesto of the Communist Party. The specific section relevant to the present discussion is ‘Chapter II. Proletarians and Communists’. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm
16. I do not claim, of course, that they completely abstained from politics in this period. Evidence to the contrary could easily be found in, for example, Marx’s writings on the Sepoy uprising in India or the Taiping rebellion in China. However he was no longer involved as a member and contributor of a political organisation, as was the case with the Communist League and IWMA.
20. For example, Bakunin in his second letter To the Comrades of the International Workingmen’s Association of Locle and Chaux-De-Fonds: “The State has always been the patrimony of some privileged class, whether sacerdotal, noble, or bourgeois, and, in the end, when all the other classes have been used up, of a bureaucratic class… It is absolutely necessary for its [the state’s] welfare that there be some privileged class interested in its existence.”
21. To avoid misunderstanding, I do not necessarily believe that the working class can take power by peaceful and parliamentary methods. However, even an armed insurrection would not destroy the major part of the state infrastructure, as can be seen in part by the example of the Russian Revolution.
23. In this we can also partially see the reactionary nature of ‘anti-consumerism’, which wants the spheres of activity open to the workers to a certain extent to be closed off again and which sees in the workers’ enrichment of himself, rather than of capital, nothing but blind self-interest and hedonism. Of course, under capitalist society, since society opposes itself to the individual in the form of capital, this tendency must manifest itself in a certain kind of individualism. The opposite will be the case in communist society, when this tendency is not an accidental product of social development, but the end of development in itself.
24. Which, incidentally, is another reason why the abstract opposition of ‘universal education’ vs. ‘communist education’ is a false one. The former already contains tendencies towards the latter, hence the need for its defence.
25. Sectarianism in the sense of putting eternal principles above the immediate struggles of the movement. Not in the facile sense in which this word is used by those whom Engels’ derided as the ‘unity shouters’ who seek to avoid all criticism by accusations of ‘sectarianism’, and to throw manifold opposed trends together in one nondescript brew.