The attitude to education in the historical workers’ movement

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We are publishing here a three-part series on the question of education that first appeared in the pages of World Revolution in 2001 (numbers 243-245). While it starts with references to the UK general election of 2001, what the series says is still relevant today. On the views developed by the workers’ movement in the 19th century, on the contradictory approach of the bourgeoise in capitalism's decadence, on the programme of the Bolsheviks when it dealt with education, or on certain traps that revolutionaries have to fight against today, all these questions have not become outdated with the passage of time.

Education remains important for the working class, and we can see how students, whether at school or university, are currently suffering with the impact of the pandemic and the lockdown – from social isolation, disruption to their educational programmes, and, in the universities, exorbitant fees and rents. The bourgeoisie has been cutting education budgets for years, but still needs skilled workers to exploit. Hypocritically it talks about the importance of education while reducing the necessary funding. It's true that education is one of the means for instilling bourgeois ideology, but it's also necessary for workers to be able function in capitalist society. This doesn’t alter the fact that, as the articles conclude, there will need to be a "fundamental reorganisation of education in the post-revolutionary period of transition to a truly human community".

WR, March 2021

Part 1: A class sunk in ignorance may revolt, but it will never make a revolution

Education has always been important to the working class. From the first days of the workers’ movement there were demands for children to attend school as well as attempts at self-education. Today, every part of the ruling class plays on this concern, just as they play on the concern for health care. In reality, the interests of the two classes remain as opposed in the realm of education as they do in every other aspect of life.

During the 1997 general election Labour promised to make education their “number one priority” with increased spending, lower class sizes and improved standards. For their part, the Tories claimed that they had already increased spending by 48% in real terms and guaranteed to set new national standards that would require schools to improve their performance. As the next election gets closer the game has been renewed, with Labour boasting that investment will grow by a third between 1998/9 and 2003/4, with an additional £2bn being spent on school buildings this year alone. The Tories have replied that schools are weighed down by bureaucracy and class sizes have actually increased. Not to be outdone, the leftists have put forward their own promises which, since they will never be put into practice, are limited only by what they think people will fall for. The SWP in its alternative budget last month promised £12bn while the Socialist Alliance went for £22bn to be funded from the sale of mobile phone licences. All of these demands and promises are just so many tricks to divert the real concern of the working class into support for the system of education set up by the ruling class to serve its own interests. They all aim to sow the illusion that, despite the economic crisis, capitalism has the means to provide an education through which the individual can realise his or her potential.

The situation of the working class

As the industrial revolution developed in Britain through the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the ruling class saw no need to educate the ‘hands’ who laboured for them. This was revealed in the various official reports compiled at the time for the government. These found children not only unable to read or write, but also unable to do the most simple maths: “A boy, seventeen years old, ‘did not know how many two and two made, nor how many farthings there were in twopence, even when the money was placed in his hand.’” Their general knowledge was found to be equally poor: “Several boys had never heard of London… Several had never heard the name of the Queen nor other names such as Nelson, Wellington, Bonaparte […] a third, seventeen years old, answered several very simple questions with the brief statement, that ‘he was ne judge o’ nothin’.” These excerpts were drawn together by Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1842-4 and led him to conclude: “The means of education in England are restricted out of all proportion to the population. The few day schools at the command of the working class are available only for the smallest minority and are bad besides. The teachers, worn out workers and other unsuitable persons who only turn to education in order to live, are usually without the indispensable elementary knowledge, without the moral discipline so needful for the teacher, and relieved of all public supervisions.” It has been estimated that, in 1839, 41.6% of the population were illiterate, with the rate being considerably higher amongst women than men. Expenditure on education was virtually non-existent: Engels gives a figure of £40,000 for 1844 out of a ministerial budget of some £55 million, mainly split between schools run by the established Anglican Church or the smaller dissenting sects, where religious prejudice was the main subject. Many Sunday Schools refused to teach writing, either because it was seen as too worldly an activity for a Sunday or because of the belief that all a working person required was the ability to read the bible. New teaching methods introduced in this period reduced education to the rote learning of chunks of ‘knowledge’ to be answered mechanically in question and answer form. Given this, the rate of literacy suggested by the figures quoted above should be treated with caution. In this period the bourgeoisie were not confident in their ability to use education to control and indoctrinate the working class and feared the spread of knowledge to a class that had already shown a tendency to question the established order in both words and deeds. Consequently, as Engels argues, the main form of education was force and what this taught was class hatred: “There is, therefore, no cause for surprise if the workers, treated as brutes, actually become such; or if they can maintain their consciousness of manhood only by cherishing the most glowing hatred, the most unbroken inward rebellion against the bourgeoisie in power. They are men only so long as they burn with wrath against the ruling class. They become brutes the moment they bend in patience under the yoke, and merely strive to make life endurable while abandoning the effort to break the yoke.

The efforts of the working class

The working class did not sit idly by, waiting for their betters to condescend to educate them. Nor did they generally oppose education because they wanted their children to work.

During the first decades of the nineteenth century repeated demands were made to Parliament to reduce the working day. This was an essential precondition if children were to learn anything, since working weeks of up to 72 hours left them neither the time nor the energy for schooling. Between 1802 and 1833, five Labour Laws were passed, but no resources were ever made available for their implementation. It was not until the Act of 1833 established Factory Inspectors, raised the age at which children could be employed and restricted their working hours, that any progress was possible. Even then the proposals were so hedged around with exceptions that they had little real effect. This and subsequent legislation allowed children a few hours education a day.

Alongside this struggle, the working class maintained and developed a tradition of self-education. E.P. Thompson, in The Making of the English Working Class, describes some of the weaving communities where the inhabitants had some control over the pattern of work and could intersperse weaving and education both of their children and themselves: “Every weaving district had its weaver-poets, biologists, mathematicians, musicians, geologists, botanists... there are accounts of weavers in isolated villages who taught themselves geometry by chalking on their flagstones and who were eager to discuss the differential calculus.” (p.322). Where such traditional patterns of life had been destroyed by the development of the factory system, the desire for education still emerged amongst the artisans or mechanics who were the direct product of the new system. This was expressed in the building of Mechanics Institutes and Halls of Science, in the proliferation of clubs and the publication of numerous journals and pamphlets. If these partly echoed the bourgeois ideology of self-improvement, they also expressed a class attitude. This could be seen particularly in the political journals that came and went with such frequency in the early 19th century and which were a focus for the discussion of strategy, whether constitutional or revolutionary. This was particularly true of papers like the Poor Man’s Guardian and, above all, the Northern Star. It was common practice for groups of workers to take out a joint subscription and for the paper to be read aloud to the rest of the group and then discussed. Many workers later described this as the foundation of their political education. On the particular question of the education of children, the Chartists explicitly opposed its control by the middle class and attempts were made to set up their own schools.

Education and the workers’ movement

The demand for education featured in nearly every programmatic statement of the workers’ movement throughout the 19th century, from the Communist League in 1847 to the Erfurt Programme of the German Social Democratic Party in 1891. In 1845 Engels argued that the introduction of general education for children was one of the measures “which are bound to result in practical communism” (Collected Works, Vol.4, p.253) since “an educated proletariat will not be disposed to remain in the oppressed condition in which our present proletariat finds itself” (ibid. p.254). At the start of the 20th century, the Bolsheviks called for compulsory education to the age of 16. However, this demand was rarely just for a greater quantity of education, it also included a critique of the role and content of education in class society that went far beyond the demand for increased provision.

Underlying the critique is the recognition that humanity in capitalist society is alienated from itself as a result of the division of labour in which the separate interests of the individual are opposed to the common interests of humanity. “For as soon as the division of labour comes into being, each man has a particular exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood.” (Marx & Engels The German Ideology). This is contrasted with communist society: “whereas in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming a hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” (ibid).

Consequently, education in capitalist society can never be about the full realisation of the potential of humanity, either individually or collectively, but only about training people to fulfil those tasks necessary for the continuation of capitalism. This point was made by William Morris in 1888: “People are ‘educated’ to become workmen or the employers of workmen or the hangers-on of the employers, they are not educated to become men. With this aim in view the conditions under which true education can go on are impossible. For the first and most necessary of them are leisure and deliberation; and leisure is a thing which the modern slave-holder will by no means grant to his slave as long as he grants him his rations: when the leisure begins the rations end. Constant toil is the only terms on which they are to be had.” (“Thoughts on education under capitalism”, Commonweal, Vol.4, no. 129, in Morris Political Writings p.377).

This did not mean that the struggle for education was useless since, as Engels argued, a class sunk in ignorance may revolt but will never make a revolution. For Marxists in the 19th century, education was not only a reform that could be won and which could improve the immediate situation of the working class, it was also a contribution to the revolutionary struggle against bourgeois society. The Communist League argued in 1847 in the “Principles of Communism”, that education would come with democracy and would in turn help prepare the way for communism. At the time this tended to be seen as the work of the state embodied in the democratic constitution, but later Marx and Engels developed their critique of the role of the state. In 1875, when the SPD adopted the Gotha Programme, which called for “Universal and equal public education by the state”, Marx strongly attacked the uncritical reliance on the bourgeois state: “’Equal education of the people’? What idea lies behind these words? Is it believed that in present day society… education can be equal for all classes? […] ‘Education of the people by the state’ is altogether objectionable… Government and church should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school.” (Collected Works Vol.24, p.96-7). In Britain socialists stood for election to the local boards which ran schools in order to counter the influence of church and state.

The struggle for education thus moved directly into a struggle over the form and content of education. Here Marx actually argued that the development of capitalism itself, and specifically the educational clauses of the 1864 Factory Act, were the germ of a new form of education: “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.” (Capital Vol.1, p.454).

The second part of this article will examine the education system actually set up by the bourgeoisie in the 19th and 20th centuries and how the passage of capitalism into its period of decadence influenced the position of the workers’ movement on this question.

Part 2: Education in decadence: the guardian of class rule

The extension of education to the working class by the bourgeoisie was very hesitant. It was not made free and compulsory in Britain until the start of the 20th century and it was only after the First World War that consideration was given to extending secondary education to all children, and then only to the age of 14. The leaving age was raised to 15 after the Second World War and to 16 in the 1970s. It was only in the last decades of the 20th century that tertiary education for workers developed to any significant extent.

Two basic concerns have shaped the bourgeoisie’s educational policy towards the working class.

Firstly, the need to increase productivity in order to remain competitive against its economic rivals. In the first half of the 19th century Britain had no significant rivals and the productive processes were relatively simple and, consequently, there was no real need to educate the working class. However, in the second half of the century competitors began to emerge in Germany and America whose production was based on the most advanced technology. Britain could only compete by adopting the new and more complex production processes. This required a more skilled and developed workforce. “Industry needed operatives who were able to read its rules and regulations, and an increasing supply of skilled workers able to work to drawings and to write at any rate a simple sentence. Commerce needed a rapidly growing army of clerks, book-keepers, shop assistants, touts and commercial travellers. The state needed more Civil Servants and local government employees for the developing tasks of public administration.” (Cole and Postgate, The Common People, p.364).

Secondly, concerns about the ability to control the working class. In the decade following the French Revolution of 1789 the British ruling class adopted some of the most repressive measures in its history. All attempts to organise by the working class were attacked. A wide-spread system of spies and agent-provocateurs was established. Workers were executed, transported and imprisoned. Despite this the strategy failed: “The pamphleteers were gaoled, and from the goals they edited pamphlets. The trade unionists were imprisoned, and they were attended to prison by bands and union banners.” (E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, p.914). The culmination was the Chartist Movement, which organised as a working class party and, at times, threatened the power of the ruling class. Yet the movement also marked a turning point in the strategy of the ruling class. Alongside direct repression ran a more subtle tactic which aimed to pacify and diffuse the working class. One result was the relative leniency shown to many Chartist activists by the courts. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century the British bourgeoisie refined the mixture of flexibility and brutality for which it became famous. It learnt how to use reforms to disarm the working class. Where the extension of the vote threatened the ruling class in 1800, by 1900 it was on the verge of becoming the bedrock of that rule. Where a popular press threatened to drown out the ideology of the ruling class it became its loudest mouthpiece. Where education threatened to be the great leveller it became the guardian of class rule.

The spread of education

Prior to 1870, various pieces of legislation had been passed which permitted the setting up of schools, and grants had been given to two voluntary bodies, one under the control of the Church of England and the other by the dissenting sects. The money granted had grown from £30,000 in 1839 to £813,000 in 1861 but was reduced to £637,000 over the following four years in response to complaints of waste. At the same time teachers’ pay was tied to ‘results’. The Education Act of 1870, which is usually presented as the turning point in the provision of education, actually made it neither compulsory nor free. It only sought to supplement the work of the voluntary bodies by allowing locally elected School Boards to set up schools were none already existed. Nonetheless, the new system advanced rapidly and by 1876 School Boards existed in areas with a total population of 12.5 million. In the same year attendance was made compulsory, although there were some exemptions. In 1891 fees for ‘elementary’ education were abolished except in schools offering ‘higher grade’ education.

The content of this education is not so well documented. Many political autobiographies of the time begin when the author left school. Tom Bell (first of the Socialist Labour Party and then of the Communist Party) went to school in Glasgow between 1889 and 1894. He left at the age of eleven and a half, recalling the difficulty his family had in finding the money each fortnight to pay for school, and the cruelty of some teachers which “led to their being mobbed by the boys after school hours” (Pioneering Days, p.17). More detail is given by Flora Thompson who went to school in rural Oxfordshire at the end of the 19th century: “Reading, writing and arithmetic were the principal subjects, with a scripture lesson every morning, and needlework every afternoon for the girls… Governess taught all the classes simultaneously, assisted only by two monitors – ex-scholars aged about twelve who were paid a shilling a week for their services… The writing lesson consisted in copying copperplate maxims… History was not taught formally; but history readers were in use containing such picturesque stories as those of King Alfred and the cakes, King Canute commanding the waves… and Raleigh spreading his cloak for Queen Elizabeth.” (Lark Rise to Candleford, p.179-80).

The education for most working class children went no further. In 1897 fewer than 7% of children at grammar school came from the working class. When the leaving age was raised to 14 in 1900, two out of 5 working class children still left before this age. The Education Act of 1902 nominally increased the opportunity for children to go on to secondary education but actually reinforced the class divisions in education: “The two systems of education catered for different classes and provided education, different in quality and content, for rulers and ruled.” (A.J.P. Taylor English History 1914-1945, p.226). “The British therefore entered the twentieth century and the age of modern science and technology as a spectacularly ill-educated people.” (E.J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire, p.169).

Education in decadence

Paradoxically it is in the period of capitalism’s historic decline that the greatest development of education took place. This is explained by the fact that one of the principal characteristics of decadence is a massively increased role for the state, which more and more has to control all aspects of the nation in order to compete with its rivals. Education became an integral part of state capitalism, and education policy was determined by the economic and political needs of the ruling class. As in many areas, war provided much of the impetus, with three of the major pieces of legislation in the 20th century directly following wars (the 1902 Act after the Boer War, the 1918 Act after the First World War and the 1944 Act towards the end of the second).

The 1918 Act proposed a system of education stretching from nursery schools to adult evening classes. However most of these proposals were swept aside as the economy went into recession. Where spending had increased between 1914 and 1922 from £14.7m to £51m, it was cut by nearly £10m the following year. The attempt to extend secondary education failed with only 7.5% going on beyond Elementary School in 1923. While, by 1938 two in three children were attending ‘modern’ schools which offered a slightly extended education, only some 14% of working class children actually went from elementary to secondary education, ensuring that all of the class distinctions were maintained. At higher levels the numbers dropped away completely, with just 0.4% to 0.5% of Elementary school pupils going on to university.

The attempt to plan a more efficient education system for the needs of capitalism continued, notably with the Hadow Report commissioned by the Labour government of 1924 laying the foundations for the 1944 Act. Education thinking was strongly influenced by pseudo-scientific studies of the child mind and the supposed inherited nature of intelligence which justified the existing division of society. While all children were to go from primary to secondary education only a minority were to go to the elite grammar school with the majority going to Secondary Moderns or, in a few cases, to technical schools. All children, however, were to receive religious instruction, which was made compulsory for the first time by the 1944 Act.

The introduction of comprehensive schools in the 1960s actually made little difference, since ‘streaming’ and ‘setting’ meant that the divisions merely existed within the schools rather than between them. The period also saw a major expansion of the universities and technical colleges which, for the first time, allowed significant numbers of working class children to go on to further education. However, one of the principal aims of this expansion, to increase the number of workers with higher scientific and technical training, met with little success.

As the economic crisis began to hit home in the 1970s and ‘80s both Labour and Tory governments sought to tie the education system more closely to the economic needs of the ruling class. In the late 1970s Labour introduced a ‘core curriculum’ covering literacy and numeracy. This was developed by the Tories in the 1988 Education Act which established a National Curriculum with attainment targets for all children, who were to be tested at the ages of 7, 11, 14 and 16. Further education is also under attack with the replacement of student grants by loans, which inevitably affects working class children the most. Children now go into education under pressure to achieve spurious ‘targets’ that have nothing to do with realising their potential and leave weighed down by a debt that may take years to pay off. Many now avoid education, either by not attending at all or being disruptive when they are there. A recent report by the TUC revealed that half a million children are employed illegally, with many working unsocial hours and receiving extremely low wages. Thus, as capitalism continues to rot, even the limited reforms it once gave are now under threat, although the needs of competition and political control make it likely that the pace of attacks on education will continue to be tightly controlled.

Part 3: Defence of state education is not a workers’ demand

In WR 243 we outlined the marxist critique of education, recalling that the workers’ movement in the 19th century gave a high priority to the struggle for education and also supported self-education by the working class. In WR 244 we examined the system of education set up by the ruling class in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, concluding that its fundamental role is to produce workers with the necessary skills to serve the needs of the economy and to reinforce the ideology of the ruling class as a means of controlling the working class. Capitalism is unable to offer an education that meets the needs and potential of humanity. In this concluding article we show the marxist approach and look at the practical lessons from the Russian revolution, as well as the position of revolutionaries today.

The Russian Revolution

The demand for compulsory education had been part of the programme of Russian Social Democracy, as it had of all Social Democratic parties in the period before the revolution. Following the revolution some immediate steps were taken to extend education to the masses. However, the difficult situation in which the revolution developed and the rapid spread of the counter-revolution meant that these could only be first hesitant steps. But this did not prevent the Bolsheviks from setting out a long term perspective for the development of education, which was seen as central to the establishment of communism.

The priority given to education is shown in the setting up of the Commissariat of Public Education in December 1917. Immediate steps included the confiscation of private libraries for collective use, extending opening hours of libraries and the creation of a system to exchange books across the country. In August 1918 the Council of People’s Commissars called for measures to be taken to increase the availability of higher education, concluding that “Priority must certainly go to workers and poor peasants, who are to be given grants on an extensive scale” (Lenin, Collected Works, vol.28, p.48.). The Programme of the Russian Communist Party, adopted in March 1919, set out a series of measures, the majority of which were aimed at overcoming the country’s previous backwardness. It proposed free education for all children up to the age of 17, the provision of food, clothing, footwear and educational materials by the state, the creation of crèches and nurseries to reduce the workload on women and a range of measures for the education of adult workers and peasants. Lenin also argued that education was an important aspect of the struggle to increase production.

One of Lenin’s repeated concerns was to transform the educational system and, in particular, to overcome opposition from teachers and other educationalists. In 1918 Lenin talked of teachers being “slow in making up their minds to work with the Soviet Government” (ibid, vol.27, p.445). The following year he told a conference of the teachers’ union that “I think that now the vast majority of teachers will quite sincerely come over to the side of the government of working and exploited people in the struggle for the socialist revolution” (ibid, vol.28, p.407). By 1920 he spoke of solving “the cultural and educational problem” in “five to ten years” (ibid, vol.30, p.379). At the same time however, he was also warning about the slow pace of the campaign against illiteracy. As the revolutionary wave weakened the situation got worse. By 1922 Lenin was complaining that “five years after the proletariat captured political power, the young people in the proletariat’s state schools and universities are taught (or rather corrupted) by the old bourgeois scientists using the old bourgeois junk” (ibid, vol.33, p.246). As the counter-revolution gathered pace the education system increasingly reverted back to the bourgeois form.

Education and the creation of communism

Unlike the bourgeoisie, communists do not pretend that education is neutral, standing above the clash of class interests. In capitalism education defends the class interests of the exploiters. After the proletarian revolution it will defend the class interests of the exploited in the struggle for communism.

The political role of education was set out bluntly in the Programme of the Russian Communist Party. This called for the transformation of the school “so that from being an organ for maintaining the class domination of the bourgeoisie, it shall become an organ for the complete abolition of the division of society into classes, an organ for the communist regeneration of society…the school must not be merely a means for the conveyance of the principles of communism generally, but a means for the conveyance of the ideology and of the organisation and educational influence of the proletariat to the semi-proletarian strata of the working masses to the end that there shall ultimately be educated a new generation capable of establishing communism” (Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, The ABC of Communism, p.444). At the heart of the programme was the proposal for a “unified labour school…with instruction in the native tongue, co-education, absolutely secular education… an instruction in which theory shall be closely linked with socially productive labour, an instruction which shall produce a many-sided development of the members of communist society”. This echoed Marx’s ideas about education, while the commentary on the Programme contained in the ABC of Communism recalled his description of the realisation of individual potential in communist society: “Every citizen in such a society must be acquainted with the elements, at least, of all crafts. In communist society there will be no closed corporations, no stereotyped guilds, no petrified specialist groups. The most brilliant man of science must also be skilled in manual labour… play should gradually pass into work by an imperceptible transition, so that the child learns from the very outset to look upon labour, not as a disagreeable necessity or as a punishment, but as a natural and spontaneous expression of faculty.” (ibid, p.288. For a fuller discussion of the Programme of the Russian Communist Part see International Review 95).

The same understanding of the political nature of education led revolutionaries of the time, such as the Dutch International Communist Group (GIK), to see the re-introduction of authoritarian regulations in the schools as a sign of the advance of the counter-revolution (see the text of the GIK reprinted in International Review 105).

That the Russian revolution was unable to even begin to translate this aspiration into reality does not in any way lessen its validity. If the proletariat seizes power again it will also take up again the struggle to transform education courageously attempted by the Bolsheviks.

Revolutionaries and education today

If one reads the platforms and manifestos of revolutionary groups today, such as the ICC and the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (IBRP), no mention will be found of education. This is fundamentally because the demand for education is no longer a revolutionary or even a radical demand since education is essential for bourgeois society today. This applies both to the most developed countries and the least. The limitation of education in the latter stems fundamentally from their weak position within the global economy, even if the lack of education contributes to that weakness in turn.

The ABC of Communism remains a useful starting point for understanding the role of education in capitalism: “In bourgeois society the school has three principal tasks to fulfil. Firstly, it inspires the coming generation of workers with devotion and respect for the capitalist regime. Secondly, it creates from the young of the ruling classes ‘cultured’ controllers of the working population. Thirdly, it assists capitalist production in the application of sciences to technique, thus increasing capitalist profits” (op.cit., p.279). However, important developments mean that this analysis has to be brought up to date. The Bolsheviks’ programme was drawn up at the dawn of the period of revolutions and just after capitalism had entered its period of decadence. Revolutionaries had only drawn out some of the implications of state capitalism, and their analyses were marked by the positions of the previous period. In addition, the Bolsheviks were influenced by the backward nature of education in Russia, where some supporters of tsarism “considered popular ignorance to be the main prop of the autocracy” (ibid, p.280, fn). The explains the failure of the ABC to see that as well as preparing new workers ideologically, bourgeois education also aims to prepare them practically to serve the needs of capitalism and that, in order to do so it must open the doors of secondary and higher education to the working class. The point concerning the close relationship between industry and the education establishment is still true. If anything, this has become even closer, with industry funding much of the research undertaken in universities and paying for many professorial chairs. Above all, what remains valid is the recognition that bourgeois education reflects the class interests of the bourgeoisie.

This analysis does not mean revolutionaries ‘reject education’. But there are certain ideas in the field of education which have to be fought.

Firstly, we reject the call of the leftists to defend state education. It promotes the illusion that the capitalist state could be made to offer a real education to the working class. It is worth recalling the position of Marx and Engels, when they were in the Communist League, that the demand for education is a democratic, not a communist, demand. Today capitalism can give nothing because of the constant threats of a permanent economic crisis. Communists should not join the bourgeoisie in trying to fool the working class that capitalism can meet its needs.

Secondly, we oppose the rejection of education and the identification of teachers as ‘part of the bourgeoisie’. The disaffection of growing numbers of children may be an understandable response to a society that offers no future, but it is an expression of despair that offers no perspective. Ignorance is not revolutionary and history has shown that it is the ally of reaction. The idea that teachers are not part of the working class is quite widespread. For example, in the 80s the British journal Wildcat described teachers as ‘soft cops’ and opposed their strike action. More recently, the Anarchist Federation criticised striking school students in France who called for more teachers, making the same argument as Wildcat: “Did you ever hear of an action by prisoners whose aim was more wardens?” (Organise! 50, Winter ‘98-’99). The fact that teachers are part of an education system that spreads the ideology of the bourgeoisie does not exclude them from the working class. Like all workers, all they have to sell is their labour power. One of the consequences of the spread of education is that teachers are no longer part of the petty-bourgeoisie, but have become proletarians. To be consistent, ‘revolutionaries’ such as Wildcat and the AF, should also exclude workers in the media and publishing industries since they also help to spread bourgeois ideology. Equally, the fact that teachers often have illusions in bourgeois society and advance reactionary demands does not exclude them from the working class, any more than it excludes the Rover car workers who marched behind Union Jacks in Birmingham. The fact is that the working class exists in capitalism and, through its labour, reproduces it day in and day out. The working class has no choice but to live the contradictions of capitalism. To pretend that it can be exploited by capital but untainted by capitalist ideology, is to reject the basic social reality in which all workers find themselves.

Thirdly, we reject the idea of opting out of education, either to send children to ‘alternative’ schools or to indulge in ‘home-teaching’. These are not an option for the working class. They have nothing to do with the attempts by the Chartists and Owenites in the 19th century to establish their own schools, since these were part of the infancy of the workers’ movement when many such utopian ideas flourished. They were left behind as the movement developed and it was understood that capitalism had to be confronted and overthrown. Today, all such efforts are a retreat from the necessary confrontation with capitalist society rather than an honest attempt to go beyond it.

Just as the working class needs health care, so it needs education. It has no choice but to use the health care and education that it can get from the bourgeoisie. This does not require the working class to defend the NHS and the education system any more than requires workers in the car industry to defend Rover, or Ford or BMW. It is not through campaigns to ‘Save the NHS’ or ‘Defend state education’ that it will succeed but through the exercise of its collective strength against the capitalist state. A proletarian revolution will lay the basis for a communist society way beyond the limitations of the bourgeois world. This will require a fundamental reorganisation of education in the post-revolutionary period of transition to a truly human community.

North 14/5/01


Marxism and education