Karl Marx & Education Research Paper Starter

Karl Marx & Education

(Research Starters)

This paper is centered on Karl Marx's influence on educational theory. The paper begins with a brief biography of Karl Marx, and then an examination of the basic beliefs that constitute a "Marxist" point of view. Next, the paper explains how the works of Karl Marx politically and socially influenced the world. In terms of educational influence, we look at Marx's influence on one of America's most renowned educational theorists, John Dewey, and we also explore the ways in which educators are still applying Marx's ideas in courses and lessons today.

Keywords: Bourgeoisie; Capitalism; Communism; Communist Manifesto; Dewey, John; Proletariat; Socialism; Soviet Union; Totalitarianism


At the end of the twentieth century, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) issued a series of polls designed to allow the public to select the greatest historical figures over the last thousand years. In October of 1999, the BBC examined its public polls and discovered that England's choice for the "greatest thinker" of the millenium was Karl Marx. Surprisingly, Marx came in ahead of Einstein, Newton, and Darwin who were second, third and fourth ("Marx After Communism," 2002, ¶ 4). If we consider the amount of change each of these historical figures brought to society, then perhaps Marx's highest position makes sense. A German philosopher, Marx (1818 - 1883) contributed to radical changes in the world, and today is widely considered one of the most important political economists, historians, and philosophers in world history. His ideas are also considered to be the foundation of communism, though often his ideas and the practice of communism seem to greatly diverge. Nevertheless, his ideas have significantly influenced many areas of human activity, from political systems to pedagogical theory. Before examining Marx's influence on history, governments and education — including American education — we should first outline the most basic ideas that comprise the Marxist viewpoint.

Marx's Basic Principles

Marx espoused four basic ideas from which most of his other ideas and arguments follow:

  • Societies follow laws of motion simple and all-encompassing enough to make long-range prediction fruitful.
  • These laws are exclusively economic in character: what shapes society, the only thing that shapes society, is the "material forces of production".
  • These laws must invariably express themselves, until the end of history, as a bitter struggle of class against class.
  • At the end of history, classes and the state (whose sole purpose is to represent the interests of the ruling class) must dissolve to yield a heaven on earth ("Marx After Communism," 2002, ¶ 12).

As McLennan observes, Marx believed that his era (the late 1800's) was different from the previous periods of history in that, from the advent of industrialism, the wealthy upper class (the "bourgeoisie") had substantially intensified the divide between social classes. This division also therefore intensified the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the working class (the "proletariat"). From Marx's viewpoint, two distinct classes had grown out of the Industrial Revolution: the bourgeoisie owners of the means of production, and the proletarian wage laborers who worked in the means of production (McLennan, 1999, p. 557). Viewing all of human history as one of class struggle is central to Marx's viewpoint, which is probably why Marx wrote as the very first line of The Communist Manifesto, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Marx believed the power of the working class would lead to a social and political upheaval.

Thus, Marx's central argument is that every society has been based on an antagonism between oppressing and oppressed classes, and that revolution was inevitable. Marx believed that "The proletarian movement is the self-conscious movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority," and he believed this new movement of the working class would globally end all class oppression. As Morgan (2005) points out, Marx believed this movement — leading to revolution — would also be a change in human consciousness, a change that would bring about changes in material existence as well as social life. Society would change to serve the enormous working class rather than serving the wealthy few. Morgan then observes that "this will have fundamental implications for intellectual life and consequently for education, for, as Marx puts it, 'The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class'" (Morgan, 2005, p. 391).

From an historical context, Marx viewed this social transformation as natural socioeconomic evolution: as industrialism and capitalism had replaced an age of agriculture and feudalism, so Marx believed that a new socioeconomic system of "socialism" would replace capitalism. This in turn would eventually create a classless society that represented mature "communism."

Marx's Historical Influence

Although the Soviet Union and all other communist governments have regarded Karl Marx as the primary inspiration for their communist systems, it is an interesting question whether Marx would have approved of the totalitarian systems that grew out of the implementation of his theories. It is also an interesting question whether these same totalitarian systems would have evolved had Marx never been born. Perhaps these same totalitarian systems would have come into being by distorting the ideas of another historian, economist or philosopher. When declaring the winner of the above poll, the BBC announcer remarked that "although dictatorships throughout the 20th century have distorted [Marx's] original ideas, his work as a philosopher, social scientist, historian and a revolutionary is respected by academics today" ("Marx After Communism," 2002, ¶ 4). McLennan states this same idea when he notes that many "independent minded Marxists" believe that "the truths of Marxist theory and values can validly be separated from many of the ideological-political uses to which they have been put" (McLennan, 1999, p. 559). Arendt's ideas resonate with Mclennan's point when she argues that totalitarianism "could never have been foreseen or forethought, much less predicted or 'caused,' by any single man" (Arendt, 2002, p. 281).

Clearly, Marx's most significant historical influence can be seen in communist nations, but Marx never writes about creating a totalitarian government. Rather, it seems likely that the harsh reality of totalitarianism mutated out of his idealism and naïve belief that a one-party socialist government of the proletariat would "wither away", leading to statelessness, so that people would live freely under no government at all. Marx believed that cooperation in society could best be achieved through a one-party system. However, he failed to recognize that, if this single party went astray or became corrupted through its sheer power over society, citizens would be left with no choice or means of replacing that political party with an opposing one. Thus, we should make a clear distinction between Marx as the socioeconomic analyst and Marx as the socioeconomic planner. His socioeconomic analysis is what to this day holds significance, while his idealistic plan for utopia has met clear failure. This is what Arendt means when she writes:

That Marx still looms so large in our present world is indeed the measure of his greatness. That he could prove of use to totalitarianism (though certainly he can never be said to have been its "cause") is a sign of the actual relevance of his thought, even though at the same time it is also the measure of his ultimate failure (Arendt, 2002, p. 282).

As the failures of the grand social experiments based on Marx's writing fade into history, the analytical side of his content is being re-assessed. Additionally, Marx as a writer has increasingly gained recognition. As McLennan points out, Marx as a "writer, ironist and intellect" has gained recognition perhaps even more than "Marx the revolutionary or theorist of capitalism". However, McLennan gives additional reasons for Marx's increasing recognition among academics. McLennan argues that "the winds of change have turned in the seminar rooms, and a new thirst for substantive commitment; for an end, or at least a supplement to, an intellectual diet of 'interminable self-critique.'" Additionally, McLennan points out that contemporary civilization supplies "warrant for the 'return' of Marx", and these factors also seem to be contributing to a new appreciation of the writings of Marx (McLennan, 1999, p. 572).

Further Insights


Marx's approach to education can be seen in his resolution written in 1866 for the first Congress of the International Workingman's Association. Marx mentions three main elements of what he believed would create a sound educational system:

  • Mental education,
  • Bodily education, and
  • Technological training.

Though the resolution gives little clarification of the first two elements, it does further explain the idea of technological training. The resolution states that technological training will impart "the general principles of all processes of production, and, simultaneously, initiates the child and young person in the practical use and handling of the elementary instruments of all trades" (Small, 1984, p. 28). Small argues that technological training was the most important part of Marx's view on education because it is "most directly linked with material production, but also as the part in which the theme of full human development appears most directly" (1984, p. 42). Small concludes that technological training "is perhaps the most important element in the Marxian conception of education, as well as its most original contribution to later educational thought" (p. 42).

The educational approach of learning to produce things was promoted in the U.S. by one of America's most renowned educators, John Dewey. Karier and Hogan (1979) point out that, during the years Dewey published most of his writing on educational theory (1895 to 1925), America...

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