Flow of Ideas

Marx and Education Revisited

Glenn Rikowski, London, 21st April 2008


This article expands on a section of a paper I presented at the Fourth Historical Materialism Annual Conference (Rikowski, 2007). It focuses on ‘what Marx said’ on education, rather than on Marxist analyses of education. Several myths have surfaced over the last 30 years or so regarding the significance of Marx’s statements and writings on education. Here, I explode a few of those myths: principally, that Marx did not actually say anything (or much) on education; or, if he did it was not very important.

The Standard Account

In writings on Marxism and education there has been a longstanding and misleading account on ‘what Marx said’ on it, with the consensus being: ‘not much’. 25 years ago Brian Simon (1983, p.186) noted that: “Education was not an issue to which he [Marx] directed special attention at any time – though there are various hints and suggestions in certain of his writings which indicate his position” – and this seems a reasonable summation. Simon (1983) is correct if the criterion is that Marx did not write a text specifically, or mainly, about education.

Other commentators went further than Simon. For example, Jack Demaine (1981) warned off potential readers of Marx on education by arguing that there are only ‘scattered statements’ on the topic in the works of Marx and Engels. Demaine attempted to work out what he took to be a ‘classical’ approach to education based on the ‘fragments’ he pinpointed in Marx and Engels’ works (see pp.63-73). Thus, he ‘reconstructed’ what Marx said on education using Marx’s ‘fragments’ on the topic; he sought to forge links between the fragments. This is a useful approach in my view, though it runs the risk of creating a unitary view on education for Marx; whereas Smith (1981) indicates that Marx’s views on education changed in some respects during his lifetime.

Barry Burke (2000) adopted a more dismissive view than either Simon or Demaine. Burke noted that “Marx never wrote anything directly on education …” (p.1 – my emphasis). This could be taken to mean that Marx said nothing at all on education (plainly false) or that he never wrote a substantial text with education as the principal focus (true enough). Yet those with emerging thoughts on developing what Marx wrote on education might be put off by Burke’s judgement.

The New Picture

During 1982, and again in 1995-96 and 2000-2001, I read Marx’s major works with a view to seeking out what he actually said on education and training. So, what did I find? First, I found that if Marx’s observations on training, apprenticeship, the nature of skill and the state are included, along with his analyses of education in the narrow sense (i.e. what he says about education in schools and universities), then he appears to say rather more than Simon, Demaine and certainly Burke admit. Secondly, I discovered that Marx’s statements on education and training take on an added significance when placed in the context of labour power and what I went on the call the social production of labour power in capitalism (see Rikowski, 2007). This second conclusion takes a Marxian analysis of education and training into the realm of the production of commodities – for the ‘general class’ of commodities, but also for the production of that unique, living commodity: labour power. Labour power is the only commodity in capital’s social universe that creates more value than is required to maintain it (through the wage). Education and training are implicated in the social production of this special commodity (Rikowski, 2002). I also used this reading to develop what Marx said on the education/state relation regarding how it can be related to social transformation (Rikowski, 2004).

Others, such as Castles and Wûstenberg (1979), Waugh (1988, 1994, 1996a-b) and Taylor (1995a-c) also moved beyond the notion that Marx’s statements on education were mere ‘fragments’. These writers have developed interesting accounts of Marx’s views on education and training that have resonance for the critique of education policy in today’s capitalism. Smith (1981) provided a complex account regarding Marx’s observations on education – outlining how his views shifted between and within four biographical periods.

More recently, Robin Small (2005) has provided the first full-scale book on Marx on education. This makes a world of difference; Small’s book undermines the ‘Standard Account’ that either Marx said nothing or little on education, or that his writing (and hence thinking) on the topic was fragmentary and marginal. In Part I of the book, outlines of key themes, concepts and concerns in Marx’s work in general (e.g. human nature, alienation, praxis, historical materialism and ideology) are provided by Small. Then in Part II, Small situates Marx’s statements, observations, critiques and analyses of education in the context of these themes etc. Chapters 6 (on Marx’s programmes for education in the context of social transformation and the movement for socialism), 7 (on Marx’s conception of ‘polytechnical’ education and training) 8 (on the relation between education and child and youth labour) and 9 (on the state and education) – indicate that for Marx education was not of marginal importance. Small’s final chapter traces Marx’s educational legacy. In sum, Robin Small’s book banishes the ‘Standard Account’ on Marx and education once and for all. His Marx and Education is also an important book for those seeking to develop Marxist educational theory in new directions.

Finally, last year Paula Allman wrote another important book that places Marx’s views on education (in her chapter 3, Allman, 2007) within the context of his analysis and critique of the structuring forms of capitalist society: e.g. value (and exchange-value and use-value), surplus-value, labour, labour power and the labour-capital relation etc. She draws on Marx’s statements on education to indicate their significance for the reproduction of capitalist society and for its radical transformation.


On this account, the days when academics could peddle the notion that Marx had little to say on education, or that his analyses of it were either stunted or of little interest, are over. Writers such as Robin Small and Paula Allman have unplugged Marx on education: his thoughts on education now flow as never before.


Allman, P. (2007) On Marx: An Introduction to the Revolutionary Intellect of Karl Marx, Rotterdam & Tapai: Sense Publishers.

Burke, B. (2000) Karl Marx and informal education, The Informal Education web site: http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-marx.htm

Castles, S. & Wûstenberg, W. (1979) The Education of the Future: An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Socialist Education, London: Pluto Press.

Demaine, J. (1981) Contemporary Theory in the Sociology of Education, London: Macmillan.

Rikowski, G. (2002) Education, Capital and the Transhuman, in: D. Hill, P. McLaren, M. Cole & G. Rikowski (Eds.) Marxism Against Postmodernism in Educational Theory, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Rikowski, G. (2004) Marx and the Education of the Future, Policy Futures in Education, Vol.2 Nos. 3 & 4, pp.565-577, online at: http://www.wwwords.co.uk/pdf/viewpdf.asp?j=pfie&vol=2&issue=3&year=2004&article=10_Rikowski_PFEO_2_3-4_web&id=

Rikowski, G. (2007) Marxist Educational Theory Unplugged, a paper prepared for the Fourth Historical Materialism Annual Conference, 9-11th November, School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Marxist%20Educational%20Theory%20Unplugged

Simon, B. (1983) Popular, local and democratic – Karl Marx’s formula, Education, 11th March, pp.186-187.

Small, R. (2005) Marx and Education, Aldershot: Sage.

Smith, M. (1981) A Contribution to the Study of Karl Marx’s Philosophy of Education, Philosophy of Education – 1981, Proceedings of the Twenty-seventh Annual Meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society, Houston, Texas, April 26-29th, Fourth Concurrent Session, pp.199-206.

Taylor, G. (1995a) Socialism and Education: Marx and Engels, General Educator, Issue 32, January/February, pp.22-23.

Taylor, G. (1995b) Socialism and Education: ‘The German Ideology’, General Educator, Issue 33, March/April, pp.21-23.

Taylor, G. (1995c) Marx on Education, Industry and the Fall of Capitalism, General Educator, pp.19-22.

Waugh, C. (1994) ‘Utopian’ education, state education and workers’ self-education, General Educator, Issue 29, July/August, pp.17-21.

Waugh, C. (1996a) Marx and Engels’ Concept of Education, unpublished manuscript.

Waugh, C. (1996b) Marx and Engels’ Concept of Education (Part 1), General Educator, Issue 43, December, pp.21-23.

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