Flow of Ideas

Marxism and Education Revisited

Glenn Rikowski, London, 25th April 2008


My previous article (Rikowski, 2008) explored how Karl Marx’s writings on education have been ‘discovered’ and uncovered by Paula Allman (2007), Robin Small (2005) and others. This article looks at how Marxists have used Marx’s work and Marxist concepts and theories to analyse and critique capitalist education and training. It is a brief survey only, and those requiring a more detailed account can read Rikowski (2005 and 2007). I begin by summarising the three ages of Marxist educational theory from 1970 to the present day, and then pinpoint some achievements of the New Marxist Educational Theory.

The Classical Age of Marxist Educational Theory: 1970-1982

In 1970, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was published, to be translated into English and sold worldwide in huge numbers from 1971-72. Not only did this book have importance for Brazilian radical educators but it also spawned the North American Critical Pedagogy School that was to become an important strand within Marxist educational theory; though it took the work of Paula Allman (1999) and Peter McLaren (2000) to uncover the depth of Freire’s debt to Marx. During this period, Marxist educational theory was being taken seriously by those on the Left. Furthermore, Left, radical and socialist educational theory (not specifically Marxist) was also, briefly, no longer viewed as a backwater amongst social theorists generally in English-speaking nations.

Bowles and Gintis (1976) and Willis (1977) were the main reference points for the Classical Age of Marxist educational theory. But there were also other strands that were part of the excitement of the times: Louis Althusser (1971) - on ideological state apparatuses, and the relative autonomy of education (and state) from the economy; and Michael F.D. Young (1971) - Knowledge and Control - focusing on the ways in which (through the curriculum) knowledge was socially constructed and differentiated along class, gender and race lines. Madan Sarup (1978) provided early critiques of works from the Classical Age of Marxist educational theory. The main points of critique in Sarup and other critical work was the functionalism and determinism of Bowles and Gintis (1976) and the problems with the voluntarism and political misadventure involved in Learning to Labour (Willis, 1977). The ‘Monday Morning Problem’, i.e. what radical educators were to do in classrooms, was another issue that bothered the texts of the Classical Age. In two articles (Rikowski, 1996 and 1997), I outlined the forces making for the demise of this Old Marxist Educational Theory of the Classical Age.

At the end of this period, which I date from Sarup’s (1982) influential study, the Old Marxist Educational Theory flowing from Bowles and Gintis (1976) and Willis (1977) was incapable of addressing some basic questions: such as, what makes capitalist schools capitalist schools, what radical teachers should do on Monday mornings and what commodities schools produce.

Stagnation, Diversity and Reaction: 1983-1993

These years saw decay in Marxist educational theory. On the whole, it did banish theoretical weaknesses in the classic studies and texts of the Classical Age. In some ways it became embarrassing, such as in Michael Apple’s (1985) attempt to reconcile the determinism and structuralism of Bowles and Gintis with the agency and strong sense of autonomy of the Lads in Willis.

As I made clear (in Rikowski 2005 and 2007), there were a few attempts to set Marxist educational theory on a course that was not subject to the weaknesses of the classic texts. But mostly there was much critique and churning of problems and issues derived from the key texts of the Classical Age, but little progress and development. In addition, in the US, the Critical Pedagogy School was degenerating into a form of liberalism, losing its radical content and form (Allman, 1999; McLaren, 2000).

Renaissance in Marxist Educational Theory and the New Marxist Educational Theory (1994- )

In 1994, something remarkable happened. After a decade of stagnation and decay in Marxist educational theory, some genuinely new, substantial and exciting appeared. This work was the beginning of a Renaissance in Marxist educational theory. Richard Brosio (1994) and Kevin Harris (1994) started the trend. In 2002, I summarised the explosion of Marxist writing and research on education in capitalist society, and on social transformation, from 1994-2002. Listing those writings took up several pages in footnotes (Rikowski, 2002, pp.27-31) – and it is now difficult to keep up with new work in the field. We now live in the era of the New Marxist Educational Theory, where the works and ideas of Marx and Marxists (or Marxians) have been used to analyse and critique capitalist education and training on a scale previously unknown.

This time around, Marxist educational theory is being applied to policy and education issues: to training policy, apprenticeship, mentoring, learning society, lifelong learning, and the actual pedagogy of critical education (e.g. Allman, 2001). There has also been a revival of critical and radical pedagogy through the work of Peter McLaren, Antonia Darder and many others. This time it was more decidedly radical. The radical roots of Paulo Freire have been rediscovered.

Achievements of the New Marxist Educational Theory

It is impossible to summarise all of the achievements of the New Marxist Educational Theory here. Some examples are: the development of labour-power theory (e.g. Rikowski, 2005 and 2007); new analyses of social class and education; exciting work on alienation, social relations and the commodity form in education (e.g. Harvie, 2004); and solving the ‘Monday Morning Problem’ (e.g. Apple and Beane, 1999). These and many other achievements, together with the development of new e-journals such as the Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies and Workplace: A Journal of Academic Labor, and many pertinent web sites, are likely to ensure the continued health and development of the New Marxist Educational Theory.


Allman, P. (1999) Revolutionary Social Transformation: Democratic Hopes, Political Possibilities and Critical Education, Westport, Connecticut: Bergin & Garvey.

Allman, P. (2001a) Critical Education Against Global Capitalism: Karl Marx and Revolutionary Critical Education, Westport, Connecticut: Bergin & Garvey.

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

Althusser, L. (1971) Ideology and ideological state apparatuses: notes towards an investigation, in: L. Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Apple, M. (1985) Education and Power, London: Ark Paperback.

Apple, M. & Beane, J. (1999) Democratic Schools: Lessons from the Chalk Face, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Brosio, R. (1994) A Radical Democratic Critique of Capitalist Education, New York: Peter Lang.

Bowles, S. & Gintis, H. (1976) Schooling in Capitalist America, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Continuum.

Harris, K. (1994) Teachers: Constructing the Future, London: The Falmer Press.

Harvie, D. (2000) Alienation, Class and Enclosure in UK Universities, Capital & Class, no.71 (summer), pp.103-133.

McLaren, P. (2000) Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Rikowski, G. (1996) Left Alone: end time for Marxist educational theory? British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol.17 No.4, pp.415-451.

Rikowski, G. (1997) Scorched Earth: Prelude to Rebuilding Marxist Educational Theory, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol.18 no.4, pp.551-574.

Rikowski, G. (2002) Prelude: Marxist Educational Theory After Postmodernism, in: D. Hill, P. McLaren, M. Cole & G. Rikowski (Eds.) Marxism Against Postmodernism in Educational Theory, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Rikowski, G. (2005) Distillation: Education in Karl Marx's Social Universe, Lunchtime Seminar, School of Education, University of East London, Barking Campus, 14th February: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Distillation

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

Rikowski, G. (2008) Marx and Education Revisited, 21st April, London, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Marx%20and%20Education%20Revisited

Sarup, M. (1978) Marxism and Education, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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

Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, Farnborough: Saxon House.

Young, M. (ed.) (1971) Knowledge and Control, London: Collier-Macmillan.

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