Flow of Ideas

Marxist Educational Theory Unplugged

Glenn Rikowski, School of Education, University of Northampton

A paper prepared for the Fourth Historical Materialism Annual Conference, 9-11 November 2007, School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London

“I contend that Marx would have scorned the idea of a separate Marxist educational theory because it implies that education belongs to some separate aspect of human life rather than being an integral part of the process of ‘becoming’, i.e. the lifelong process of developing all of our human potentials and powers. It also implies that our current existence can be understood as the sum of many separate and distinct parts rather than as a totality of inner-connected relations.”
Paula Allman, 2007, pp.51-52

“Pedagogy is most effective when its lessons are situated in the conceptual analysis of objective social totality and grounded in historical materialist critique. Totalization is essential to transformative pedagogy because it is through totalization that the student – the future worker – is enabled to ‘see society from the center, as a coherent whole’ and therefore ‘act in such a way was to change reality’ (Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, 1971, p.69).”
Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, 2003, p.5

“…what he [the labourer] pays out for education is devilishly little, but when he does, his payments are productive, for education produces labour power.”
Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value – Part One, 1863a, p.210

“Its [labour power’s] exchange-value, like that of every other commodity, is determined before it goes into circulation, since it is sold as a capacity, a power, and a specific amount of labour-time was required to produce this capacity, this power.”
Karl Marx, Results of the Immediate Process of Production, 1866, p.1066

“Human emancipation is active struggle and requires human engagement (intellectual, political and practical) to be actualised. Here lies the potential of education: the real possibility of transformative work.”
Grant Banfield, 2003, p.14


A focus on education is something of a backwater in writing, research and theory in Marxism. This is ironic to the extent that most folks writing on Marx and Marxism are based in higher education institutions. When journals with a strong Marxist flavour are examined then the reader finds little on education or training. David Harvie’s articles in Capital & Class (2000 and 2006) on value and alienation are almost unique to that journal. Writings on education and training in Historical Materialism itself are notable by their absence. However, it will hopefully become clear through this paper that this situation constitutes a distinct weakness – not only in writing and research within Marxism, but also in terms of the politics of resistance to capital and projects of social transformation.

This is a paper of two halves. Part One is concerned primarily with charting the development of Marxist educational theory from 1970 to the present day. It is argued that there are three periods in this development: a ‘Classical Age’ of Marxist educational theory starting from 1970 and ending in 1982 (with a peak in the mid-late-1970s); a decade of stagnation and decline during 1983-1993; and a renewal or renaissance in Marxist educational theory beginning in 1994 and continuing to the present day. The notion of Marxist educational theory being ‘unplugged’ should become clearer after considering this third time slot.

Part Two focuses on my own response to the second period of development in Marxist educational theory noted above: the period of stagnation and decline. It indicates how a return to Marx on education can yield significant insights regarding education and training in capitalist society [1].

Prior to starting out on Part One, the following sub-section discusses in what ways Marxist educational theory could be said to have become ‘unplugged’. The way in which ‘Marxist educational theory’ is used in this paper is also pinpointed.

Marxist Educational Theory: Undefined and Unplugged

In general, I concur with Paula Allman’s statement in the quotations opening this paper: it is unlikely that Marx would have been keen on something labelled ‘Marxist educational theory’. For Marx, education (or any other process, practice or institution) is not a ‘separate aspect of human life’ Allman (2007). Smith (1984) indicates that Marx incorporated education into the main body of his theory and critique of capitalist society. This can be viewed most readily when he discusses labour power, the labour process, and the value of labour power. Indeed, as I have argued (in Rikowski, 1996a), defining what constitutes ‘Marxist educational theory’ is problematic given that, for Marx, education did not comprise some separate sphere of activity in capitalist society. Furthermore, how it has been viewed within Marxism (as opposed to how education was viewed by Marx himself) depends on what theories, practices and timeframes are included. In Rikowski (1996a, pp.421-423), there is an attempt to pin down ‘Marxist educational theory’ that unearths nine strands. These range from (1) ‘those who (like Warren, 1978) focus purely on what Marx and Engels said on education’ … to … (9) ‘the general process of ‘academic osmosis’ where Marxist concepts drift into all kinds of academic discourse, often a long way from their origins in Marx, and where, in their new cosy homes, they become politically tame, disconnected and attain uncertain meaning (Demaine, 1981, p.11)’ (Rikowski, 1996a, p.422) [2].

In Rikowski (1997) it was indicated that the whole article constituted a ‘prolonged process of defining ‘Marxist educational theory’ … [that] … can also be viewed as a moving definition’ (p.552 – original emphasis). In the context of Rikowski (1997), its relative definition depended on the point at which the viewer surveyed five ‘debilitating theoretical problematics’ outlined there [3]. Thus:

“As presented [in Rikowski, 1997], ‘Marxist educational theory’ assumes the form of a shifting, chameleon-like entity, which becomes more complex and hopeless as each new elements enters the degenerative and reactive dialectic” (Rikowski, 1997, p.552).

It was on this basis that, in Scorched Earth (Rikowski, 1997) I decided to ‘start again’ and from scratch with Marxist educational theory, from the writings of Marx himself (rather from Lenin, Hegel, Gramsci, Bowles and Gintis, Willis or anyone else) – of which more later. For those who wish to follow up what constitutes ‘Marxist educational theory’ in more detail, I would advise going to Rikowski (1996a and 1997) where, to my knowledge, they find the most extensive discussion of the topic that can be found today [4]. For the purposes of this paper, when I discuss my own work, ‘Marxist educational theory’ indicates the various ways in which Marx and Marxists show how education and training in capitalist society is involved in the social production of examples of the ‘two great classes’ of commodities: the ‘general class’ (which includes educational services – see Rikowski, 2004, pp.573-575) and the unique, ‘class of one’, labour power [5]. However, some may find this unduly restrictive and based too closely on my own work and position, so I will include a broad brush approach when taking in the concept to refer to all who work in this field by incorporating the nine categories set out in Rikowski (1996a, p.422) [6].

In what senses, then, has Marxist educational theory been ‘unplugged’ in recent years? First, John Holloway (1993) has pointed to the ways in which the study of Marx has been ‘freed’ following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc along with the pretensions of these countries as ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ incarnations:

“Marx is free, but only potentially. The system of domination that held him (and us) in chains and sowed so much confusion in oppositional struggles throughout the world, has collapsed. With it, an extremely important element in the international system of capitalist domination has fallen, leaving a huge and very unpredictable hole in the texture of world capitalist rule. A very important part of capitalism’s struggle to mend that hole is to portray the collapse of the Soviet Union as the failure of Marxism, to present the crisis of domination as the crisis of the struggle against domination. Whether they succeed in burying Marxism or whether we succeed in liberating Marxism depends on our theoretical struggles now, on our ability to develop Marxism as the most powerful theoretical articulation of the scream of a world in struggle” (Holloway, 1993, pp.20-21).

Thus, Marxist theory in general has been unblocked, unplugged with the ending of the Cold War and the potential liberation of Marx from being identified through the Marxist-Leninism endorsed by the Soviet Union hierarchy (and also from the historical realities of the Soviet Union, e.g. the gulag), and its eastern European satellite states. However, as Holloway warns, the liberation of Marx can be subverted into his failure by theoretical representatives of capital seeking to glue the demise of the Soviet Union to Marx’s works and ideas. Yet the freeing of Marx as Holloway outlines it also points towards the freeing of Marxist educational theory too. For example, Kaminsky’s (1985) crass misrepresentation of Marx’s and Marxist ideas on education being responsible for atrocities in Cambodia in general and the sacking and looting of that nation’s universities in particular does not have the same impact today when even the mainstream financial press is taking some of Marx’s ideas seriously [7]. The success of Francis Wheen’s two biographies on Marx (1999a and 2006) is perhaps a sign that Marx’s stock in rising in some quarters at least. Two polls, one by the BBC in 1999 that voted Marx the top thinker of the twentieth century (see Wheen, 1999b) and another more recent one where Marx was voted the ‘greatest ever philosopher’ (in a poll run by Melvyn Bragg for Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ in 2005 – see Higgins, 2005) indicate a broader appeal of this mighty thinker. Even in the United States there is evidence that the name of Karl Marx is generating growing interest amongst the youth. As Paul Thomas, a teacher at the University of California, Berkeley has noted:

“Students are more curious about Marx now than they were before the fall of the Berlin Wall” (Socialist Worker, 2001).

Thus, there are some straws in the wind that John Holloway’s hopes rather than his fears regarding the consequences of the ‘freeing of Marx’ are yielding fruit [8].

The second of the senses in which Marxist educational theory has been ‘unplugged’ in recent years, links with the previous point. In writings on Marx and Marxism in education, Marx’s own work and ideas play a bigger role than they did prior to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc regimes. Up until the mid-1990s, Marxist educational theorists very often did not have much reference to Marx’s own ideas in their writings, though perhaps they were put off by the likes of Demaine (1981) who argued that there was very little to view in Marx’s works on education. One of the main texts constituting the revival of Marxist educational writing and research in the 1970s, Bowles and Gintis’s (1976) Schooling in Capitalist America, drew very sparingly from Marx’s own works. One of the consequences of this trend was that when the explosion of writings on educational marketisation occurred following the 1988 Education Reform Act in England (which led to published school results and the league tables beloved by the press), there was little work on the commodities involved. Thus: analysis of education markets, but with missing products, was the result (see Rikowski, 1996b). In the last ten years, in the United States and Australia and many other countries (and not just those in the English-speaking world), Karl Marx and his ideas have figured much more in the works of those writing on education. Like Nirvana performing raw and live (with a mainly acoustic set) not long before Kurt Cobain committed suicide, contemporary Marxist educational theory has also gone backs to its roost and foundations.

Thirdly, and this is a negative sense of ‘unplugged’; leading mainstream education journals did not take kindly to works incorporating ideas from Marx and Marxism up to the mid-1990s [9]. Marxist educational theory has not been ‘plugged’ in these journals in the sense that works examining Foucault, Bourdieu or Bernstein, for example, have. Of these leading education journals, British Journal of Sociology of Education has probably been the most hospitable to Marx and Marxism. Andrew Kliman (2007) has shown how in economics one of the strategies for economists failing to teach Marx rests on those teachers’ perceptions that his ideas are internally contradictory and hence irredeemably worthless. Perhaps some of this attitude has filtered through to education departments: if economists don’t rate Marx, why should those working in education departments? Other factors such as the exclusion of much educational theory from teacher training courses (in the UK at least) may have something to do with it too. However, Kliman’s work has demonstrated that Marx’s value theory is not internally inconsistent, and this may help those beyond the field of economics and ultimately have some impact on those in education departments in years to come. Clarke and Mearman (2003) craft an interesting justification regarding why Marxist economics should be taught; it accords with the centrality of intrinsic motivations for learning as posited by key gurus of the philosophy of education in Western societies – R.S. Peters and P.H. Hirst. Perhaps a similar justification is required for the teaching of Marxist educational theory in education departments worldwide, and in teacher training factories in England in particular.

Finally, the unplugging of Marxist educational theory was an historical event, with 1994 identified as the key year (in Rikowski, 1996). This was the year when the tide turned and began a significant increase in both the quality and quantity of writings on education from Marxist perspectives ensued – which continues to the present day. Part One outlines this breakthrough by providing an account of the development of Marxist educational theory since 1970.


The following outline of the development of Marxist educational theory is of necessity limited and written from an understanding of developments in this field from an Anglophone perspective. In 1996-97 I wrote two articles (Rikowski, 1996a and 1997) that sought to explain the demise of what I called the Old Marxist Educational Theory. Yet in 1999 Yamamoto and Cabral Neto produced an article indicating that in Brazil the development of Marxist educational theory had been somewhat different. It seems that in Brazil there was no revival or renewal in Marxist educational theory in the experiences of these Brazilian authors. Indeed, Marxist theory ‘remains discredited among most Brazilian educators’ according to Yamamoto and Cabral Neto (p.11). I would wager that this may also be the case in the UK and the United States. The point I was making was that in relative terms, from a low base and from an unpromising recent educational, social, economic and political history, that the advances made in Marxist educational theory were significant. With this caveat the following three subsections chart the history of developments in the field since 1970.

1. The Classical Age of Marxist Educational Theory: 1970-1982

In 1970 began what I have variously labelled 'the period of the Old Marxist Educational Theory' (as in Rikowski, 1996a and 1997), or elsewhere 'The Classical Age of Marxist Educational Theory' [11]. Regarding the first appellation, I contrast this with the ‘New’ Marxist educational theory post-1994. This second designation becomes clearer as this section progresses. But first, why 1970? Why is that year a significant starting point? After all this starting point, this seems to exclude the likes of Antonio Gramsci, Lenin and other big names from Marxist educational theory.

In 1970 Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was published, to be translated into English and sold worldwide in huge numbers the following year. Not only did this book have importance for Brazilian radical educators but it also spawned what has been known as the North American Critical Pedagogy School that was to become an important strand within Marxist educational theory [12]; though it took the work of Paula Allman (1999 and 2001) and Peter McLaren (2000) to uncover the depth of Freire’s debt to Marx. Following swiftly behind Freire’s groundbreaking work, Louis Althusser’s highly influential paper Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, was published in 1971 (Althusser, 1971). The concept of ‘ideological state apparatuses’ included the role of schools in their efforts to impart requisite ideological dispositions to school pupils. This paper, especially when allied to another of Althusser’s conceptions – relative autonomy theory – went on to become a staple in A-level sociology textbooks in the UK, and was used (and also critiqued) to some extent in influential journals such as the British Journal of the Sociology of Education (e.g. Fritzell, 1987). Althusser’s notion of relative autonomy (of education from state and capital) was particularly appealing to those who wanted apparent radicality in their work but wanted to distance themselves from hardcore Marxism – with its notions of value, surplus-value, abstract labour and so on. Radical education theorists and researchers could use Althusser whilst putting clear blue water between themselves and suggestions of reductionism, determinism and economism that anti-Marxist writers (such as O’Keefe, 1979) [13] were hurling at Marxist educational theory. Finally, in 1971 Michael Young’s highly influential and acclaimed edited collection Knowledge and Control was published. Whilst not obviously inspired by Marx and Marxism, it nevertheless, as a supposedly New (and radical) Sociology, became assimilated to the Left corpus with education. It’s focus on the knowledge production and curricula control in the classroom and schools respectively raised significant issues regarding power in education systems and learning contexts. However, it was also very much allied to the fashionable sociology of knowledge of the 1970s, incorporating notions of the social construction of school knowledge, which went on to influence the future work of leading Left educational theorist Michael Apple (e.g. Apple 1978, 1979, and 1985). For Chun (1986) the New Sociology of Education inspired by Young (1971), with its phenomenological underpinnings, was one way out of the determinism engendered by some other Marxist educational theorists (with Bowles and Gintis, 1976, especially in view in this respect). Knowledge and Control’s focus on the ways in which (through the curriculum) knowledge was differentiated along class, gender and race lines gave rise to a lot of radical research on the curriculum. All things considered, 1970 was an auspicious year for modern Marxist educational theory to begin.

However, the key consideration for starting at 1970 was that developments in education within Marxism during that time, perhaps for the first time, were being taken seriously by many Marxists not directly engaged in educational theory and research. Education has generally been a backwater within Marxist writing and research: topics such as war, imperialism, poverty, exploitation, value analysis, labour history, racism, social class, gender and many, many others have all attained a higher profile. During the 1970s, Marxist educational theory was being taken seriously by those on the Left (and also by critics of the Left inside and outside the academy) [14]. Furthermore, Left and radical and socialist educational theory (not specifically Marxist) was also, briefly, not seen as an insignificant strand amongst social theorists generally. But two books in particular ensured that this period became the “classical” age of Marxist educational theory: Herb Bowles and Sam Gintis’s (1976) Schooling in Capitalist America and Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour (1977).

The impact of the former was enormous, and the “correspondence theory” therein went into the folk law of radical writing on education. The notion that there was ‘a strong prima facie case for the causal importance of economic structure as a major determinant of educational structure’ (Bowles and Gintis, 1976, p.224) appeared to be compelling for many writers and researchers (not just Marxist ones) following the publication of Schooling in Capitalist America. Bowles and Gintis’s major claim was that a “correspondence” between the social relations of education and production pertained. This claim was underpinned by original fieldwork research and historical analysis on the inter-dynamics and relations between educational and economic change in the USA. For a time, Schooling in Capitalist America held considerable influence in education circles. In the spring of 1978, I attended a conference that was held at the Institute of Education, University of London, on Schooling in Capitalist America. It took place in one of largest conference halls of the Institute. The hall was packed, with some people sitting on the floor. The atmosphere was incredible, with levels of excitement and intensity I have never since experienced at an academic conference. A team from the Open University outlined the major claims and research methods in Schooling in Capitalist America. Progress in educational thinking seemed to be in the air. This was one of the key experiences that inclined me towards adopting a Marxist analysis of capitalist schooling.

Whilst I was studying for a postgraduate certificate in education at the Institute of Education (1977-1978), Paul Willis’s classic Learning to Labour (1977) was published. It was study of 12 working class boys in a comprehensive school in the Midlands who formed an effective schools counter-culture. Students I hung out with on the course and people I worked with in my teaching practice discussed it extensively. Willis’s portrayal of the Lads seemed to hit a nerve (raw at times, warm at others) regarding realities of classroom life and the strength of school counter-cultures that previously only teachers, but apparently not education researchers, had known. Learning to Labour went on to generate a specific strand within Marxist educational theory: resistance theory (as summarised and critiqued in Blackledge and Hunt, 1985, chapter 8; and Rikowski, 1997, pp.561-562).

Early Criticisms

Marxist educational theory, research and writing reached its first peak in the late-1970s and early-1980s, building on the work of Althusser (1971), Bowles and Gintis (1976), Sarup (1978) and Willis (1977 Yet even during this Classical Age of Marxist Educational Theory, this first wave, there were many criticisms and critiques aimed at its foundations and at its key texts. For example, Bowles and Gintis’s Schooling in Capitalist America (1976) was variously viewed as being determinist and functionalist. Thus, it was so hard to see where change in education and society would come from. It was also held to be positivist, relying too much on statistical studies in the first part of the book, which grounded claims regarding “correspondence” of the social relations within education and economy, but also “correspondence” between the attitudes and personality traits generated within the two spheres. It was argued by some (e.g. Blackledge and Hunt, 1985) that the correspondence theory was irrefutable, and hence unscientific. That there was too little reference to Marx and Marxism in the book, perhaps deriving from the research underpinning it being financed by the Ford Foundation, was a problem for Marxists. Finally it did not solve the “Monday morning problem”: i.e. what radical teachers actually do in the classroom to facilitate educational and social change [15]. The final chapter was merely hopeful rhetoric thrown on to a depressing – for teachers – theory of school/economy relations.

On Willis (1977), perceived problems with Learning to Labour were that he used Marxist ideas, but either didn’t seem to understand them or used them in ways not consonant with Marxist analysis (e.g. labour power). Furthermore, he was a Romantic (regarding the Lads), and indulged them through assigning them to ‘working class vanguard’ status. Thus, Willis was politically and politically naïve; the Lads were not the future of socialism. Instead, Willis seemed to make heroes out of classroom disrupters. In addition, the strong sense of agency attributed to the Lads was not warranted by the actual data; the Lads were more constrained than Willis’s analysis allowed. Many of these criticisms can be found in Blackledge and Hunt (1985), Cousin (1984) and Rikowski (1997).

There were drawbacks with other key texts of the Classical Age of Marxist Educational Theory. For Althusser (1971), there were problems with the concept of relative autonomy (how relative, how autonomous?) suggestive of counting angels on pinheads. There were also problems with Althusser’s grand theory within which his 1971 paper was embedded (as set out by theorists such as Simon Clarke, 1980; and Alex Callinicos, 1976). Finally the purported effects and effectivity of the ideological state apparatuses were in some question [16]. Regarding Young’s Knowledge and Control (1971), relativism appears to be a particular issue if all knowledge (including that produced in schools) is socially constructed. Young fails to distinguish between knowledge and ideology, and worse, cannot do so on his own epistemological position (see Bernbaum, 1977; and Sharp, 1980). Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed might seem only relevant to peasant societies and/or Third World contexts, is too liberal (all about raising consciousness) with no real analysis of society, and is not really that radical [17].

Madan Sarup (1977) in his classic Marxism and Education, brought a lot of these criticisms together, as did Rachel Sharp (1980) a few years later. Madan Sarup’s second book (in 1982) – tried to build something significant from the positive achievements of this first wave of Marxist educational theory, and was not spectacularly successful. It marked the end point of the Classical Age of Marxist Educational Theory. At the end of this period, the Old Marxist educational theory flowing from Bowles and Gintis and Willis was still not capable of addressing some basic questions: such as, what makes capitalist schools capitalist schools, what radical teachers should do on Monday mornings and what schools produce. The next period, however, was far worse.

2. Stagnation, Diversity and Reaction: 1983-1993

These years saw decay, stagnation and decline in Marxist educational theory. On the whole, it failed to progress as it did not move beyond trying to paper over the weaknesses in the classic studies noted in the previous section. In some ways it became embarrassing; such as in Michael Apple’s (1985) attempt to reconcile the determinism and structuralism of Bowles and Gintis (1976) with the agency and strong sense of autonomy of the Lads in Willis. Apple tied himself up in knots. Livingstone’s (1995) attempt to iron out the problems in Bowles and Gintis’s Schooling in Capitalist America through building in some “missing links” was brave but ultimately futile. It was left to Daniel Liston’s tremendous study (1988) Capitalist Schools to take the functionalist mode of explanation (used by Bowles and Gintis) apart. In 1986, Lauder et al wrote their highly influential article, What is to be done with Radical Academic Practice? – where they indicated the huge gap between Marxist educational theory and radical academic practice. Thus, they highlighted the “Monday Morning Problem”: what do radical teachers actually do with kids in schools given Marxist analyses of education? What forms of pedagogy are appropriate to breaking the dead hand of capitalist schooling? Answers to this question emerged in the late-1990s onwards.

Politically, it was a difficult time. It was the Thatcher/Reagan era that brought in neoliberalism (see Hill, 2004 for the implications for education). There were privatisations of public utilities in the UK, and weakening of the labour movement (especially after the Miners’ Strike) and draconian labour laws were introduced in the UK. All this was accompanied by cuts in education, stagnation in higher education (until the Tory expansion of the late 1980s and early 1990s) and obsession with education markets post-1988, and marketisation in general. Thus, it was not a time of great optimism for the Left in the UK and other advanced capitalist countries gripped by neoliberalism, and for the Left in education in particular. The 1989-1990 revolutions in Eastern Europe, for some, seemed to show that ‘communism’ was hopeless and capitalism triumphant.

In this climate, academics became more cautious, and in education departments Marxism was quickly going from the marginal to the rarity. The Critical Pedagogy School in the USA was degenerating into a form of liberalism, losing its radical content and form (see Allman, 1999; McLaren, 2000). For Marxist educational theory as a whole, Rikowski (1996a and 1997) summarised this period of decay. It became an easy target for critique given its weaknesses and lack of development.

There were a few honourable examples of people attempting to do something new in Marxist educational theory – and not just critiquing it (for example, see Freeman-Moir 1992; and Sharp, 1986). The work of Richard Brosio was an inspiration for me throughout these years (Brosio, 1985, 1990, 1993).

3. 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 (i.e. not just a few articles) and exciting work appeared. This work was the beginning of a Renaissance in Marxist educational theory. Books by Richard Brosio (1994) and Kevin Harris (1994) kick started this development. Andy Green’s critique of postmodernism in educational theory (also 1994) was a rallying call, especially at the time when Usher and Edwards’s (1994) book on Postmodernism and Education came out and postmodernism in education seemed to be the new home for radical educators.

By the mid-1990s Marxist educational theory and research emerged from a long period of withstanding critique, degeneration from within and hyper-defensiveness. As well as the ‘turning-point’ works from Brosio (1994) and Harris (1994), writers such as Michael Neary (1997) heralded a new period of development and experimentation in Marxist educational research and writing. In the last few years, Marxist educational theory and research and radical pedagogy have opened up a second wave of development following the mini-renaissance of the mid-1990s. Works by Paula Allman (1999, 2001, and 2007), Richard Brosio (2000), Peter McLaren (2000 and 2005a and 2005b; and with Ramin Farahmandpur, 2004), Bertell Ollman (2001), Carmel Borg, John Buttigieg and Peter Mayo (2002), Dave Hill et al (2002), Mike Cole et al (2001) and Cole (2007) have gained international acclaim. Furthermore, many others are pushing out Marxist analysis into an increasing range of education policy issues and theoretical concerns, such as lifelong learning, mentoring, the learning society, social justice, globalisation, educational marketisation, and many other areas. Finally, the second wave has generated renewed interest in theorising and researching issues of class, gender and ‘race’ in education from within Marxism (see Hill and Cole, 2001) and the business takeover of education (see Glenn Rikowski, 2001b and 2005b; Kenneth Saltman and David Gabbard, 2003; and Saltman, 2005) and on public services related to education, such as libraries (Ruth Rikowski, 2005).

Articles by Mike Cole and Dave Hill (1995 - which was another critique of educational postmodernism) and Hill and Cole (1995) on education and state theory consolidated the work started in 1995 by Brosio (1994) and Harris (1994). This was followed by articles from Rikowski (1996a and 1997), Michael Neary’s important Marxist analysis of youth training in the UK (e.g. Neary, 1999) and then many others [18]. Significantly, by 1997, one of the world’s leading radical education writers, Peter McLaren from University of California, Los Angeles, made the move from postmodernism to Marxist educational theory. Marx and Marxism thereafter increasingly informed his works. At the turn of the millennium, the two most important books on Marxist educational theory we have today were published: Paula Allman’s Revolutionary Social Transformation: Democratic Hopes, Political Possibilities and Critical Education (1999) and her Critical Education Against Global Capitalism: Karl Marx and Revolutionary Critical Education (2001). These works by McLaren, Cole, Hill, Allman, Harris, Brosio, Neary and Rikowski attracted a whole new layer of people to Marxist educational theory and research, and radical pedagogy: for example, Grant Banfield, Gregory Martin and Helen Raduntz (Australia), Ramin Farahmandpur (USA) and Simon Boxley and Paul Warmington (UK) are just a few of these new educational writers and researchers informed by Marx and Marxism. Helen Colley’s work on mentoring from a Marxist-Feminist perspective and Rajani Naidoo’s work on globalisation, commodification and higher education are further examples.

This time around, Marxist educational theory was being used for education policy analysis and critique, and indeed in relation to education issues on a much wider scale than previously. It was utilised for analysing and critiquing training policy, apprenticeship, mentoring, the learning society, lifelong learning, and the actual pedagogy of critical education (through work such as Allman, 2001).

There has also been a revival of critical and radical pedagogy through the work of Peter McLaren, Antonia Darder (who published The Critical Pedagogy Reader with Marta Baltodano and Rodolfo Torres, in 2002) and others. This time around ‘critical pedagogy’ is more decidedly radical, and more linked to Marx. The radical roots of Paulo Freire have been rediscovered (through McLaren, 2000).

Explanations for the Second Wave

Why did this second wave in Marxist educational theory occur? No doubt the ‘turning’ point’ texts (Brosio, 1994; and Harris, 1994) had their impact. In addition, my own work here in the UK also had the effect of boosting the profile of Marxist educational theory [19], especially my two articles in British Journal of Sociology of Education (Rikowski, 1996a and 1997). However, there were some more general reasons why this work of the mid-1990s struck a positive chord. The economic recession of the early 1990s undermined the capitalist triumphalism following the fall of the Berlin wall. The exhaustion of educational postmodernism – with Usher and Edwards’s 1994 being a high point and not a springboard to a significantly higher level of activity – played a part. Not only Andy Green’s critique of postmodernism in education, but the work of Mike Cole and Dave Hill (e.g. Cole and Hill, 1995) was also significant. The anti-capitalist movement (Seattle, Nice, Prague and Genoa etc.) also alerted some to what was happening to education services on the international stage and my The Battle in Seattle: Its Significance for Education (2001b) hopefully helped in this respect – especially as it sought to link Marxist educational theory specifically to education services becoming internationally tradable commodities [20]. There were continued crises in education, with deepening commodification and vocationalisation throughout education systems in many countries. In the UK in particular (with the introduction of higher education fees), but also with the rise (and rising) of fees for higher education study in many other countries – the monetarisation of education, came to the fore. The business takeover of schools was also a growing phenomenon in the UK and many other advanced capitalist countries by the late-1990s, though it’s still in its very early stages [21]. In leading education journals from the late-1990s onwards, there seemed to be ‘capital, capital everywhere’! Researchers were focusing on emotional capital, human capital, intellectual capital, social capital, cultural capital – and many other forms of ‘capital’. But all this talk of ‘capital’, however misplaced and superficial, made fertile ground for those interested in the capital of Marx’s works to intervene, comment and critique.

Of course, the above is just a brief outline of possible explanations for the emergence of a second, and stronger, wave of Marxist educational theory from the mid-1990s. What is clear is that as capital viruses educational services in many forms and ways, then Marxist analysis and critique in education becomes more urgent and has a greater resonance. But what have been the achievements of this New Marxist Educational Theory, this Second Wave?

Achievements of the New Marxist Educational Theory

Again, I can only give a few examples here. A whole paper would be necessary to give anything approaching a comprehensive account.

Labour Power Theory (Rikowski): shows that we now know what makes capitalist schooling capitalist schooling. We also know more about the products of schooling, education as a form of production and about the particular commodity that is its key output: labour power (e.g. Rikowski, 2000, 2002a-c and 2005a).

Social class (Rikowski, 2001c-d; and Allman, McLaren and Rikowski, 2005): these theorists have driven discussion on social class and education beyond the neo-Weberian project of putting people into boxes or classes and reading off (or not) their behaviour, to showing how the capital-labour relation is what constitutes social class and what this means for education.

Alienation: Marx (1844) held that when we labour in capitalist society, where the product is not owned by us, where work is imposed or forced upon us, and where competition rules, we are alienated in 4 senses: alienation from the commodity; alienated from the act – the conditions – of production; from fellow workers; and from her/himself- from our species-beings. A number of Marxist educational theorists have recently used Marx’s insights on alienation to analyse teacher/student relationships, the Research Assessment Exercise and organisations like the UK Quality Assurance Agency for higher education, and course content in higher education. Examples of this kind of work include: Kesson (2004), Harvie (2004 and 2006), Cleaver (2003), Oerlemans and Jenkins (1998).

Solving the Monday Morning Problem (or beginning to): Apple and Beane’s (1999) study provides real examples of how schools could be made more democratic. Ian Cook’s experiments at the University of Birmingham (2000), and Paula Allman’s work at the University of Nottingham (2001) where she applied Freirean methods to Masters classes – are just a few of the examples. James Avis and Ann-Marie Bathmaker’s (2004) writing on critical pedagogy in FE teacher training programmes is particularly significant. This and other work like it does not mean that the Monday Morning Problem (MMP) has been completely solved; just that we have some published examples of radical educational practice that at least address it. Dardar et al (2002) provide pointers regarding how we might do critical pedagogy in order to start addressing the MMP.

These few examples could be expanded and multiplied. Certainly there is a need for a thorough and wide-ranging account of the achievements of the New Marxist Educational Theory post-1994. But this cannot be done here. Now, I shall move on to how I negotiated with and reacted to the period of stagnation and decline in Marxist educational theory during 1983-1993. My response was a ‘scorched earth’ policy (see Rikowski, 1997): to start out again, and afresh, from Marx, and not to build on the inadequate foundations of the Old Marxist Educational Theory flowing from Bowles and Gintis (1976) and Willis (1977). The next section provides a brief outline of this work.


The aim here is to provide a very brief ‘logical’ reconstruction of what I have called my Labour Power Theory of education and training in capitalist society, which focuses on the social production of labour power in capitalism [23]. This is basically only half my work on Marxist educational theory and research. The split in my work can be traced back to some passages by Marx in his Theories of Surplus Value – Part One (1863a). There, Marx noted that:

“The whole world of “commodities” can be divided into two great parts. First, labour power; second, commodities as distinct from labour power itself” (1863a, p.167).

Thus, my work on the business takeover of schools is concerned with educational services becoming commodities as part of the general class of commodities; those ‘as distinct from labour power’, whereas here, I am only concerned with the social production of labour power; that is, its commodification and capitalisation in contemporary society. As I explain in Distillation (Rikowski, 2005a), the work presented there (and also here) rests partly on an empirical study of the recruitment of engineering apprentices (see Rikowski, 1992 for more on this) and other historical and empirical work, as well as readings of Marx. What follows is a brief outline of this work on the social production of labour power.

Labour Power: Fuel for the Living Fire

“Labour is the form-giving fire; it is the transitoriness of things, their temporality, as their formation by living time” (Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1858, p.361).

In a paper on That Other Great Class of Commodities (Rikowski, 2000) I argue regarding why I started out from labour power in a process of rebuilding Marxist educational theory and I shall not reproduce those arguments here. In that paper I also explored some alternatives to starting out from labour power, as expressed in Freeman-Moir (1992) and Sharp (1986), and I also discussed why I rejected those alternatives. Thus, starting out from labour power for rebuilding Marxist educational theory, we can note that labour power is:

“…the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description” (Marx, 1867, p.164).

In a number of works I have indicated that labour power in the first instance can most accurately be viewed as a social force that flows throughout human beings. It exists within our own personhoods [24]. When we labour, we organise this force into particular capabilities that are expressed in our labour. Furthermore, when this occurs in the capitalist labour process through our participation in commodity-producing activities then we generate value. The capitalist labour process has a dual quality: as a process producing material wealth in the form of use-value (use-values as products that have some useful end for us) and a valorisation process (a process of producing value that is stored in commodities). Labour power is therefore analogous to ‘fuel for the living fire’ (labour) that produces value, the substance of capital’s social universe [25].

The Significance of Labour Power: Capital’s Weakest Link

The transformation of labour power into labour in the capitalist labour process creates value. Some of this value is represented in the wages that workers receive for their own social reproduction and that of their families, the labourers of the future. However, after a certain point in the working day, or other period of time, workers create value over-and-above that represented by the wage. This is unpaid labour and this in turn produces surplus value, value that is the first form of existence of capital. The labour that produces surplus value is labour that makes capital possible, along with its expansion.

Out of surplus value come taxation, rent and other forms of deduction. Furthermore, there has to be enough value to start the production process over again. Anything left over from this is represented as profit, and it is this that motivates the owners of capital. The value stored in commodities is realised upon sale of the products.

On this analysis, the whole process of surplus value and profit production can be traced back to labour power. Workers sell their particular commodity, labour power, to employers for a duration and receive a wage in return. However, representatives of capital (managers, owners of companies, owners of shares in companies) are concerned with the productivity of labour, and in turn with the quality of labour power (from a national, sectoral and individual capital perspective). The higher the quality of labour power then the more value is produced and the sooner the point at which surplus value is produced is reached, other things being equal. The line between socially necessary labour (the labour that produces value represented by the wage) and surplus labour (that produces surplus value) is moved (in the working day, week etc.) to the advantage of the latter.

What this indicates is that the existence, maintenance and expansion of capital’s social universe are dependent upon labour power, that living, unique commodity that is the property of workers. As this commodity resides within the person of the labourer it is under sway of a potentially hostile will. Workers can decide to expend their precious commodity in the labour process to varying extent. They can decide to withdraw goodwill. They can decide for a time not to utilise their labour powers at all in the capitalist labour process on an individual basis (e.g. the refusal to work, absenteeism etc.) or on a collective basis (e.g. the strike) for a duration, though the structure of capitalist society, with its capitalist state, tend to force us to yield up our labour power in various ways.

Thus the single commodity that has the capacity to yield greater value than that required for its own production and maintenance and whose expenditure is the basis for the generation of value and surplus value and the maintenance of capital’s social universe is a commodity that is internal to and part of the personhood of the labourer. It is this that makes labour power capital’s weakest link [26]. Workers own the power that generates value, surplus value and hence capital. Thus, they also own the power that can destroy it too as they can decide collectively to produce wealth in a form that does not entail value production.

Labour Power as Human Capital

Labour power is a transhistorical category. There must be labour power in all possible human societies. However, it is the social form that labour power takes in capitalist society that makes it different from that in either Feudal or Ancient societies. In capitalist society, labour power takes the form of human capital [27].

In capitalist society, however, capital is a social force that invades the human as we subordinate our labour powers under its control, ends and purposes. For Marx, individuals develop themselves within the process of production and in capitalist productive processes they develop themselves as forms of capital, human capital. Human capital development is at the foundation of New Labour’s education policy, and when it is referred to in official reports, White and Green Papers, Bills and Acts of Parliament in relation to education it functions as a proxy concept for labour power in contemporary capitalism.

The Great Rift within Our Selves

On the basis of the previous section, it appears that there is a great rift within our personhoods in capitalist society. On the one hand we are ‘capital’ (human capital), yet we also revolt internally against this view of ourselves, as we must if we are to survive. As the social drives of capital are infinite then we would drive ourselves on towards destruction through overwork and sacrifice our lives to capitalist production, as, unfortunately, some of us do, if the capital aspect of our ‘selves’ ruled totally. We would destroy ourselves.

Yet we are also constituted as ‘labour’ as well as capital. Our own desires, for free time and relaxation, consumption and what we might call a ‘social life’ are one factor. However, as ‘labour’ we shall also want to enhance our pay and working conditions, which hit hard at the roots of surplus value production and hence the existence and magnitude of capital.

This split within ourselves truly screws us up. It forms the basis of the Marxist analysis of social class. On this account, social class is not just a clash between two social groups with opposing and antagonistic interests. It runs through our personhoods too. ‘Class’ is internal to our constitution as labour and capital. A battle plays itself out within our ‘selves’, our lives, our souls. The forces of labour and capital rage at each other within us: making our lives fundamentally unsettled [28].

A psychology of capital, which is also a real psychology of our ‘selves’ and the predicament we find ourselves to be in, would focus on the ways in which this great rift manifests itself in our lives [29]. There are further splits within capital and the labour that sustains it and hence necessary splits within labour power itself (which de facto entail contradictions within our personalities to the extent that our personhood is capitalised) that flow from various aspects of labour. These aspects of labour in turn presuppose aspects of labour power, or labour power aspects. The following section focuses on these.

Labour Power Aspects

If the previous analysis is correct and labourers become capitalised during the process of labouring then it follows that they must also incorporate capital’s contradictions that are expressed in the first instance as aspects of our labour. Yet for these latter to exist they must be related to labour power aspects.

Although it is a ‘unified social force, labour power is nevertheless a highly contradictory phenomenon’ (Rikowski, 2002c, p.187). Key to this is that:

“The contradictions inherent within labour power flow from the existence of capital as a mode of being within labour, or labour in capital; what I have called aspects of labour power (Rikowski, 1990). By ‘aspects’, I do not mean that labour power is composed of different ‘parts’. Furthermore, to split it up into ‘parts’ or ‘bits’ would reify these as discrete elements of labour power, destroying its characterisation as a unified social force flowing throughout personhood. Rather, these aspects can best be viewed as different modes of expression of this self-same unified social force: labour power” (Ibid.).

There are three labour power aspects that are expressed as ‘capital within labour’: the use-value, exchange-value and value aspects of labour (and labour power) (Rikowski, 2002d, p.188). Then there are three labour power aspects expressed as ‘labour within capital’: the concrete, subjective and collective aspects of labour power (Ibid.).

Taking the first three, the value-aspect of labour power is an expression of the quantitative aspect of labour. It relates to the drive to labour faster with the aim of cutting down socially necessary labour and therefore enhancing the proportion of the working day devoted to surplus value production. The use-value aspect of labour refers to the qualitative moment in production; that useful products whose value can be realised in sale must be produced. From this flows the use-value aspect of labour power, where workers focus on the quality of the commodities they produce. The third aspect is the exchange-value aspect of labour (and of labour power). This establishes equality of labours, of labour powers and the social worth of labourers [30].

The second group of labour power aspects derive from labour’s existence in capital. First there is the concrete aspect of labour power. This refers to labour power tied to the specifics of working to produce particular commodities; taking in the observable differences in the expressions of labour powers in different forms of labour. Secondly, there is the subjective aspect of labour power. This is the will-determined aspect of labour power. As labour power is never completely subordinated under capital, never completely capitalised, then this aspect is always a concern for representatives of capital: they have to coax, cajole and manipulate or force workers to yield up their precious commodity. Finally, the collective aspect of labour power refers to the necessity of workers working in co-operation and the maximisation of this co-operation.

Labour Power Attributes and the Recruitment Process

Labour power attributes are the itemised constituents of labour power. In Marx’s terms they are the physical and mental capabilities that constitute labour power [31]. These are assessed by labour recruiters in the recruitment process as they search for the workers with the highest quality labour powers [32]. Of course, there are many factors here – based on the analysis above – that are relevant to this. For example, given the subjective aspect of labour power workers must be willing to submit to the labour process in a particular company for the stipulated wage: they must engage their will with the requirements of the specific commodities, organisation of production and so on in specific enterprises.

A further consideration is that as labour recruiters formulate the labour power aspects most crucial for working in their labour process from their perspective then they are involved in a necessary reification, treating these attributes as ‘bits’ or discrete elements of the workers they are judging in the recruitment process.

In addition, recruitment criteria are not identical to labour power aspects (Rikowski, 1990). This is because some recruitment criteria do not refer to the potential labourers at all, but to the factors like their distance from the workplace in terms of where they live or other circumstantial elements.

This Strange Commodity

It is this strange commodity, labour power that schools are charged with socially producing (though not totally, as the process continues post-school). Research indicates that it is not the only commodity that they produce, but it is the one that concerns us here [33]. Hence, labour power, with its contradictory aspects and attributes is a living commodity that schools are involved in socially producing:

“Labour power: it is this living commodity that schools and training organisations are in the business of socially producing, and it is this process of production that leads us to characterise education and training organisations and institutions today as being decisively capitalist in nature. This social production occurs on the basis of the labour powers of the producers also being subject to contradictions and tensions flowing from the nature of labour power” (Rikowski, 2002b, p.193) [34].

This alludes to definite processes of the social production of labour power. These social processes were very ill-defined and weak in Marx’s day, but since the Second World War and the onset of state secondary education for all in the most developed capitalist nations the productive processes involved have attained a clearer social reality.

The Social Production of Labour Power in Capitalism

“…what he [the labourer] pays out for education is devilishly little, but when he does, his payments are productive, for education produces labour power” (Marx, 1863a, p.210 – my emphasis).

Finally, education and training come decisively into the picture. The social production of labour power in capitalism refers to those processes and institutions concerned with developing and enhancing the quality of labour power as human capital in contemporary society.

The social production of labour power is a process that is highly fragmented between institutions (schools, colleges, universities and training organisations). It includes on-and-off-the-job training. It also includes an ‘automatic’ phase as labourers develop their skills, attitudes and other labour power attributes on-the-job as they labour (Marx, 1867). Systems of work-based learning attempt to formalise this.

Empirically, the forms that the social production of labour power takes will vary. Research into these social forms has barely begun [35].


The prospects for Marxist educational theory would seem to be much better this time around. This is principally because there is now so much development across many aspects – linking the emerging ideas with analysis of concrete struggles, education policies and practices on a scale hitherto unknown.

Furthermore, the theoretical, historical and technological infrastructure is building up impressively. On the first, Paula Allman’s monumental achievement in the field (Allman, 1999, 2001 and 2007) will provide a lasting contribution for the Marxist educational theorists of the future. On the second front, Robin Small’s Marxism and Education (2005) now provides teachers with a valuable resource regarding what Marx said on education and how he viewed education within the corpus of his critique of capitalist society [36]. On the third point – the technology supporting Marxist educational theory – the situation is encouraging. Left education e-journals such as the Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, and Public Resistance are providing platforms for the new work [37]. Several e-journals have run special issues on Marxism and education, including: Cultural Logic and Policy Futures in Education.

There are now two book series on Marxism and education; one from Palgrave Macmillan (edited by Tony Green and Glenn Rikowski), and one by Routledge (edited by Dave Hill). The American Educational Research Association (AERA) has had a special interest group on Marxism and education for the last few years. In the UK, Tony Green and Glenn Rikowski have run the successful ‘Marxism and Education: Renewing Dialogues’ (MERD) seminars for the past five years (with 10 MERDs completed). There are now also many web sites, blogs and social networking profiles dedicated to radical and Marxist perspectives on education [38].

Taking all of this together, the prospects for Marxist educational theory appear to be good. Certainly, educators, education researchers and theorists are taking Marxism more seriously – though the numbers involved and inspired by this work are still relatively small. But solid progress has been made from a very low base. However, Marxists in general, those not working in education departments in universities, are still reluctant to give much significance to educational theory and research inspired by Marx and Marxism – though educational struggles cannot be ignored so easily. This situation needs to be changed, and hopefully this paper is a small contribution towards bringing it about.

The Notes and References are on the next page

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