‘Marx and Education’ reviewed by Palle Rasmussen

Marx and Education

Routledge, London, 2017. 216pp., £37.99 pb
ISBN 9781138255821

Reviewed by Palle Rasmussen

About the reviewer

Palle Rasmussen is professor of education at Aalborg University, Denmark. Among his teaching is …


This is a paperback reissue of a book originally published in 2005. Reviewing it is still relevant, since it is one of the few systematic attempts to document and interpret what Marx has written about education.

In the introduction, Small discusses whether it is reasonable to assume that Marx puts forward ideas about education. and whether his ideas on this subject represent a coherent and significant approach. This is a valid question, since Marx did not write any works specifically on education. However, many of his works have comments or passages about education, almost always in the context of broader issues of societal problems and developments. Small argues that read in the relevant context and drawing on other parts of Marx’s work, the writings on education are ‘sufficient to indicate the general outlines of his approach to education’(p VIII).

The book consists of two main parts. The first, called ‘Educational theory’, presents some core concepts in Marx’s theory and discusses their significance for the understanding of education. Here we find chapters on the understanding of human nature, on the theories of alienation and ideology, the concept of praxis, and on the approach of historical materialism. In each chapter, Small presents and discusses relevant general concepts and texts where they are formulated, and goes on to relate them to education. The second part, called ‘Educational practice’ presents Marx’s relatively sparse writings on problems, programmes, policies and institutions in education. It has chapters on polytechnical training, on the relationship between work, play and school, and on the state as provider of education. In some cases the presentation and analysis of Marx’s writings are followed by discussion of more recent examples. For instance Paulo Freire’s pedagogy is discussed as an example of educational praxis, and the chapter on state education is followed by a chapter on socialist schooling, which presents the views of the Second International and of Lenin on education, and briefly traces attempts to develop socialist schooling after Lenin in the Soviet Union, in China, in Cuba and Guinea-Bissau. The choice of examples here can be questioned; it would have been relevant to include more recent European experiences such as the system of polytechnic secondary schools in the German Democratic Republic.

The book concludes with a chapter on Marx’s educational legacy, where Small discusses more recent versions of educational theory drawing directly or indirectly on Marx, including progressive educators such as John Dewey, Gramsci and his impact on a cultural approach to education, Althusser’s concept of schooling as ideological state apparatus, the political economy of education as developed especially by Bowles and Gintis and postmodern approaches to education. The conclusion offers perceptive and sharp comments on some of these contributions, but it still feels dated in its choice of material. The absence of for instance post-colonial contributions is understandable, but the conclusion is still the weakest part of the book.

Three features characterize Small’s approach. First, in contrast to some interpretations, such as that of Althusser, he emphasizes the continuity in Marx’s thinking, and draws on both early philosophical works like the 1844 manuscripts and the later works on political economy. Secondly, although he assumes a basic coherence in Marx’s texts, he acknowledges ambiguities and differences between statements. Instead of glossing over these differences he discusses them and tries to find the most relevant interpretation. To give an example, in the chapter on alienation, Small quotes a passage from The Holy Family saying that ‘The propertied class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement (…). The latter feels annihilated in estrangement (…)” (p 27). He then discusses the possible inconsistencies and the ‘most promising line of thought’ (p 28) in interpreting this statement. Thirdly, Small contextualizes Marx’s texts by presenting the contemporary views that Marx explicitly or implicitly positioned himself in relation to. For instance the chapters on human nature and on praxis both involve discussion of individualism. Marx’s early statements on this include positioning in relation to Marx Stirner’s philosophy of egoism, and Small summarizes this in order to interpret Marx.

Although part one of the book clearly presents the educational elements in and implications of Marx’s general social theory, it still covers much well-known ground. Part two has more new insights to offer, at least to me, because it presents and interprets Marx’s ideas and suggestions for educational practice. It opens with the programmes for education set out by Marx in Communist Manifesto (1848), and in the strategic documents developed for the International Workingmen’s Association (from 1865). In the Manifesto, the programme for education is found in the following short passage: ‘Free and public education for all children, Abolition of children’s factory labout in its present form. Combination of education with material production etc.’ In the Instructions for the Delegates of the provisional General Council (1866), a more detailed programme is outlined, including mental education, bodily education and technological training, especially through combining education with productive labour.

In chapter 7, which is on polytechnical training, and chapter 8, which is on work, play and school, Small explores the elements of these programmes, tracing the development of Marx’s formulations as well as contemporary contributions that he drew on or distanced himself from. The key concept is polytechnical training. This was Marx’s positive alternative to child labour. Rejecting the exploitation of children by industry did not mean that children should be kept away from productive labour. Small is able to identify six arguments for child labour in Marx’s writings. In his draft for a resolution on child labour, he wrote that ‘We consider the tendency of modern industry to make children and juvenile persons of both sexes co-operate in the great work of social production as a progressive, sound and legitimate tendency, although under capital it was distorted to an abnomination’ (p 123). In polytechnical training, productive work is combined both education in general subjects (which Marx calls mental training) and education in the principles of technology and production.

Small emphasizes that a key aim of polytechnical education model was to contribute to moving beyond the capitalist division of labour. Both in his early and his mature works Marx describes the division of labour as a condition which divides and narrows human activities and abilities, even though he acknowledges its contribution to the productivity of labour. Polytechnical education is a step towards allowing more versatile productive work, reconnecting manual and mental labour and creating technological skills needed in modern industry. Small points out that many early 19th century thinkers voiced criticism of the division of labour, including Hegel and Friedrich Schiller. The latter’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1801) is a diagnosis of the separation of human powers in modern culture, especially the separation between sense and thought, or practice and theory. Schiller discusses different ways of transgressing this polarisation and concludes that the experience of beauty is the answer, and so he argues that aesthetic education can restore individuals as whole personalities and contribute to reform of society (p 110-111). Obviously, Marx’s ideas about reconnecting practice and theory mainly drew on different inspirations. One of them, which Small also documents, was contemporary French ideas and practices on professional education. Small identifies and summarizes a key work in this tradition, the book L’Enseignement professional by C.A Corbon (p 116-118). Corbon argued that in order to counteract the specialization and de-skilling resulting from the division of labour, schools should provide practical professional instruction aiming at versatile skills and developing both the manual and the mental faculties of students. Marx read Corbon, and used (although without source) one of his examples describing versatile work in the USA, but agreed only partially with his ideas about schooling. In the chapter on work, play and schoo,l Small further explores Marx’s ideas about the educative value of work, highlighting and interpreting Marx’s brief comments on the progressive educator Basedow and the utopian Fourier.

I have given a few critical comments on sections of the book. One further criticism concerns the system of referring to, and of quoting Marx’s work, which consists of references to volumes and pages in the Marx and Engels collected works. This is formally correct, but most readers would have been helped by the addition of titles or publication years for the works referred to. Still these are minor points of criticism. In general I can highly recommend the book. It is very readable, and its careful documentation, contextualisation and interpretation of what Marx has written on education makes it an important contribution to Marx scholarship as well as to the study of education and society.

More recently Small has published another book on this subject, Karl Marx – the Revolutionary as Educator (Springer 2014). This is a much shorter book with a different approach, describing Marx’s engagement with educational issues through his life course. 

22 November 2017

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