‘Anarchism and Education: A Philosophical Perspective’ reviewed by Patrick Ainley

Anarchism and Education: A Philosophical Perspective

PM Press, Oakland CA, 2010. 164pp., $19.95 pb
ISBN 9781604861143

Reviewed by Patrick Ainley

About the reviewer

Patrick Ainley was Professor of Training and Education in the School of Education and Training (as …


‘Anarchism,’ as Judith Suissa says in her Introduction, ‘is rarely taken seriously by academics’ (1). It is by students though, or at least by those in the anti-fees and anti-cuts movements disillusioned by the Labour dominated NUS on the one hand, and the vanguardist left on the other, both currently asking students to ‘defend education’ by following their lecturers’ and teachers’ defence of their pensions! Instead of these unimaginative appeals, spontaneous actions and occupations, boosted by social internetworking, reach towards an alternative education that embraces more than a return to academic business as usual. Many of these students look therefore towards anarchism as an alternative to the Marx they are presented with, as Suissa quotes Bakunin in a speech to the First International referring to ‘this great brainy head labouring all alone’ (13).

Unfortunately, they will find few anarchist solutions to their situation in this republication by the radical US PM Press of a 2006 Routledge hardback. Sympathetic though Suissa is to her subject – the book is dedicated to the memory of Colin Ward and finds anarchism appealing because ‘it does not take any social or political framework for granted’ (4), aiming instead at a complete transformation of society – her book has the form of a barely reconstituted philosophy PhD. While this has the virtue of clearly defining its terms to distinguish libertarian from anarchist education, as well as between the varieties of anarchism clarified in Chapter One: mutualist (Proudhon), federalist (Proudhon again, Bakunin and Kropotkin) and collectivist (Bakunin again); all distinct in turn from Marxism, despite mergings in anarcho-communism and anarcho-syndicalism. These divisions arise not only because of anarchism’s celebrated disagreement with Marxism over the state, which anarchists see as oppressive in any form, often presciently pointing to its inevitable – as they saw it – degeneration under socialist dictatorship of the proletariat. It was also because of their hostility to hierarchy of any kind, including the precedence of one level of analysis over another, notoriously bottom-up economic determinism in theory, which they saw as corresponding to top-down authoritarianism in practice.

While they were dismissed as ‘utopians’ by Marx and his followers, anarchists differed from Marx perhaps most significantly in their view of human nature. Even though Suissa concedes ‘the anarchist conception of human nature’, which she shows throughout her book is ‘an important element in the anarchist position on education’, is ‘the key to understanding much of anarchist thought’ (16), she contrasts differences and similarities on this question not with Marx but with classical liberalism, since she argues that ‘anarchist ideas can be construed as a variant of liberalism’ (19). Thus she returns to Locke, Kant and Godwin with their common Enlightenment faith in reason and science to establish that

The key difference between … individualist libertarianism and social anarchism is that while … libertarians oppose the state, they also … oppose society, regarding any type of social organisation “beyond a temporary union of egoists” as a form of oppression. (10)

Her second chapter on ‘Anarchism and Human Nature’ therefore presents Kropotkin’s emphasis in Mutual Aid on the evolutionary tendency – which Darwin had also noted (in the symbiosis between species for example) – towards cooperation over competition to explain what Bakunin called ‘the sociability of human nature’ (29) in opposition to Rousseau’s assertion of a pre-social freedom. Rather than being born free, Bakunin insisted ‘it is society which creates individual freedom’ (45) for ‘I am not myself free or human until I recognize the freedom and humanity of all my fellow men’ (44). This ‘reciprocal awareness’ as Godwin had called it (44), is the work of education, which Kropotkin suggested would ‘“provide the glue” to hold the future anarchist society together’ (34). Social and moral sanctions would not then be necessary, although the Russian Prince also relied upon what he called ‘the theory of spontaneous order’ to bring about the future society, which both anarchists and Marxists saw prefigured in the Paris Commune. One of the first acts of the Commune was, as Suissa relates, to establish an Educational Commission to provide all children with what the anarchists call ‘integral education’, combining, as Marxists have it, theory with practice, or a general education with polytechnical training.

But rather than starting from these similarities to see where Marxists and anarchists agree or differ beginning with their understandings of human nature, Suissa instead returns to classical liberal and hence libertarian notions of individual autonomy. She thus remains cloistered within academic philosophy, perhaps because these were the texts most familiar to her supervisors at the London University Institute of Education, where she also stayed within the narrow remit of education, rather than the wider notion of formal and informal learning. This is part of Marx’s idea of human development as praxis: ‘the coincidence of the changing of circumstance and of human activity or self-change’ in the third ‘Thesis on Feuerbach’. As Engels makes clear in his historical – if partly conjectural – anthropologies, as well as Vygotsky’s later complementary psychology of child development, this occurs both throughout all societies at all stages of development and at the individual level as each successive generation acquires and develops the culture of its predecessors. It is this idea of human development, humanity making itself through praxis in circumstances not of its own choosing and as part of nature, that is the basis of the Marxian concept of education. In this sense man is, as William Morris said, ‘the learning animal’. This is our species being.

Whether or not this process is formally and only ever incompletely institutionalised, schools, colleges and universities, following Durkheim, seek not only their own perpetuation and that of the knowledge regarded as ‘sacred’ by the ruling ideology. They also recruit the most malleable minds from the ruled classes and thus – in the contemporary context – manage ambition when there is no longer much social mobility, as well ‘producing’ embodied ‘labour power’ for the modern labour market, as orthodox Marxist accounts continue to assert, even when the youth labour market has ‘imploded’, as Alison Wolf (2011) says three times (!) in her recent review of vocational qualifications for the Coalition government.

But when it comes to vocational training, Suissa’s Chapter Seven takes the work of two educationalists, Richard Pring and Christopher Winch, who again ‘offer a way forward … without demanding an entire revolution in the way our society is organised’ (3) but ‘operate within the basic assumptions regarding the inevitability of the liberal state’ (110). Their ‘liberal vocationalism’, grafting a more or less general education onto trade training, as also suggested by Wolf’s review, leaves the academic unvocationalised to transmit higher culture abstracted from humanity’s accumulated knowledge and skills in a traditional Oakeshottian conversation remote from the rest of society.

This is far from Kropotkin’s 1890 Brain Work and Manual Work and from Marx and Engels’ emphasis on the separation of intellectual from manual labour as the Urdivision of labour in society that underlies division into classes by contributing to and developing pre-existing divisions by age and gender. To overcome this, Marx advocated ‘technological’ and ‘polytechnic training’ in his additions to the First International’s 1866 resolution on education. ‘Polytechnische Erziehung’ has been ‘misconstrued’, as Marx himself wrote, into what the middle class understood by technical education but he gave it a theoretical content by the technologische application of science to production together with polyvalent familiarity across a range of work (Small 2005, 105). This would make the worker-student ‘less of a mollusc and more of a man’, as a footnote in Capital quotes a French cabinet-maker writing from California on the variety of employment he found there (Marx 1971, 493). Polytechnics were also subsequently institutionalised in the Soviet bloc and China and even in Britain’s own ‘polytechnic experiment’, as it has been called.

The only idea Suissa gives of the extent to which this overlapped with similar anarchist ideas is in her descriptions of anarchist educational experiments as ‘Anarchism goes to school’ in Chapter Six, seen as expressing most concretely ‘The positive core of anarchism’ developed in ‘the relatively under-theorized concept of fraternity’ (67). Beginning with the Escuela Moderna in Barcelona, she describes a series of explicitly anarchist community educational experiments, especially in the USA, differentiating them from others not explicitly aimed at preparing for social revolution, such as Tolstoy’s educational experiments in the 1870s, Illich’s idea of Deschooling Society (1971) or A.S. Neill’s Freud-inspired Summerhill school, which is still self-governing itself in Suffolk despite Ofsted’s best efforts to close it. These are likely to be of most interest to students since they are so clearly at variance with the schooling they are likely to have experienced themselves and offer exemplars of completely different ways of conducting affairs, as well as (again) contrasts and similarities with other progressive approaches, such as those of Montessori, Pestalozzi and Froebel, plus Dewey’s democratic schooling from which anarchist schools, such as the still extant Walden Center, also distinguished themselves.

It is not only abolishing all grades and tests to emphasize experiential learning in practical group work, integrating not just art with science but school with community, that puts so much in question in these radical experiments. They also raise the whole question of teachers’ authority in relation, not just to children’s rights but to the status of any privileged knowledge. So, again, they could have been most fruitfully compared with the few indications Marx gives as to the education of the future, described in Capital as ‘the only method of producing fully developed human beings’, which is also the ideal of anarchist schooling. The injunction to ‘educate the educators’, for instance, perhaps applied primarily to the adult education Marx himself engaged in but was also a principle of teaching and learning as a form of praxis in which the teacher also learns from the learner and both learn together in their shared production. Paulo Freire elaborated this approach in his ‘Pedagogy of Praxis’ but he is also missing from Suissa’s account as she instead contrasts anarchist ‘free schools’ with libertarian ones.

These do not seek the imminence of Utopia that anarchist schools both create in themselves and anticipate for the wider society. As Suissa says in her concluding revaluation of the anarchist tradition, asking ‘What’s so funny about anarchism?’

Anarchism … is not so much a theory … as an aspiration to create a society … without a state … and, crucially, a belief that such a society can in fact come about… as an organic, spontaneous process – the seeds of which are already present in human propensities. (139)

This is

part of anarchism’s appeal … its ability … to perceive every educational encounter as both a moment of striving, through creative experimenting, to create something better, and of celebrating and reinforcing what is valuable in such an encounter. (150)

More emphasis on this aspect of anarchism would certainly appeal to increasingly angry and defrauded students.

1 September 2011


  • Marx, Karl 1971 Capital volume 1. (London: Lawrence & Wishart)
  • Small, R. 2005 Marx and Education (Aldershot: Ashgate)
  • Wolf, Alison 2011 Review of Vocational Education (London: Department for Education)

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