Karl Marx and education

Picture: Karl Marx, sourced from Wikemedia Commons from International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Listed as being in the public domain.

Karl Marx and education. What significance does Marx have for educators and animateurs today? An introduction and assessment by Barry Burke.

contents: introduction · life · Karl Marx as a thinker · Karl Marx and the class struggle · the communist manifesto · Karl Marx’s relevance to knowledge and education · further reading · links · how to cite this article

Karl Marx never wrote anything directly on education – yet his influence on writers, academics, intellectuals and educators who came after him has been profound. The power of his ideas has changed the way we look at the world. Whether you accept his analysis of society or whether you oppose it, he cannot be ignored. As Karl Popper, a fierce opponent of Marxism, has claimed ‘all modern writers are indebted to Marx, even if they do not know it’.


Karl Marx was born in Trier on May 5, 1818. He studied at the universities of Bonn, Berlin, and Jena. His early writings for, and editorship of, the Cologne newspaper Rheinische Zeitung brought him quickly into conflict with the government. He was critical of social conditions and existing political arrangements. In 1843 after only a year in post, Marx was compelled to resign as editor. Soon afterwards the paper was also forced to stop publication. Marx then went to Paris (where he first met Engels). His radicalism had come to be recognizably ‘communistic’. His revolutionary analysis and activity led to him being ordered to leave Paris in 1845. Karl Marx went onto settle in Brussels and began to organize Communist Correspondence Committees in a number of European cities. This led to the organizing of the Communist League (and the writing of the Communist Manifesto with Engels) (see below). With the unrest and revolutionary activity of 1848, Marx was again forced to leave a country. He returned to Paris and then to the Rhineland. In Cologne he set up and edited the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, and continued organizing. In 1849 Marx was arrested and tried on a charge of incitement to armed insurrection. He got off, but was expelled from Germany.

Karl Marx spent the remainer of his life in England, arriving in London in 1849 (see Karl Marx in Soho). His most productive years were spent in the Reading Room of the British Museum where much of his research and writing took place. He wrote a great deal although hardly any of it was published in English until after his death in 1883.

Karl Marx as a thinker

Marx’s intellectual output is difficult to categorize for whilst his major work, Das Kapital, translated into English as Capital, is a work of economics, he is more popularly recognised as a social scientist and a political philosopher. As C.Wright Mills has explained: “as with most complicated thinkers, there is no one Marx. The various presentations of his work which we can construct from his books, pamphlets, articles, letters written at different times in his own development, depend upon our point of interest …; every student must earn his own Marx.” So today, we have Marxist anthropology, Marxist literary criticism, Marxist aesthetics, Marxist pedagogy, Marxist cultural studies, Marxist sociology etc. His intellectual output lasted from the early 1840s to the early l880s and over that long period of 40 years produced a number of works that have enriched the thinking of those who came after him.

There are many who see different stages in the thinking of Karl Marx. His earlier works are sometimes referred to as showing a humanistic Marx, a philosophical Marx who was concerned with the role of the individual, with what human beings are actually like, with the relationship between consciousness and existence. The later Marx, we are told, wrote as a social scientist, a political economist who was more concerned with social structure than with individuals. It is possible to read this into the work of Karl Marx but it is also possible to see a basic thread going right through all his work. One of the reasons for this is that one of his major works, the Grundrisse or Outlines, described by David McLellan, Marx’s biographer as “the most fundamental of all Marx’s writings” was not published in English until the 1970s. It is quite easy, therefore, to see why there are different perspectives on Karl Marx, why my Marx can be different from your Marx.

Karl Marx on the class struggle

So what was it that made Karl Marx so important? At the cornerstone of his thinking is the concept of the class struggle. He was not unique in discovering the existence of classes. Others had done this before him. What Marx did that was new was to recognize that the existence of classes was bound up with particular modes of production or economic structure and that the proletariat, the new working class that Capitalism had created, had a historical potential leading to the abolition of all classes and to the creation of a classless society. He maintained that “the history of all existing society is a history of class struggle”. Each society, whether it was tribal, feudal or capitalist was characterized by the way its individuals produced their means of subsistence, their material means of life, how they went about producing the goods and services they needed to live. Each society created a ruling class and a subordinate class as a result of their mode of production or economy. By their very nature the relationship between these two was antagonistic. Marx referred to this as the relations of production. Their interests were not the same. The feudal economy was characterized by the existence of a small group of lords and barons that later developed into a landed aristocracy and a large group of landless peasants. The capitalist economy that superseded it was characterized by a small group of property owners who owned the means of production i.e. the factories, the mines and the mills and all the machinery within them. This group was also referred to as the bourgeoisie or capitalist class. Alongside them was a large and growing working class. He saw the emergence of this new propertyless working class as the agent of its own self emancipation. It was precisely the working class, created and organized into industrial armies, that would destroy its creator and usher in a new society free from exploitation and oppression. “What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers”.

The Communist Manifesto

These ideas first saw the light of day as an integrated whole in the Communist Manifesto which Marx wrote with his compatriot Frederick Engels in 1847/8. The Manifesto begins with a glowing tribute to the historical and revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie. It points out how the bourgeoisie had totally altered the face of the earth as it revolutionized the means of production, constantly expanded the market for its products, created towns and cities, moved vast populations from rural occupations into factories and centralized political administration. Karl Marx sums up the massive achievements of the bourgeoisie by declaring that “during its rule of scarce one hundred years (it) has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to Man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?”. However, the creation of these productive forces had the effect, not of improving the lot of society, but of periodically creating a situation of crisis. Commercial crises as a result of over-production occurred more and more frequently as the productive forces were held back by the bourgeois organization of production and exchange.

But along with the development of the bourgeoisie who own the means of production we find the development of the proletariat – the propertyless working class. With the evolution of modern industry, Marx pointed out that workmen became factory fodder, appendages to machines. Men were crowded into factories with army-like discipline, constantly watched by overseers and at the whim of individual manufacturers. Increasing competition and commercial crises led to fluctuating wages whilst technological improvement led to a livelihood that was increasingly precarious. The result was a growth in the number of battles between individual workmen and individual employers whilst collisions took on more and more “the character of collisions between two classes”. Marx and Engels characterize the growth of the working class as a “more or less veiled civil war raging within existing society” but unlike previous historical movements which were minority movements, the working class movement is “the self-conscious independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority”. The conclusion they drew from this was that the overthrow of bourgeois supremacy and a victory for the working class would not, therefore, produce another minority ruling class but “in place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all”.

The Communist Manifesto contains within it, the basic political theory of Marxism – a theory that Marx was to unfold, reshape and develop for the rest of his life. Without doubt, the Manifesto is sketchy and over-simplistic but its general principles were never repudiated by Marx although those parts that had become antiquated he was only too ready to reject or modify.

For instance, the two-class model which has always been associated with Marx was never an accurate picture of his theory. Marx later made it quite clear that within the bourgeoisie, there were a whole number of factions existing based on different types of property such as finance, industry, land and commerce. He was aware of the growth of the middle classes, situated midway between the workers on the one side and the capitalists and landowners on the other. He regarded them as resting with all their weight upon the working class and at the same time increasing the security and power of the upper class. At the other end of the spectrum, he explains the existence of different strata of the working class such as the nomad population moving around the country, the paupers, the unemployed or industrial reserve army and what has become known as the aristocracy of labour, the skilled artisans. All of these strata made up a working class created by capitalist accumulation.

However, why is it that Marx felt that the existence of classes meant that the relationship between them was one of exploitation? In feudal societies, exploitation often took the form of the direct transfer of produce from the peasantry to the aristocracy. Serfs were compelled to give a certain proportion of their production to their aristocratic masters, or had to work for a number of days each month in the lord’s fields to produce crops consumed by the lord and his retinue. In capitalist societies, the source of exploitation is less obvious, and Marx devoted much attention to trying to clarify its nature. In the course of the working day, Marx reasoned, workers produce more than is actually needed by employers to repay the cost of hiring them. This surplus value, as he called it, is the source of profit, which capitalists were able to put to their own use. For instance, a group of workers in a widget factory might produce a hundred widgets a day. Selling half of them provides enough income for the manufacturer to pay the workers’ wages. income from the sale of the other half is then taken for profit. Marx was struck by the enormous inequalities this system of production created. With the development of modern industry, wealth was created on a scale never before imagined but the workers who produced that wealth had little access to it. They remained relatively poor while the wealth accumulated by the propertied class grew out of all proportion. In addition, the nature of the work became increasingly dull, monotonous and physically wearing to the workforce who became increasingly alienated from both the products they were creating, from their own individuality and from each other as human beings.

Karl Marx’s relevance to knowledge and education

Karl Marx made it clear that “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” and what he meant by life was actual living everyday material activity. Human thought or consciousness was rooted in human activity not the other way round as a number of philosophers felt at the time. What this meant was the way we went about our business, the way we were organized in our daily life was reflected in the way we thought about things and the sort of world we created. The institutions we built, the philosophies we adhered to, the prevailing ideas of the time, the culture of society, were all determined to some extent or another by the economic structure of society. This did not mean that they were totally determined but were quite clearly a spin-off from the economic base of society. The political system, the legal system, the family, the press, the education system were all rooted, in the final analysis, to the class nature of society, which in turn was a reflection of the economic base. Marx maintained that the economic base or infrastructure generated or had built upon it a superstructure that kept it functioning. The education system, as part of the superstructure, therefore, was a reflection of the economic base and served to reproduce it. This did not mean that education and teaching was a sinister plot by the ruling class to ensure that it kept its privileges and its domination over the rest of the population. There were no conspirators hatching devious schemes. It simply meant that the institutions of society, like education, were reflections of the world created by human activity and that ideas arose from and reflected the material conditions and circumstances in which they were generated.

This relationship between base and superstructure has been the subject of fierce debate between Marxists for many years. To what extent is the superstructure determined by the economic base? How much of a reflection is it? Do the institutions that make up the superstructure have any autonomy at all? If they are not autonomous, can we talk about relative autonomy when we speak about the institutions of society? There have been furious debates on the subject and whole forests have been decimated as a result of the need to publish contributions to the debate.

I now want to turn to Marx’s contribution to the theory of knowledge and to the problem of ideology. In his book, The German Ideology, Marx maintained that “the class which is the dominant material force in society is at the same time its dominant intellectual force”. What he meant by that is that the individuals who make up the ruling class of any age determine the agenda. They rule as thinkers, as producers of ideas that get noticed. They control what goes by the name “common sense”. Ideas that are taken as natural, as part of human nature, as universal concepts are given a veneer of neutrality when, in fact, they are part of the superstructure of a class-ridden society. Marx explained that “each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, simply in order to achieve its aims, to represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society i.e. ..to give its ideas the form of universality and to represent them as the only rational and universally valid ones”. Ideas become presented as if they are universal, neutral, common sense. However, more subtly, we find concepts such as freedom, democracy, liberty or phrases such as “a fair days work for a fair days pay” being banded around by opinion makers as if they were not contentious. They are, in Marxist terms, ideological constructs, in so far as they are ideas serving as weapons for social interests. They are put forward for people to accept in order to prop up the system.

What Marx and Marxists would say is that ideas are not neutral. They are determined by the existing relations of production, by the economic structure of society. Ideas change according to the interests of the dominant class in society. Antonio Gramsci coined the phrase “ideological hegemony” to describe the influence the ruling class has over what counts as knowledge. For Marxists, this hegemony is exercised through institutions such as education, or the media, which the Marxist philosopher and sociologist, Louis Althusser referred to as being part of what he called the Ideological State Apparatus. The important thing to note about this is that it is not to be regarded as part of a conspiracy by the ruling class. It is a natural effect of the way in which what we count as knowledge is socially constructed. The ideology of democracy and liberty, beliefs about freedom of the individual and competition are generated historically by the mode of production through the agency of the dominant class. They are not neutral ideas serving the common good but ruling class ideas accepted by everyone as if they were for the common good.

This brings us back to the notion of education as part of the super-structural support for the economic status quo. If this is the case, there are a number of questions that need to be asked. The first is can society be changed by education? If not, why not? Secondly, can education be changed and if so, how?

Further reading


The following biographies are good starting points:

McLelland, D. (1995 Karl Marx: A biography 3e, London: Macmillan. 464 pages. Something of a standard work and includes a postscript, ‘Marx today’.

Wheen, F. (1999) Karl Marx, London: Fouth Estate. pages. Highly readable new biography that picks up on recent scholarship.

Marx – key texts

Go the Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels Internet Archive for online versions of Marx’s key works.


Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels Internet Archive – Excellent collection of primary and secondary works. Includes pieces on various colleagues and family.

In Defence of Marxism Argues for Marxist analysis it’s relevance to current social and political questions.

Marxism Page – links and resources.

Marx and Engel’s Writings – collection of Marx and Engels’ writings in history, sociology, and political theory.

Acknowledgements: Picture: Karl Marx, sourced from Wikemedia Commons from International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Listed as being in the public domain.

How to cite this article: Burke, Barry (2000) ‘Karl Marx and informal education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education, www.infed.org/thinkers/et-marx.htm. Last update: January 03, 2013

Prepared by Barry Burke © 2000