Voice of Revolutionary Students

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Reconnaissance of Marxist Education Theory

Marxist educational theory, research and writing reached its last peak in the late-1970s and early-1980s (Rikowski, 2006), building on the work of Althusser (1971), Bowles and Gintis (1976), Sarup (1978) and Willis (1977), and the Marxist inspired work of Bourdieu (1976). With a few historically significant exceptions (such as Callinicos, 1991, Morton and Zavarzadeh, 1991; Ahmad, 1992), the rest of the 1980s and the early-1990s witnessed a failure to develop this first wave of Marxist educational theory and research. Instead, Marxists and neo-Marxists interested in education typically found themselves shoring up and/ or critiquing the many problems and weaknesses inherent in the first wave work or giving a culturalist post-Gramscian spin on the earlier “reproductionist” analysis of Althusser, Bowles and Gintis, and Bourdieu . (Henry Giroux is an example, e.g. 1983).

However, by the mid-1990s Marxist educational theory and research re-emerged from a moribund period characterised by of internal degeneration and hyper-defensiveness in the face of external criticism (Rikowski, 1996, 1997, 2006). Works from Richard Brosio (1994) Kevin Harris (1994) Ebert (1996) and 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), Richard Brosio (2000), Peter McLaren (2000, 2005a and 2005b); McLaren and Farahmandpur, (2005), Bertell Ollman (2001), Carmel Borg, John Buttigieg and Peter Mayo (2002), Dave Hill et al (2002) have gained international recognition Furthermore, many others are expanding Marxist analysis and encompassing an increasing range of education policy issues and theoretical concerns, such as lifelong learning, mentoring, the learning society, social justice, globalization, educational marketization, and many other areas.

The second wave has generated renewed interest in theorizing and researching issues of class, gender and race in education from within Marxism (see Hill, 1999; Hill and Cole, 2001; and Kelsh and Hill, 2006) and the business takeover of education (see Glenn Rikowski, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005; Kenneth Saltman and David Gabbard, 2003; and Saltman, 2005) and on public services related to education, such as libraries (Ruth Rikowski, 2005).

However, Marxists find themselves once more on the defensive and increasingly fighting today a rearguard action for the maintenance of Marxism (historical materialism) against the epistemological instability caused by the intrusion of pluralist, non-essentialist (such as postmodernist) and Weberian-type schemata into the leftist debate (Rikowski, 2001; Kelsh and Hill, 2006).

Kelsh and Hill (2006), Paraskeva (2006) and Farahmandpur (2004) take as an example of “revisionist left” writers, the prominent writer Michael W. Apple. Apple writes prolifically and influentially among left educators against neo-liberal and neo-conservative ideological and political hegemony in the USA. His analysis and political objective are that there is, and should be, an alliance of political interests in which the tryptych of social class, “race” and gender have equal importance as both explanatory and as organizing principles (e.g. Michael W. Apple, 2001). The introduction of extra-class determinants of social inequality follows a Weberian-derived notion of class as a tool of classification useful only to describe strata of people, as they appear at the level of culture and in terms of status derived from various possessions, economic, political, or cultural.

However, as a tool of class categorization, Weberian derived classifications of social strata cannot provide reliable knowledge to guide transformative praxis - that is, a guide to action that will result in the replacement of capitalism by socialism (a system whereby the means of production, distribution and exchange, are collectively, rather than privately, owned). In Weberian classifications, there is no capitalist class, and no working class; just myriad strata. Similar assumptions surface in anti-essentialist, post-modernist approaches (for a critique, see Hill, 2001, 2005a; Hill, Sanders and Hankin, 2002; Kelsh, 2006, McLaren and Scatamburlo D’Anibale, 2004). Such classification systems substituted for Marxist class theory fuel the ideological notion that “class is dead” (Pakulski & Waters, 1996).

It is interesting, and rarely remarked upon, that arguments about “the death of class” are not advanced regarding the capitalist class. Despite their horizontal and vertical cleavages (Dumenil and Levy, 2004), they appear to know very well who they are. Nobody is denying capitalist class consciousness. They are rich. They are powerful. And they are transnational as well as national. They exercise (contested) control over the lives of worker-laborers and worker-subjects.

Marxists agree that class is not the only form of oppression in contemporary society, yet it is also a fact that class is central to the social relations of production and essential for producing and reproducing the cultural and economic activities of humans under a capitalist modes of production. Whereas the abolition of racism and sexism does not guarantee the abolition of capitalist social relations of production, the abolition of class inequalities, by definition, denotes the abolition of capitalism.

Hickey, for example, points to the functionality of various oppressions in dividing the working class and securing the reproduction of capital; constructing social conflict between men and women, or black and white, or skilled and unskilled, thereby tending to dissolve the conflict between capital and labor (Hickey, 2006:196). While Apple’s “parallellist,” or equivalence model of exploitation (equivalence of exploitation based on “race,” class and gender, his “tryptarch” (or tripartite) model of inequality produces valuable data and insights into aspects of gender oppression and “race” oppression in capitalist USA, such analyses serve, as Hickey (2006), Gimenez (2001) and Kelsh and Hill (2006) suggest, to occlude the class-capital relation, the class struggle, and to obscure the essential and defining nature of capitalism, the labor-capital relation and its attendant class conflict. With respect to one aspect of structural inequalities reproduced within the education system in England and Wales, that is, educational attainment, Gillborn and Mirza (2000), themselves using the “official” (British government census classificastion) Weberian derived categorizations of social strata, show very clearly that it is the difference between social strata that is the fundamental and stark feature of the education system, rather than “race” or gender.

In sum, there is a recognised need amongst Marxists, firstly, to restate the epistemic foundation of Marxism; and, in so doing, secondly, to reclaim the authentic voice of the left-wing critique of capitalist education practices and their ideological justification though a class-based ontology (Kelsh and Hill, 2006

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