We began our seminar with a line from T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Wasteland’ – ‘April is the cruellest month’. What does this mean? Why begin a discussion about alternative forms of education with this line?
‘The Cumean Sibyl’ by Elihu Vedder
Gary explained that he drew attention to this poem because it speaks of a world – the modern world – full of contradictions and half-wanting to be beyond itself, yet unable to die; April being a month when living things that have spent months in slumber try to wake up and break through into spring…but still struggle to do so, and take some comfort in remaining sleepy and covered by snow. But April is the verge of new life, the forthcoming, the front. So he thought it seemed a nice place to start, and everyone seemed to agree. A question was raised: are we really like the ancient Greek prophetess Sibyl mentioned in Eliot’s poem; allowed to become a ‘failing body coupled with the increased knowledge, the loss of illusions, the increasing despair engendered by a loss of faith in the human future, and (a) declining ability to do anything about it’? If these are the conditions of our lives – or, let’s say, our systems of education – upon what can we ground our motivation, thinking and actions to work for better alternatives?
In this seminar, we explored the possibility that the answer to this question is located ‘historical materialism’, or the ‘materialist conception of history’. What does this mean? According to Frederick Engels, writing in nineteenth-century England, it meant that:
‘all past history of class and class struggles…are always the products of the modes of production and of exchange – in a word, of the economic conditions of their time: that the economic structure of society always furnishes the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of juridical and political institutions as well as of religious, philosophical and other ideas of a given historical period.’
Engels’ essay was not easy to read. As one scholar remarked, ‘I didn’t understand anything for the first twenty minutes, but you are saying words that are sparking things in my mind.’ This ignited our thoughts about learning, how we want to understanding learning here. Not as a packaged good that we can take away with ‘satisfaction’, but a provocation to learning and further inquiry. Being comfortable in confusion; happy with minor understandings that might give rise to others. Not a test of understanding but an encounter with new possibilities for understanding, knowing that it may require some struggle. Not as an individual endeavour but as a collective project, in a safe space designed for exploring. Not the affirmation of what we believe but a space to critique and consider other perspectives. Not as two hours or two weeks, but for as long as we want. Not fixed by a curriculum, but growing from the need to know. Is ‘explaining’ a form of oppression? It is OK to not know, to ask, to think aloud. Pooling ‘social intelligence’. It is OK to learn.
The discussion about what Engels meant went something like this. If we want to change what is going on in society today, we need to understand how our ways of life – our problems and their solutions; our ideas and desires and built environments – have been shaped by how we produce and reproduce the means to live (which in this theory is called a ‘mode of production’). Stuff that seems unconnected can all be linked back to this. This is one part of it, which Karl Marx once summarised by writing that ‘it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness’. The second part, which Gary explained, has to do with the fact that the ‘means of production’ of life in society are unequally owned and controlled, and this creates tensions in the system that at some points are bound to become intolerable. Everyone needs means to survive, but some benefit from them more than others. In a capitalist system, those who own the materials and resources we need to create what we collectively need are able to continually increase their own wealth and power by exploiting everyone else’s need to live (and in this ‘mode of production’, to sell their labour in exchange for wages in order to buy materials to do so). Eventually, however, this arrangement will put too much pressure on those ‘productive forces’ (working people), which Engels argued would lead to struggles that would undo the existing system and forge the development of a whole new way of organising social life.
Means of production – the tools and materials we use to create things
Mode of production – how we organise tools, materials, and labour to create things
[For other definitions of historical materialism, see the chapter we read – Engels’ ‘Historical Materialism’ from Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) – or one of Karl Marx’s workings-out of the idea in his Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859), or Erich Fromm’s later Marx’s Concept of Man (1961); here is a video of Kathi Weeks speaking about Marxist feminism at a recent Historical Materialism conference.]
One of the major points emerging from this is, according to Engels, that we cannot ‘think’ our way out of our current problems, and can’t just work to change the ‘symptoms’ or effects of the problem, but have to work on changing the modes of production which shape what we can think and do in the first place.
There were some questions. One was how this theory looks in practice. Are there examples of this happening? One example offered was the rise and decline of the European welfare state and social democracies. It was argued that the welfare state was created mainly to reduce the effects of the profit motive in capitalist systems – inhumane working hours, low wages, poor social support, lack of medical care, mechanical forms of labour, lack of opportunities to be creative – and thus to prevent people from struggling against capital for these things. However, over time, these rights and concessions (all hard-won through sustained working-class struggles and social movements) limited the growth of capital, and the ‘mode of production’, including the state, was again altered in form to allow institutions to privilege the accumulation of capital over the collective needs and potential of everyone in society.
This raised another question: if we were able to decrease the massive inequalities that are created in capitalism, would this be enough? As another member of the group asked via email, should we not hope for a more ‘responsible capitalism’? Or does this entire mode of production need to be transformed and replaced with another one, which we do not yet know the form of? What should we make of the arguments in Wilkinson and Pickett’s (2009) Spirit Level, which suggest that greater economic and social equality is better for everyone? Or is the very notion of ‘equality’ something we should be critical of? Marx, and to some extent Engels, believed that equality was a ‘bourgeois’ idea, developed to answer the problem of inequality without really changing the system that created it. Does it have any radical potential for us today? Is it possible to speak of people being ‘equal’ in a social system which requires people to be unequal in their labour relations? What is the difference between equalising the conditions or status of people in different classes and removing class contradictions altogether? Is equal treatment really fair or just, and, if there are critiques of this assumption, what are the alternative ways of thinking about this problem?
We struggled together to understand the implications of this way of thinking for the SSC and alternative education in general. One point was that in order for educational reform to create (or foster the development of) alternatives to dominant forms of schooling and further and higher education, people need not only to imagine alternatives but to fight for control of the means of production of the institutions and practices themselves – budgets, buildings, land, governance, policies, educational materials, etc. There is much of this work going on now that we can learn and to take inspiration from; for example, resistance to school closures in the United States, as this IndyKids article explains:
In a very different way, can it be argued that the SSC is trying to change the mode of education (the logic for organising our work and resources) not only by thinking about it differently, but by doing it differently? Doing this could be seen as a struggle that, on the one hand, cannot help but reaffirm capitalism to some extent, given that we live within and by this system, but which on the other hand also points towards something else and aims to strengthen this something else. The co-operative form and structure of the organisation means that it is owned and controlled by its members/workers, and that what we produce we produce for need and desire rather than as a commodity for exchange.
Again, a question: does this make the SSC a ‘radical alternative’ to capitalist higher education? Or a place apart, in parallel, which helps us take steps towards such an alternative? Or, on the contrary, could it be considered part of the UK Conservative Party’s vision of a privatised ‘Big Society’/ Is it similar to or different from other projects to transform the actual mode of production in a local area: time and food banks, reduced working hours, labour exchanges? Big questions that we are still working through.
Another example was software development, where there is much communism in the immaterial world. Here, there have been radical changes in the mode of production, which has been ‘socialised’ and made common (with regard, e.g., to creative commons, open access, etc.) – but only partly, as the means of production often remain private and even extreme co-operation therefore takes place in private form.
And then we asked other questions, from a different direction: what are the critiques of historical materialism, and how can we think about it critically? One scholar commented that the theory felt too big and complex to understand, first, and criticise, second. Another argued that we could spend a lifetime getting to grips with it in its totality…so how can we engage it critically here and now? We came up with the following ideas:
Thinking critically about the form of the theory and writing
- Engels’ essay seems to be a ‘grand narrative’ (like a story that claims to explain everything about something); it is very – but perhaps overly – systematic; and it contains few concrete, embodied or worked-out examples that help us understand what is being argued in detail. What are the alternatives to ‘grand narratives’, and why might we consider them?
- Is this a ‘deterministic’ theory, which might help us understand how and why things happen but not whether we can, as people, do anything about them? There was not initial agreement on this, but an interest in thinking about it more.
Thinking critically about what is not being discussed, or what is not encouraged for discussion
- This reading of historical materialism does not seem to say anything about, or have a concept of, ‘free will’. Is this an omission? Last week, for example, we read a number of liberal theorists whose theories of capitalism and education hinged on the existence and power of individual free will. What would they say to Engels, and vice-versa?
- There is nothing in Engels’ essay about other (non-class-based) ‘subject positions’ or forms or vectors or systems of power, most obviously gender and race. Is this a product of the time it was written? The nature of the theory itself? The actual nature of power in the world? A glaring distortion? How do we make sense of this silence when reading it today? Who else has written about this differently?
- Historical materialism doesn’t seem to have a sense of ethics here, of values, of how we should interact and treat each other – there ‘isn’t much personal stuff in the big historical stuff’. How do we connect the two?
Thinking critically about assumptions
- What about arguments that problems of inequality and injustice today are not related to capitalism but due to natural inequalities of ability, intelligence, or talent; that ‘people get what they deserve’ so long as we all have equal opportunities to try?
- Historical materialism presumes that human nature is a product of history rather than naturally occurring. What other philosophies of human nature are there?
Thinking critically about validity
- Engels wrote Socialism: Utopian and Scientific more than 100 years ago, and still The Revolution hasn’t happened (though there have been many struggles and victories). Does this mean that his theory is wrong, or only partly finished, or that we need to think about this differently? Are we any closer to creating modes of production that have transformative and liberating effects for people?
One scholar wondered whether, given that Marx and Marxism come up quite a lot in recent classes, it would make sense for us to understand this work more deeply. Some who are familiar with Marx’s work argued that it is a very important perspective to understand and one which has been very influential in the development of sociology and other fields of social scientific knowledge; they also said that they find it compelling. Or, it was suggested, perhaps we should all study something none of us yet know much about.
We concluded, full of these questions, with something equally profound: when people use the word ‘democracy’ in this class, what do they (we) mean? A few scholars were quick to say: not ‘representative democracy’, one-person-one-vote. Is it then used more ‘anarchistically’ (definitions to come)? What could it mean?
This question about what democracy means, and whether we use it, and the question of how we ground and justify and have confidence in our thinking and action in the struggle for humane and liberating education, and social life – whether this is through historical materialism or otherwise – seem critical ones for us to continue answering together.