Marx and Engels’ best known piece of writing, the Manifesto of the Communist Party, refers to education explicitly three times. First, in describing the rise of the bourgeoisie, Marx and Engels say:
The bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle. At first with the aristocracy, later on, with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself, whose interests have become antagonistic to the progress of industry; at all times, with the bourgeoisie of foreign countries. In all these battles it sees itself compelled to appeal to the proletariat, to ask for its help, and thus, to drag it into the political arena. The bourgeoisie itself, therefore, supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education, in other words it furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie.
‘Elements’ here probably means people, and the model for the situation they describe is probably England in the years leading up to the Reform Act of 1832. They can’t be talking about the education of children, because in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), Engels had described the limited schooling for working class children in this country, and concluded that ‘the bourgeoisie has little to hope, and much to fear, from the education of the working-class’. Therefore it is likely that they had in mind here the education of adults, for example through the Mechanics’ Institutes. The industrial bourgeoisie, then, constructs a group of educated adults amongst the workers.
The second explicit reference to education in the Manifesto comes when Marx and Engels discuss charges made against Communism by spokespersons for the ruling classes:
But, you will say, we destroy the most hallowed of relations when we replace home education by social.
And your education! Is not that also social and determined by the social conditions under which you educate, by the intervention, direct or indirect, of society, by means of schools &c? The Communists have not invented the intervention of society in education; they do but seek to alter the character of that intervention, and to rescue education from the influence of the ruling class.
The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parent and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of Modern Industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour.
In England in 1847 most industrial capitalists who employed children were required by law to give them access to schooling under what was called ‘the half time system’. Where this requirement was not simply ignored, schooling was often provided in the factory at the end of the day by an old worker, who was expected to drill the children in religious knowledge. There also existed privately run local schools catering for working class children. These would include most children under the minimum legal age for starting work (9), plus some children whose parents could spare them from employment, and employed children on part time release from the factories which did not have their own schools. In France and Germany, on the other hand, schooling was conducted by the state. Socialists and communists were generally in favour of children being educated systematically in groups but they were often critical of the existing methods of doing this.
The Manifesto’s third and last explicit reference to education indicates the kind of measure workers might fight for in order to ‘rescue education from the influence of the bourgeoisie’:
Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.
So two out of the three explicit references to education in the Manifesto deal with its institutional framework. On this, Marx and Engels took the view that the education of children should be combined in a particular way with productive labour, and they stuck to this position from the mid 1840s to the ends of their lives. To understand why they did so, it will be helpful to consider what lies behind their claim that the bourgeoisie ‘supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education’. We shall see that this is in turn linked closely with their views about what ideas are and how they are produced.
The Manifesto seeks to show that the processes which will change capitalism to socialism are already active. One such process, it claims, is that by which the industrial capitalist class, in forcing its way to social dominance, produces a class of wage labourers whose life circumstances drive them towards overthrowing it. This process is ideological as well as economic, and as such has three sides to it. First, there is the phase in which the bourgeoisie produces within the working class people who possess ‘political and general education’. Secondly:
entire sections of the ruling classes are, by the advance of industry, precipitated into the proletariat, or are at least threatened in their conditions of existence. These also supply the proletariat with fresh elements of enlightenment and progress.
in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the process of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class … Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.
So Marx and Engels believed that three educated groups would exist within the proletariat on the eve of revolution, and all three would have received their education within or from the bourgeoisie. Yet they also believed that the working class must act for itself, and they were familiar with examples of working class efforts towards collective self education. Thus Engels, in The Condition of the Working Class in England, described the high level of reading and discussion amongst Chartist workers in Manchester, and he would probably have known about the struggles within the Mechanics Institute in London, in which workers, albeit artisans rather than labourers, resisted attempts by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge to restrict its activities so as to exclude socialist lecturers and political discussion. Why, then, did they choose to emphasise so strongly in the Manifesto the influence on workers of bourgeois education?
In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels ask:
Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?
What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.
From this two things follow. First, when the working class has developed to a stage where it can bid for state power, it will already be developing for itself ‘ideas, views and conceptions’ that reflect its unique conditions of life, social relations etc. To the extent that the development of society would by then have pitted the working class as a whole against the bourgeoisie as a whole, those ideas would be socialist ideas, not just ideas about how particular groups of workers could get the best deal for themselves within capitalism. And, secondly, before this stage, the working class must get most of its ideas from the bourgeoisie, because that class monopolises the means of ‘intellectual production’. Nevertheless, a situation where workers can draw from the full range of bourgeois learning the ideas that they choose is better than one where the bourgeoisie can decide for itself which crumbs of knowledge it will let selected workers have.
A large part of the Manifesto is devoted to detailing some of the ideas taught to the workers by socialists from other classes and showing why they are either wrong (e.g. feudal socialism, petty bourgeois socialism, ‘true’ socialism etc) or right but limited (e.g. the ‘critical-utopian’ socialism of Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen). The working class can use some educated people as ‘weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie’ but there is a much wider group (which may include some of the same people) which the bourgeoisie can use to fight the working class. As educated people, Marx and Engels themselves had to choose which side to serve.
The point at which Marx crossed over from being a radical democrat to being a socialist coincided more or less with his completion of his PhD thesis. Normally this would have been his gateway to becoming a university teacher. He had already decided otherwise, and he announced this in a coded way by including in the introduction to his thesis a quotation from an ancient Greek tragedy about the mythical hero Prometheus. (In that mythology, heroes occupied an intermediate status between gods and humans.) In the quotation, Prometheus, tortured by Zeus for taking fire from heaven and giving it to humans, says that despite this torture he would rather have done that than been a lackey of the gods. Quoting this was Marx’s way of saying to the university authorities that he intended to bring the means of intellectual production to the workers, rather than getting a job within a system of higher education that shut them out.
In taking this step, Marx was also separating himself from the group of educated people with which he had up to then been involved, i.e. the Young Hegelians, particularly their left wing, which included the Bauer brothers (criticised in The Holy Family) and Max Stirner (the main focus of criticism in The German Ideology).
During this period, Marx, with Engels, was trying simultaneously to work out exactly where the idealist philosophical thinking of Hegel and those who followed him was wrong, and to expose and move beyond the weaknesses of the materialist thinking which some contemporaries, notably Ludwig Feuerbach, had picked up from French revolutionary thinkers of the 18th century and counterposed to Hegel. In other words, he was trying to find a way in which the expertise of educated people like himself could be used to strengthen rather than to mislead the workers’ movement.
In his Theses on Feuerbach, written at this time, he argued that:
The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.
The ‘materialist doctrine’ here means that of the 18th century thinkers. ‘The educator’ refers not to teachers but to all aspects of people’s environment. The points at issue are made more explicit in The Holy Family, where Marx and Engels wrote:
There is no need of any great penetration to see from the teaching of materialism on the original goodness and equal intellectual endowment of men, the omnipotence of experience, habit and education, and the influence of environment on man, the great significance of industry, the justification of enjoyment etc., how necessarily materialism is connected with communism and socialism. If man draws all his knowledge, sensation etc., from the world of his senses and the experience gained in it, the empirical world must be arranged so that in it man experiences and gets used to what is really human and that he becomes aware of himself as man… If man is shaped by his surroundings, his surroundings must be made human.
But there is a problem:
As, according to Helvetius, it is education, by which he means not only education in the ordinary sense but the totality of the individual’s conditions of life, which forms man, if a reform is necessary to abolish the contradiction between private interests and those of society, a transformation of consciousness is necessary, on the other hand, to carry out such a reform…
The problem is, then, that of a vicious circle. To change minds you need to change the environment (‘the educator’). But you cannot start to do that without a change of mind. So nothing can get started. In his third thesis on Feuerbach, Marx is saying that those who hold this view of society (and of education as a way of changing it) can only get over this problem by imagining a sort of miracle. They would have to suppose that there is some supreme organising intelligence which stands above the environmental forces which normally shape thought processes.
Marx and Engels’ intention in The German Ideology was to attack the standpoint shared by Hegel and the Young Hegelians, according to which there could be ideas which are not governed by material circumstances. As they put it later on, ‘Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence’. That is, consciousness can only arise from material objects, matter organised in such a way that it can think — in other words, from human brain cells. There is no such thing as a disembodied intelligence, idea, god etc, no intelligence except as embodied in something which really exists, namely a brain or a number of brains.
Marx and Engels then argue that the Young Hegelians are not real revolutionaries, because, instead of encouraging people who are oppressed and exploited to take action, they just tell them to look at reality in a different way. Against this, Marx and Engels insist that:
people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. ‘Liberation’ is an historical and not a mental act
In short, seeing the world differently is not a sufficient condition for changing it, let alone a valid substitute for doing so. On the basis of this critique of the Young Hegelians, Marx and Engels then start to sketch out their solution to the vicious circle inherent in bourgeois materialism.
Their starting point is that humans differ from other animals in one crucial respect, namely that only humans produce their means of subsistence. Non human animals take the means of subsistence from their environment but only humans systematically use some parts of their environment as tools to change other parts. Tools presuppose plans. Only humans make plans. Therefore humans are the only animals which can act on the basis of consciousness rather than purely from instinct. At first:
man is only distinguished from sheep by the fact that with him consciousness takes the place of instinct, or that his instinct is a conscious one.
Consciousness, then, is something which arises only amongst humans, and only amongst humans in groups; and it arises there in the context of production, of work. Consciousness is simultaneously a set of relations amongst humans, within humans and between humans and their environment:
Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; … where there exists a relationship, it exists for me: the animal does not enter into ‘relations’ with anything, it does not enter into any relations at all. For the animal its relation to others does not exist as a relation. Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.
Groups of humans make and use language, but they also make and use that for which language is the vehicle, namely thought — to the extent that it is not purely private and individual. So collective thought — consciousness — is itself a non material tool which humans make and which they use — to operate on their environment, to produce other, material, tools and to produce more and/or different consciousness (in other words, to think about thinking). In short, consciousness is a means of production, but a mental or intellectual rather than a material one.
There is nothing contrary to materialism in this idea. Every book, for example, is an intellectual product in so far as it exists as a body of ideas that can be distinguished both from the author’s manuscript and from all the printed copies produced from that manuscript. Both the manuscript and all of these physical books could be destroyed and yet the book as an intellectual product could still exist, for example in people’s memories. But the same goes for every product. Every product that can exist as a material object can also exist as an idea. Ford Fiestas, for example, are material objects; but ‘the Ford Fiesta’, the design, is an idea. An idea can also be a means to the production of a material object. For example, a designer’s idea of what a component in an engine will be like is a no less necessary condition of that component being made than the metal it is made from, the lathe it is made on, the worker who operates that lathe, the power that drives it etc. The designer’s intellect produces an idea, an intellectual product, and this idea then functions as one of the means of production of the component, as an intellectual means of production alongside material ones.
Once it is agreed that consciousness, though non material, is a tool — that is, something which humans produce in order to produce other things with it — the vicious circle inherent in the materialism of Helvetius, Robert Owen and Feuerbach disappears, because we can see that consciousness can be used to change the world at the same time that it is changed by the world. In fact, the most decisive changes to consciousness tend to occur when we try out an idea in practice and find it doesn’t work. However, if consciousness arises from human interaction with the world in this direct way, if it is intrinsically no more mysterious than any other tool, how can it ever be wrong? Our thinking can be incomplete, but how can it be at odds with what we do?
Taken on their own, Marx and Engels’ words in the Manifesto — that ‘the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class’ — could mean that ideas just reflect material life, real struggle etc but cannot themselves become an agency within it. But in The German Ideology they spell out more of what they mean:
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time the ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.
So, for them, ruling class thinking does not just reflect the social order but actively intervenes in it, by getting into the minds of other classes and structuring every aspect of life. In particular, it gets in between working people’s experience and their capacity to reflect on that experience, which is already limited by their exclusion from the means of mental production. It presents them with a predigested version of what their experience means, at the same time that they are denied, so far as possible, access to other ways of making sense of it. This, then, is how, in class society, ideas can be at odds with productive activity, such that they reflect it but in a distorted fashion.
Under capitalism, the bourgeoisie as a whole dominates the production and distribution of ideas:
The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age; thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.
And the ruling class under capitalism may recruit people from all classes to distribute its ideas. Some of the people who do this ideological distribution work may be recruited from amongst the working class or pushed down into it from the petty bourgeoisie. Thus, as the Manifesto explains:
The bourgeoisie … has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers.
Since the proletariat is recruited from all classes, and since at the start its educated elements are either formed by or drawn from other classes, these distributors of ideology can easily find routes by which to infiltrate it.
However, the working class also has several factors on its side. First, as the Manifesto again explains, capitalism tends to get rid of the divisions which previously stopped those at the bottom getting together. It ‘rescue[s] a considerable part of the population from the idiocy [i.e. the isolation and self-absorption. CW] of rural life’, and under its rule, ‘national one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible’. In other words, capitalism weakens the loyalties that tied the poor to the rich under feudalism. Secondly, then, the class instinct that this releases develops to a point where it becomes a basis for positive planning. Workers start to see how they could run things for themselves. Class instinct starts to grow into a distinct form of consciousness:
the conditions under which this class lives are such as to give it a sort of practical training, which not only replaces school cramming, but renders harmless the confused religious notions associated with it, and even places the workers in the vanguard of the national movement of England. Necessity is the mother of invention, and what is still more important, of thought and action. The English working-man who can scarcely read and still less write, nevertheless knows very well where his own interest and that of the nation lies. He knows, too, what the especial interest of the bourgeoisie is, and what he has to expect of the bourgeoisie. If he cannot write, he can speak, and speak in public; if he has no arithmetic, he can, nevertheless, reckon with the Political Economists enough to see through a Corn-Law-repealing bourgeois, and to get the better of him in argument; if celestial matters remain very mixed for him in spite of all the effort of the preachers, he sees all the more clearly into terrestrial, political and social questions.
In short, the working class begins to learn from its own experience, despite the bewilderers who try to prevent this:
a class is called forth … from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may of course arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class.
But for this learning from experience to develop beyond a certain point, the class must try out its plans on the real life environment. That is, it must undertake actions aimed at changing that environment, because only through doing that can it change its own consciousness, including its consciousness of itself. In other words, there has to be a revolutionary movement:
Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution.
So what looks to the old materialism like a vicious circle looks to the new materialism like a dialectical process. The class instinct of workers starts to turn into class consciousness, which then helps trigger a revolutionary movement, which in turn steps up the development of communist consciousness. And this consciousness, so Marx and Engels thought, gets better and better at finding its way through the maze that people peddling the bosses’ ideas build in its path. In his introduction to the 1888 English translation of the Manifesto Engels explained that Marx
entirely trusted to the intellectual development of the working class which was sure to result from combined action and mutual discussion. The very events and vicissitudes of the struggle against capital, the defeats even more than the victories, could not help bringing home to men’s minds the insufficiency of their various favourite nostrums, and preparing the way for a more complete insight into the true conditions of working class emancipation.
The fact that the working class movement would pass beyond the stage where it needed to be taught by the bourgeoisie did not mean that it could do without thinkers and teachers, but rather that it must produce its own. Writing in 1874 of the working class movement in Germany, Engels set out what he thought the main task of these ‘teachers’ must be:
In particular, it will be the duty of the leaders to gain an ever clearer insight into all theoretical questions, to free themselves more and more from the influence of traditional phrases inherited from the old world outlook, and constantly to keep in mind that socialism, since it has become a science, demands that it be pursued as a science, that is, that it be studied. The task will be to spread with increased zeal among the masses of workers the ever more lucid understanding thus acquired and to knit together ever more strongly the organisation both of the party and of the trade unions.
We have seen that in 1847, the Manifesto, in putting forward a demand for ‘free education for all children in public schools’ and the ‘abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form’, added, ‘combination of education with industrial production’. In 1867, Marx was to include in Capital a detailed justification of this demand, which he and Engels were shortly after to write into the Geneva Resolution of the International Workingmen’s Association. Marx was also to reiterate it in his critique of the Gotha Programme drafted by Wilhelm Liebknecht at the merger of the two main socialist parties in Germany in 1875, and Engels was to stress it again in his attack on Duhring, written over the period 1876-78 and re-issued by him in the 1890s.
In putting forward this demand, and especially in re-asserting it in the later stages of their activity, Marx and Engels were aligning themselves with a section of industrial employers against a growing body of liberal opinion within the bourgeoisie as well as some socialists and trade unionists. It involved them in arguing for employment-related education (and therefore, by implication, against liberal education) and for child labour in factories, against efforts by socialists to organise for its abolition.
Marx and Engels’ concept of ‘polytechnical education’, as it came later to be called, was addressed to a situation in which rapid mechanisation was altering all aspects of the social order, but it was not just an abstract scheme for what education would be like ‘under socialism’. Rather, it was a plan for mobilising the organised working class to attack the strongest section of the capitalist class — the factory owners — in the area where they must have seemed least vulnerable — that is, in their capacity to break the resistance of any group of workers by replacing them with machines. It was aimed at winning from the state under capitalism a system of vocational education many features of which the bosses themselves wanted but which would both strengthen the working class under present circumstances and prepare it to run production for itself later.
Marx wrote that:
Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it.
He saw it as both desirable and inevitable that machines, and the factory system that went with them, would replace earlier methods of production. However, there and then one of the central effects of the growth of production by machines in factories was the tendency for women and children to displace skilled adult male workers. In Capital, Marx uses the printing industry as an example of the effects that follow a change from hand to machine production. The machines themselves are operated by adults, but boys are employed to spread the paper out under the presses and take it out again after the impression has been produced. Marx explains that previously boys employed in printing were trained in all branches of the trade, enabling them to work as artisans within it for the rest of their lives, but that now they learn only this unskilled work, and are unemployable in any field once they are sacked at 17.
The same thing, he thought, was happening across many branches of industry, while the constant invention of new machines meant that section after section of workers were being sacked without warning. Mechanisation, then, was intensifying competition amongst workers, including competition between women and child workers on the one hand and men on the other, while also putting pressure on adult workers to exploit their own children (for example when employers try to cut wages rather than buy machines). At the same time, the design of machines was becoming more and more scientific — based, that is, on underlying abstract principles, for example on the principles of mechanics or the laws of chemistry. Therefore the concrete knowledge of specialised processes that workers had acquired at an earlier stage was becoming less valuable, both for controlling their work under capitalism and for organising it under socialism. These trends, towards mechanisation and towards the domination of production by science, were bound to continue.
Marx and Engels proposed that the workers use the education of child factory workers as a weapon to break the capitalists’ dominance over this process of development. They therefore argued against attempts to get child labour banned. For example, in 1875 Marx commented on the Gotha programme:
‘Prohibition of child labour!’ Here it was absolutely essential to state the age limit.
A general prohibition of child labour is incompatible with the existence of large-scale industry and hence an empty, pious wish. Its realisation — if it were possible — would be reactionary, since, with a strict regulation of the working time according to the different age groups and other safety measures for the protection of children, an early combination of productive labour with education is one of the most potent means for the transformation of present-day society.
In the Geneva Resolution, they proposed that the labour of children between 9 and 12 be restricted to 2 hours a day, that of 13 to 15 year olds to 4 hours, and that of 16 and 17 year olds to 6. No parent and no employer should be allowed to use juvenile labour except when combined with education. They then wrote:
By education we understand three things.
Firstly: Mental education.
Secondly: Bodily education, such as is given in schools of gymnastics, and by military exercise.
Thirdly: Technological training, which imparts the general principles of all processes of production, and simultaneously initiates the child and young person in the practical use and handling of the elementary instruments of all trades.
A gradual and progressive course of mental, gymnastic, and technological training ought to correspond to the classification of the juvenile labourers…
The combination of paid productive labour, mental education, bodily exercise and polytechnic training, will raise the working class far above the level of the higher and middle classes.
What they meant by ‘mental education’ is open to debate. Engels at least gave a lot of importance to both ancient and modern languages, since in in criticising Duhring he refers to:
the two levers which at least give the opportunity of rising above the narrow national standpoint in the world as it is today: knowledge of the ancient languages, which opens a wider common horizon … and knowledge of modern languages, through which alone the people of different nations can communicate with one another and acquaint themselves with what is happening beyond their own borders.
At any rate, they were quite certain that factories could and should be made into educational institutions:
From the Factory system budded, as Robert Owen has shown us in detail, the germ of the education of the future, an education that will, in the case of every child over a given age, combine productive labour with instruction and gymnastics, not only as one of the methods of adding to the efficiency of production, but as the only method of producing fully developed human beings.
Aligning themselves with those spokespersons for industrial employers like Nassau Senior who argued for the half time system through the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, Marx and Engels sought to persuade the organised working class to fight for the extension of that system into one in which general education, physical education, applied science, wide ranging hand skills and paid work under controlled conditions would be integrated. They thought that the struggle for this, and its partial achievement under capitalism, would help significantly to bring about the transition to socialism, in which the full potential of this type of education would be realised:
Though the Factory Act, that first and meagre concession wrung from capital, is limited to combining elementary education with work in the factory, there can be no doubt that when the working class comes into power, as inevitably it must, technical instruction, both theoretical and practical, will take its proper place in the working-class schools. There is also no doubt that such revolutionary ferments, the final result of which is the abolition of the old division of labour, are diametrically opposed to the capitalistic form of production…
As to who would run a system of factory schooling under capitalism, Marx and Engels apparently thought that working class pressure could force governments to create a legal and financial framework for it, while at the same time denying them control over the crucial aspects of teaching and learning within it. In the Geneva Resolution, for example, they argued that, for the protection and development of working class children and young people, the only possibility was ‘general laws, enforced by the power of the state’. But they distinguished sharply between provision thus forced out of the state by the workers’ movement, and the demand in the draft of the Gotha Programme for ‘elementary education by the state’. Of this ‘altogether objectionable’ demand, Marx wrote:
Defining by a general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc., and, as is done in the United States, supervising the fulfilment of these legal specifications by state inspectors, is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator of the people. Government and church should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school. Particularly, indeed, in the Prusso-German Empire … the state has need, on the contrary, of a very stern education by the people.
This would not make sense unless Marx assumed that the organised workers, having forced the state to provide for a valid system, would then carry on a struggle in and around that system about how it would be run, who could become a teacher, what they would teach, by what methods, how it would be assessed and so on, because without such a struggle, the state or even individual factory owners would sooner or later take control of these decisions and turn a concession by the capitalist class into a further weapon against the workers.
Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen each developed ideas that Marx and Engels drew on when they put together the demand for polytechnical education. But Marx and Engels reworked those ideas entirely, in the light of their own, completely different, worldview, so that they produced a programme for action round education by the working class that was based on processes already at work within the capitalist social order, rather than on a model of what the socialist future must be like. Through fighting for that programme, they thought, the workers could both ‘rescue education from the influence of the ruling class’ and reclaim for themselves ‘the means of mental production’.