Encountering Education

Elements for a Marxist Pedagogy

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It is common knowledge that Marx insisted philosophers should not just interpret the world but change it. Yet many forget, repress, or bypass (for various material and theoretical reasons) the direction toward which he wanted to change it, which was inextricably linked with what he studied and wrote – with marxist theory, in other words. Marx made this most explicit in a famous 1852 letter to Joseph Weydemeyer, a comrade who emigrated from Germany to the U.S. and fought in the Union Army against slavery. In the letter, Marx writes that bourgeois theorists before him had discovered the existence of classes and the class struggle, but that what he proved was that the class struggle can lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and that the ‘dictatorship [of the proletariat] itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.’ In 1852, he hadn’t, of course, discovered the concept that would theoretically arm our class in this struggle – surplus-value – but the project was consistent throughout his life. It’s a project, however, that today too many – including but not limited to marxist academics – have abandoned.

As such, Encountering Education begins with a lesson that Louis Althusser learned from Lenin, that what ‘a “practice” of philosophy, and the consciousness of what practising philosophy’ entails is ‘the consciousness of the ruthless, primary fact that philosophy divides.’ The marxist tradition that orders practice above theory is often misunderstood because in marxism there is no harsh binary between the two – such a binary is idealist. Instead, marxist philosophy begins from everyday practices of production and reproduction or struggle and defeat, proceeds through conceptual abstraction, before returning to the real concrete with new thoughts that are hopefully more correct, which means they will advance the class struggle at a particular conjuncture.

For Marx, the capitalist mode of production became dominant once it passed from formal subjection to real subjection. Capital at first merely takes the labour processes of handicraft and manufacture as it finds them (in England) and takes command over them by, for example, lengthening the working day. At this point, capital has not yet acquired direct control of the labour process insofar as the regulating mechanism of production is the worker who necessarily ‘maintains some autonomy from capital,’ as Curry Malott puts it. For Marx, real subjection takes place when ‘industries that have been taken over’ by capital ‘continue to be revolutionised by changes in the methods of production.’ Real subjection takes place when capital replaces living labour as the motor of production with dead labour, or machinery. As a result, capital’s command over labour increases and intensifies, as the knowledge of the production process is objectified in machinery and technology and withheld from our class through the state’s repressive apparatuses.

Machinery, once it fully replaces the workers’ tools, transforms the worker, as Marx puts it, ‘into a fragment of a man,’ and ‘degrade[s] him to the level of an appendage of a machine.’ Thus, not only the relations of production are changed but so too is the subjectivity of workers. At the same time, however, the figure of the collective worker is solidified. There is, as such, a contradictory process of subjectivation happening in which workers are both atomised and subjected to machinery while at the same time uniting to form a class. Our class is, in turn, constantly decomposed and recomposed through the absolute general law of capitalism, the result of which is a dynamic and ever-expanding industrial reserve army produced through technological developments.

The industrial factory is a dialectical sublation, which is especially apparent given that it is precisely the proletarians’ skills and knowledges that are objectified in machinery. The proletarian, however, constitutes anyone subjected to capital, whether they’re employed or not, whether they work for a wage or not, whether they produce a good or a service, whether they are in the city or the countryside, or the Global North or South. While, at one point in Capital, Marx defines the ‘productive worker’ as one directly engaged in producing surplus-value – and says it is a ‘misfortune,’ he later writes that ‘the maintenance and reproduction of the working-class is, and must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital.’ Surplus value is not just produced but has to be transported, exchanged, and realised or consumed. Proletarian is both an adjective and a verb; it’s a process: the proletarianisation of increasing numbers of people and communities, states, and nations, is precisely the process of capitalist production.

Wherever one falls in the ongoing process of proletarianisation–whether one works for a wage or not, engaged in black or grey market work, imprisoned or ‘free,’ precarious or as regularly employed as one can be under capitalism, one is part of this class from which capital expropriates land, subjectivity, knowledges and skills. (It’s worth emphasizing that Marx noted that workers’ lives are made ‘the more precarious’ as a result of proletarianization, so the figure of the ‘precariat’ is nothing new.) One of the most interesting and potent examples is the cotton gin, an invention credited to Eli Whitney, something of a folk hero in the U.S. elementary school curriculum. Sam Marcy, however, argues that ‘the first gin made in Mississippi was constructed on the basis of a crude drawing by a skilled slave,’ and because ‘the slaves were never recognised in law as persons, the slave owners could appropriate their property as well as any inventions they might conceive of.’ The impetus for the invention was the increased demand for cotton in England as a result of the industrial revolution. Capitalism intensified the barbarism of slavery and immiserated the English proletariat at the same time. Even under capitalism, in which the ‘individual’ enters into a ‘contract’ with a capitalist as free equals in juridical terms, proletarian knowledge forms key ingredients or blueprints for ‘capital’s’ technological transformations.

Elements for Marxist Pedagogy

Much marxist educational theory has primarily concerned itself with critiquing the structures, systems, and curricula of schooling rather than delving deeply into educational philosophy and pedagogy. The former concerns the content of education while pedagogy concerns the relation to the content, or the former concerns the what while the latter concerns the how. Of course, it is necessary to have an adequate political and ideological framework to engage in marxist education; yet this alone is insufficient. Pedagogy – as an educational methodology – has to be held in tension with political commitments. Both, of course, are guided by the practical concerns of the workers’ movement historically and today, as well as by their potential future trajectories and potential trajectories that are immanent in the present.

It is this task that the essays in this book attempt to pursue. What this book is concerned with, to put it differently, is the articulation of the political contexts and the pedagogical philosophies and practices of marxist education. The navigation between the two tasks is premised on what might be the most general marxist philosophy of education there is: the presumption of competence. Marxism is a theory for understanding and intervening in the world and is accordingly predicated on the ability of the working and oppressed classes to not only understand the world but take the power necessary to transform it in a communist direction. This is why Marx, Engels, Lenin and others constantly decried socialists who ‘belittled’ or ‘talked down’ to workers (see Marx & Engels’ letter to Bebel and others, and Lenin’s What is to be Done). If one does not think the masses are capable of knowing and acting, then why engage in revolutionary struggle at all?

Interestingly, in the index of the International Publishers edition of the first volume of Marx’s Capital – the edition and translation prepared and approved by Progress Publishers, one of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s publishing houses – there are no pages dedicated to the entry ‘mode of production.’ The index entry for ‘mode of production’ points you to ‘socio-economic formation.’ My speculation is that they wanted first to underscore that any mode of production is not just economic but social, but moreover to emphasise – as Marx did – that every socio-economic formation consisted of multiple modes of production. In the preface to the first German edition of Capital, for example, Marx justified his focus on England on the basis that it was where the capitalist mode of production was most developed but noted that ‘alongside of modern evils’ of capitalism, ‘a whole series of inherited evils oppress us, arising from the passive survival of antiquated modes of production.’ In fact, the very first sentence of the book contains a key qualifier that’s often glossed over. ‘The wealth of those societies,’ Marx writes, ‘in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.’ While it’s often noted that wealth is notcommodities, but only appears as such, what is less remarked is that the capitalist mode of production only prevails; it is not exclusive.

Even capitalism, for Marx, was not universalising or totalising. Marx saw capitalism as ‘housing,’ as Harry Harootunian argues, ‘a vast, heterogeneous inventory and ‘conjuncture’ of temporalities no longer stigmatised for having been cast out of time but rather as expressions of contretemps, simultaneous nonsimultaneities … contemporaneous noncontemporaneities or uneven times, and zeitwidrig, time’s turmoil, times out of joint.’ Nothing perhaps reveals Marx’s temporal openness more than his suggestion that surviving communes in 19th-century Russia as progressive relative to capitalism. Particularly in the Grundrisse, Marx, according to Harootuninan, ‘rejected any linear causality that envisaged a singularly progressive movement from one period or mode of production to the next … but rather saw the multilinear movements as taking place in different regions and among diverse peoples.’ Thinkers in the Global South and elsewhere latched onto and developed such insights. To give just one example, Mariátegui’s historical account of Peru accounted for indigenous communities, forms of common ownership or cultivation, Spanish colonial feudalism and a republican capitalism. This was made possible, for Harootunian, exactly ‘because Marxism was open to diverse regional historical experiences that historical materialism had to account for, instead of remaining narrowly constrained by a singular and singularising dogmatic discourse applied to all situations.’ Unfortunately, Western marxism, including educational marxism, has often neglected Marx’s complex conception of time and history, for it is within such a heterogeneous complex of any given social formation that a new mode of production can arise.

I see the pedagogy that advances the class struggle in our social formation as a pedagogy of the encounter. As Althusser famously wrote in Philosophy for Non-Philosophers, capitalism itself, after all, ‘sprung from a historic encounter”’ between the capitalist and the wage worker and ‘the proof is that it is highly likely … that the capitalist mode of production was born and died several times in history before becoming viable.’ Perhaps the first place to begin, then, is with Althusser, who always found Marx’s work a rich source for study precisely as a result of its openness, its silences, its doubleness, and its contingency. While this is most explicit in his writing on the encounter, G. M. Goshgarian has shown that it’s a continual theme in his first book, For Marx. It’s in his posthumously published manuscript, ‘The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter,’ however, where it is explored in most length (see ‘The Void of the Forms of Historicity as Such’). Althusser begins the piece like Lucretius Carus, who, writing about Epicurus, produced the poem ‘On the Nature of Things,’ which ‘says that, before the beginning of the world, the atoms were falling like rain.’ This would have gone on indefinitely had the atoms not been endowed with an astonishing property, ‘declination,’ the capacity to deviate from the straight line of their fall.’ Althusser begins his related piece on the Philosophy of the Encounter by writing, ‘It is raining. Let this book, therefore, be, before all else, a book about ordinary rain.’

The materialism of the encounter is a historical materialism, a kind of riff on Marx and Engels’ own, one that is true to their lineage in that it privileges contingency over necessity, chance over predictability. As Althusser summarises in Philosophy for Non-Philosophers, atoms fell parallel until there was a swerve, a clinamen, or ‘the slightest deviance’ being ‘enough for the atoms to encounter each other and agglomerate.’ For Epicurus, it is not that, before the world, there was nothing; in fact, before the world, there was something: materiality. Yet the encountering – and more precisely, the piling up of encounters, the ‘taking hold’ of enough encounters, produces a historic event. The atoms clashed, and enough encounters took hold that they created a world.

There is no reason to explore any origins, just the fact that the swerve happened. As Althusser argues in History and Imperialism, each element itself is autonomous and conjunctural, which is why they ‘“conjoin” by “taking hold” in a new structure.’ In Philosophy of the Encounter, he describes the communist revolution as such a piling up of encounters of elements that ‘exist in history in a floating” state prior to their “accumulation” and “combination.”’ ‘The forms in which communist elements appear in capitalist society,’ Althusser writes in History and Imperialism, ‘are countless. Marx himself names a whole series of them, from forms of children’s education combining work and schooling […] the proletarian community of life and struggle, joint-stock companies, and so on, to say nothing of the “socialisation of production.”’ Yet these are ‘elements for communism,’ elements that communism will sublate, modify, adapt, and so on. There is no guarantee they will take hold, but particular pedagogical forms and practices might help them do so.

The pedagogical encounter is ‘an exposure to an outside,’ and an excess or surplus gap within the lesson. As a result, pedagogical encounters cannot ‘be brought about by learning theory or the expertise of the teacher,’ but ‘rather happen when a certain configuration of institutional and extrainstitutional forces come into play,’ as Tyson E. Lewisargues. The educational space this of the encounter is the seminar, which allows for ‘a moment of disinterpellation through which students, materials (books, essays, films, and so forth), and the teacher enter into a constellation of forces that destabilise and thus open up a space and a time wherein a new kind of educational life beyond the subject temporarily forms.’ The seminar is where teachers, students, and objects take up and produce spaces – sonically, visually, kinesthetically. Whereas interpellation brings the subject into the existing world and counterinterpellation pushes back against that world, disinterpellation suspends and opens the world, allowing for the encounter. Disinterpellation ‘makes the subject unfamiliar to itself and thus open to its own dissolution through the encounter with an outside. Since the swerve of the encounter is never predictable and never reducible to the logic of learning a specific lesson of the teacher.’

The entire marxist project is to work towards the building up of encounters and differentialisations by advancing the class struggle to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and ultimately create a classless society without capitalist abstraction. As Marx and Engels tell us in The German Ideology, ‘communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself,’ and is instead ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of this.’ Moreover, ‘the conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.’ This book enunciates the premises now in existence and proposes pedagogical responses for assembling such encounters so that, with the guidance of working-class organisation, they can take hold, as they have started to with such tremendous (and detrimental) results in the past.

Other recent works by Derek Ford include:

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Full Citation Information:
Ford, D. R. (2022). Encountering Education: Elements for a Marxist Pedagogy. PESA Agora. https://pesaagora.com/columns/encountering-education/

Derek R. Ford

Derek R. Ford is assistant professor of education studies at DePauw University, where they teach and research about the connection between educational theory and contemporary politics. They’re primarily concerned with ways that pedagogy can help us reimagine and reenact our ways of being together in the world. Their work has appeared in a range of academic journals, including Cultural Politics, Educational Philosophy and Theory and Contemporary Music Review. They’ve published six books, including Politics and Pedagogy in the ‘Post-Truth’ Era: Insurgent Philosophy and Praxis. Outside of the academy, Ford is an organiser with the ANSWER Coalition and a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. They’re the education department chair at the Hampton Institute (a working-class think tank) and editor of Liberation School. Their popular work has appeared in Black Agenda Report, Monthly Review, Popular Resistance and other publications.