6 Chapter 6: Karl Marx

This chapter introduces students to the political and indirect educational philosophy of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). Both individuals were students of Hegel, but they criticized the latter for focusing exclusively on metaphysical ideas. Marx and Engels brought Hegel’s ideas down to Earth, one might say. They both applied Hegel’s dialectic, but did so by analyzing the material world: history, social science, economics, class relations, etc. Marx and Engels collaborated throughout their adult lives on numerous manuscripts. Marx especially is known as one of the most important thinkers of the modern era. In addition to radically modifying Hegel’s notion of dialectic, they wrote on human potential and creativity (species being), historical materialism and historical stages based on economic production, capitalism and class relations, objectification, exploitation, and alienation of workers, the role of the state, fetishism of commodities, reification, education, and revolution.

It is recommended that instructors consider using Charles Dickens’s Hard Times as a supplement to this chapter’s readings on Marxism. Hard Times was published in the mid-nineteenth century, and the novel offers a critique of early capitalism in London, England. The novel focuses on a variety of topics, some of which are relevant today. They include utilitarianism, nineteenth century factory work, schooling that focuses on statistics, standardization, efficiency, rules, and obedience. The schoolmaster, Gradgrind, emphasizes facts over fancy (play and imagination) since the former is all that is needed in a utilitarian and instrumentally-driven capitalist society. Schooling is presented in the novel as preparation for work, and nothing more.


Learning Objectives

Upon completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Understand Marx’s historical epochs or states and their relation to dialectical materialism
  • Understand Marx’s notion of species being and its relation to human potential and creativity.
  • Understand how the stage of economic production under capitalism affects work and the laborer.
  • Understand how class antagonisms develop.
  • Articulate the relationship between Marx’s concepts of the base and superstructure.
  • Articulate Marx’s view of social classes and how dialectical relationships may result in the transformation of capitalism into socialism and eventually communism.
  • Understand the limitations to Marx and Engels’s main theories.
  • Articulate how Charles Dickens’ Hard Times represents a critical analysis of capitalism in literature.
  • Describe how the characters in the novel serve as specific embodiments of the mid-nineteenth century.
  • Articulate comparisons between the themes illustrated in Hard Times and schooling today, if any.
  • Describe the images you consider while reading this novel.
  • Articulate Dickens’s purpose for writing Hard Times.


Part 1, Chapter 6 Preface to Readings

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels rejected Hegel’s idealism or metaphysical focus by adopting what they referred to as historical materialism. In other words, like Aristotle’s rejection of Plato’s purely theoretical ideal Forms, Mark and Engel focused on the empirical world. Moreover, they believed that a society’s institutions were a product of historicism (a process of development the institutional features of which memorialize historical preludes), but that they are always open to change. In fact, Marx insisted on change claiming that reformations or revolutions that occur from one historical epoch or stage to another are primarily dependent on changes in a society’s economic system. Since Marx believed that the economic system served as the foundation for a society’s other institutions and social relationships, transformation would not occur fully until an economic system developed sufficiently to spur a crisis, which would result in a new system, the germ of which was harbored in the class antagonisms (dialectical) in the older model. Said differently, Marx perceived history as an unfolding process he identified in the following model: thesis ► anti-thesis ►synthesis. This process repeats itself since another antithesis emerges in each synthesis. While many theorists viewed casual relationships as merely a cause resulting in a change, Marx believed that modes of production and the respective social relations they created resulted in conflict (anti-thesis or reaction) that in turn revolutionize a new synthesis (a new mode of production and social relationships arising out of this mode).

Stages of History

Asiatic ► Ancient ► Feudal ► Modern or Industrial ► Socialism ► Communism

Within the material (real) relations of production in each stage exists the germ of social conflict. Once conflict reaches the degree necessary for transformation or revolution, a major change in the economic mode of production occurs, thereby developing new social relationships based on the economic base. The social class conflicts that emerged under feudalism, for example, eventually paved the road for capitalism to emerge as a new economic system. Once this transformation took place, social relationships solidify creating the conditions for a new transformation that Marx believed would lead to socialism.

A criticism of Marx was his view that this process would suddenly stop when the stage of communism. His reasoning behind this is related to the notion that at this stage class conflict would not emerge because no one would own the means of production nor would private property exist. Perhaps similar to an ideal state of nature or utopia, all of society’s natural resources would be held in common and production would be a collective and non-hierarchical process. As Marx famously asserts in the Critique of the Gotha Program, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” he viewed communism as the ultimate utopia.


Nevertheless, Marx and Engels viewed the revolutionary germ in the capitalist systems to be the class antagonisms that would develop between the owners of the means of production and the workers (proletariat). For the first time in history, according to Marx, rather than workers being responsible for their artisanal crafts and goods, they must sell their labor to the capitalists in order to survive under the new mode of production. Labor then becomes part of a specialized process of where each worker is responsible for only one fraction of the labor process. Therefore, a laborer in a capitalistic system is responsible for the continuous, repetitive, and largely thoughtless process. While this production process increases outputs and profits for the capitalist, it reduces the laborer to a mind-numbing process that diminishes his species being (that which is uniquely and creatively human) as well as alienating the worker from the product of his labor. The gadget he has helped produce, for example, no longer represents his artful and creative processes, but rather something alien to him and potentially threatening. It is threatening because it removes and isolates the worker from the product of his labor. He is now estranged from the final product and isolated from his fellow workers who share in the specialized production process. Workers no longer see their abilities reflected in their labor, and they must sell their labor to the capitalist in order to survive, making them completely dependent on this mode of production. It is within these social relations that the germ exists for eventual class conflict. Once the workers stop reifying social and economic structures (perceiving them as naturally formed phenomena that cannot be changed), through the development of a higher consciousness of their condition and its mundane nature of the economic system, they revolt, bringing about the possibilities for socialism, a new synthesis that emerges from the antithesis.

The Base and the Superstructure

The antithesis may take centuries to develop, particularly since what rests on any economic base is a superstructure –social, political, legal, educational, religious, and other institutions –that develops a strong sense reification among members of society in the stability and goodness of its economic system, thereby solidifying allegiance to its very maintenance. Law, for example, develops, and therefore institutionalizes, legal process that protect private property, contract, tax, election, and bankruptcy laws, as well as constitutional interpretations that, along with other institutions, deepen the general reification of the economic base.

The Base and Superstructure, various elements of culture resting on capitalism

Figure 1: The Base and Superstructure

According to Marx, law is developed in such a way as to give the ruling class institutional advantages when its relationship with workers conflicts. Contract law, for example, as well as the lack of sufficient class consciousness positions workers as mere pawns in the production process because they are completely dependent on it for their existence. However, a time will come, according to Marx, when workers’ consciousness reaches a level that will facilitate revolt against the status quo.


According to Marx and neo-Marxists today, state education in a capitalist system serves as another institution within the superstructure that simply develops greater support (ideology) for and allegiance to the economic base by. Public schooling today, for example, is often viewed by policymakers, parents, and students alike as primarily preparation for work once graduation occurs. The same may be said for higher education. This view perceives students as passive recipients in the transmission of information, which results in a school system that socially reproduces the status quo. Social reproduction is the idea that schools simply reproduce classes in society; that working class children will enjoy no mobility as a result of education and therefore remain working class adults. Likewise, middle- to upper-middle class children will graduate from high school and continue their families’ class status. The theory of social reproduction results in the notion that schooling is simply a mechanism used –consciously or unconsciously –to maintain power relationships, and hence, the economic base, in society.

One could provide evidence of this theory. For example, a review of educational history in the U.S. reveals a number of ways in which minority groups were denied access to education (former slaves), experienced segregated schooling (African, Native, and Asian Americans), or suffered forms of cultural genocide through education (Native Americans). In other words, schooling under these examples was utilized in order to oppress subgroups in society and to repress their educational and economic opportunities.

On the other hand, there are examples of how schooling can serve as a positive condition for broadening creativity and opportunities among children, particularly when schools rely less on assimilation, standardization, and efficiency, and more on creativity, diverse learning styles and interests, and divergent thinking and collaboration.

Socialism and Communism

Marx believed that the revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism would be too radical and that the conditions for this would not be present. Rather, he viewed capitalism as transitioning into socialism, which would then eventually release the conditions for bringing about a communist society. Under communism, all would share in production, private property would be abolished, schooling would meet individual needs and interests, and no one would suffer. Everyone’s needs would be provided and everyone would contribute in their own way. A collective society would be formed that would be democratic, resulting in greater happiness for everyone. Technology would serve the interests of all as opposed to the few, and species being would flourish, Marx believed.

The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and the Dialectic of Enlightenment

  • Karl Marx viewed the relationship between the owners of the means of production and workers as the ultimate dialectic (class conflict) because this relationship controlled the worker and diminished the creative potential of his labor.
  • Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer published Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1947
  • Defined critical theory as a method of analyzing failures to achieve ideals (or internal aims) through immanent or internal critique
    • Example: “All Men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence
    • Example: Public schools do not educate children fully
    • Example: Western history has failed to live up to its Enlightenment ideals
    • Example: Using psychoanalysis to reveal how an individual perceives the self as falling short of his/her ideal

Enlightenment, according to the Frankfurt School theorists included the following concepts: reason, knowledge, peace, stability, freedom, and progress.

Dialectic Defined as continuum from myth to enlightenment

Figure 2: Dialectic Defined

Myth, the opposite of Enlightenment, is a form of regression that takes place during our attempts to realize the ideals mentioned above. Myth includes animistic projection: projecting our fears and desires onto the world.

Dialectic applied to schooling

Figure 3: Dialectic applied to schooling

Jürgen Habermas views the suppression of speech (equal communication) as the ultimate dialectic because this relationship diminishes the potential for emancipation among persons whose communication is otherwise suppressed. The ideal speech situation, as opposed to communism (qua Marx) would result in emancipation from oppressive structures.

Questions to Consider:

  • What is your opinion of Marx and Engels’s view of history and dialectical materialism? Is conflict as inherent in society as suggested by these two philosophers?
  • How would you describe Marx’s epistemology (how individuals come to know things)?
  • Is there any room for metaphysical thought in Marx’s theories? Does he reveal any metaphysical contemplation?
  • What is your view as it relates to Marx’s notion of species being? Is capitalism harmful to its development? Why does he believe that socialism and communism will free species being?
  • Marx focuses much of his work on the capitalist relations of production and labor. How would you respond to his theories?
  • Specifically, how do you respond to his notions of alienation and estrangement, surplus labor (that portion of the labor process extracted for profits), commodity fetishism, and class conflict rooted in the mode of production?
  • What is your opinion of Marx’s development of the base and the superstructure? Is there any merit to his theory? Any limitations?
  • How would you respond to the notion that schooling in a capitalistic society simply reproduces the status quo? Can you think of any examples that would counter Marx’s conclusion?
  • Why does Marx believe that life under communism would be happier? Why would it enable the highest enjoyment of species being?
  • Why does he believe that communism will result in greater democracy?


Marx, Karl. (1977). Capital: Volume One. Introduced by Ernest Mandel and Translated by Ben Fowkes. New York: Vintage Books.

Tannenbaum, Donald G., and Schultz, David. (1988). Inventors of Ideas: An Introduction to Western Political Philosophy. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Tucker, Robert C. (Ed.). (1978). The Marx-Engels Reader. Second Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.


Divide students into two groups, and after having them read the assignments, ask them to compare and debate their perceptions of Marxian theory.

Have students debate the notion of social reproduction and its relation to education and the state today.

Create discussion groups in order to produce dialogue on class and how class effects or is effected by education and schooling.

Have students discuss any parallels between Charles Dickens’s Hard Times and schooling today.

Have students discuss the applicability or inapplicability of Marx’s ideas today. Have them consider focal points other than labor and class that Marx may have not considered in his analyses of societies.

External Readings & Resources

Charles Dickens, Hard Times (UGA Library Login Required, optional)

Supplemental Materials

Karl Marx (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

What is Marxism? A Bird’s-Eye View (New York University)

Understanding Marxism, by Geoff Boucher (Notre Dame University)

Marx Was Right: Five Surprising Ways Karl Marx Predicted 2014, by Sean Mcelwee (Rolling Stone)

Marxists Internet Archive

Antonio Gramsci (University of Leeds)

Held, David. (1980). Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Ingram, David. (1998). Critical Theory Philosophy. Boulder, CO: Paragon House.

Jones, Steve. (2006). Antonio Gramsci. London: Routledge.

Kellner, Douglas, Lewis, Tyson, Pierce, Clayton, and Cho, K. Daniel. (Eds.). (2009). Marcuse’s Challenge to Education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

McLellan, David. (Ed.). (2000). Karl Marx: Selected Writings. Second Edition. London: Oxford University Press.

Marcuse, Herbert. (1969). An Essay on Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Marx, Karl. (1977). Capital: Volume One. Introduced by Ernest Mandel and Translated by Ben Fowkes. New York: Vintage Books.

Tucker, Robert C. (Ed.). (1978). The Marx-Engels Reader. Second Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.