Would Karl Marx Roll Over in His Grave?

Sa Zhong Zi (meaning “sow seeds”) is the pseudonym for an American living in China assisting with the support and strengthening of the Chinese house church.

Recently my research has led me to read about Karl Marx and his views on the purpose of public education.  Apparently Marx did not have a comprehensive philosophy of education, but from his views on other matters (such as history and economics) it is possible to gain an understanding of how he viewed education.

According to one author, “The aims of Marxist education can be found in the Marxist conception of history and in the critical analysis it provides of social and economic exploitation.  Marxist theory holds that in order to rectify these inhumane conditions that society must move from capitalism to socialism and eventually communism.”  In this environment education serves as a tool to enlighten those who are unaware of the evils of capitalism and mold the students into becoming “a new kind of being- a socialist being.” (Ozman, 2012)

Marx felt capitalism misused education and he was very critical of capitalism’s force on society.  Many of his analyses actually made a great deal of sense both then and now.  We have seen gross abuses within our own capitalist economy by big businesses with no accountability, such as in the 2008 economic crisis in the US.  Marx’s economic determinism has a ring of truth to it when we consider the forces at work that created these conditions.  

The wheels fall off the proverbial cart, however, with Marx’s solutions. Ultimately what we have seen with many countries that embraced communism is that the class struggle allowed the old system to be replaced by a new regime.  Over time, however, this new regime succumbs to the same temptations and evils that plagued the old regime.

Over time, this new regime succumbs to the same temptations and evils that plagued the old regime.

Consider China as an example.  Marx was very critical of the aggressive imperialism of Western nations.  His critique was well-deserved.  There was exploitation and abuse for the gain of those who held the power and the expense of the powerless.  China, a communist country, had experienced the abuses of imperialist nations such as the US and England but in this early quarter of the 21st century China wishes to cast a vision for “One Belt, One Road”.  Many African nations such as Ethiopia have benefitted from China’s road building, but robust infrastructure projects have left many nations financially in debt to China.  One African pastor told me recently that these road building projects “do nothing to provide sustainable jobs for our people.”  This kind of softer version of imperialism is still imperialism and Marx would certainly have been critical of how it neglected the longer term needs of the working class.

Returning to the topic of education, another author described Marx’s critique of capitalism’s use of education by saying, “With the rise of industrialism, capitalism, and liberalism, large-scale systems of mass education had been erected to indoctrinate working-class children with a patriotic loyalty to the nation in the hope of blinding them to their real interests. Capitalist schools used curricula designed to instill children with an exaggerated devotion to national myths, often presented as factual history. They were made literate so that they would be receptive to the capitalist-controlled press, which stimulated patriotism.” (Gutek, 1995)

If you were to replace the word “capitalism” with “communism” in the previous paragraph you would have a very accurate description of China today.  For centuries Chinese education was denominated by the Imperial Examination system that prepared China’s best and brightest to become civil servants. Toward the end of the Qing Dynasty in the late 19th century this system was shut down and modernized.  After 1949 the Communist Party adopted a replica of the Soviet Union’s public education model based on Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Our daughter attended public school in China from the first to the third grade of primary school.  She told us stories of what they were learning and we saw first hand what it means to “indoctrinate working-class children with a patriotic loyalty.”  Stories about common people like Lei Feng were taught to these young children.  Lei Feng is the poster-child of the ideal citizen in China who puts service to others and the country ahead of his own interests. When I talk to my Chinese friends about Lei Feng, most of them admit that his life and actions have been greatly hyperbolized for the purpose of promoting loyalty to country and party. It is ironic that Marx’s critique of capitalism included exposing an education system that promoted “an exaggerated devotion to national myths” (Gutek).   

We saw first hand what it means to “indoctrinate working-class children with a patriotic loyalty.”

 The recent repressive measures aimed at all religious followers in China have been widely criticized in the Western media.  A recent article in the New York Times was referenced by Wang Yi, the pastor of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, in a recent sermon challenging the church to recognize that China’s government, while monetarily wealthy, is morally and spiritually bankrupt.  

China’s work in Africa has met with both praises and criticisms.  The massive amount of debt that many African nations owe to China is a bit disturbing, but quality of life has improved in many of these nations.  Only God can give the final judgment on many of these matters. Those of us from the West need to be careful how harshly we judge in light of our own past, but the current situation in China raises many questions. Does the current regime really believe in the theories of Marxism-Leninism or are some of their recent policies a sign that the party is deeply divided?  Whatever the case, the actions of the government are a far cry from what Marx himself envisioned.