The Case for Teaching Marxism in Secondary Schools
“Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.”
In a previous post, I criticized how 8th grade English students in the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) were required to analyze books using Critical Race, Feminist/Gender, or Marxist analytical lenses. These lenses are only a small subset of the many forms of literary criticism that could have been chosen, but were not (e.g. Archetypal, New, Psychological and Psychoanalytic, Reader-Response, Deconstruction, Historical, Structuralism, Semiotics, Faustmann Moral Lens Theory, and Ecocriticism).
What is a Critical lens? “A critical lens is a way of looking at a particular work of literature by focusing on style choices, plot devices, and character interactions and how they show a certain theme (the lens in question). It is a common literary analysis technique.”
As for a Marxist lens, “the underlying goal of a Marxist analysis is to reveal the ways in which communication practices, events, interactions, and texts help create, maintain, or transform social and/or political oppression.”
In response to my post, one comment read, “I don’t really understand your criticism of using a Marxist lens. It is essentially a tool to analyze and critique a text through the perspective of class. It’s used by historians and other theorists worldwide, even those who don’t subscribe to a left-wing ideology.” I think this comment deserves a full response. Should we teach Marxist analytical techniques to secondary school students as early as middle school? What are the benefits or disadvantages?
My position is that we should teach Marxism, but not in English classes. If students are taught to use the theoretical framework of Marxist ideology without historical context, it legitimizes the validity of that framework. A student would rightly expect that anything they are taught in school has to be something that most people actually believe to be true. But not all things that people believe are necessarily true, and can in fact be extremely destructive. So, it is as instructive to teach what is believed to be false as it is to teach what is believed to be true. Therefore, the teaching of Marxism must include both theory and practice. This is the job of a history teacher, not an English literature teacher.
The history of Marxism will clearly show how this ideology led directly to the establishment of authoritarian regimes that crushed political, religious, social, and economic freedoms in the interest of implementing an economic theory that turned out to be a complete failure. Marxist regimes, most notably in the Soviet Union, Eastern European Communist bloc countries, the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Cambodia, and North Vietnam, were responsible for the murder of millions of people in the name of forced collectivization of agriculture and factories and implementation of central economic planning that led to economic disasters that consistently reduced or failed to equitably improve standards of living.
Without that context, any study of Marxist theory, such as the use of a Marxist lens for literary criticism, is worse than useless, especially for young students who know very little about the world. It is dangerous because it gives credence to the theory that class struggle is a valid means of viewing the world and leads students to consider Marxism as a valid frame for implementing social, political, and economic reform or revolution. Without a basic knowledge of the political and economic foundations of our society, students will be unprepared when it comes time to vote or run for political office or even start a business.
Unfortunately, the trend in universities, which started 30 years ago, seems to be to praise Marxism while being skeptical of capitalism, as is well stated in this article:
“Practical application” of Marxism had proven disastrous. Communism had been tried as a governing philosophy and had failed catastrophically, leading to mass starvation, impoverishment, persecution, and murder. But, in the ivory tower of the American university system, professors could inculcate Marxist ideas in the minds of their students without risk of being refuted by reality. Yet, it wasn’t happening in university economics departments, because Marxism’s credentials in that discipline were too tarnished by its “practical” track record. Instead, Marxism was thriving in English departments and other more abstract disciplines.
In these studies, economics was downplayed, and other key aspects of the Marxist worldview came to the fore. The Marxist class war doctrine was still emphasized. But instead of capital versus labor, it was the patriarchy versus women, the racially privileged versus the marginalized, etc. Students were taught to see every social relation through the lens of oppression and conflict.
Meanwhile, a professor at Wright State University in Ohio says his class, which is critical of Marxism and praises capitalism, is being censored. I would rather see students get a complete and objective view of Marxism so they have no doubt what it is all about. Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke is credited with the phrase, “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.”
If we can convey one positive thing to students about Marxism it might be this,
“In his early writings, he is convinced that capitalism is destined for death. Later, Marx backed off this claim, realizing that capitalism was far more resilient than he initially supposed. … Marx … was wrong about many things, but he understood the pathologies of capitalism, even though he failed to construct a viable alternative. … What we should say is that capitalism may be an inevitable feature of the world, but it can be controlled. It can be channeled into less destructive forms, and that's what political parties should aspire to do.”
Do we currently teach the history of Marxism and Communist regimes in middle school or high school? I don’t know if it is covered in middle school history. A quick review of the 2020-2021 HCPSS high school catalog lists several history courses. The Modern World History course is a survey from the late Middle Ages to the present, so it is doubtful that this is a sufficient forum for examining the history of Communism. There is a class on Economics, but that only addresses basic economic principles and issues with a focus on the American economy, so no Marxism there. A class on European History covers the Renaissance period to the present day, but I doubt much is covered other than a brief mention of the Russian Revolution. Comparative Government and Politics may address the topic, but is an Advanced Placement (AP) course, which only a subset of students will ever take. Humanities II Government and Politics is also a limited AP class with prerequisites.
US History and American Government are required courses, but the others are electives. So, at best, only high-performing students who choose the right elective have a chance to study even a fragment of the history of Marxism, Socialism, and Communism. Without that context, how do students learn how Marxism compares to Capitalism in both theory and result? How will they understand the connection between Marxist theories, failed economies and authoritarian regimes versus the connection between free market theories, successful economies and democratic regimes?
The only reason to teach a Marxist lens in English class, or any other class, would be because one believes it to be a valid way of viewing the world. If students were required to study the history of Marxism, they would rightly have doubts about its validity and might ask why they should be asked to apply such a disturbingly failed theory to literature. I’m not sure it would be any worse to require them to apply a “Nazi lens” devoid of any historical context for the history of National Socialism. In fact, I think we would see a very close similarity between the Critical Race lens and a Nazi lens, as they would both focus heavily on race-based theories about oppressors and victims. Only a slight modification of the Critical Race lens would work, as shown in the notional description below.
Would it make sense to apply a critical lens that is based on disturbing Nazi ideology? Absolutely not. So, why would it be any better to apply a lens based on Marxist ideology? For that matter, why should we consider applying a Critical Race lens when Critical Race Theory is highly disputed for its discriminatory focus on race, including what is described as a “Jewish problem.” In the words of James Lindsay,
“Because of the way Critical Social Justice views the world, it generates certain unavoidable and irreconcilable contradictions where Jews are concerned … that leads to it having a Jewish problem.”
“The uniquely Jewish combination of a long history of terrible oppression of a people that isn’t just (at least partly) fair-skinned but also highly successful in what the Theorists would deem a “white” milieu is, in fact, completely intolerable to Critical Race Theory. The Theory distrusts Jewish success as such and, as with everything it analyzes, believes it must have something to do with having been granted access to the privileges of whiteness—illegitimately, by betrayal, and at the expense of blacks.”
Why have I suddenly diverged from a focus on Marxism to Critical Race Theory (CRT)? Because they are both based on a similar flawed socio-political theory, with the class struggle of Marxism being replaced by the race struggle between whites and people of color. Perhaps this passage provides clarity about the similarities and differences:
“the Critical Social Justice that we describe in Cynical Theories … is profoundly Marxian in more than one way at once but is very expressly not Marxist. In particular, Marxism is an economics-based social theory, and Critical Social Justice actually usurps economic analysis and obscures it to use it as a proxy for its peculiar approach to identity politics. To be more specific on that, for example, it’s overwhelmingly obvious that economic causes are the sources of many of the phenomena Critical Race Theorists name as “systemic racism,” but they use the fact that there are statistical economic differences by race to claim that racism (not capitalistic exploitation) are the ultimate causes of those differences. Thus, they make class a proxy for the site of oppression that they’re actually obsessively focused upon, race, and thereby obliterate any possibility for liberal, rational, or even materialist or Marxist analysis of the underlying issues.”
To summarize, I do believe it would be useful to consider a mandatory history class in which students can learn about the history of Marxism, Socialism, Communism and even Fascism and how they have compared (unfavorably, of course) in theory and practice with that of the classical liberal democratic free-market Capitalist institutions and individual rights that have built the United States and the western world. Sure, we can discuss our flaws as well as our successes, but failing to discuss the horrific flaws of Marxism and other failed ideologies leaves students ignorant of history and doomed to repeat it.