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The Teacher Strikes and the Crisis of Capitalist Education

The following is the first of a planned weekly blog by members of the CCS and associated contributors. Blogs will be centered on the research interests of CCS members as well as national and international current events and will be posted on Sunday/Monday every week in order to provide timely and relevant analysis. We hope these posts serve as examples of meaningful, accessible, and informative Marxist-Leninist analysis.

The teacher union victory in West Virginia, the continuing struggle in Oklahoma, the newly started strikes in Arizona and Colorado, and the building strikes in Kentucky are all expressions of a broad victory in an era marked by unrelenting attacks on organized labor.

In terms of the general labor movement, these victories mark a possible turnaround. The potential appears to be arising once more where the union strategy, under appropriate conditions, can be used in order to secure well-being. Such a potential should not be understated. A section of the working class, with concrete demands, has stepped forward and forced the hand of the state to deliver; the working class must watch closely and act accordingly.

To note, one of the more progressive aspects of the teacher strikes has been the emphasis that support staff such as janitors, paraprofessionals, food service workers, etc., must be included in the struggle for higher wages. It is an expression of solidarity which should be regarded as forward-leading, signifying a basis by which unions may be transformed from their current status as so-called professional organizations into genuine organs of working class power.

But the progressive aspect of the strikes is most clearly realized in that the teachers and support staff seek not only wage/salary increases, a goal that is obviously necessary and directly correlates to teacher efficacy, but also an improvement to the material status of the school, in its facilities and programs. This set of goals underlies the social progressive status of the strikes, but one must still ask the question: should we be satisfied with this progress? More specifically, do either of these goals result in a change in the fundamental character of public education? Do either of these goals address the fundamental problem of public education in the United States, that is, how public education is affected by, reflects, and reproduces unjust relations despite the best intention of many teachers?

The unfortunate answer is no. While the teacher strikes should be admired and supported for their willingness to tackle the terror of austerity education, we must also push to address the fundamental problem of public education in capitalist society. Public education, like all state activities, plays an integral part in facilitating class division and the wider social inequities within the United States and beyond.

It is critical that Marxist-Leninists grasp the root of the problem and not simply repeat the liberal narrative on public education. We must understand the specific functions of education in the context of capitalist society; without proper analysis, progress will remain only within a framework which is acceptable to the capitalist state and class, i.e., one which cannot include the interests of the working class as a whole.

In its positive expression, education is a transformative development of human cognition, introducing the child to the body of sociocultural knowledge produced throughout a society’s history, acting as a mechanism in the “social humanization” process, i.e., in producing cognitively aware and active individuals. All societies require some form and degree of education, and this education is related to the degree of complexity of a society’s activity; thus, as societies develop historically, the process of education is continually transformed in reflection of changes in activity, bringing the development of the individual in line with the development of society. Without education, without the transmission of knowledge and activity from one generation to the next, the continuity of a society is impossible.

But in its negative expression, education, especially in the form of public education as an institution in late capitalism, is a highly-developed state apparatus which acts, in the final instance, in the interests of a specific class rather than in the interests of the vast majority of people in a society. Like the state itself, public education has a specific class character which can only be categorized as capitalist.

Education must be analyzed as a functional part of existing class society. The practice of education is inseparable from the relations of the society in which it occurs: the individual learns and develops as a cognitive personality but only under the already-existing conditions of social relations. As a result, in capitalist society, the commitment of the educator and education itself is subsumed by the dominating force of capital and directed only into avenues acceptable to capital and the capitalist class. Even when a teacher acts as a progressive force, for instance, in addressing the social inequalities that result from ecological degradation, the schooling system nonetheless must direct the energy of youth away from structural transformation and towards dead-end liberalism, e.g., it is the student’s choice not to litter or to turn off electricity when not in use, and it is in these choices that a solution is to be found. But current public education cannot empower the student to address the very mode of production and its unsustainability that is the underlying cause of ecological degradation and all other social problems; to say otherwise would be to state that the capitalist state contains the potential to transcend capitalist society at large, i.e., the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is willing to undermine itself.

The teacher often stands as a microcosm of this larger contradiction within educational practice. A teacher may have chosen education as a profession in order to positively influence young people, but they find themselves repeatedly and mercilessly reigned in by a variety of methods, be it by a lack of funding, by the ideology of “neutral” professionalism, or by administrative and political oversight. The teacher strikes are as much as anything else a reaction, even if a somewhat unconscious reaction, against the subjugation of education to the interests of capital. But the point remains that the strikes still contain demands that are perhaps not preferential, but nonetheless acceptable to, the capitalist class.

At large, we advance that public education cannot remain in the hands of the capitalist state, namely because as long as the capitalist state remains, education cannot become an effective tool for general well-being and betterment but remains a weapon of the ruling class. We must understand that, in the current social context, demands for greater funding, without addressing the role of public education in reproducing a racist, imperialist, capitalist social order, essentially amount to a demand that the capitalist state allocate more funds to its own maintenance, something that is antithetical to the actual development of public education.

Thus, the task of Marxist-Leninists must be to enter into these antagonistic contexts and clarify the limits of what is to be gained by higher wages/salaries and additional school funding in this moment, pointing out the direction these struggles must be continually steered to develop to their maximal potential, i.e., to wholly reflect the broad interest of the working class and therefore the vast majority of students.

To succeed in its own goals, the teachers’ struggle must coalesce with the broad struggle of the working class. Teachers have a specific role in the revolutionary process because they occupy a unique front on the battlefield, so to speak, and without their support, this particular battle is lost from the beginning. It is unavoidable, if a real victory is to be had, that teachers struggle to address and altogether annihilate the negative and reactionary practices of public education just as the working class must do the same to eliminate its own negative and reactionary elements. In other words, teachers must first come to and then advance along the revolutionary line in order to resolve the problems at the heart of public education, the same problems they are currently trying to address with their well-intentioned demands, but which lie outside of the school in-and-of itself. The progress of the teachers’ struggle in this regard should be of great interest to all revolutionaries, and revolutionaries must tackle this problem without the assumption that public education and even teachers themselves will come to the side of the working class without a protracted struggle for organization and education of the educators.

To recognize the potential of public education to alleviate pre-existing injustices is not the same as public education actually alleviating these injustices. The notion that public education is the great social equalizer is incorrect in that it isolates education from the matrix of actually existing capitalist relations and social conditions; it gives primacy to education without considering the underlying influences of poverty, of displacement, of undernutrition, of class society at large, on both educational attainment and broader social structure. While the teachers’ struggle moves independently of the total working class struggle, it reflects this same mistake and in turn, weakens itself. In short, the answer does not lie entirely within the degree of funding — although this is an important question, especially regarding the funding imbalances that perpetuate oppressive relations — but in the revolutionary struggle to topple the realities of capitalist society.

As we have said, the underlying problem of education extends into the class and social relations of the United States, which exist prior to, but are reinforced by, public education, at least as long as public education rests in the hands of the capitalist state. As long as capitalism remains, young people of the working classes and oppressed masses, despite any increase in educational funding and even attainment, will still be pushed into an unjust society where those gains mean little for the vast majority. Education can only be free if it occurs under free conditions; education can only be just in a just society. Teachers, support staff, and students do not enter into the school as autonomous individuals but as subjects of the existing social formation, and when they leave, that reality is all the same and those relations are most typically amplified and crystallized. Without this realization, the teachers’ struggle cannot achieve its aims for an equitable, rigorous, and consistently well-funded public education and must always settle for an atrophied substitute.

To settle for the current victories is a mistake that cannot be made. The development of a base of education workers (and of course, all kinds of working people) with the capability and resolve to move beyond the liberal-progressive character of these and similar strikes and movements into a revolutionary character is a task of absolute necessity, as it raises the only potential for public education to free itself of capital and to develop to its liberatory potential as well as the only potential to open another front of the struggle where the capitalist state appears least prepared. The teacher strikes offer a potent message that the potential for a real working class power still exists, but without an analysis of the specific function of education within the capitalist state and society, without the coordination of the struggle for public education with the revolutionary anti-imperialist, anti-white supremacist, anti-capitalist working class struggle as a whole, we cannot expect this spontaneous power to produce long term gains but only allow the state to steel itself against further attack. The struggle in the arena of public education is greater in scope than any individual labor struggle, but this is nothing if not evidence of the importance of public education, of the teachers, in revolutionary strategy.

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