Education: demand better!

Below Red Youth reproduce a speech from Zeno Casella, coordinator of the Swiss Independent Union of Students and Apprentices, made on behalf of the Communist Party (Switzerland). In the speech, made at the Cambiare il mondo conference in Italy, he reveals the common issues in education across Europe, namely that it is becoming ever more narrow and limited for the working class, not to mention the degredation brought by privatisation.

See the communists’ latest resolution on education for more.

Dear camarades,

I would like to thank the comrades of Fronte Popolare on behalf of the Swiss Communist Party for their invitation to this important conference.

The bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx is not an opportunity to exhume a thought two centuries old, but to account for its validity and relevance. Scientific socialism as enunciated by Marx and Engels is not an old-fashioned and shabby intellectual tool, but a theory apt to guide a practice of social action. This is what binds us together here today: to grasp from the past the lessons and the method necessary to understand and act in the present.

My speech will therefore focus on a theme that is not very explored but extremely relevant for guiding some important struggles over the years. My role as coordinator of the Independent Union of Students and Apprentices (SISA) in Canton Ticino gives me the opportunity to find, in Marx’s texts, some valuable information on school and education in general.


All the excerpts that I will quote are taken from the 1st book of Capital. The root of the educational problem is to be found for Marx in the division of labor typical of the capitalist mode of production:

“Manufacturing generates in every trade that seizes a class of so-called workers without skills, which was strictly excluded from the conduction as artisan type. (…) The relative devaluation of the labor force, which derives from the disappearance or the reduction of training expenses, immediately implies a higher valorisation of capital”

The devaluation of the workforce has extremely important consequences on the capabilities that a man must possess in order to perform his function in the productive apparatus. Marx writes:

“While simple cooperation leaves the individual working mode unchanged on the whole, manufacturing revolutionizes this way of working from top to bottom, and takes the individual workforce at its root. It cripples the worker and makes a monstrosity by favoring, as in a greenhouse, the ability to detail, by suppressing a whole world of impulses and productive dispositions.”

However, the very development of the productive forces creates a crucial contradiction in the formative needs of capital. With the words of Marx:

“For the big industry it becomes a matter of life or death to replace that monstrosity that is a miserable working population available, kept in reserve for the variable need for exploitation of capital, the absolute availability of man to vary the demands of labor; substituting the partial individual, the mere vehicle of a social function of detail, the totally developed individual, for whom different social functions are modes of activity that change one another”.

On the other hand, however, instructing the masses poses the problem of social control to the bourgeoisie: Marx reports in this regard the revealing words of Mr. Geddes, an English glassmaker:

“In my opinion, the greatest amount of education that has been used by the working class in recent years is harmful and dangerous, because it makes it too independent.”

Capital is therefore prey to a contradictory dilemma: is it necessary to instruct the masses to have available to the skilled labor force, or rather to keep them in ignorance so that they are more docile?


The words of Mr. Geddes unfortunately correspond to those of the current ruling classes of the entire continent. After the massification of the studies of the second post-war period, dictated by the productive needs and by the more favorable relations of force to the workers’ movement, the neoliberal revolution began to dismantle the social progress achieved in the educational field. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and with it the need to support a “social” confrontation with respect to the socialist bloc, public education has been severely attacked, from the school network to scholarships, while education itself becomes a commodity on the market .

The student union in Ticino did not fail to relaunch the fight against education cuts, especially as regards scholarships: on Wednesday itself, as part of a national day of mobilization, SISA organized protest actions in seven high schools of the canton. Now we continue to demand from Parliament the examination of our petition delivered last April, which calls for a policy to strengthen aid, in contrast to the cuts of recent years.

On the other hand, the new conditions of the global economy, constantly revolutionized by an impetuous and uncontrollable technological development, need a flexible and easily relocated labor from one sector to another.

What to do then? Assure complete training, at 360° on human knowledge, to every worker to ensure that he can be “reallocated” in the event of delocalization or automation of production functions?

Well, no: capital has succeeded in formulating and imposing new pedagogical paradigms that are strictly functional to its objectives: the famous “teaching by skills” allows to “equip” students (that are future workers) with a set of attitudes and skills practices through which they can be easily and quickly adapted to each new production task.

In this perspective, the so-called “knowledge” is no longer strictly necessary and should be omitted, as easily perishable in a context that is constantly changing and just as easily recoverable in a computerized society like ours.

At the end of the day, both to be a rider, an Amazon storekeeper or a McDonalds cashier, you need to be able to manage an electronic interface, to work in a group, to speak verbally in one or two languages, but you certainly do not need to know when America was discovered, what is the chemical composition of water, or what the basics of computer programming are.

The new curricula, drawn up on the guidelines of centers of global capitalism such as the OECD or the EU, are therefore increasingly focused on the “skills” to be developed during schooling and put aside the teaching contents, which however constitute the main knowledge that the popular classes can take in their lives (as they are almost never intended to do higher studies).

The struggle for an emancipatory education thus also passes through the resistance to these new pedagogical trends: SISA has had to face the introduction of a new Study Plan focused precisely on teaching for skills. A pedagogical revolution challenged by a few, including some deserving magisterial associations of social democratic tendency but with some Marxist reminiscences or the Communist Party itself. In this regard, our deputy Massimiliano Ay sent a question to the cantonal government, which pointed out the various critical aspects of this approach to teaching (whose disastrous consequences have already been observed in the United States, where it is a reality from beginning of the 2000s). We are still waiting for an answer.


In conclusion, I would like to draw your attention to some reflections developed by Marx in his work and to draw some “features” for a socialist education.

From the Marxian observation of the contradictory development of modern industry, an extremely interesting perspective for the student movement and more generally the scholastic movement was born. Marx writes:

“From the factory system was born the germ of education of the future, which will connect for all children over a certain age, productive work with education and gymnastics, not only as a method to increase social production, but also as the only method to produce men of full and harmonious development. ”

The author of the Capital states here what in the Communist Party Manifesto is defined as “the unification of education and material production”. A polytechnic education that reconnects education to productive work, to train fully developed men.

This perspective is however far from the forms of exploitation of young people such as those introduced in recent years: neither the Italian school-work alternation (often without any educational value) nor the Swiss apprenticeship (in which cultural education is completely left out, and in which the poor wages often do not correspond in the least to the production made).

We must fight against these forms of juvenile exploitation, against the deformities they have assumed, but without repudiating the educational value of productive labor, which must be combined with theoretical formation for a complete education of man. This is the perspective to be recovered and on which to work to found a popular, emancipatory, democratic school, in the wake of the socialist experience of the last century.