Putting critical realism to work for education and revolution

Issue: 151

Gail Edwards

A review of Grant Banfield, Critical Realism for Marxist Sociology of Education (Routledge, 2016), £95

Marxists are interested in the role education and schooling play in history and revolution. But classical Marxist studies in the sociology of education have remained marginalised by mainstream, gloomy neo- and post-Marxist assessments of education’s emancipatory potential. In this meticulously researched piece of scholarship, however, Grant Banfield brings Roy Bhaskar’s critical realist philosophy to work as a redemptive conceptual intervention in the field. The result is a powerful rejoinder to those who have dismissed classical Marxism in the study of the relationship between education and the social order.

It’s important to the book’s argument that we understand these post-Marxist and neo-Marxist sociologies of education as descendants of Western Marxism. Western Marxism emerged during the West’s inter-war period. Antonio Gramsci, and later, George Lukács and Louis Althusser, laid the groundwork for the sociology of education’s neo-Marxist turn in the 1970s, a classic of which in the UK is Paul Willis’s 1977 Learning to Labour. Both neo-Marxism and post-Marxism entailed a decisive shift away from economic matters towards the cultural-philosophical Marx, prompting a reconceptualisation of class as social identity and rendering “classism” on a par with racism, ableism and sexism in maintaining educational discrimination.

The book’s author notes the way neo- and post-Marxists justified this cultural turn. This was by reference to Marx’s perceived methodological shortcomings such as his abstract object of study. Marx’s object is not (as for monetarist or Keynesian economists) market exchange relations, but rather productive relations and forces operating behind reality’s appearance. Given their unavailability to direct observation, it’s easy for critics of Marx to question their existence—or at least the possibility of studying them. We can observe individuals, so their argument goes, but not abstractions like “the proletariat” or “capitalism”.

The cultural turn also aroused suspicion of Marxists’ claim to be scientific. It is widely seen as positivist folly to transfer natural science’s method to the study of the social world. Methodological naturalism has had a bad press at least since the turn of the 20th century when anti-positivists pointed out the unavailability of disinterested observation or objective laws. If Marxism is scientific, neo-Marxists and post-Marxists reason, then Marx must have posited mechanistic, historic-economic laws. Marxists’ explanatory privileging of the economic base vis-a-vis the politico-cultural superstructure must thus be “vulgar materialism” or “economic reductionism”. Marxists, they say, deny human agency.

This book shows exactly why these objections rest on incorrect readings of Marx. It traces the errors to the intellectual terrain of European socialism at the end of the 19th century, a period dominated by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the orthodox Marxism of the 1889 Second International. Capitalist expansion and economic stability after the failed revolutions of 1848 and 1871 saw some leading left theoreticians capitulate to reformism, justified by their claim that Marx had discovered natural laws responsible for capitalism’s inevitable evolution to socialism. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was considered a doomed attempt to violate Marxian science by imposing socialism from above. Of course, the subsequent period of capitalist crisis that led to two world wars brought no capitalist collapse and the Second International’s mechanical evolutionism looked increasingly implausible. And the crimes associated with Stalin’s crude materialism would later only add fuel to the revisionists’ fire.

The leading New Left theoreticians of the inter-war and post-war period were obliged to explain what was going on. Their post-empiricist turn away from science was reinforced by the concurrent shift in social theory towards hermeneutics, phenomenology and interpretivism. Educationists will be familiar with the micro-sociology of epistemological radicals (such as Michael F D Young) of the New Sociology of Education. The post-war Keynesian consensus smoothed the way for economic and industrial downplaying in favour of Weberian and neo-Durkheimian analyses. Capitalism’s resilience and educational underachievement could be explained by reference to “reification”, “restricted code”, “habitus”, “hegemony” and the social construction of curricula, race, sexuality, ability, gender and class.

What’s really impressive about this book is that its author uses critical realism to show how reductionist this is. The economic and natural has been reduced to the social, the ontological to the epistemological, and political-economy to bourgeois democracy. There is, at best, a flat ontology conceptualising society as interactions between individuals embedded in a power matrix of intersecting identities with each person in some ways privileged and/or in other ways disadvantaged. This restricts analyses to the individual’s power to define reality and is a form of ontological shyness which restricts reality to empirical phenomena—what humans can experience directly. Banfield recalls Marx’s point that if appearance was all that there was to reality (the epistemic fallacy), there would be no need for human beings to practise science at all. Indeed, scientific observation is praxis-dependent because scientists are engaging in a social activity which seeks to understand the underlying properties of objects or mechanisms which generate the appearance of empirical patterns.

The book’s achievement relies upon critical realism’s depth ontology, the detail of which cannot be reproduced here but which is beautifully explicated. Banfield absolves the Marxist sociology of education of crude materialism by appeal to Marxian method, elaborated by reference to critical realism’s “stratification” and “emergence”. Properties and powers can emerge from reality’s underlying strata but are not reducible to them. People’s liabilities and powers are not determined by their biology, for example. Human reasons, intentions and consciousness emerge from, but are not reducible to, neurophysiological matter. Similarly, education systems emerge from an economic base but are not reducible to it. The point is that systems rooted in any historically particular relations and forces of production emerge with particular properties, tendencies and powers. This is certainly not economic reductionism or vulgar materialism. These forces are determining but not determinist and their potentials can illuminate the relationship between education, society and the material world.

Ultimately the book aims at conceptual uncluttering to make way for revolutionising educational practice. It makes clear that historical materialism doesn’t overlook culture or agency but rather takes capitalist structural relations to be both power-limiting and power-conferring. Contradiction arises out of an antagonistic social relation between the class which possesses the material tools to extract surplus value from production, and the working class who lack those means. The interests of profitability pressure capitalists to lower wages and use more efficient technology, while the interests of subsistence pressure workers to demand wage increases. Historical materialism can be understood within an emergent, stratified ontology which explains why workers’ biological need for material well-being takes priority over loyalty to existing social relations. In other words, productive forces have material limits (epistemological, biological, technological and natural) that restrict possibilities in terms of social relations (a relation that doesn’t work the other way round). Those who accuse Marx of economic reductionism fail to understand that outlining agency’s shape is not eliminating it. Insisting on the explanatory primacy of the economic merely specifies the particular form agency takes. Class is not an identity; it is an objective relation and therefore working class power takes the collective shape of industrial action (given the power of labour withdrawal to adversely affect profits). Societal transformation is not guaranteed but rather contingent upon political organisation and cultural processes—whether or not for example, the working class achieves sufficient class consciousness collectively to advance its interests at the expense of the capitalist class.

Therein lies the role of educators as mediators in class struggle, leading and learning from the development of social movements. It is their job, in other words, to join with other activists to ensure that revolutionary capacities and collective subjectivity are brought into being through struggle.

This is a ground-making book in the sociology of education. Hopefully, it will open up the field to a long overdue, serious engagement with classical Marxism. In my view, critical realism lacks historical materialism’s explanatory power. But, in this excellent book, the author has certainly shown the former’s potential for socialist teachers, researchers and students who want to defend the role of ­education in revolution.

Gail Edwards is researcher and lecturer in education at Newcastle University, UK, having formerly been a schoolteacher. She is a revolutionary socialist and member of the SWP.