Marx’s pedagogies then and now: Research and presentation

Feb 2, 2021

The Cuban Literacy Brigades exemplify Marxist pedagogies as they play out inside and outside of classrooms.


Ask any teacher in any setting, and they’ll tell you there’s no “formula” or “recipe” for education. Despite what corporate charter movements assert—like Teach for America’s “I do, you do, we do” rote learning—teaching is always dependent on relationships, trust, respect, and a host of other elements—and all of these can change day to day. Teaching on a Monday after a big fight broke out at a weekend party is different than teaching on a Wednesday when things have settled down a bit. Teaching in a pandemic is markedly different from teaching before one. These are just a few examples of the limitless and unpredictable forces that shape the educational experience.

As any communist organizer knows, Marxist pedagogy is not a matter of merely explaining or convincing, of coming up with the right wording, question, presentation, speech, or reading. These are educational tactics rather than pedagogies, which refer to specific ways, modes, or logics of education. Marxist pedagogy is contingent on a multitude of factors: the dominant political ideology at the time (is it intensely anti-communist or more open?), the consciousness of students as individuals or a collective (are they coming from a liberal issue-based organization or a strand of the movement?), the autonomy we’re allowed in particular settings (is it an after school club at a public/private school, community meeting, or a Party office?). And of course, there are other factors like different skills, personalities, time commitments, and relations between and amongst teachers and students.

While teaching is unpredictable and contingent, for Marxist revolutionaries there’s a wealth of pedagogical content—theories that have been put into practice and whose practice has in turned informed the theories—to rely on. The previous installments of this series focused on Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and Lenin, on the use, misuse, and potential of “growth mindset,” and on the revolutionary educational theory of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. In this article, we look at Marx’s own pedagogical practice.

Prerequisite: Marxist pedagogy presumes competence

Before delving into Marx’s thoughts on pedagogy, it helps to dispel a dominant myth about Marx and Marxism: that it’s predicated on the “enlightened” revolutionary teaching the “ignorant” masses. Nowhere do Marx’s (or Engels’) texts even hint at this notion, and neither are their hints in the main documents of the Marxist tradition. For example, one of Lenin’s main gripes with the economists who focused on trade-union consciousness was that their assumption that workers could only understand their immediate situation. It was also one of Marx and Engels’ main critiques of the reformism of the Social Democratic Party in Germany. As Marx and (primarily or wholly) Engels wrote in an 1879 letter for internal circulation amongst some SDP leaders:

“As for ourselves, there is, considering all our antecedents, only one course open to us. For almost 40 years we have emphasised that the class struggle is the immediate motive force of history and, in particular, that the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is the great lever of modern social revolution; hence we cannot possibly co-operate with men who seek to eliminate that class struggle from the movement. At the founding of the International we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself…. Hence we cannot co-operate with men who say openly that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves, and must first be emancipated from above by philanthropic members of the upper and lower middle classes [1].

What Marx and Engels are saying here is that we should always presume competence (a point central to the field of critical disability studies). This doesn’t mean that we should presume that the capitalist system sets everyone up for success. Quite the contrary: the system sets the masses up for poverty. What presuming competence does mean, however, is that we should assume by default that everyone we come into contact with has the capacity and potential for transforming their consciousness and ideas, habits and actions, political beliefs and commitments.

Presuming competence also puts the onus on the educator, the revolutionary, the organizer, and the organization insofar as it means that if the student isn’t “getting it” then the problem lies with us. Too often educators displace our own incompetence onto students. For example, I’ve heard many teachers speak with pride about how many Cs, Ds, and Fs they give. When approached through the Marxist assumption, however, we see that “bad grades” are not due to any innate inability but to a complex of factors, including our own teaching.

Marx’s pedagogies: Inquiry and presentation

Although Marx considered education at various points, he didn’t write about pedagogy. He does, however, make an important remark that is pedagogical in nature in the afterword to the second German edition of the first volume of Capital. Here Marx distinguishes the Forschung from the Darstellung, or the process of research from the method of presentation. He’s responding to an assessment of Capital that appeared in an 1872 edition of the European Messenger based in St. Petersburg. The assessment focuses on Marx’s method of presentation and commends Marx for showing the laws of capitalism and of social transformation.

Marx claims that the review is ultimately an affirmation of his anti-Hegelian dialectic, but before clarifying his dialectic, he briefly notes the necessary differences between inquiry and articulation, or research and presentation, a difference that is not only political or philosophical, but also pedagogical: “Of course,” Marx writes,

“the method of presentation must differ in form from that of inquiry. The latter has to appropriate the material in detail, to analyse its different forms of development, to trace out their inner connexion. Only after this work is done, can the actual movement be adequately described. If this is done successfully, if the life of the subject-matter is ideally reflected as in a mirror, then it may appear as if we had before us a mere a priori [or self-evident] construction” [2].

Marx is describing two different pedagogies—or educational processes–here. The first, the method inquiry, is one that examines material in all of its nuances and relationships, tracing out the different lineages, past, present, and future potential forms of development, and how they each are interdependent on others.  

Researching is a process that entails wandering around, looking for connections, thinking you’re onto something and then following it to a dead end, generating ideas, getting lost in the archives (whether they be in a library or on the internet), and so on.

When researching, you have a goal in mind, but the end goal doesn’t totally dictate everything you do. Marx researched to understand the inner logics and dynamics of capital, how these came to be, what impact they had and might have on the world, and how the contradictions can be seized during the class struggle.

But this goal wasn’t always at the forefront of his mind. What we might read or interpret as “digressions” in his work are often the interruption of research within the presentation. In other words, the end goal of the presentation is suspended for research to continue. In fact, a lot of what we consider “distraction” or “procrastination” in schooling might actually be profound moments of researching.

Research, however, can’t last forever, especially for revolutionaries. At the same time, only once you’ve researched can you begin presenting your findings. Presentation takes a totally different pedagogical form. It begins with a pre-determined end in mind that guides the demonstration such that it begins with the most elementary conceptual building blocks and proceeds linearly or in a developmental manner toward the end goal. Whereas researching is about means, presentation is about ends: the ends structure everything that comes before.

This is why Marx, in Capital, often casts aside the historical beginnings of capitalism and leaves it to the very end, in the last part where we finally learn that it was through slavery, colonialism, legal and extralegal theft, individual and state violence, repression, and so on, that capitalism came to be. But he doesn’t begin here, I think, because he doesn’t want us to 1) think this is the complete and global story of how capital came to be; 2) think it’s not going on today; and 3) because he simply wants us to understand the inner logics of capitalism and its intrinsic contradictions as it was most fully developed in England (which necessarily included the colonies) all while giving the mainstream political-economists a fair reading.

Politics and examples of Marx’s pedagogies

While research and presentation are pedagogical ways of engaging with Marxist education, they are also political. Because presentation is guided by a pre-determined end, it tends to reinforce the world as it exists. It is only because I know what x looks like in advance that I can judge a student’s development toward knowing or becoming x. This is why research is a potentially oppositional logic: it’s impossible to grade or measure one’s progress researching. It might be that the next day after you watch some obscure YouTube video or find some odd social media page that you finally complete the research and produce something new. The problem is not with presentation per se, but rather its dominance today in capitalism. This is why Marx’s method of research is so crucial. It insists on both communist inquiry and communist presentation.

Again, even though Marx never wrote about pedagogy, his body of work provides us with potent examples of how he put them into practice. Two works in particular illuminate Marx’s pedagogies in action: the Grundrisse and volume one of Capital.

The Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft) is a series of notes written in the frantic days of 1857-1858. They’re a collection of 8 notebooks published first in 1939 in the Soviet Union and made available in Europe and the U.S. during the 1960s-1970s. Never intended for publication, they’re a series of research notes, or traces of Marx’s studying, which Eric Hobsbawm says, were “written in a sort of private intel­lectual shorthand which is sometimes impenetrable, in the form of rough notes interspersed with asides which, however clear they may have been to Marx, are often ambiguous to us.” As a result, “anyone who has tried to translate the manuscript or even to study and interpret it, will know that it is sometimes quite impossible to put the meaning of some sibylline passage beyond all reason­able doubt” [3].

The Grundrisse notebooks are quite different from the first volume of Capital, Marx’s real magnum opus, the only volume published (and translated and republished) during Marx’s lifetime. The Grundrisse is dominated by research (because they were notes Marx wasn’t trying to present to others), while Capital is dominated by presentation (because it was meant to articulate the inner workings of capital to others).

For two distinct positions on these works, consider Louis Althusser and Antonio Negri. The former wrote that Capital is the only book “by which Marx has to be judged” [4]. It’s the “mature” Marx, clearly broken from his Hegelian roots (which still inflect the Grundrisse) and any mention of humanism. Althusser, however, a lifelong member of the French Communist Party, was intervening in debates over “humanism” that he saw as diluting or abandoning the class struggle. Instead of proletarians versus the bourgeoisie, the colonizers versus the colonized, it was “humans;” a non-class category bereft of an enemy against which to struggle.

On the other side, Antonio Negri reads the Grundrisse as a political text, a more Marxist text than Capital because of its “incredible openness.” Capital, according to Negri, is not only fragmentary but closed, determinate, and objective, a book where antagonisms are resolved dialectically, foreclosing the forceful rupture that communist revolution requires. Interestingly, Althusser invited Negri to give a series of lectures on the Grundrisse in Paris in 1978, which served as the basis for his book, Marx beyond Marx. Negri doesn’t dismiss Capital, of course, but insists that the book only represents one aspect of Marxism. The Grundrisse is an endless unfolding of research and antagonism. Capital, on the contrary, is more limited precisely because of its “categorical presentation” [5]. In essence, the Grundrisse is more open because it’s a series of notebooks in which Marx discovers something and presents it, which brings forth a new antagonism, which then births a new determination of content to research. They were idiomatic writings in which Marx was wandering around, discovering new elements and presenting new hypotheses.

For Althusser, it’s precisely because Marx’s presentation is so elegant, clear, and compelling that Capital represents his highest work of thought. However, he recommends different ways of reading it, primarily by leaving the first three (and most difficult) chapters for the end. What you have in Capital is a pedagogy of presentation that begins with something simple and obvious (the commodity), and then goes deeper and deeper until we see that this “trivial” appearing thing is an active crystallization of a series of ongoing struggles, like those between and within classes and the state that play out differently over history, that assume different forms (like technology and machinery), and so on. But first we have to understand the contradiction between use-value and exchange-value, the role of money, and so on, before any of this makes sense.

Research and presentation in Capital and the Grundrisse

Yet Marx’s distinction between research/presentation isn’t hard and fast; it’s not even as firmly delineated as Althusser and Negri insist. Marx sought to understand, articulate, learn, and relay the precise logics of capital, its contradictions, and how the working class has and can seize on these contradictions to institute the revolutionary transition to communism. At the same time, he knew he couldn’t complete this project because no one can fully delineate capitalism so long as it exists, as capital is by definition a dynamic social relation. This is one aspect of capital that Marx and Engels’ marveled at in the Manifesto of the Communist Party:

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind” [6].

Indeed, when one reads the various outlines that Marx presented for Capital in the Grundrisse and elsewhere, it’s clear that Marx was taking on a project he knew he could never finish. He wanted to write volumes on the state, the world market, foreign trade, wages, the history of theory, and more. Even in the first volume of Capital, we see traces of Marx’s interminable studying in the various places he notes an absolutely crucial point—one we must understand—only to move on by acknowledging he can’t address it here and it will have to wait until later: until he’s studied some more. Sometimes, like when he brings up credit and rent in volume 1, he does return to them in volume 3. But other times he never does; he never found the time for more research.

The writings of Marx, Engels, and other Marxists still explain the workings of capitalism today because they get at the fundamental dynamics and contradictions and the tasks of revolution, the ones that remain the same as long as capital exists—even if they change their form here and there, or even if they take on different weight at different moments. And even though Marx couldn’t—and never claimed to—predict how capital would develop after his death, they remain fundamental cornerstones for not only revolutionary critique and analysis, but most importantly for revolutionary action. This is because, first, Marx’s exposition did get at the core unalterable dynamics of capital and, second, because Marxism develops by returning to research and studying, to inquiry, to tracing new lineages, discovering what Marx didn’t write about because of the research available to him, the moral or social standards at the time, the (many) times he was not in good health or financial circumstances, or the transformations he couldn’t totally foresee.

Marx’s own turns between inquiry and presentation were dictated not only by his health but by the ups and downs of the market and, most significantly, by the workers’ movement. After the failure of the 1848 bourgeois-democratic revolutions, after which Marx was exiled to England, he didn’t see the prospect of another revolutionary situation on the horizon and thus began his study of political-economy in earnest. With the capitalist crisis of the mid 1850s, he was forced to speed up his research. When the Paris Commune erupted on March 18, 1871, he left his work on Capital to write about that. After the first volume of Capital was published, the other two major works he wrote before he died were The Civil War in France (1871) on the Paris Commune and the Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875)–which wasn’t published until after Marx’s death but that circulated widely amongst the newly-formed Social Democratic Party. Marx even pushed the publication of the second volume of Capital back because he was waiting to see how the European and U.S. economic crisis of 1873 would turn out.

Research and presentation in Capital

Both books, however, represent different ways Marx engaged these distinct pedagogical processes. Consider, for example, the chapter in Capital on the working-day, where Marx announces that “between equal rights force decides” [7]. Up until this point, Marx has taken bourgeois political theory at face value, but here the reality of the struggle forces a leap so that the struggle for a “normal” working day is just that: a struggle between two antagonistic class forces. The chapter presents a narrative of the struggle in England throughout the 19th century, one that’s filled with contradictory alliances and betrayals, advances and defeats. It’s a struggle waged not by individuals but by collectives: capitalists and workers together through the mediation of the state. Moreover, in a footnote he acknowledges the role that Protestant ideology played in the process “by changing almost all the traditional holidays into workdays” and later the role of the anti-slavery struggle in the U.S. [8]. There’s nothing predictable or deterministic about any of this; and this is what we affirm when we say that class struggle is the motor of capitalism and the motor of revolutionary transformation.

Another example of the importance of research and inquiry within the largely linear presentation of Capital is the very last chapter, chapter 33. This chapter is concerned with Wakefield’s theory of colonialism. It’s a rather dry and short chapter. What’s interesting is that it follows from Marx’s most succinct narrative of revolutionary transformation in the previous chapter on the “historical tendency of capitalist accumulation.” In this penultimate chapter, Marx turns away from the historical empirical inquiry and presents a clear and concise dialectical and historical materialist analysis of the tendency of capitalist accumulation and how the contradictions of capitalism might result in particular revolutionary paths.

Marx begins chapter 32 with the scattered private property of individuals in petty manufacture, handicraft, and peasant labor. Together, these prevent the concentration of means of production, division of labor, and cooperation of labor (social labor), the formation of the collective laborer (the antagonistic subject), and so remains locked within the production and circulation of use-values.

Halfway through this first paragraph, Marx notes that “at a certain stage of development,” these property relations create “the material agencies for its own dissolution,” producing “new passions” that “the old social organization” prevents [9]. Individual private property is annihilated by capital and, through theft, colonialism, slavery, repression, and so on, centralized and concentrated by capital. At the same time, this produces the collective laborer and a social process of work that develops a universal (although not undifferentiated) social worker. As capital concentrates the means of production and the proletarian class, the latter’s rebellious nature grows. Capital is now a fetter on production:

The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated [10].

He ends the chapter with a speculation on the relative violence of both revolutionary processes. The centralization and concentration of capital was “incomparably more protracted, violent and difficult than the transformation of capitalistic private property… into socialized property” [11]. The former entailed the dispossession, theft, and exploitation of the many by the few, while the latter might entail the expropriation of the few by the many.

Rather than an empirical prophesy, however, it’s an articulation of contradictions; there’s nothing indicating a mechanical or deterministic prediction.

This is supported by the fact that, after this revolutionary clarion call to expropriate the expropriators, Marx then turns to a rather dull and uninspiring examination of Ebbon Wakefield’s theory of colonialism. Here he appreciates Wakefield’s theory for its honesty. Wakefield doesn’t try to hide the violence of colonialism or exploitation through notions of equal and free rights. He explicitly acknowledged the need for dispossession. Marx ends volume one by reminding us again that the capitalist mode of production and accumulation are based on expropriation, colonialism, genocide, and slavery. I read this as a return to research and to the antagonistic class forces that animate Marxist theory and practice. Ending with chapter 33, I think, implicitly tells us that the contradictions of capitalism—which can’t be solved within capitalism—can be pushed back and transformed through colonialism and imperialism. It’s an opening to return to studying, to inquiry.

The dialectic in chapter 32 may seem teleological and closed, but the brief exposition in chapter 33 undoes that. There are no guarantees, no objective determinants divorced from subjective differences or the class struggle.

Marx’s pedagogies in action

Marxist pedagogy is a never-ending alteration between inquiry and presentation. There’s no determinism, no mechanistic causality, no chronological and predictable unfolding of struggle. The entire project of Capital ends with a few dozen lines and then silence: an opening for study and inquiry. This opening, however, isn’t sufficient in itself, for the class struggle also needs to explain concepts, categories, tactics, strategies, and analysis. The key for Marx and for Marxist pedagogy is to keep these in tension, yet the tension will change depending on a host of circumstances.

Marx’s distinction between inquiry and presentation, are not irreconcilable opposites but dialectically related pedagogies. After all, one can’t study a text without first having learned to read. At the same time, learning to read is filled with moments of study. The first is clearer, so I’ll give an example of the latter from my own childhood. I remember learning that “rose” signaled not only a red and thorny flower but also the past tense of rise, and that a ruler referred not only to our main measuring device in school but also to a king, queen, or czar—and later to a state of class domination. I came to learn these are homonyms, or words that share the same spelling but different meanings. Even so, I’ve always found homonyms fascinating educational models that show how even within the developmental process of learning we can make room for inquiry.

An interesting historical example that highlights these divergent pedagogies and their implications for organizing comes from the split between the socialist and communist parties in the 1920s and how the Socialist and Communist Parties organized their youth groups. The Socialist Party believed that cadre had to present radical ideas to children so that children could join the struggle later, when they were older. The Communist Party, on the other hand, believed that children were political actors and agents in the here and now, and brought together inquiry and presentation. As Paul Mishler writes in Raising Reds:

“Rather than being simply educational institutions, controlled by parents and local party organizations, the Communist children’s groups were to be political organizations, fully integrated into the political structure of the party. Communist children’s groups would thus encourage children to engage in political as well as educational activity, and these groups would be separate from direct parental influence… ‘We are not only preparing the child for future participation in the class struggle;–we are leading the child in the class struggle now!” [12].

The Socialist Party maintained that children needed presentation before they could engage in their own action and inquiry, while the Communist Party, following Marx’s pedagogies, engaged children in presentation and inquiry through action. They learned and researched, not only in classrooms and study groups but in the streets as well.

We don’t need to turn to history to see the importance of keeping Marx’s distinct pedagogies in play, however. Consider how, in many organizing meetings, the logic of presentation dominates. I’m not referring to speeches or reading articles, but to the domination of the end goal and, more specifically, an end goal that has to be realizable and “winnable.” This shuts down the process of inquiry and, more specifically, revolutionary inquiry, by keeping us trapped in what we can win without overthrowing capitalism. It keeps us trapped within the present, unable to see beyond it.

As an alternative, we could start with the end goal of the total revolutionary transformation and restructuring of society. This isn’t winnable by any action, protest, campaign, etc., and so the end goal is there, but suspended; it’s not clear how exactly it unfolds. When we start here, with this goal in mind, we open ourselves up to the process of research that Marx held so dear and without which we wouldn’t have Marxism, let alone the Marxist theoretical and practical history on which we draw.

The key point is that Marx left us not only distinct yet dialectically related educational processes; he also offered us examples of navigating between the two, as well as the various factors that shape what ones we engage. It’s not that presentation or inquiry comes first or second, and it’s not that one is good and the other bad. The communist organizer, leader, or teacher has to deploy both depending on different external and class or site-specific contingencies. Sometimes learning must take precedence, and studying must be presented. At other times, studying must take precedence, we must be free to imagine alternatives, get lost in the possibilities, reach our dead ends, and open up inquiry to a new presentation and then to a new inquiry.

This might be what, in part, separates dogmatic Marxists from those who take Marxism as a living, breathing, and evolving theoretical framework for understanding and changing the world. The economists, for example, only learned Marx, while those who have made revolutions, or tried to, have engaged Marxism as an infinite well of studying.


[1] Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1979). Marx and Engels to August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Wilhelm Bracke and others (circular letter), trans. P. Ross & B. Ross. In Gerasimenko, S., Kalinina, Y., & Vladimirova, A. (Eds.). (1991). Marx and Engels collected works (vol. 45), pp. 394-408. New York: International Publishers, p. 408, emphasis added.
[2] Marx, K. (1867/1967). Capital: A critique of political economy (vol. 1), trans. by Samuel Moore. New York: International Publishers, p. 28.
[3] Hobsbawm, E.J. (1964). Introduction, in K. Marx, Pre-capitalist economic foundations, ed. E.J. Hobsbawm, trans. Jack Cohen (pp. 9-65). New York: International Publishers, p. 10.
[4] Althusser, L. (1971). Lenin and philosophy and other essays, trans. B. Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, p. 70.
[5] Negri, A. (1991). Marx beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse, trans. H. Cleaver, M. Ryan, and M. Viano. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, p. 9; 12. Negri was a leading theoretician and organizer of the “autonomous” school that participated in the Italian Civil War in the 1960s-70s before being falsely arrested in 1979 for kidnapping the former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro of the Christian Democratic Party. He was later exonerated, but was still facing 30 years in prison. Yet in 1983, he was elected to Parliament and used Parliamentary immunity to escape to France to continue researching and organizing. He only returned to Italy in 1997 to serve out his remaining (and bargained-down) 13 years to raise awareness of the political prisoners still being held behind bars. While in prison, he co-wrote the (in)famous book Empire with Michael Hardt.
[6] Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1848). The manifesto of the Communist Party,  In R.C. Tucker (Ed.). (1978). The Marx-Engels reader, 2nd. ed. New York: W.W. Norton, p. 476.
[7] Marx, Capital, p. 225.
[8] Ibid., p. 262 f2.
[9] Ibid., p. 714.
[10] Ibid., p. 715
[11] Ibid.
[12] Mishler, P. (1999). Raising reds: The Young Pioneers, radical summer camps, and communist political culture in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 31.