The fight for free education: reform or revolution?November 4, 2014
Education is the cornerstone of economic and social development. This is why Marxists argue in favour of free, decent education for everyone – so that individuals and society as a whole can maximise the potential for improving our lives through innovation, efficiency and imagination.
Education under capitalism
In a period of capitalist upswing, like that of the post-war boom, capitalism can afford to grant reforms such as free education. In fact during such a period it is profitable for the state, as the agent of the bourgeoisie, to invest in education as a way of developing the forces of economic production.
But capitalism requires constant expansion into new markets in order to survive. Thanks to globalisation capitalism has few foreign markets left to penetrate, so the bourgeoisie must look to areas of the domestic market previously untouched by private capital – areas such as education – to quench their thirst for profit. Thus we have seen incremental increases in tuition fees since 1998 – a reflection of the marketisation of education.
The crisis of capitalism in 2008 brought the bourgeoisie an opportunity to intensify the process of tearing open education and subjecting it to exploitation by capital. This intensification has also been motivated by the extremely unstable economic climate which drives individual capitalists to be even more brutally competitive than they were in the previous period.
Crucially, this crisis is not a cyclical crisis but an organic crisis of overproduction – a crisis of the system as a whole. The only way the bourgeoisie can get out of such a crisis is by destroying the forces of production through austerity, attacks on working conditions and casualisation of labour. At a time when they are so intent on destroying the excess productive capacity in the system, the last thing the ruling class wants to do is invest in the education of young people which would result in an increase in productive capacity.
This gives us the context in which we are fighting for free education. What should be immediately obvious is that capitalism cannot afford free education. This is not an ideological question – governments of all shades across the world are faced with the same task of cutting back the forces of production and implementing privatisation programmes in order to keep capitalism afloat. The point is that this isn’t a case of badly managed capitalism, or nasty Tories who simply hate educating young people – it’s a product of the inherent contradictions of capitalism that require the pursuit of profit at all costs and precipitate economic crises of overproduction.
In a country like Germany which has strong radical labour movement traditions, some gains of the past – such as free education – can be maintained for longer thanks to the bourgeoisie’s fear of provoking the movement. Germany’s dominant position in European and global capitalism has also helped cushion the initial impact of the 2008 crisis meaning that the desperation to open up new markets for capital has not been so intense over the last few years. However, Germany is now beginning to suffer stagnation and economic decline and the attacks by the bourgeois are already being launched. Germany is not immune from the global crisis of capitalism, and the German education system will not be immune from the claws of the profit-hungry bourgeois.
This gloomy future is all that capitalism can offer: a world in which the increased marketisation of education is inevitable as the bourgeoisie constantly seeks new avenues of profit in the midst of a globally stagnant economy. There is no going back to the golden age of the post-war boom when it was possible to win reforms under capitalism.
A revolutionary alternative
This is why Marxists fight for a revolutionary alternative to capitalism in the form of a democratic, socialist plan of production. We argue that free education can be won and safeguarded by taking universities and other educational institutions out of the hands of private investors and capitalists, and instead run them democratically by students and staff as part of an overall plan of education, research and development in Britain and internationally that will serve the needs of everyone, not just those with the money.
We understand that education and research has to be funded, and we point to the hundreds of billions of pounds sitting in British banks, owned but uninvested by Big Business because they can’t find anywhere profitable to invest in these conditions of overproduction. We argue that these businesses, and the banks where they hoard their money (the same banks that were bailed out in 2008 with public money) should be expropriated and integrated into a socialist plan of production.
Instead of leaving it up to individual profit-seeking capitalists and their friends in government to decide how this money should be invested, the working class should decide on a democratic basis where the wealth produced by them is invested – without a doubt there would be plenty available for investment in free education at every level.
This programme requires maximum unity between workers and students. The only way in which the universities, educational institutions, banks and big businesses can be taken into democratic social ownership is through the united action of the working class, with support from students, because these are the people capable of running society on a socialist basis.
The limitations of reform
There are many political student organisations that argue in favour of free education, a number of which have called for a demonstration on the issue on 19 November this year. This demonstration has been called with a slogan of taxing the rich to pay for free education. This represents, not a challenge to the capitalist system, but a reform to it. Marxists are in favour of every reform that can be squeezed from capitalism in the interests of the working class and we will be marching alongside those who want to tax the rich to fund free education.
We will be marching together, but Marxist students will also be pointing out the limitations of the ‘tax the rich’ slogan. Under circumstances in which capitalism cannot afford any reforms, calling for reforms is largely ineffective and it sows illusions in the possibility of fundamentally solving our problems on the basis of the bankrupt capitalist system. The reality is that the crisis means stagnation, austerity and privatisation are all that the bourgeoisie has to offer.
Asking the government to tax the rich means leaving all the cards in the hands of the bourgeois Establishment. It means asking them, in the midst of an economic crisis in which their interests are seriously threatened, to act against those interests and on behalf of students. This does not seem like a realistic prospect.
What we are fighting for
Marxist students will join the demonstration for free education on 19 November and we will be arguing to expropriate the bosses without compensation. We will be arguing that the working class needs to take the economy and political power into its own hands in order to provide decent education, public services and standards of living for all. In short, we will be arguing for revolution as the best way to achieve reform.
Our demands are modest – we stand for free and decent education as part of a society in which the full benefits of economic development can be enjoyed by all. Capitalism by its very nature cannot provide this, it is only a socialist revolution that holds a brighter future for our generation.