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Schools for socialism – Bolsheviks and education

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Kate Foster looks at education in Russia in the first years after the revolution

Following the socialist revolution in Russia in October 1917, the young workers’ state faced enormous difficulties due to the isolation of the country and its terrible economic backwardness compared with the western imperialist powers. But despite these problems the revolutionary dynamism that was unleashed created tremendous opportunities for change and advance and bequeathed us an inspiring glimpse of what a socialist society might look like.

Both of these aspects of post-revolutionary Russia can be seen in the education system in the first years of Soviet Russia.

The educational tasks which confronted the Bolshevik government were immense. The whole purpose of education had to be changed. In the commentary on the Communist Party programme of 1919 the Bolsheviks summarised their position on education under capitalism:

“In bourgeois society the school has three principal tasks to fulfil. First, it inspires the coming generation of workers with devotion and respect for the capitalist regime. Secondly, it creates from the young of the ruling classes ‘cultured’ controllers of the working population. Thirdly, it assists capitalist production in the application of sciences to technique, thus increasing capitalist profits.” (Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, The ABC of Communism p.279)

Russian education under the Tsars was severely restricted; illiteracy was widespread. Progression in education was not based upon academic achievement; entry to university relied upon who you knew, your family background and your politics. Many revolutionaries were forced to study abroad since involvement in political activity could mean exclusion from further education.

There was, however, a tradition of private schools and while the vast majority of these were extremely conservative, a few were run by liberals who were experimental in their approach and aware of the progressive educational ideas of the time. The early teaching methods of the new workers’ state were to be influenced by the active and exploratory learning of the Dewey System, developed in the USA, which rejected passive learning by rote.

On 26 October the Bolsheviks established a new workers’ government. They set up a Commissariat of Education (Narkompro) under the Bolshevik and well-known intellectual, Anatoly Lunacharsky. The commissariat was to be known as Narkompro. It was given responsibility for school and higher education as well as for the arts and culture.

Art lover Lunacharsky famously resigned on hearing that the revolutionary forces in taking Moscow had destroyed part of the historic buildings in the Kremlin. He later withdrew his resignation when the reports turned out to be false. It was, in fact, not the interests of its first commissioner which were the decisive influence over the brief of the commissariat, but the overall approach of the Bolsheviks to education.

From the very beginning education was not seen as separate from the rest of society but integral to it. Education was not to be restricted to the early years of your life but a continuous process – truly lifelong learning. Access to art and culture was also part of education for all.

As with many of the newly established ministries the first problem was literally to gain access to their building. Many of the old Tsarist functionaries were still occupying the ministries, refusing to hand over the keys and removing important documents. It took over a week of negotiations to install the new commisariat with the office workers agreeing to stay on, while the old officials were allowed to leave.

From its inception Narkompro appears to have been allotted somewhat of a Cinderella role within the new government. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the immediate tasks of negotiating a peace with Germany and then fighting a civil war. Many noted that the newly appointed officials were predominantly women, many were the wives of Bolshevik leaders. Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, was a key figure.

They were certainly not without talent. Yet despite the presence of some influential figures within the commissariat, it seems that education was rarely discussed within the Central Committee and this was a constant cause for complaint from both Lunacharsky, himself a member of the Central Committee, and Krupskaya.

The early days of the commissariat saw a lively debate on the teaching methods and curriculum within the new Soviet schooling system. On the issue of how schools should be organised there seems to have been agreement within Narkompro. Lunacharsky was keen to encourage education soviets at all levels (village, town, county etc.). The running of education was to be placed in the hands of the masses. This, of course, left a question mark over the role of the commissariat. Clearly ,Lunacharsky and Krupskaya believed that Narkompro should only support and advise rather than control. Facing opposition from within the party to this insistence upon democratic control by the masses rather than central direction, Krupskaya wrote:

“We were not afraid to organise a revolution. Let us not be afraid of the people, let us not be afraid that they will elect the wrong representatives, bring in the priests. We want the people to direct the country and be their own masters... Our job is to help the people in fact to take their fate into their own hands.” (On Educational Soviets 1918)

The Bolsheviks were committed to free, compulsory co-education for all. Access to higher education was to be open to all. Private schools were not abolished, but it was made illegal to charge anyone for education.

The differences were to centre around what kind of schools were needed and what they should teach. Two differing approaches emerged, one with supporters in Petrograd and the other in Moscow. All agreed on an active approach to learning. The Petrograd educationalists argued for a balance between academic subjects and technical skills, with children only receiving specialist training in their late teens.

The Moscow group proposed the idea of a school commune, with much greater emphasis on learning through work. The children would experience life and learn skills for life through the school. The schools would be open seven days a week, twelve months a year. The debate raged on for months and the beginning of the school year in 1918 had to be put back a month to wait for advice from Narkompro to be distributed to schools.

Ultimately, a compromise emerged – the most explosive question was over allowing holidays and the Moscow group were eventually defeated and three months holiday each year were agreed. Schools were to be open for seven days a week, but one and half days were for clubs and trips. Two papers were sent out: an overarching declaration and a more detailed statement: the former written by Lunacharsky from the Petrograd group and the latter coming from the Moscow group.

The impact of these two documents within the schools must have been electrifying. Education was to be transformed beyond recognition. It was not just to be available to all, it was to be controlled by those who were actually involved in it: by teachers, pupils, parents and the local soviet. Teachers were to be subject to election. The school would not only provide education and training, they were required to provide all pupils with a hot breakfast.

Homework, examinations and punishment were all abolished. The schools were to be known as the United Labour Schools to reflect their non-segregation on the basis of age or sex and their emphasis on active learning and commitment to the importance of work.

The whole function of education and schooling was to be changed. The new approach, summarised in the Communist Party Programme, shows the centrality of education to the revolution. It called for:

“ . . . the transformation of the school so that from being an organ for maintaining the class domination of the bourgeoisie, it shall become an organ for the complete abolition of the division of society into classes, an organ for the communist regeneration of society.”

But when it came to actually implementing this policy in the schools two substantial obstacles stood in their way: teachers and a lack of resources.

Narkompro inherited a teaching force which had been trained under autocratic Tsarist Russia. Within days of the October Revolution the main teaching union, the All Russian Teachers’ Union (VUS), voted not to co-operate with the new regime. From November until the following March they called their members out on strike. The Bolsheviks were not surprised. Teachers are described in The ABC of Communism in the following way:

“The teachers in the public elementary schools receive a special course of training by which they are prepared for their role of beast tamers. Only persons who have thoroughly acquired the bourgeois outlook have entry into the schools as teachers.” (p279)

Appeals were made for teachers prepared to work with the Soviet regime, but there were precious few. Differences emerged as to how to deal with the opposition in the VUS. Some argued for the dissolving of the VUS and the creation of a new communist teaching union – some split from the VUS and established the Union of Teacher-Internationalists. Others, including Krupskaya, argued for a struggle within the VUS in an attempt to win the rank and file away from the reactionary leadership.

Krupskaya argued that a communist union would exclude some who might be prepared to work with the regime. She lost this particular battle – the VUS was dissolved in 1919 and a communist-dominated union created.

It is possible that some of the teachers could have been won over and given time new teachers would have been trained by Narkompro but the revolution across Russia was facing great danger. The civil war was creating terrible shortages and social break-down. Education and Narkompro were not exempt. In fact they appear to have suffered more than most.

When Narkompro was established Lunacharsky was frequently criticised for a rather chaotic approach to recruitment. Apparently, if he met someone whom he thought was interesting he would immediately offer them a job in Narkompro. The approach to money in the first year also appears to have been equally haphazard: they had no one who had any accounting skills and no idea of working within a budget. Narkompro soon became the target of some centralised rationalisation.

The war brought the issue rather than pedagogical debate to the forefront. Workers began to desert Narkompro as it was not a priority for rations. Offices within Narkompro were taken over by homeless Narkompro employees. Typhoid broke out among these unofficial inhabitants.

In the schools conditions were if anything even worse. Teachers had no special rations. Reports came in of teachers starving to death. The war was creating thousands of orphans and schools had the responsibility of trying to provide for them. The school commune became not an ideal, but a brutal necessity. The study of the value of work, for children as young as five and six, became working in order to survive.

Lunacharsky, in desperation, wrote several times to the Central Committee but with little or no response.

The result of opposition and shortages meant that little progress was made in introducing the United Labour School system and the progressive teaching methods of Narkompro. Narkompro and Lunacharsky came under severe criticism for lack of central direction and control. In an early move towards increasing bureaucratisation, the Central Committee, while not prepared to remove Lunacharsky from Narkompro, appointed a deputy commissioner, Litkens, to oversee and exercise a veto on the work of the commissariat.

The revolutionary transformation of education in Russia was to suffer the same fate as the revolution itself. The failure of the revolution to triumph outside of Russia meant that, despite eventual victory in the civil war, the Soviet regime remained isolated and beleaguered. In turn this created the conditions within Russia for increased bureaucratisation and centralisation. In education this culminated in an imposed curriculum, the reintroduction of privilege and the suffocation of progressive ideas.

But the experience of those first few revolutionary steps serves as an inspiration to those who work in education, those who want to fight the oppression of youth and those who strive for a new society based on equality, creativity and freedom.

Education, as well as so many other spheres of life, was opened up to debate and experimentation, to the idea that the masses themselves could shape and control their destiny. The defeat of the revolution and the terrible setbacks that came with the rise of Stalinism could not entirely destroy this precious legacy of the first workers’ state in history.