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Chanie Rosenberg

Education and Revolution

A Great Experiment in Socialist Education


A Rank and File Pamphlet (1972). Published by RANK AND FILE Teachers. RANK AND FILE is a monthly paper of socialist teachers produced by left-wing members of the National Union of Teachers, who believe that the Union should be an effective factor in forcing change and progress, both in the general education field and the struggle for better salaries and conditions.
Designed and Printed by SW (Litho) Printers Ltd [TU], Corbridge Works, Corbridge Crescent, London E2 9DS.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


Early Workers’ Revolutions


The Aims: Education Act 1918

The Form



Education Act 1923

The Argument over Specialisation

Polytechnical Education – a Criterion for Socialism?

Pupil Self-Government – Early Years

‘Self-Government’ After the Five-Year Plans


Teachers and Pupils

Curriculum and Teaching Method

Discipline Before and After

Back to the Past

This pamphlet is an elaboration of the theme expressed in the author’s previous pamphlet Education and Society, that ‘there is no more sensitive indicator of the nature of a society than education, which ... nurtures the entire youth to follow in the footsteps laid down by the adult generation and to reproduce its society feature by feature’.

History has given us only brief glimpses of the thoroughgoing overhaul of the education system following revolutionary upheavals. But these hopeful, exciting periods of workers’ power took giant steps during their brief existences, introducing revolutionary changes and creating new forms which are an inspiration to their successors.

The first fruits of the Russian socialist revolution of 1917 provide fascinating testimony; the subsequent retreat – with the rise to absolute power of Stalin and extreme pressure of the Five-Year Plans at the turn of the ’30s – a cautionary tale.


At present all the values of the capitalist society in which we live are being challenged. In the field of education, youth rebels against being fashioned as round pegs for round holes or square pegs for square ones. Teachers too, in growing numbers, are rebelling against their use as the tools to perpetrate this distortion of the individual.

The present education system is based on the assumption that the division of labour increases efficiency. That this division of labour, entailing early vocational training and specialisation and the competition attendant upon them, distorts the individual, makes him one-sided, a semi-person, a ‘specialised idiot’, is an added bonus. The system cares only for the profits, not the workers who produce them.

Every socialist revolution has thoroughly demolished this basis of the education system, and projected to the centre of its ideals the development of the total personality, not in competition with others for fruits kept scarce, but as an enrichment of the collective, which, in turn, nourishes and inspires it.

The first Education Act after the Russian revolution of 1917 enunciated the spirit and ideals of the revolution in its Preamble:

‘The personality shall remain as the highest value in the socialist culture. This personality however can develop its inclinations in all possible luxury only in a harmonious society of equals. We (i.e. the government) do not forget the right of an individual to his own peculiar development. It is not necessary for us to cut short a personality, to cheat it, to cast it into iron moulds, because the stability of the socialist community is based not on the uniformity of barracks, not on artificial drill, not on religious and aesthetic deceptions, but on an actual solidarity of interests.’

We shall show the efforts to realise this aim in education.

Early Workers’ Revolutions

The first revolutionary upheaval against the capitalist system in which workers took power was the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871. As soon as the workers took control in Paris they set about dismantling the old order. In its 72 days of existence the Commune instituted free compulsory schooling for all, including free stationery; secular education freed from church and state interference; autonomy for each local commune; rational instruction, based on reason, scientific experiment, and freedom from superstition; rational ethics stressing solidarity and class struggle as opposed to the traditional type based on custom, or religious dogma; social-political education aimed at revolutionary activity in place of non-political instruction and the enclosure of the child within the walls of the school; instruction in the arts; and an attempt to link education with industry-’industrial design’. At a school opened by the Educational Commission of the Commune a notice stated: ‘Courses designed to complete the scientific and literary education of students will be held together with practical courses.’

All these precepts were embodied by Marx in educational principles which were to prove of great importance after the Russian revolution. The linking of education with industry, in particular, was fundamental.

In this way the Commune involved the victorious people in the control of education.

A different aspect of control was thrown up by the first Russian revolution of 1905, the ‘dress rehearsal’ for 1917. Here pupils took control over their situation, joining in the general strike and insurrection. Each secondary school class elected ‘elders’ from amongst their number, and these looked after the discipline and order of the pupils in their class. The pupils also elected delegates who formed a strike committee in each town. The ups and downs of the struggle did not permit of any fundamental changes in the schools and the government prohibited this form of ‘self-government’ after about six months.

The Russian Revolution

The most far-reaching and exciting developments in education took place with the Russian socialist revolution of October 1917. With the old order swept away, the Bolsheviks had a vast arena in which to experiment with a new education system. What emerged was intensely interesting.

The discussions and arguments that went on among Soviet educationists make fascinating reading. They generated such passion, in fact, that in 1918 they overshot the beginning of the school year, which had to be postponed for a month until October 1.

This pamphlet must needs merely sketch developments, emphasising those aspects which have relevance for us rather than those (such as the struggle for universal compulsory education) which were also of the greatest importance for the Soviet Union.

The Soviet educationists drew upon the historical experience of the Paris Commune and the 1905 revolution, the educational philosophy of Marxist thinkers, and the theory and experimental practice of progressive teachers throughout the world. Books on psychology, pedagogy and educational method were translated from German, French and English. Prominent American educators were as well known in the Soviet Union as in America. All contributed to extensive experimentation with subject matter, teaching methods, school committees and forms of higher and adult education.

But the sad reality of the Russian situation became in the end the paramount pressure. Russia was very backward, with an over 60 per cent illiteracy rate (over 90 per cent in some rural areas). It was ravaged till 1921 by a civil war on 22 fronts and armies from that number of countries fighting to crush the infant revolution. Famine raged in 1921/2 causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. Industry was reduced in 1919 to a bare 13 per cent of its 1913 level. And finally the revolutions in the West – the Soviet power’s only hope for rescue from her isolated backwardness – that broke out in Germany, Austria and Hungary and were incipient in a number of other countries, were all crushed. Having to pull herself up by her own bootstrings, the great educational ideals of the revolution were sacrificed or distorted to satisfy the prime immediate needs of the fight against illiteracy, and the rapid vocational training of skilled workers and technicians.

We shall briefly trace this development, showing the changes in principle and practice between the early years of the revolution and the inevitable retreat after Russia was left to solve her desperate economic problems in isolation.

The Aims: Education Act 1918

The Bolsheviks had two educational programmes – of 1903 and May 1917 (before the Bolshevik revolution) – to guide them and point the direction of post-revolutionary action. Their similarity to the innovations of the Paris Commune are striking.

Policy statements and decrees started pouring out from days after the revolution. These were embodied in the first systematic Education Act of 16 October 1918. It was preceded by the Basic Principles of the Unified Labour School, which embodied the spirit and ideals of the revolution of which the quotation in the Introduction is an extract.

It visualised the socialist community as a ‘single factory’ in which the exploitation of man by man was replaced by the exploitation of our planet by united humanity. The school therefore had the aim of educating this future ‘master of nature’. The method of achieving its aims was to be many-sided, all-round, ‘polytechnic’ education. ‘The aim of the Labour School is not a drill for some or other craft, but to impart a “polytechnic” education, giving the children the knowledge of the methods of work.’

A Conference of revolutionary teachers (a small minority of Russian teachers) held in June 1918, amplified the important aspect of polytechnic education as the means of developing the rounded personality.

‘The main aim of the new school should be the bringing up of a creative personality developed on many sides. The conference considers it necessary to give to education a polytechnic direction and transform the school into a working commune, based on self-activity, on productive labour for common use and adapted to local conditions. The school should not be opposed to life, but coinciding with it, should endeavour to create a harmoniously developed human being.’

Let us quote this Act in detail.

The first paragraphs divided all schools into two grades, the first a five-year course for ages 8–13, the second a four-year course for ages 13–17. (It was ‘unified’ in that all normal children were expected to proceed right through it, unlike the tsarist system under which graduation from one level did not necessarily qualify the pupil to enter the next higher level.) Article 3 introduced free education in all schools of both grades. Article 4 declared compulsory education for all children of the ages 8–17, i.e., the complete course of both grades was declared to be the aim of an average child. Article 5 confirmed compulsory co-education in all schools, which had been introduced by the decree of 3 May. Article 6 confirmed the secularisation of education with prohibition of religious instruction in all schools. Article 11 allowed the existence of private schools and even promised State grants to those private schools which were recognised by the authorities as valuable. (As all schools were free, this limited acceptable institutions to those which had a purely altruistic or experimental motive.) Article 21 declared that hot meals should be distributed free to all pupils. Article 29 established a full autonomy of schools, which were to be directed by a ‘school collective’ comprising all teachers and pupils and other school workers (such as caretakers). This ‘collective’ was to elect a Praesidium and executive committees. The curriculum and methods were entrusted to a ‘school council’ or school soviet, consisting of ‘the teaching staff and of representatives of pupils, of local workers and of the local Department of Education’. During the same period homework and corporal punishment were abolished. The Matriculation examination was abolished and the Universities opened up to all above the age of 16 who wished to enter. (There was an immediate doubling of the number of students, from 38,440 in 1917/8 to 69,645 in 1918/9). Academic degrees were abolished in 1919.

The Form

There are two points of outstanding interest to us. The first is ‘polytechnic’ education. This was a central core of Marxist educational philosophy and was in the forefront of discussion of the form education should take after the revolution. Marx himself defined it as early as 1866 as ‘instruction which inculcates the general principles of all the processes of production and at the same time gives the child or youth practical training in the use of the simplest tools of all industries.’

The aim of the unified labour school of the early Soviet Republic was stated thus:

‘The unified school ... places the labour of the people at the centre of its attention. This basic theme penetrates the programme of the school in all of its stages, and the approach to labour is not from the point of view of a specialist but rather from the point of view of a builder of a new life who regardless of his profession must have a clear comprehension of the relations and inter-dependence of the various forms of labour. Such a comprehension we call general education.’

‘Labour’ in the terms of the Soviet Constitution of the time, meant ‘effort that is productive or useful to society, including housekeeping’.

The other point of interest, particularly to us in a more advanced country, where there is not the economic and cultural poverty that dogged the heels of the Bolsheviks, is the completely democratic control by a policy-making mass meeting of all members of the school community which elected a ‘Head’ (who was subject to recall), and executive committees to administer the policy broadly laid down. The curriculum and teaching methods, it is interesting to note, involved not only teachers and pupils but also the wider community of workers and the local Department of Education. This set-up fitted in exactly with the revolutionary ideals and early practice of workers’ control of production.

It drew the people directly into active participation in the educational process, as Krupskaya, a leading educationist, for a time Deputy Commissar for Education, also Lenin’s wife, ardently explained. Those who opposed educational Soviets, she said,

‘still cannot throw off the old view of the mass as an object of the intelligentsia’s care, like a small and unreasonable child ... 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 sort of representatives, bring in the priests. We want the people to direct the country and be their own masters ... We are always thinking in old terms, that if we do not spare ourselves and work day and night in the people’s cause, that is enough. But it is nothing. Our job is to help the people in fact to take their fate into their own hands.’



Russia had arrived at the revolution weighed down by poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, superstition. There followed years of civil war, famine, hunger, cold, misery and disorder. The civil war destroyed wholly or partly hundreds of schools. During the two years of famine, 1921–3, financial chaos and poverty caused the closure of 27,000 schools (mostly in rural areas). The Pedagogical Encyclopedia records: ‘There was no labour in the school, no text books, no curriculum; the teachers led a beggarly life, the schools were falling to pieces.’ As late as 1925 the conditions were described as follows by a friendly observer:

‘It would be hard to find poorer equipment than that in many of the Soviet institutions. Buildings are old. Benches are worn out. Blackboards and books are lacking. Teachers and other educational workers are badly paid – sometimes, for months, unpaid. Only about half the children of school age in the Soviet Union can be accommodated in the schools. Lunacharsky, People’s Commissar for Education, estimates that the Union is now short of 25,000 teachers. Even if they had these teachers, they would have no rooms in which to put them. Probably there is no large country in Europe where educational conditions are physically worse than they are in the Soviet Union.’ (Scott Nearing, Education in Soviet Russia, 1926)

The number of destitute children – orphans of the civil war, discarded waifs of destitute parents – who survived as camp-followers of the opposing armies or roamed the streets begging, plundering, murdering, rose at its height to 7 million.

To disseminate and popularise the new education throughout the vast country the government hoped the School Council (or School Soviet) would actively participate in overseeing the introduction of the new curriculum and methods, inspection from the central authority being at first opposed as reminiscent of Tsarist methods. But teachers, in the main opposed to the new methods, taught the old subjects in the same old dead way, that is, if they agreed to teach at all. Together with the officials of the old Ministry of Public Education most of them, to begin with, actively sabotaged the new revolutionary order. The All-Russian Teachers’ Union even expelled some prominent teachers soon after the revolution for working with the Bolsheviks. This determined opposition of elements essential for the implementation of proper oversight by the school soviet, destroyed the hope of the active intervention of this popular institution.

In the circumstances prevailing, it was impossible to implement the wishes of the government. How is it possible to experiment with new methods and curriculum without buildings, books, pencils, workshops, tools and other implements, with hungry teachers and pupils, and frequent teacher opposition. The ideal of polytechnical education – all-round theoretical and practical instruction in all branches of labour – usually meant sweeping and washing the floor of the school, cutting wood for the fires, washing clothes and similar domestic work.

Compulsory education was impossible, and while heroic efforts were made to build new schools, and repair old ones, it was not until 1932 that there was universal education for 8–11 year olds, while all children in the 7-year schools at that date made up still only 67.3 per cent of children of the corresponding ages. The other 32.7 per cent could not be accommodated. As late as 1950–1 the press was still speaking of the goal of having 95 per cent of the rural child population complete seven-year education.

In spite of these overwhelming odds, as an American observer commented on the achievements from the revolution till the early ’twenties:

‘... in crude and inchoate form nearly all the basic principles of the Soviet schools during the first period of Soviet rule were laid down in these chaotic years. The structure of the school as co-educational, secular and unified was achieved and the nascent forms of the ‘complex’ and ‘project’ methods were worked out. Student self-government became rooted in school life and the role of the Komsomol as the leading organisation of youth was established.’ (Ruth Widmayer, A Historical Survey of Soviet Education, 1954, in Soviet Society)

With the virtual collapse of the economy, and the refusal of the peasantry to send food to the towns, the Bolsheviks were forced to retreat. The New Economic Policy of 1921 reintroduced a capitalist mode of production and exchange for the peasants and small capitalists. Lenin called this a ‘retreat from socialist construction to state capitalism which we were obliged to make ...’ ‘Don’t be afraid to admit defeat ... Of the problems we tackled, not one was solved at the first attempt’.

The high ideals for education were also defeated, and hard on the heels of the NEP began the retreat in education.

Education Act 1923

The Education Act of 1923 was an early formulation of the enforced retreat. Let us quote it in detail.

Article 3 gives a new division of grades. The School of the First Grade contains four age groups (8–12), the School of the Second Grade – five age groups (12–17). The latter however is divided into two steps (‘concentia’): the First ‘Cycle’ with three years of instruction and the Second ‘Cycle’ with two. Article 5 confirms co-education in all schools. Article 6 confirms the prohibition of religious instruction. Article 7 proclaims the state monopoly of school education, prohibiting private schools. According to Article 10: ‘the responsible direction of the educational, financial and administrative activity of each school is entrusted to the Headmaster, who presides in the School Council’. Article 11 states that the Headmaster is appointed by the local Education Department. Article 17 states that teachers are appointed and dismissed by the same Education Department. Article 19 states that the technical personnel (caretakers, etc.), however, is appointed and dismissed by the Headmaster. Article 20 says that the School Council consists of all teachers, one representative of the lower personnel, and the school physician. The local branches of the Communist Party, of Trade Unions, local Soviets and the Communist Union of Youth may also send their representatives. Article 22 states that the Headmaster, in case of his disapproval of the decisions of the School Council, can stop their application in practice. In exceptional cases the Headmaster has the right to undertake measures without preliminary discussion in the School Council (Article 23). According to Article 26 the entrance into the Unified Labour School is open to all children of the ages 8–17. In those cases when the actual accommodation does not permit to accept all children the preference must be given to children of working people. Article 32 states: the work of the school is based on the detailed theoretical and practical study of the labour activity of men and its organisation. All the work in the school and the whole organisation of school life should promote proletarian class consciousness in the minds of pupils and create knowledge of solidarity of labour in its struggle with Capital as well as preparation for useful productive and political activity (Article 35). Article 36 requires the introduction of pupils’ self-government in all schools, while Article 37 confirms the abolition of all kinds of penalties. These are the main points of the Act.

The differences with the 1918 Act are an interesting mixture of affirmation and retreat. There is a necessary slow down in the drive for sheer quantity of education, and the non-mention of its being free allowed for fees to be charged, with the result that between a third and a half of the children paid them (not the poor ones, however). This was temporary, and in 1925 efforts were again made to achieve universal compulsory education, and fees were scrapped.

The Argument over Specialisation

The Act upholds the principle of the Labour School with its polytechnical education.

But what this meant underwent opposite extremes of principle and practice over the years since the revolution, varying from its original intention – a familiarisation of the student with the theoretical and practical aspects of the most important fields of production in order to turn out the all-round ‘master of nature’ – to mere one-sided craft training, or to an opposite one-sidedness of academic training in the usual school subjects, omitting crafts altogether.

The question of early one-sided specialisation in schools – which with its attendant competitiveness is the nub of the division of labour under capitalism – caused much heart searching after the first few years of the revolution.

In the circumstances of universal poverty, with the decimation of the working class through military service in the Red Army, the virtual collapse of industry and the mass exodus of workers to the countryside; with skilled workers consequently at a premium and the need to rebuild destroyed industries and develop them further being so obvious, there was an early effort on the part of some central Bolshevik Party members to bend schooling towards the rapid production of skilled workers by early vocational training.

This, realistic though the requirement was, gnawed away at the central ideal of revolutionary education, and could not be accepted by other leading Party members, with Lunacharsky, People’s Commissar for Education, in their forefront. He wrote in opposition to the idea in 1920:

‘We understand that the ruined Russian economy needs specialists. (But) we, as socialists who defended the rights of the worker’s identity against the factors which tried to stifle it under capitalism, cannot help protesting when we see that the new Communist factory is showing, in these hard years, the same tendency.

‘So it is inevitable that there should be a kind of struggle between those Marxists who understand all the difficulties of the present time, the necessity of straining all our forces, or retreating from our ideals in the face of present demands – and those other Marxists who, in spite of everything, cannot let this hard time trample the flowers of the first hopes of the proletariat and proletarian youth, their first chance of many-sided human development ...’

Krupskaya said in the same year: ‘Professional education must not cripple a man by making him a narrow specialist from an early age ... the specialist ... is only interested in industry and not at all interested in the worker.’

So while in the earliest days the intention was for all children to go through the unified labour school, having a general education based on labour to the age of 17, it was clear that the demands of the terrible economic circumstances would early defeat the anti-specialists. Indeed, vocational schools started being set up side by side with general schools from the end of 1920 and early specialisation became an increasingly important part of the school system after the thirties.

Polytechnical Education – a Criterion for Socialism?

Polytechnical education in its original, many-sided, meaning, is the form best suited to a society which aims to eliminate the division between mental and manual labour, and where the dignity of labour is upheld, and the precept ‘He who does not work shall not eat’ adhered to. It is therefore the form of education suited to a workers’ state, and to socialism. It is also, however, recognised by progressive educationists in capitalist countries who aim towards a rounded, integrated personality, and there are a number of islands of experiment along these lines. The Dalton Plan, Dewey’s ‘project’ method, are two well-known American experiments now some decades old. There are elements of the system in Britain’s education, and the Free School experiment works along these lines.

This particular form of schooling can thus survive, with major or minor alterations, through many regimes.

What differentiates the nature of one or another regime is the control aspect – who decides the form and content of the workers’ and employees’ (and their children’s) lives, in other words, workers’ democracy. Here, then, we get the real casualty of the growing bureaucracy in Russian society, which, with the defeat of the European revolution now final, and Stalin emerging as an absolute dictator at the summit of a bureaucratic hierarchy, took a significant step forward in 1923 and developed at a cracking speed after the Five Year Plans which were introduced in 1928.

The democratic formulation of policy and election of officers by all members of the school as equal partners is there no more after the 1923 Act. Pupils are now no longer by right on the School Council and helping to formulate curriculum and methods, and teachers are subordinated to the Head in whose appointment they have no say. He can stop decisions and is no longer wholly responsible to the School Council. His salary also becomes more and more widely differentiated.

This aspect of control merits deeper inquiry, being crucial to a democratic socialist society.

As pupils are on the lowest rung of the hierarchical ladder, their position in relation to the power of control in the school is the most accurate barometer of the political climate. I shall therefore deal with this most important aspect first.

Pupil Self-Government – Early Years

The educational principles behind pupil self-government, which encompassed pupils of all ages, were thus stated in the early ‘twenties by the Scientific Pedagogical Section of the Russian Republic State Council of Education:

‘In our schools self-government is not a means of governing the students more readily, neither is it a practical method for studying the workings of the Constitution. It is a means by which the pupils may learn to live and to work intelligently.

‘The richer the content of student life, the more thorough will be the student autonomy. Collective work is, par excellence, the great organising force. Self-government cannot develop well, and take on the most rational and most helpful forms except in a school where collective work represents the vital nerve of the whole student life.

‘... The students must in all cases be represented on school committees.

‘The whole work of self-government must be handled by the pupils in cooperation with the teachers. The duty of the teacher consists in actively contributing to student autonomy. However, he will leave the scholars completely independent and will try not to let his authority weigh upon them.’

On the same subject Professor Pinkevich, Director of the Research Institute of Scientific Pedagogy, said in the mid-twenties:

‘Difficulties will no doubt attend the inauguration of such an order of things as we propose. Children will make mistakes ... But let the children arrive at this conclusion as a result of their own experiment; they will then be convinced themselves and will not be simply carrying out the prescriptions of somebody else. In time they will realise their error, and in this process of discovering the truth they will learn much.’

Pupils were imbued with revolutionary fervour and enthusiastic about the new school regime. It was they who were in fact the main or only guardians in the school of the new, revolutionary methods and curriculum, and of democracy for all members of the school community.

Although the 1923 Act was the first statement of retreat, it took years before student control in the schools was completely eliminated. That was in the early thirties, after the introduction of the First Five-Year Plan, and the resignation in 1929 of Lunacharsky, People’s Commissar for Education since 1917, the one who more than anyone else struggled to realise the highest ideals of the revolution in education, and main architect of the 1918 Education Act. The word ‘self-government’ continued to be used (as so many other Marxist terms) but it was an empty shell.

The period of the ‘twenties witnessed a whittling away of student self-government, but it was slow, patchy and uneven. The following descriptions represent this slow decline. Student participation in management is still much in evidence, but does not have the supremacy of the early revolutionary years.

The areas of pupil self-management in the middle ’twenties, as described by the friendly American observer, Scott Nearing, were as follows:

‘Generally the student executive committee was charged with the handling of discipline and with the supervision of class affairs. The culture committee secured and distributed reading matter and was responsible for the publication of a wall newspaper, when one existed. The sanitary committee was sometimes charged with the duty of keeping the room clean, sometimes with the duty of seeing that the pupils kept clean, and sometimes with both tasks.’

The structure at one school, the Pokrovsky Elementary School (8–15 years) of 1,100 students, was described by Scott Nearing in 1925/6 in the following terms:

‘Each class had a class committee of three. The committee kept the records of attendance, was responsible for the class discipline, and in collaboration with the teacher, initiated the planning of class work.

‘All members of class committees were members of the student school committee. The total membership of the committee was about 75. The student school committee elected an executive committee of seven which was the responsible body in charge of student affairs. There were sub-committees on sanitation, on economic activities, on sports and on student cultural work ...

‘This school, with its education activities, was in the hands of a school committee, made up as follows:



Students (one from each group or class)


Parents’ Organisation


From city council (local soviet-CR)


Workers in school


Pioneers in school


Young Communists


Central Labour Union


Large factory near school


School Principal




‘This school committee met once a month. For working efficiency it was divided into two sections, one dealing with the work of the first four years, and the other dealing with the work of the last three years.

‘Executive direction of the school was in the hands of a school executive committee consisting of the principal, the assistant principal, the secretary of the teaching staff, the president of the student body and one representative of the parents. This principle of representation and administration was preserved throughout the Soviet Union. In all of the schools that I visited there was a general and rather numerous school committee meeting occasionally and a small executive committee meeting frequently. The school teaching staff always predominated in the latter organisation.’

It is clear that by the mid-twenties the Head was fairly well entrenched, chairing the meetings, assisted by his deputy. The teachers have a majority on the school committees, but the pupils are still much in evidence, even if not in a position of equality of management, as formerly.

‘Self-Government’ After the Five-Year Plans

The introduction of the Five-Year plans changed the decline into a rout.

The immense heave to push production to the utter limit, including the production of specialists and skilled workers, put the utmost strain on resources and human relationships in the school. In 1928 there were 160,000 students in higher educational institutions. During the period of the Second Five-Year Plan (1933–37) these institutions were instructed to turn out 340,000 specialists – twice as many as during the period of the First Five-Year Plan.

Similar productive stresses were put upon industry, which perforce had to develop a highly centralised and authoritarian one-man management in the factories to force through the Plan. The schools followed industry. But the problem facing the new educationists was that they did not want authoritarian, one-man management and the pressure to achieve results to produce apathetic pupils of the Western type; they sought to push through a rapid, mass rise in educational standards through the more effective method of active participation in carrying out the bureaucracy’s dictates.

So while participation in the actual power of control over all aspects of school management was being whittled away from the pupils they were being moulded into a highly active political youth movement with specific, but peripheral tasks to carry out under adult leadership. The movement consisted of Octobrists (below 10 years), Pioneers (10–15 years), Komsomol (up to 27 years). The Pioneers, in particular, came to embrace nearly all pupils in the schools by the ’30s, and were integrally involved in school life.

The Pioneers are organised in detachments, subdivided into ‘links’. The school as a whole has its Brigade. All the Pioneers of the school elect a Brigade Council which co-ordinates most of the activities, guided by an adult Senior Pioneer Leader. The leader may be a professional, specially trained for this kind of work, or a member of the teaching staff. Pioneer work is an essential part of every teacher’s training course.

The conscious purpose of the groups was that they should be an arm of authority, pushing the less zealous pupils to conform, rousing the apathetic out of their apathy, browbeating the rebellious. ‘Self-management’ by the middle ‘thirties had come to mean its opposite. And in case anyone was under a misapprehension, Professor Pinkevich [1], in a book he wrote in 1935, clarified:

‘The pupils’ organisations are expected to assist the teacher in his work as well as facilitate the development of socialist competition and shock work in the school.’

‘The Young Pioneers might be described as the sharp-shooters of socialist competition in the schools.’

He commended the following example of ‘socialist competition and shock work’:

‘The schoolchildren of Ivanovsk Model First Grade School in the Rubinsk District entered the All-Union Contest of model schools and made the following pledges: 1. To set an example of discipline, and not permit late-comings or absences; raising attendance and general progress of the pupils to 98 per cent; 2. To organise comradely assistance to backward pupils; 3. To prepare lessons every day. 4. To look after the school property; 5. To make full use of the 45 minutes allotted for each lesson; 6. To struggle for sanitary perfection at school and at home.’

Prizes were given to the best competitors, individually and collectively. (In 1944 socialist competition was abolished in the field of education, as it was physically exhausting and educationally harmful.)

One of the most powerful motivating forces for conformity with the bureaucracy’s wishes is the fact that only good Pioneers, i.e., those who have conformed and also completed three steps of Pioneer tests (similar to Scout Grades) may apply – without however guarantee of acceptance – for membership of the more exclusive Komsomol, and hence hope to walk the corridors of power, or at the least, get a good job.

As with the Scouts, patriotism – and all that flows therefrom – is a major objective of latter-day Pioneers. Their first Pule states: ‘1. A Pioneer loves his Motherland and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’. Compare this with the internationalism of the early Pioneers of the ‘twenties, whose Rule 3 stated: ‘The Pioneer is a comrade to Pioneers and to the workers’ and peasants’ children of the world’, and the first pledge of the original Pioneer oath ran: ‘I will firmly defend the cause of the workers and peasants of the world.’

Participation in school management is not part of the rights or duties of Pioneers or any pupils’ organisations. Pinkevich (1935) says: ‘This organisation (the Young Pioneers) does not interfere with the school manager (Head) or teachers, but organises the pupils and provides political and physical training.’ And to make sure the point is taken, he ends a section on Forms of Children’s Self-Management with the statement: ‘None of the organisations which we have enumerated may rescind the manager’s decision. Their work is to assist him with advice and to inspect the school. They have no administrative functions whatever.’


Most of the teachers were against the Bolshevik revolution, and many emigrated or left teaching. At the least they acquiesced with the oppositional line taken by the leadership of the All-Russian Teachers’ Union (VUS), whose Petrograd branch, within a week of the October revolution, resolved ‘not to perform the instructions of the self-styled power’. ‘The Moscow branch of VUS, with an enrolment of 4,000 members, almost unanimously joined the strike of Moscow municipal workers and remained on strike until 11 March, 1918. It was alleged that the teachers were supported during the strike by the merchant banking family of Ryabushinsky. In Petrograd, the teachers’ strike lasted until 6 January 1918.’ (Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Commissariat of Enlightenment, 1970.)

Lunacharsky wrote in outrage: ‘I do not know with what quantity of repentant tears the individual teacher may, in the eyes of the people, wash away the black letters which he himself has painted on his forehead: “In December 1917, in the hour of the people’s terrible struggle against the exploiters, I refused to teach the children and received money for this from the exploiters’ funds.”’

Lenin nevertheless spoke strongly in favour of working with all specialists who would do so.

Krupskaya, opposing those who wanted to take a hard line with the teachers who did not readily come to heel – the majority in the early days – said it was only the leadership of VUS that was actively against the government. ‘... the village teachers are petty-bourgeois, close to the people, and fertile soil for socialist propaganda ...’ Lunacharsky too criticised ‘the attempt to put extra pressure on the teaching profession, the attempt in general to sharpen the action of the government and proletariat on school staff.’

Circumstances were made as propitious as possible to win the teachers over by persuasion: by, within the harsh limitations of the terrible circumstances, supplying model curricula to encourage progressive methods, translating educational literature from all over the world and stimulating an exciting atmosphere of experiment; by giving the school autonomy and the teachers full democratic rights in all aspects of school management. The inclusion of all workers in education in the process of decision-making encouraged the elimination of friction between the different personnel in the school. Pupil self-government, in particular, led to comradely relations between pupils and staff, and the removal from the teacher of that exhausting necessity to be authoritarian, eternally vigilant of status, and fearful of rebellion against authority.

The appointment of a permanent Head to a position of control in the school and to greater differentiation of status and salary changed relations entirely. The rigid centralisation of the ‘thirties onward demands rigid inspection, and this is carried out by a big staff of Inspectors. The Head, too, is expected to hear the teaching of every member of his staff regularly, to make sure he does not stray from the set pattern. The teacher is not free to try out new methods in the classroom. The only way he may change the rigid pattern of the lesson is by referring his proposal to a Pedagogic Institute or similar body for research, and it may eventually be embodied in standard practice! Little latitude is thus left to the teacher for individual expression. And, to repeat what latter-day Pinkevich said about control in the school: ‘None of the organisations of the school, which included the teachers,’ ... may rescind the Manager’s decision ... They have no administrative functions whatever.’

Salary differentials also depress democratic participation. Teachers are paid extra for: higher qualifications; teaching higher classes; length of service; location of the school; teaching beyond 18 hours a week in secondary and 24 in primary schools; the award of titles such as ‘Honoured Teacher’; holding posts of responsibility, such as school librarian; being the Head; marking (a flat rate); laboratory preparation; certain extra-curricular duties, such as running school clubs, etc.; teaching handicapped children; teaching a subject in a foreign language in a ‘language school’.

Pay consequently varies considerably, and is very low for most teachers. In the early ’60s it was reckoned primary teachers earned 60–90 rubles per month, secondary 85–150. Skilled workers at that time earned 100–250 rubles per month

Excessive demands on teachers’ time are made. Besides marking homework they are expected to visit their pupils’ homes, attend parent-teacher meetings, take part in extra-curricular work, attend political seminars, etc. – all in addition to their full week’s teaching.

Conformity among teachers in all societies is strong. This reflects itself partly in the fact that 20 per cent of educational workers (all employees in lower and higher establishments) belong to the Communist Party as against 4 per cent in the population at large.

This description of the position of the teacher will ring a bell in the minds of teachers in this country. For those who conform one system is as good as another. But for the growing number of whose who don’t the problems are very similar – an irksome lack of control over and quelling of initiative in curriculum and teaching methods (much more marked in Russia than here), a fretting at the low salaries at the bottom and of status and responsibility in proportion to pay, an excessive work load, large classes of between 35 and 40 throughout the Russian school, vexation at the irritating and humiliating hand of authority represented by Head, Inspectors and educational authorities.

Teachers and Pupils

Relationships between teachers and pupils in the pre-revolutionary school were described in the early days by the Scientific Pedagogic Section of the Russian Republic State Council of Education as follows:

‘In such a school the instructor plays the part of an absolute master over the class and over the students. A system of punishments and other devices are added – among them rewards, that are aimed to assist the instructor to reach the desired end. The children are at his mercy. He may double the tasks; he may send children from the class; in him the children are the enemy that must be fought. They struggle against his rules, violate them deliberately, form groups for this purpose. The teacher is the representative of state power, and in fighting against him, the pupils are fighting against the orders of the state. Such a struggle unifies large groups of students, weakens the prestige of the authorities, interferes with the realisation of the educational objective, arouses a spirit of discontent, intensifies the hostility.’

The socialist solution attempted in those days, and the best guarantee of democracy, was then stated:

‘The introduction of student autonomy in such a school has for its object the elimination of the struggle between teachers and students, to raise the prestige of the teacher, to place upon the children themselves the duty of surveillance, not the execution of the teacher’s decisions, which is merely a means of subjugating the pupils to the teacher.’

On relations between teachers and pupils Pinkevich in The New Education in the Soviet Republic says:

‘Either to place all the affairs of the school entirely in the hands of the children or, on the contrary, to extend an equally complete monopoly of privilege to adults would hardly be judicious ... We regard as indispensable the participation of representatives from children in the deliberations of the school soviet which is the official and to some degree public organ of the school. Here, however, they are not supposed to behave as the guardians of a special caste of pupils. They should rather regard themselves as co-workers of equal rights with the teachers who, “as the objects and conductors of the educational ideas developed by the school soviet, possess special knowledge and qualities”.’

The role of the teacher was that of ‘an organiser, assistant, instructor and older comrade, but not the role of superior officer ...’ The teacher was to maintain simple, comradely relations with the children, and it was customary to call him by his first name.

Present-day relations between teachers and pupils and the sad story of retreat from the above ideals are elaborated in the succeeding paragraphs.

Curriculum and Teaching Method

Scott Nearing in 1925/6 observed the great variety in educational practice, and the friendly relationships in schools:

‘Practice differs widely in schools that are located close together in the same republic or even in the same city. Certain theories are commonly accepted, but there is a great variety in the interpretation that is put upon them ...

‘The Soviet Union is to-day an educational laboratory. Experiments are under way with subject-matter, with methods of instruction, with social organisation among the pupils, with the organisation of educational workers, with the organisation of school directing committees and with the problem of opening the higher schools to the workers and peasants.’

Nearing describes one school: ‘In each laboratory there were several tables around which the students gathered – four, five or six at a table. They were all working in groups. On entering the room you looked in vain for the teacher in a commanding position, sitting behind a desk at the top of the room. Instead you found her at one of the tables, working with that group. The students at the other tables were going on, meanwhile, with their activities. The laboratories gave the impression of reading or reference rooms in some large city library. There was no sense of school “discipline”.’

Soviet education, he justifiably says, ‘is one of the most remarkable social experiments ever undertaken in the history of modern society’.

The division between mental and manual labour widened enormously after the introduction of the Five-Year Plans. With it the curriculum and teaching methods turned somersault.

Listen to Pinkevich in the ‘twenties. Under the heading The Passive School he cites ‘the lesson’, which he says is ‘characteristic of the old school. In the lesson the aim of the work is entirely obscure to the pupil... When we speak ... of the class lesson we think not only of recitation in a classroom but also of such elements as dogmatism in teaching and isolation from community life.’

And Pinkevich in the ’thirties: ‘The chief method of instruction in the school is the lesson. In the decision passed by the Central Committee of the Communist Party on 25 August, 1932, it was strongly emphasised that the lesson should be carried out with a definite group of pupils according to a definite timetable ...’

He evaluates in the ’twenties the project method (favoured by progressive teachers in the West too) which was intended to give point and interest to learning through the self-activity and enquiry of the child, by unifying different educational disciplines around a project, and by combining academic and manual instruction. ‘There is no doubt that of all the contemporary attempts to reform the school ... the project system with appropriate changes is best adapted to the nature and purposes of the soviet school. It affords the children greater freedom of activity, encourages them to engage in practical work, demands of them independent planning, and trains them in the methods of investigation.’

Pinkevich in the ’thirties: ‘Until quite recently, the American “Project” method was extensively applied in Soviet schools, their entire work being based on the principles of “socially useful work”. Many Soviet educationalists thought at the time that education should consist of the fulfilment of a certain number of “socially useful projects”, and that only in the course of fulfilling these projects should the children obtain knowledge about other subjects. In 1931 this method of work was sharply condemned by the Communist Party and the government. The Project method is no longer adopted in the Soviet schools.’

(Note that Pinkevich of the ‘twenties gives reasons for the introduction of each educational change. Pinkevich of the ‘thirties merely states without reason the decision of a ruling committee. One can almost visualise the pistol at his head.)

Polytechnical education (in all but name) was thrown overboard. A decree of 4 March 1937, excluded ‘labour’ from the syllabus, liquidated all school workshops and craft rooms, took measures to ‘requalify’ graduate teachers of labour into teachers of mathematics and physics, and discharged the rest. The time freed was to be used for instruction in the Russian language and literature, mathematics, and the Constitution of the USSR. The entire syllabus returned to the pre-revolutionary, subject-based method. Although in 1958, well after Stalin’s death, there was a notional return to polytechnism, mainly through compulsory Saturday working, the situation was described as follows by Nigel Grant in his book Soviet Education (1964):

‘The prescribed techniques are, for all the current insistence on the necessity of keeping up with the times, formal and old-fashioned in the extreme ... Standard Soviet practice still bears a close resemblance to that of the most conventional and traditionalist teachers in this country (Britain).

‘The teacher usually begins the lesson by examining the children’s homework. This consists largely of the recitation of memorised passages or the answering of the teacher’s questions by selected pupils, who stand at the blackboard to say their piece or perform the task required ... Pupils are given marks for their performances ...; all of them are supposed to be examined thus at regular intervals, and the resultant marks accompany them all the way through the school ...

‘The next stage is the introduction of new material. Most of this is straight lecturing by the teacher; the children sit and listen attentively while it is explained to them. When he has finished his exposition of the day’s lesson, the teacher then questions various members of the class to see if they have understood, and any child in difficulties can take this chance of asking for further explanation. Finally, the children are given their next homework assignment – some pages of the textbook to learn, or written work – and the teacher summarises the day’s lesson ...

‘The atmosphere of the lesson is as formal as its structure. The children are arranged in rows of desks facing the teacher, in the traditional manner. .. they rise when he enters or leaves the room, stand to attention when answering or asking questions or reciting homework, sit up straight with arms folded when listening to the lesson, hold up their hands for permission to speak, sit down only by permission, and so forth. The teacher is in absolute control throughout, the children being forbidden by the rules to speak or do anything except with his direction or consent.’

Those who cannot make it under this rigid system repeat the year. Before some changes were made in 1958 Khrushchev remarked that of all children in seven-year schools in the USSR 20 per cent repeated so often that they never finished the course.

The present system harks right back to pre-Soviet times. A teacher who had started teaching in 1916 and used the old system till 1923 explained: ‘The old system was very easy ... The class recited in unison. All the teacher had to do was to open the book at the proper page and start the class going. It was just like a machine.’

Discipline Before and After

There was much discussion and experiment in this, as in all other aspects of education. Some favoured allocation of separate areas of control for teachers and pupils. Some favoured complete pupil control, and this sometimes led to the setting up of pupils’ courts. Others, including Krupskaya, argued against pupil courts, as they induced the self-deception that the feeling of revenge was justifiable as long as it was called punishment, they caused children to look for crimes and specialise in trials, and they habituated children in making decisions from the point of view of formal, conventional, external justice. In fact, Pinkevich in the ‘twenties admitted ‘the necessity of resorting to mild forms of disciplinary measures only in very rare cases’, and he recommended minimum rules and regulations. He argued:

‘Let us repeat that we are not greatly concerned over what laws and rules are passed by the collective. Even though from our point of view wrong action may at times be taken, the important thing is that all regulatory measures be drawn up by the pupils themselves with the active participation of the teachers and that these measures be introduced into life by the collective. However... there should be as few rules and laws as possible.’

The general view in case of the commission of an offence was that an informal approach should be adopted, the teacher explaining and discussing the offence with the offender, the class or school. This procedure, carried out in an atmosphere of few rules and non-authoritarian, comradely relations between teachers and pupils, seems to have been successful.

The reason for change after the introduction of the Five-Year Plans, stated by Pinkevich in the ‘thirties, is interesting:

‘The Soviet Union has set itself the task of overtaking and outstripping the capitalist countries in the matter of technique and economics ... Hence the need for discipline in the school. The regulations of the Soviet polytechnical schools require that the school Manager and the teachers wage an energetic struggle to strengthen discipline among the pupils, when necessary taking disciplinary measures, including temporary expulsion from the school.’

Corporal punishment is not allowed, the usual other methods used in the West being resorted to. A child may be sent out of the class, reprimanded by teacher or Head, in private or public, and the fact noted in the work and conduct Record Book he keeps throughout his school life. A lowering of his conduct mark below the satisfactory figure involves automatic expulsion from school.

Quite far-reaching social pressure is used in tougher cases. The Pioneers assist the teacher by trying to help or cajole the defaulter. If this fails they might ‘send him to Coventry’ or ridicule him in the wall newspaper. They might even suspend him from the Pioneer organisation (usually for a term), which is a great disgrace. A major means of discipline is putting pressure on the parents not only at home, but through the parents’ trade union or factory committee, where it can be so strong as to make the parents’ work situation very uncomfortable (especially if he is a member of the Communist Party). A typical example may be quoted from Kiev:

‘In the Krasny factory, a notice was pinned up (by another parent) to the effect that Anatoly Orlenko, Class IV pupil, was behaving badly at school. Orlenko senior speedily found himself before the factory committee, and was told that he ought to do something about this, since it reflected on the factory as well as the child, the parent and the school.’ (Grant, Soviet Education)

In spite of this pressure – or because of it – there is a good deal of delinquency in Russia, and many youngsters ‘drop out’ of conventional society in the manner well known in the West. A young Russian adult described the class as being divided along the lines of ‘distrusters’ and ‘informers’, the former unwilling pupils distrusting all edicts emanating from authoritarian sources, the latter informing teacher of the conversations and activities – or non-activities – of the laggards.

(This is the equivalent of the ‘militants’ and ‘creeps’ of the English classroom, as described by a young worker in this country.)

Back to the Past

Authoritarianism requires centralisation. This began with the appointment instead of election of the Head, and as with other major changes, proceeded with breakneck speed in the ’thirties. ‘With few differences children in, say, the fifth form in an eight-year school in places as far apart as Moscow and Magnitogorsk, Tashkent and Tallinn, wear the same uniform, observe the same rules of behaviour, and study the same subjects from the same text books at the same pace. When they complete their course at the age of fifteen, the alternatives available for the next stage of their education are substantially the same wherever they may be.’ (Ibid.)

No straying from the straight and narrow is allowed. The year after Khrushchev’s ‘revelations’ about Stalin, there were no history examinations in the schools, as all textbooks presented Stalin as the great hero. New books debunking Stalin were hastily written, and exams restarted the following year. Only the historical truth had changed.

Consistent with centralisation, examinations, as mentioned, were reintroduced. Pinkevich says of examinations in the ’twenties:

‘... the traditional examination ... is so artificial and so foreign to the child’s nature that it acts as an enervating and disintegrating influence in his life. Obviously it cannot be preserved in our school. Regardless of the guise in which it may appear or the name under which it may go, we must declare war against it.’

Pinkevich on examinations in the ‘thirties – sadly and without explanation: ‘At the end of the year examinations are held.’ He inadequately justifies them by previous failures.

Khrushchev’s reforms in 1958 reduced the number of examinations to the IVth, VIIth and Xth grades, the latter being equivalent to the GCE.

Straight after the Second World War the pre-Soviet system of school marks was reintroduced (from 1 – very bad, to 5 – excellent).

All aspects of education being now as controlled and stereotyped as possible, the pupils’ mental attitudes can not be omitted from this conditioning. Soon after the Second World War the Rules of Conduct for pupils in the elementary and secondary schools used by Tsarist Russia were reintroduced. These constitute the child’s moral training and are hence emphasised constantly and used as a disciplinary curb throughout the country throughout the child’s school life. Some of the 20 Rules are:

‘1. To acquire knowledge persistently in order to become an educated and cultured citizen and to be of the greatest possible service to his country ...

3. To obey the instructions of the school manager and the teachers without question ...

8. To sit upright during the lesson, not leaning on the elbows or slouching; to listen attentively to the teacher’s explanation and the other pupils’ answers, and not to talk or let his attention wander to other things.

9. To rise when the teacher or director enters or leaves the room.

10. To stand to attention when answering the teacher; to sit down only with the teacher’s permission; to raise his hand if he wishes to answer a question ...

12. To be respectful to the school director and teachers; when meeting them, to greet them with a polite bow; boys should also raise their caps ...

19. To carry his student’s record book with him always, to guard it carefully, never handing it over to anyone else, and to present it on request of the teacher or school manager.’

The other Rules enjoin the pupil to diligence, punctuality, tidiness, politeness, care of property, consideration for the weak, and care for the honour of his class and school. The Rules and the reasons for them are a major means of correction for pupils. They are backed up by graded schemes for moral education.

Compare this with the Basic Principles of the 1918 Education Act. ‘We do not forget the right of an individual to his own peculiar development ... It is not necessary for us to cut short a personality ... to cast it into iron moulds ... the stability of the socialist community is based not on the uniformity of barracks... ‘ and so on.

The path of educational progress in the West is an alliance and an upsurge of the powerless – pupils, teachers and other workers: this is already in embryonic form, beginning. I suspect the path in the Soviet Union is the same.


1. In 1927 Prof Pinkevich wrote a book called The New Education in the Soviet Republic, a book fired with enthusiasm for the ideals of the revolution, which put them into concrete terms, and was used in the training of teachers in the USSR. In 1935 he wrote another called Education in the USSR. Nothing shows more clearly the somersault in the orientation of education before and after the introduction of the Five-Year Plans. One can only feel sorry for Prof Pinkevich and his conscience!

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