©2011 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Jon Mason


edited 8/18/11


"Education is one of the component parts of the struggle we are now waging. We can counter hypocrisy and lies with the complete and honest truth. The war has shown plainly enough what the "will of the majority" means, a phrase used as a cover by the bourgeoisie. It has shown that a handful of plutocrats drag whole nations to the slaughter in their own interests." - V.I. Lenin, Speech at the First All-Russia Congress On Education (1918)

The world of the early 20th century was one of turmoil, war and revolution. Through rapid industrialization and urbanization, the western world had quickly leapt from agrarian-based economies to manufacturing and factory-based labor. As such, with the primary social landscape shifting inexorably toward the cities, the very foundations of education would fundamentally change through the use of new technology and centralized schooling. However, with this transformation, philosophers such as Karl Marx went on to question the very foundation of the new capitalist economic system, seeing it as one that benefited the few at the great expense and exploitation of the many. With a dramatic widening of the gap between rich and poor, deplorable working and living conditions in quickly overcrowding cities and a restless working class, resistance and revolution became an ever-present threat across much of Western Europe. Where revolution finally did occur, however, was nowhere near where Marx had predicted.

                  The Russia of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was, by all accounts, a backwards place. The "Industrial Revolution" that had transformed the societies of Western Europe had barely touched Russia. The tsar, the last remaining monarch in Europe ruling by 'divine right', held absolute power and maintained an iron grip over the country, of which the vast majority of the population were poor peasants. The ancient pseudo-slavery practice of serfdom had only been banned some 40 years earlier (although still before the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States) and little had changed in terms of modernization or education. Without any class awareness brought about by urbanization, there was little chance any mass movement would spontaneously occur with a predominately illiterate, superstitious and deeply uneducated population (Fitzpatrick, Rabinowich, and Stites 253).

This would prove to be a problem for Russia's small 'intelligentsia'– the few European-educated men who had been influenced by the socialist ideals being touted in Germany and other newly industrialized countries. Marx had predicted that a socialist revolution would occur in a country that had a large, restless, moderately educated working class that would be victim to pervasive exploitation at the hands of the 'bourgeoisie' – those capitalists that did not actively work, but rather owned the means of production and profited by collecting the difference between workers' wages and the value of what they produced (Marx and Engels). As such, a 'class consciousness' would be easy to foster and unite into a coherent political and revolutionary force.

                  Russia did not meet these basic requirements. Therefore, some devout Marxists in Russia saw the need to adapt Marxist theory so that revolution was possible without a nation first needing to progress to a capitalist system. It was this group that Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, son of a secondary school teacher, joined. Taking the pseudonym 'Lenin', the future revolutionary leader had been radicalized by the hanging of his brother by the tsarist regime in 1887 (Pomper 17).

Lenin, profoundly influenced by the Marxist ideal of a 'classless' society, would eventually lead the most radical socialist party in Russia (the Bolsheviks) in an overthrow of the provisional government set up after the tsar abdicated in the face of immense unrest. The nation he claimed he sought to create in the place of 'Imperial Russia' was one where power rested solely with the working class in the form of 'soviets' – workers' councils where decisions were supposedly made collectively and democratically. In charge of this entire operation, however, would be Lenin's 'vanguard' party – the Bolsheviks – who would 'guide' the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to its communist future.

Theory of Value
What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

As a Marxist, Lenin espoused the education of the entire population, which before the revolution was dominated by mass illiteracy and superstition (Fitzpatrick, Rabinowich, and Stites 253). As a mainly pre-industrial society existing in an industrialized world, Lenin wanted the Soviet state to train individuals in vocational and technical expertise in order to push the USSR into the industrial age:

"The touchstone of a Communist's work in education (and educational institutions) should be his efforts in organising the enlistment of specialists, his ability to find them, utilise their knowledge, secure the cooperation of expert teachers with the Communist leadership, and verify what and how much is being done. He must show ability to make progress—even if very slowly and on a very small scale—so long as it is achieved in practical matters, on the basis of practical experience." (Lenin)

This emphasis on 'practical' experience served a two-fold purpose. Ideologically, it allowed Lenin to make the argument that a worker's state could make industrial progress without the need for capitalist ownership (ignoring the fact that the few bourgeoisie owners who actually knew how to operate the limited number of factories had fled due to the civil war and fear of reprisals). On a more strategic scale, however, educating the working class in vocational training as well as literacy would engender personal popularity for himself and support for the regime, which was surrounded by hostile capitalist powers and had a large resistance movement in its own borders. Young, educated students, some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the new regime, were organized into the Young Communist League – a group tasked by the Soviet leadership (especially General Secretary Joseph Stalin) to head into the countryside to teach basic literacy and in the tenets of Marxist-Leninism:

"Briefly, the task of the Young Communist League in this sphere is to educate our young workers and peasants in the spirit of Leninism. But what does educating the youth in the spirit of Leninism mean? It means, firstly, imbuing them with the consciousness that victory in the building of socialism in our country is fully possible and necessary. It means, secondly, strengthening their conviction that our workers' state is the offspring of the international proletariat, that it is the base for developing the revolution in all countries, that the final victory of our revolution is the cause of the international proletariat. It means, thirdly, educating the young people in a spirit of confidence in the leadership of the Russian Communist Party. It is necessary to create in the Young Communist League such cadres and such an active as will be able to educate the youth precisely along those lines. (Stalin)

In order to facilitate easier learning for individuals with no experience in reading whatsoever, the new Soviet government issued a decree simplifying the Russian Cyrillic alphabet to make it more accessible to the mass population (Lunacharsky). This would ultimately prove to boost literacy levels in the Soviet Union to a point where more complex educational goals could be implemented, to be discussed later.

Theory of Knowledge
What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? What is a lie?

  The young Soviet state made little effort to differentiate between knowledge and belief when it came to Marxist orthodoxy. Knowledge, to Lenin and the Bolsheviks, was literacy, a belief in the Marxist history of class struggle, and the practical skills long denied to the peasantry by the bourgeoisie class. To Lenin, an educated working class man was one who acknowledged his kinship not with his fellow Russian, but to his fellow Soviet. The USSR was composed of 15 different countries, many with their own unique languages, cultures, and ethnic groups that had long been dominated and oppressed by the Russian imperial state. By educating the poor in the Marxist version of history, Lenin hoped that the new 'Soviet' man would be one who forswore all former allegiances to his nationality and instead created a kinship with other working class peoples across national boundaries (Service 386).

                  The Soviet leadership made no allowance for ideological 'mistakes' and 'lies' – defined by the state as a belief in the legitimacy of the previous tsarist regime or the adherence to open-market, 'capitalist' principles. Those who questioned the regime and especially its theoretical foundation were treated with harshly and dissent either ideologically or practically was quashed (Medvedev 92). However, this was not necessarily an inherent facet of Leninism itself. The ideology does not recognize this disagreement as intolerance, but rather as incorrect learning or greed. It was the Leninist's duty to combat the 'inaccuracies' in previously taught history and instead teach one based upon the 'true' history of class struggle and aristocratic oppression.

Theory of Human Nature
What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

To Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik ilk communism was not simply a political force, but a philosophical one. Core differences abound regarding fundamental beliefs about human nature, the purpose of human existence, and how we define progress which lie at the heart of Marxist-Leninist thought and puts it into direct opposition to individualist-based philosophy. As such, Lenin's theory on what exactly defines a human being can be estimated using Karl Marx's writings – Lenin differed from Marx on very few primary communist principles. Marx, on the most basic level, defined humanity as such in The German Ideology:

"Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization." (Marx)

Dismissing Lockean and Hobbesian liberalism that stated individuals were born either innately good or bad, Marxist writings indicate that an individual's environment is the primary influence on their character. A 'good' society (that is, one that dismisses class differences and owns its own means of production) will naturally have 'good' people as the environment is nurturing and supportive. This viewpoint, then, puts pressure on educators as one of the largest influence in a child's life to create the environment where the child is not left behind. This pressure is evident in Vygotskyist thought (attempting to increase human potential through close teacher-student interaction) and was clearly evident in Lenin's Soviet Union, as committed teachers sought to create a more democratically-centered teaching environment, one that nurtured and supported, rather than one that played favorites and exalted certain people at the expense of others. Thus, theoretically all people could achieve 'greatness', rather than simply the chosen few.

Theory of Learning
What is learning? How are skills/knowledge acquired?

  There is little in Lenin's writings to indicate that his beliefs regarding how students were educated differed from the traditional classroom environment. Indeed his widow, Nadezdha Krupskaya, focused a great deal of attention as Commissar for Education on resource-based reform and development by procuring large amounts of books to stock classrooms and libraries alike. There is little reason to believe this differs much from the beliefs of Lenin himself, as he also lamented the lack of books and the open access to them before the revolution in What is to be done about Public Education?. It seems fairly clear that Lenin had little objection to traditional classroom teaching, but Marxist psychologists such as Lev Vygotsky, inspired by the socialist ideals trumpeted by the regime, attempted to prove communist philosophy on a cognitive level. By championing the enhanced results of close peer-teacher interaction, Vygotsky claimed that Marxist theory could be supported by research and not simply be a philosophical argument left to intellectuals and theorists to discuss.

                  Learning as interpreted through the Marxist lens is the acquiring of either skills or knowledge (discussed previously) that better either oneself or, more ideally, the whole of society. As stated above, these skills in the Soviet system were intended to be learned in vocational classrooms or under apprenticeships. There was a great lack of technical training in the early Soviet Union that left the country bereft of many individuals with useful skills that could help the union progress. As such, great effort was put forth to ensure that people could also learn these skills themselves through book learning – which meant higher accessibility to all was a key component of early Soviet educational goals.

Theory of Transmission
Who is to teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?

Although the socialist ideal fits uncomfortably with the idea of instructor-based education, the practical necessity of needing an easy and efficient way of schooling guaranteed the perpetuation of classroom style learning. However, a democratically centered approach to education championed by early Soviet teachers such as Anton Makarenko allowed for some creativity and experimentation within the confines of the pre-existing system (Filonov 2). This is where cognitive theorists such as Vygotsky and Makarenko could work under new assumptions that recognized the indivisibility of a child's school life and home life:

"Education is a process that is social in the broadest sense....With all the highly complex world of ambient activity, the child enters into an infinite number of relationships, each of which constantly develops, interweaves with other relationships and is compounded by the child's own physical and moral growth." (Makarenko, quoted in Filonov 78)

This thought, revolutionary in a time where factory-style monitorial schools were commonplace, re-emphasized the Pestalozzian approach to a more student-oriented style of teaching. This coupled with new communist ideas about the entire curriculum as practiced in western culture. The early Soviet curriculum, created by devout Bolsheviks, was intended to be one emphasizing socialist ideals and communist ideology in place of traditional subjects, revolving around certain 'complex themes':

"The 'complex themes' for the first year was "the life and labour of the family in village and town"; for the second year in "labour in the village generally, and the town budget"; the third year, "the local budget"; the fourth year (ages 11 to 12) "the budgets of the U.S.S.R and other states; in the fifth the complex theme was agriculture and its different forms; in the 6th year it was the "history of labour" and in the 7th – "the scientific organization of labour". (Malevsky-Malevich 668)

As can be seen, this re-organization of the curriculum was so dramatically different that both teachers and students struggled to find ways to teach and learn such abstract concepts. It would prove to be completely impractical, but only after Lenin's death was it completely dismantled.

These educational ideas and the radically different curriculum were unique in the early 20th century. However, this experimentation ended quite quickly after Lenin's death and Stalin's consolidation of power, and a more technical-centered education came to dominate utilizing traditional techniques and disposing of the 'new' curriculum for more familiar and useful subjects.

Theory of Society
What is Society? What institutions are involved in the educational process?

Society in a communist country was intended to be one devoid of class divisions and petty religious and ethnic turmoil. Although the stated end goal of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' was a society in which no government was needed, in reality individuals and institutions dedicated to the educational and schooling process in the Soviet Union existed throughout the course of its existence. Districts, schools, government entities and the party leadership all were involved in the educational process, but true decision-making was left with the man at the top. Although Lenin was open to critique, he allowed no one to challenge what he felt to be the primary tenets of the socialist state.

Theory of Opportunity
Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?

Education in Imperial Russia had been limited to the few elite members of the aristocracy who could afford to educate their children either in imperial schools or abroad in the universities of Western Europe. Lenin, although himself a beneficiary of this elitist educational model, claimed through the Marxist lens that this style of education had done nothing but ensure the perpetuation of the immense class divide in Russia:

"In fact the schools were turned into nothing but an instrument of the class rule of the bourgeoisie. They were thoroughly imbued with the bourgeois caste spirit. Their purpose was to supply the capitalists with obedient lackeys and able workers. The war has shown that the marvels of modern technology are being used as a means of exterminating millions of workers and creating fabulous profits for the capitalists who are making fortunes…" (Lenin)

As a self-declared devout Marxist, Lenin proposed bold changes: transforming the very purpose of education as it had been preached for centuries. No longer was education's purpose to educate the loyal subjects of one particular government on the duties of citizenship – rather, Lenin envisioned education as a key tool in creating a worker's paradise.

"We say that our work in the sphere of education is part of the struggle for overthrowing the bourgeoisie. We publicly declare that education divorced from life and politics is lies and hypocrisy. What was the meaning of the sabotage resorted to by the best educated representatives of the old bourgeois culture? This sabotage showed better than any agitator, better than all our speeches, better than thousands of pamphlets that these people regard learning as their monopoly and have turned it into an instrument of their rule over the so-called common people." (Lenin)

                  To Lenin and other revolutionary communist leaders, knowledge was seen as something kept from the masses in order to keep them subdued and complacent in the order of society. Thus, students in the new Soviet society, both from traditionally rich and poor backgrounds, could be educated on the truths of Marxist history and on their support for global revolution (Stalinism would later re-introduce nationalist-based teaching education that would support the Soviet state, rather than global revolt). The idea that students from completely different social classes could be educated together, and that all children would be required to go to school, was a radical idea in the early 20th century, especially in a country such as Russia which lagged centuries behind other European countries in terms of industrial, social, and economic development.

                  However, in reality, the resulting early Soviet education system (at least the one that existed during Lenin's lifetime) was one intent on more practical concerns such as erasing illiteracy – a problem which had rapidly expanded during the Russian civil war and remained a real obstacle to a socialist education (Malevsky-Malevich 665). Lenin and the new Commissariat for Education, Alexander Lunacharsky, enacted a system of compulsory education for all children that divided schools into three types (similar in nature to the German model): a four-year primary school, a seven-year secondary school, and a full nine-year technical (technicum) school which was the only type that guaranteed a university education and therefore a better job after graduation (Malevsky-Malevich 668).

Originally, the intended purpose of these first Soviet schools was to educate the populace in rather complex socialist themes and utilized a completely revisionist method of instruction that ignored almost all fundamental subjects – however, this policy failed catastrophically due to a near total confusion on the curriculum and a lack of basic skills and was abandoned for a more traditional approach. One Soviet teacher remarked that "there is no need to repudiate indiscriminately every method of the old school, just because it is old." (Malevsky-Malevich 670)

Human nature was defined by Lenin and other Marxists as that of perpetual conflict between those that have and those that have not. However, Lenin and Marx argued that humans were more likely to cooperate in an environment that encouraged that cooperation: capitalism, and the bourgeois class that thrived on the system to survive and flourish, was based upon the nastier aspects of human nature that encouraged greed, corruption, and conflict. Through schooling (at a very young age), children could be taught to cooperate and thrive in an environment in which societal status, money, and background had little to no meaning.

                  Learning is accomplished through careful collaboration between teacher and student. Lev Vygtosky, one of the most influential educational theorists of this time period from the Soviet Union, witnessed how students could learn far more with help in achieving their 'zone of proximal development'. Vygotsky, an avid communist and believer in the early Soviet system, wanted to 'prove ' Marxist and Leninist teachings through psychology and education – therefore scientifically justifying the the Marxist system he so admired.

Theory of Consensus
Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?

Consensus in early Soviet society (at least in the pre-Stalin era) was not guaranteed as is commonly assumed, with decisions made solely be Lenin himself and others forced into subservience. Indeed there was a great deal of argument and discussion within the Bolshevik Party regarding policy direction, ideological differences and jockeying for political position (Lenin in Letter to Bolshevik Party Members). However, the public saw little of this, and it was almost exclusively behind closed doors. Marxist ideology to Lenin was universal – that is, its tenets were undeniable to all intellectually-minded men. Discussion and argument was limited to differences within the ideology itself, and little attention was paid to anything outside of Marxist thought.

A shallow consensus could be achieved relatively easily, as the party presented a united face, but bickering over economic data and educational progress was a constant presence in Bolshevik circles. When all was said and done, however, Lenin's opinion usually won out due to his reputation and the considerable respect owed to him for being the primary individual who thrusted the party into power. This style of 'collective leadership' that was supposed to be the driving force behind Bolshevik rule would end with Lenin's death – as Joseph Stalin consolidated power and became the only individual capable of making decisions. Argument was quashed, the other Bolsheviks purged, and consensus limited to the dictator's will.


Marxist-Leninist theories on education were a brief but provocative experiment in new methods and theories of teaching students, workers, and peasants alike. Teachers in the new Soviet state were encouraged to completely rethink the purpose of education and the motivation behind its necessity. Far from being a place that immediately bent to the will of a dictator (this would come later in the Stalinist era), Lenin appears to have genuinely wanted to completely throw out all convention and tradition in favor of radical new approaches centralizing around socialist ideals rather than subjects like arithmetic and language arts. The Bolshevik initiative in creating mass literacy was moderately successful, and in the first years after the formation of the U.S.S.R. there indeed was a great deal of new thought and promise. Access to schooling for children increased dramatically, and the socialist ideal of equality of educational opportunity was several steps closer. All this idealism would come crashing down with stagnation of the economy and a complete lack of consensus on the curriculum as well as total confusion in its implementation.

In 1928, well after Lenin's death, the Soviet Union disposed of its new 'complex themes' curriculum and reverted to a more traditional model favoring strict classroom instruction in vocational skills. Although Lenin did favor vocational training during his lifetime, when coupled with the new curriculum the resulting instruction became unwieldy and difficult for instructor and student alike. What is left, then, is a historical reminder of the costs of and practical difficulties of societal change. Perhaps in a world not dependent upon markets or industry such experimentation might have proved more fruitful, but the early socialist educational model, while increasing access to basic education for many more Soviet children and increasing societal literacy, was doomed to fall victim to the necessity to compete with a hostile, capitalist world.


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