Karl Marx’s View on Agency and What the Individual Can Do to Effect Social Change

Last Friday, I went to an Education conference to talk about my book Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child. It is a book which emphasizes that questions whether schools can change as fast as school reformers have often wish. The point is to explain that as bureaucracies, schools are embedded in persistent habitus, which resists changes, even of the most articulate and passionate reformers.

Somehow, this degenerated into a discussion of what social scientists call agency. “Agency” is a view that social science has a responsibility to empower students and others for change–however change is defined.  In other words, social science should give actors the intellectual tools to force change.  It is the idea that the smart and passionate people (such as those at the conference) can come together and bring desirable change—if the will is enough. Such reformers often quote the young Karl Marx who in 1845 wrote in “Theses on Feurbach” the following:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it

The quote is so influential, that in 1956 when Marx’ bod) was placed in a new tomb in Highgate Cemetery in England, the quote was one of two placed on his tomb. The quote is often used to justify the idea that social science can, should, and must be used bring about social change. For the woman at my session, this change was to be toward a more democratic schooling system. My book says something different though, in particular there are limits to what bureaucratic structures can achieve, particularly in the schools.  Somehow, I couldn’t persuade her that not all things were possible, even when good people were equipped by social science with better knowledge.

So I changed the point, and started to quote Marx, but not from his 1845 writings, or even from the Manifesto of the Communist Party written in 1848 in which he insisted a worker’s rebellion was imminent. Rather, I inartfully tried to quote from the “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” which Marx published in 1852. Unlike in his earlier writings, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” was about disappointments, and why revolutionary change is so difficult. What had of course happened between 1845 when Marx wrote about change, and 1848 when Marx predicted revolution in Europe, was that the conservative bourgeois capitalists had won elections in France and elsewhere.  These elections effectively announced the end of the revolutionary era described in “The Manifesto of the Communist Party” in 1848. Big oops, and so Marx had some explaining to do. So here is what the contrite Marx wrote in “The 18th Brumaire” after his revolutionary dreams were dashed, at least for the time being:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.


And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the [French] Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the [French] Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95.


In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.

But not recalling something as intimate as your mother tongue is tough.  How many people truly do it?  Very very few.  How many societies forget the habitus of the past?  Equally few.  As someone who has learned new languages, I know that the last section is particularly true. I can never really drop my American English ways of thinking and translating, even if I am generating the most articulate Thai I can conjure. And after 28 years of living in the United States and speaking English fluently, my wife still finds herself reverting to German rhetorical styles, which only have after 28 years have come to recognize as such. In the same way, our schools do not forget the mistakes of old, and repeat them, always waiting for past practices to no longer be recalled.

In the same way, the old ancient habits of our first grade teachers, wonderful though they were, push against the efforts of reformers to introduce revolutionize themselves. For example, the habitus that my own first grade teacher, Mrs. Skagen, who was born in 1912 and herself went to first grade 1918-1919, modeled for me in 1964-1965, still influence me today. And indirectly I suppose that Mrs. Skagen’s first grade teacher, born perhaps during the American Civil War (1861-1865), or shortly after, are one of the sources of what she did to me. I have a hard time imagining that what Mrs. Skagen passed on to me, or what her teacher passed on to her is a “nightmare” as Marx put it, but still it gives life to the difficult tasks agents of change confront. Or as Marx gloomily put it:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

   I guess that what this also means is that I do not believe with the young Marx, that the only point of philosophy, social science, and learning is to change the world. Sometimes it is just to understand the world. And that is a noble enough task!

    I just wish that at that conference I had been as articulate as Marx was, or for that matter, Mrs. Skagen!

Originally posted at Ethnography.com on October 15, 2015.  Modified and edited September 9, 2016.

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