A Pedagogy of the Collective – From the Soviet Union to Latin America: Makarenko, His Life and Work

“For twelve years you have laboured, and the results of those labours are priceless. Your revolutionary and astonishingly successful pedagogical experiment is, in my opinion, of world-wide significance.” 

Maxim Gorky to A.S. Makarenko, January 30, 19331Y.N. Medinsky, Makarenko, His Life and Work: Articles, Talks and Reminiscences, (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2004), 31.

“I was drawn to Makarenko because of the population he was working with, the unwanted, the kids who were rejected from society. It was like the sem terrinha [little landless children].”

Marli Zimmerman, educational leader of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST)2Rebecca Tarlau, Occupying Schools, Occupying Land: How the Landless Workers’ Movement Transformed Brazilian Education, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 55. 

Generally, when we think about revolutionary pedagogical philosophies, one name and one book eclipses all. Testament to its compelling critique of capitalist and colonial education and revolutionary call to combat dehumanisation, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) is one of the most cited works in the social sciences, with Freire himself being a spiritual and intellectual guide for many aspiring educators.  

Outside Freire, two other giants of pedagogy feature highly in the social sciences: the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the American philosopher John Dewey. Important as they are, in the field of pedagogy they tend to overshadow work from equally significant people and theories that generally sit outside the Western canon. Soviet educator Anton Semyonovich Makarenko, whose revolutionary work is recorded so succinctly in the seemingly forgotten compendium, Makarenko, His Life and Work (1963), is one such figure.

The book, like this review, is split broadly in two parts. The first contextualises Makarenko’s life and work through a collection of narratives and memoirs from academics, colleagues, and former students. The second contains a selection of lectures and works by Makarenko himself. What follows is an attempt to capture the essence of Makarenko and his extraordinary intervention in revolutionary education, as well as an exploration of its continued significance.

The Gorky Colony

Part one opens with four short biographical sketches from Professor Y.N. Medinsky (author of Public Education in the USSR). Among these is the remarkable story of the ‘Colony for Juvenile Delinquents’. Founded by Makarenko in 1919 and situated six kilometres from Poltava, Ukraine, the colony was a 100-acre plot of land with dilapidated and ransacked buildings, whose “fruit trees had even been dug up and removed”.3Makarenko, His Life and Work, 13. The first cohort was a group of 15 to 18-year-old boys:

These boys loafed about, stayed out at nights, and openly defied the teachers. Acts of robbery were committed in the evenings… Food and money were stolen even from the colony. At times knife fights broke out.4Makarenko, His Life and Work, 14.

Unperturbed by the formidable challenge, Makarenko, instead of expelling these boys, formed a core of activists from the group and gave them the job of guarding the forest from illegal felling. This early intervention was an important first step in forming the collective. As Makarenko wrote, “[t]he guarding of the state forest raised us considerably in our own estimation, [and] provided us with extremely entertaining work.”5Makarenko, His Life and Work, 14. The renaming of the colony to ‘The Gorky Colony’ in 1920 (after Makarenko’s personal hero Maxim Gorky) was symbolic of the transformation that had taken place. In just one year, the colony had restored a half-ruined ex-landowner estate into a fully self-sufficient farm. These opening manoeuvres, carefully planned and executed by Makarenko, were central to the consolidation of the collective, and built a solid foundation for further pedagogical work.

Due to these early successes, more young offenders were sent to Makarenko, but this brought new challenges. After a spate of robberies on the commune’s food supplies and anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish communards, several new colonists had to be removed. While Makarenko and his colleagues considered these expulsions a failing in his pedagogical methods, the immaturity of the colony was also a major factor. However, “fighting the doubts that assailed him from time to time, he displayed supreme self-control and encouraged the weary teachers.”6Makarenko, His Life and Work, 16. Indeed, only two years after its founding:

… the colony had one hundred and twenty-four inmates. The farm, too, had grown, now having sixteen cows, about fifty pigs, eight horses, a large kitchen-garden, and a considerable area (up to seventy hectares) under grain crops. An agronomist was employed to run the farm, and he organised proper crop rotation and field work.7Makarenko, His Life and Work, 16.

This short introduction barely scratches the surface of Medinsky’s provocative opening vignettes. From the Gorkyites takeover of the nearby Kuryazh Colony to the formation of the Dzerzhinsky Commune in 1927 and Gorky’s eventual visit in 1928, what emerges is the story of a revolution within a revolution. This constant development, so characteristic of Makarenko’s broader vision, was driven by Gorky’s philosophy of the human, in which every person had “a vast range of possibilities”. As such, Makarenko was always conscious of the potential for arrested development. “Material well-being could not be an end in itself”, Medinsky writes, “it was simply one of the conditions necessary for the development of the human being, who strains towards the wide, light-filled spaces.”8Makarenko, His Life and Work, 21.

Followers of Freire have much to gain from Makarenko. For while the two pedagogues depart in a number of ways, writing in 1985 Freire illustrates similar ideas regarding fundamental questions like revolution and the human:

Because men are historical beings, incomplete and conscious of being incomplete, revolution is as natural and permanent a human dimension as education. Only a mechanistic mentality holds that education can cease at a certain point, or that revolution can be halted when it attains power. To be authentic, revolution must be a continuous event. Otherwise it will cease to be revolution, and will become sclerotic bureaucracy.9Paulo Freire, The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1985), 89.

The second section of part one extends Medinsky’s fascinating introduction through a series of short biographies by former students and colleagues. ‘My Teacher’ by the commune’s farming specialist, Nikolai Ferre, offers an amusing tale of an “inventive thief” and a prized melon called “The Commissar”. In ‘Who is Alyosha Ziryansky’, a former student tells the story of a controversial trip to Sochi. And Kladvia Boriskina recounts a touching story about the Dzerzhinsky Commune’s amateur theatrical group and her dreams of becoming an actress.

What becomes clear throughout these vignettes is Makarenko’s flexible and always evolving approach to justice and discipline. His approach never rested on a one-size-fits-all policy. Instead – and representative of a profoundly dialogical program – he guided and was guided by the collective majority. Again, this hinged on his conception of the human, as Nikolai Ferre summarises:

Thus, in the practice of everyday life, did Makarenko evolve his system of education. Its most important feature was consideration for “the human being in the child”, its flexibility and the absence of a stereotyped approach to the children.10Makarenko, His Life and Work, 104.

So striking in these first-hand testimonies is how Makarenko, His Life and Work is not only an important document for educators, but also holds lessons about how a pedagogy of collectiveness and work can be used in alternative models of transformative justice. Indeed, the colony’s name change reflected a deeper transformative experience. Makarenko’s pedagogy of the collective is summed up most succinctly in Gorky’s first letter to the colony in 1925, in which he wrote, “This is really a system of re-education, and that is what it always can and should be, especially in our day. Away with yesterday and all its dirt and spiritual squalor.”11Makarenko, His Life and Work, 20.

In His Own Words

Makarenko’s lectures in the second part of the book deal with parental discipline, sex education, and play in relation to an overarching pedagogy of work. Although these are all worth revisiting for parents and educators alike, his philosophy of the collective is arguably his most significant legacy and documented most clearly in his lecture ‘My Experience’.

“The first characteristic of a collective”, writes Makarenko, “is that it is not a crowd, but a rationally organised and effective body.”12Makarenko, His Life and Work, 246. Expounding his theory of the collective, Makarenko argues that the first step in organising any collective is founding “the primary collective” that cannot be further split into smaller units. In other words, a commune would be made up of several of these collectives, or “detachments”. In his experience, the primary collective worked best with seven or less people (any more than this and it tended to split into smaller groups). With older communards leaving and new ones joining fairly regularly, Makarenko continues by outlining some thoughts on how to preserve a collective over time, the problems they face (e.g., do you separate them by age? Who is the leader? etc), as well as some success stories from his own pedagogical program. Overall, he suggests that an ideal collective is:

… one that feels itself to be united, closely-knit, and strong, while at the same time realising that this is not a group of friends who have come to some arrangement, but a phenomenon of a social type, a community, a body having certain obligations, a certain duty, a certain responsibility.13Makarenko, His Life and Work, 246-7.

The purpose of Makarenko’s pedagogy of the collective was to instil a sense of community and duty to each other, of humility and mutual respect, of interdependence and communal self-governance. In short, it was itself a revolution against the arrogance and individualism that so characterises capitalist ideology. From this perspective it becomes clearer why Makarenko’s counter-hegemonic methods have gone largely unacknowledged in the Western world. His legacy, however, has survived in different forms across two major communist movements in Latin America: Revolutionary Cuba and Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST).

Revolutionary Pedagogy in Cuba

In the years immediately following the revolution, one of Cuba’s most remarkable achievements was its mass literacy program, which saw the eradication of basic illiteracy in just one year (1960-1961).14Helen Yaffe, Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 77. This campaign was driven by José Martí’s maxim that “to be educated is the only way to be free”, alongside Cuba’s philosophy of the New Man. As Che Guevara wrote:

Education is increasingly integral and we do not neglect the incorporation of the students into work from the very beginning. Our scholarship students do physical work during vacation or together with their studies. In some cases work is a prize, while in others it is an educational tool; it is never a punishment. A new generation is born.

The emphasis on the integration of study and work twinned with the reconceptualisation of Man echoes the central tenets of Makarenko’s pedagogy. In fact, Cuba appears to be one of the first countries outside the Soviet Union to integrate a Makarenkian pedagogy into its educational vision.

In 1962, after the mass literacy campaign had been completed, a network of teacher training schools known as Minas-Topes-Tarará was established across the island. This ‘chain’ of schools offered its trainee teachers a versatile educational program that encompassed not just the Cuban landscape but the national class contradictions that still existed. In other words, it was an extension of the pedagogy enshrined in the literacy campaign as outlined so powerfully by Fidel Castro in his talk to the teacher’s brigade about teaching the campesinos in rural Cuba in May, 1961:

you are going to teach, but as you teach, you will also learn. You are going to learn much more than you can possibly teach… Because while you teach them what you have learned in school, they will be teaching you what they have learned from the hard life that they have led. They will teach you the “why” of the revolution better than any speech, better than any book.

 It was the final school in this chain, located in Tarará, Havana that Las Maestras Makarenko (The Makarenko Teachers) were based. Run by central committee member Elena Gil Izquierdo as part of the Plan for the Advancement of Women, the Makarenko Pedagogical Institute was the final, most challenging step for trainee teachers and was designed, as its namesake suggests, to integrate study and work through a Makarenkian pedagogy.15Alexis Lorenzo Ruiz and Xochil Virginia Taylor-Flores, ‘La experiencia pedagógica cubana, ¿una influencia heredada de Makarenko?’ (2013).

Due to a rapidly evolving revolutionary process, the Minas-Topes-Tarará was replaced with a new educational program towards the end of the 1980s. Although the Makarenko Institute closed along with the rest of these schools, it appears to have achieved significant success. Speaking at the graduation ceremony of the Makarenko Institute in 1966, Fidel Castro concluded that, “the revolutionary desire, the socialist desire, the communist desire as an educational ideal which combines study with work has been happily achieved with optimum results”. While explicit references to Makarenko waned in Cuba from around 1990, it was around this time he was picked up elsewhere, in one of the largest workers’ movements in Latin America.

Makarenko in Brazil

Much like the Gorky Colony’s focus on young street waifs, the first schools of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) arose out of a necessity to deal with “hundreds of children running wild”, the sem terrinha (little landless children), in the first land encampments of the MST in the 1970s and 80s.16Rebecca Tarlau, ‘The Social(ist) Pedagogies of the MST: Towards New Relations of Production in the Brazilian Countryside, Education Policy Analysis Archives, 21:41 (2013), 10. In the proceeding decade, significant national coordination culminated in a unified 1997 manifesto on education. However, the MST’s 1996 document ‘Principles of Education’ demonstrates the clearest example of their shared vision with Makarenko’s pedagogy of the collective as a counter to bourgeois individualism:

Most of the time students learn the culture of individualism… it is necessary to have education intentionally based on the culture of cooperation and the creative incorporation of lessons about the history of the collective organization of work.17Rubia Valente and Brian Berry, (2015 ‘Countering Inequality: Brazil’s Movimento Sem-Terra’, Geographical Review, 105:3 (2015), 12.

This consistency is likely more than coincidence. Ever since the Gorky Colony, workers movements outside the West have been interested in the work of Makarenko. Medinsky highlights such interest from a Latin American delegation (Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Peru) who visited the Dzerzhinsky Commune in 1929, writing in the visitors’ book: “The delegation of Latin America is amazed at the achievements to be found in the first proletarian country… where the new man is being created and where a new psychology of the children is being moulded.”18Makarenko, His Life and Work, 32.

While Makarenko’s pedagogy is implied in the MST’s founding educational documents, their education seminars make this more explicit. Educational leader Rubneuza Leandro outlines the importance of Makarenko’s vision and practice for young people in Brazil:

For Makarenko the collective is a living social organism, and because of this, it possesses organs, attributes, responsibilities, correlations, and interdependencies between its parts. If this collectivity does not exist, then it is a crowd, a group of individuals.19Tarlau. Occupying Schools, Occupying Land, 55.

To be sure, a closer look at the organisational structure of the more autonomous MST schools, such as the Educar Institute, reveals a strong Makarenkian influence. These schools are organised into small student collectives called núcleos de base or base nucleuses (NBs) formed of five or six students. These collectives are used in collaboration with Pistrak’s pedagogy of manual labour and Freire’s classroom pedagogy in order to transform the relationships within the school. Issues of discipline, discussions on curriculum and class schedule, and extra-curricular activities are first taken up in NBs, which in turn present the issues to the wider school community.20Rebecca Tarlau, “Soviets in the Countryside: The MST’s Remaking of Socialist Educational Pedagogies in Brazil”, in Logics of Socialist Education: Engaging with Crisis, Insecurity and Uncertainty (New York: Springer Publishing, 2012), 14. Consequently, MST schools practice student self-governance and a type of democratic centralism akin to the detachments or primary collectives elaborated by Makarenko.

One MST militant, Vanderlúcia Simplicio, sums up the importance of Makarenko’s pedagogy of the collective, specifically in combatting alienation. After spending her entire education in a collective, in studying for her masters she had some revealing words about the culture of individualism so prevalent in academia: “classes are just battles of ideas between individuals, and there is less learning than there would be if people were collectively discussing and developing these ideas together.”21Rebecca Tarlau, “Soviets in the Countryside: The MST’s Remaking of Socialist Educational Pedagogies in Brazil”, 17-18.

Fighting Alienation

More than a century after the founding of the Gorky Colony, Makarenko, His Life and Work remains profoundly important. This name and work, either forgotten, ignored, or repressed not only in Western academia but radicalism as well, marks an important foundation for all educators concerned with forwarding a liberatory pedagogy. Furthermore, as Brazil’s MST demonstrate so clearly, the many followers of Paulo Freire have much to learn from Makarenko. A combination of these approaches appears to be a powerful mixture.

As Che Guevara reminds us, we fight poverty but we also fight alienation. In our current era of acutely parasitic capitalism, Makarenko’s pedagogy of the collective is an antidote to the rampant individualism and alienation that poisons every facet of the social body.

For a comprehensive collection of his work, visit the Makarenko Archive.

Alex Turrall is an independent researcher and primary school teacher.