British Artist Seeks Former Teachers of Marxism

A Marx bust in Chemnitz, Germany, where Collins went looking for teachers.

Twenty years ago, capitalism seemed to have won as one by one the former socialist states collapsed and turned away from Marx looking instead toward the dollar and the market. With capitalism looking less than healthy these days after a year of financial turmoil, Turner Prize-nominated British artist Phil Collins is seeking out former teachers of Marxism in Russia and Germany to look at their perspective on a world without socialism.

 “With the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and all the changes that have occurred all over Europe in the past 20 years, I started wondering what happened to the Marxist teachers after 1989. Did they retrain? Did they get new jobs?” Collins said in a phone interview from Berlin, adding that there was increasing interest in Marxist economic theory in the U.K. and Germany.

During the first part of the project, Collins plans to seek out and film interviews with former Russian and East German teachers of Marxism and Leninism.

“It doesn’t matter who these late Marxist teachers are now. They could be physical education teachers or businessmen,” Collins said. “I’d like to see how their relationship to Marxism has changed over time, whether people believed in Marxism in the 1960s-1970s more than in the 1980s. When did the disillusionment start?”

In the Soviet Union, children began to study Marxism-Leninism in school as part of history classes and continued at university where Marxism was taught under different titles, such as Marxist-Leninist Philosophy, Political Economy, Scientific Communism and Historical and Dialectical Materialism.

One former teacher of Marxism who has not been seduced by the capitalist way of thinking is Boris Kagarlitsky, a political commentator and director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements. He was skeptical about finding any real teachers of Marxism, saying there were few believers in the 1980s and most were able to adapt to the new capitalist world of 20 years ago.

“I don’t know one person who was teaching Marxist-Leninist theory before 1991 who has suffered from the collapse of the Soviet Union,” he said. “All these people simply turned into political scientists and began teaching anti-Communism. Since none of them ever believed in Marxism, they just changed the sign on their university department’s door to ‘Political Science.’”

“Today in Russia, there are as many political scientists as there once were Marxist teachers. These people were a tool of governmental propaganda and continue to be one today,” he said.

Collins will ask the Russian Communist Party, the History Museum and Moscow State University for help in finding former teachers of Marxism in Moscow. As part of his research, Collins has already been to Chemnitz, Germany, which used to be called Karl Marx Stadt. He found two former Marxist teachers, one now working as a sociologist, the other a translator for immigrants.

Once the teachers have been found, Collins will bring three to Manchester, where they will teach Marxism to contemporary British teenagers. Collins chose Manchester for its connection to Marx, who met with Friedrich Engels, his co-author of “The Communist Manifesto,” in the northern English city.

“They will teach Marxism to students in private and public schools as if they were still in 1988-89. This should also help us reveal the differences among the social classes in Britain, the way class still divides the country,” Collins said.

“This phase of the project will focus on conversations between the Marxist teachers and the contemporary teenagers — whether they will be able to understand each other, what questions will arise,” he said.

“Teaching is a very intimate, wonderful thing to witness. I am looking forward to witnessing the dynamic

in the classroom.”

Kagarlitsky was skeptical about the idea.

“Russian students, who went to school after 1989 and who have at least some knowledge of Marxism, were educated in the U.S. or the U.K., where Marxism is still taught — and is taught well,” he said. “I have no doubt that former teachers of Marxism would be happy to join Collins on a free trip to England, but I doubt that they will be able to teach local kids anything, since they have no significant knowledge of Marxism themselves.”

Collins has been making documentary films since 1999 working all over the world including in Serbia, Kosovo, Iraq, Turkey and South America.

His most well-known works are “Baghdad Screen Tests” (2002), where he filmed Iraqis prior to the U.S. invasion, “They Shoot Horses” (2004), where nine Palestinians take part in a disco-dance marathon, and “The World Won’t Listen” (2005), where young people in South America, Turkey and Indonesia perform songs by Manchester cult band The Smiths on karaoke.

Collins says “Marxism Today” is not meant to propagate a certain view of Marxism but is “about giving tribute to history, seeing what happened to the ex-Marxist teachers over the last 20 years, about their dialogue with modern-era school kids.”

The 60-minute film “Marxism Today” will be shown at the Berlin Biennale next year.

Any Marxist teacher who wants to take part in the film can contact Phil Collins by e-mailing him in Russian or English at marxtoday@mail.ru. For more info, see www.shadylaneproductions.co.uk.