Marxism, Dialectic and Conflict Management

We are happy to share the abstracts for the conference What citizenship education for what democracy? Transnational Perspectives from the 19th to the 21st Century.

Marxism, Dialectic and Conflict Management. West German Business Responses to the International Politicization of Education and Training after ‘1968’

Franziska Rehlinghaus

1. ‘1968’ and a transnational paradigm shift in educational policy

According to Marcel van der Linden, the transnational, left-wing protests of various actors around 1968 had three main reasons: the decolonisation processes, the economic downturn in 1966/67, and the expansion of education. Especially the last two factors had an enormous influence on the politicisation of educational issues in a transnational perspective. After World War II, American human capital theories were widespread and became influential for educational policy inside the OECD. The member states accepted the theory that economic growth could be fostered by investment in education which – as an important side effect – would lead to prosperity and social justice.

Accordingly, expenditures in education became the biggest item in the national budgets during the 1960s. Therefore, the OECD members were shocked by the economic recession that demonstrated the lack of a connection between educational investment and economic growth. Manpower forecasting and planning had failed. Additionally, social scientific research had shown that the expansion of education perpetuated social inequalities instead of eliminating them. The protest of civil society groups demonstrated the dissatisfaction with the educational and working system. Such evidence led to a new definition of the purposes of educational policy inside the OECD: Education should no longer be interpreted as a pure function of labour market policy but instead as a cross-sectional task which had to fulfil social demands. The claim for ‘democratisation’ was picked up and reformulated in aims of ‘equal educational opportunity’, ‘life chances’ and ‘development of the individual’. Thus, education became an instrument to create a social transformation according to normative goals. In organisational terms that meant a restructuring of the educational system and the integration of all types of education, including general, vocational and political education and training, under state control.

2. Educational policy as threat and opportunity: Employers‘ reactions

This redefinition of education was adapted by the new social-liberal government in West Germany. The educational reform was in the heart of the democratisation project of society. West German entrepreneurs were not only confronted with state interventions in their internal affairs of vocational education and training but also with left-wing criticism of the power structures in the economy. Social scientists denounced the influence of economic interests in the educational sector with their priorities of technical education and emphasis on aptitudes and performance. The trade unions asked for codetermination rights. Students asked to move away from capitalism and consumerism. The employers had the feeling of losing their prestige and their political agency. Around 1970, the employers‘ association frequently warned against the ‘ideologisation’ of educational questions, because they feared the infiltration of the companies by left-wing graduates and works council members. The reforms of the educational system seemed to boost the power of anti-capitalism. In several lectures und publications company leaders articulated again and again their fear that the political order itself was in danger and that the entrepreneurs and managers must go ‘on the offensive’.

3. Educational practices: The struggle for concepts and communication

It was no coincidence that the company leaders started their offensive in the field of education. Against the claims of the state and various representatives of civil society they formulated an ‘socio-political educational mission’ of West German entrepreneurs. The mission was legitimised by defending the existing political and economic order against the continuous attacks of the New Left. In the following years, several large-scale enterprises implemented ‘socio-political seminars’ in their internal training programmes which addressed managers at different levels of the company’s hierarchy. The German Institute of Industries, an influential think-tank of the West German employers‘ association, started publishing learning material for political education for managers and the public in 1972. The publications informed the public about the different left-wing groups, their goals and strategies. Furthermore, they practised a language criticism by dissecting the meaning of selected concepts such as ‘alienation’, ‘democratisation’, ‘exploitation’ that were often used by left-wing activists. At the same time, they specified the concepts that described the employer’s common ideal of society like ‘progress’, ‘performance’, ‘competition’ and ‘freedom’. The seminars, which were mainly offered by independent training and education institutions, were subsumed under the heading ‘Marxism for managers’. They provided information about the history and development of Marxist theories and traditions or predicted the downfall of the Western world facing enemies within and outside. In doing so, they often did not differentiate between Social Democrats, trade unionists, left students or terrorists which seemed to represent only varieties of the same opposition. The political education for managers thus tried to define the limits of what could be tolerated and said. Furthermore, it aimed at defining a common group identity.

The establishment of speech training was a continuation of political education by other means. Managers had experienced their impotence in debates with left-wing activists who mastered rhetorical techniques easily. The art of ‘dialectic’ advanced to a secret knowledge that promised to gain influence in public debates. In West Germany particularly the Hohenstein Management Institute attracted public attention since 1972 because it offered seminars about ‘dialectic for top managers’ that were led by Jesuit academic teachers. They promoted the training programmes as ethical sensitisation of managers according to the Catholic social teachings. In fact, they imparted rhetorical knowledge for dominating public debates by focusing on personality and behaviour skills. The participants learned to improve their public image by controlling gesture, facial expressions and articulation. Moreover, they learned to imitate Marxist argumentation and persuasion techniques, although certainly without adapting their normative impetus. The techniques of dialectics were used to improve the self-confidence of managers who were encouraged to defend their worldview by politicising their personal behaviour. This form of empowerment was an important element to foster the so-called ‘konservative Tendenzwende’ (conservative turnaround) that was debated around 1974/75 in the West German public and press.

The complement of this form of managerial self-empowerment was the attempt to dominate the training seminars for employee representatives. The new Works Constitution Act of 1972 permitted three weeks of educational leave for member of the works councils to improve their knowledge for a collective representation of employees‘ interests. The trade unions demanded to take the educational leave for a civic education which revealed that industrial conflicts originated in the opposition between capital and labour. Instead, the companies developed training seminars where employee representatives were taught how to manage industrial conflicts harmoniously by avoiding strikes. Conflicts were interpreted as a question of interpersonal relations and communication. Accordingly, the best solution for these conflicts was the change of personal behaviour. The trade unions repeatedly called upon the works councils to boycott the companies‘ training offers. Nevertheless, in times of economic recession and rising unemployment rates, the management had the more effective instruments to realise its educational interests.

4. Summary

The political education in West German companies was a response strategy to the transnational politicisation of educational debates after ‘1968’. The societal conflicts between ‘left-wing’ representatives and economic elites was carried out in the field that company leaders regarded as the distributor of anti-capitalistic sentiments: the educational sector. The companies‘ training offerings advanced to become laboratories of political communication: The issues at stake were the definition and differentiation of political concepts and the power to dominate public discourse as well as the debates inside the companies by using rhetorical tips and tricks. When the leading question of the conference is: What citizenship education for what democracy? then in this case the answer has to be: a communication and conflict-management which focuses on individual behaviour for stabilising a political order where economic activities were not disturbed by codetermination rights and claims for ‘democratisation’.


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