This study unit for IB History is designed not simply to provide an essential ideological introduction to a proper understanding of the 1917 October Revolution.
In addition, it helps students to form their own judgements about the respective merits of left- and right-wing ideas about how society and economy should be organised.
The outcome of the unit is that each student produces a 'Beginner's Guide to Marxism' that they can refer back to at different points in the course.
Sample projects can be seen here [sample 1 by Chris] | [sample 2 by Mark].
An introduction to the "Marxism for Beginners" project
A couple of PowerPoint slides outlining that the project will consist of producing a guide to Marxism covering the following areas. Students will use tables, mindmaps, diagrams as appropriate to illustrate comparisons and contrasts in the most effective way possible.
- How does Capitalism Work?
- Criticisms of Capitalism
- Marx's Solution - Socialism
- The Contribution of Lenin
- Other Forms of Socialism
- Criticisms of Socialism / Defence of Capitalism
Mark Steel's Video Documentary on Marxism and accompanying worksheet
I set this as a homework task and discuss the answers in class afterwards, but if time allows it's a good one to watch together. Mark Steel approaches the topic with rigour but also with humour.
Roleplay/Game Activity: Marxism through Arm-Wrestling!
This activity easily fills a full hour and is a very lively and interesting exercise. Students act out a roleplay over several rounds which is deliberately designed to illustrate the Marxist conception of how free market economies function. Through arm-wrestling and games of 'split or steal', the bourgeois class quickly emerges. Thereafter, attempts to maximise profits drives down wages, discriminates against smaller traders and generally creates a class of disaffected, exploited proletarians.
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists: Reading and Comprehension Exercise
An extract from the excellent novel by Robert Tressell and some accompanying questions forms the ideal follow-up to the roleplay activity above.
Teacher-Led Lecture: The Contribution of Lenin to Marxism
This presentation, including two illustrative video clips, outlines the development of revolutionary parties in Russia and then focuses on Lenin's specific contribution to the Marxist canon. It also covers the split in the Social Democratic movement between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks which will become important when we later look at the October Revolution.
In Defence of Capitalism / Criticisms of Marxism
It is very important that in a study of this kind students are reminded that an understanding of Marxist thought does not necessarily mean agreement with it. In this exercise students are presented with a series of common criticisms of Marxism and points in defence of the free market. They are then asked to consider how and if a Marxist could effectively respond to these criticisms. Before tackling this worksheet I like to watch the following classic movie in defence of the capitalist free market system: "I, Pencil".
Individual Research phase - Other Forms of Socialism: The Contributions of Trotsky, Stalin and Mao
Looking ahead to our later IB studies of Trotsky, Stalin and Mao, this activity encourages students to consider how other key communist figures added their own twists to Marxist ideology. Students conduct their own research and feed back in small groups with their findings.
Concluding Discussion: Which side of this argument do you agree with?
Students should then be given some time to work on their "Marxism for Beginners" guides. During this process, they should watch the following clip from the excellent film "The Edukators" in which some communist kidnappers try to shame their capitalist captive into admitting that he was not only wrong to make an insurance claim against one of their group for a car accident, but that his whole economic system is flawed. Which students side with the capitalist? Which with the communists? Why?
Other resources for the individual project phase
The links below provide valuable extra material for research. I allocate different students to watch a different clip and then work in pairs and small groups to compare their findings.