Duncan Hallas

The Ruskin Debate
Their college or ours?

(October 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.93, December 1986, p.21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

CIRCUMSTANCES sometimes produce strange bedfellows. Ruskin College, Oxford, is under attack. One of its staff, David Selbourne, a run of the mill intellectual, has gone over to the so-called libertarian right like so many others.

He is appealing to the capitalist courts to defend his right to contribute to Murdoch’s scab newspapers without being boycotted by the decent element of the student body.

Hugo Young, the right wing Guardian columnist, has given Selbourne’s case unprecedented publicity and support and the government has now got into the act; the minister responsible expressing “great concern” about “academic freedom” at Ruskin.

Of course we have to support Ruskin against these attempts at right wing intimidation. That must be said firmly and unequivocally because we do not, cannot, support the arguments which, for example, Raphael Samuel uses in its defence nor do we, or can we, support the very structure and ideology of Ruskin.

We must actively defend it against the right in spite of, not because of these things.

Ruskin College was founded (in 1899) by an American philanthropist, Walter Voorman. He was a bourgeois radical. The object of the operation was, “extending the benefits of an Oxford education to members of the working class”.

The Workers Educational Association (WE A) was set up four years later with the same notion but with a different method – evening classes. These efforts were supported by the right wing, class collaborationist tendency in the workers’ movement.

Both Ruskin and the WEA soon gained a degree of financial support from the capitalist state. Of course, the whole object of both schemes was to tame and house-break (a term used at the time) working class militants – and it still is.

But in 1906-09 many of the Ruskin students (miners and railwaymen in their majority) began to revolt against this. They were influenced by the beginnings of the great unrest, the biggest strike movement in Britain until then, and by the ferment of ideas triggered off by the Russian revolution of 1905-6.

Their historic strike in 1909, which paralysed Ruskin College, led to the beginnings of what they called Independent Working Class Education. “They demanded that the College abandon teaching Jevons’ economics [i.e. bourgeois economics] and replace it by Marx’s.” Naturally, the college authorities could not concede this – both their university connections and the Keir Hardies forbade it. Most of the students (and the then Principal, Dennis Hurd) broke from Ruskin.

The spirit of the strike is summed up in a couplet that the strikers popularised:

“Oxford, city of dreaming spires,
And bleeding liars.”

In short, the Ruskin strikers came quickly to the notion that there is no impartial social science in a class society, that universities and other state institutions teach bourgeois economics, bourgeois sociology and so on; that, therefore, class conscious workers must control their own education and that it must be independent of the capitalist state and financed exclusively by workers’ organisations.

They adopted a striking sentence from Ruskin as their motto, “I can promise to be candid but not impartial.” Nobody, that is to say, is impartial. You are with us or against us in the class struggle. And academic impartiality is a fraud which serves the boss class.

On this basis the bulk of the students set up their own Labour College which soon moved to London and fought hard (and partly successfully) for trade union support. Still more important was the Plebs League, founded before the strike. It was soon running Marxist classes in South Wales, Lancashire and Scotland. John Maclean was one of the Scottish tutors.

All this might have been merely an episode but for the specific circumstances of the class struggle in Britain at the time. The great unrest was getting underway, and politically the next two decades saw a hard fight between Labourism (class collaborationist, reformist, constitutionalist) and socialism (class struggle and more or less revolutionary) for the allegiance, of newly awakened sections of the working class. The Ruskin/Labour College split played a rather important role in this fight.

In terms of ideas, the Ruskin/WEA tradition (state supported) was firmly on the side of Labourism, the Labour College movement on the side of the socialist left.

But why should a movement primarily concerned with working class education be so significant? (And it was very significant.)

Because of the fragmentation of the left. Syndicalists, BSPers, SLPers, the ILP left and independents could agree in hostility to class collaboration, in rejection of the capitalist state and all its works, in the belief that state education (and the state supported education of Ruskin/WEA) was wrapped up in bourgeois ideology – ’head fixing’ was the popular term. They could not agree on a unified way forward but they could collaborate in the Plebs League/Labour College Marxist classes. And their collaboration was strenghtened by opposition to the imperialist war of 1914-18.

The role played by the Labour College Movement in its various manifestations (Plebs League 1908-27, Central Labour College 1909-29, National Council of Labour Colleges 1921-64) was, on the whole, a very positive one.

Look at the publications of the Plebs League and the NCLC. Mark Starr’s A Worker Looks At History, WW Craiks Outline of a History of the British Working Class Movement, Tom Ashcroft’s History of Modern Imperialism stand out among many others, as basic Marxist texts

We should not idealise these efforts. Having grasped the basic notion of the class struggle in ideas, most of the Labour College theorists did not get beyond a basic ‘them and us’ approach.

The Russian revolution of 1917 and the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920 changed things fundamentally. Although the NCLC was not set up until 1921 (with the support of the whole trade union left) a conflict was built into it from the beginning.

It had two bases of support; first, left union officials, second, CP militants. So long as they stayed together, i.e. until the sell out of the General Strike of 1926, Labour College ideas had more support than Ruskin/WEA ideas in the workers’ movement. The AEU, the NUR, the Boilermakers and the South Wales Miners Federation and a lot of lesser unions were committed to them.

In 1924-5 the NCLC ran 1,048 Marxist classes with 25,071 students – virtually all of them working class militants. The NCLC, together with the CP, conducted a militant opposition to the state-sponsored British Empire Exhibition in 1925. That was the high point. After 1926 the inevitable split developed.

The NCLC became a fake left opposition to the CP and the Ruskin/WEA revived and grew along with the Labour right. The details of this, and its various twists and turns, are a fascinating chapter in the history of our tradition. It was Stalinism that wrecked the (good) chance of continuing the tradition of independent working class education.

So back to Ruskin. It is today a hot-bed of opportunists, cynics and some serious reformists. It depends on government money. But such is the shift to the right in ideas in Britain today that this ‘EETPU’ of ideas is being bashed from the right.

We have to bash the right in reply, in all the unions, colleges and universities where we have influence. Ruskin is not our friend, but our enemies have made it their enemy.


Last updated on 20.12.2004