From Socialist Worker Review, No.130, April 1990, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
The Search for Enlightenment: The Working Class and Adult Education in the Twentieth Century
ed. Brain Simon
Lawrence and Wishart £19.95
‘MANY SLEEPY trades councils and Labour Parties were astonished by a violent conflict between rival WEA and “Plebs” propagandists, and gained the erroneous idea that a course of lectures would be as exciting as a free fight.’
Not a quotation from this book, but from Cole and Postgate’s, The Common People (1746-1946). It refers to the 1920s and is a good start because Cole (Workers Educational Association) and Postgate (Plebs League and National Council for Labour Colleges) were on opposite sides at the time, yet neither had any doubt that the issue was important. Why?
‘Adult Education’ conjures up impressions of local authority classes in dressmaking, pottery, French or whatever (all very useful, now under Thatcherite attack and to be defended) or of FE courses and perhaps the Open University. These are important to many of us but hardly the stuff of passionate debate, let alone free fights.
The real issue, and the subject of this book, is the class content of adult education. That is, its role in strengthening or opposing capitalist society and therefore, it soon emerged, for or against the right wing in the labour movement.
This is a collection of ten substantial articles by six authors (seven if you count Eddie and Ruth Frow separately, as no doubt you should). For this reviewer the articles by Brian Simon (one plus introduction), the Frows (one), Margaret Cohen (the first of her two) and the three by John Mcllroy are the most important and the most exciting. But read Fieldhouse and Fryer too.
Early in this century the overwhelmingly dominant Liberal/Conservative consensus began to crack. Consensus did not mean agreement about this or that issue. There were sharp conflicts over how to keep and control Ireland and many other issues.
It did mean that the Liberal Party (the classic bourgeois party) and the now thoroughly bourgeoisified Tories could fight out their differences on the assumption that the working class majority of the people had no independent leadership or any possibility of one except in pressure group terms (the Labour Representation Committee/Labour Party from 1900 on).
The ruling class had defeated the ‘unrest’ of the period 1812-22 (by brutal repression), the emerging mass trade unionism of the 1830s and the Chartist movement of the 1840s. They had tamed the craft unions which emerged in the 1850s and 1860s and had ridden the political revolts of the 1860s and the industrial revolts of the late 1880s and early 1890s.
They had also conquered a large part of the world and still dominated a good part of the rest through ‘free trade’ – or market forces as they say today. Their ‘common sense’ ideas saturated nearly all the classes.
All this was shaken to its foundation by the Great Unrest, the working class revolts of 1909-14.
This formed the background to the development of both the Labour Colleges movement, and the state-supported, Workers Educational Association and, to jump ahead, the Workers Educational Trade Union Committee (WETUC).
Ruskin College had been formed in 1899 and the WEA in 1903 but neither matured much before the Great Unrest.
The idea behind the WEA was, according to their founding statement, ‘to extend the benefits of a liberal association to working men’ (women had not yet been thought of). The classes were given by established University lecturers and the content, naturally, was the dominant Liberal/Conservative ideology.
The Labour College Movement, originating from the strike of Ruskin students in 1909, challenged the whole basis of this Liberal, paternalistic ‘education.’
‘Oxford, city of dreaming spires and bleeding liars’, (an early Labour College verse), gives the spirit of the thing.
The teaching was based on what was known as MCH (Materialist Conception of History) against liberal-bourgeois ideology: the theory of value against the dominant marginal utility theory and the state as an instrument of capitalist class rule against the notion of a ‘impartiality’. In short, it was for Marxist ideas against bourgeois ideas.
Incidentally, in spite of the prejudices of many of its supporters, the Labour College Movement was the first to accept women on equal terms.
What about the NCLC and the WEA? The NCLC which had three component parts until 1928-9-the Plebs League; the Central Labour College and district colleges; and, after 1921, the centre run by J.P.M. Millar – grew in the period of working class radicalisation from 1918 to 1926.
The state-supported WEA, and its ‘front organisation’, the Workers Educational Trades Union Committee (WETUC) lagged far behind.
The First World War, the Russian Revolution, the end of the German and Austrian Kaisers and the revolt of the Irish people; all radicalised a wide layer (although still a minority) of working people. This was grist to the mill of the Labour Colleges. Brian Simon calls this the ‘heroic period’ of the Labour College Movement and it lasted, with ups and downs, until 1926-7.
The shattering defeat of the 1926 General Strike not only exposed the limitations of ‘Labour College Marxism’, which was abstract and general, but also enormously strengthened the right wing in the greatly weakened workers’ movement.
The essence of the movement was lost for a long period after the defeat of the General Strike.
We come back to the question of the Communist Party in the 1920s and 1930s. There can be no independent working class educational movement unless there is a sizeable revolutionary party. True, the NCLC survived until 1964. But from 1934 onwards the CP, moving rightwards, effectively shifted its emphasis towards its own ‘Marx House’ operation and then to the WEA.
Last updated on 29 May 2010