From International Socialism (1st series), No.24, Spring 1966, pp.25-26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
The local Centres for Socialist Education now being formed need to find a method of work that will knit flesh to the bare generalities with which the national Centre was launched. It is not easy. There is a strong temptation to interpret its declared aim of ‘aiding the labour movement’ as the convening of ‘seminars and study groups, which would publish papers, articles, books and popular pamphlets, and which would create the necessary administrative machinery to underpin such activity’ (Ralph Miliband at the founding meeting, reported in the CSE Bulletin, No.1); or as ‘the promotion of trade-union classes’ (John Saville, Ibid.); or as the formulation of ‘counter-plans’ to the Government’s (e.g., Charles Posner, Ibid.). It is a temptation to which it would be a pity to succumb.
Socialist education should be more than a transfer of skills and analytical tools between individuals. That might do for education within the traditional framework and for traditional ends. But in our case the ends are revolutionary and the industrial militants to whom our efforts are addressed do not deal with the world as individuals. The essence of their militancy lies in the collective frame to their actions, and the essence of their understanding lies in society’s felt vulnerability to collective action. For the CSE to stress individual membership, and to draft workers to classes, seminars and suchlike would be to ignore these peculiarities. Instead of aping academism, it ought to steer as closely as it possibly can to the sources of collective action – the factories – and to gear its programme minutely to initiating and servicing such action.
Two problems arise. In practice it is extremely difficult for ‘unauthorised persons’ to get anywhere near a factory, particularly for such unauthorised purposes. But it is not impossible. Classes have been held under the umbrella of regular shop-stewards’ committee meetings or in the form of regular lunch-time gatherings or, at worst, in a neighbouring cafe or pub after work. Admittedly, they have not been too frequent, nor are they likely to be in the near future, and local CSEs will need to compromise by soliciting invitations from branches. But the aim ought to be clear and overt, for out of this sort of infiltration into the very roots of the living labour movement there ought to emerge more ambitious projects for working-class action-cum-education.
The second difficulty relates to the content of our services. What does one take to the factories and branches?; ‘Counter-plans’? ‘Classes concerned with trade-union matters’? – or politics? The first two seem logical enough: political consciousness is at a low ebb, the CSE is too broadly constituted to speak coherently in active political terms, and what experience we have seems to suggest that it is ‘the promotion of educational classes concerned with trade-union matters that has provided the most useful contact ...’ (Saville, loc. Cit.)
But the argument is not all one way. Full employment, rapid technical change, planned restructuring of the economy, the growth of self-contained business empires and related developments have broken the uniformities of working conditions into a thousand unique situations. Partly as a consequence, the trade-union movement has fragmented into a thousand uncoordinated, unrelated struggles, mutually unaffected in any direct way. The results can be seen in the growth in influence of shop-stewards’ committees with starkly local interests at the expense of the traditional trade-union machines whose scope and outlook on bread-and-butter issues are naturally wider. They can be seen in the electoral popularity of overtly anti-working-class policies and actions on the part of the present Labour Government; or in the indifference, except in the most general terms, shown by members of one trade to the problems of others. Indeed, anything else would be surprising. It is only at times of extreme social crisis that working conditions are pressed into conformity; and only at related times of near revolution that trade-union issues can transcend the insularities of separate unions and workshop organisations.
We are not in such a situation. For the moment the fabric of class-consciousness is held together, loosely, by a few threads of political attitudes held in common: opposition to wage restraint, defensiveness in the face of threats to factory organisation, or of anti-trade-union legislation, vague expectancy from the Labour Government on a consumer level. Local CSEs should adjust to this reality: instead of trying to weave a general trade-union consciousness out of too lightweight a thread, they ought to concentrate on the generalities of politics.
This does not mean that CSEs should shy from offering a service – lectures, pamphlets – of narrowly local interest, such as analyses of particular firms’ balance sheets, or of an industry’s economic state, or of the range of wage-rates for comparable jobs. On the contrary, when we deal with trade-union matters we should do so at the lowest level of generality. But when we rise above that level, there is at present no substitute for naked politics. It is politics that provides the channels for class consciousness for the moment. And it is politics that provides armour for the interminable trench warfare on the trade-union front in which workers probe so effectively the nature and weaknesses of class society.
Last updated on 15.5.2008