on the occasion of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Victorian Labor College
Source: Reason in Revolt, Source documents of Australian radicalism
First published: Victorian Labor College Jubilee, 1912-1967
Transcription: Chris Clayton
In a pamphlet published in 1920 by W.P. Earsman, The Proletariat and Education, it is stated: “In 1917 four enthusiasts decided to launch a Labor College and name it the Victorian Labor College. Rooms were granted by the Victorian Railway Union and with no money the founders set out on their task of creating an institution which would be controlled and owned by the workers, and which would assist them to bring about a saner state of society than the present.” The movement spread to other states, Labor Colleges were set up in Brisbane and Sydney. However, in the course of time they apparently lapsed so that after fifty years the Victoria Labor College appears to be the one remaining institution based on the lines of independent working class education.
The reasons which inspired the four enthusiasts of fifty years ago still remain, though with a somewhat greater intensity, for man since 1917 has become more sombre and brutal. In 1917 workers’ education was seen to be of paramount importance due to the vast change that had taken place in the possession of knowledge since the early rise of commercialism. In those days scholars gathered in universities to pursue their studies in common and impart their knowledge to the community. Education was regarded as an end in itself, not, as in our day, a means to an end.
The steady rise of commercialism gathered momentum in greed and profit, emphasising the baser instincts with intense brutality within man’s nature regardless of his moral claims. In the early forties of last century a completely helpless and peaceful agrarian population of China was forced to match arms with the capitalist military technique of the European powers and as a consequence become subjected to periodical massacres in a vain attempt to resist the importation of the opium drug into their country. Finally, by the peace of Tientsin (1858) China was forced into opening her country for the importation of this dread drug, which had already wrought such havoc to its population, for the purpose it served in the creation of huge profits for its capitalist producers.
The conquest of India was no less barbarous in its methods; in fact it was even more brutal than its previous heathen conquerors. The savage Mongol and Tartar hordes at least preserved the cultural life of the country, the communist village community. Only the advent of commercial conquest by Britain assured the destruction of this. It was imperative that it do so, because commercial conquest is based on the inherent necessity of reducing every country it conquers into the same way of life as its own in order that it becomes a market for expansion of the profit system. The forceful transformation of India’s agrarian economy to that of the landowner and impoverished peasants by the British led to the first great famine in India exactly a century ago, “in which over a million people were killed in one district alone,” writes Rosa Luxemburg in “The Accumulation of Capital.”
From this glimpse into history it is easy to grasp how the steady rise of commercialism put an end to any idealic relations existing within the community. The brotherhood relationship existing within the guilds — which now exists in name only with the trade unions which grew out of them — were supplemented through the promotion of private ownership in production to what Marx termed a relationship of “naked cash value.” With this development the class struggle became more revealing than ever before. Inheriting from the last century all the baser instincts of human nature through the rise of commercialism our own century, now more than half gone, has witnessed two global wars brining us near to the Orwellian stage predicted for 1984 of perpetual war!
As already noticed by 1917 the impact of commercialism on education had destroyed any quest for knowledge in advancement of the cultural stage of man. More than ever, education became a matter of class interest, a method whereb6y to advance the interests of capitalism. Government grants were provided for universities where students no longer felt the necessity to impart their knowledge in the community, but to use it solely for their own individual advancement. Over the years, with the advance in technology to industry, this is more emphasised. Study now is not of a general nature but confined to subjects pertaining to the requirements of students for their position in society. The demands made on students through exams have driven many to drugs and many suffer from mind derangements. Due to specialisation, mass-produced doctors, mathematicians, lawyers and such-like come off the chain-belt system as within a factory. Many are the outcrys from the scholarly concerning student illiteracy, which in its turn leads to inability to the clear expression of thought.
This harnessing of education to the necessities of commercialism and its effect on the thought structure of imprisoning it within the conventional forms of capitalism was not unnoticed by Marx. In his writings on capitalism and human alienation, contained in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he remarks as follows:
“Alienation shows itself not merely in the result, but also in the process of production, within productive activity itself …
“In what does this alienation of labor consist? First, that the work is external to the worker, that it is not a part of his nature, that consequently he does not fulfil himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery, not of well-being, does not develop freely a physical and mental energy, but is physically exhausted and mentally debased. The worker therefore feels himself at home only during his leisure, whereas at work he feels homeless. His work is not voluntary but imposed, forced labour. It is not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying other means. Its alien character is clearly shown by the fact that as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion it is avoided like the plague. Finally, the alienated character of work for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his work but work for someone else, that in work he does not belong to himself but to another person.”
In the so-called affluent age alienation becomes even more noticeable. Today in order that workers may become owners of their homes, motor cars and other luxuries produced in modern society, they must mortgage their future through hire purchase agreements with an addition of the payment of extortionate interest rates. This brings with it the compulsion to work long hours of overtime or failing this to look for a second job. In many cases the wife also is compelled into the work force that financial commitments may be met.
Thus the time spent in work for another is not decreased with this so-called progress in the modern age but increased. On top of this is the negative attitude towards struggle against this unnatural existence and the development of a general apathy to anything likely to bring about a collision with existing conditions through fear of getting too far behind in the time-payments. Thus more and more people are being reduced to thinking along the lines of that desired by capitalism.
In proof of this one has only to observe the period of 1917 and the opposition expressed to World War I through rejection of conscription even though enormous propaganda was brought to bear in an effort to show the war as a great human ideal for the ending of war altogether. Fifty years after, not only is support given to conscription for an undeclared war in Vietnam but also with the full understanding that it is a war against “communist aggression!” This implies that the majority now recognise it as the sacred duty to fight with capitalism against its greatest enemy, communism. For communism, another name for socialism, means an end to capitalism through the means of planned methods of production in the interests of all. It matter not that of course this is not the meaning for the war in Vietnam any more than World War I was the war to end all wars. What is important is that commercialism has so reduced the mind to the conventional lies of our civilisation that men now quietly acquiesce to any vile methods being used to exterminate a philosophy which history records as he avowed teaching of the early Christians upon which capitalist morality is supposed to be based.
So inescapable is this deterioration of thought through alienation from the real meaning of life that the great satirist George Orwell’s prediction for 1984 stands out with all its frightful warning. In that year Orwell presumes the world to be at perpetual war. Have we not entered the period of permanent war economy? Orwell has the Ministry of Truth with its three slogans: “War is Peace,” “Fredom is Slavery,” “Freedom is Strength.” Do we not today go to war in the interest of peace? Is not freedom the right to choose one’s master! And is not ignorance the one remaining force that keeps capitalism alive?
It is upon this last slogan, “Ignorance is Strength,” that the entire labor movement should concern itself. Eliminate ignorance through increasing knowledge to the working class through institutions like that of the Victorian Labor College. Only by this method can the thoughts of young men and women transcend the narrow limits of capitalist thought and the workers traverse the path historically destined by history, to the final goal of socialism. Knowledge is power. Labor Colleges, in this present age, are of ever greater importance if mankind is to be saved from barbarism.