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A.J. Muste

Some Notes on Workers’ Education

(December 1935)

From New International, Vol. 2 No. 7, December 1935, pp. 225–227.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

WORKERS’ education in the United States, as far as the AF of L and its unions are concerned, was virtually non-xistent up to 1918. A local of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, a few small enterprises of the Women’s Trade Union League, constituted the only exceptions. But during 1918 to 1921 scores of local labor colleges were founded; the ILGWU and some other internationals, several state federations of labor founded educational departments; Brookwood Labor College was founded, and the Workers Education Bureau, calculated to coordinate activities of these new enterprises, was set up. Workers’ education was a subject for discussion in the AF of L conventions. All of these enterprises were launched, however, not by the “regulars” in the unions but by the progressives of that period such as Maurer, then president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor, Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Federation of Labor, Brophy of the United Mine Workers, Fannia Cohn of the ILGWU and Lefkowitz of the newly born Teachers Union. They stood for industrial unionism, aggressive organizing work, militant strike activity and independent political action (some were socialists, some for a labor party), as well as for workers’ education.

It was natural that the conservative craft unionists, lacking in class-consciousness, concerned about the immediate economic issue between the boss and the worker, and not interested in the broader social or political issues, should believe that our “great public school system” did and could give American citizens everything they needed in the way of education. The locomotive engineers had a larger percentage of children in high schools and colleges than any other occupational group. They and their fellows in the unions shared the vague, warm American faith, before the war universally and still widely held, that “education” can solve all problems. They thought of the public school system as a people’s, not a class institution. They were not themselves aware of any class needs which it could not be expected readily to fill.

As soon as elements developed in the trade union movement who sought to deal with the needs of the growing numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled workers, who, therefore, encountered more open resistance from the state, who were confronted with social issues which could not be disposed of in a wage conference between an individual employer and his workers, and who, therefore, tried to develop independent political action in the interest of labor, they also quickly sensed that the school boards dominated by Republican and Democratic politicians were not going to provide workers with the kind of knowledge of emerging social issues which they needed. Thus they turned enthusiastically to workers’ education.

That a dawning class-consciousness motivated this concern for workers’ education is illustrated by the discussion of adult education versus workers’ education which frequently occurred in this period. The liberals of the time, who were eager to do something toward bringing about that new world which the masses had been told would result from their participation in the war, stated in effect:

“Yes, our public school system no longer meets the needs of the workers and the trade unionists. The trouble is simply that we have assumed that ‘education’ ends when a youth emerges from high school or college. But the fact is that education must be a continuous process through the entire life time. Especially in a rapidly changing world such as ours education must be thus continuous. What we learned about the atoms or about the poor in college twenty-five years ago has become outmoded. We adults must go to school again, therefore. But this does not apply to workers only but to all of us.”

Some among the workers’ education movement agreed in substance with that position and stated that it was necessary for the unions to set up classes for the time being simply because the public schools and the colleges had been slow in meeting the new needs; but they must be made aware of the new task as quickly as possible. These elements turned to the Extension Departments of the universities to take over the infant workers’ education movement and were profuse in their “gratitude” when swanky Bryn Mawr College rented its grounds for a few weeks in the summer to a summer school for women workers in industry.

There were, however, others in the post-war workers’ education movement who had somewhat deeper glimpses of the problem. One of them put it to an audience of workers:

“You have to have unions to protect your interest against the boss; and the boss-controlled company union, therefore, won’t do. You also have to vote as you strike; a boss-controlled political party won’t do. But if all the ideas you get in your head are boss ideas you will be at his mercy anyway. You have to have your own schools, therefore, under your own control, to teach you how to cope with the boss and make a new world.”

Yet these progressives were not entirely clear about their position, nor aware of all its implications, as was presently demonstrated. The officialdom of the AF of L did not contribute to the development of the early workers’ education enterprises to which we have referred. At first they were disposed to regard them as a frill or fad like so many others “produced by the war”. When the movement experienced a mushroom growth they began to regard it as a danger and after the manner of bureaucracies took steps to gain control. Led by Matthew Woll, the AF of L Executive Council first entered into a “partnership” with the Workers Education Bureau which gave the AF of L a minority representation on the Bureau’s Executive, and the Bureau in turn got a mild benediction from the AF of L, which to some extent facilitated the approach of the workers’ educationalists to the unions. But this inevitably constituted an unstable equilibrium.

Where the conservative AF of L officials got control of local labor colleges, for example, they soon died off. The officials demanded that the classes teach nothing not approved by them, which meant the exclusion of all subjects that really interested the students; or else the moral and financial support of the union was withdrawn from the classes or even active persecution of the students resorted to. Naturally the enterprises which escaped the blighting touch of the officialdom were those which had a more clear-cut progressive or radical outlook, or acquired it in the course of the conflict with the bureaucracy. These elements accordingly gained increasing influence in the Workers Education Bureau. When a convention of the Bureau clearly revealed this trend to the AF of L executives, they took more direct and aggressive measures to acquire control. Delegates were brought to the next convention from international unions which had never had the slightest interest in the movement, the constitution of the Bureau was amended, the progressives were kicked out. Brookwood Labor College, which had been the leading force among the progressives in the movement, was condemned as “communistic, atheistic and anti-AF of L”, and unions were urged not to give it money or to send students.

When the AF of L attack on Brookwood came there was a difference of opinion in its Board of Directors as to the way to meet the attack. One extreme was for replying to the AF of L Executive:

“Yes, we are really your enemies. We stand on a philosophy of class-struggle, you are class-collaborationists. But we represent the real interest of the workers and therefore we insist you have no right to isolate us from the trade union movement.”

The other extreme in the Board was for saying:

“We are simply educators. We present the facts to our students and the various philosophies in the labor movement, and then they judge for themselves. The result is that some are working as conservative trade unionists, others as communists.”

The main line of the reply was actually a compromise. It went like this:

“Yes. there are differing philosophies in the labor movement. You represent one, we another. But you claim that the trade union movement is democratic. You have no right to kick us out, therefore, unless you ran prove we are traitors. Furthermore, we are educators. You fight the open-shoppers, etc. and insist on ‘academic freedom’ in the public schools and colleges. You cannot now turn about and deny us ‘freedom of teaching’ within the trade union movement.”

The AF of L, then experiencing its extreme swing to the right under the Coolidge-Hoover boom, naturally rode rough-shod over all the protests. Brookwood in the period from 1928 to 1933 survived in part on the momentum of its past, but fundamentally because it found support in, and, on the other hand, gave inspiration to, the few progressive, militant elements left in the labor movement – apart of course from those which were in the wilderness with the Stalinists during the Third Period. Outside of this there was no labor movement in that period which could make any use of workers’ education.

The crisis of 1933 at Brookwood was again centered upon the question as to which tendency in the labor movement – reformist or revolutionary – the institution would serve. The crisis in the capitalist world and in the labor movement (advent of Fascism, etc.) forced the issue. Under cover of the formula that the school was allied with “the more progressive” forces in the labor movement but was “non-partisan in its teaching”, the trade union majority of the Board swung the school into the orbit of the social-democracy, where it now revolves. It is not without significance that the Stalinists helped them do it.

This recital of certain major developments in the workers’ education movement, especially as related to the trade unions, has more than historical interest. It sheds important light on developments now under way.

During the past two years there has been a substantial revival in workers’ education activity among the unions. As in the period of the war and the years immediately following, this revival followed upon the influx of large numbers of new members, especially the unskilled and semi-skilled, into the unions. It is furthermore supported by the same tendency in the labor movement, though in the main the individuals are of course new, namely by those who stand for industrial unionism, aggressive organizing work, who, since they deal with the masses and not the skilled aristocracy, have to concern themselves with larger social issues and thus support or are inclined to support independent political action.

At the moment there is, however, an interesting variant The federal administration itself in connection with its unemployment program is carrying on an extensive series of workers’ educational enterprises. These classes have in the main been “freer” than those conducted by the unions themselves. Radical students and teachers are not interfered with; no restrictions are enforced in connection with reference material; all points of view are presented and discussed, etc. Mr. Hearst has given some attention to the question but so far apparently without throwing the administration into a panic.

This development must be considered in connection with the policy of the Roosevelt administration toward unionism itself. As has frequently been pointed out in The New International, the administration did not organize workers wholesale into the AF of L as certain liberals and the AF of L officials themselves expected in 1933. Indeed, by means of its labor boards, proportional representation clauses in automobile codes, etc., it has very definitely interfered with organization in the basic industries. It did not demonstrate any grave concern when thugs, police and militia were called out in strikes against workers who believed that they were simply asserting the right to organize which had been “given” them in the NRA. Yet the administration has been astute enough to recognize, as some employers whose interests it serves have not, that workers cannot be dealt with in the same way as in an earlier period of economic development. Labor organization of a kind must be “encouraged” or a worse alternative accepted. There is no question that it has taken steps which have helped temporarily to create a psychology which has brought workers into unions and that it has been willing to play the game and to grant concessions to the officials of certain unions. The workers’ education enterprises which the administration is sponsoring serve essentially the same purpose. They gear in with the so-called progressive movement in the AF of L. They help to canalize the movement for organization and the demand for political and economic education which goes with it on the part of awakening elements in the working class into relatively safe channels. The government can even afford to give somewhat more leeway to “radicalism” in these enterprises than trade union officials because its interests cannot be so directly and substantially affected by the handful of radicals who may gain influence in such enterprises as the interests of a trade union official are threatened by any radicals who may gain genuine influence in his organization. Besides, the administration is in a position at any moment to put an end to all these educational enterprises by withholding funds.

History will repeat itself in this entire field. Already there are signs of this. When an upturn occurs in the trade union movement and with it in the field of workers’ education, the movement has at first an aspect of spontaneity and idealism, classes spring up rapidly, funds are available, idealistic young men and women believe that they are going to be “free” to teach the “truth” and the whole truth as is not the case in public schools and colleges. They believe that they will be given the opportunity to develop a new revolutionary spirit in the unions with union funds and the support of union officials. But presently it is again demonstrated that educational enterprises and institutions in the labor movement, as everywhere else, are the tools or instruments of the social forces and interests which create them, finance them and utilize their output. In the main they must serve the ends of these interests or the official ban is pronounced. Educational enterprises do not for any length of time remain immune from the struggle of interests for power which is the dominant feature of social life under a class system.

As a matter of fact, the underlying clash of tendencies and interests will come to the surface more quickly and sharply than was the case in the decade and a half beginning in 1918. The reason is, of course, that the general pace of economic development is speeded up in this period of capitalist decline and, with this, crises emerge more quickly in all classes and fields, including the working class and the labor movement. Revolutionists can effectively utilize many of these workers’ educational enterprises – we do not of course imagine that it is possible to give all workers at all times the full revolutionary program – but only if they have a clear conception of the character of such enterprises and cherish no illusions as to their possibilities and stability.

For the revolutionary party, its own educational work is the chief concern. Except for brief periods, before the war in the SP and after the war in the CP, the movement in the United States has never done any serious theoretical work in the application of Marxism to the problems of imperialism in general and American imperialism in particular. Hence there has not been a central school with intellectual prestige providing guidance and analysis for the leadership of the party and thus in turn for the membership. Other phases of our educational work cannot of course wait upon the establishment of such a central institution for research and teaching. But this need should have the most serious attention of the Workers Party in this period when it is urgently necessary to indoctrinate the advanced workers and intellectuals with the theory of revolutionary internationalism and when much fundamental work in the application of the theory to the problems of imperialism and the impending war is required.

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