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Rediscovering Independent Working Class Education by Colin Waugh

The meeting at Ruskin College on 27th March is essentially about how independent working class education (IWCE) could be developed within trade union education.

The impulse for this stems partly from the pamphlet ‘Plebs’: the Lost Legacy of Independent Working-Class Education, produced last year by PSE to mark the centenary of the 1909 Ruskin College ‘strike’. What happened in and around that ‘strike’ is important now because it is the main example available to us of working-class people setting up on their own initiative a system of adult education -the Labour College movement – that was independent of the employing class and its state.


Of course the workers concerned drew on the expertise of traditional intellectuals, for example of the US socialist Daniel De Leon, who was initially an academic, of the sociologist Lester Ward, and of the Ruskin principal Dennis Hird, formerly an Anglican priest. But they took these ideas and made something of their own with them.

The miners, railway-workers, and other union sponsored students at Ruskin in 1909 had their own views on education. First, they had an analysis of mainstream adult and higher education – they called this ‘orthodox’ education and saw it as enslaving.

Secondly , they had a vision of what the content of education for trade union activists should be – namely Marxist economics, ‘industrial history’, and philosophy (by which they meant dialectical reasoning as developed by the German tanner, Josef Dietzgen).

Thirdly , they also had a teaching and learning method – participatory small group discussion of texts, integrated with public speaking, based on practice in the Socialist Labour Party in Scotland. In short, they evolved and implemented their own, independent, model of education. Any scheme for rebuilding IWCE now would have to do the same. That is, it would have to put forward a coherent critique of mainstream provision and develop from this a positive view of the provision it intends to bring about, including a conception of content, and a teaching and learning method.

The importance of this is not confined to TU education. Only working-class people – people who in order to live must exchange for wages their capacity to work, and including therefore teachers and lecturers – can remodel the global social order on a valid basis. No other group can initiate this process or carry it through to the end. And workers can only do this consciously – that is, if they know that this is what they are trying to do.

But consciousness, in turn, has as its necessary condition education. The powers-that-be literally cannot provide to working-class people the education needed for this purpose. Only workers themselves – again including teachers, lecturers and researchers – can provide this for one another . But they cannot do this in isolation from the training and miseducation which is what the powers-that-be do provide, on an increasingly massive and pervasive scale.

working class education

They must do it in either internal or external opposition to, on the one hand, the technical or, on the other hand, the ideological preparation of a labour force which the employers’ state provides in the form of, respectively , vocational or academic ‘education’. The issue then is how to recreate independent working-class education both as an idea and a practice within the working-class movement, including both rank and file groups in unions and leftwing political groups, and within mainstream provision, including both schools, colleges and universities and official TU education.

In the end, neither of these projects can advance very far without the other, but a start can be made at either end. The Ruskin ‘strike’ made headlines at the time and never has been entirely ‘hidden from history’. Our pamphlet tries to make readers aware of what was at stake and really happened then – in short, to set the record straight. The research for this revealed, however , that the Ruskin strikers knew more about earlier moves by workers to create their own education than do most activists now.

We need to alter this situation, otherwise we shall repeat past mistakes rather than move forward from a recognition of them. As in the Plebs pamphlet, then, we need to dig out and make accessible to present-day activists the reality of other events and ideas in the history of working class collective self education. One such area may be the teaching and learning method developed in the 1790s by the London Corresponding Society. Another is the struggle conducted in the 1820s by Thomas Hodgskin and supporters in relation to economics lectures at the London Mechanics Institute.

A third is the Chartists’ struggle for ‘really useful knowledge’ in the 1840s. A fourth is the activity of SDF members in school boards around 1900. To these must be added the formation of the Syndicalist Education League shortly after the Ruskin ‘strike’, the movement for a Scottish Labour College centred round John Maclean’s lectures on economics during World War 1, the Proletarian University initiated by the Scottish shoemaker John Keracher in Michigan around 1920, and the development of the Labour College movement itself from 1909 up to and beyond its suppression by the TUC in 1964.

In putting such material into circulation we need also to make clear the extent to which mainstream HE and adult education has been, among other things, a series of attempts to neutralise working-class initiatives, often by asset-stripping their features; school boards, for example, introduced by the state from 1870, were part of the Chartist programme.

As indicated earlier, the Ruskin strike and ‘Plebs’ movement offer us a set of criteria for evaluating these other initiatives. For each one, then, we can ask, first: did those involved have a critique of mainstream provision (ie as opposed to merely reacting against it); in other words, did they had a vision of what education for working class adults should be. Secondly , did they have a conception of content or at least, of how content should be generated. And thirdly: did they have a distinctive teaching and learning method?


On top of this, there is also a history of ideas and provision initiated by people from other classes who have thrown in their lot with working-class movements, rather than by workers themselves. Ruskin College itself was founded by two such people. The role played by the clergyman and, for a time at least, revolutionary socialist, A.J. Muste in the development of Brookwood College in New Y ork State in the 1920s is another example.

Then there is Rosa Luxemburg’s work as an economics lecturer in the SPD’s party school in Germany. Again, the importance attached by Lenin to educational initiatives in the Russian revolution stemmed from his involvement in setting up workers’ study circles under czarism, and in turn made possible the body of theory and practice brought into being by the psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the psychologist/anthropologist A.L. Luria.

Yet another such development is the practice fostered by Antonio Gramsci within the editorial board of L’Ordine Nuovo during the period which included the April 1920 general strike in Turin and the September factory occupations, and the theory that he generated from this, as expressed for example in his essay on ‘Some aspects of the Southern Question’ and in the sections of his prison notebooks where he criticised Bukharin’s Historical Materialism.

In addition, there is at least one major initiative which is relevant to this discussion but not an example of working-class education as such. This is the work of Paulo Freire, which developed from the interaction with poor peasants, initially in the North East of Brazil and then more widely, of people inspired by Liberation Theology. Lastly, any sustainable model of revived IWCE would need to address the area which the Ruskin students addressed via Dietzgen – that is, to take into account the tradition of reasoning that lies behind the thought of most of the individuals mentioned here. The roots of this tradition – that of Hegel’s ‘logic’- lie almost certainly in ideas worked out by radical sects during the Reformation.

The argument in the end is basically this. The powers-that-be cannot avoid affording to workers within mainstream post-compulsory education – teachers, lecturers and facilitators – a degree of discretion, a space in which those workers exercise a limited degree of control over their work. These workers always have the potential, then, especially within the general education elements of vocational and quasi-vocational courses, to use this space to develop the beginnings of a valid practice. But to carry this beyond a basic stage they need access to a reviving tradition of working-class educational self organisation.

Whatever left groups may or may not do towards this, by far the best field in which such a revival can take place, compromised though this field is by state control, is trade union education, as provided both by the TUC and individual unions. The existence of a movement to this end in TU education, then, would make a key difference to what can be done within mainstream FE colleges and universities. None of this can happen unless we develop simultaneously a body of theory which takes account of earlier initiatives. The development of this body of theory, of course in close connection with practical organisation, is therefore a key step which we can, should and must try to take.

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