Saturday, 24 October 2009

Book Review: Plebs - The lost legacy of independent working class education

From LSHG Newsletter, Summer 2009

PLEBS - The lost legacy of independent working class education by Colin Waugh
[2009, 24pp] £3 from Post 16 Educator,
221 Firth Park Road, Sheffield, S5 6WW
[0114 243 1999]


The nuts and bolts of this short booklet are examined below but first I want to comment on how pleasant it is to look again at events in Britain before the shadow of Leninist tactics enveloped left wing politics. This period before WW1 has been called the "Great Unrest", when the emerging libertarian politics were challenging the dominant Labour Party and trade union leaders’ obsession with the whole parliamentary road, and the author describes one episode in this conflict.
The subject was trade union education and the issue was the control exercised by the university authorities over it. We need to remember that In those years, the unions in this country were extending their activities beyond the realm of skilled workers and seeking to ensure a proper adult education for those leading this movement - who by and large missed out on secondary schooling. Many of those with high ability wanted university style education as befitted their capacities, in order to take part in the further expansion of unions in workplaces but this corner of union education was being dominated by university authorities. They tried to extend conventional education which directed working class students away from the labour movement .
The few dozen workers-students at Oxford University resisted the takeover move in 1909. They used the traditional methods and went on strike, making the issue a national one. After a few months, when the academics did not back down, the students established the Labour Colleges system. In the end, a Central Labour College was supplemented by classes run in numerous cities, correspondence courses were soon set up and the adult education system divided down the middle as the conventional teachers kept to their intentions.
This conflict continued with the middle-of-the road Workers Education Association being the bitter rival of what was to become the National Council of Labour Colleges, with its own college in Tillicoulty, Scotland.
The more committed unions, especially the miners, called on their financial and political resources. They sent full time students to the CLC and their members received correspondence sheets and others materials.
A radical Aneurin Bevan was one of these. The CLC lasted until 1929 in Earls Court, London, but by then other forces were at work beyond the remit of Waugh. In brief the 1920s saw the General Strike and the months-long miners’ strike - backed by the CLC movement while the WEA stood by Labour – and the sectarian attitude of the Communist Party of Great Britain who abruptly set up their own education structure. The NCLC staggered on right up to 1964, when the TUC took over the residue.
Of course the national shop stewards movement had been reborn during WW2 but the CPGB's new reformism - on Moscow's orders - would have nothing to do with a revolutionary perspective. The CPGB's degeneration has been analysed repeatedly but the trade union education dimension remains hidden.
When strands of this did emerge, one around the dockers’ alienation from the officialdom of the TGWU to set up a vibrant series of annual summer schools, another around engineering workplace representatives in the Midlands factories who negotiated substantial courses for themselves, either on-site or college based, it owed nothing to reformist communism.
Perversely, the impetus for a national system of shop stewards’ education came from the Donovan Report’s tactics of incorporating the stewards into the union. This was a blatant subversion of the independence of the workplace reps, taken up enthusiastically by union leaders traditionally pushed into the background. From 1970 onwards, capitalism saw the solution to the militant stewards, unofficial workplace strikes and the rest of the irritating structures, in the "education and training" courses. There were some of us organising and teaching the courses who were intent on subverting the subversion, both in the WEA and in the colleges. We may have helped some shop stewards in a way quite unintended by the union leaders, TUC, Labour Party and of course British capitalism but the tale remains untold for now.
Waugh has started off with a perceptive account of the first years. He added to the story when he spoke recently at the Radical History Network of NE London. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class by Jonathan Rose [2002] gives a fuller account. For the history of the rest of the events J. P. M. Millar's The Labour Colleges Movement [1979], written by John Lowe but credited to the veteran administrator, gives a conventional outline of the main events but we await a real history of the real events.
Alan Woodward

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