Rebuilding independent working-class education

Submitted by AWL on 11 March, 2014 - 9:15

Colin Waugh from the Independent Working-class Education Network spoke to Solidarity about their draft manifesto.


In the preamble to the manifesto, it is said that the document could be used as a pamphlet in order to build the network. What do you see as the main purpose of the IWCE network, and towards what end do you see it being built?

To me, the central purpose of the network is to draw together a group of people who want to rebuild a form of independent working-class education that is in the spirit of the Plebs League but adapted to present-day circumstances.

Through speaking engagements and our own meetings since my original pamphlet about the Plebs League came out in 2009 we have built up a mailing list of two or three hundred people, and the idea, as I see it, is to use the collective drafting of the manifesto to make this “network” a bit more coherent, to a point where it can reach out to grassroots activists in union branches and other campaigns, and involve them in devising and implementing educational programmes within the broad areas of economics, history and philosophy.

In your contribution you stress that an ahistorical understanding of independent working-class education would be a mythology and not a guide to practice in the here and now. What do you think are the main issues facing activists with an interest in IWCE today, and how can the history help us to orient ourselves?

To me, the main issues are a. that the “legacy” of IWCE has been largely lost, through a complex history which we need to investigate more thoroughly, and b. that, ultimately because of the “de-industrialisation” that started in the second half of the 1970s, and which also has such a history, there are not many concentrations of industrial workers, which would have been the obvious place in which to start rebuilding it.

The original movement for working-class education soon brought middle-class sympathisers such as Raymond Postgate and J F Horrabin into its fold. Did this fundamentally change the nature of the project? What do you think the relationship between working-class activists and those with more formal higher education should be?

I think that the more fundamental change resulted from, on the one hand, the victimisation of mineworkers and others who were sent by their unions to the Central Labour College [the institution set up in 1909 by the Ruskin College strikers and their supporters as an independent alternative to Ruskin College], and, on the other, the lack of money to support any of the IWCE activities.

For example, after the steelworkers’ leader Arthur Pugh joined with the WEA in 1919 to set up the Workers Educational Trade Union Committee (WETUC), i.e. as a direct attack on the Plebs League from the right, the IWCE side formed the National Council of Labour Colleges (in 1921) as a way of competing for the support of union leaders, and it was through this, especially after the General Strike, when funding became even tighter, that JPM Millar and Christine Millar, two other essentially middle-class sympathisers, came to exercise a bureaucratic dominance that continued till the TUC shut the whole thing down in 1964.

On the second question, I think that from an early stage in the development of class societies the ruling class has monopolised what Marx and Engels called “the means of intellectual production”, and specifically what Gramsci called the “elaboration” (i.e. as distinct from the creation) of thought, and today this monopolisation takes the form of a massive material and intellectual apparatus centred on the dominant universities, research institutes, publishing houses, IT design and the like.

In the end, education properly speaking, as opposed to miseducation, and as distinct from both training and schooling, is that which seeks to overthrow this monopoly. But equally, the fact that this monopoly exists, means that any IWCE-type movement must draw to its side people who have been produced through the dominant system as — again in Gramsci’s terms— “traditional intellectuals”, and the workers who are building that movement then have to develop ways of dealing with what the Bolsheviks called ‘the problem of the bourgeois specialists’, i.e. how to stop the involvement of formally educated people becoming a weak point through which people from other classes take control of the IWCE movement itself.

Some labour movement education initiatives (Unionlearn, for example) have a more narrow focus on skills and training. What is your assessment of such bodies, and how do you think the state of labour movement education relates to the broader political health of the movement?

We should defend the jobs of trade tutors in FE colleges and the like. But we should also try to work towards a situation where a rebuilt IWCE becomes an intrinsic part of a broader democratic renovation of unions from below, and in particular we (i.e. the network) should try to establish IWCE as a necessary condition of efforts to organise workers in precarious employment.

How should IWCE work with attempts to reform the mainstream education system for working-class people?

In terms of post-compulsory (which to me still means post-16) provision (including sixth forms, FE colleges, HE and adult education), I think that socialists who are employed as teachers or lecturers in these sectors should try to organise themselves across institutional boundaries with the aim of defending and extending valid teaching and learning within and against the grain of dominant curricula, dominant assessment measures, and dominant teaching and learning procedures. At the same time, and not as an afterthought or luxury, these socialists and those involved in IWCE should talk to one another, so that insights from each field can feed into the other.

What do you think the impact of the decline of independent working-class education and non-vocational adult education has been on mainstream education and academia? EP Thompson wrote about how “adult education provided not only an outlet for the university but also an inlet for experience and criticism” and how this was “profoundly necessary for the intellectual health of the academy itself.” Is this an assessment that you share?

Both the IWCE movement and, at the outset at least, the WEA emphasised that they were not about helping individual workers to rise out of their class through access to higher education. On the other hand, if the Coalition’s decision to abolish funding for non-STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths] subjects in HE is driving less well-off students — and especially mature students — out of it, the openings for dialogue, both between those students and the better-off young people within it and between them and lecturers, must surely get narrower, and that is not a good thing.

Is there anything else that we need to consider?

People who want to get involved in IWCE need to be prepared to work with anyone who wants to work with them, even if their conception of socialism is different from our own. Secondly, even though the Network is small we do need to have a global perspective —for example to think about what forms of IWCE could be, and maybe already are being, developed both amongst agricultural workers, and as for example in China, industrial workers who are close to a rural background. Thirdly, as I tried to say in the draft manifesto, we need to learn more about the real history of IWCE and similar initiatives, especially so as to avoid repeating past mistakes.

Lastly, I feel we need to think more about “pedagogy”, i.e. about what theory and practice of teaching and learning is appropriate for IWCE-type work.

* Draft manifesto

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