Working class education. The failure of the Labour Colleges
By dint of strenuous and persistent agitation the National Council of Labour Colleges (N.C.L.C.) has won its fight for recognition by the General Council of the Trades Union Congress. It and the London Labour College are to be permitted to take part in an Educational Scheme in co-operation with their old enemies the W.E.A., Ruskin College and the Co-operative Educational Committee. The participating bodies are to retain their separate organisations and machinery, and each may continue to operate independently any educational scheme it can arrange in addition to the joint scheme.
Elated by being recognised the Plebs League and other supporters of the N.C.L.C. appear not to have recognised that this event has a quite other significance. No doubt it represents a personal success for the active N.C.L.C. workers, and a propaganda victory for the organisation; but it also signifies the death of an idea, it gives the final blow to the theory of Independent Working Class Education which they have proclaimed and popularised.
The scheme means co-operation with those organisations which in the past have been denounced by the N.C.L.C. and the Plebs League as camouflaged instruments of Capitalist propaganda. Against this the right to operate separate schemes is of little value. A circular addressed to Plebs members by a Plebs E.C. sub-committee admits that in practice “individual Unions…. would probably sooner or later feel it incumbent upon them to transfer their support to any general scheme approved by Congress.”
Nominally, the freedom of action of the N.C.L.C. is guaranteed by a paragraph which concedes “the rights of criticism on propaganda” to the separate organisations “provided that there shall be mutual abstention from criticism of the good faith of any educational organisations recognised by the T.U.C. …” A moment’s thought will show it to be an inadequate safeguard, and this the Plebs E.C. feel for they urge “the importance of getting a clear decision, at the outset of exactly what is implied by the paragraph.” Can one describe the W.E.A. as a body of Capitalist apologists, built up on Capitalist money without “criticising their good faith? ”
In passing, one cannot but ask if the Plebs Leaguers really do believe that working class education is likely to be assisted by the association of mutually warring elements claiming to speak from fundamentally different standpoints. Clarity goes the way of independence and confusion comes into undisputed possession.
The Plebs E.C., while supporting the entry of the N.C.L.C. into the scheme, try to “have it both ways.” They comfort themselves with the argument that “The Plebs League, not being bound by the agreement or signatory to it, will in any case retain the fullest freedom of criticism, and as before show that co-operation with Capitalist-controlled universities and dependence on financial grants from non-working-class sources (as practised by the W.E.A.) are inconsistent with working-class independence.”
The logic is curious. It is wrong for the W.E.A. to associate with Capitalist Universities but not wrong for the N.C.L.C. to associate with the W.E.A., although it always used to be wrong. The N.C.L.C. is right in signing away its independence and Plebs members are to support them in doing so; but in the same breath the Plebs congratulate themselves because they are not doing what it is right for the N.C.L.C. to do.
If the Plebs do continue to denounce the W.E.A. they will find it a little difficult to explain why they urged the N.C.L.C. to co-operate with the W.E.A.
And, moreover, what in fact will be the value of the “fullest freedom of criticism” which the Plebs will continue to enjoy? The “Plebs Magazine,” the chief vehicle of criticism, happens to be the organ of the N.C.L.C., which is giving up its “fullest freedom of criticism.” It is perhaps good propaganda for the vanquished to go on claiming the right to fight while giving up their arms to the victors; but it is not war.
The reasons why this co-operation appears as a desirable object are frankly stated in the Plebs circular. They are the threatened loss of financial aid from Trade Unions and the fear of being “left outside the main field of Trade Union educational activity.” These admissions bear out what we have always contended—that the movement for “Independent Working class Education” never was really independent. Because their “educational policy,” in the words of the Plebs E.C., “has been from the beginning to win Trade Union support,” the N .C.L.C. had to proclaim and the Labour Colleges had to teach theories which did not offend the reactionary members and officials of the Unions which put up the cash.
To please the miners they were forced to pretend that industrial organisation is the method of achieving working-class emancipation. It is a cruel fate which has reduced the Miners Federation to a state of confessed impotence.
They styled themselves Marxians, but had to take great care, when explaining the significance of Imperialism, not to give offence by exposing the part played by the Trade Union officials in leading the workers into the war.
They talked of the need for revolutionising society, but had to keep on good terms with the Labour Party opponents of revolution.
They followed the popular school of orthodox economists of the Tory, Liberal and Labour Parties in regarding inflation of currency as the chief cause of high prices in Great Britain. Events have here, too, rewarded them unkindly. Although we have returned practically to 1914 currency conditions, including gold export, yet prices remain 75 per cent. above 1914 level.
The hard truth is that independence can be had only at a price. You cannot base an educational system on the urgent need for the overthrow of Capitalism and yet honestly gain the financial support of Trade Unions whose members would not approve the overthrow of Capitalism. Still less can you avoid discussion of the ways and means of achieving emancipation, and if ways and means are to be discussed you cannot escape the responsibility of approving or condemning particular theories and existing indus¬trial and political policies.
To try to teach Marxism without pointing out the political implications of the class struggle is to rob it of its meaning and value. The exponents of Independent Working Class Education set out determined to preserve their independence ; but they also wanted to succeed and show tangible results, a very human but, nevertheless, dangerous weakness. The price of independence in the existing state of working class indifference and political backwardness is to be “left outside the main field of Trade Union Educational activity,” and the N.C.L.C. and the Plebs have just decided that the price is too great.
(Editorial, Socialist Standard, July 1925)