1930s >> 1931 >> no-325-september-1931

Letter: A Criticism from a Ruskin College student

In July we published under the heading, “Is this Working-Class Education?” an extract from a book by Mr. J. G. Sinclair (“Portrait of Oxford ”) in which he dealt with the trade union students at Ruskin College. A Ruskin student sends us the following letter :—


93, Fairacres Road,




To the Editor, July 2nd, 1931.


The Socialist Standard,”


Dear Comrade,


May I be allowed the space for a few comments on your article, “Is this Working-class Education ”


Of course it isn’t! Neither is it the truth about Ruskin students. I have been a student in Oxford for the last four years; previous to that I was a coal-hewer in Durham. For two years I was a student at Ruskin College, and I confess that I am glad I ever had the opportunity for study that Ruskin College makes possible to workers. I must confess that I never tried to dress like the “Undergrad”—I wish I’d had the sense. At the same time I never had so much affection for my colliery trousers as to wish to wear them anywhere where they were not needed; never mind where they would be ludicrous. All the miners of my acquaintance treasured a navy-blue suit—generally because the week-end was the only chance they had to wear it. In Oxford a blue suit would last about three weeks. There has not been anything better invented for sitting about in than grey flannel trousers; they do not “bag” at the knees, they do not shine, and they can be cleaned for a “bob.” And when you are hurrying from one lecture to another a cap is just a damned nuisance. Was our dress so perfect that a change was pure affectation? Was it so holy that a change was blasphemy? Do you have so little faith in those working lads who try to educate themselves as to accept the view of an arrant snob; that a miner, for instance, who went through the stoppage of 1926, could throw off his feelings with his cap? You may, as Marxists, criticise the curriculum, but at least give the lads credit for being as honest as yourselves.


The allegation that the Ruskin students cultivate the “Oxford twang” is just downright lying. That we tried to speak more correctly is true; but surely that is advisable? As for afternoon tea in North Oxford, I confess that I have often been invited—and gone; it is part of one’s education to meet people from other social groups. But I have met very few Ruskin students who would not admit their ignorance much more readily than they would claim knowledge. Mr. Sinclair has not tried to understand the working-class students’ position; I should say he is not capable of doing so.


May I now put another point of view. It strikes me as rather ridiculous that the working-class should not believe it necessary to educate its leaders. To send a man to Ruskin for two years is a waste of good funds; I say this after I have had the advantage of four years in this city of ‘‘dreaming towers and proletarian antipathies” The working-class movement prefers to rely on a bunch of middle-class sympathisers to act as leaders; they have had the opportunity to learn the art of “balancing the two sides of every question in good Balfourian style!” In Oxford “socialist” circles one will meet lots of people who believe the “dole” must be reduced to save the “insurance principle.” Most Ruskin students have had, or will have, a period on the “dole” and, if only for that reason, have other views. It must be pointed out that not all the fellows who come to Ruskin College are actively interested in politics or other branches of the working-class movement. Some are merely interested in education from a cultural standpoint. Even making allowances for those, Mr. Sinclair’s “portrait” is a disgusting distortion. More disgusting still is the manner in which so-called Working-class journals have literally “licked their lips.” If we are to accept the inference that working lads are not to be trusted, we are indeed in a bad way. Apparently we prefer the opinion of an insurance agent! .

Yours fraternally,


A. Dowdell.


Let us first dispose of the least important part of the controversy, i.e., that part relating to the clothes and ways of living of Ruskin students. Mr. Sinclair, himself a Ruskin College student, makes certain allegations about his fellow students and draws certain conclusions. These our correspondent hotly repudiates. We are not in a position to settle the question by a personal inquiry, and in the absence of further evidence we are quite content to accept Mr. Dowdell’s statement that the picture drawn by Mr. Sinclair may not be an entirely accurate one.


The other part of the question is by far the more important. It was indicated by the heading to our paragraph which gave offence to Mr. Dowdell, viz., “Is this Working-Class Education?” We have always said—and this quite apart from Mr. Sinclair’s gibes—that Ruskin College is not engaged in working-class education. The promoters of the College regarded it as a means of securing industrial peace between the owning and the non-owning class, but in practice its chief function appears to be that of training young workers to become labour leaders. Our correspondent admits this to be true, or rather he thinks that it ought to be true. He remarks that it is “rather ridiculous that the working-class should not believe it necessary to educate its leaders.”

If Mr. Dowdell were familiar with the Socialist Party’s case he would know that we regard it as even more ridiculous, in fact, absolutely fatal to the working-class,  that they think it necessary to have and to follow leaders at all, whether “educated” according to the standards of Ruskin College or not. The training of individuals, whether of working-class or capitalist class origin, to become “leaders” of the workers is most emphatically not working-class education. The leaders thrive not on the knowledge of the workers but on their ignorance. Whether they are honest or dishonest these leaders cannot bring about Socialism for the working-class—that the workers have to do for themselves. <br>Which means that they, and not merely their leaders, have to acquire knowledge. It is the purpose of working-class education to give the workers the knowledge. Such is not the purpose (or the result) of the activities of Ruskin College.

Our correspondent complains because the worker trained at Ruskin College gets cut out by the “bunch of middle-class sympathisers.” This is hard luck for the Ruskin College student to whom the Labour Movement is a career. We are not concerned with blaming him or his more successful rival for so regarding it. What we are concerned with is the need to get the workers to rid themselves of their dependence on, and faith in, leaders.
Our correspondent invites us to put more trust in one kind of leader than another. Judging by results there is nothing to choose between the uneducated tub-thumper, the worker trained at Ruskin or the Labour College, or the “intellectuals” who have fastened on the working-class movement.


(For what it is worth, a case has indeed been made out by Professor Michel in his “Political Parties” for the view that the leader drawn from the ranks of the propertied class is more to be trusted than the ambitious worker who climbs to that position of eminence.)


Coming to Mr. Dowdell’s last paragraph, the “working lads” with a desire to “lead” the workers are no more to be trusted than, and are every whit as dangerous as, their rivals drawn from the other class. Until the workers rid themselves of their trust in leaders they will continue to be misled, defeated, and betrayed, whenever suitable occasion offers. On the other hand, when the workers begin to grasp the essentials of Socialist principles they will not continue to hug the delusion that Ruskin College is an institution concerned with working-class education.

Editorial Committee