1970s >> 1971 >> no-803-july-1971

The educated working class

“Yes, I agree with your arguments, but how are you going to get everyone else to?” This is a common reaction of people when the idea of establishing Socialism is put to them. Ninety nine out of a hundred agree it would be pleasant to live in a moneyless world where they had free access to everything they required, where threats like war and pollution no longer existed, where work was not something they were forced to do and therefore disliked, but something they did out of choice and took pride and pleasure in. Yet when we have satisfied them that the world’s resources, if exploited with a view to use and not to profit, could satisfy all the needs of all human beings, and when they have accepted that it is not against “human nature” for people to live together in harmony, to associate rather than to compete: then they are inclined to say that this is all very well in theory, but how are you going to convince the majority of people that Socialism would be best for them?


How indeed? Firstly let us take a look at today’s working class (all those who live by selling their mental and physical energies for a wage or salary). More than ever before workers are skilled workers. They need to be to meet the requirements of advanced capitalist production. In the 1965 Senate Hearings before the Clark Subcommittee on Manpower and Education it is stated that “the market for the unskilled is shrinking” and “unskilled, semiskilled and service jobs which together accounted for 56 per cent of the labour force in the 1960’s will by 1970 decrease to only 25 percent of the labour force.” In today’s technology relatively fewer people are needed to do such jobs as digging roads, cleaning sewers and unloading ships. Mechanisation already dominates these fields. Conversely more and more are needed to research into new methods of producing cheaply and competitively, to build and maintain sophisticated machinery, to administer the complexities of international finance and commerce, and to train workers who will do these jobs.


Hence the vast sums of money capitalism is spending on education to enable workers to operate its highly complex technology. The Plowden Report (Children and their Primary Schools, 1967), in the section entitled “Economic yields of Primary Education” talks about “American attempts to calculate a rate of return on successive years of primary and later education” (par. 1173) and tells how in the United States “data have been presented to show that the total amount of education received, and hence the stock of educated human capital, is growing faster than that of physical capital and estimates have been made of the contribution of education to economic growth. From this work it is clear that investment in education in Britain could make a substantial contribution to faster growth” (par. 1171).


But how do these developments help to clear the ground for understanding Socialism? The answer lies in the type of education capitalism is forced to offer to produce skilled wage labourers. Modern capitalist education is far from being the highly specialised thing that many people imagine. It is quite true that in higher eduaction, for example, most students take just one or two subjects. But these studies are not aimed at specific jobs. Students, after graduating, invariably have to undergo some further form of training course for the profession they decide to take up. And the jobs people do often have no direct relation to their studies. What higher education has done — or aims to do — is to educate future workers to think clearly and critically about their subject in order for them to be able to apply the critical capacity they thereby acquire to their future employment. It would be impracticable for capitalism to educate people for one specific job. The capitalist system, by its highly competitive nature, is so dynamic and so susceptible to creating obsolescence of employment that workers need to be able to adapt quickly to new jobs when old skills have been surpassed by the development of cheaper and more efficient methods of production.


Dr. James E. Russell of the Educational Policies Commission of the U.S.A. National Education Association said in 1965 “. . . we are facing a situation where we cannot tell whether a given form of training will carry a man as much as 10 years in time.” (quoted in The Manpower Revolution, ed. G. L. Magnum). Stress is consistently laid upon the need to produce versatile minds in order to cope with the ever-changing technology of modern capitalism.


Industry has the last word on this with the warning of Leslie Williams, former deputy chairman of ICI, that science graduates in industry would need “flexibility of outlook and capacity to deal with a great variety of problems”. He therefore called for courses providing “an adequate scientific education and more opportunity for development of creative qualities”. (The Times, 24 November 1970, report of a lecture to the Royal Society of Arts).


A good deal of what has been said so far relates exclusively to what many people regard as the elite realms of higher education. So an objection might now arise on the lines that since those who pass into higher education are a relatively small percentage of their age-group, our previous observations and conclusions do not apply to the majority of the population.


In Britain at present the number of people in the age-group in higher education is indeed a minority (although, at over 20 per cent a bigger one than most people think). However from 1959-60 to 1968-9 the number of people on student grants trebled and from 1961-2 to 1968-9 expenditure on higher education doubled to £l,853m. (Statistics of Education No. 1969. Vol. 5. Finance and Awards). Then Education Planning Paper No. 2 on Student Numbers in Higher Education (Oct. 1970) projects conservatively that by 1981 there will be 835,000 full-time students, more than double the present number and a full 28 per cent of the age-group. This is not an arbitrary development. For the reasons we have already seen, capitalism needs trained minds and more trained minds. In America over 40 per cent of the age grade attends one of the 2,500 colleges and universities, and proportions are steadily rising.


There education is the biggest single employer with almost 30 per cent of the whole population working in what has been termed the “knowledge industry”. California already sends 80 per cent of its high-school students on to higher education and in the words of Californian educationalist, Dr. Martin Trow, “is wrestling with the transition from mass to universal higher education”, (from an article in The Times by Stuart Maclure, 13 January 1971). Russia too, world’s second biggest capitalist power is not far behind America in its higher education programmes. These facts coupled with the vast expansion programmes going ahead in British education (by 1964 12 per cent of the population was already engaged in full-time educational work — The Education Industry, by W. K. Richmond) gives the lie to the common conception that the college-educated are just a small elite group.


Reform of primary education, comprehensive schools and continual raising of the school-leaving age are giving to more and more young people the chance to develop that “flexibility of outlook”, that adaptability and open-mindedness which capitalism requires of them. To aid this process there is greater encouragement than ever in the upper school for people to study seemingly incongruous combinations of subjects; the “crank” or “leisure” degrees like psychology, sociology and philosophy are among the most favoured in many universities and colleges; inter-disciplinary’ courses arc becoming almost commonplace, and the polytechnics and new Universities have tended to adopt those broad-based, American-style syllabuses in which “educational and occupational flexibility go hand in hand” (Senate Hearings before Clark Subcommittee, p 387).


What so far has been the result of the spread of education and the information explosion in the advanced countries of the world? Have people been generally satisfied with the additional purchasing power that their skilled, more highly remunerative employment has given them? Let us look at the situation in various countries.


In terms of man-hours lost to production, 1970 marked the highest point of working class discontent in Britain since 1926. Yet the panic this has inspired in the present government seems hardly justified when we consider that in America average strike rates are two and a half times as high!


Workers in France, in the first months of 1968, were enjoying the highest standard of living in their history. Then came the shock of the May events. The developments which have taken place in Italy since 1960 have been called the “economic miracle”. Living standards have risen steepily, yet since this date social unrest and strikes have been seen on an unprecedented scale. The same pattern has been discernible in Eastern Europe. The Czechoslovakian crisis, strikes and riots in Poland and dissident movements in Russia all spring readily to mind.


Recent years have also marked the rise, in the West, of strong, hard-bargaining unions and associations of professional workers. Student protest has engulfed all the advanced capitalist world, East and West alike. So-called affluence (i.e. highly sophisticated misery) does not make workers more satisfied with their lot. In a society where men must sell their labour-power for a wage in order to survive, the class war at both ends of the wage scale is as bitter and as real as ever.


Capitalism has given, and is giving, people the weapons to destroy it. At the moment people are thoroughly dissatisfied with all that capitalism involves (unpleasant work, rationing by wages, intolerable social and psychological pressures), but seeing no alternative still continue to support it. Hence, whilst being increasingly aware of the fact that they are deprived, they either limit themselves to demanding a slightly less minute share of the capitalist cake, or their frustrations explode into violence. But neither course of action leads far. Before we can get rid of a system we must understand the nature of it and have another system to put in its place. It is unconvincing to attack capitalism without being able to propose an alternative to it. That alternative, Socialism, is what we propose.


So how are we going to get a majority of people to agree with our arguments? In brief, social forces within capitalism itself are pushing people in that direction. Capitalist education, as one of these, is forced to give workers the mental tools which enable them to see their fundamental predicament. We simply aim to clarify things. We point out how all the things wrong with the world are rooted in the social system people put up with. We explain what Socialism means and how it can be achieved.


When the working class evaluate the Socialist proposal on its merits there will be no bar to the establishment of a world of free access. The understanding process is continuous and, if we exclude distinct possibilities like nuclear war and mass pollution, the continuing development of capitalism with its ever-recurrent problems and crises can only accelerate it. Socialism is not for the distant future. All the material conditions for it exist already. Once the pressures of coping with capitalism make people fully responsive to Socialist ideas, World Socialism will be a certainty.


Howard Moss