The “University of the Working Class”
Opponents of socialism have periodically attempted to undermine the plausibility of the socialist case by pointing out that some of the pioneers of the socialist movement were not people driven to become revolutionaries through an assessment of their own class interest.
Although this argument is of little real import, Engels, William Morris and even Marx have received this kind of treatment, being portrayed – rightly or wrongly – as having been brought up in ‘well-to do’
families with a privileged education to match.
This is not a charge that could ever seriously be laid at the door of the men and women who founded the Socialist Party of Great Britain. When the founder members broke away from the Social Democratic Federation in 1904 they were in most respects representative of the rank-and-file of that organisation. Unlike the SDF’s figurehead, the wealthy old Etonian,Henry Hyndman, the founder members had occupations and formal education typical of the working class of the time. A large number were skilled manual workers, including the core of the Party’s most prolific speakers and writers. Jack Fitzgerald, for instance, was a bricklayer who went on to teach others his trade, Jacomb was a printer who – up until the early 1920s – designed and laid-out the Socialist Standard , Watts was a wood carver, while Anderson was a house painter. There were others though, of whom T.A. (‘Tommy’) Jackson was the most notable example, who drifted from job to job and into and out of employment, something typically not unrelated to their uncompromising advocacy of Marxian socialism.
What made these revolutionaries extraordinary was not just their implacable opposition to the poverty and iniquity of capitalism but their attitude to knowledge and to critical analysis. They had the keenest of senses that knowledge was power – or at least potentially so. Having no university education they were largely self-taught, prime examples of what has sometimes been called the working class ‘autodidactic’ tradition.
Macintyre in his A Proletarian Science commented on how members of the SDF, SLP and SPGB were at the forefront of this tradition and of how – through engagement with classic texts on politics, economics, philosophy and anthropology – they searched for an understanding of the grim society around them:
“It is noticeable that the intellectual development of our working-class activists began as a process of
individual discovery . . . And in which ever direction their interests lay, these autodidacts exhibited a
characteristic intellectual tone: they were great respectors of fact and intellectual authority; earnest, even reverential, in their treatment of the text; and they brooked no short-cuts in the search for knowledge. Alongside this deference to literary authority, one must put the fact that it remained their education, for they defined both the purpose and the boundaries of their intellectual exploration and the books they read assumed significance in this light.” (pp.70-71)
Not only did these autodidacts treat their own education with great seriousness and dedication, so, in the same manner, did they seek to transmit this knowledge to others. From the outset the Party spent much time in the training and education of its members, with classes on history, political philosophy and – above all – Marxian economics.
Indeed, Fitzgerald was to claim that a key element in his own expulsion from the SDF had been that he had organised economics classes that had been conducted by workingmen like himself rather than by the Federation’s leadership. Fitzgerald was among a handful of early members who had attended classes on Marxian economics conducted by Marx’s son-in-law, Edward Aveling, a man who had been part of an earlier ‘impossibilist’ revolt against the reformism of the SDF when the ill-fated Socialist League was founded in the 1880s. Attendance at such education classes and immersion in relevant texts was considered a vital part of the education of socialist activists, and we reproduce an example of a typical Party education syllabus after this article.
The autodidactic tradition was still visible in the SPGB long after its foundation. As the Party expanded over time so new waves of self-educated workers joined who honed their knowledge of society, together with their ability to dissect concepts and theories, in the Party’s education classes. Some of these members were as good examples of the self-educated working class polymath that it is possible to find.
Adolf Kohn, who was to become a mainstay of the Party as both speaker and writer until the Second World War, fed his thirst for knowledge (and that of other members) by setting up his own bookselling business, importing socialist classics from abroad that were otherwise unavailable to members, such as those published by the Charles H. Kerr company in Chicago.
Moses Baritz, from Manchester, a fearsome Party speaker and one of its most colourful characters, travelled across the world spreading the socialist message to other English-speaking countries in North America and the southern hemisphere, becoming a recognised expert on classical music, eventually broadcasting on BBC radio and writing for the Manchester Guardian.
Other autodidacts in the Party had their lifetime pursuit of knowledge immortalised by the capitalist press:
Gilbert McClatchie (‘Gilmac’) had an impoverished early upbringing in Ireland before emigrating to Britain and taking a job as a book-keeper among other things, being best known for his knowledgeable historical and philosophical articles in the Socialist Standard and his writing of Party pamphlets; on his death he was recognised by the Times for his contribution to political thought. No less an autodidact was Ted Kersley, who spent part of his childhood in an orphanage and had little by way of any formal education, but became an expert art dealer, featuring in one of the finest radio broadcasts of its kind
called “The Art Trade Runner”. He received the same accolade from the Times as Gilmac, though on this
occasion his decades of activity as an SPGB propagandist went curiously unmentioned.
In most respects this autodidactic tradition was just as apparent among the large number of new members attracted to the Party in the ‘hungry thirties’, and then the period during and just after the Second World War, as it had been among the founder members. The ebullient tyros who joined the Party at this time were less likely to be in gainful employment than the Party’s founders because of the effects of the depression, but their thirst for knowledge was no less. When not scratching around trying to eke out a living many spent their time productively elsewhere – in libraries, education classes or anywhere else that was warm, cheap and lent itself to mental stimulation. In writing of autodidact and one-time
SPGB member Harold Walsby, the sociologist Peter Sheppard described this phenomenon well enough:
“Until about the middle of [the twentieth] century alternative arenas [to the universities] did exist,
sometimes if perhaps briefly eclipsing the universities in brilliance. Probably the most enduring was that
provided by the little nonconformist groups of the extreme Left – anarchists, dissident Marxists and others who were energetically active from about 1880 until the rise of the New Left in the 1950s, a movement that was, or soon became, firmly located in the universities. In the 1930s and 1940s, anti- Establishment politics was located in meeting-halls, in and around the outdoor speaking-grounds, and in cafes such as those of the side streets of Soho . . . A world in which brilliant, down-at-heel intellectuals and Bohemians mingled with prostitutes and petty crooks, and which fostered complex and passionate debate and nurtured polemical powers, [a climate which] sprang into being for a short but heady time”. (www.gwiep.net/site/pshwit.html)
Until the 1940s very few Party members had the opportunity to attend university (disparagingly described
by some in the SPGB as capitalism’s “education factories”). Frank Evans, who had an economics degree and Hardy, who was something of a protégé of Professor Edwin Cannan at the London School of Economics before eventually becoming chief research officer for the Post Office workers’ union, were notable exceptions. A handful of members after the Second World War attended the London School of Economics and other Higher Education institutions – mainly as mature students – but from the 1960s and 70s onwards the situation began to change more noticeably. Technical progress under capitalism and the growth of productivity associated with it led to a decline in the number of unskilled and semi-skilled workers demanded by the system and a commensurate growth in the demand for workers with highly developed technical skills, such as engineers, scientists and researchers. Parallel with this
went the growth of the administrative apparatus of capitalism – the civil service, local government, the health service and of course, the education system needed to produce such workers, all needing developed specialist talents but also the type of transferable skills supposedly provided by a university education.
The expansion of Higher Education necessitated by these developments led to a change in the composition of the Party’s members that was entirely reflective of the wider changes in capitalist society. Even then, those with a developed educational background have typically become socialists despite their formal education rather than because of it and many are those who claim to have learnt more of worth about society inside the SPGB than outside it.
Perhaps today, the specialisation that characterised the knowledge of earlier Party members is not as pronounced as it was in the days when the Party would wheel out a Fitzgerald, Hardy or Goldstein to lock horns with aspirant politicians or pious academics on the finer points of economic theory. Now, the knowledge of members is probably more eclectic than it was, the product of wider reading and some advancements in knowledge associated with the growth of disciplines like computer studies and
environmental science that were previously unheard of. But the underlying Marxist education of members has still been largely the product of the desire of individual men and women to make sense of the world around them, seeking out a holistic and coherent worldview which is absent from university curricula. In this, the Party, with its reliance on formal definitions, the application of logic, and its evaluation of world events over a century, still has an important part to play as a repository of knowledge, experience and analysis of capitalism. This is why, no doubt, more than one sage has commented that the SPGB has
been “the university of the working class” in this respect, perhaps now – at least almost as much – as then.