Party education – lessons from some personal experiences
Think back to the last time you talked to a member of the public in a political setting. It could have been someone on the sidelines of a demo, a passerby who took a leaflet and stopped to chat or a bloke on the train commenting on current affairs. What kind of comments did they make? How developed was their political level? What did you say to them? If you are like me you may have come away from the exchange slightly deflated and thinking: “what planet do these people come from?” or “do they really believe the nonsense that comes out of their mouths?”
Unsurprisingly, our fellow Australians are generally not Marxists with a fully formed and coherent worldview. The same thing can be said of most people who apply to join our Party. What kind of people apply to join the Party? How many people who applied to join your branch were fully developed communists? Most people who apply to join the Party are ordinary people who feel that something is wrong with Australian society. They know that the two major parties cannot fix whatever is wrong and they may even understand that the social structure itself needs to be changed. They may have read the Communist Manifesto and liked the sound of it or they may be trade union or political activists who worked with our members on united front campaigns.
Before they can become effective fighters of the working class they require training. These comrades need a comprehensive Marxist-Leninist worldview as well as training in the practical skills necessary to carry out Party activities. Education that successfully builds these qualities in our members is absolutely essential for our Party’s success. In order for education to be successful, we need to grow out of some bad habits and develop new, better ones.
Reading, reading and more reading
When comrades join the Party they are usually loaded up with a list of books to read. I remember Rex Munn (veteran Party member and wharfie from Port Adelaide) telling me that when he joined the Party he was told to go and read the “classics”. As a working man in the ‘40s and ‘50s he wasn’t a big reader and was totally overwhelmed by the classics.
Our branches today sometimes commit the same error and overload new members with hundred-year-old texts, full of obscure terms and outdated language. Reading is not as popular today as it was in the past and people’s attention spans are affected by new technologies such as the internet, twitter and microblogs.
Dictatorship of the proletariat, non-antagonistic contradictions, negation of the negation, commodity fetishism, the list of terms that seem impenetrable and arcane to new members goes on. New members may on occasion feel they are being bombarded with new terms in an unhelpful and formulaic manner. Complex terms are explained using technical phrases which are not always understandable. Even if the terms are explained clearly by tutors, the source materials often use language that is needlessly complicated.
This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if education cadres, executive members or even mentors were available to assist comrades and to ensure that they at least attempt the set readings. Due to present realities this is not always the case and a lack of supervision means that comrades struggling with such solid texts as Capital or Fundamentals of Dialectics may not receive the help they need. The end result is new comrades give up and lose a very important opportunity to develop their own political level, at the same time depriving the Party of much needed cadre.
One size fits all delivery and content
When preparing a branch education class, how much do we take into account the different backgrounds and circumstances of our students? How often have classes been developed without enough thought given to students’ individual needs.
It is still the case in some classes that instead of relating Marxist principles to modern, daily life situations, the same examples from soviet textbooks are copied and given to students. When explaining the concept of quantity into quality, boiling water changing into steam is the go to example but I have never heard anyone use anything else in a class. If we are going to convince members that this principle is universal and happening around us all the time then shouldn’t we be able to come up with multiple examples that are occurring in our daily lives? For example we could use the small, gradual changes to Medicare over the past decade with the ultimate goal of privatisation to demonstrate quantitative changes leading to qualitative changes.
How consistently do branches hold education classes? How well attended are our classes? In an ideal world every comrade would come to every meeting/class and it would be easy to organize dates. Unfortunately this is impossible. For one reason or another, not every comrade can come to every class and someone will always miss something. Fault can also lie with the person carrying out the classes, who may not be able to teach everything they had planned and presents fewer classes than expected. As a result of these conditions, Party education can become a stop/start proposition. Every once in a while a new education plan is drawn up and someone is made responsible for teaching the classes. They will begin at the beginning and cover very similar topics to the last education course. Unfortunately these classes can run out of steam before reaching more advanced content, so we should be asking ourselves what are the possibilities of producing more advanced classes for more developed comrades?
What is to be Done?
The issues raised above are important and where difficulties exist they should be acknowledged and we should deal with them. Over a decade ago our Central Committee began work to end what they called teaching dialectics metaphysically. Two particular features of this work were the development of schools for tutors and an emphasis on developing active instead of passive knowledge. However, we have to admit that the new approach to teaching is not yet entrenched throughout our Party.
I believe that regardless of their educational background, everyone has the potential to become a Marxist. The key point for us as teachers of Marxism-Leninism is to make the learning process more relevant, straight-forward and accessible to comrades’ areas of work. There is no need to make learning more difficult, in fact we should be doing everything we can to help our members succeed and to help them improve.
Earlier I mentioned Rex Munn’s run-in with the classics. How did he deal with his situation? Rex told us that at first he couldn’t handle the classics so he began to read Soviet socialist realist novels such as “How the steel was tempered”. Later he began to work his way up to heavier and more difficult texts until he could handle the classics. We need to work with comrades to effectively judge their ability to handle certain texts and recommend suitable books for them.
Comrades need to be introduced to the technical terms of Marxism with care. We need to take care that new terms are introduced slowly and explained thoroughly in easy to understand language. This way, the terms will be correctly understood and potential political errors are prevented before they develop. For example, the dictatorship of the proletariat does not mean dictatorship in the traditional sense of a military junta or a corporate backed strongman yet it would be easy for comrades to think that.
The term class in mainstream parlance can mean anything from how you dress and how you speak to what kind of culture you enjoy so when we talk about class with new members we need to make it absolutely clear that this is a socio-economic category based on how you make your living.
Do you make a living by going to work and earning a wage or do you send other people to work and extract your income from them? With careful explanation the previous sentence makes a great starting point for explaining what ownership of the means of production means and making clear to comrades the role of ownership in class. Careful introduction of concepts with clear language and reference to daily life examples helps comrades to understand ideas more thoroughly and helps them to develop into better, more effective communists.
Different strokes for different folks
Teaching adults is a different process to teaching children and requires a different approach. Unlike young children, adults already have a lifetime of experiences and perceptions built up over decades. These experiences lead to different interpretations of the world and so adults will react differently to exactly the same education class.
The key to successfully educating adults is to find ways to use their life experiences to reinforce the message of our classes. Simply telling them that something is the god given truth will not have much of an effect on them. If instead we take an example from their workplace and show them the Marxist principle that explains why that happens, then they will be much more interested and more likely to understand and remember the concept. Before teaching a class, we should take the time to find out about the students, what kind of background they come from and their areas of work. This makes it easier to create vivid examples that will convince them what you are saying matches their life.
Every comrade begins at a different level and learns at a different rate. It is very difficult to design classes that are suitable for everyone at the same time. Some content may be too advanced for some while being too simple for others. In order to address this issue, branches should choose experienced comrades to tutor new members. Tutors can work with new members in a one on one environment to help comrades read books they are having trouble with or to help explain concepts that classes may not have adequately covered.
Tutors are crucial to effective education programs.
Notes for a school for tutors in 2006 include the following points:
Tutors have to play a leading role in working things out. Education is a continuous process, for all party members, but especially for tutors. “Education for life” takes on a real meaning as tutors must develop a wide range of knowledge, so they can add to ideas raised, round them out, put them in theoretical and historical context. We are helping people adopt a new world outlook, in a society immersed in bourgeois ideology.
Tutors should not dominate the discussion. They must certainly lead, but not to the exclusion of healthy discussion and debate by the participants, although the tutor should also be able to stop discussion which is not relevant or off the topic. Sometimes it is valuable to let a debate occur. It gets people involved and the tutor can often draw some conclusions from it or raise some questions, suggest reading material etc. The aim is to guide the participants in solving problems, in constructing knowledge, in exploring topics and processes.
Participants in the class should be actively involved in the process. Classes should be planned with an introduction, a question, discussion, explanation, another problem or question being posed, more discussion, explanation, clarification, more questions, etc. Active participation should be achieved, prompting students to think, to work things out.
A tutor’s job is to determine the key questions and plan discussion, reading, questions, examples to help participants assimilate those points; Ideological points must be illustrated and/or applied, with real life examples; Theory and practice should be closely linked. Theory must be brought to life.
Tutors must develop a problem-solving approach. Make it challenging. Develop a collective analysis. Bring out what the class (conclusions, knowledge) means in practice. Encourage clarification of ideas, which comes through discussion and debate.
Education of new members and the continuing development of current members are some of the most important tasks that face our Party. All Party activities rely on capable, highly organised and politically developed cadres to carry them out. The word cadre comes from the French word meaning a “frame” and in terms of our Party you could say that cadres are the framework on which everything is built.
Without effective education we cannot train the cadres that our organisation needs to fulfill its historic duty. I hope that branches and committees at all levels of the Party will examine their current education activities and consider ways of improving them.