Reviving worker’s education is a must
Bob Crow and Tony Benn knew the importance of teaching socialist ideas, writes ALEX GORDON
Tomorrow the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School [in London] will hold its 81st annual general meeting since its foundation in 1933.
The house on Clerkenwell Green will welcome library members from across the working-class and socialist movement to remember former members, among them Tony Benn and Bob Crow who died this year, and to agree our programme of work for the coming year.
We will take forward proposals to develop the MML’s educational work in order to fulfil our aims for “the advancement of education, knowledge and learning by the provision of a library of books, periodicals and manuscripts relating to all aspects of the science of Marxism, the history of socialism and the working-class movement.”
It is worth reminding ourselves just why a conference held on March 11 1933 at Conway Hall founded what communist journalist Robin Page Arnot described as “a fitting memorial – a centre of working-class education – to the greatest thinker and revolutionist of all time in the city where he lived and worked for the greater part of his adult life.”
That year, 1933, saw Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor on January 30 in a coalition government, then with plenary powers from March 24 when the Reichstag voted for an enabling act to rule without parliamentary consent or constitutional limitation.
The resistible rise of German fascism in the 1930s saw brutal street battles between anti-fascists led by the Communist Party of Germany fighting nazi brownshirts.
The spectacle of book-burnings and nazi attacks on so-called “degenerate” art, design and culture meant not only the ideas of Karl Marx but all progressive ideas were under threat. Britain became the refuge of many of the artists and writers.
The response of the socialist and trade union movement in Britain to this tide of fascist reaction was to reaffirm and deepen their commitment to educate the working-class movement in the ideas of Marx.
The resolution carried unanimously at the founding conference was moved by WE Baldwin of the National Union of Railwaymen, declaring: “The best memorial to Marx in London would be a Marxist Library, workers’ school and educational centre.”
The work of the library and workers’ school in its early years concentrated not only on amassing books by and about Marx, Engels and Lenin, which were not easy to come by in an English translation, but also to begin an ambitious series of classes and public lectures to provide high-quality education in Marxist ideas on history, philosophy, sociology and art that was accessible to working-class people.
Accessibility meant delivering classes in areas that workers could attend after their working day, and MML tutors were sent out to evening classes all over Britain, following the pattern established by the Plebs League and the National Council of Labour Colleges 20 years before.
The inaugural public lecture entitled “The life of Marx” was given on November 5 1933 by Tom Mann, leader of the 1889 dock strike, a close friend of both Eleanor Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School of today stands fully in the tradition established by the founders.
This year the library has hosted classes on classic works of Marxism, political economy for trade unionists, Marxism and science as well as highly successful public lectures by Professor Costas Lapatvitsas on capitalist crisis and financialisation. Dr Christine Lindey spoke on revolutionary art and on James Connolly and the reconquest of Ireland with Irish Congress of Trade Union president John Douglas, Michael Carty of the Connolly Association and Dr John Callow.
On the initiative of Professor John Foster, MML’s education committee has piloted an online course in Marxist critique of political economy, which will be developed as a distance learning course in the coming months.
Why are such seemingly difficult questions important today when many people in Britain are facing real and immediate hardships from government cuts and falling real wages?
Our founders in the 1930s understood precisely that only the working class held the possibility of transforming their society, defeating fascism and building a socialist society in Britain and internationally.
In order for the working class to fight for its interests, workers must first of all perceive those interests clearly and understand the origins and circumstances of their exploitation under capitalism.
More pertinently, the current and future prospects for working-class education in Britain are not promising when seen from the perspective of wider access to further, higher and adult continuing education.
The impact of tuition fees is now being felt in earnest on student uptake of courses. The continuing pressure on universities to adapt to “market demands” – in reality the ideological corporate agenda – is intensifying.
External funding for union learning has long been under threat and may not continue after 2015. Trade unions will have to consider whether “learning” in its current form contributes enough value to their organisation to warrant internal funding.
My union, RMT, has developed a wider vision of union education incorporating political education as well as training of shop stewards and branch officers.
The imminent and expected government cuts to workplace learning delivered by trade unions will cause many unions to face an unwelcome choice of curtailing education programmes or cutting back elsewhere.
The work of the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School makes a case for continued funding for high-quality education to allow unions to meet their objectives.
The “learning agenda” of late has been set by a right-wing government to meet the needs of business and Tory supporters. It has not addressed the wider needs and aspirations of workers or of their trade unions.
The continued success of MML should offer an opportunity to address this with a generation of young trade unionists seeking to understand the circumstances of their members’ exploitation in order to fight for an alternative and better society.