Mark Twain said; I’ve never let my schooling interfere with my education.
In 2014 all the educational doors that I managed to get through are rapidly closing to the new immigrants and the poor working class in this country. And it is not just that access to education has a hefty price tag, it is also the downgrading of many jobs that working class people could get into. In this I include many public service jobs and professions that are melting away in the government’s agenda to make the poor pay for the austerity.
But for me education is not just about the collection of a series of certificates and the race to get a middle class job. Brought up in an Irish family my political education was as important as my father teaching us to write our name before we went to primary school. Like many people who were denied an education he got his on his travels across this country, in his experiences at the bottom heap of society and in his constant battles for respect and equality for himself, his family and his community.
In this very important book, Left for the Rising Sun; Right for Swan Hunter; The Plebs League in the North East of England 1908/1926, historian and communist (a winning combination) Robert Turnbull tells the exciting story of how this amazing organisation played an important role in the political education of working class people.
The Plebs League started in 1908 when a group of students challenged the teaching at Ruskin College which until then was a major player in labour and trade union history. Their aim was to “bring about a more satisfactory relationship between Ruskin and the wider labour movement”. Their slogan was;”Educate, agitate, organise”.
This led to a the creation of the Central Labour College (CLC). The divide being between the reformists and the revolutionaries with very differing views of what the purpose of education is. Should it be solely to equip people to get better jobs or should it be part of a political education to turn society upside down?
Central to this story is the north-east of England and the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham which fed the shipbuilding, heavy engineering, chemicals, railways and glassmaking industry. Waves of immigrants from Ireland and Scotland went there to find work, becoming part of a community that sought to educate itself and build a strong trade union movement. The Plebs League responded to this;
“Education is and must always be a means to an end. To some it is a means to personal satisfaction, to others a means to a living; to us it is a means to the Great End, the emancipation of the workers.”
Robert shows how this was not that straightforward and that there were to be battles, not just with the capitalist class but also with organisations such as the WEA which had the support of the political and educational establishment.
This new independent working class education was quite different from the liberal curriculum of the WEA. It was “about workers equipping themselves with the necessary intellectual and cognitive skills so that they could meet the capitalist class on their own terms for the showdown that was coming.”
The Plebs League were following in a tradition of working class education that had its roots in the creation of the Mechanics Institutes in the late 1840s. Robert shows how radicals such as Joseph Cowen believed in the emancipation of working class people through education. He founded the Wincanton Literary and Mechanics Institute in 1847 which offered both men and women (very progressive in its day) classes in politics, science and technology. As Robert says; “Without the pioneering work of the Mechanics Institutes it is doubtful if the Independent Working Class Education movement in the North East would ever have got off the ground”.
Central to the story of the IWCE across the country was the political atmosphere with the growth of organisations such as the Independent Labour Party, the Social and Democratic Federation, and newspapers such as the Clarion. Political unrest from 1910-14 was reflected in industrial unrest, the ongoing suffragette campaign and the Home Rule for Ireland movement.
The IWCE thrived in the revolutionary era of 1908-1920 but then declined, partly as it became a more centralised organisation and partly because of events such as the defeat of the General Strike of 1926 led to the shattering of ideas of unity across the labour movement and a sense of hopelessness in their ability to challenge the capitalist class.
Today it is hard to find the hope and political committment that drove the IWCE in the early part of the 20 Century. In response to the privatisation agenda of both past Labour governments and the present Con/Dem government there has been the growth of many new organisations such as the Peoples Assembly, UK Uncut as well as many single issue campaigns against fracking, NHS privatisation and so on. But what is missing from most of these organisations is any sense of class consciousness. There is a growing sense of anger at the inequalities of society but this hasn’t been transferred into a politicised view of society. One of the reasons I believe that these organisations fail to sustain themselves beyond organising meetings and marches is that few, if any, offer their members a political education, something that the Communist Party was very good at. Across the country there has been attempts to set up an IWCE network but without working class people at its heart I am not sure that this will address the importance of giving people back a sense of their own worth and a respect for their own political heritage.
I have been involved in the Mary Quaile Club, an informal group trying to make working class history more accessible through talks, films and music. Each event has an element of history and a link to present day activism. We hold our events across the Greater Manchester area and try to engage with people and communities that do not normally go to history events.
Left for the Rising Sun is an important contribution to the present day movement to revive a sense of history and political commitment to those people who really need it, the working classes. Books like this, I think are inspiring and are crucial to working class people taking back their history and redefining it for the 21 Century.
Buy it from Five Leaves Bookshop, an independent bookshop in Nottingham. see
Robert Turnbull is speaking at the WCML in Salford on 29 October see
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