The origin of the Plebs League part 2: two kinds of working-class education

Author: 
Colin Waugh

The Workers’ Educational Association was founded in the early 1900s by Albert Mansbridge.



Mansbridge was exactly what the Christian socialists in the university extension movement hoped to produce: a working-class person who believed in harmony between the employers and the workers, and who thought adult education could bring this about.

Mansbridge came up with a solution to the extension movement’s problem of not attracting a sufficient number of workers to its project of preaching class harmony. This solution was the tutorial class.

The Education Act passed in 1902 was shaped by the Fabian “socialist” Sidney Webb, and the former Toynbee Hall administrator R L (later Sir Robert) Morant. Morant was now the permanent secretary at the Board of Education. He believed that unless “the impulses of the many ignorant” were put under “the control of the few wise”, democracy would be overcome “by the centrifugal forces of her own people’s unrestrained individualism and disintegrated utterly by the blind impulses of mere numerical majorities”. The 1902 Act replaced directly elected school boards with local education authorities (LEAs). Morant wrote into the Act a clause which allowed LEAs to organise or assist evening courses for adults.

At the Cooperative Movement’s 1898 Annual Conference, a conversation took place between Mansbridge, Hudson Shaw and the secretary of the Oxford University Extension Delegacy, J A R Marriott. In this conversation Mansbridge argued that the extension movement could attract greater numbers of workers if it were to concentrate more than hitherto on classes in history and citizenship.

On the strength of this, he was invited to speak at the University Extension summer meeting in Oxford in 1899. The link formed between Mansbridge and people who were influential in the Oxford Extension Delegacy was the beginning of a fundamental change in the approach adopted by the extension movement towards potential students from amongst the working class.

Mansbridge was born in Gloucester in 1876. His father was a carpenter who became a clerk of works. His mother was involved in the cooperative movement. Through her, Mansbridge came to know the Toynbee Hall founder, Samuel Barnett, who was closely connected to the Oxford Extension Delegacy. In 1880 the family moved to Battersea.

Mansbridge left school at 14 to become a clerk at the Board of Education. In 1894, he tried and failed to win a Cooperative Scholarship to Oxford. Soon after this Mansbridge became an Anglican lay reader. Through this he met Canon Charles Gore, the founder of the Christian Social Union, and came to view Westminster Abbey as his “university”. Through Gore, Mansbridge met Christian Social Union members and also followers of the Oxford University reformer T H Green. Through these people he then made further contacts with Oxford dons.

In 1896, Mansbridge became a clerk in the tea department of the Cooperative Wholesale Society in Whitechapel, then a cashier in the Cooperative Permanent Building Society. Between 1891 and 1901 he attended university extension classes (in chemistry, economics and Greek) at Toynbee Hall, eventually becoming himself a teacher there (of typewriting, economics and industrial history). During this period Mansbridge also founded an organisation called the Christian Economic Society.

Mansbridge believed that the knowledge which Oxbridge dons possessed was class-neutral, and that this was one of the best things about it. In 1903, the University Extension Journal published three articles by him. In one, he argued that: “deep draughts of knowledge” would ‘divert the strong movements of the people from the narrow paths of immediate interests to the broad way of … rightly ordered social life”.

In February 1903, Mansbridge founded the organisation which eventually became the WEA. The full title he gave this at the start was: “An Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men, primarily by the extension of university teaching also, (a) By the assistance of all Working Class efforts of a specifically educational character (b) by the development of an efficient School Continuation System”. This was a more truthful name than “Workers’ Educational Association”.

Mansbridge’s organisation drew support almost at once from sections of the labour movement and working men’s clubs. In July 1903, the first meeting of its provisional committee took place, at Toynbee Hall. (This committee included two members of the TUC parliamentary committee.) The organisation’s public launch took place on 22 August 1903 at a special conference in Oxford held during the Annual Meeting of the University’s Extension Delegacy, which gave its full support. According to its constitution its aim was: “to construct a working alliance between university extension and the working-class movement”. In 1904 the first local committee of the WEA was established (in Reading).

In 1904, the Mansbridge organisation’s annual conference was again held in Oxford as part of the Extension Delegacy’s Annual Meeting. By 1905, it had enough financial backing for Mansbridge, now living in Ilford, to become its full time general secretary. Shortly after its 1905 the organisation changed its name to the Workers’ Educational Association, the declared aim of which was now to promote “the higher education of working men, primarily by the extension of university teaching”. (At the 1905 conference, the WEA also launched a demand that the government make it compulsory for adults to attend evening classes.)

By 1905 Mansbridge was arguing that extension should focus less on lectures and more on “tutorial” classes. The university would still supply a lecturer, but now this lecturer would work closely with a smaller group of students (ideally about thirty). The students would have to commit themselves to a long term (e.g. two-year) course, with a formal syllabus. They would have to read specified material and write essays, which the lecturer would mark. Some of them would take an exam at the end. This exam would, in turn, be part of a system of diplomas leading potentially to study within the university itself.

Mansbridge and those who agreed with him argued that this method would allow the content of what was taught and learnt to be determined by academic criteria, rather than by the need to attract large audiences. In present-day terms, then, they saw old-style extension lectures as “dumbing down”.

Gore and Barnett and Morant now threw their support behind Mansbridge’s approach. Also in 1905, a group of eight young tutors at Oxford University joined Mansbridge’s adherents. The most important of these people turned out to be R H Tawney, another Christian socialist, who, on graduating from Balliol College in 1903, worked and lived for three years at Toynbee Hall.

In his most influential book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Tawney was later to write: “Compromise is as impossible between the Church of Christ and the idolatry of wealth, which is the practical religion of capitalist societies, as it was between the Church and the State idolatry of the Roman empire”.

These Oxford tutors referred to themselves half-jokingly as “conspirators”, and also called themselves the Catiline Club. (This choice of name indicates that they saw themselves as struggling against the powers-that-be in Oxford University to open it up to less well-off people.) One of them, Alfred Zimmern, was later to help Mansbridge write the crucial report, Oxford and Working-Class Education. Another, William Temple, later to be archbishop of Canterbury, was to become in 1908 the WEA’s first president.

This group set about building a current of opinion amongst the well-off and influential in support of Mansbridge’s tutorial concept.

In 1921, attempting to summarise “The WEA spirit”, Mansbridge would write: “The genesis of the Association was due to the lamentable situation which had arisen in English life owing to the neglect of education for the people. In this matter the ordinary working man was disinherited… There never was a single occasion upon which the ideals expressed were not in harmony with the spirit of labour. The scholars and others who joined the movement were as men watching all the time how they could assist and forward the wishes of the majority… always there was the manifest desire to perceive and understand the spirit and needs of those engaged in manual toil. Yet because scholarship is a vital force the fusion of it with the experience of life and labour produced a greater wisdom than could have been the case if scholars had been absent or quiescent. That is indeed the whole case for the Association”.

This reveals a genuine insight into the necessity for dialogue between people with a high level of formal education and working-class people who have been denied this. However, Mansbridge’s project also fitted in with the desire of a growing section of the ruling class to draw union activists into liberal education and through this, class collaboration, or — as it was often put at the time — to “sandpaper” them. This would, it was hoped, create within the working class a layer of articulate people who would blunt the edge of class struggle.

At this stage the WEA had committees but no classes, while the extension movement had the same kind of classes as before. So now the WEA/extension alliance was looking for a chance to put Mansbridge’s approach into practice. The ambivalent character of Ruskin Hall, the fact that it was on the doorstep of Oxford University and, above all, the fact that it was recruiting and retaining working-class students, meant that sooner or later they would try to take control of it

the left 1902-1907

In the early 1900s a new type of left-wing socialism was spreading amongst union activists. When it came to educating themselves through books, however, the members of this movement faced a problem.

Unlike elsewhere in Europe, universities like Oxford or Cambridge did not produce a layer of educated people who were prepared to throw in their lot with working-class socialists. This in turn meant that, when it came to educating themselves through books, activists relied heavily on translated texts. They were dependent on publishers’ decisions about what to translate.

Writing in Plebs magazine in 1952, one of the Ruskin strikers, Stan Rees, took up a claim made by one of the Ruskin lecturers, H Sanderson Furniss. In a book called Memories of Sixty Years, Furniss had said that he “lectured on Marx and was chiefly occupied in refuting Marx’s theory of value to which most of the students clung with religious fervour, but which I regarded as absolute nonsense”. Commenting on this, Rees wrote that: “The majority of the students had not heard of — never mind, read — Marx when Mr Furniss began to lecture at Ruskin; and it was immediately after one of Furniss’ lectures in which he had criticised Marx that a student suggested that the lecturer was not putting the position but putting up a dummy Marx and then destroying the Marx of his imagination. The students then began reading Marx themselves because of Mr Furniss’ distortions”.

But were the Ruskin students in a position to base themselves on Marx’s ideas? What other ideas did they have access to? What role did socialist groups play when it came to ideas?

The largest leftwing membership organisation at the time was the Independent Labour Party. More of the Ruskin students belonged to this than to any other group. In the period leading up to the 1909 strike, the ILP published the Socialist Library series of pamphlets and books, which was aimed at countering class struggle conceptions. The series was edited by Ramsay MacDonald. Some of these writings were by continental “revisionists” of Marxism such as Eduard Bernstein or Emile Vandervelde, while others were by Macdonald himself. ILP publications, then, really offered people like the Ruskin strikers a socialistic version of the approach purveyed by Furniss.

Another influential organisation in this period was Robert Blatchford’s Clarion movement. Blatchford had published Jesus the Socialist by Dennis Hird. However, the Clarion movement did not provide material for activists seeking theoretical back-up.

The Social Democratic Party (SDP) had about 15,000 members. The organisation, still dominated by a group round H M Hyndman, its businessman founder, usually took a negative attitude towards the focus on rank and file union activity which was growing amongst activists in the early 1900s, though this did not stop grassroots SDF members from being active in unions. With Hyndman, this attitude towards unions was part of a broader rejection of any notion of socialism from below. Hyndman’s view of the world was based on Marx’s economic analysis, but it had little in common with Marx’s emphasis on workers’ conscious self-activity.

In a period such as this, then, when groups of workers were increasingly taking action which challenged the capitalist class’s right to rule, a tension was bound to develop between the Hyndman group and workers looking for ideas to guide them in union activity.

In 1903, after three years of disagreement about whether socialist politicians should take part in non-socialist governments, a part of the SDF broke with Hyndman. This breakaway centred on the SDF’s overwhelmingly working-class membership in Glasgow.

Another political group participating in a so-called “impossibilist” revolt was the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in the US. The SLP had been dominated for nearly ten years by the academic Daniel De Leon. At one stage, De Leon, like Hyndman, had believed in the primacy of electoral politics. But now his priority was to break the control exercised over the working-class movement by trade union leaders. In the US many of these union leaders were happy to call themselves “labour lieutenants of the capitalist class”. Craft unions dominated by this approach were organised in the American Federation of Labour (AFL), created by Samuel Gompers in a struggle against the Knights of Labour.

De Leon believed that the way to defeat Gompers was through industrial unions: that is, unions organising all grades of worker in an industry (for example mining). He also believed in dual unionism — that is, the idea that a group like the SLP should set up its own industrial unions. (Many activists accepted industrial unionism but rejected dual unionism.)

Following a speaking tour by De Leon in Scotland and England in 1904, the SDF dissidents in Scotland formed a British wing of the SLP. By the time of the Ruskin struggle, this had developed a small number of branches in England, including one in the North East and one in Oxford.

In the two or three years after the formation of the SLP, a much broader layer of union activists, especially amongst miners in South Wales and in the North East, were attracted either to industrial unionism, or to syndicalism. A key concept associated with syndicalism was “cleavage” — the idea that the conflict of interest between workers and capitalists is so sharp that any settlement between them — as for example, in a union dispute with an employer — is a betrayal of the workers’ cause.

Both industrial unionists and syndicalists tended to share this view. They also tended to equate “politics” with electoral activity and parliamentary speech-making, which they looked on as a trap to be avoided. This approach gained ground after the 1906 general election victory of the Liberal Party. The Liberal government appointed trade union officials to administer welfare measures and many activists regarded these measures as “palliatives” intended to divert workers from struggle. At the same time the 37 MPs elected for the first time as the Labour Party failed to challenge this. (The idea of class politics as a struggle for state power, as spelt out in the Communist Manifesto or as developed in this period by the Bolsheviks in Russia, did not play much part in the thinking of activists in this country at the time.)

Under the influence of syndicalism, some of those active at the time of the Ruskin strike, including several of those who led it, would shortly move towards a rejection of leadership per se, a standpoint which those who were members of the South Wales Miners Federation (SWMF) would soon afterwards embody in the Unofficial Reform Committee and The Miners’ Next Step (1912).

De Leon had raised the question of leadership in two lectures which he gave in New York in 1902, which were then published by the SLP in a pamphlet called Two Pages from Roman History. In the first of these “pages”, De Leon dealt with the activities of the tribunes of the people (plebs) in ancient Rome. He detailed how the office of tribune was brought in after the secession of the plebs from the city. He argued that the tribunes did not truly represent the mass of the plebs but rather acted on behalf of that small section who were acquiring wealth, thereby helping to divert the anger of the poor into channels which did not threaten the well-off.

In the second “page”, which dealt with the Gracchi [two brothers who were Roman reformers], he went on to spell out the parallel between, on the one hand, the tribunes and the Gracchi, and, on the other, present day trade union leaders. This, then, was part of De Leon’s case for building new, industrial unions separate from and opposed to the AFL.

Just before the end of the first of these talks, De Leon had said: “The Socialist Republic depends, not upon material conditions only; it depends upon these — plus clearness of vision to assist the evolutionary process. Nor was the agency of the intellect needful at any previous stage of social evolution in the Class Struggle to the extent that it is needful at this, the culminating one of all.”

In the second “page’, De Leon also listed what he saw as characteristics of the “proletarian revolution”, including that it “abhors forms”, that it is “relentlessly logical”, that it regards “palliatives [as] palliations of wrong”, that it “brings along its own code”, that it is “irreverent”, that it is “self-reliant”, that it “spurns sops”, that it is “impelled and held together by reason, not rhetoric”, that it “deals not in double sense” and that it is a “character-builder”. Here, then, De Leon emphasised, on the one hand, the need for working class activists to be independent and critical, and, on the other, the need for them to use their intellects to understand society as it really is rather than as those in power falsely represent it.

A key contemporary activist, T A Jackson, was later to write: “The Labour College, and the movement for independent working-class education, was in the immediate sense, a product of SLP and De Leonite literature”. Jackson cited in support of this a translation by De Leon of Karl Kautsky’s book Das Erfurter Programm — an explanation of the German Social Democratic Party’s 1891 programme — which the SLP in Scotland made available as a series of four pamphlets. In Jackson’s view, this “gave a reasonably complete survey of Marxist theory”.

A number of leftwing books were popular amongst militants. These included Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, William Morris’s News From Nowhere, Jack London’s The Iron Heel and Blatchford’s Merrie England. Some more theoretical material, such as Auguste Bebel’s Woman and Socialism (translated by De Leon) and writings by Kautsky, Josef Dietzgen, Antonio Labriola and Georgi Plekhanov, was also available. However, when it came to writings by Marx and Engels themselves, several key texts were not available at all in English at this time. There is also no evidence that activists knew about any writings by Lenin or Rosa Luxemburg. Finally, activists — especially when trying to educate others — were heavily reliant on non-socialist texts that they perceived to be generally progressive. Such texts included Ernst Haeckel’s Riddle of the Universe, and material by Herbert Spencer. This in turn helps to explain why the Ruskin strikers placed what now seems like too much value on the writings of the pioneer US sociologist Lester F Ward, and on James Thorold Rogers’s Six Centuries of Work and Wages: The History of English Labour.

Both the difficulty in getting hold of translations and the lack of theoretical writings by British socialists reflected a difference between universities in England and in continental Europe.

Under the influence of the 1789 revolution in France, universities on the continent normally contained a broad layer of students who, though often close to poverty in terms of their family background, were trying to become professionals, especially lawyers. From amongst this layer of students, who were often in or around a higher education environment for much longer than students here, a radicalised section usually emerged. Within this, a smaller section would be drawn to socialist — and specifically to Marxist — ideas. Some might eventually become lecturers. In times of rising class struggle, this group interacted with working class militants, and it was from amongst them that most of the classic theorists of modern socialism, starting with Marx himself and continuing through Labriola, Plekhanov, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Lenin, Pannekoek and Gramsci, were drawn.

In England, on the other hand, the class character of the two dominant universities was set at the end of the English Civil War rather than in the aftermath of the Enlightenment and French Revolution. Both these universities — and Oxford especially — were tied to the established church. Their main products were Anglican clergy, colonial civil servants and apprentice politicians. The layer from which Marxist intellectuals developed on the continent effectively did not exist. There were people at Oxford and Cambridge who looked upon themselves — and were looked on by those in authority — as “socialists”. However they were Christian rather than class-struggle socialists.

There was amongst these upper class socialists some awareness of Marx’s ideas. Now, however, more and more of them were coming to view Marx’s ideas as both incorrect (the standpoint adopted by the dominant academic economist, Alfred Marshall) and dangerous, because attractive to workers.

The students at Ruskin in 1908, then, did not have access to a group with higher education who would help them develop the ideas they wanted to develop. With limited exceptions, such as the influence of De Leon, they had to do most of their thinking for themselves.