The Working Class Self-Education Movement: The League of the "Plebs"

Colin Waugh

In October 1908 industrial workers who were union-sponsored students at Ruskin College in Oxford founded what they called the League of the “Plebs”. Former students who had returned to their jobs as miners, railwayworkers, textile workers and engineers, supported them.

From January 1909 they began to organise socialist classes in South Wales, the North East, Lancashire and other working-class areas. Under the umbrella of the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC), there were, by 1926-27, 1,201 classes like this across Britain, with 31,635 students.

Many classes that had begun in this way were still running in 1964. In February 1909 the students launched a monthly, The Plebs Magazine, which continued till 1970. Between 26 March and 6 April 1909 they conducted the “Ruskin College strike” (actually a boycott of lectures). And in September 1909, with the union and socialist support they had built, they opened the Central Labour College, which survived until 1929.

Working-class political independence demands that workers produce for themselves, from amongst their own ranks, thinkers and organisers who remain answerable to them. The Ruskin students and ex-students understood this and went a long way towards creating the mechanisms necessary for achieving it. What was the background to their actions?

After Chartism collapsed in 1848, ruling class Christian socialists decided that, as well as armed force and the “dull compulsion of economic relations”, an ideological weapon was needed against any future resurgence of working-class self-assertion. The answer, in their view, was to create within the working class a layer of class collaborationists. They saw adult education as a good method for doing this. One product of this approach was the university extension movement.

During the 1870s Cambridge, Oxford and London Universities all developed extension networks. They sent lecturers all over the country to give talks on topics of general interest, often to very large audiences. Some working-class groups — for example Northumberland miners in the 1880s — did attend extension lectures. However, by about 1900 it was clear that working-class people, and union activists in particular, were rejecting extension. It was equally clear that socialist ideas were gaining support amongst a growing minority of militants. (This was a period when some workers would go without food to buy a secondhand book, and risk the sack by reading it at work.)

In 1899 two American socialists, Walter Vrooman and Charles Beard, tried to create a movement for working-class adult education in England. They were inspired by the ideas of the former Oxford university professor and art critic, John Ruskin. They set up Ruskin “halls” in several working class centres, a system of correspondence tuition, and local discussion groups linked to it, plus the residential Ruskin college in Oxford. (The money for this came from Vrooman’s wife.) At the start, Ruskin in Oxford was a mixture of utopian colony and labour college. But soon working-class activists sponsored by union branches came to form the overwhelming majority of its students.

In 1902, Vrooman and Beard returned to the US. Now the college had to look for other sources of funding.

In the late 1890s, Albert Mansbridge offered the extension movement a way of recruiting and holding working-class students. Mansbridge was a working-class product of the extension movement itself. He was also an ardent Anglo-Catholicism convert. He particularly enjoyed mingling with the bishops and upper-class tutors who ran the Oxford Extension Delegacy. Mansbridge’s idea was that, instead of one-off public lectures to large audiences, they should provide classes for small groups, focused on social, political and economic topics. This would provide a route for selected working-class students to progress to Oxford itself, where they should do a special diploma in economics. The result would eventually be a layer of union activists and working-class politicians who believed in harmony between employers and workers. Sir Robert Morant, the chief civil servant at the Board of Education, wrote a clause that empowered local authorities to fund classes of this type into the 1902 Education Act.

In 1903 Mansbridge founded the organisation which eventually became the WEA. The Oxford Extension Delegacy backed this at once. As well as this, a group of young, upper class, Christian socialist Oxford tutors aligned themselves with Mansbridge’s approach. They formed a semi-secret group, the “Catiline Club”, which aimed to convince broader sections of the establishment that this was the way forward. The rising tide of strikes in the early 1900s made this solution increasingly attractive.

The WEA/Extension project needed an institution which could function as a halfway house between tutorial classes and Oxford University. Ruskin College was earmarked for this role.

Along with the growth of working class self organisation in this period, new forms of rank and file unionism and socialism from below began to appear. These included movements for industrial (as opposed to craft) unionism, and syndicalism. In 1906 a Liberal government came to power, and gave several union leaders jobs supervising its welfare reforms. This caused the interest in rank and file control to grow stronger. The poor performance of the 37 MPs elected for the first time as the Labour Party added to rank and file dissatisfaction.

In this situation, ideas put forward by the US academic Daniel De Leon became influential. The Socialist Labour Party group in Scotland published Two Pages from Roman History, a reprint of two talks given by De Leon in 1902. In the first of these, De Leon drew a parallel as follows. In Rome, after the plebs — the poor and working people — withdrew from the city in 494 BC, the ruling class created “tribunes of the people”. These functionaries were supposed to represent the plebs, but in fact ended up by selling them out. De Leon argued that the mainstream trade union bureaucrats were doing the same for the working class of his day.

Another factor which affected the growth of socialist ideas amongst workers in England and Wales at this time was the character of the main universities.

Because of the 1789, 1830 and 1848 revolutions, universities on the continent produced a thin layer of educated people who were prepared to throw in their lot with the working-class movement. (Examples include Marx, Plekhanov, Kautsky, Lenin and Luxemburg.) But in England the two main universities — and especially Oxford — reflected the compromise between the bourgeoisie and aristocracy at the end of the Civil War. They were dominated by the need to produce Anglican clergymen, civil servants and colonial administrators. If Oxford graduates became socialists at all, they became Christian socialists like those who backed Mansbridge, not revolutionaries. Working class activists here, then, had to do most of their thinking in isolation from educated people. This forced them to rely on reading the main socialist texts for themselves. On top of this, many texts which we now think of as essential had not yet been translated into English.

In 1907 the TUC leadership gave in to rank and file pressure, and put out an appeal across the whole movement to support Ruskin College. This meant that Ruskin might have for the first time a reasonably secure future as a labour college. The leaders of the WEA/Extension alliance realised that they must seize control before the chance to incorporate Ruskin in their project was lost.

The WEA annual conference in August 1907 was held during the Oxford Extension Delegacy annual meeting. The Portsmouth shipyard worker and Labour councillor J MacTavish made a speech in favour of tutorial classes. The Delegacy then set up a joint working party with the WEA to report on Oxford and Working-Class Education. This report was written by Mansbridge and MacTavish for the WEA, and members of the Catiline Club for the university. It recommended tutorial classes throughout the country. These in turn would select working-class students to enter Oxford. The report also put forward detailed proposals about syllabuses, teaching methods and how extension tutors could handle Marxist ideas. It endorsed the idea that Ruskin should become the main entry point for tutorial students progressing to Oxford.

In January 1908, the WEA opened its first tutorial classes, in Longton in Staffordshire and in Rochdale. The Catiline Club member RH Tawney taught both of them, and workers signed up. This was evidence that Mansbridge’s approach could work in practice.

The students who were at Ruskin in 1907 had their own ideas about the adult education which workers needed. They called this Independent Working-Class Education (IWCE). It was flatly opposed to the WEA/Extension model as set out in Oxford and Working-Class Education. Instead of revering mainstream higher education like Mansbridge did, they saw this as “orthodox” education which reflected the class interests of the well-off and must therefore necessarily miseducate workers.

They thought that the content of adult education for workers should be Marxist economics, industrial history and philosophy, which to them meant the capacity to reason things out for yourself. Like Mansbridge, they favoured a participatory teaching and learning method. Their method, however, was borrowed from the SLP group in Scotland. It involved close reading and small group discussion of classic socialist texts. It aimed to produce activists who could hold their own in arguments, including against ruling class spokespersons. They had already begun to use this approach amongst themselves.

Once an interim version of Oxford and Working-Class Education had come out (in mid 1908) Oxford University management began to intervene directly in the running of Ruskin College. A key supporter of the extension project who was already on the staff of Ruskin, H B Lees Smith, was moved to a position of increased power, and he then appointed two of his friends as lecturers.

The executive committee of the College was restructured so that the authority of the principal appointed by Vrooman and Beard, the socialist Dennis Hird, was undermined. Compulsory exams (called “Revision Papers”) were introduced, to control which students could go on to a second year. The executive tried to ban Hird from teaching sociology. Students were banned from speaking in public. Because students were starting to challenge the newly appointed lecturers about their teaching of economics, and even to stay away from their lectures, all lectures were made compulsory.

During the autumn term of 1908, Ruskin students kept on being invited to tea with Oxford tutors, and prominent figures from the university came to speak to them in the college. The most famous such visit was in October 1908, by the chancellor of Oxford and former viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. He and Dennis Hird clashed in front of the students about whether Ruskin should relate to the university or to the labour movement.

The Extensionists were also lobbying in the House of Lords and putting articles into the press. In one article, the recently-appointed Ruskin vice-principal Charles Sydney Buxton wrote: ‘The necessary common bond is education in citizenship, and it is this which Ruskin College tries to give — conscious that it is only a new patch on an old garment, an idealist experiment in faece Romuli’. This was a posh way of saying that the Ruskin students were the dregs of British imperial society.

The students and ex-students mobilised against the WEA/Extension attempt to seize control. In October 1908, they formed the League of the “Plebs”. (This name was a reference to De Leon’s pamphlet but also as a response to Buxton’s article.) Later in the term they published a pamphlet, The Burning Question of Education. (This title echoes another pamphlet by De Leon, The Burning Question of Trade Unionism). In this, they argued that Ruskin should have “a more satisfactory relation to the labour movement’. In January 1909, they began setting up local classes. In February they launched their magazine.

Early in March the Ruskin executive demanded Dennis Hird’s resignation, on the grounds that he was failing to maintain discipline. This was a response to his confrontation with Lord Curzon, which had shown that he was determined to stand with the students. On 26 March, Hird told the students that he had resigned. A meeting later that day agreed overwhelmingly to boycott all lectures except Hird’s until he was reinstated. The students also agreed to conduct their own classes as part of the action. This action — the Ruskin “strike” — continued until 6 April, and became national headlines. Nobody could believe that a small group of workers would take on the most prestigious university in the world.

During the strike, the Ruskin governors endorsed the decision to sack Hird. Opinion amongst the strikers now swung in favour of setting up a Central Labour College (CLC) outside, rather than contining the struggle within Ruskin. When the executive closed Ruskin for two weeks and agreed to pay their fares back to the areas they came from, they called off the strike. Many went home to build on the classes started in January. One, the Bermondsey carpenter George Sims, whose scholarship was withdrawn at the governors’ instigation, stayed in Oxford.

Between April and August 1909, 29 of the most resolute strikers, led by Sims and an ex-student, the Mardy miners’ agent Noah Ablett, organised for the launch of the CLC, both on the ground in Oxford, and across the union and left-wing movements. At the first Plebs annual “meet” on 8 August, 200 people from a range of organisations agreed to back Sims’ proposals for the CLC. This opened at the beginning of September elsewhere in Oxford, with 20 union-sponsored students and Hird as warden.

The editorial in The Plebs Magazine issue 1, probably written by Sims, says that the League of the “Plebs” endeavours to permeate the Labour Movement in all its ramifications with the desire for human liberation”. Because the struggle between class collaboration and independent working-class self-organisation in post-compulsory education is still going on now, we need to find out everything we can about the strengths and weaknesses of the IWCE movement which the Ruskin strikers started.

• Colin Waugh is the author of a forthcoming pamphlet on the “Plebs League”. For more details email us.


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The Plebs League

Rc Turnbull

Dear Comrades

Re the above article. I would be interested in reading the above pamphlet. Could you send me details please? I am currently researching the life of Noah Ablett in preparation for my forthcoming M.A thesis.

Yours Rob

forthcoming publication?

Please keep me apprised of further publications on the Plebs League and similar historical institutions of workers' education.