The origin of the Plebs League part 1: taking the university to the workers?

Submitted by Matthew on 2 July, 2010 - 7:14 Author: Colin Waugh

In October 1908 students and former students at Ruskin College in Oxford founded the League of the “Plebs”. From 26 March to 6 April 1909 they took strike action in the college.



The Plebs League eventually became a national movement, providing what was called independent working-class education (IWCE). Later it was called the National Council of Labour Colleges.

Through this movement, which was still functioning in 1964, tens of thousands of working-class people both taught and learnt. The basic aim behind IWCE was that the working class should produce its own thinkers and organisers.

The autobiographies and reminiscences of many labour movement leaders in the 1930s, 40s and 50s refer to the Plebs League and the Ruskin strike. In contrast, few academic historians have paid attention to these initiatives. Most histories of adult education, for example, assume that what counts is the Workers' Educational Association (WEA). They either ignore IWCE altogether or see it as an obstacle that briefly hampered the WEA.

In this issue of Solidarity we begin a serialisation of an account of the origins of the Plebs League by Colin Waugh. The article will focuses on the 1909 strike at Ruskin, and the beginnings of the movement. It does not deal with what happened in later periods. But it does inform us about why independent working class education is still very relevant today.

University extension to 1899

Following the collapse of the Chartist movement in 1848, some sections of the ruling class thought that they could forestall future threats to their power by creating within the working class a compliant layer of articulate spokespersons who would blunt the edge of class struggle. One way they tried to do this was by infiltrating the Cooperative Movement. Another was by initiatives in the field of adult education.

In the mid 1800s Oxford University was dominated by its constituent colleges. Many of these were like gentlemen’s clubs, in which “fellows” waited to be given livings in the Anglican church. There arose, especially in Oxford, a movement which aimed to reform this situation. One strand wanted Oxford to do something for working people.

Not everyone who thought this was simply a hypocrite. For example, in 1872, reacting in a personal letter to the death of some nuns during the Paris Commune, the poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “I am afraid some great revolution is not far off. Horrible to say, in a manner I am a Communist. Their ideal bating some things is nobler than that professed by any secular statesman I know of … Besides it is just… it is a dreadful thing for the greatest and most necessary part of a very rich nation to live a hard life without dignity, knowledge, comforts, delight, or hopes in the midst of plenty — which plenty they make.

“They profess that they do not care what they wreck and burn, the old civilisation and order must be destroyed. This is a dreadful outlook but what has the old civilisation done for them? As it at present stands in England it is itself in great measure founded on wrecking. But they got none of the spoils, they came in for nothing but harm from it then and thereafter. England has grown hugely wealthy but this wealth has not reached the working classes; I expect it has made their condition worse.

“Besides this iniquitous order the old civilisation embodies another order mostly old and what is new in direct entail from the old, the old religion, learning, law, art, etc and all the history that is preserved in standing monuments. But as the working classes have not been educated they know next to nothing of all this and cannot be expected to care if they destroy it …”

By “wrecking” here, Hopkins meant people enriching themselves when Henry VIII closed the monasteries. His standpoint was close to the “feudal socialism” ridiculed by Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto. But it was also close to the impulse which made William Morris [slightly later] become a socialist. Christian socialists who thought like Hopkins were to play a key role on the ruling-class side in the Ruskin struggle.

The growth of such views among the intelligentsia had led to the foundation in 1854 of the Workingmen’s College in London. The person mainly responsible for this was the Cambridge graduate, London and Cambridge professor and Christian Socialist, Frederick Denison Maurice, who in turn based his approach on measures pioneered by another Christian socialist, Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Tom Brown at Oxford.

Maurice wrote: “The question is, how to eliminate Owenism and Chartism? Repression has proved powerless; but the Queen, in a conversation with Lord Melbourne, has indicated the proper way, to wit, education. But what sort of education will be capable of doing away with Chartism? The one that will point out to him [ie the worker] his unjust claims and will satisfy his just demands”.

Also involved in the Workingmen's College was the Oxford professor John Ruskin, who taught art there for a time.

In 1860 Ruskin had published, originally as articles in the prestigious Cornhill Magazine, a book on political economy called Unto This Last. One section of this was called ”The veins of wealth”. Here Ruskin said: “Since the essence of wealth consists in power over men, will it not follow that the nobler and the more in number the persons are over whom it has power, the greater the wealth?

“Perhaps it may even appear, after some consideration, that the persons themselves are the wealth, that these pieces of gold with which we are in the habit of guiding them are, in fact, nothing more than a kind of Byzantine harness or trappings . . . wherewith we bridle the creatures; but that if these same living creatures could be guided without the fretting and jingling of the Byzants in their mouths and ears, they might themselves be more valuable than their bridles'” Ruskin wanted to value workers as human beings but also to educate them out of fighting for a better life.

In the 1870s another approach emerged. This was university extension, where academics travelled around the country lecturing to people who could not go to university. Cambridge University introduced extension provision in 1873, London in 1876 and Oxford in 1878.

In the 1880s, after starving people from the East End of London invaded the affluent West End, another tactic was attempted: the settlement movement.

People from universities went to live in areas like the East End, where they provided, among other things, adult education. The most well known settlement, Toynbee Hall, was opened in Whitechapel in 1885, by people from Oxford, mainly on the initiative of Canon Samuel Barnett. Here again we find two conflicting impulses — on the one hand, a genuine concern for the poor, and, on the other, a desire to block the spread of leftwing ideas. Toynbee Hall, for example, was named after Arnold Toynbee, an Oxford graduate who died at an early age from an illness he caught while lecturing in the East End. His lectures were intended to counter the influence of Henry George’s anti-capitalist economics book Progress and Poverty.

However, by the 1890s it was clear that the majority of those participating as students in the extension and settlement movements were not workers but fairly well-off people, especially middle class women who, for the most part, could not go to university. Overall, 50-60,000 people were attending extension courses, but only where organisations like the Cooperative Society backed the lectures were workers involved. Classes in political economy had initially attracted thousands of Northumberland and Durham miners, but this interest melted away after the big strike in 1887, as these workers turned instead to socialist lectures given by people such as William Morris.

Workers, then, were rejecting extension, and as a result it was failing to create a class-collaborationist layer amongst them.

Ruskin to 1902

Ruskin Hall in Oxford, set up in 1899, grew partly out of the same impulses as the extension and settlement movements. But, because of the way in which it was founded, as part of a broader project by three people from the United States, it existed alongside these movements without a formal link.

Ruskin Hall was both a labour college (that is, an institution controlled by trade unions and providing courses for their members) and a utopian colony. In its first two years some of the students were workers sponsored by their unions, but others were short-term, non-working-class visitors from overseas, or well-heeled cranks.

Two of its founders Charles Beard and Walter Vrooman (who was influenced by the US Knights of Labour movement), did try to organise a movement for working class education. They did this by founding colleges, by teaching classes themselves, by lobbying labour movement organisations, by travelling round England promoting their version of socialist education, by creating a network of correspondence tuition, and by setting up the Ruskin College Education League “for the purpose of making Ruskin College known in London and the provincial centres”. Beard founded another Ruskin Hall in Manchester, and others existed briefly in Birmingham, Liverpool, Birkenhead and Stockport.

Vrooman was a sort of socialist. He declared, for example, that “knowledge must be used to emancipate humanity, not to gratify curiosity, blind instincts and desire for respectability”. Vrooman and Beard appointed a fairly high profile left-wing socialist, Dennis Hird, as the warden/principal of Ruskin, and another, Alfred Hacking, as lecturer in charge of correspondence courses. (There were only four full time staff in the beginning.)

Hird was an Oxford graduate (1875). In 1878 he was ordained as an Anglican priest and appointed as a tutor and lecturer to students of Oxford University who were not attached to individual colleges. Later (1888) he joined the (Marxist) Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and also became secretary of the Church of England Temperance Society for the London diocese. Forced to resign from this Temperance Society position, and later to renounce his orders, because of his socialist activities, by the time of the 1908-09 events at Ruskin Hird had renounced formal Christianity itself.

As principal of Ruskin, Hird wrote to the British Steel Smelters Association to say that: “Many unions would be glad of an opportunity to send one of their most promising younger members for a year’s education in social questions”. This gives us an important clue about what he thought the college was for.

By deciding to name their project after John Ruskin, Beard and the Vroomans showed that they wanted it to challenge the existing order, but also that, like the Guild of St George founded by Ruskin himself, its focus would be ethical as much as economic. They timed the inaugural meeting for Ruskin Hall in Oxford to coincide with John Ruskin’s 80th birthday. At this meeting Vrooman described his aim in this way: 'We shall take men who have been merely condemning our social institutions, and will teach them instead how to transform those institutions, so that in place of talking against the world, they will begin methodically and scientifically to possess the world, to refashion it, and to cooperate with the power behind evolution in making it a joyous abode of, if not a perfected humanity, at least a humanity earnestly and rationally striving towards perfection”.

These words reveal Vrooman's intention that the world should be changed by action from below (“begin methodically and scientifically to possess the world... [and] to refashion it”). But they also reflect his religious feelings (a Christian, from a well-off nonconformist background) (“the power behind evolution”, and the suggestion that “humanity” cannot be “perfected”) and his wish to prevent discontent getting out of hand.

Both labour colleges and utopian colonies had a higher profile in the US than here. On their return to the US in 1902, Walter Vrooman and his wife Amne, part of whose inheritance financed the Ruskin project, founded a further Ruskin Hall in Trenton, Missouri, which was eventually absorbed into a university in Illinois. Not long afterwards, another US labour college, Brookwood in New York state, was founded, and survived until the 1930s. The most prominent figure in this was another Christian socialist, A.J. Muste.

In the US there was also a tradition of utopian colonies, and where labour colleges suffered from a shortage of union funding the two kinds of institution could overlap, with the college at risk of becoming some wealthy backer’s plaything.

For example, just before the First World War the US writer and Socialist Party member Upton Sinclair used earnings from his novel The Jungle to found a socialist colony, Helicon Home Colony, which he intended to function also as a labour college. In the 1920s, in a later novel, Oil!, Sinclair dealt with arguments for and against such institutions. By this time he had experienced the collapse both of his own colony and the Llano Del Rio colony set up near Los Angeles by Socialist Party members in 1914. He had also developed a critique of mainstream higher education which he spelt out in a privately printed book, The Goose Step.

In Oil!, Bunny Ross, the son of an oil tycoon, wants to use some of his money to set up a labour college which will be “a gymnasium where people train for the class struggle”. However, his girl-friend's father, Chaim Menzies, a union organiser amongst garment workers, thinks that “you didn't change a colony by calling it a college, and a colony vas de vorst trap you could set for de movement”, going on to argue that: “You git people to go off and live by demselves, different from de rest of de vorkers . . . all de time dey be tinking about someting else but de class struggle out in de vorld. . . . De people vot are going to help de movement has got to be in it every hour”. This expresses in fictional form a tension similar to that which arose early on at Ruskin Hall in Oxford.

Students from a working-class and trade union background soon recognised the ambivalent nature of the Ruskin set-up. Thus in the September 1901 issue of Young Oxford, a magazine launched with Vrooman’s support, JMK MacLachlan, a Scottish student who was a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), wrote that: “The present policy of Ruskin College is that of a benevolent trader sailing under a privateer flag. Professing the aims dear to all socialists, she disavows those very principles by repudiating socialism. Let Ruskin College proclaim socialism; let her convert her name from a form of contempt into a canon of respect”.

Between 1899 and 1908, about 450 people attended Ruskin in Oxford as full-time residential students. But over the same period about 8,000 enrolled themselves on Ruskin correspondence courses. Some of these correspondence students also participated in the Ruskin Hall Scheme. This was an arrangement by which correspondence students could meet in small, local discussion groups.

By 1902 it had 96 classes running across the country, nearly all of them in industrial areas. It became the main route through which industrial workers progressed to become residential students at Ruskin Hall in Oxford. These students, in turn, came eventually to form the overwhelming majority in the college. Thus by 1903, 15 out of 20 Ruskin Hall students were trade unionists.

In 1907, 53 out of the 54 students were listed by occupations, including 23 mineworkers (thirteen from South Wales, six from Durham, one from Northumberland, one from Nottinghamshire and two from Scotland), seven engineering workers, five railway-workers, four weavers and a variety of other trades. Of these 53, only four did not have a union stated alongside their name. Most were branch officers or district officers of their unions. And again in 1908-09, 45 of the students were sponsored by their unions.

By that stage then, it was clear that Ruskin was doing what the extension movement was failing to do: recruiting and retaining working-class activists as students.