Last week I sat down and thrashed out a whole raft of thoughts I’ve had about the way the swp attempted to ‘educate’ members and what I felt were its shortcomings and contradictions. I think that the concept of education, learning and pedagogy, can be a way of understanding the role that revolutionaries and Marxists are trying to play in society. Like the way Marx goes through different concepts in different chapters in Capital, education can be a view-hole through which we peer to understand the whole a little more yet only makes real sense when taken in context with the whole. So comrades have pointed out to me that, from another angle, the question of education is really one of democracy. I don’t think they’re wrong, but that we’re both right, and that these are two ways of seeing the same thing that are actually complimentary for an understanding of the whole.
Thinking these things through is helpful. Many of the things that we already do – and I use ‘we’ to mean activists way beyond the membership of the swp – but don’t acknowledge the extent to which those practices are rooted in pedagogical assumptions.
Disintegrating any distinction between teacher and taught.
One distinct problem, that’s admittedly become a bit of an obsession, is the overwhelming use of lectures as a means of what is basically education. Its the format most parties use to present their ideas. Now for some people a lecture is the best way for them to engage with those ideas. However the idea that a lecture is the most serious, or the most accessible means of engaging members and the wider class with ideas is bullshit.
When it comes to the students party members come into contact with in schools, colleges and universities, we would always want them to learn through critical engagement, to question everything. Understanding comes from context, from the way that ideas arise in relation to other ideas. Why do we think then, that our meetings, teach-ins and conferences need to be a set of talks? What we want to be able to do is thrash ideas out. Let’s be honest – faced with a large room, just after academics have articulated clear positions for 25 minutes, you end up thinking that you either have to deliver your own 3-minute thesis, or just ask a question. This is no basis for actually thrashing ideas out. We title branch meetings ‘has the working class changed’, and then deliver our position before that question can actually be asked. This is before we even talk about the fact that lot of people find it very difficult to concentrate for such a period of time – its simply not accessible for some people.
As a teacher comrade has pointed out, the way the swp ‘does education’ is ‘more Michael Gove than New Labour’. Our formal means of engaging people in ideas is actually far more didactic than we believe education should be. If its not a lecture series then its a reading list of key texts. In reality people are ‘cadreised’ by a whole set of other processes. ‘Going for a coffee’, i.e. sitting down for hours and thrashing different ideas out, was a constant meme that we talked about using to get people involved in the organisation. Oxbridge tutorials for all! However serious development was piecemeal, and depended largely on loyalty or prodigy. Ostensibly for lack of resources, certain people would gain favour and therefore get regular contact from the centre and be encouraged to write – a dogma treat. What contributed to this was a push for next-big-thingism – everyone in the centre was in a sense attempting to meet targets for ticket sales and conference sign-ups. What was lost was the attention to detail. Some did take it very seriously (Estelle C I’m thinking of you) by actively reaching out beyond the pool of approved writers, by speaking out about the appalling gender balance of articles in publications and by constantly prodding people to express their opinions.
Those kind of process should be ingrained – they’re the basis of a genuinely democratic group.
The educationals were a big step forward, yet the focus was often more on the comrade booked to speak than the change of methods used to explore the ideas discussed. There was a lot of potential – ensuring that the person who began the meeting was asked to leave the room whilst the discussion took place was an admission that people need to develop the confidence to formulate and express their own opinions. However I think we could have gone further. Why did we have to start with a lecture, and simply pretend that because the group was smaller it was somehow different? Why not start with questions or scenarios? ‘If the party were to stop every project tomorrow morning and start afresh, what would you do and why?’
Ironically there has been a degree to which the crisis has played this educational role. By having to articulate what kind of organisation and politics we actually want, far more of us than usual have taken the time to attempt to write, inquire, theorise and explain.
Yet we need to think about ways that we engage people not in ways that emulate the hierachies of knowledge
Association with school is bad, and we shouldn’t be surprised that it makes people feel bad.
Frustrating and confusing – that’s how it feels when you look at just how many revolutionaries go into teaching. And I say that as someone who wants to try working as a teacher. Some have argued that its the ‘only job a socialist should do’, not just because its represented by strong public sector unions, but apparently because its somewhat counter to the interests of capital. This simply cannot be the case. Now, this isn’t to say that teachers are like cops, nor to ignore the very real tussle for over pedagogy that has taken place in schools, but we are fooling ourselves if we think that having lefties as teachers can do anything but soothe the pain of what is basically a traumatic system.
Boil down the formal education system, and you find the alienated version of learning. The reproduction of understanding and interaction with the world.
Who could really claim that school is a heart in a heartless world, somehow independent or autonomous from the vagaries of capital accumulation. It wasn’t before this recent phase of privatisation. Academies and free schools are merely an intervention by the state on behalf of capital to open more sources of profitability. Schools, as much as the media, are the flesh where capitalist production is the bone. Their history, and their structural concern, is the preparation of another generation of workers, to variable levels of skill.
Just as labour has been a social process found through history, so the reproduction of knowledge, understanding and conceptualisation has been necessary to continue the practice and understanding of those labours. Understanding, or theory, has therefore been historically constituted around the world-view that is associated with particular modes of production and their social set up.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that loads of people hate school. We don’t deny that good teachers make a difference, nor deny the victories for leftist pedagogy in teaching practice – but that is at odds with the structural role of education.
So why talk about education? The temptation would be to avoid all reference to the idea in revolutionary organisations? The most pertinent question, it seems, is to break down the implicit assumption that education is progressive. We consider comprehensive education to be a modern invention and a sign of progress. It is progress, in a sense, but it would be ludicrous to think that no-one learnt anything before schools.
The overriding point in all this is that learning is a social process that, by necessity and in the main, accompanies the modes of production in a given society. It is a social process that fits with the needs of that society, reproducing technical expertise but also the worldview of the prevailing social order; its logics, its common senses. Capitalism, as a particularly hyperactive society, has thrown up structures and institutions capable of formalising, and now commodifying, those very processes that are essential for its own reproduction: schools, colleges, universities, staff training, apprenticeships. There are, famously, more proletarians now just in Korea than there were in the entire world when Marx was writing. The same comparison could be made about students. Those who are not touched by education are in a minority globally. As I said before, there is nothing inherently good or progressive about this – the ramifications of literacy in terms of anti-capitalist action are real, but not structured into existence in the way that they are for proletarians.
Is ‘revolutionary education’ a false start?
Why is it worth saying all this? What I wonder is whether there can be a space for a counter-hegemonic ‘education’, and what it actually looks like.
To be a bit blunt, if the ultimate means of learning is play – doing – then the real university of counter hegemony is the struggle. What else allows for a sufficient marriage of material imperative and political development. A few thousand Marxists does not constitute a counter-hegemonic force. A social movement that will not leave the streets and go back to work without forcing some demands is a counter-hegemonic force.
What we are attempting to do when we are too few then is to learn as much as possible, in a way that is as un-alienated as possible. Alienation can’t be escaped -it is a product of the image of labour in society, and our day-schools therefore cannot be pools of temporary communism that if we baptise just enough people in a movement will emerge from.
What our actions and learning can do however is lubricate processes and thoughts already occurring. That precarious, zero-hour work is shit and there’s things we can do to confront it. Because there are thousands of us in the same position. That our friends and neighbours who are illegals have a means of self-defence. That they don’t deserve systematic sexual assault and humiliation in Yarl’s Wood.
Organisation can enhance, link and motor those fights. To do so it needs to be prepared to learn and be a means for others to learn at the same time. Learn not just the nature of the system but what works to undermine it. We may know the answer in the abstract – that is the result of the collective education the working class has undergone since its birth – but need to be prepared for the contours of contradiction in reality.
I think this is one way of seeing the kind of organisation we need. The idea behind Workers’ Inquiry is an exciting way of seeing that relationship of joint learning.
The workers’ inquiry – an example of revolutionary pedagogy.
Workers Inquiry is a term that Marx first used, though its mostly associated with the Italian autonomists these days. In effect all it means is attempt to be honest about reality by investigating it in conjunction with the subject that you’re investigating. So its about reporting and analysing the nature and processes of workplaces with workers, as workers. It’s a direct attempt to dissolve the division of mental and physical labour, the division between the intellectual and the proletariat as the subject of the intellectual’s inquiry.
To some extent, its something we all do when we visit a picket line, or talk to friends about their work – we talk through with people the conditions and practices of labour that they have to put up with. Often we do it because we’re interested about how work is changing and transforming, and to think about what possible ways, and around which issues, our friends could organise in their workplace.
The idea of Workers’ Inquiry is that we use that co-operative investigation as a tool in a systematic, not just to ‘give voice’ to workers’ experience, but to actively confront the division between mental and manual labour. What it provides is a means to involve all members in knowledge production, through co-research. Sometimes the fruits may be simply the ‘microsystems of struggle’ – the thousands of little ways workers confront capital in the breakdown of the working day- , and sometimes those fruits may be more theoretical. Either way, the task of producing those analyses is important because it clarifies what Marxist tradition actually is; living and fluid.
Jamie W produced a workers’ inquiry of a call centre, which you can read here.
Additionally, whilst workers’ inquiries are largely associated with workplaces, there’s a clear need for investigation into the way capitalism manifests itself in the life of the class in a wider sense, in the few hours that people get outside the workplace.
Revolutionary Reporters and the Internet as Organiser.
The way that we have treated reporting, publications and analysis over the last few decades presents a problem. What we want, and what we have always argued we want, is active members who don’t defer to anyone. We have regularly noted the decline of contributions to the paper from members, of local reports and wider analyses, yet have prevented no strategy to end it. Perhaps the fact that we have reporters is something to do with it – that we have a division of labour and a professionalisation of a set of tasks that is fundamental for members to do regularly if they are ‘active’, not ‘passive’. Amy G and Mark B have written about this well for the IB. I hope that they’ll put it online soon.
Towards co-research and a spirit of inquiry.
Lets not mystify the word pedagogy. I still trip over my tongue trying to pronounce it but all it means is strategy and tactics for learning. So revolutionary pedagogy isn’t just about Marxist ways of being a teacher – it’s about trying to win people to the ideas that bring about social change. We don’t do that by just getting loads of people to become educationalists – this is a weird reading of Gramsci – unless we are going to actually agitate collectively around syllabus and pedagogy. We need to think instead about organisations that are both separate from the institutions of the capitalist state yet which at the same time have no pretences to being liberated zones from capital.
If people still baulk at the idea of ‘educating the class’ then good. If education is associated with a strict relationship between teacher and taught, in institutions which are fundamentally geared towards the reproduction of the working class and its subservience, then the taste of vomit in your throat is a good thing.
Having said that revolutionary pedagogy is not ‘just a better way of teaching’, I do think that there is a smorgasbord of opportunities that we just haven’t used. These different pedagogic practices are tactics, if the overall principles are strategies.
In conclusion, why have we spent this long bothering to analyse revolutionary politics and practice through the lens of education. Clearly the last year has shown us that we have a lot to learn. Anyone who claims to have a monopoly on truth in a period where almost everyone’s plans have been scuppered needs to be willing to learn. I don’t think that those answers are just in academic theorisation, I think they’re in the material world (unless we’re looking at casusalised workers in academia, obv). As someone active on the Loughborough estate in Brixton pointed out, there’s a fuckload of stuff happening, it just doesn’t get on our radar. This, for me, is a fucking important point. If we just measure the level of class struggle by set piece fights, or the numbers of days officially lost to strike action according to the Office of National Statistics, we’re missing a trick. There are hundreds of thousands of small means of resistance that people do every day that mean something. Its not saying that those things in and of themselves are better than public sector general strikes, nor that they in themselves will bring down neoliberal capitalism, or that we should catalogue each and every instance – it is to say that those things are worth knowing. We ourselves have seen how we can have hundreds of thousands of people on the street and receive no news coverage, so just think how many things happen that go under the radar. An entire generation of urban youth revolted against the state two years ago and they are in real terms completely unknown, let alone understood, by the activist left. Why? We’ve made little to no attempt to theorise or understand why people organise in gangs. Maybe its not relevant and its just something whipped up by the press. Maybe it is, but until we attempt to inquire, we won’t know.
There’s a problem with treating our theory as a tradition to be won to. It’s a conceptualisation that actually mirrors Gove’s filling-young-minds-with-rote-facts. What it encourages is the idea that we the IS tradition is an iconoclastic stake in the ground. Yet the early history of our organisation showed that there was far more strength in heterodoxy than orthodoxy. Whilst we have in the last few decades demarcated ourselves from autonomists, the early growth of the IS bears a remarkable similarity to the growth of the anti-Stalinist workerist and autonomist left in Italy, more than we did with many Trotskyist organisations. Tony Cliff didn’t come up with State Capitalism. State Capitalism was incredibly important, in countering Stalinists and social democrats, but the Berlin Wall fell over 20 years ago. It can’t be the way we define who we are and what we do. Why should this be controversial?
Bearing witness to this reality – that any Marxist tradition is not solid but fluid – is not weakness, doesn’t undermine unity in practice, it can be the basis for it. Members who are actively aware of nuances and able to hold different opinions are the fundamental basis of democracy in an organisation. The active engagement of the mass of membership with the strategic and theoretical direction of the party seems to have far more relevance in terms of the way we define ourselves as revolutionary socialists. We need active members, who are capable of simultaneously designing a leaflet for their workplace, but also of writing the political content and of investigating, reporting on and theorising the nature of 2013 capitalism – not just in the international markets but in their own workplace. We do have these comrades, but as a result of individual members making a concerted effort to challenge and develop them, not as a result of systematic work. Moreover how that process takes place is crucial – is it about reproducing an interpretation or about testing that interpretation?
Our activity needs to flow from a desire to inquire.