Can we rebuild the Plebs League tradition?

There’s been a lot of discussion about the Plebs League, a socialist adult education movement formed in 1908 by dissident students at Ruskin College. It’s not surprising that we’re all taking an interest in the word ‘pleb’, as used – or not – by a disgruntled government minister. Then the Guardian picked up on a suggestion by the shadow Welsh Secretary that we consider reviving the Plebs League. And now I receive an email inviting me to a conference on rebuilding the Plebs League tradition in a new century.

Is it possible to repeat the success of Noah Ablett, George Hodgkinson and Arthur Cook in developing a living programme of what they called ‘independent working class education’? Capitalism isn’t looking too clever right now, and there’s certainly a renewed interest in Marxist ideas out there, with new editions of the Communist Manifesto and Capital proudly on display in the high street.

And the conference, organised by a group calling itself Independent Working Class Education, looks interesting. As well as discussions of contemporary union based learning, there are also presentations on radical approaches to family history and self-education in pre-1914 socialist groups, as well as a debate about building popular universities. But how realistic are the prospects of a Plebs League for the iPhone generation?

The portents are not all grim. The original Plebs set out to promote an education in revolutionary socialism, drawing on Marxist theoretical principles, informed by experience in trade unionism, and aiming to build a revolutionary movement based in the unions. And we could argue reasonably that organised labour in general, and the trade unions in particular, are in far better shape than they were in 1908. But is this a basis for a continuing, organised movement for independent working class education?

The main obstacles are pretty obvious. While the unions are larger and stronger than in 1908 in some respects, the meaning of membership has changed dramatically since the 1970s. Branch meetings are rarely ‘spaces for learning’; they are either sparsely attended or more often have disappeared altogether. Members pay their subscriptions by credit card or standing order, rather than in person to their shop steward. The revival of union learning is a real credit to those involved (including the much-maligned New Labour government), but it isn’t often concerned with building a new social order.

And this reflects much wider trends in popular culture, which has shifted dramatically from the world of chapel, co-operative, working men’s club and trade union that working people built as shelters from the worst ravages of unregulated capitalism. I see these shifts as irreversible, at least in our life time. And none of the newer social movements has yet emerged with the strength and sustainability to carry a similarly convincing narrative of independent radical education. Nor at present is there a group of intellectuals who believe that a new and desirable social order can be built through organised labour or any other social movement.

So I reckon the prospects are poor. And I would also remind you of the fate of the original Plebs League. It openly denounced other adult education movements, such as the Workers Educational Association, as class collaborators. It despised universities and academics as bourgeois lackeys (worth remembering given that my invitation to attend this conference came from a fellow professor). And the labour college movement that they inspired and often worked in was brought to its knees, not by the malign forces of capitalism and the state, but by the corruption of its leading officials, who embezzled its funds.  So we shouldn’t idealise the Plebs, but rather see them as sometimes admirable, sometimes foolish, and sometimes plain wrong.

But the ideal of a new movement for radical adult learning retains its appeal. There is plenty to organise against, and plenty to hope for. We’re unlikely to find a comforting and inspirational unifying narrative of the kind that drove Noah Ablett and his comrades in the early twentieth century. Rather, we need to build our own narratives and interweave different radical movements that demand new and possibly tricky forms of knowledge and capability, and therefore new forms of learning.  And given the political climate, there is something appealingly cheeky about calling it after the Plebs!

For details of the conference on 24 November see: http://iwceducation.co.uk/?event=iwce-in-the-north

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