Saturday, November 24, 2012

Can we revive Plebs tradition?

COULD sacked Tory Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell yet be credited with contributing to a renewal of interest in independent working class and socialist education in Britain?

It was Mitchell's outburst after a woman police officer told him to use a side gate leaving Downing Street which eventually deprived him of his post. According to the police he called them "fucking plebs", and told them they should know their place.

The quaint put-down "plebs", from the term Plebeians, used for the lower orders in Ancient Rome, provided inspiration for numerous placards on the October 20 demonstration called by the TUC against government austerity policies, bringing a smile to the face of police as the marchers assembled. Working people and pensioners were proud to identify themselves as "Plebs" against Old Etonian David Cameron's government of "Toffs",.another old expression enjoying a revival.

Class is back. Of course it never went away, despite all the nonsense from some politicians and intellectuals, and Cameron's insistence that we "are all in this together" and must pay for the bankers' crisis put the lid on it. With thanks to Mr.Mitchell, we are all learning our place, and his.

Proudly donning the label "Plebs" bestowed upon us is not new, and this too is having a revival.  When I was a lad and first started nipping into my local library's reading room to peruse such periodicals as "Tribune", "Labour's Northern Voice" and the "Socialist Standard", perhaps the most curious was a little magazine called "Plebs", published by the National Council of Labour Colleges from Tillicoultry, Clackmannanshire, in Scotland. I believe it survived until 1964.

It was back in 1908 that Noah Ablett, a miner from the Rhondda Valley in South Wales, returned from Ruskin College, Oxford, where he had been leading unofficial classes discussing Marxist political economy, and began promoting Marxist education through branches of the Independent Labour Party. In November 1908, a group of students and former students from Ruskin formed the Plebs :League, and started publishing its magazine.

The editorial in its first issue was (probably) written by George Sims, a carpenter from Bermondsey who had been secretary of the Bermondsey and Rotherhithe Trades Council, and had been expelled from the supposedly "Marxist" Social Democratic Federation that year for supporting industrial unionism. This indicates the way the founders of the Plebs League were more inclined to the militant combination of Marxism and working class self-organisation associated with Daniel De Leon's Socialist Labour Party, which had also inspired the Industrial Workers of the World(IWW) in the United States, and the Irish socialist James Connolly.

Indeed the word "Plebs" was adoped from De Leon's "Two Pages from Roman History".
In the first issue of the magazine Sims concluded by saying the aim must be "industrial democracy". while Ablett, writing about Ruskin, said that if working class educatio was to prepare people for social emancipation then "its control must be in the nads of the workers".  Ablett was to become better known for his authorship of the 1912 pamphlet "The Miners' Next Step".       

In 1909 there was student unrest at Ruskin, and the students went on strike in support of the Principal, Dennis Hird, who had supported them, when he was dismissed. This led to the formation of a Central Labour College, which worked with the Plebs League. Dennis Hird became its first principal. By 1910 the Plebs League had spread its activities to Lancashire and to Scotland, where its educators included the famous John Maclean.    

 The Central Labour College received trade union backing, though not from all. Having moved to London it lasted until 1929, when the depression, and no doubt the political divisions in the labour movement took their toll. But the National Council of Labour Colleges, as the Plebs League had become, carried on as a network of workers' education classes. By 1964, when it was wound up, higher education appeared to be radically changing and becoming more open, while the trade unions had moved far from the heady days of 1912 or 1926. The old division with Ruskin had been replaced by co-operation. Mr. Wilson was announcing the "White Heat of the Technological Revolution". New battles were coming, but even the Thatcher years did not stop TUC talk of "social partnership", and union education nowadays is a far cry fom the Plebs League.

It was on the 100th anniversary of the Ruskin strike that Post-16 Educator published a paper by Colin Waugh, "'Plebs' the Lost Legacy of Independent Working-Class Education", looking in detail at how the movement evolved. But more recent developments at Ruskin, with the revelation that archives were being dumped to ease the college's move to new premises on the outskirts of Oxford, have sparked new student unrest and interest in independent wotking class education.
This fits into the broader concerns of academics and trade unionists over what the Con Dem cuts and reactionary policies are doing to society and culture. London Metropolitan University, which had already begun closing many courses when its future was endangered this year by the trumped up attack on overseas students, happens to house the TUC's archive.

Meanwhile there is a revival of rank and file militancy with a new generation coming into struggle under very different conditions from the boom years' narrow wages struggles or sixties' student militancy. Development is slow and uneven, and many workers are hesitating before the srriousness of what confronts them. But class is back, and so is Marxism. People will want to know much more than their "place" in society. We want to change society.
I can see local trades union councils, which are increasingly called on to join with and involve unemployed committees and students, being interested in a new educational and cultural initiative. Where we still have premises and clubs that would be an asset. Unions like my own which are turning to community branches could also be part of it. 
Various left-wing groups which at present run their own study classes and annual events like 'Marxism' will presumably not object to the broader labour movement taking some responsibility, and will be able to contribute personnel, contacts and experience to this work.

I have not even considered the very diffferent technological environment to a century, and how much can be done "on line".

But it is early days yet.; Things are just sprouting up in a few places. All the same I will be interested to see what comes from a conference being held at Northern College in Sheffield this weekend.


Ruskin archives row:

De Leon on class struggle in ancient Rome:

About Noah Ablett 

Interesting article from year before NCLC was wound up into TUC education.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home