End the Oppression of Pedagogy! Why Southampton Transformed matters.
by Tom Williams (@shirleymush) on May 31, 2019

For political education to work, it must connect theory to what is local, material, and concrete. Southampton Transformed is one of a number of regional events aiming to do this. Here, Southampton Transformed co-organiser Tom Williams argues that socialist transformation must be reciprocal, collective, and connected to people’s lives.

There seems to be little inclination (or perhaps little time or energy) on the part of the Labour leadership to instigate a thoroughgoing programme of political education. Perhaps they are wary of doing anything that would start yet another fight with the Labour right. In any case though, such an ambitious project should come from the bottom up. For it to do so, the left needs to build up networks of intellectual exchange. Social media has been helpful to Corbynism in many ways—it seems to have allowed a number of people with broadly Marxist beliefs to connect, and to have facilitated more of an overlap between the academic left and the activist left—but has clear and oft-enumerated limitations. Some debates need to be had in person, with multiple contributors, and with space for everybody to feel that they are heard. The affects and effects of online debate are often gruelling. With tone, expression, and other forms of nonverbal communication absented, even conversations between comrades on WhatsApp groups can quickly become adversarial.

A recent Momentum video aiming to provide what were, at best, incomplete and underdeveloped definitions of socialism was disappointing, gesturing as it did to a revanchism and paucity of ambition. Discussion of said clip with comrades proved, in many cases, to be equally dispiriting, as committed leftists attempted definitions which were even more nebulous. This is understandable in a society in which any form of collectivism, let alone socialism, has been under sustained attack for decades, yet problematising the state and avoiding cloying social patriotism is crucial if we are going to build a horizontal movement, campaign for a democratic economy, and irreversibly transform the ways in which we live and work.

For these ideas to be explored properly, the left must create spaces in which reciprocal learning can take place, accepting that different people are going to be at different stages in their learning. Debates need to be mediated and guided, perhaps by those Antonio Gramsci might have called “organic intellectuals”; members of the working class and committed to “active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, ‘permanent persuader’.”1 The competitive ethos very deliberately created by actually-existing neoliberalism within state education—with its league tables and entreaties to students to see academic endeavours in entrepreneurial terms—is not something to which the left is immune. Plenty of debates in left spaces turn into contests for intellectual supremacy, with comrades simply trying to prove how much cleverer they are than the previous speaker. This must be overcome, and people who are generally uncomfortable with intervening in debates must be allowed to develop the confidence to do so. For every bloviating table-thumper at a CLP meeting, there may very well be several members who have more considered analyses, but who lack the confidence to stand up and speak in front of scores of people, several of whom may be intent on browbeating and humiliating anyone who disagrees with them.

Critiques of regional events like Southampton Transformed—as well as its ‘parent’ event, The World Transformed—tend to centre around the usefulness, or, rather, uselessness, of “middle class intellectuals” (a term that some on the left are guilty of applying almost indiscriminately to comrades with whom they disagree) talking on stages. This sort of critique would be valid if the events in question were absent those “organic intellectuals” capable of shaping discussion, and of situating discourses in a context relevant to the lived and localised experience of attendees, either by chairing debates or by asking pertinent questions from the floor. These interventions must connect local social antagonisms to the theories being advanced from the stage. This will hopefully prompt both attendees and speakers to reconsider the social context, and to make links to other struggles. If, as Gramsci posited, everyone is a theorist,2 this includes the disgruntled Southampton native who theorises that the reason their children can’t find a school place, can’t get a bus to school, and no longer get sufficient input from teaching assistants is an influx of Polish migrants. It is the role of the organic intellectual to persuade this Sotonian otherwise by facilitating an understanding of the overarching philosophy that connects the defunding of councils, the replacement of municipal transport with privatised bus companies, and the managerialism imposed on state schools (among many other issues). This might, in turn, also facilitate an understanding of and empathy with the plight of the bus drivers, teaching assistants, and migrant workers onto whom blame so often falls.

This will require a degree of comradely patience and tolerance, and a commitment to judging views and behaviours without necessarily judging the person exhibiting them. We need to learn from one another’s experiences and develop empathy, trying, in the process, to avoid making assumptions about any ‘unconscious biases’ that might be harboured by our interlocutors. It’s not our business to ponder our comrades’ subconscious minds; and in any case, we need to be generous in giving one another the benefit of the doubt where appropriate. It might not be the case that the 60 year old man who initially dismisses the existence of the patriarchy is devoutly anti-feminist: he might simply not have been given concrete examples of sexism and misogyny until provided with them in a comradely environment.

Left spaces must be safe, but not immediately condemnatory. A nascent comprehension of ideas that are almost completely absent from the national conversation can lead to gauche or even outright offensive comments as people work through things. When teaching critical thinking, we are teaching how to think, not what to think. This takes time, but it can and should be joyful. We should enjoy the freedom from the pressures and constraints of the state education system, whose main purpose has always been to provide capital with a workforce. We should enjoy the freedom from that system’s methods, rooted in what Paulo Freire called the “banking method” of education;3 filling empty heads with facts and figures and relentlessly testing students with a view to awarding them a qualification to take into the labour market. Away from these enervating practices, teachers and learners have time to swap ideas, often with the effect of hugely increased, and, crucially, reciprocal learning all round.

Different locations will facilitate different discussions. If we are to have an activist on every street, we must have spaces in every community in which to explore and debate ideas. It is not realistic to expect hundreds of activists to knock on doors to try to get a council or Parliamentary candidate elected simply because those activists think that their candidate is a nice person—they need the motivation of sharing the candidate’s politics, an appreciation of the ideas behind their policies, and the confidence and wit to articulate them in face-to-face conversations. The same applies with regard to recruiting new members. The necessary breadth and depth of understanding will not come through being issued with a flow diagram intended to guide activists through doorstep conversations.

A largely unheralded and undervalued aspect of the wider labour movement is the provision of education programmes by trade unions. Social movements like the Black Panthers and the Chartists were able to educate participants and inspire political awakenings by revealing the necessarily connections between theory and experience. Likewise, in unions, activists, shop stewards and various other members of civil society are introduced to the idea of building relational power, and in the process often build alliances with people and groups with whom they might not superficially have much in common, but with whom, as they begin to realise, they share interests.

Like socialism itself, the concept of solidarity has demonstrably not been properly interrogated at grassroots level. Seeing the term ‘solidarity’ conflated by some on the left with uncritical support for figures such as Chris Williamson and even Julian Assange has been galling, and has left Jewish comrades and survivors of sexual violence feeling expendable and abandoned. By the same token, the failure of some comrades to do even the bare minimum with regard to observing the cultural boycott of Israel suggests an underdeveloped conception of solidarity. As Jeremy Gilbert has asserted:

We have no moral right to decide one way or another whether it’s a good idea (to assume an individual responsibility for this issue would be pure anti-political liberalism). Those in the struggle have asked us for this in solidarity. That’s why we do it.

Without a better understanding of solidarity, even our experiences of oppression and our struggles for liberation become privatised: a private matter for private individuals to resolve, privately.

By increasing consciousness we can build new solidarities, repair old ones, and activate a more powerful, cosmopolitan class formation. We can reject both ‘class-first socialism’ and the privatisation of struggle itself that has been the result of the meagre gains of social movements having been made, as Stuart Hall has noted, entirely on the terrain of neoliberal ‘common-sense’.4 Such a transformation must, however, be rooted in the local. The tragic foreclosing of horizons under neoliberalism and the way in which many people are now, to quote Daniel Frost, “locked in” to their communities make this localism a fundamental requirement of any meaningful and effective educational process. If the locale is the theatre in which struggle takes place, then we need to be able to map our theory onto that. The aforementioned Sotonian—or “Mush”—hears Polish accents every day on the high street, but doesn’t see obscenely wealthy capitalists lighting cigars with £50 notes. They might notice the listlessness of outsourcing beneficiary Balfour Beatty, though, and the Hamwic Education Trust executives cruising around in sports cars while school provision is ruthlessly cut. There is more than a grain of truth in the criticism from the centre and right that neoliberalism is an empty, non-specific term that people on the left use to describe anything they don’t like. Certainly, it can seem like a mystifying generalisation to people who aren’t steeped in left discourses. This needs to change: working class people need to be allowed to understand and name the particular philosophies and processes underpinning what has been done to their lives and communities. The patronising, patrician belief that working class people can’t understand liberal capitalism and its consequences is nonsense—in fact they will often grasp these concepts more quickly than those insulated from their consequences. They administrate it; we live it. So the challenge for the speakers and organic intellectuals at an event like Southampton Transformed is to communicate adequately—this means resisting off-the-shelf terms, explaining any jargon, and resisting the urge to use a register that isn’t easily accessible to those outside an academic context.

Accessibility is crucial in more than one sense. We must find a way to reach those who are all too often indirectly excluded from politics due to economic constraints, religious commitments, caring commitments (which most often affect women), or health conditions ranging from physical disabilities to mental health issues and social anxiety. Arranging meetings on weeknights in pubs might be convenient and enjoyable for some people, but might immediately preclude others attending for any number of reasons. Resurrecting the practice of salons—where someone’s home is temporarily converted into a community meeting space—might be one way of opening up the education process to more learners. We might make meetings more accessible by circulating agendas and minutes/notes in all community languages, including Braille, with potentially triggering topics of discussion clearly signposted. Visual timetables and BSL provision (or at least a commitment to speaking clearly enough for lip readers) can be supportive and inclusive, as can a serious commitment to starting and finishing on time, as people with social anxiety and autistic spectrum disorders often flourish when plans are concrete. At an even more basic level, we might commit to holding our meetings in venues that are accessible to people with differing levels of physical mobility, or consider that rooms full of impassioned people, shouting at and over one another, can be experienced as overwhelming and terrifying.

In pedagogical terms, much of what is being advocated here involves simplifying and explicating concepts without impoverishing them. When we learn to read on a parent’s lap, we interpret new words through their juxtaposition to words we already know. When we play a team sport, our skills will tendentially develop in relation to the skills of the people we play alongside. Learning is collective. The justificatory claim that those who have disgraced themselves in the past have “been on a journey” may have had the unfortunate effect of setting unrealistically high expectations of everyone, not just politicians and public figures who should know better. It is important to remember that we are attempting to counter the hegemony of a constructivist project that uses media and culture as well as the state. Before the lofty ambition of a million-member party can be considered remotely plausible, existing members must be able to make a compelling case for socialism. They must also be able to develop the more mundane, yet equally important practical skills required to make themselves heard—for example, writing motions, and speaking in support of them. Part of the reason Corbyn’s candidacy caused people to flood into the party was that those people believed that they would, finally, have a voice. So we need to give them that voice; we need to teach (and learn) about intra-party democracy, such as it is. This might be achieved through more experienced comrades choosing generously to support less seasoned activists by giving them the chance to speak at meetings, attend conference as delegates, and so on. Similarly, an acknowledgement from long-serving activists that they do not have all the answers and might, after decades of defeat, be able to learn from hitherto voiceless or inactive people would be truly transformative.

We learn through struggle, but those struggles require networks of shared learning to enable those engaged in them to develop effective, collective strategies linked to socialist theory. Through a combination of theory and action in and with our communities, working class people can feel both our consciousness and our expectations being raised. We can begin, at last, to imagine something better.

Southampton Transformed happens on June 8 at the 1865 Club in Southampton—a festival of ideas, art, and music working to build power, solidarity and joy in our community. Guests include Owen Hatherley, John McDonnell, and New Socialist editors Rhian E Jones, Tom Gann, and Josie. Early bird tickets are available from the Southampton Transformed website—come and join us for a transformative day of politics and culture!

  1. Gramsci, Antonio. 1973. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence and Wishart. p.10 

  2. ibid. p.323. 

  3. Friere, Paulo. 2005. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Continuum. p.72 

  4. Hall, Stuart and Alan O’Shea. ‘Common-sense Neoliberalism’. In Soundings 55: Values as Commodities (Winter 2013), pp.8-24 


Tom Williams (@shirleymush)

Tom Williams is co-organiser of Southampton Transformed, a festival of ideas, art, and music working to build power, solidarity and joy in Southampton. He has lived in Southampton all his life. Tom worked as a primary school teacher for ten years, and currently works as a tutor in trade union studies. He is political education officer for Southampton and Romsey CLP.


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