Waking Up the Giant: Political Education and the Labour Movement
by Tom Blackburn (@malaiseforever) on June 17, 2018



The notion that the working class is a babe in arms that has to be taught - carefully, slowly - to walk, by holding the hand of the liberal middle class adult, only reveals the colossal ignorance and arrogance of the middle class elements in action. What they are in fact dealing with is a sleeping giant, who has to be woken up from its slumber. When awake, it walks and talks without instruction and guidance and when erect, it stands so tall that the ‘helping hand’ of the well-meaning incompetent middle class elements won’t be able to reach to the knees of the giant, let alone its hand. Waking up the giant is what political education is all about.1

The struggle for knowledge has always loomed especially large among the numerous causes taken up by the British labour and working-class movement. Its long heritage of self-education and autodidacticism has been a source of great pride, and emblematic of this ethos was the Social Democratic Federation’s choice of motto: “educate, agitate, organise”. However, that struggle took a more formal and institutionalised turn as the Labour Party was drawn closer and closer towards the state, and the focus on democratic control of education weakened in favour of an emphasis on meritocracy and producing a workforce suited to the requirements of British capitalism. It did of course suit Labour leaders to believe that they could have it both ways: that increased individual social mobility could sufficiently mitigate the inequities of capitalism without there being any need to encroach on its fundamental prerogatives.

That there is an overarching need for political education seems to be quite widely acknowledged on the Labour left. With its membership (still largely atomised, as Phil Burton-Cartledge has observed) now exceeding 550,000, Labour Party members must be encouraged to organise and formulate their own political demands, enhance their political understanding and self-confidence, and be equipped to make use of democratised policy-making structures. As yet, these structures remain little altered, three years into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. This is inevitable at this stage, given the immense difficulty of achieving reforms on the scale required and particularly in the circumstances Corbyn was thrust into the leadership. Corbyn holds a firmer grip on the party machinery than he did earlier in his tenure as leader, and in particular, he now has a supportive general secretary in Jennie Formby. This enhanced internal power should enable Corbyn to begin pressing forward with meaningful party reform. Obtaining that grip over the Labour apparatus - still far from complete - has already consumed a great deal of energy, but the leadership does not have the luxury of being able to stop there.

What is in question is not the sincerity of the Labour leadership’s desire for party reform, but whether it is prepared and able to carry it through in the face of strong countervailing forces. This is unavoidably a long-term process for which a patient, rock-solid political will is required, and the Labour leadership must continually remind itself that the Labour Party apparatus as currently constituted is manifestly inadequate for socialist purposes. The kind of change needed involves more than getting a few rule changes passed at annual conference, a tweak here and an adjustment there. Instead, it involves a far-reaching, fundamental transformation in the Labour Party’s political culture at all levels, from parliament to the constituency parties. Fetishism of ‘the doorstep’ and a predominant focus on getting out the vote continue to constrain local Labour parties, stultifying their potential as community hubs of education, culture, social activity and solidarity work:

When the socialist vision becomes transmuted into actually existing capitalism, there is little place for, and less need for, a party-based ‘counter-hegemonic’ community. The activity of party branches continues to serve an instrumental function in electoral terms and in playing their allotted role at party conferences, but they lose what raison d’être they had as centres of education and mobilisation towards an alternate way of life.2

Though Labour has consolidated its position since the 2017 general election, the Labour left should be wary of sliding into a one-more-heave mindset. The apparent weakness of the government’s position in parliament seems to have left many Labour leftists perpetually on tenterhooks, anticipating that it will fall post-haste. Yet for now at least it limps on, partially shielded by rabidly anti-socialist media whose myopic focus on Brexit serves to distract attention from the government’s abysmal record across the board. We can expect Labour to run another strong, positive and energetic campaign whenever the next general election comes around, and for its performance in the opinion polls to improve accordingly. It should be added that in such a polarised situation, it seems overly optimistic to expect any imminent dramatic fall in Tory support. However, Labour should not fall into the trap of agonising over opinion poll fluctuations, which can breed a counter-productive aversion to risk. Over and above its immediate electoral concerns, Labour needs to strengthen its roots in civil society and cultivate a deeper kind of support. This is not a diversion from the task at hand, but in fact has serious implications for the ability of a socialist government to govern. There is a need for a renewed focus on this aspect, and the educational and cultural work which it entails.

With this in mind, we need to think carefully about socialist political education, not least because socialist ideas spent decades confined to the outer margins of British public life before 2015. Rather than just training canvassers on how to put across Labour Party policy to prospective voters, socialist political education needs to reach out beyond the party itself. It should be embedded in the community, and has to avoid shutting party activists away in training academies or cadre schools, cut off from the people the labour movement aspires to represent, inspire and mobilise. As well as training party members and candidates to be effective persuaders, agitators and organisers, it must provide ways of encouraging working people to critically evaluate their own experiences, interrogate their common frustrations, challenge the root causes of oppression, and to transform the social conditions that give rise to them. There is tremendous knowledge, ingenuity, wit and creativity already present in working-class and marginalised communities. Building on this, the object of socialist political education has to be to continually foster the development, sharpening and intensification of popular demands.

The intention here is not to provide exact prescriptions for how the Labour Party should go about conducting socialist political education. Working out which methods are most appropriate for specific purposes, which topics should be concentrated on as a matter of particular urgency (beyond some very general remarks), and which specific issues might be most relevant to the concerns and aspirations of particular communities (and, also, how these might be linked to their broader systemic causes) is beyond the scope of this essay. The main aim here is rather to outline some of the general principles which might inform a Labour strategy for political education, and to expand upon the role political education could play both in advancing the long-term ideological struggle for socialism and addressing the short-term necessity of preparing the labour movement for the inevitable onslaught any socialist Labour government can expect to face.

More a Confused Church Than a Broad One

Redeveloping the Labour Party into a vehicle for grassroots cultural and educational work is a particularly difficult undertaking. This is not just because of its top-down, electoralist political culture but also the ideological ambiguities of Labourism. To borrow and repurpose an epithet coined by Caroline Benn, Labour has hitherto been “much more a confused church than a broad one”.3 In developing a socialist strategy for political education, it is essential to make sense of these ambiguities and consider how they might, over the long term, be transcended; in short, how a vague and ill-defined Labourism might make way for a more lucid, coherent and precise socialism.

Eschewing ideology is something Labour’s leaders have tended to consider a mark of their own seriousness and maturity. As Ralph Miliband has put it: “Labourism has never been turned into a systematic body of thought; and its adherents and practitioners have frequently made a virtue of their ‘practical’ sense, their rejection of ‘theory’, and their freedom from all ‘isms’”. Herbert Morrison’s alleged definition of socialism as nothing more than “what a Labour government does” might be apocryphal, but the sentiment certainly has a ring of authenticity to it. Labourism, as Miliband defined it, has been “above all concerned with the advancement of concrete demands of immediate advantage to the working class and organised labour” but these demands have “in practice only had a very weak concern - in so far as they have had any concern at all - with large socialist objectives”. These demands are to be addressed passively, by the state and with minimal input from below: they are to be regulated within tightly-drawn boundaries, rather than made into potential loci for popular organising and agitation. Hilary Wainwright has questioned whether Labourism could be properly considered an ideology at all, and suggested that it might more accurately be considered a theme: the defence of workers’ living standards under capitalism. If it must be viewed as an ideology, Wainwright intimates, it is “essentially an ideology of decent and dignified subordination”.4

Miliband pointed out that not only has the Labour Party “never carried out any sustained campaign of education and propaganda on behalf of a socialist programme”, but its own leaders have very often been implacably hostile towards socialist ideas. Indeed, some of the most vocal and dedicated of all anti-socialists have emerged from the ranks of the Labour Party and right-wing trade unionism. As well as being an easy route to respectability among the media and political caste, these often vituperative attacks have proved all the more damaging to the cause of socialism in Britain by virtue of having materialised from within the labour movement. Many of its recanted leftists have, in particular, been handsomely rewarded for attacking their former comrades.

Labourism’s educational thought has been marked by “a persistent duality”: on the left, an egalitarian concern with how education might address the pernicious moral ramifications of capitalism, and on the right, a technocratic preoccupation with making capitalism more rational, efficient and meritocratic. In time the latter came to subsume the former, with the moral critique lacking sufficient definition and sharpness to provide the basis for an effective socialist educational philosophy and programme.5 That moral critique was yoked to the overriding priorities of capitalist modernisation without too much trouble; in Labourist discourse the pursuit of egalitarianism itself came to be conflated with capitalist rationalisation and expansion,6 as if a tamed capitalism would deliver social justice provided the right people had a hand on the tiller of the state. This contrasts sharply with the proto-counter-hegemonic, “substitutional” educational philosophy of the Owenites and Chartists, whose own radical education was conceived as an alternative to “both capital’s encroachments and a growing state and philanthropic apparatus of cultural intervention” which had been greeted with considerable hostility, suspicion and derision among the emerging industrial working class.7

In this respect, the educational struggles of the interwar years - “part of a pattern of hard-fought working-class defeats” in this period8 - proved to be formative for the Labour Party. Faced with the threat of government cuts to schooling, Labour started to concern itself primarily with securing access to a statist education at the expense of developing new and substantive forms of democratic working-class control. What also emerged in this period was a conceptual separation between schooling and adult education; rather than complementing one another as part of a combined approach to radical oppositional education, “these forms of struggle tended to be held separate, often organised by different agencies”.9 For Labour, this statist orientation increasingly took precedence over any substitutional educational activity of its own, with a failure to connect its near-term campaigns in defence of state schooling to a more expansive vision of socialist educational transformation.10

What must also be taken into account with regard to political education is the presence within Labour’s ranks of such radically differing political tendencies, and the elisions necessary just to hold these together as a credible electoral force. Despite the party’s pervasive ‘broad church’ mythology, these divergent groupings are not united by a shared commitment to political pluralism but are instead compelled to coexist uneasily by the pressures of realpolitik and the demands of the British electoral system. The result of this is what Williams has called “an evident poverty in theory”, adding further that “any attempt to go beyond quite general definitions leads at once to strains on this complicated alliance”. This leads to a “muting of necessary arguments” when the possibility of a Labour government appears to be a realistic one:

The prospect of power, in this constitutional way, leads to a strengthening of those already large elements in the Party who broadly accept the existing political and economic system and who, apart from substituting themselves for Conservatives as ministers, wish to make only comparatively minor reforms.11

This is a tendency moderate Labour leaders have been keen to reinforce, playing on the desperation of party members, activists and supporters alike to ensure that a Labour government is returned and the Tories removed from office at the earliest opportunity. Of course, this is always a pressing need given the damage Tory governments inflict on working-class living standards, particularly those of the most vulnerable sections of the working class. But lacking any real understanding of counter-hegemony, this approach has not on the whole proved conducive to decisive socialist advance. In fact, rather than advancing “concrete demands of immediate advantage to the working class”, Labour leaders subjected to these immediate electoral pressures have tended to actively dampen them down. Miliband insists that this single-minded focus on short-term electoral success reflects “a very narrow view of the political process” which, even where it successfully obtains office, cannot on its own deliver real transformative power:

A socialist party would seek to strengthen [socialist] forces and to defend socialist perspectives and a socialist programme over an extended period of time, and would accept that more than one election might have to be held before a majority of people came to support it. In any case, a socialist party would not only be concerned with office, but with the creation of the conditions under which office would be more than the management of affairs on capitalist lines.

Williams notes that even the economic gains Labour has been able to deliver - by no means insignificant, but with a pronounced post-war tendency towards diminishing returns over time - have been made “within a capitalist state and economy and within a capitalist culture”,12 without offering any fundamental redefinition of how politics and society could function in the interests of working people. Hence the party has remained politically, ideologically and culturally subordinate, a role which historically it has been all too prepared to accept. Hand-in-hand with Labourism’s “poverty in theory”, Williams suggests, goes its reliance on “moral critique”, which “even during the periods of fervent political radicalism… has revealed itself as the decisive line”.13 This moral indignation has often been a hugely powerful political force, and a vigorous moral dimension is certainly crucial to socialism. It therefore makes sense to work with the grain here, up to a point. But in the absence of a rigorous structural analysis of the true causes of exploitation and oppression, moralism is likely to obfuscate as much as it enlightens.

Perhaps connected to this residual moralism, Leo Panitch underlines the debilitating effects of the Labour left’s tendencies towards sentimentalism about the movement’s culture and history. He argues that the Labour left has consistently been hamstrung by its propensity to wrap itself in the banner of party traditionalism, and to position itself as the true keeper of the sacred Labourist flame; according to Panitch, this has caused the Labour left to step back from confrontation at crucial points, such is its reluctance to be seen to be “dividing the party”. He gets to the crux of the matter when he adds: “In terms of the class harmony ideology, the policies effectively pursued and the absence of mass socialist education via the party at the base, the task of changing the Labour Party surely involves wrenching it out of its tradition.”14

Parties, Social Movements and Common Sense

Political parties do not innocently seek to take on board the views of their supporters, nor do they float ethereally above the fray of class divisions in pursuit of some ‘national interest’. Their function is unavoidably pedagogical; they play a crucial role in the intellectual and organisational formation of the various social interests that constitute their respective bases, and in setting the wider parameters of political possibility and respectability. They provide their constituencies with intellectual leadership, though for the purposes of ideological naturalisation they tend to publicly disavow that role. It is considered somewhat indecent for parties to admit that their supporters’ views may not have sprung forth from their own minds entirely spontaneously. Antonio Gramsci had this to say:

In fact, if it is true that parties are only the nomenclature for classes, it is also true that parties are not simply a mechanical and passive expression of those classes, but react energetically upon them in order to develop, solidify and universalise them.15

Gramsci sought to make sense of how the ruling class ruled, and understood that it did so not just through the threat or deployment of sheer brute force but by maintaining the consent, however lacking in active enthusiasm it might be, of the working class. Antonio Santucci, in his biography of Gramsci, observes further that in Gramsci’s analysis, the socialist political party plays the role of ‘collective intellectual’, and is “the main instrument for the transformation necessary to realise a new hegemonic system”.16 A key component of the socialist revolutionary process is the reorganisation and recomposition of civil society, the ‘ramparts’ of which provide the capitalist state with crucial popular legitimacy and authority. To gain ground in the ‘war of position’, as Gramsci conceived of it, popular, counter-hegemonic cultural forces of sufficient strength, breadth and organisation must be built to challenge and erode the prevailing ruling-class hegemony.

Integral to driving this long revolutionary process forward, in Gramsci’s view, are the ‘organic intellectuals’ of the working class. As “cultural or educational workers who are experts in legitimation”, as Peter Mayo has described them, they strive to “lay the foundations for a more socially just society”.17 Mayo stresses that organic intellectuals engaged in educational activity “should be politically committed to those they teach”, because without this level of commitment, “there can be no effective learning”.18 This stratum of organic intellectuals codifies the needs, experiences and perspectives of its class into a coherent political framework. The organic intellectuals spur their class onward in its struggle for hegemony and, rather than crudely doing its thinking for it, serve as “midwives who help to bring forth a shared philosophy and culture gestated in the womb of subaltern experience”.19 The responsibility for developing a broad layer of working-class organic intellectuals lies with the socialist political party, whose task it is “to provide the means by which cadres become organic intellectuals, not only expressing the economic demands of the ‘class’, but also embodying their collective capacity to take power in a complex society.”20

Stuart Hall has pointed out that the British labour movement has long struggled to produce consistent and influential organic intellectual cadre, at least beyond “the handful of experts who advise its committees on policy matters”.21 It is worth adding to this that while New Labour’s court intellectuals spouted copious amounts of verbiage about hegemony, they merely wound up accommodating themselves to the prevailing neoliberal one. The Tory Party is able to continually draw on a diverse and prominent array of deeply-rooted cultural supports within civil society, and these reactionary forces wage, in the words of Miliband, “a ceaseless battle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people”. By comparison, the Labour Party’s cultural presence has been relatively weak and marginal; a state of affairs epitomised, in Panitch’s view, by its failure to sustain a mass-circulation daily socialist newspaper, which he asserts “speaks volumes to the failure of the party in defining the language and terrain of politics in distinctive enough terms to make class politics viable.”22

There is, however, more to political education than building up a cultural presence of sufficient weight. The experience of political, social and industrial struggle can serve a valuable educational purpose, prompting people to reconsider their prior assumptions about the world and their own place in it as well as developing new skills. This kind of incidental, experiential education has been termed “learning in social action”.23 Hilary Wainwright has emphasised the potency of alliances between trade unionists and local campaign groups in building what she calls “power as transformative capacity”. She suggests that active, practical participation in struggle is capable of bringing about dramatic and often rapid changes in political consciousness:

In many places, grassroots trade union and community alliances have been a driving force in the defence and improvement of public services or utilities in the face of privatisation. They have become a means of sharing knowledge and building transformative power… And ultimately, by illustrating in daily practice that there are alternatives, realisation of which lies in significant part with the people themselves, they have become an important part of strategies for political hegemony.24

What complicates matters here is that the Labour Party - parliamentarist right to its very DNA - has in important respects been disinclined to take on the responsibility of forging such alliances, and hence encourage informal learning of this sort. Nor has the traditionally bureaucratic nature of the party-union link, and the fairly rigid demarcation of roles between the two wings of the labour movement, proved conducive to “nourishing and renewing working-class formation and the development of democratic capacities”.25 Though rank-and-file party members have frequently offered steadfast solidarity to workers taking industrial action throughout Labour Party history, the same cannot be said for previous party leaders. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were quick to make it clear that on their watch the Labour Party would support workers in struggle. However, despite inspirational workplace struggles such as the McStrike, the level of strike action in Britain hit a new all-time low last year and the rapid expansion in Labour Party membership since 2015 has not been mirrored in trade union membership and organisation. This lack of organised support in the industrial sphere, and the weakness of other social movements, poses serious challenges for any left Labour government.

While both of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns made much of the need to build a social movement, how this movement might organise itself and what exactly it might do remained somewhat inchoate. Though it was commonly argued early on that Momentum should serve as a social movement, its central organisation is now more straightforwardly a vehicle for organising and mobilising the Labour left. If anything, Momentum has become more effective as this central remit has become narrower and more focused, though some individual groups (most notably Manchester Momentum) continue to make a valuable cultural contribution. Corbyn cannot, in any event, simply conjure up a social movement.26 Instead, one key long-term goal of party reform should be to transform the Labour Party itself into a pole of attraction around which an array of social movements, campaigns and interests can coalesce. Not only could party-movement collaboration of this kind generate additional radical energy and facilitate learning in social action, but it could also link these movements and campaigns to the broader socialist struggle without denying them their own autonomy or forcing them to subordinate themselves to Labour.

Corbynism, of course, was in part a product of the preceding decline of the student and anti-cuts movements. Not only were those movements prominently supported by Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, but many of the young activists who were involved in them have since gone on to form Corbynism’s core cadre.27 Simon Hannah has rightly commented that while Blairite hubris in the form of the Collins review might have opened the door to the Labour left’s unlikely renaissance, this involvement with extra-parliamentary activism had provided it with an essential “life-line” during its wilderness years.28 It is in no small part thanks to the talents and energies it recuperated from the legacy of those movements that Corbynism has made the progress it has, putting it well ahead of where we could realistically have expected it to be at this stage, with regard to its chances of winning government office. But its problem now is that it may be thrust into government while its support in parliament is weak, and before its base outside can take any truly coherent shape. So the question that now faces Corbynism is this: how far will national office, assuming it is obtained, translate into successful and bold social reform?

In addressing this, Labour needs to find ways of educating and preparing its activists and supporters for the turbulence for which a left Labour government itself has to be prepared. Even if it is able to implement the bulk of its programme, the most a Corbyn government will be able to achieve in the short to medium term is a partial and incomplete break with the worst aspects of neoliberalism, but the reaction against even that will be severe. Here Williams’ remark about the “muting of necessary arguments” is relevant; although Corbyn’s position is much stronger than it was prior to the last general election, there are still major fault lines running through the Labour Party (particularly in parliament) that are liable to explode open once again in government. The constraints of party management prevent Corbyn from being fully upfront with rank-and-file Labour members and supporters about this, but the danger must surely already be apparent to him. The combined internal and external pressures on the Labour left to capitulate will be orders of magnitude more intense in government than they have been in opposition. Unless it alerts and educates its base about these impending dangers, Labour’s grasp of state power is likely to be particularly tenuous.

All this is especially pertinent as the Bennite tradition of which Jeremy Corbyn is a part has always looked to social movements not just to provide practical solidarity but to help it shift popular political common sense (not coincidentally, Tony Benn saw his own role primarily as that of educator). To return to Gramsci, in his analysis common sense (or ‘senso comune’) is comprised of “all those heterogeneous beliefs people arrive at not through critical reflection, but encounter as already existing, self-evident truths”.29 However heterogeneous they might be, these beliefs nevertheless exert a tenacious hold because “their almost endless repetition makes them seem aspects of reality with which any functional adult must agree”.30 Kate Crehan reminds us that this ‘common sense’ contains within it elements of ‘good sense’, reflecting “the creative spirit of the people”. Even this ‘good sense’ is fragmented and unclear, however; the organic intellectuals must make it “more unitary and coherent”. Crehan insists that the “precepts of folk wisdom” contained in ‘good sense’ cannot therefore simply be appropriated by socialists as they are, but have to be developed further into a credible and consistent alternative worldview: “Only through dialogue between subalterns and their organic intellectuals can these beginnings develop into effective revolutionary alternatives.”31

We must remember that hegemony is neither incontrovertible nor inexorable. A diverse and ever-mutating array of antagonisms, in the workplace, the community and within the home (which is, of course, itself a workplace), are inherent to capitalism - “the ruling order generates contradiction after contradiction that routinely disrupts its claim to stability and coherence”32 - thereby continually presenting potential openings to mount compelling critiques and build effective political opposition to that order. Socialist political education has to work on these existing social antagonisms and relate them to their structural origins. However, even for those working people who already have the inclination to take part in political education programmes, making the time to do so on top of workplace, domestic and other commitments has never been easy.33 In taking socialist political education into working-class and marginalised communities, Corbyn’s Labour must ensure it is presented in a way that is accessible (in all senses of the word) and engaging for people at varying levels of political consciousness.

A People’s Education

The radical Chartist Ernest Jones once observed that, “A People’s education is only safe in the people’s hands.”34 According to Jane Martin, Chartist educators of the 1830s and ‘40s were concerned with both the provision of education in formal secular schools and “informal schooling through the mechanism of radical culture”, including radical and working-class newspapers. Martin asserts that the defeat Chartism suffered in 1848 was reflected by a crisis of confidence in the movement’s educational activism as well, with the focus shifting more decisively towards state provision in the 1850s albeit with a continuing emphasis on placing schools under local democratic control.35 Keith Flett, on the other hand, argues that the defeat of 1848 actually meant that more attention was devoted to radical education in the following years, with Chartist activists having more time on their hands to pursue this work as the movement elsewhere retreated. Drawing on E.P. Thompson, Flett adds that this “may be seen as the product of defeat and also as the beginning of the warrening process of civil society”.36 He notes also that the ideas circulating in the post-Chartist milieu of the 1860s proved significant to those who would lead the resurgence of working-class politics two decades later.37

It is vital that socialist political education starts from the everyday experience of working and marginalised people, that it is relevant to their concerns and provides them with an opportunity to evaluate their own circumstances for themselves. But what is required from political education goes over and above merely giving voice to the oppressed and exploited, as important as this is to raising social and political consciousness. Paula Allman called for an “explicit analysis of how oppression is the result of specific conditions that cannot be removed simply by either awareness or verbal denunciations”. She drew on the educational theories of Gramsci and Paulo Freire in working towards that analysis, observing that the two complement each other by providing, “when conceptualised together… a socialist approach to education which locates politics in education and education in politics”.38

As Peter Mayo has pointed out, Freire was certainly influenced by Gramsci, and publicly acknowledged that influence on occasion. Mayo recounts how Freire was introduced to Gramsci’s writings in 1968 while exiled in Chile, with Gramsci’s ideas being closely studied by the Latin American New Left during this period. Speaking a quarter of a century later, Freire said: “I read Gramsci and I discovered that I had been greatly influenced by Gramsci long before I had read him.”39 Mayo emphasises the distinct parallels between the two, both in terms of their steadfast commitment to socialist transformation and the role they envisaged for education in that process; an education which takes place across a multiplicity of locations in the community, rather than being confined solely to the classroom.40

While stressing its importance, both Gramsci and Freire are at the same time completely clear-headed and realistic about the potential limitations of this educational work and the immense challenges it faces. They both recognise that fragmented and isolated educational initiatives cannot make a meaningful contribution to transforming society or revolutionising political consciousness. They insist instead on the need for such activity to be backed up by the organisational heft of mass social movements, without which these projects are inevitably bound to remain atomised and localised.41 Wider co-ordination and support are necessary if socialist political education is to assist in advancing socialist forces in the ‘war of position’. Furthermore, for Gramsci as for Freire, Wainwright and others, “schooling constitutes only one form of political education within a broader network of experience, history and collective struggle”.42

Gramsci advocated ‘going to the people’, “a pedagogic and educational relation between the philosophy of praxis and the cultura popolare of the peasants and workers”. But Gramsci warns against treating this as a “strictly scholastic” matter, and instead sees the teacher-student relationship as “an active relation, reciprocal, and thus every teacher is always a student and every student is always a teacher”.43 This emphasis on co-determination, and the ongoing exchange of ideas and perspectives between teacher and student, is unmistakably echoed in Freire. In contrast with what he calls the “banking concept” of top-down learning, Freire maps out a method of “co-intentional education”, characterised by an ongoing two-way dialogue where both parties (as in Gramsci) are teachers and students simultaneously; the hierarchy and the distinction between them is broken down through praxis. Stanley Aronowitz has highlighted the wider implications of Freire’s stress on co-determination, namely that it “overtly signifies an altered power relationship, not only in the classroom, but in the broader social canvas as well.”44

The participatory character of Freire’s pedagogy is its hallmark. The starting point of his ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ is to empower subaltern groups to actively and critically reconsider the social context in which they find themselves. As a committed revolutionary, Freire did not see this exercise as an end in itself. Rather, he viewed educational projects as an essential aspect of organising the exploited and marginalised, raising their political consciousness and expanding their understanding of the world around them as a way of mobilising for political action. This facilitates the forging of new and fruitful solidarities among the people, equipping them to find new ways of asserting themselves. Freire was careful to differentiate between “systematic education, which can only be changed by political power, and educational projects, which should be carried out with the oppressed in the process of organising them”.45

Freire also noted, and cautiously welcomed, the tendency for “certain members of the oppressor class [to] join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation”. While he recognised theirs as a “fundamental role” in the development and mobilisation of a broad revolutionary social movement, he warned that the patrician tendencies of such incomers mean that “these adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors” as “they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin”. What he meant here is that though they “truly desire to transform the unjust order”, these “converts” fundamentally lack trust in the capacities (intellectual and organisational) of the people and hence try to impose their own will on them, rather than building their autonomous capacities.46 It is crucial for educators to bear Freire’s warning in mind. Educators and organisers who have come to the community from outside can make an indispensable contribution in providing essential skills and experience that may otherwise be absent. This Freire accepted, but he insisted that socialist educators must act out of comradeship, not paternalism.

The purpose of Freire’s critical pedagogy is not idle speculation and otherworldly intellectual discussion. Rather it must start out from the concrete situations of working and oppressed people, enhancing their ability to properly make sense of their grievances; understanding the root causes of these everyday problems so that they can then begin the work of addressing their concerns and needs. Though this libertarian approach might seem at odds with the leading role Gramsci attributes to organic intellectuals, it is not in fact incompatible with a certain type of intellectual leadership. Freire has been accused of failing to provide clarity and precision on this point, even bordering on disingenuousness:

there is a populist and liberal element in Freire’s thinking that pulls him towards an uncritical faith in ‘the people’ and makes him ambivalent about saying outright that educators can have a theoretical understanding superior to that of the learner and which is, in fact, the indispensable condition of the development of critical consciousness.47

Possibly in response to this critique, Freire acknowledged “that the educators have a political vision and a theoretical understanding that guides their pedagogical action”,48 but in his analysis this political vision is itself vastly enriched and informed by its encounter with the people. It learns from them, and through this organic link to the people a concrete political understanding develops. This provides a more democratic, accountable and enabling kind of leadership. Freire was emphatic on this point, and issued stern strictures against any attempt to “win the people over” to a predetermined programme: “The revolutionary’s role is to liberate, and be liberated, with the people - not to win them over.”49 Rather, the point of the participatory political education he envisaged is to unlock the capacities of the people to determine for themselves how a future society run in their interests might look.

However, the vital insights of Gramsci and Freire also need to be complemented by the further advances made by those educators who have engaged in a rich, critical dialogue with their work. Sara Carpenter and Shahrzad Mojab stress the vital importance of an anti-racist feminist analysis of social relations, culture and ideology which must underpin socialist politics and socialist pedagogy. It is only this, they insist, that can enable us to “understand the internal contradictions in the organisation of labour and capital themselves” as well as “the necessity of negating the labour-capital contradiction”.50 They also remind us that our aim is not simply to establish our own cultural and ideological hegemony for its own sake, but ultimately to revolutionise relations of economic production and social reproduction.51

Though around 350,000 people have joined the Labour Party over the last three years, it is unlikely that any more than a small fraction of them have since received any sort of political education from the party. What passes for political education in most local Labour parties (where it exists at all) all too often barely extends beyond canvassing training. It does little to develop any critical understanding of the history of the labour movement, the challenges it faces today and how it might find new ways of relating to working people. It provides no insight into how democracy might be reimagined beyond the confines of parliament and council chambers. It does nothing to unleash the creative and intellectual capacities of the movement, nor does it draw in people who are currently outside its ranks. This has to change.

Socialist political education must be prepared to provide intellectual leadership, building on already existing knowledge and experience. It must also facilitate a meaningful dialogue between the labour movement and the people it claims to represent, and provide space for their intellectual and creative autonomy. In short, Labour needs to truly take on the mantle not just of collective intellectual but educator, developing “a local agitational politics which discovers as it acts”.52 This is all part of re-establishing the labour movement as an everyday cultural presence at the community level, laying the groundwork for future socialist advance and building up popular capacities with a long-term view to the democratisation of civil society, the economy and the state. But it will also be needed for the more immediate purpose of preparing and organising people ahead of the upheaval with which a left government will have to contend.


  1. Marjaleena Repo, ‘The Fallacy of Community Control’, in John Cowley, Adah Kaye, Marjorie Mayo and Mike Thompson (eds.), Community or Class Struggle?, Stage 1, 1977, p60-1 

  2. Leo Panitch, ‘Socialist Renewal and the Labour Party’, Socialist Register 1988, Merlin Press 1988, p322 

  3. Caroline Benn, Keir Hardie, Metro Books 1997, p208. Benn was originally giving her assessment of the Labour contingent in parliament after the general election of 1906, but her sobriquet could justly be applied to the party inside and outside of parliament for long thereafter. 

  4. Hilary Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, Hogarth Press 1987, p294 

  5. Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), Unpopular Education: Schooling and Social Democracy in England Since 1944, Hutchinson 1981, p44 

  6. CCCS 1981, p97-8 

  7. CCCS 1981, p37 

  8. CCCS 1981, p41 

  9. CCCS 1981, p42 

  10. CCCS 1981, p45 

  11. Raymond Williams, Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism, Verso 1988, p31-2 

  12. Williams 1988, p147 

  13. Williams 1988, p135 

  14. Leo Panitch, Working Class Politics in Crisis: Essays on Labour and the State, Verso 1986, p128 

  15. Quoted in Kate Crehan, Gramsci’s Common Sense: Inequality and Its Narratives, Duke University Press 2016, p195 

  16. Antonio Santucci, Antonio Gramsci, Monthly Review Press 2010, p156 

  17. Peter Mayo, Gramsci, Freire and Adult Education: Possibilities for Transformative Action, Zed Books 1999, p41 

  18. Mayo 1999, p42 

  19. Crehan 2016, p76-7 

  20. Stanley Aronowitz, Against Orthodoxy: Social Theory and its Discontents, Palgrave Macmillan 2015, p99 

  21. Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, Verso 1988, p207 

  22. Panitch 1986, p19 

  23. See Griff Foley, Learning in Social Action: A Contribution to Understanding Informal Education, Zed Books 1999. 

  24. Hilary Wainwright, ‘Radicalizing Party-Movement Relationships: Ralph Miliband to Jeremy Corbyn’, Socialist Register 2017, Merlin Books 2016, p94 

  25. Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Socialist Challenge Today: Syriza, Sanders, Corbyn, Merlin Press 2018, p78-9 

  26. See Richard Seymour, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, Verso 2017, xlv: “Labour’s leadership is, perhaps for the first time, systematically trying to pull British politics to the left, something it will no doubt also try to do in office. And it will be that much harder if it confronts a situation in which the balance of power in British society still overwhelmingly favours the owners of the country, and in which workers and communities are so poorly organised… It is no use being in office without power, as Tony Benn once put it. But Corbyn can’t build movements by decree, even if it was in his style to lead in that way, so finding the right way to organise is a crucial problem for his supporters.” 

  27. For a more detailed history that expands on these connections, see Matt Myers, Student Revolt: Voices of the Austerity Generation, Pluto Press 2017. 

  28. Simon Hannah, A Party With Socialists In It: A History of the Labour Left, Pluto Books 2018, p214 

  29. Crehan 2016, x 

  30. Ian McKay, ‘Challenging the Common Sense of Neoliberalism: Gramsci, Macpherson, and the Next Left’, Socialist Register 2018, Merlin Books 2017, p280 

  31. Crehan 2016, p47-9 

  32. McKay 2017, p281 

  33. See Keith Flett, Chartism After 1848: The Working Class and the Politics of Radical Education, Merlin Press 2006, p15. Flett makes the point that Chartist educators faced a similar sort of challenge. 

  34. Quoted in Paul F. Armstrong, ‘The Long Search for the Working Class: Socialism and the Education of Adults, 1850-1930’, in Tom Lovett (ed.), Radical Approaches to Adult Education: A Reader, Routledge 1988, p39 

  35. Jane Martin, Making Socialists: Mary Bridges Adams and the Fight for Knowledge and Power, 1855-1939, Manchester University Press 2013, p96 

  36. Flett 2006, p94-5 

  37. Flett 2006, p118 

  38. Paula Allman, ‘Gramsci, Freire and Illich: Their Contributions to Education for Socialism’, in Lovett (ed.) 1988, p92 

  39. Mayo 1999, p7-8 

  40. Henry A. Giroux, On Critical Pedagogy, Bloomsbury Academic 2011, p63 

  41. Mayo 1999, p92 

  42. Giroux 2011, p57 

  43. Benedetto Fontana, Hegemony and Power: On the Relation Between Gramsci and Machiavelli, University of Minnesota Press 1993, p26 

  44. Aronowitz 2015, p114 

  45. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin 2017, p28 

  46. Freire 2017, p34 

  47. Frank Youngman, Adult Education and Socialist Pedagogy, Croom Helm 1986, p179 

  48. Quoted in Mair 1999, p66-7 

  49. Freire 2017, p68 

  50. Sara Carpenter and Shahrzad Mojab, Revolutionary Learning: Marxism, Feminism and Knowledge, Pluto Press 2017, p66 

  51. Carpenter and Mojab 2017, p14 

  52. CCCS 1981, p261 


author

Tom Blackburn (@malaiseforever)

Beyond Westminster co-editor

related

A Revolution of Souls: Culture Wars vs. Cultural Renewal

With its vastly expanded membership, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has the potential to help lead a grassroots cultural renewal.

Corbynism from Below?

The Labour leadership must urgently turn its attention to how it harnesses the capacities of the party membership, buoyed up by their recent successes.

A Revolution of Souls: Culture Wars vs. Cultural Renewal

With its vastly expanded membership, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has the potential to help lead a grassroots cultural renewal.

Corbynism from Below?

The Labour leadership must urgently turn its attention to how it harnesses the capacities of the party membership, buoyed up by their recent successes.