In the wake of sudden retreats for the political left, most notably within the British Labour Party, Paul O’Connell reflects on the need for political education with activists, members and among the working class at large.
“a systematic program for political education, ranging from the simplest to the highest level, is imperative for any successful organization or movement”. – Assata Shakur
Following a thumping election defeat and the subsequent loss of the leadership of the Labour Party to Sir Keir Starmer’s restoration regime, many on the British left (both within and outside Labour) have been compelled to reflect on the last few years and the lessons of the Corbyn moment. This will be a protracted process, as a series of defeats produces fractures on the left and a period of decomposition and recomposition unfolds through various tentative efforts. One key conclusion that has already been drawn, correctly, is that the left has not done enough in recent years to develop political education.
This is an absolutely crucial point: throughout the five years of the Corbyn leadership Labour made no meaningful efforts to develop political education amongst its members and activist base; nor did the campaign group Momentum. The wider left, outside Labour, did not fare much better, in spite of the proliferation of newspapers, magazines, blogs, podcasts and events. This failure within Labour is part of the reason why large sections of the membership could swing from supporting a transformative social democrat like Jeremy Corbyn, to backing a restoration centrist like Sir Keir Starmer in the blink of an eye. Outside of Labour, the failures in political education are borne out by the confusion, fragmentation and animus among the various sections of the British left on the question of Brexit, where the debate rarely rose above the level of liberal moralism (with some honourable exceptions).
Political education, then, is central to the recomposition of the British left, but this begs several key questions: what do we mean by political education? Who is the political education for? What form should the political education take? It is not possible to address all of these points in a single article, nor indeed in the abstract, so the objective here is, more modestly, to do two things: (i) to set out key principles that should inform the development of political education in the coming years, and; (ii) to outline some practical implications that follow from this, which should inform the development of projects around political education and socialist recomposition going forward.
First principles: Socialism from below
Our understanding of what political education should entail and look like cannot be divorced from our broader political orientation. As such, we must, in the first instance, clarify what our understandings of socialism and social transformation are, in order to ground our approach to developing political education. There are, of course, different understandings of socialism, and these differences are by no means trivial. The dominant trend on the British left, whether in the form of Labourite Fabianism or some vanguard variation, has been what Hal Draper refers to as ‘socialism from above’, a version of socialism (whether ‘broadband communism’ or some putative vanguard-led revolution) which is to be delivered to the working class from on high.
This approach has, time and again, patently failed. It has failed to progress socialism in any meaningful sense, and unsurprisingly it has failed to develop political education. The world view of socialism from above is also at variance with the most advanced elements in the socialist tradition. From the First Workers’ International through the Paris Commune, the core principle that there are ‘none so fitted to break the chains as those who bear them’, has been at the heart of socialism from below. This gives us the first principle of any socialism worthy of the name: socialism can only be built by and for the working class themselves. In turn, this principle has to explicitly inform how we think about political education in the coming period.
Paulo Freire, in his important work on popular education, picked up the threads of socialism from below and its implications for how we approach political education. For Freire there are none ‘better prepared than the oppressed to understand the terrible significance of an oppressive society’. Developing this point, Freire makes it clear that well-meaning, liberal reformers dispensing the ‘truth’ about the evils of the extant system, and modelling even radical solutions to it, will have little purchase, if this is not a truth arrived at by the working class themselves.
Connecting struggles through a ‘political instrument’
Such engaged political education will, of course, not develop spontaneously – it requires resources, time, commitment and organisation. In the best-case scenario, this work will be carried out by what Marta Harnecker refers to as a ‘political instrument’ that gives expression to the various struggles of the working class. For Harnecker:
“This political organization must also take on the responsibility for drawing up an educational strategy—based on practice and structured courses—that will make it easier for its members and for the people in general to acquire new knowledge. This kind of knowledge will enable them to have a critical attitude concerning the inherited culture and begin to take on more and more responsibilities related to building the new society.”
In Britain this role could, in principle, have been carried out, at least in part, by the Labour Party and trade unions, but it never has been. This is for a variety of reasons, wrapped up in the tradition of what Ralph Miliband calls ‘Labourism’ – with its hostility to critical self-reflection, commitment to moral paeans and focus on putatively practical, ‘bread and butter issues’, over more systematic change and rupture.
Even during the Corbyn era this limitation was not meaningfully broached, which reflects both the weight of the dead tradition of Labourism, and the disconnect of the Labour Party, and much of the British left, from working class communities and workplace struggles. As Andrew Murray noted just prior to the advent of the Corbyn moment:
“…the contemporary left is almost entirely isolated from the working class it seeks to speak for. More prosaically, it has limited engagement with ‘ordinary people’ in general. The left and the working class have never been the same thing of course, but the divergence has only widened over the last generation as the working class has seen its institutions and organisations reduced to near-rubble, and the political left has retreated into a self-referential subculture from which it only emerges to address the class through propaganda, rather than as a living part of the whole.”
In spite of persistent capitalist crises, a decade of austerity, and the abortive flowering of the Corbyn moment, this disconnect remains firm. It is evident at many levels, but perhaps none more telling than the capitulation of Labour to the demands of the reactionary middle-class in backing a ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit, which ultimately cost the party the last election, and killed Corbynism in the crib.
Practical implications (i): Political education for activists
Having an orientation is a crucial starting point, but then the hard work of giving expression to this idea must begin. Going forward the challenge is to develop political education at two distinct levels: first amongst the already politically active working class, whether in Labour, trade unions, or other left political groups; and then, crucially, the more generalised political education amongst the working class. There is no order of priority here, both of these things will, and will have to, happen simultaneously and unevenly, but they are distinct moments in the development of political education.
With respect to the already politically active elements of the class, there is an existing commitment to social change, in principle, which can be built on. But even amongst the groups that identify as socialist, communist, Marxist etc. there is a need for constant critical self-reflection and ongoing education. One thing that became clear over the course of the Corbyn moment is that many on the broad, activist left had lost sight of, or perhaps never encountered, the long-standing socialist and Marxist critiques of parliamentarianism, reformism and state power – nor, indeed, the nature of class and class power.
This, in turn, informed a series of political misjudgements, and presaged the defeats the left experienced in Labour. It is therefore crucial that the already politically active sections of the class develop forums and networks (reading groups, forums of debate, day schools etc.) to engage in the serious study of Marxist theory and socialist history, and with that reflect on recent defeats. A failure to do this will mean key lessons will not be learnt, and the heart-warming slogans of Bevan and Benn will be cold comfort following another round of defeats.
There are, of course, objective, structural factors which impede, and have impeded, the development of the sort of political education required amongst the activist base. In the first instance the anti-intellectual/uncritical reflex of Labourism; secondly the development of sub-cultures of ‘radical left’ intellectualism, which reify ‘theory’ and ideas, treating them as the esoteric domain of a specialist few; and thirdly the ways in which social media/celebrity culture shapes how people engage with politics and political ideas. It has, indeed, been one of the great failings of the last few years that the emergence of a number of small media platforms was seen as a substitute for developing cadres of protagonistic working class activists engaged in their own political education and emancipation, rather than being passive subscribers to a litany of slogans.
Practical implications (ii): Popular political education
So, for the already politically engaged sections of the working class there is an obligation to now rupture with the existing practices of the left. Only by doing so will it be possible to develop organic forms of political education that equip activists to meaningfully grasp the nature of the reality that confronts us (the nature of capitalism, of state power, the role(s) of ideology, and the place of the working class) in order to work intelligently, strategically and effectively in whatever forum they are engaged in.
The bigger challenge, then, is broadening this education out into the class as a whole. A point to note at the outset here is that the traditional institutions of working-class culture and life, those that provided the bedrock for Chartism, trade unionism, and the early flourishing of the labour movement, have been decimated over the last forty years. As such, we are starting from a position of immense weakness. The communities and institutions that produced 300 miners’ libraries in Wales, and working class reading groups and debating societies discussing all the aspects of Marxism and how to change society do not exist (see MacIntyre’s A Proletarian Science and Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes) – so we must build anew.
This overlaps with the need, which everyone engaged in the post-Corbyn soul searching acknowledges, for community organising. It is crucial, however, that this is informed by the first principle identified above: the role of socialists engaged in struggle in working class communities is not to dispense the truth of socialism, but rather work with neighbours, workmates, and friends to pursue whatever the immediate goal is (whether addressing hunger or homelessness, resisting the closure of a school, supporting tenants or migrants rights campaigns), while also connecting the immediate struggle to the broader, structural problems generated by the capitalist system.
Again, Freire makes a key point here – the conviction that the existing social order should and can be changed is not something that can be dispensed, but rather a conclusion the exploited and marginalised reach through their own concrete struggles. As Rosa Luxemburg once put it, the working class ‘will learn in the school of action’. In concrete terms, this means that a lot of learning is already taking place, after ten years of austerity and as we now face the worst economic decline since the Great Depression, working class communities will be forced into conflicts with the state and employers over basic services, social support, wages and working conditions. This will be an education in its own right, but socialists will also have to be part of this, shoulder to shoulder and in dialogue with workers engaged in struggle to assist in developing the understanding that the fight for decent housing, child care, or wages, requires also a much more fundamental transformation of society – one that only the working class can deliver.
Over one hundred years ago the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci argued that the ‘problem of education is the most important class problem’. In the intervening years the accuracy of this claim has all too often been vindicated, and the recent defeats of our own era drive the point home further. As the Coronavirus crisis unfolds, and the worst economic decline in a generation begins to take hold, the left has an immense obligation to learn from its mistakes, and to redouble our efforts to build the world we wish to see. Doing this requires, as C.L.R. James puts it, both ‘hard thinking and hard work, and the hard thinking comes first’. In other words, affirming that political education is a priority is crucial, but not sufficient. We need to be clear what this political education is for, ensure it is grounded in first principles of working-class self-emancipation, and work tirelessly to give effect to this principle.
There is no shortage of work on socialism, trade unions, Marxism etc – but included below are a few resources that are centred on developing institutions and practices for working class self-emancipation, that anyone interested in the challenge of political education should find useful:
Samir Amin, The New Imperialist Structure
Amilcar Cabral, Tell No Lies, Claim No Easy Victories
James Connolly, Socialism Made Easy
Hal Draper, The Two Souls of Socialism
Marta Harnecker, Ideas for the Struggle
Karl Marx, Value, Price and Profit
Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution
Dr Paul O’Connell is a Reader in Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His particular interests lie in the areas of globalisation, public law, human rights (particularly socio-economic rights) and social movements. He is an editor of Legal Form, a forum for Marxist analysis of law, and co-founder of the LeFT (Leave – Fight – Transform) campaign.