The following will focus on the relationship between planned political education and left activism. If there is a justification for this, it lies in the history of the worker’s movement itself. Almost every significant step toward the self-emancipation of the working class has rested on a deep and thoroughgoing emphasis on the educational development of those indispensably involved.
Careful planning and organisation of political education among activists and workers, within and without their respective organisations, is always centrally important. In an attempt to provoke discussion, some questions are raised about the different strategies for the development of educational forms worthy of the movement the present generation of socialist activists hope to build.
The most influential socialists of the 19th and 20th centuries all realised the necessity of ensuring workers take ownership of, and develop, the knowledge necessary for self-emancipation. Certainly Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, along with many other pioneers of the movement, were never prepared to neglect this necessary work, not under threat of exile, not in the midst of revolutionary upheavals, not during imprisonment, conditions of civil war and/or counter-revolutionary witch-hunts. Realising that action has to be theoretically informed, they never stopped studying, analysing and writing, throughout their lives. They have done much to prepare the ground, providing many useful signposts for subsequent generations, yet the necessity for intensive scholarship and focused dissemination of knowledge has not diminished in the slightest. Socialism is, after all, inherently educational; it is in essence one great international and intergenerational educational movement. The development of every new socialist activist rests on the materials purposely left for them by previous generations. The books and pamphlets left behind are essentially the materials to facilitate distance education; the goal of each contribution being to facilitate the creative power of the proletariat on an individual and collective basis. The task of socialist activists is to facilitate the working-class in its efforts to take its destiny into its own hands. Doing so presupposes a heightened political consciousness, which is perhaps why Rosa Luxemburg insisted ‘we shall hardly make any progress without a clear understanding of the work of proletarian self-education’.
Most present day socialists do recognise that political education is a major part of their role as political activists. Few really expect to fully develop their theoretical knowledge, their critical skills when applying political ideas to a changing system, through practical activism alone. Yet sometimes little thought is given to the kind of educational philosophy adhered to, or sufficient consideration given to what is most appropriate to the organisations being built. Where little thought is given to this the educational development of activists is dealt with in an ad hoc way; emphasis may be given to ‘learning through struggle’ – a key element of any organised attempt to facilitate the educational development of rank-and-file activists, but still only an element.
Assuming that attempts to remedy the general neglect will intensify in the immediate future, the question remains: what kind of education is appropriate to the self-emancipation of the working-class? The first concern must be, I would argue, to free activists (and all those they hope to influence) from what Latin American educators refer to as the ‘banking’ form. Brazilian Marxist Paulo Freire used the concept of banking to characterise educational practices in which intellectual leaders ‘deposit’ knowledge and then ordinary activists assume the passive role of ‘depositories’ of that knowledge. These relations of intellectual domination and subordination are analogous with Freire’s depiction of formal schooling, where oftentimes, instead of communicating, the teacher uses communiqués and makes deposits, which the students patiently receive, memorise and repeat. The scope of action allowed to the participant extends only as far as receiving, filing and storing the deposits.
It should be immediately obvious that educational practices that in any way resemble the above are not conducive to the self-education and self-determination of activists, and not particularly helpful to a working class struggling against bourgeois ideological forms. However, such relationships are not at all uncommon among the organisations of the left. Those that fail to prioritise and carefully plan political education inadvertently permit elements of the banking form to hold sway. This would not be so inappropriate if the goal were to help people blend seamlessly into the multiple bureaucracies that comprise contemporary capitalism. But something entirely different is required if the freest and fullest intellectual development is to be attained, if the levels of political consciousness required for self-emancipation are to be realised among any significant number. Conservative educational forms are generally repellent to workers in any case; they usually see enough hierarchy in the workplace, and very often, have had enough of education that rests on authority. An ‘education for liberation’ requires dialogical exchanges rather than communiques, collaborative learning rather than ‘top-down’ hierarchal instruction, and an emphasis on learning how to think rather than what to think.
It is often said that to change the world it is necessary to understand it first. To put it another way, the self-emancipation of the working class can only proceed through the self-education of the working class. But what is the best way to facilitate this? It goes without saying that socialists learn through experience. Of course they do. All human beings learn through experience, whether at the individual or the organisational level. However, an experience (through struggle or otherwise) does not teach anything in particular. The same experience can teach the socialist one thing, the religious fundamentalist another, the bourgeois economist yet another. What is learned largely depends on the vantage point in the structure of social economy, and on the level of political culture. Quite apart from class interests, the same set of experiences can lead socialist activists, within their respective formations, to draw very different conclusions from one another. This is because the significance and meaning of an experience has to be uncovered through its formulation within a particular communicative environment. It is no accident that groups with different theoretical and analytical means of interpreting an experience can draw different lessons from it. In the end it is theory, coupled with the level of political culture previously attained, that determines whether or not lessons appropriate to the goal of self-emancipation will be learned. The political consciousness of activists and workers advances through experience, but the potentiality for that development is something that has to be carefully planned and acted upon in advance.
There are several possible approaches to political education and to facilitating the development of political consciousness. One way is to encourage that key texts be read. Another is to attempt to teach the basic tenets of Marxism via semi-public lectures, debates etc. All are helpful. But the means by which an activist comes into contact with useful information is perhaps less important than how the process of self-education is facilitated. To begin that process the participant has to move beyond reading and listening, and on to the independent application of ideas to the world that needs to be understood / transformed. That presupposes the formation of dialogical and collaborative relationships with co-learners/facilitators, which presupposes a relative independence from bureaucratic control, formal leaderships and approved experts.
Unfortunately, sometimes on the left a teacher/learner dichotomy is allowed to emerge. When this happens a select few become intellectual leaders, and then education becomes rote. This is never appropriate. Where this happens, only the pretence of free discussion can remain. In the absence of progressively planned educational provision, knowledge tends to be treated as a possession to be handed down. In the process, basic egalitarian principles, such as ‘the fullest development of each must be the condition for the fullest development of all’ hardly feature, and much of the alienation that prevails in capitalist society is reproduced among activists. In some cases a rough division of mental and manual labour prevails, coupled with attendant justifications, which approximate the bourgeois myth of meritocracy.
It is difficult to learn to think critically, if pressured to uncritically accept analyses and positions handed down by a select few. Messy as it is, a culture of intellectual mistrust is always essential. It was not for nothing that Marx lived by the motto ‘doubt everything’. There can be no deferral to a leadership when it comes to investigating, questioning and setting knowledge against developments in the real world. It is not enough for a select few to take theoretical work seriously. Theory is what distinguishes Marxist organisations from other organisations, and only to the extent that ordinary members have managed to make the theory their own, developed it within themselves and in the struggles/campaigns they find themselves involved in. It is necessary that the vast majority learn how to apply theory to events, to develop themselves as Marxists. Any organisation committed to the self-emancipation of the working class must proactively facilitate this. The political consciousness of activists cannot be advanced by simply listening to and accepting the various positions developed centrally. To treat people as passive recipients of ‘correct ideas’ is to propagandise. As Freire puts it, it is to ‘domesticate’ rather than ‘educate’. It is to realise acceptance of the organisation’s analysis and various positions, but without adequately facilitating the activist’s own capacity to comprehend and analyse. Conversely, where self-education is facilitated, the activist builds him/herself up, necessarily drawing knowledge indiscriminately from every available source, growing with every position challenged and every contribution made to the memory of the organisation they are building.
Two questions immediately present themselves: (1) given the central importance of education in the worker’s movement, why is political education very often neglected on the far left? (2) given that we know the difference between educational forms that facilitate critical independent thought, and those that serve to stunt it, why do we opt for the latter?
I would suggest that these questions cannot be answered apart from the problem of left sectarianism, which is always and everywhere a major problem. The standard (though inadequate) definition of sectarianism is: putting the narrow interests of one’s own organisation ahead of the interests of the working class. Quite obviously, this is a major obstacle insofar as it prevents the necessary pooling of educational resources across the left and those available to the working class generally. In addition to preventing activists from working together to build the most effective struggle against the common enemy, it creates an inability on the part of activists to accept and/or build upon the ideas of other forces on the left. It severely limits exposure of activists to new ideas and undermines the possibility of constructive dialogue. It helps perpetuate group-think among leaderships, and directs rank-and-file members who are hungry for knowledge into intellectual strait-jackets, ultimately repelling them.
The more sectarian the organisation the more inclined it is to neglect rank-and-file education, or to adopt quite conservative educational practices. Insofar as intellectual leadership is conferred on particular individuals, insofar as a division between intellectual and practical activity is permitted to emerge, the goal of education becomes that of propagating the view among members that their own organisation is the repository of truth, that the perspectives of its leadership represent true socialist principles.
A closely associated problem with the development of activists on the left is a high turnover of members (excepting the few organisations that are comprised of a small number of lifelong members). Where a high turnover is expected any relaxation of the organisational focus on recruitment necessarily leads to decline. As such, many of the forces on the left are forced to enter into a perpetual competition for new ‘customers’. There are many laudable methods for ensuring that potential new members choose one organisation over another, but the easiest method seems to be to fetishize ‘our analysis’ and to paint competing organisations in as bad a light as possible. This is what lies behind a great deal of what passes for criticism. When this method is adopted by competing organisations a vicious circle of mutual suspicion and reaction develops. Thereafter, it becomes difficult to deal with the issue of sectarianism in any serious manner, since it is only ever raised in a sectarian way. The would-be activists among the advanced layers of the working class are understandably repelled by this. They are further repelled by the bureaucratic centralism that they experience when interacting with the left in campaigns. But to the activist fully caught in the logic of sectarianism, most other groups appear to be sectarian (one’s own group appears free of the problem).
Though particular organisations exhibit the effects of sectarianism in a more obvious way than others, it has to be understood as a systemic problem. It finds expression all across the left in so many different ways, with almost every activist, in (or outside of) every formation somehow affected – no matter how hard some struggle to rise above it.
The point is that associated practices are always and everywhere incompatible with the free exchange of ideas and the full exploitation of educational resources and supports otherwise available. The effects do not merely prevent collaboration among the organised left. They can take the form of blanket hostility to independent activists and fellow travellers, for example with respect to the perspectives of academics and independent scholars. As with every other expression of anti-intellectualism, this is something that socialists can have nothing to do. All too often ideas that need to be taken seriously are dismissed as ‘elitist’. Sometimes it is because the ideas run contrary to established positions and views, but occasionally it is simply a matter of ‘I don’t understand this discussion, I feel excluded by it – therefore it is elitist’.
There does not appear to be any clear criteria for blanket dismissal of analysis produced by apparent rivals on the left. Evidence-based criticism tends to be dismissed as quickly as purely sectarian ‘criticism’. When judging the ideas of rival organisation the source often appears more important than the content. In some cases the fact that some of the necessary intellectual work takes place in third-level institutions is enough grounds for dismissal, even if those involved consciously subordinate their own interests, voluntarily spending a great deal of their time producing analyses that they hope will be of use to all forces on the left. No doubt third-level institutions produce esoteric trivia by the bucket-load. However, ideas should never be ignored because they appear impenetrable to most of us, or simply because of where they are produced. Ignoring any scholarly or scientific work, and failing to establish links with those developing it, is always a major mistake. There are after all socialists in third level institutions. Most may not be interested in joining the left as it exists, but many could still play a useful role in helping to build a left movement. On top of this they have considerable influence; quite apart from the public credibility they might command, they represent a bridge to the 150,000 students enrolled at third-level in Ireland (including Northern Ireland) at any given time.
Though the charge of elitism is very often justified, the sad reality is that educational practices in political organisations on the left can be far more elitist than anything existing (or tolerated) in third-level institutions. The exceptions to this tendency demonstrate that this does not have to be the case. Education can either foster an unquestioning adherence to the views advocated by an intellectual leadership, or it can function to facilitate each and every member to develop their theoretical, analytical and argumentative skills to their fullest possible potential. This can only be realised in an environment of dialogue, based on an equality of participation.
Every form of activism is communicative. Every form of activism is educative. People become active in order to change society, and know that this can only be realised by working with others to change people’s minds. When people become activists they are always partly motivated by their own quest for knowledge, for a heightened level of political consciousness, for understanding, meaning, self-determination and capacity to influence others positively. One of the great problems faced under capitalism is that of unrealised human potential; the system increasingly stands in the way of fulfilled lives, of a fully human development. It cannot be assumed that an activist will remain in a group where nothing is offered in response to this condition – in organisations that do not facilitate their development as activists (which has to be seen as a lifelong development), and that do not offer them the opportunity to make the meaningful and worthwhile contributions they are capable of making. Failures in this respect mean that both the activist/s and the organisation/s suffer. There is really no way around it; left parties/organisations have to use whatever resources are available to facilitate the fullest possible educational development of all that need it, which means everyone. An education that is hierarchical, limited according to the opinions of intellectual gatekeepers, or limited to approved lists of key classical readings can in no way suffice.
Insofar as the conditions touched upon here represent obstacles to effective political education across the left, the solution lies with group work, with dialogue, with inclusive and participative educational structures. It has to be acknowledged that members listen more, question more, contribute more and develop more, in small self-directing learning groups. If self-education is the goal then speechifying has to be replaced with spaces that permit, and require, all participants to practice formulating and verbalising thoughts in response to every event/topic/struggle. Education does of course require that the most useful knowledge be made available to participants, that there are educators/facilitators capable of providing initial guidance in this respect. However, participants can quickly learn how to do this by themselves on a collaborative basis. They do not need to know everything, or create the impression that they know everything. Since the goal is to begin, and thereafter foster, the process of self-education among activists, participants have to take responsibility for their own education, for evaluating existing perspectives, for learning to set perspectives against available evidence and developments, in this way building new knowledge, identifying gaps and further complexity, making a worthwhile contribution to individual and collective understanding.
There are, it should be noted, a considerable number of independent activists, a few party activists, and several newly formed forums/groups/initiatives, that recognise the immediate need to resolve the above issues. Even more fortunately, there is a growing appetite among a smaller but expanding group of activists to meet this challenge head on.
Comments and/or suggestions on how to proceed are welcome.