Text size

IWCE logo

Relaunch of Plebs League?


It's not every day the Conservative Chief Whip helps to market a book about Marxist ideals.

Colin Waugh, author of Plebs: The Lost Legacy Of Independent Working-Class Education, refuses to be drawn on whether or not Andrew Mitchell may not have been simply recommending some off-duty reading to those police officers outside No 10.

But he does insist the whole affair was not part of a subtle viral marketing campaign.

Waugh and the Independent Working Class Education Group are organising a meeting to discuss relaunching the historic Plebs League, formed at Ruskin College in 1908 with the aim of making political education available to the working classes.

The proposed relaunch could hardly be more timely.

In addition to the Mitchell's resignation, the recent destruction of vital Ruskin records on the orders of its principal, which sparked worldwide outrage, suggests that this is an idea whose time has come.
When former students at Ruskin founded the Plebs League, they were using the ancient Roman term, which simply meant ordinary people, and was not pejorative.

In a foreshadowing of 2012's Plebgate, offence was caused when Ruskin College was described in an upper-crust magazine as "an idealist experiment in faece Romuli" - meaning that the students were literally the faeces of society. Eat your heart out, Mitchell!

While the Plebs League and the Ruskin strike were momentous, and mentioned in the re-collections of labour movement leaders from the 1930s to 1950s, they've been rather ignored by academic historians.

The founding principles of Ruskin College itself, with its aim of producing articulate working-class thinkers and leaders, grew out of the collapse of the Chartist movement after 1848.

This sounds progressive, but was far from it. The ruling classes, breathing a sigh of relief that Chartism had not, as feared, turned revolutionary, wanted to avoid any future close calls.

They believed that an educated layer of working men would act as a damper on any new flames of class revolt.

It's interesting that adult education was seen as such a useful deradicalising force - perhaps someone could tip off the current government.

It might persuade it to drop the ruinous fees that will prevent future generations of working-class men and women getting a university education.

In 1854 the Workingmen's College was founded in London, and for a time the painter John Ruskin gave drawing classes there, assisted by Dante Gabriel Rosetti.

While Ruskin felt education could be fulfilling for workers, he was by no stretch of the imagination a revolutionary, and he too believed that education could "civilise" students out of left-wing ideas.

The decision to name Ruskin Hall, founded in 1899, after him was a clear signal that, although it intended to challenge the existing order, it would not do so in a socialist fashion.

One of the founders explained its utopian ideals.

"We shall take men who have been merely condemning our social institutions and will teach them instead how to transform those institutions, so that in place of talking against the world, they will begin methodically and scientifically to possess the world, to refashion it, and to co-operate with the power behind evolution in making it a joyous abode of, if not a perfected humanity, at least a humanity earnestly and rationally striving towards perfection."

Not surprisingly, working-class and trade union students soon tumbled to the ambivalence at the heart of the Ruskin project.

In the early 1900s a new type of left-wing socialism was spreading among union activists.

In 1901 JMK MacLachlan, a Ruskin student and member of the Independent Labour Party, wrote: "The present policy of Ruskin College is that of a benevolent trader sailing under a privateer flag.

"Professing the aims dear to all socialists, she disavows those very principles by repudiating socialism.

"Let Ruskin College proclaim socialism. Let her convert her name from a form of contempt into a canon of respect."

By 1903, 15 out of 20 Ruskin Hall students were trade unionists and in 1907, 53 out of the 54 students were listed by occupation.

Twenty-three were mineworkers, seven were engineering workers, five were railway workers and four were weavers.

Only four did not have a union stated alongside their name.

In November 1908 a group of students at Ruskin College, frustrated by the dearth of Marxist theory on the syllabus, formed the Plebs League, and its magazine, Plebs.

The league continued to agitate for more Marxist content at Ruskin throughout 1909.

The then principal of Ruskin College, Dennis Hird, was sympathetic. When he was sacked, the Plebs responded with a strike, a boycott of lectures and the creation of their own adult education organisation, the Central Labour College.

The Plebs League and the CLC wanted workers to be educated in their own interests, something they argued state education could never achieve, as it inevitably tainted by the dominant ideas of capitalism.

Up to the first world war the Plebs League developed an extensive network of provincial local labour colleges as well as evening classes offering workers' education.

After the war, the unrest of working-class soldiers returning to civilian life only increased the demand for courses.

The league was absorbed by the National Central Labour College after the 1926 general strike.
Plebs' magazine continued to appear for many years and Labour colleges to offer quality training in campaigning and organising.

Several of Clement Atlee's cabinet were graduates, as well as much of the Labour Party bureaucracy.

The original Plebs sought real engagement with workers and the excluded of society through education and organisation.

In 2012, with disenchantment with politicians at new heights, the time to revisit their ideas has surely come.

• Louise Raw is the author of Striking A Light: The Bryant & May Matchwomen (Continuum Press) and director of the forthcoming Matchwomen's Festival, Saturday July 6 2013 (http://www.matchwomensfestival.com, http://www.facebook.com/Matchwomen)

Add comment

Security code

Plebs Pamphlet