Lewis Akers welcomes readers to our Capital reading group with some thoughts on the history and present-day importance of socialist self-education..
The pandemic and the time it has afforded many people has meant an explosion of online gatherings.
Alongside educational classes and cultural events, many of them commercial and some of them simple grifts, political rallies, lectures and conversations on everything from Black Lives Matter to the consequences of the pandemic, labour history to Marxist theory have blossomed. The availability of the technology to access these meetings has meant that more than ever socialists from around the world are able to discuss everything from their immediate national condition to more general and abstract matter.
The opportunities this raises shouldn’t be missed.
Frustration at barriers to ‘real world’ organising are widely felt and for good reason. Massive structural shifts are taking place in the world system, and the pandemic conditions are being used to redistribute wealth to a capitalist over-class more fabulously wealthy than any elite in world history. Any opportunities to break out and into these new conflicts must be taken.
But education is an essential task of socialist politics, and for the vast transformations we want. This is why Conter has organised its own lectures, reading groups and a courses on the fundamentals of Marxism.
Socialists who dismiss reading, discussion and learning as “middle class”, self-indulgent or sub-cultural not only insult the vast majority, they undermine their entire project.
The political struggle is essentially a contest of ideas. Advances for the working class have been won by themselves at the level of mass psychology, ideology, education and comprehension. All great movements are movements of analysis, slogans, publications, speeches – movements of ideas. And their conquests are not simply of bread, working conditions, wages or housing, but of new levels of education and intellectual fitness.
According to David Harvey, when Marx came to write his magnum opus, Das Kapital, he did so with working artisans particularly in mind. He praised the serialisation of the French edition, as making the book more accessible to a working class audience.
Capital explores the fundamental dynamics of the capitalist mode of production, and explained the fundamental antagonisms it unavoidably generates between workers and bosses. Marx and his followers were not content to have only their pamphlets and newspapers reach a working class audience. For them, the idea that socialism would be the conquest of the working class itself, required theoretical development on the part of that class.
This was not a mere aspiration on the part of a few intellectual radicals. Tens of thousands of workers in the past have toiled long hours in coal mines and factories and then emerged to candlelight readings of Marx and Lafargue, Dickens and Darwin, Burns and Shelley, Shakespeare and Milton. Anyone who has read E.P. Thompsons’ seminal work the ‘The Making of The English Working Class’ will know that self-education was central to the establishment of a working-class consciousness and identity.
As the 19th and 20th centuries progressed this became millions of workers around the world. Our working-class history is largely elided in mainstream education for narratives stressing the actions of ‘great men’ and powerful nations. A materialist analysis of present day social conditions is not readily available from the media or any other institution. The version of events we receive from these sources is not sufficient to understand and change the world. In the last 200 and more years of industrialised civilisation – self-organised education is the one intellectual resource working class people could rely upon.
Socialist leaders mainly famous for movements they organised have typically been the most zealous about education in the workers’ movement. John Maclean taught Marxist economics as he organised small minorities of co-thinkers, and didn’t stop later when he was speaking to rallies of many thousands representing the popular consciousness of millions.
The old mantra “Agitate, Educate, Organise” is as applicable to today as ever. But sometimes the slogan is taken as a to do list. Instead, it should be viewed as an organically dependent programme of action. Without education we cannot agitate or organise. Educational tasks are also organisational, they are informed by the requirements of agitation. Without agitating, without trying to intervene in mass consciousness, we cannot renew theoretical knowledge.
In capitalist society, learning theory is typically portrayed as a solitary act. It evokes images of a scholarly lifestyle by a small elite. But traditionally, political self-education is a collective act. This isn’t just about us helping each other – though it is. Learning is enhanced by disagreement, by the interaction of different perspectives. When we read a book like Marx’s Capital together, it is not a dusty old tomb from a bygone age. It speaks to our experience of capitalism today. It is brought alive by its application to our own experiences, dilemmas and practical effort to make a better society.
Join Conter from Saturday the 23rd of January at 5PM (UK time) when we will be commencing a Capital Volume One Reading group.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to join.