Thou shalt wage class war

Gareth Stedman Jones

  • Proletarian Philosophers: Problems in Socialist Culture in Britain 1900-1940 by Jonathan Rée
    Oxford, 176 pp, £15.00, February 1984, ISBN 0 19 827261 8

Sometime in the late Sixties, I was invited, along with some senior socialist historians, to meet Bill Craik, a veteran and pioneer, so I was told, of independent working-class education. The intention was to find a practical means of honouring his work. I was taken to a tiny North London council flat, and there sitting in the middle of its cramped living-room, I encountered a very ancient and frail-looking man, striking mainly for the large and antique ear-trumpet which he applied when straining to catch remarks addressed to him. I understood little of what was said and discussion was anyway halting and discontinuous – all the more so given the technical limitations of Craik’s hearing device. The Plebs League and the Labour College movement in which he had been involved were no more than names to me. Nor did Craik noticeably react to the ripples of talk which lapped around his chair. The atmosphere rather than the words stuck in my mind: it was strangely tense for a meeting of homage, as if still agitated by the undertow of long past battles – between the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party, between Moscow and an indigenous ‘proletarian’ Marxism, between the philosophising of the universities and Philosophy as it had been expounded at pit-heads.

As far as I can remember, nothing concrete emerged from the meeting and I never heard anything more of it. It was only recently when I read Stuart Macintyre’s impressive study, A Proletarian Science: Marxism in Britain 1917-1933, that I began to realise that I had been a witness to the last and all but posthumous echo of what had been one of the most remarkable chapters in British working-class history: an avowedly Marxist movement of workers’ self-education, proletarian in both composition and leadership, which had endured for over twenty years and at its height had had over thirty thousand subscribing to its courses; and perhaps more extraordinary, given the allegedly empirical character of the British temperament, a proletarian movement with its own ‘proletarian philosophy’. It is with the strange career and ultimate oblivion of this indigenous philosophy of the self-taught that Jonathan Rée’s Proletarian Philosophers is concerned.

To understand who Craik was, it is necessary to go back to 1909, the year of a celebrated strike at Ruskin College, Oxford. The students of the newly-founded college – mainly miners and railwaymen, Craik among them – rejected the courses designed to prepare them for the university and pressed instead for classes based upon ‘the materialist conception of history’ and Marxist economics. They formed themselves into the Plebs League, founded the journal Plebs, established their own full-time Labour College (of which Craik was for a time the principal) and developed part-time classes in the localities from which they had come. According to Craik, there were at least one hundred classes operating in England and Wales by 1914, and in the turbulent years just after the First World War tens of thousands were enrolling. In the areas where the movement was strongest, proletarian education began, not with adult classes but in the Sunday ‘proletarian school’, where children were catechised in the ‘Ten Proletarian Maxims’ ranging from the relatively simple ‘Thou shalt wage class war’ to the overreaching final flourish: ‘Thou shalt remember that the economic structure of society determines the legal and political superstructure.’

The young strikers of 1909 prefigured the rank and file industrial unrest which swept through the railways and coalfields on the eve of the First World War. Their socialism was imprinted with a note of proletarian self-assertion, all but absent from that of the preceding generation. It rejected the Parliamentary methods of labour socialism, was impatient of the pure street-corner evangelism of Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation and was scornful of the religious and political eclecticism of a Tom Mann or a Ben Tillett. Instead, it drew upon the pure and uncontaminated Marxism that it found in the writings of the American socialist, Daniel De Leon. It was from De Leon’s Two Pages of Roman History that the name of the League was coined, and the watchwords of De Leonism – independent working-class education and industrial power – were to remain the activating sources of the militancy of Plebs and the Labour College movement.

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