Peoples' movements and protests




When the grapes went sour





by Jan Wiklund



If you belong to the educated middle class but don't have a very high salary, you have to despise money. Self-respect says so, you don't want to look like a failure because you'll never get any. Similarly, if you are a member of the uneducated working class or petty bourgeoisie, you must despise knowledge and learning and see it as snobbishness.

However, it has not always been this way. For example, the early twentieth-century labour movement despised neither money nor education, although it had neither. Perhaps because it was offensive and hoped to eventually take over the whole of society. Sour grapes are probably a strategy for defeat.

The history of the fight for money is well known; it's part of the trade union spinal cord, so to speak. We know less about the battle for education, at least in Sweden. The old ABF veteran Inge Johansson wrote an account, Bildning och klasskamp (education and class struggle), which according to Arbetarrörelsens Arkiv (Archive of the Labour Movement) is the closest we have come to a Swedish history of education for the lower classes - but it goes little beyond being an activity report for ABF, Workers' Educational Association.
However, they have been more inquisitive in England. Jonathan Rose: The intellectual life of the British working classes is a detailed reflection on a history from below project in which 2000 participants in the self-education efforts of the labour movement from the 19th century onwards have told us about their experiences.

And what did they talk about? What was it that drove them?

Well, of course there were many who wanted to acquire skills in order to make a career. We find them in the post-war Labour governments, for example, but really across the top echelons of society from about 1930 to 1980. Of the material, they - including those who never got as far - are perhaps as many as two-thirds. But for the remaining third, the driving force must have been sheer curiosity, sometimes of a collective kind. Rose tells of an entire Welsh mining community that was a veritable underground academic seminar 24 hours a day.

Coincidentally, that's where Aneurin Bevan, architect of the National Health System, came from. Cause and effect? Well, nobody knows. On the one hand, the efforts of individual enthusiasts must have been important because the neighbouring village was completely uninterested in self-education. On the other hand, the support of a whole community must be an advantage for the political activists' clout.

According to Rose, about a quarter of the British working class would have been affected by this movement at its height. But self-education efforts eventually died out after the war. Rose suggests three reasons.

Firstly, the 'normal' educational paths were opened up even to poor young people. The labour movement no longer needed to organise its own education, and so interest in it disappeared, and with it, gradually, skills.

On the other hand, the need for a new middle class was gradually filled (although this only happened later, after the 1973 oil crisis). For the two-thirds who did aspire to a career, this became much more difficult, and many gave up trying in advance. And with this large proportion gone, the self-education movement lacked the mass that would have been needed to keep it going.

And finally, the educated middle class went on the counter-offensive against the threat of having their advantage devalued by an independent-minded working class. An important tactic, says Rose, was to periodically make the canon of the self-education movement obsolete, by launching a completely new one under names such as modernism and postmodernism. Even this, being told over and over again by the media that the lessons you had just learnt were no longer valid, eventually created complacency for the whole project. It must have felt like running on an escalator going the wrong way.

With middle-class gatekeepers in control of the education system, we should not be surprised that it is producing increasingly unequal outcomes and, more importantly, is increasingly aimed at making class membership hereditary and sorting out one's own kids from other people's kids. Who wants competition?

What conclusions can we draw from this? That public education inevitably creates class differences? No, but that you can never rely on any automaticity, that as long as you put something under the control of officials, it will take care of itself. Even at the height of the self-education movement, public support, whether state or municipal, played a major role. The main thing is that you control the content and the goal.

And it is probably good to have an offensive attitude in general. That the goal of it all is to take power. It's only then that you put enough energy into it.



Published by Folkrörelsestudiegruppen: