The Revival of Radical Education

A couple of years ago, deep in the pandemic, a group of trade union and community organisers, arts workers, and teachers met to discuss how to develop political education in Scotland. Since then, radical learning networks and schools have emerged across the country, many of them outside established institutions.

There are schools channelling counter-capitalist currents old and new, from Marxism, which helps critique how capitalism shapes the world, to Jineology, the philosophy of the Kurdish women’s movement that invites self-critique of how capitalism shapes our lives. There are schools educating workers and tenants in histories of boycotts, sabotage, and other tactical alternatives to classic strikes. There are schools sharing theories of global solidarity and struggle in the face of environmental crisis, and schools where climate activists are learning to use tools of protest and assembly that can pierce the underbellies of carbon-belching corporations.

This kind of political education is often seen as separate from the formal education that happens in schools, colleges, and universities. When we engage in political education, we start by inheriting lots of ideas about what education is and should be, how it works, what it feels like, and what can be expected from it. We encounter those who see education first and foremost as a means of self-improvement, rather than a way to become able to improve society as a whole. This ideology is part of a long hangover from what happened to adult education decades ago. Many radical education projects developed in the years before New Labour, and when Blair came to power, they received funding that turned socialist initiatives into established organisations. Funding that was at first a blessing turned into a curse as organisations became reliant on resources that were eventually cut back. With time, lots of people lost their original momentum in committing themselves to education as a means of struggling for a free society. As socialist education networks disintegrated, a different kind of culture developed in its place. Adult education became a means of personal advancement and a route to the individual freedom that comes from working in a higher paying job. 

But the seeds of radical education are planted deep in the labour movement. A rep training course is sometimes the first class that a new steward has been in since they left secondary school. In courses on subjects like organising, equalities, just transitions, and technological change, participants can easily depart from the curriculum to connect up each other’s ideas and experiences and piece together a collective consciousness of the power of their class, the way their work produces capitalist systems, and the part they play in the struggle for a better society. On the other hand, legacies of the collapse of radical education under the veil of self-improvement endure wherever unions, operating as an upskilling service, bid against third sector organisations and private companies for government funding to run skills development courses focused on employability and career advancement. Even still, there is rarely a course that cannot be turned upside down in search of a radical kernel in the self-developmental shell.

Left education is for collective gain. It is the kind of education offered in this year’s spectacularly successful Glasgow May Day programme, which incorporated a whole range of forms of political education, from workshops on internationalism to radical tours and theatre productions. Its organisers nurtured seeds of education that bloomed into a radical ecology of ideas and inspirations. It does not take much to imagine this ecology blooming in every corner of the country. At the same time, it is easy to imagine the spring being cut short, the projects trimmed and tidied after No Mow May by union funders, universities, arts councils and third sector administrators. Yet no one can doubt the fierce determination of those involved in this year’s May Day to keep cultivating these wild gardens. This issue brings together a number of pieces that share the secrets of Scotland’s Left education revival. First, organisers of the recent Popular Education Network residential school show how education can nourish our appetite to understand a changing world and empower us to take control of it. Then we go into the street, where Katherine MacKinnon shares stories of the past that show us the radical inheritance that surrounds us. Some of these histories are tattooed into our towns and cities, like the mural by Mack Colours in the Calton, commissioned by Claire Peden to be both a tribute to the recent strikes and an invitation to passers-by to learn about the past. Then, back in the present, Lucia Harrington recounts how a group of activists learned organising methods and worked together with Unite the Union to win a major campaign to write off school meal debt in Glasgow.

The next section explores how thinking and learning and acting collectively is our greatest hope of preventing the social catastrophes of climate change. Niamh McNulty explores how queer politics can teach responses to climate change that envision the potential for Scotland to play an autonomous role in a global struggle. Calum Hodgson considers how protesters armed with knowledge can expose the gap between rhetoric and reality in the agenda of the Scottish Government, whose indulgence of Ineos and inertia on COP priorities are explored in turn by Climate Camp organisers and by Stephen Smellie. The reviews which follow are full of ways of reading from the past and observing the present that inform our humanity and hope for a better world.

From time to time in history, the Left has managed to sow seeds of education that grow into a radical ecology of ideas and actions. As Malcolm Petrie shows in the case of the labour colleges, there is much to be learned from a previous springtime. In the early twentieth century Scottish radical education developed freely, until it was smothered by political parties and their priorities. Dexer Govan finds that the labour revolt of the same era met a similar fate. Political education is not separate from the struggle, and it never has been.

Scotland has a strong tradition of radical education, and it is no coincidence that John MacLean, one of the icons of the Scottish Left mentioned in two of our articles, was first and foremost a political educator. But for all the ‘democratic intellect’ mythology, Scotland is not the trailblazer of revolutionary struggle that once perhaps it was. Revitalising a culture of radical education depends on opening our movements as wide as we can, and opening our minds to ideas from elsewhere. All kinds of projects are emerging from their chrysalises, here and everywhere. This issue is focused on creations of radical education at home; in future we want to see what the Scottish Left can learn from projects hatching elsewhere. So, if you are interested in exploring the world of radical education, get in touch. Let’s learn together.