A passion for adult education was a distinctive feature of British socialist movements and political parties of the late nineteenth century. Socialists from working class backgrounds often felt hindered by their lack of schooling, and even those socialists from higher social classes who had been privileged or lucky enough to receive more education began to question its character and seek out alternative perspectives. Either way, education was seen a powerful stimulus of proletarian awareness, an attitude perhaps best embodied in that famous saying, "Knowledge is power".
The British state did make interventions into the provision of education for adult workers, which had previously been organised by the workers themselves. Technical Education Boards were introduced in the 1880s, Ruskin College Oxford began offering worker education in 1899, and public funding was given to the Workers' Educational Association (WEA) in 1907. Some in the labour movement felt that the state's intervention in this area was less a benevolent attempt to ensure workers' education, and more an effort to counter the growing influence of socialist and Marxist ideas.
In November 1908 a group of students at Ruskin College, who were dissatisfied with the lack of Marxist political economy in the syllabus, formed the Plebs League. The League had its own journal, Plebs, which had its first issue in February 1909. The rebel students continued to agitate for more Marxist content at Ruskin throughout 1909. The then principal of Ruskin College, Dennis Hird, was broadly sympathetic to the students' complaints, but he was sacked. The rebels responded with a strike, a boycott of lectures, and the creation of their own adult education organisation, the Central Labour College (CLC), which worked closely with the Plebs.
The Plebs League and the CLC sought to create a system of working class education independent of the state. According to the Plebs, the state was considered an instrument of capitalism, and therefore any education provided by the state only served the interests of capital by spreading its ideas. The Plebs thus dismissed the idea of a ‘neutral' education, which Ruskin and the WEA had claimed to offer, as impossible. Instead they called for the education of the worker in the interests of the worker.
Between 1909 and 1918 the Plebs League formed a considerable network of provincial local labour colleges and evening classes offering workers' education, alongside those offered by the CLC in London. The unrest of workers returning to civilian life after being conscripted into military service during World War One sparked a greater demand for Plebs League courses as the 1920s began. This required greater central organisation, and in 1921 the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC) was formed. The NCLC absorbed the Plebs League after the 1926 strike, but Plebs continued to be published, offering an ‘independent', non-party aligned, viewpoint on the education of workers for years to come.
The Library holds a full run of the Plebs journal and pamphlet and other material by and about the Plebs League. To arrange an appointment to visit the Library click here.