The third Radical Studies Network Seminar (13th February) took a slightly different form from our previous events; rather than two academic speakers the seminar heard papers from two postgraduate students and two practicing artists grouped around the common theme of education. These three interventions together made for a really stimulating exploration of the meaning of education within a range of cultural formations.
Our first speaker, David Wilkinson, a PhD candidate the University of Manchester whose research concerns leftist post-punk, gave a paper entitled ‘Prole Art Threat: The Fall, The Blue Orchids and the Politics of the Post-Punk Working Class Autodidact.’
At the heart of post-punk, David argued, is a political struggle to define freedom and pleasure. David examined this through a discussion of The Fall and the Blue Orchids, both of whom were negotiated post-punk at the start of Thatcherism, signed to Rough Trade and, David argued, both expressed the interaction of traditionally working-class and residual hippie structures of feeling – though both in different ways.
The Fall‘s ‘Fiery Jack‘ is aware of the problems a particular version of ‘pleasure’ takes in a working-class culture without clearly rejecting it; indeed the lyrics seem to disavow social responsibility and politics altogether, moving towards and egalitarianism coincident with the philosophy of the New Right (‘And put down left-wing tirades/ And the musical trades’). The lyrics echo Smith’s frustration with the attempt by Rough Trade’s ‘socialist’ principles, which to Smith amounted to priggish left-wing interference in the artistic process (‘What the fuck has it got to do with you? Just fuckin’ sell the fuckin’ record you fuckin’ hippy’ was his response). Smith’s caricature of Rough Trade’s management as naive and middle class, lazy and privileged, aligned with the neo-liberal stereotype of the ‘politically correct’ left.
In the work of the Blue Orchids, meanwhile, a complication of class stereotypes is in evidence. The influence of a residual working-class ideal of self-education. interacting with the residual influence of the hippie movement, crucial to their work.The Blue Orchids, by contrast, expressed what David described as ‘an alternative ethos of personal fulfilment.’ Formed by two former members of The Fall, Una Baines and Martin Bramah, the band’s influences included the Russian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff , the hippy movement and a faith in self-education, and mutual self-education, which combine to imbue their work with the quality of ‘a socialist ethics of flourishing.’ But the band were sceptical about the capacity of the state to deliver that type of fulfilling self-development, as exemplified in their ‘Bad Education‘. The band’s self-educating approach – through which they could challenge material definitions of wealth – was aligned with an aesthetic that valued music for its own sake, as a source of freedom and pleasure, a feeling that made them more at home at Rough Trade than The Fall were. But paradoxically the comfort and the discomfort come from the same source: the Blue Orchids’s rejection of a commercial approach to art, on the one hand, and Mark E. Smith’s rejection of the meddling of what he saw as Rough Trade’s bourgeois socialists reflect both groups’ effort to defend the autonomy of their work.
Our next speaker was Matt Kavanagh, a second-year doctoral student at the University of Salford. Matt’s paper, ‘Class against Class and the Classroom: The CPGB, Teachers, and Education in Schools, 1929-33’, explored a question alluded to by David’s paper – the question of whether a radical education can take place within the education sysyem of the state. Matt’s paper contested a common assumption about the Communist Party of Great Britain’s attitude to education during its ‘Class against Class’ period, which is that the Party considered there to be no point in trying to reform the education system or develop any new pedagogical approaches during this era. Teachers played a prominent role in the CPGB since its inception: key members such as Ellen Wilkinson, Marjorie Brewer (later Pollitt), G.T.C Giles, Nan McMillan, and Ben Ainley were all schoolteachers.
Althogh this was a time when the cultural impetus in British Communist was in the direction of forming radical working-class organisations, such as the Workers Theatre Movement, rather than reforming existing institutions, Matt argued that there was an effort by Communist teachers to discuss and intervene in the established processes of education. Matt argued that the Communist-dominated Educational Workers League saw itself as concerned with the industrial politics of education – working conditions, salary cuts, etc. – rather than with questions of curricular content or pedagogy, but this was not its exclusive focus. Critics have tended to assert that these questions were not topics of discussion in British Communism at this time, but Matt’s paper disputed this; drawing especially on the Library’s holdings of The Educational Worker, journal of the Teachers’ Labour League/ Educational Workers League, he argued that discussion of content did take place. In particular, the question of how to oppose imperialist teaching was subject of much debate, activated particularly by opposition to the observance of ‘Empire Day’. Matt’s research suggests that the cultural and intellectual politics of this notorious period of British Communist history are more complex that is often supposed.
Finally, artists Ruth Beale and Amy Feneck spoke about their projects based on the Library’s holdings in a paper entitled ‘The Alternative School of Economics: Art Practice, Politics and Education’. Ruth and Amy described their interest in the way that histories are told and retold, and considered the role of artists in that process. Their exploration of self-education was stimulated by their explorations of the Library’s material, such as Eddie Frow‘s notebooks, and by their residency at Cove Park. Ruth and Amy described the parallel between the artist’s pursuit of their own path and the self-educator’s pursuit of knowledge, and described how these questions have becoming more prominent over the past decade, amounting to something of an ‘educational turn’ in art, and a renewed interest in such thinkers as William Morris, John Ruskin, and in Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society.
Ruth and Amy participated in an exhibition at the Jerwood Space, London, called ‘Now I Gotta Reason‘, co-curated by Grizedale Arts and Marcus Coates, showcasing work by artists who place themselves firmly within communities. The work was expected to be useful, to work within the existing activities run by the gallery, and to be managed collectively. One way Ruth and Amy responded to this challenge was a series of study groups on the subject of money, using books from the Library as start points. Other projects included a weekly skills swap inspired by Robert Owen’s notion of ‘equitable labour exchange’. Topics of discussion included the nature of money, and alternatives to the present system, but also drew attention to the fact that economics is not routinely taught in schools. During the question and answer session there was a definite feeling that this lack of economic education is real problem, and an issue that those interested in radical education should consider.