Radical Education

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

For most of our existence, we shared the Earth in common. That is, there was no private property, nor, in fact, much consciousness of ourselves as individual beings, separate from one another and separate from the natural world of which we were a part. It is only during the last few hundred years that most of the commons has disappeared, converted into private property, embedded in a new mode of production—capitalism.

The destruction of the commons was achieved largely by violence; as Marx put it, “capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” However, more was needed to eradicate the commons. A relentless propaganda war has been waged to convince us that capitalism is good, that it embodies the deepest desires of human beings, that it is the culmination of our attempts to master nature and produce abundance. That, in fact, possessing the earth in common is a bad thing, destructive of human productiveness.

And yet, despite all of this, we still yearn for open, free spaces, for community, for belonging. But how do we bring these back? Radical education might help. In discussing “commoning”—the act of doing things together, such as working in a community garden or caring for a forest that is used by an indigenous group of peasants in India—historian Peter Linebaugh says, “Communal values must be taught, and renewed, continuously.”

Parents, churches, civic organizations, and the like might try to inculcate such values in the children and members, and when people engage in collective struggles, they learn them. However, it takes more than this to make collective ways of thinking an integral part of our lives, providing, in effect, a compass that gives us direction. Radical, critical, and continued education is needed. It will not only help to put our lives and actions into context, but it also will give us a better understanding of what needs to be done in the future. Through it, we can learn to analyze our individual histories, to, in effect, come to better understand the complexities of our lives.

There are many elements in radical education. First, there must be a relationship of mutual respect between teacher and student and a sense that both are part of a larger project, the liberation of humanity from the shackles of capitalism. While the teachers have specialized knowledge, they learn from their students in a give-and-take process of democratic discussion. If education isn’t egalitarian, how can we expect anything else to be?

Second, those who teach must, whatever the topic, direct the conversation toward the nature of the system. A science teacher can ask, what influences the questions science poses? How is science funded? Is what a scientist does value-free? Then, pose a question such as, why is so little government funding given to researchers who want to know the possible consequences of genetically modified organisms? In social sciences, one could ask how likely it would be for a scholar to earn a PhD if the thesis subject is “How can a guerilla army best defeat the U.S. armed forces in Iraq?”

In worker (and peasant) education, the question “What is capitalism?” is paramount. The teacher must try to show that this is a system that rests on a bedrock of exploitation and expropriation. Even if a class is about a practical matter, such as labor law or organizing a union, the nature of society is critical to explaining what the law is, why unions are necessary, and so forth. In all organizations, whether they are fighting for a cleaner environment, better housing, lower rents, converting abandoned urban land to community gardens, ending theft of peasant lands, socialized healthcare, ending racism and patriarchy, or the termination of wars and imperialism, capitalism must be central to the teaching and learning. It might seem that teaching the nature of capitalism is a daunting task, but peasants have been taught the rudiments of the three volumes of Karl Marx’s magnum opus, Capital. I have taught the same to people with limited formal education. Nothing is impossible. In fact, I imagine that peasants and the poorest paid and most exploited workers will grasp these rudiments quickly.

Third, every entity seeking radical change must have an education component integral to its operation. Labor unions and peasant organizations need to set aside time and resources for this. Political parties and formations, Occupy Wall Street–types of movements, antiwar organizations, anti-racist and anti-patriarchy movements need education efforts as well, ones that become permanently built into their structures. Planning actions, carrying them out, assessing successes and failures—all are vital subjects of education for members and participants.

Fourth, radical education is about making connections. One organization’s projects are connected to those of every other group; each person’s life is part of a larger whole. For example, some employers, especially in restaurants, have a work requirement known as “clopening,” in which the same workers who close late at night must get to work early the next morning to open the place for business. Suppose a movement developed to end this practice. The damage done to workers by clopening—lack of sleep and the attendant mental and physical stresses—could be directly tied to the need for shorter hours and more free time, such as vacations and personal days. This, in turn, could lead to the question of what gives an employer the power to make clopening mandatory and, more generally, to decide how we labor and with what intensity. Or imagine that an urban coalition of fair housing groups is trying to force a city to stop giving tax subsidies to the builders of luxury apartments. This specific struggle could be connected to the need for high-quality public housing, as well as to the societal benefits of stopping the gentrification of working-class neighborhoods.

Racism, patriarchy, imperialism, and the despoliation of the natural world are all connected to exploitation and expropriation, as is climate change. Radical education, by showing why this is so, can help to ignite the class consciousness necessary to change the world.

Fifth, whatever the setting, begin with the lives, the daily experiences, of the students. Education scholar and teacher Ira Shor begins a writing class with community college students by examining the chairs on which they are sitting. He first has them carefully describe the chairs, forcing them to look at these objects carefully and slowly. However, the description is just the beginning; through discussion and more writing, Shor and his students discover the chair’s origin within the economy and the cultural assumptions behind its production (e.g., why it’s so uncomfortable!). Ultimately, the students, mostly through their own efforts, are able to divest the chair of its commodity fetishism by understanding it in relation to the society that produced it. The complete exercise not only demystifies the chair but gives a striking experimental demonstration of how to analyze capitalism and of the dialectical method of understanding one’s own environment.

Labor educator and Monthly Review co-founder Leo Huberman gives a striking example of radical and critical teaching. He asks his worker-students a series of simple questions about their lives as working men and women. Where do you work? Why do you work? Does the man who owns the factory work alongside you? Have you ever seen the stockholders of the corporation working in the plant? But you all agreed you had to work in order to live; now you tell me there are some people who live without working. How come? Then there are two groups of people in our society. One group, to which you belong, lives by . . . ? And the other group to which your employer belongs lives by . . . ?

The questions continue until the teacher and the students see that profits are unearned and come at the expense of the sweat and tears of those who perform their labor. It’s a brilliant exercise, eliciting from the students the most basic element of their work lives and generating a lively discussion of what they might do about it.

Sixth, radical educators should teach in such a way that some of the students will themselves take what they have learned and teach it to others. The goal is to create organic intellectuals, that is, people from the working class who become capable of spreading the word the way Leo Huberman did. Some of the prisoners I once taught took my lecture diagrams, which I had copied and distributed, back to their cell blocks where they used them to teach fellow inmates. Similarly, union members can teach their brothers and sisters. Not only does this greatly increase the number of teachers, but it also breaks down the hierarchy between instructors and pupils. There is no reason too that parents cannot begin to discuss what they have learned with their children. In fact, radical education should commence as soon as possible.

Radical education can be done in many places. However, the capitalist system dominates our lives and severely limits what is possible. Teachers in both public and private elementary and high schools will face severe repercussions should they engage in radical conversation with their students. Colleges provide freer spaces, but they are becoming more repressive. Adjuncts, who now teach most of the classes, subject themselves to discharge should they displease administrators or hostile students.

I was a labor educator for 34 years, mostly through worker education programs attached to universities. I began in 1980, but by the time I retired, in 2014, the number of such programs had diminished markedly, victims of hostility from businesses and their collegiate allies. Sadly, some that survived moved online, and classes were opened to all students and not just workers. Strict rules were established by program administrators for instructors, absurd in their detail and curtailment of academic freedom. Others simply transformed themselves into regular academic departments, in which students could pursue BA and advanced degrees no different than those of any other department. Faculty were expected to do academic research and perform all the other duties expected of those wishing to rise in the institutional hierarchy.

For example, my first job as a labor educator was through Pennsylvania State University. The Labor Studies Department had an outreach wing in which instructors taught workers once a week for three hours in working-class towns and cities in the state. I taught in Johnstown, Greensburg, Beaver, and Pittsburgh. These were rewarding classes, with great students eager to learn and, armed with new knowledge, ready to become thorns in their employers’ sides. Within a decade, these classes were eliminated, and the department became just another wasteland of academic hustling.

Within the unions, education, where it exists at all, is almost always limited to narrow, nuts-and-bolts subjects like running meetings, processing grievances, preparing for arbitrations, and the like. There is little about the union’s history and the need for new members to become actively involved in every aspect of the union’s activities, not to mention the active encouragement of such involvement. It would be rare, indeed, for a union to educate its members about the working of the nation’s and the world’s political economy, as well as overall labor history. I have never heard of anyone, outside of perhaps a few in unions such as the United Electrical Workers and in some locals of what were once left-led unions like the International Longshore Workers Union, do what Leo Huberman did when he directed union education efforts. I would say that most union leaders fear an educated membership, one that might defy them and seek to make their unions radically democratic. I might add as well that when I was being considered as a teacher in the University of Massachusetts’s Union Leadership and Activism program, I was red baited by some higher-ups in the AFL-CIO. I was hired anyway, but you can see the problem. The AFL-CIO is a conservative organization, with a long history of anticommunism. If it runs a worker education school or has influence over one, the likelihood of critical, radical education diminishes.

All of this is not to say that radical education cannot take place in Labor Studies Departments and labor unions. It can and sometimes does. But continuous struggles are always necessary to introduce and maintain it.

There were once, in the United States (and in other countries as well), independent worker education schools. Sometimes these were initiated and run by political parties and sometimes not. Perhaps now is the time to recreate them. I favor independent schools, given that parties will have definite agendas and won’t necessarily be tolerant of ideas and actions that run counter to party orthodoxy. Suppose that the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) organized a school. Right now, the DSA has opted to campaign vigorously for Bernie Sanders to become president. If I taught a class and strongly argued against such a strategy, would I be free to do so. History suggests that the answer is no.

I realize that truly independent schools might be impossible, so the goal would be to make them as autonomous as possible, along the lines of the better Workers’ Centers in the United States, such as the Chinese Staff & Workers’ Association in New York City and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. Financial support should come from students, members of the parent organization, contributions from supports, and no-strings-attached donations from labor unions and other groups committed to radical social change.

One of the early efforts, again in the United States, to provide independent radical education for the working class was the Brookwood Labor College, which opened in the early 1920s. The founders of the school were committed to four principles: “The founders believed in four tenets: “First, that a new social order is needed and is coming—in fact, that it is already on the way. Second, that education will not only hasten its coming, but will reduce to a minimum and perhaps do away entirely with a resort to violent methods. Third, that the workers are the ones who will usher in this new order. Fourth, that there is immediate need for a workers’ college with a broad curriculum, located amid healthy country surroundings, where the students can completely apply themselves to the task at hand.”

Brookwood closed in 1937, done it by a host of problems, including attacks from the AFL and the deepening of the Great Depression. But during its run, it did good work and sent forth a large number of educated, committed radicals, including Ella Baker and Len De Caux.

There were and still are schools aimed at the liberation of the working class, such as the famous Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, now called the Highlander Research and Education Center. However, what is interesting about Brookwood is that recently, a New Brookwood Labor College came to life this year (2019) in Minnesota. It “strives to address racial, economic, and social imbalances of power by educating workers into their class. We are creating an inclusive labor movement that uses the power of organization not merely to lift individual workers or worksites, but to create a more just world.” We should all hope that this effort succeeds and is replicated often, here and around the world.

Mother Jones, famous champion of workers, said, “Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflicts.” The importance of a radical education cannot be overstated. We need a lot more of it, the sooner the better.

This essay is adapted in part from Yates’ book, Can the Working Class Change the World?

Michael D. Yates is the Director of Monthly Review Press in New York City. He has taught workers throughout the United States. His most recent book is Work Work Work: Labor, Alienation and Class Struggle (Monthly Review Press, 2022). He can be reached at mdjyates@gmail.com