Thursday, July 04, 2019

The Worker Autodidact and the Decline of Working Class Awareness

The late 19th and early 20th Centuries saw the development of the worker autodidact. They came out of the more skilled sector of the working class; miners, printers, carpenters, and machinists and thus had more education and somewhat higher incomes than the mill hands, let alone agricultural workers and navvys. The various socialist parties, anarchist groups and trade or syndicalist unions facilitated this development with libraries, night courses and a periodical press that was highly educational in a broad sense. Nor was this just a matter of revolutionary philosophies or critiques of capital and the state. Literature, plays and the natural sciences were considered important. The idea was that workers in their rise out of barbarism, would assimilate the best of bourgeois culture and not limit themselves to just a critique of capital and authority.

The autodidacts were the most intelligent and the best educated sector of the working class. They were , to use a much over-used term, its vanguard. They performed a leadership role, both formally as party, mutual aid society and union officials and informally as people respected in the workplace or neighborhood. The sort of people who were asked for advice and listened listened to.

While some were quite well educated and “cultured”, and could knock the stuffing out of many a “perfesser”, that did not mean that they identified with the educated middle classes, on the contrary, they stayed with their class. They saw their role as educating and uplifting the other workers – again not just in terms of political theories, but culture and personal behaviour. Unlike today's right-wing alleged friends of the workers, they did not romanticize or worship the class for its backward views or behaviours. * Few were more critical of working class ways. Many workers were drunken wife and child beating racists who believed anything their masters told them – think only of the IWW cartoon character “Mr. Block” and you get the picture. Woman workers tended to find solace in religion which made them conservative. These were some of the problems the autodidacts sought to overcome. Essentially, they were building a working class out of the rubble of a dispossessed peasantry and slum proletariat. **

Politically they were concentrated in the groups least likely to be led or dominated by middle class people – the labour-socialists and syndicalists. *** Labour socialists could be either “revolutionary” or “moderate”, what they held in common was an emphasis on class, a need to educate the working class and the concept that socialism would come from the working classes themselves and not the work of a middle class elite. Labour socialists were in smaller parties like the Socialist Party of Canada, the US Proletarian Party, the Socialist Labor Party, Communist Party, etc., or as caucuses within the larger social democratic parties. They also formed the leadership of syndicalist unions like the IWW and the Canadian OBU or of the more militant regular trade unions.

The autodidacts were an important factor in the socialist and labour movements until the Second World War. From the 1950s on, it became increasingly easier for blue collar workers, and especially their children, to go to college. Some more enterprising of these, took night courses for accreditation. If blue collars sought education, they no longer did it by themselves. Thus, rather than their knowledge having a working class focus, it now followed the liberal line of academia.

This had a negative effect upon the industrial working class. Its “brightest and best” were now leaving their roots and becoming part of the new working class of “white collar” professionals and technicians. The industrial workers were robbed of their teachers and natural leaders. These were replaced by professional politicians and labour leaders who sometimes had more in common with the bourgeoisie than with the people they were supposed to represent.

This was not the only loss suffered by the blue collars. By this time, the labour socialists had been driven out or completely marginalized within the social democratic parties, and many of the smaller parties, syndicalist unions and anarchist groups had disappeared or had greatly shrunken in membership, partly due to the Cold War witch hunt mentality. The social democratic parties, now dominated by liberals without a pretense of socialism, eliminated working class education, a class-oriented press and dropped traditions like May Day and other elements of working class history.

Thus by the 1960s the blue collar working class had been deprived of both its natural leadership and its traditions. They were basically cast adrift and the small socialist or syndicalist groups, while having some influence, could not recreate the past. As the industrial working class declined in importance due to automation and offshored production, the way was open for a portion of the class to fall into the hands of reactionaries and xenophobes. This process has been exacerbated by the adoption of neoliberalism by the social democratic parties in the 1990s. These parties now turned on their remaining blue collar supporters, wrecking their lives with privatization, cut-backs in social services and other retrograde policies. It should be noted, that in spite of all these attacks in many countries a large portion of the remaining industrial work force still holds on to its progressive values. One ought not over-emphasize a global shift from socialist to right wing “populist” on the part of industrial workers.

Thanks in no small part to the Internet, the working class autodidact has, to a certain extent, returned. Young white collar workers, dissatisfied by the limitations of their college courses, have turned to the vast resources of working class history and socialist/anarchist theory found on the Web, such as Libcom and the Marxist Internet Archive, not to forget YouTube videos and documentaries. There has been a boom in left-wing publishing. These new books and pamphlets (or reprints of the “classics” of anarchism and socialism) are eagerly perused by masses of youth in the omnipresent anarchist book fairs. No doubt the old time autodidacts would be pleased.

* The autodidacts sought moderation or abstinence in alcohol consumption, combated racial bigotry, promoted birth control, “free thought”, humane pedagogy, the rights of women and “healthy” pursuits like working class football, cycling and hiking clubs.

** See Edward Thompson, “The Making Of the English Working Class” for the classic study of how the working class self-organized and self-educated, becoming a class and no longer the 18th Century “mob.”
*** I have taken the term “labour socialist” from James Naylor's excellent study, “The Fate of Labour Socialism” U of T, 2016. Naylor shows how the Canadian labour socialists were gradually marginalized within the CFF, which became dominated by Fabians and liberals. A similar story is also told in another important work about socialism in British Columbia, Ben Isitt's “Militant Minority” , U of T, 2011. I cannot urge you enough to check out these volumes.


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