Dek Keenan: Radical Adult Education in Scotland – Looking back

Dek Keenan Independent Scholar and Author


Dek Keenan has been directly involved in the libertarian communist and revolutionary syndicalist movement in the UK and Ireland since the mid 1980s. His collection reflects this involvement. Based in Scotland since the end of the 1990s, he continues to be involved in the movement for the transformation of society in the interests of the global majority: the working class. He continues to collect the literature of that movement.



Dek: Thank you for inviting me, organisers. Today I’m going to give you a whistle-stop tour of the year of 1919 in terms of the tumult that was actually the world. I will look very specifically at the experience of the struggle for independent working class adult education, which I’ll probably just refer to as independent working class education, in Scotland and to some extent beyond. 1919 was certainly a tempestuous year: it was year two of the Russian Revolution and there was a revolutionary wave of working class struggle that was engulfing the world at this point. There was lots of stuff happening.

So, 1919 was a year of revolutions, there was the German Revolution that had begun in 1919 and effectively brought the First World War to an end, there were Soviet or council republics in different parts of Germany, particularly Bavaria and Saxony, and at times there was a virtual civil war going on. There was a short-lived Hungarian Revolution in 1919, and across the Atlantic – because it was a worldwide wave of struggles and revolutionary upsurges – there were the Seattle and Winnipeg general strikes. Now the Seattle general strike involved I think around 100,000 workers who in response to deteriorating conditions at the end of the war – heightening of prices of goods and poor housing – went on the first general strike in that part of North America, and they effectively run Seattle as the civil authority there collapsed, and they ran it for about six days. The Winnipeg general strike was about six weeks long and there was a similar level of struggle. We tend not to think about the struggles that had been in Europe at that time actually being not just European but worldwide.

Bringing it a whole lot closer there was the Irish Independence struggle that was at its height in that point, and including in that were particular working class struggles that expressed themselves in the establishment of Soviet – partly in replication of what was happening in Russia and in Germany. There were police strikes in London which would eventually lead to the banning of police trade unions, there was a Dover Mutiny of demobilised or demobilising sailors, there were riots right across the UK in response to deteriorating conditions post-war, riots in my own home town of Coventry, Luton and possibly most famously in Liverpool where there were of course tanks on the street. And here in Glasgow at the same time as in Belfast there are engineering strikes and strikes of shipbuilders and so forth.

But we’ve got to go even further back in time to really understand the origins of independent working class education. In 1899 Ruskin College in Oxford was established, my alma mater, and it was established to give working class men – there were no women students until 1919 – a liberal Oxford-style education. So, although it was linked to the trade union movement it couldn’t be considered a trade union-type college. Prior to the First World War there was something there that is now described as the ‘Syndicalist Revolt’, a rank and file upsurge in the working class right across the UK. And it was reflected at Ruskin College; there was a character called Noah Ablett who was a South Wales miner who objected to the economics that was taught at Ruskin College being laissez-faire, pro-capitalist economics, and argued and indeed started lecturing in Marxian economics. This resulted ultimately when the College came down on this behaviour, in the student strike of 1907 and what is known as the ‘plebs revolt’, the foundation of the Plebs League, which was an independent working class educational establishment, and the birth of I would say recognisable independent working class education with the Central Labour College being established in England at that time.

We can’t really not talk about the Workers’ Educational Association, not least because they have workers in the title. The WEA had been established in 1903 with a similar kind of ethos to the Ruskin College project, but unfortunately it never really took off in Scotland. The first branch of the Workers’ Educational Association was established in Springburn, but by 1909 it had collapsed and it didn’t re-emerge until 1912, with branches in Edinburgh. Indeed, the WEA, certainly up until the 1920s, its strength lay almost entirely on the East Coast, particularly in Edinburgh itself. So, in 1918/1919, that academic year, the WEA was only able to run six classes in the whole of Scotland: five in Edinburgh and one in Aberdeen. 1919 also saw the WEA reach out to the Trades Union Congress and the establishment of the Trades Union Committee. The WEA were really, really into partnership working, they were really good at reaching out to other educational organisations, particularly the university extra-mural projects. And that’s one in the picture there, is of the WEA meeting with some academics from the University of Oxford in 1907.

We’re in Scotland at last. Scotland in 1919 was a very interesting place to be, to say the least. There were the January strikes – up to 70,000 workers, mostly engineers and shipyard workers. This strike was organised almost unofficially, semi-officially, through what would then be described as the Scottish Workers’ Committee – a rank and file trade union body, and also by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. And this led to events such as Bloody Friday and so forth in George Square, that are quite famous. Around this time also saw the earliest developments towards the establishment of a Communist Party under the influence of the Russian Revolution. A major factor in the development of the Scottish Labour College is probably Scotland’s most famous socialist John Maclean and there was a preparatory conference established in 1916 to set up a Scottish Labour College like the Central Labour College in England. But for the time being between 1916 and ‘19 most of the adult independent working class education was undertaken by the Plebs League members, who were based mostly in Fife, particularly in Cowdenbeath, and therefore miners. And adult education provision was provided by the Plebs League and the Socialist Labour Party in the Central Halls, which I actually walked past today, St Mungo’s, as far as Dumbarton and Bellshill, Wishaw, and also in Falkirk and in several parts of Fife.

The Scottish Labour College stood essentially in opposition to the kind of working class education the Workers’ Educational Association were providing. They were partisan, they believed in teaching a Marxian version of economics. They were socialist in politics and they believed in independence from the established educational organisations such as the universities and so forth. This picture, the dude in the middle at the front that is of course John Maclean. Pretty much everybody behind him, and these are tutors and students, and a lot of students became tutors, and I think pretty much all of those people there are miners, not were miners but they were miners at the time. 1919/1920 is sort of the first proper year of the Scottish Labour College and the problem that they faced between 1916 and 1919 was partly money, it was getting money out of the trade union movement because basically with workers and struggle and so forth the unions were having to support their own members. And also there was an element of shall we say slight distrust of these Marxist agitators that were in the Plebs League and so forth. But eventually they got enough money together to get accommodation in two places at the same time. One was the Liberty Rooms, the home of the Glasgow Anarchists at the time, and the Scottish Business Training College on Bath Street, so it was quite a contrast there. The Monday to Friday evening classes were a massive success, but the day classes were a much more limited success and had to abandoned. Can you imagine why that was? Yes, people had to go to work. So, amongst the tutors worth a mention were William McLaine, [John Brady 0:11:13] and of course Helen Crawfurd, a very famous Glasgow socialist who had been involved in the rent strikes in 1915 and went on to become a leading member of the Communist Party. There were 30 classes in Glasgow over two semesters and totalled about 854 students in Glasgow alone in the first semester. And what did they teach? They taught economics of course, history, English composition, maths, public speaking, shorthand, political science, cooperation, imperialism or world revolution – of course no adult education curriculum is a proper curriculum without that, and Esperanto. There was a certain opposition to the teaching of Esperanto, even then some people thought it was a bit of a waste of time but it was really quite central to the Scottish Labour College’s curriculum, and it was a big success.

But it wasn’t just in Glasgow. In that first year there were 51 classes outwith Glasgow, they were mostly in mining areas: Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, Ayrshire, but also up in Aberdeen. They started moving into the WEA territory on the East Coast, Edinburgh, Dundee, Fife and Stirlingshire. So it wasn’t just a Glasgow phenomenon. They didn’t want it to be; they wanted it to be fit for the entirety of Scotland.

A little bit about after ’19. After 1919 on a global level it was a waning of the revolutionary wave. It had really reached its high point in 1919 and it carried on into ‘20/21 and right through to ’23 in different parts of the world. But this was reflected in the movement for independent working class education as well as a different perspective started to emerge. In 1919 it felt like the revolution was upon us, the actual workers revolution was imminent, and that was reflected in the politics of the independent working class educators. However, as those things died down and were defeated in many ways, there developed a lot of political struggles on the Left, a lot of sectarianism, a lot of internecine fighting. And John Maclean became very marginalised. He was in and out of prison quite a lot for various reasons including sedition, and while he was in prison people did actually conspire against and marginalise him. There’s a lot we could talk about but we don’t have time today.

So eventually people started moving into the Scottish Labour College who were more moderate: people from the right-wing of the Independent Labour Party who were a mass party in Glasgow at the time and sent most of the MPs of the labour movement to Westminster, and also from the Labour Party itself. In 1921 the Scottish Labour College affiliated with the National Council of Labour Colleges, which is probably no bad thing in itself, and in 1926 the Plebs League which had had an independent existence up until then, both in Scotland and the rest of the UK, it was absorbed into the NCLC. In a certain ironic twist, the National Council of Labour Colleges eventually was amalgamated with the WEA’s trade union committee in 1964. So between the 1920s and the 1960s the NCLC was, in Scotland as in the rest of the UK, THE independent working class education provider. There are some numbers that I thought I should give. The Scottish Labour College grew and grew. It attracted far more trade union funding as the years went on and recruited more and more students, so that by 1924-25 for example they had close to 6000 students enrolled in 224 classes in Scotland. So we can say that at its high point it was a massive success, certainly in Scotland and arguably beyond.

If there were two questions that I had for the audience: Is there an independent working class education revival, is that going on as we speak? Maybe even here today, who knows. And two, if there is, what has to be different about independent working class education today given the developments in grassroots, from-below education, not just in the UK, not just in Scotland, but across the world? Those are your questions folks.


These resources have been archived at the Ragged University.working with Sarah Galloway who works from the University of Stirling the coordinator and curator of the archive. You can find videos, audio recordings and transcripts of the other presentations via the page below: