John MacLean Internet Archive                                                    From the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement

A Plea For A Labour College For Scotland

by John Maclean

First published: As a pamphlet in February 1916. Co-authour J.D.MacDougall
Transcription\HTML Markup: Scottish Republican Socialist Movement Archive in 2002 and David Walters in 2003
Copyleft: John MacLean Internet Archive (, 2003. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

Every reader of the press sees that the manufacturing, commercial, and financial class is preparing for the commercial war that will succeed the present one. This coming conflict will be fiercer and more merciless than the trade rivalry of the past. Each government will act in as close co-operation with this class a s the British government is acting with the railway and shipping magnates and the manufactures of munitions. Hence the demand for a Minister of Commerce. Political problems are going to be essentially economic problems. The government will have to pay interest on the War Debt, and, in consequence, will be compelled to interfere in the economic life of the nation more than ever before. The imperial government will impose tariffs on all enemy nations, and develop the agricultural and raw material resources of the empire. These and multitudes of other vital questions are being discussed at the present, and plans are being prepared for post-war industrial developments.

We can be sure that these coming changes will affect the workers even to a greater extent than those already established by the war. House rents will rise, dilution of labour and lowering of wages will be attempted on a vaster scale than most anticipate at present, and American machinery, division of labour, and feverish hustle will come like an avalanche into industries not already affected. It is surely advisable to prepare in time for the coming stir, as the capitalist is doing.

We all know that to get mass action and make it effective in the interests of the workers we must have preliminary agitation, education and organisation. Well might we do so, for are we not assured that the master class intends to spend more money on technical and commercial education in the hope that British products, made with the utmost expedition and at the minimum of cost, may hold their own in the markets of the world? Scientific education undoubtedly leads to efficiency, and that the propertied class of this country now fully realises.

It is my hope that you delegates will become just as aware as the masters are of the need for specific forms of education. The state provides an elementary and higher education that certainly needs purging and overhauling; the state may now be willing to enforce a technical or commercial training on every boy or girl not intending to enter the professions; but the state, because iot must be a capitalist state so long as capitalism endures, will not provide a full education to equip workers to carry on the working-class movement or to fight for the ending of capitalism itself.

In consequence, I am firmly convinced that the workers must establish and maintain their own colleges to equip themselves for their own specific tasks as a class. I am heartily in favour of one or more co-operative colleges to train employees and administrators alike. hat I specially mention lest some might imagine I wish to forestall the efforts of the Co-operative Union and the Adviser of Studies, my friend, Mr Hall. I can assure you that I am keeping Mr Hall in touch with all I am doing, and the committee convening the conference gave a special invitation to Mr Hall who, in reply, wished us every success.

But, rightly or wrongly, I attach even more importance to the establishment of a Labour College, in which workers must be trained for the industrial and political struggle which will become keener and sharper as time proceeds.

If the standard of living is lowered and the conditions of toil and employment are worsened for huge masses of the workers, the uprising of the rank and file is going to be greater and more threatening than during the three years preceding the outbreak of war.

Many of the older trade-union officials and leaders may be dubious as to the need for the establishment of a college lest there should emerge from it rivals for the positions they hold. But a slight consideration of the vast problems and difficulties that the resumption of peace will raise for solution ought to show the need for a rapidly growing number of men able to defend the rights of workers and enable them to proceed towards the full control of industry in a thoroughly disciplined fashion.

More and better-trained organisers of the industrial workers are absolutely necessary in the future. I have no desire to belittle the ability and capacity of men who, like Mr Robert Smillie, have received their training in the rough and tumble of hard experience. But I believe that he would be the first to admit that, with a sound working-class education, he could have rendered even grater service to our class than we all too gladly admit he has given in his strenuous and eventful career.

Training and experience are both necessary for the full equipment of a trade or industrial official, for training and experience have to be met in the opposite camp.

Multitudes of trained men will soon be more necessary than ever to assume positions on public bodies and carry on the fight there until the duties of these bodies are co-extensive with the full industrial and social life of the whole community. The trade unions are irrevocably committed to political as well as industrial action, and necessarily the duty devolves on them of fitting men and women for political working-class activities.

More and better working-class papers and magazines are needed, if the people are going to get facts instead of fiction, working-class instead of capitalist leading articles. The men to conduct and write for these papers must likewise be trained.

The workers in Germany have already accomplished all that we are anxious to see done for the full training and equipment of our class, and surely we in Scotland, with all our educational traditions to urge us on, should not only bring ourselves abreast the German workers, but, if possible, give the world a lead as our fathers did of yore.

The next source of opposition to a Labour College will be the curriculum. In the city where Adam Smith discoursed on The Wealth of Nations a full century and a half ago, it should hardly be necessary to insist that the principle study ought to be Economics. At a Labour College economics must be taught fundamentally from a labour standpoint. Otherwise we ought to send our students to the capitalist universities. Our students must make the writings of Marx and marxian scholars the basis of their studies; otherwise the College becomes an expensive tragedy. This does not imply the exclusion of the study of Marshall, the pontiff of present-day capitalist economics, or of the other great writers who have influenced or are today moulding economic thought.

Many people are horrified to hear it said that the working-class standpoint in economics is bound to be different from that of the capitalists. These tender beings dream of a certain “impartial” social science bringing about the reconciliation of the hostile classes, as if it were possible to avoid taking sides on economic questions in a society in which the interests of the workers are sharply opposed to those of the employers, the needs of tenants conflict with those of the house- owners, and so on. True, the professors of political economy in the universities claim to be impartial men of science. But nobody believes them; their attitude is recognised as a necessary, professional pose. Their teaching has become a mere system of apologetics, by means of which they reveal the moral reasons that justify the plundering of the working class. In this respect it is as different as night from day, when compared with the work of the economists of the classic school from Smith to Ricardo. These truly great men earnestly sought for the hidden forces operating the mechanism of society; they tried to discover the tendencies that introduced a semblance of regularity into the chaotic anarchy of manufacture and commerce. They classified economic facts, and, in doing so, discovered and defined some of the principal categories of political economy. The classical economists, in seeking to grasp the influence of economic laws, were actuated by a desire to bring about an increase of national wealth.

They could afford to be quite frank, for in those days there was no need for hypocrisy, because the working class, as we know it, was hardly in existence and where it has appeared was devoid of consciousness. And so the economists in their researches into the nature of value had no class prejudices to obscure their vision, any more than has the chemist of today when he carries out an experiment. They proclaimed labour to be the source of value. But very soon the working class had developed and had even secured literary champions - such as Thomson, Hodgskin, etc. - either from it’s own ranks or from the other classes, and they asked the question: if labour produces all value, why does the labourer not receive the full value of his product? Thus they made a moral application of Ricardian economics, and severely criticised the competitive system. Then came Marx, who set aside moral considerations as out of place in such a study, and, in a strictly scientific manner, dealt with the economic facts: the same man ho, starting from the Ricardian theory of value, which he criticised and put upon a scientific basis, burst through the economic concepts of the time and discovered a new category, which he called the surplus value, by means of which he explained the origin and formation of profit, interest, and rent.

It was then that the demoralisation of economic science set in. When the working class was to some extent awakened and had even produced it’s theoretical writers, safety demanded that political economy should cease handling the real facts of capitalism, and should deal only in the vaguest generalities and sophism. Now we can read in the writings of such shining lights as Lord Cromer of “that unfortunate statement of Ricardo’s that labour is the source of value.”

In the sphere of economics the capitalists make no progress commensurate with that which occurs in other departments of science. In physics and chemistry, and in application of these to industry, the progress made in a century has been little short of the marvellous. But in the social sciences there is no such advance to record, because the progress of these sciences and their progressive application to society means the destruction of capitalism, private ownership of the means of life. And so orthodox economics is barren of fruits, has no real connection with the developing economic phenomena, and is incapable of explaining them. The economists of today write books, abounding with mathematical subtleties, such as have no guidance to give us so far as the control of social productive forces is concerned.

Just as economics must be studied from the working-class point of view, so must history. A Labour College must, of course, provide for the teaching of industrial history, just as has been done in the various Sunday and evening classes held hitherto. But useful as such as study may be, it is not sufficient. If we confined ourselves to industrial history our students would get merely one-sided views of the events of the past. However much we may be inclined to admire the works of the economic historians - such as Rogers, Ashley, Cunningham, Gibbons etcetera - we cannot afford to forget that what we get from them is but partial history after all. They teach the history of the development of technique from primitive tools of rough stone to the latest modern factory, and the information they furnish is essential, but it only concerns some of the facts of life. And is there, some might be inclined to ask, over and above industrial history, a political history, say, or a history of morality? No! we would reply; there is but one history, however many aspects it may assume in our brains, and therefore no partial or abstract view can be satisfactory. The most effective method of historical explanation is undoubtedly the materialist method of Marx, whereby we rise from an understanding of the mode of production prevailing at a certain epoch, to a knowledge of the reasons for the origin and decay of classes and their antagonism to one another. The state and it’s functions are explained, and political struggles are seen to be at bottom class struggles. The law is found to be the expression of the interests of the dominant class in the state. Changes in the morality and in the ideas held by men are found to be due to an altered economic environment. Transformation of the methods of wealth production is seen to be the necessary outcome of the biologic will to live. By means of this method, then, we can understand history, and adequately explain it. History ceases to be a happy hunting-ground for either simple narrators or purveyors of romance. It comes within the sphere of the law determined, and no longer is looked upon as the realm of chance or accident. The writing of history today, so far as it is really scientific, is the work either of Marxist scholars - such as Kautsky, Labriola, Lafargue, Plekhanov, etc. - or that of bourgeois writers, more or less under marxian influence, such as John A. Hobson, Usher, etc.

But the marxian method is more than a better way of writing the history of the past, it is also a compass whereby we can better guide the working class in the struggles of the present. Man makes his own history, but not always consciously. The results, for instance, of the French revolution were entirely different from what was expected by those who carried through the revolution. But the materialist method, the gift to us of modern society and it’s science, enables us to consciously make history.

Naturally the curriculum would devote special attention to the history of trade unionism. And what better training could students get than to be set to do research work into the history of their own union or the particular group to which it belonged. In this way much valuable information which remains hidden in old and tattered minute books and records, of which too little care is taken, might be given to the world. Modern problems of trade unionism would fall to be considered and threshed out in a school in which the future leaders of trade unionism were being trained.

The developments of the co-operative movement would require to be one of the subjects of special study. It is only in recent days, one might say, that the barriers separating the co- operative from the general labour movement have been broken down. Trade unionists and socialists are only beginning to realise what they have lost in failing to utilise the assistance of this powerful auxiliary. The position of dignified isolation, formerly taken up by the co-operative movement, is giving place to co-operation with other working-class forces. The essential unity of the working-class movement, under all it’s different forms, is a conception that is very prevalent today. No training for the working-class movement could be considered complete which did not include the treatment of these tremendous problems, such as the question of rising prices and dividends, upon the successful solution of which hangs the fate of co-operation.

Trade-union officials require to have a great knowledge of the labour code, and this would form a part of the curriculum. Not that it could be hoped to turn them out competent lawyers, which would be of little value if the strong legal trade union refused to allow them to practise, but it ought to be possible in a fairly short space of time to survey the most important pieces of protective legislation, and acquire knowledge of it’s general features.

In the working-class movement year by year we find the organisations growing bigger, their activities more varied, and hence their statistical reports more complicated. The importance, in organisations containing hundreds of thousands of members, of having the statistics carefully and scientifically compiled will be readily appreciated. In small local organisations each member knows at first had and by personal touch the state of his association. But in large bodies all we have to show us how the society stands - whether it is strong or weak, progressive, stationary, or declining - is the report and the statistics it contains. But the construction of tables is not a simple matter, and, even if it were, a worse trouble lies in the interpretation of the figures once they are collected. In so many subtle ways is error possible that a special science of statistics has sprung up or issued forth from general economics, the special function of which is to guard against such errors. This is a side of education that could be provided by a Labour College with profit to the movement.

Such general educational subjects such as English, Composition and Literature, Arithmetic and Algebra, would also demand attention. Students could receive a training in public speaking and debate such as would save them much time later on, when they came to play their part in the movement.

It is necessary here to present again, as has been done in the explanatory leaflet, a definite financial and administrative scheme. The detailed arrangement already suggested will serve as the basis for discussion.

That there is need for a college is proved by the success which has attended the voluntary classes, handicapped as the students are by long hours of toil, and by the size of this conference today. The idea is certainly in the air. It is our hope that this meeting today may prove to be the beginning of a movement which will bring the idea down to earth, and have it embodied in reality. The capitalists feel the need of theoretical and scientific training for themselves, if they are successfully to compete by greater exploitation of the workers against America and Germany when the war is over. The workers, if they are successfully to resist increased exploitation, and to make progress towards freedom, can only do so if they utilise their resources wisely for the training of leaders and the diffusion of essential knowledge amongst themselves.




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