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The Production and Dissemination of Knowledge in Scotland

Lesley Graham

1. Education and learning

The Scottish Labour movement’s educational activities, 1890s-1920s

Christian Civardi

Texte intégral

  • 1 Iain Mclean, The Legend of Red Clydeside, Edinburgh: John Donald, 1983. William Kenefick, Red Scotl (...)

1Like so many major myths in contemporary Scottish history, Red Clydeside has undergone some heavy flak over the past thirty years or so. Healthy as it was to debunk and explode “the legend of Red Clydeside”,1 the aim of this paper will be to somewhat redress the balance in one strangely under-researched area: the Labour movement’s educational activities. I shall first give a brief overview of the major educational activities launched by organized Labour at the turn of the twentieth century and during the First World War, namely Socialist Sunday Schools, working class study groups, the Workers’ Educational Association and the Scottish Labour College; then try and assess how each of these ties in with, or diverges from, mainstream Scottish educational and political traditions.

  • 2 Katherine & John Bruce Glasier, Carolyne Martin, Margaret Macmillan, Clarice McNab, Archie MacArthu (...)
  • 3 Neil C. Rafeek, Communist Women in Scotland: Red Clydeside from the Russian Revolution to the end o (...)

2The Socialist Sunday School movement was launched in Glasgow in 1896 by a group of middle-class and lower-middleclass members of the Independent Labour Party, most of whom were close friends of Keir Hardie.2 At its apex in 1921, the movement could boast 153 schools in Britain, one third of which were in Scotland, where they were attended by some twenty five hundred children and “young adults”. In 1922, the Communist Party of Great Britain launched a rival organization, the Young Communist League, which remained confidential.3 Support for the socialist Sunday schools began to wane after the failure of the general strike of May 1926 and the ensuing miners’ lock-out. The internecine warfare between the Labour Party and its ILP affiliate, and the “class against class” line toed by the CPGB from 1927 on, did not help matters. Although the discourse of the SSS was imbued with the rhetoric of Christian moralizing, the movement’s utter condemnation of private ownership clearly distinguished it from the boy scouts, the boys’ brigade, and denominational Sunday schools. As Lizzie Glasier pointed out in her “Reply to the Sabbath School Teachers Magazine” of 1907:

To accuse us of bringing up children to live without God, and to die without hope, is an assertion which is quite irrelevant to the main principle in Socialist teaching, namely, the founding of society on a new economic basis. […] Socialism, or the law of the Religion of Love, maintains that private ownership is public robbery in land, in capital […] and in the necessary things of life…

  • 4 The Young Socialist was a monthly periodical published by the National Council of SSS and was first (...)

3 After the war, the message is blunter, as in the Young Socialist’s version of “Jack, the Giant killer” of April 1923: “Now, children, this is not an ordinary fairy story, but a story of real life. The cruel giant is called capitalism, and we want every boy and girl to come with us and join the fight. We want to abolish the Capitalist system and to establish Socialism.”4 Seven years later, the delegate from Springburn at the Congress of the Scottish SSS made it even blunter: “With regard to our attitude in school to religion we should be perfectly clear and honest: criticism of religion is part of the criticism of capitalism and should be tackled fearlessly. “

  • 5 Rob Duncan, “Ideology and Provision; the WEA and the Politics of Workers’ Education in Early Twenti (...)

4The Workers’ Educational Asssociation was founded in London in 1903 by Albert Mansbridge, a clerk from Battersea and a Church of England lay preacher. Mansbridge asked William Temple, the future Archbishop of Canterbury ( “the people’s archbishop”), to be the WEA’s first President – which is one of the reasons why the WEA was seen by many as a continuation of the Oxbridge University extensions of the 1880s. In 1907, two tutorial classes were started, in London and Rochdale, with Prof. R. H. Tawney, of the Labour Party and the London School of Economics, as tutor. From 1907 the WEA in England and Wales won official recognition and direct grant aid from the Board of Education, as well as financial support from a number of local authorities and universities. A Scottish branch was launched in 1909, albeit without any support from the Scottish Education Department, the school boards or the universities, as “the Scottish Establishment displayed a patrician disregard for educational provision for adult workers… Scottish officials complacently held that thanks to an open and democratic national tradition, the ladder of opportunity up to university education was readily accessible to deserving young men and women from all social backgrounds.”5 Indeed, at Glasgow University, working-class students increased, as a percentage of the total, from18.6 % in 1860 to 24 % in 1910. However, the said total amounted only to 6,000 university students in 1900, and the rate of failure was very high.

  • 6 Quoted in Brian Simon, Education and the Labour Movement, 1870-1920, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 19 (...)

5Mansbridge postulated that the working class was the only class that did not subordinate education to “materialistic ends” – a far cry from the traditional Scottish educational ethos. He hoped that “deep draughts of knowledge would divert the strong movements of the people from the narrow paths of the immediate interests to the broad way of that rightly ordered social life of which only glimpses have been seen even by the greatest of the world’s seers.”6

  • 7 Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1941, p. 263.

6As a matter of fact, one of the world’s greatest seers was gaining more and more visibility in Britain. In 1887, the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League set up in Edinburgh what may have been the first working-class study group in the country. Some fifty skilled workers would gather after work to study Das Kapital, as translated by the organizer of the group, The reverend John Glasse, the minister of Greyfriars in Edinburgh. James Connolly, the future leader of the Easter Rising in Ireland, was a member of this study group; he then graduated to train the recruits to the new Socialist Labour Party (founded in 1903) in the “Three Ses of Socialism: studying, selling the paper, soapbox oratory”. What Connolly did in Edinburgh, Tom Bell did in Glasgow: “The students would study Wage, Labour and Capital at home. At the class we would read it over paragraph by paragraph. This practice aimed at helping students to speak fluently and grammatically.”7 There is more than a hint in the various testimonies as to what went on in these smallish study groups run by the SLP of a link between their pedagogy and the disputations that had been a staple of academic life in the Scottish universities, whereas the classes run by the Social Democratic Federation were more of the big lecture, cours magistral, type. Unlike the SLP, which prided itself on being a vanguard party of select membership, the SDF claimed to be a mass party. In 1903, it appointed John Maclean, M.A., to be its “lecturer in economics”. His Saturday evening classes in Greenock and Sunday classes in Glasgow attracted hundreds of workers, here again mostly skilled. For a ha’penny, one could buy the printed text of his lectures.

7During the war, the WEA stressed in its monthly, The Highway, of February 1917 that “The WEA is a missionary organization, working in co-operation with the education authorities and working-class organizations. It is definitely unsectarian, non-political and democratic”. Its new rival, The Scottish Labour College made no such claim. In a letter sent from his prison cell, which was read out at the conference of some 500 delegates of trade unions, socialist parties and organizations, co-operative societies, trades councils, and women’s leagues gathered in Glasgow in February 1916 to discuss the setting up of a Labour College, John Maclean made short shrift of “non-political” education:

  • 8 “A Plea for a Labour College”, 1916, in Nan Milton, John Maclean. In the Rapids of Revolution, Lond (...)

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. […] True, the professors of political economy in the universities claim to be impartial men of science. But nobody believes them; their attitude is recognized as a necessary, professional pose.8

  • 9 Both Maxton and Maclean had been founding members of the Scottish Socialist Teachers’ Society in 19 (...)
  • 10 The Socialist, May 29, 1919.

8In 1917, SLP activists in the Glasgow Plebs League joined forces with the SLC “to secure a chain of Marxist classes in Glasgow and the west of Scotland”, and even the leader of the Scottish council of the ILP, James Maxton, who had been dismissed from his teaching position by Glasgow’s Education Authority, jumped on the bandwagon.9 At the SLC’s inaugural rally of May 1919, “he showed the manner in which University professors taught their students in a seemingly unbiased style, yet all their teaching was finally bourgeois. He demonstrated in the most convincing style the fallacy of expecting working-class education from capitalist universities.”10

9The SLC was concentrated in the West of Scotland. “In the city where Adam Smith lectured on The Wealth of Nations, the main subject for study should obviously be economics,” Maclean had written in 1916. Actually, the SLC offered a wide range of evening and noon classes, in Marxian economics, industrial history, public speaking, but also mathematics, general and industrial history, political science, economic geography, modern and contemporary European history, English literature and composition, Esperanto.

10A residential college attended by nine full-time day students, selected and supported by their respective trade unions, operated from September 1919 to June 1920 in the offices of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, St Vincent Street, Glasgow; but then folded, for mostly practical and financial reasons. One of its students, the Fife communist collier John McArthur, gives a telling account of his experience at the college:

  • 11 Ian MacDougall, ed., Militant Miners, Edinburgh: Polygon, 1981, p. 34.

Willlie McLaine took the classes in Industrial History and Trade Union law; John Maclean took the classes in economics, public speaking, arithmetic and algebra. All these classes were held in the mornings. We got quite a shock when Maclean told us we were to go in the afternoons to Bath Street to study shorthand, bookkeeping, English and Esperanto… My opinion was that Maclean was asking too much of us. We were a bunch of lads who had all left school at fourteen or younger…11

11In 1922 the SLC joined the National Council of Labour Colleges, whose general secretary, J.P.M. Millar, was from Edinburgh, where the British headquarters was located. The SCLC’s three thousand members made up approximately one fourth of the British total. The WEA also had a roll of some three thousand students, mainly in Aberdeen and Edinburgh where the universities were involved, unlike Glasgow, which only took part from 1924 on thanks to prof. A.D. Lindsay, a Christian socialist member of the ILP. So was its organizing secretary in Scotland (1919-26), John Highton a Methodist lay preacher, ILP member and chairman of Glasgow’s Trades and Labour Council. The WEA’s president in Scotland was Joe Duncan, the general secretary of the Scottish Farm Servants’ Union, and it numbered several academics and ministers of the Kirk among its lecturers, for instance the historian W.H. Marwick, who was a full time tutor from 1920 to 1932. The WEA offered classes in such subjects as economics and law, but also Roman civilization, astronomy, Italian history and civilization, musical appreciation, drama and theater, harmony, psychology, sacred music, literature of the New Testament, and so forth.

  • 12 Raymond Challinor, The Origins of British Bolshevism, London: Croom Helm, 1977, p. 261.

12Both competing for the financial support of the unions, WEA and SLC were soon at loggerheads. “The WEA is an agency for giving gentlemanly dope to the working class”, Millar wrote in the Daily Herald (28/2/1922); “It is an amorphous foot-in-both camps educational body”, Arthur Woodburn expostulated in the Glasgow Forward of 19/7/24 upon hearing of a £500 grant to the WEA by Edinburgh university, which brought about Highton’s retort: “The WEA is not a ‘camouflaged movement in the interests of capitalism’ in the face of the facts that –a) nearly all its support comes from Trade Unions and Co-operatives, etc… -b) each of its national officers is a member of the Labour Party; -c) all its secretaries… are active workers in the Labour and socialist movement.” Whereas the prevailing ethos of the WEA was undoubtedly anti-Marxist, the Directorate of Intelligence warned in a rather hyperbolic report of 1920 that “the Central Labour college is the fountain-head of Marxian teaching in this country and is responsible for the training of more dangerous revolutionaries than all the communist parties put together.”12

13Enjoying a degree of university and local-authority backing, the WEA survived almost unscathed into the following decades, whereas the Labour College paid for increased trade-union support by giving less and less heed to the anti-bureaucratic warning which Helen Crawford of the International Women’s League had sounded in The Socialist of 29 May 1919: “It is not the intention [of the SLC] to educate men and women for soft trade union jobs, but to impart scientific knowledge, which would enable them to organize for a peaceful social revolution, and thus be fully equipped for taking over the mines, factories and workshops, using them in the interests of the community.”

14But whether they aimed to enable the worker to taste the delights of ‘high culture’ or strove to create a proletarian counter-culture, whether they advocated a liberal, pluralist type of further education or an explicitly fundamentalist and socialist version of ‘independent working-class education’, these various bodies shared two common denominators. One was the assertion of the dignity of the working man. Typical of this stand is a scathing attack by Forward (21 May 1927) on the Scotch comedian Harry Lauder on the occasion of his knighthood: “Sir Larry Hodder, you were born in the working class, and few of the working class are given titles […]. Robert Smillie and Keir Hardie – you knew them both – neither got titles. They tried to make their fellows think, and their reward was, and is, abuse. You chose to make the crowd laugh – that is, when you are not insulting them – and you have a title.”

  • 13 Kenneth O. Morgan, Keir Hardie, Radical and Socialist, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1975, p. 45.

15Number two is their dogged indictment of the unholy (in their eyes) trinity at the core of Edwardian Scotland’s dominant ideology: militarism, imperialism and sectarianism. There are countless sources to buttress this assertion, one of the most rewarding being the records of several Socialist Sunday Schools which one can peruse at the Glasgow Room of the Mitchell Library or at the National Library of Scotland. Each year, the SSS celebrated their International Sunday, which was a counter-Empire Day – much to the chagrin of J.H. Thomas, Ramsay MacDonald’s colonial secretary of 1924. That is one of the reasons why I find it difficult to accept Kenneth Morgan’s rather dismissive statement “The later generation [after Hardie] of Glasgow socialists […] were parochial, inward-looking Celts who conceived of their socialism firmly within a Celtic context.”13 In 1925 and 1931, the Scottish branch of the Socialist Workers Sports International sent a delegation to the counter-olympic games held in Frankfurt and then Vienna, and, as far as I know, they were not such “inward-looking Celts” as to demand that tossing the caber be an event. More seriously, the only language that was taught at the Scottish Labour College was not Gaelic, but Esperanto (and later, French). “The only flag which we acknowledge is the red flag, the only war we wage is against capitalism”, proclaimed the national conference of British SSS in 1915. Unlike the official primary and secondary schools (and, obviously, the various churches’ Sunday schools), they were nondenominational, and proud of it. In the Lanarkshire coal-field, the SSS of Bellshill proudly reported to the Young Socialist of October 1928 that it was attended “not only by Scottish, but also by English, Welsh, Irish, Lithuanian and Italian scholars.” The ninth and tenth of the movement’s Socialist 10 Commandments ordered “Do not think that those who love their own country must hate and despise other nations, or wish for war, which is a remnant of barbarism. Look forward to the day when all men and women will be free citizens of one fatherland and live together as brothers and sisters in peace and righteousness.”

16Each Saturday Forward offered its readers a suggestion for their “Sunday reading”. Ibsen, Blake, Butler, Carlyle, Galsworthy, Whitman, Hugo, France and Maerterlinck are recurrent choices, along with only two contemporary Scots, George Douglas Brown and the collier poet and playwright Joe Corrie. Books by Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Liebknecht, De Leon and other non-Celts were available at the ILP’s co-operative bookshop, ‘The Reformer’s Bookstall’, in Glasgow, as well as in any of its thirteen Scottish branches. In Glasgow, the anarchists ran their own bookshops, William McGill’s ‘Herald League Bookshop’ (George Street), which specialized in the works of Kropotkin, Guy Aldred’s ‘Bakunine House’ (Burnbank Gardens) and ‘Ye Olde Redde Book Shoppe’ in Shetleston. In 1930s Edinburgh, members could borrow from the library of the National Union of Railwaymen the works of Hugo, London, Remarque, Sue, France, Renan, Maeterlinck, Tolstoy, Marx, Trotsky, Bebel, Lafargue, Kautsky, Liebknecht, Kropotkin, Engels and Nietzsche: a far cry indeed from “Celtic parochialism”.

17It wasn’t parochialism but the local repercussions of the world-wide struggle between Stalinism and Trotskyism, exacerbated by the rivalry between the British Labour party and the mainly Scottish ILP, that led to the decline of the Socialist Sunday School and Labour College movements. From a peak of 153 schools in Britain (47 in Scotland) in 1921, the former fell to 113 in 1927, after the fiasco of the general strike and the miners’ lock-out, and to 65 in 1933, two years after the ILP had seceded from the LP, and the final year for which the National Council of the SSS released enrolment figures.

18The Labour College movement did not fare any better. The Forward of Oct. 9, 1926 advertised the list of classes for the autumn session of the Glasgow Labour College under a banner headline that read: “Resurrect the Red Clyde!”. After the death of Maclean in 1923, at the age of 44, the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party, which he had founded, the CPGB and the ILP fought for control of the Scottish Labour College, at times literally: in 1927 the annual general meeting of the Glasgow division of the Labour College was the scene of a scuffle between the Communist leader Willie Gallacher and Joe Scanlan, the ILP chairman of the Trades and Labour Council. In 1928, the Communist-leaning Glasgow division was expelled from the National Council of Labour Colleges. In protest, the county districts of Fife, Stirling, Dumbarton and Ayr seceded. J.P.M. Millar resigned and the national headquarters of the NCLC was transferred from Edinburgh to London.

19In the Forward of August 25, 1915, its owner, Tom Johnston, noted that:

The classes that read the Forward are not ignorant people, but intelligent people, the well-read, thinking, reflecting, and clean living decent people. […] Neither the bar-tender’s pest nor the Sauchiehall street dude ever spent a penny on the Forward. […] In the slum areas few socialist periodicals are purchased but many copies of the Daily Record, Sporting Tit-Bits, Weekly Mail and John Bull. […] Look at your slum wards – not a socialist representative in the town council from Calton or the Cowcaddens or Gorbals or Broomielaw. Capitalism represents these wards. On the other hand, the better paid, and more comfortably circumstanced, and better read Govan, and Shettleston, and Cowlairs, and Townhead, look at them! Socialism represents these wards. And the reason is obvious. A man requires to reach a certain level of culture before he can understand socialism, have a certain independence of position and character before he can break away from the old traditions and mental prejudice and face the obloquy and criticism meted out always and everywhere to the pioneer.

20Fifteen years later, a number of these ‘pioneers’ has studied their way into the middle class. Indeed, what was to lead to the eventual stultification of the labour movement’s educational organizations was neither parochialism nor philistinism, but utilitarianism – the urge, the quite legitimate desire felt by many to make use of their newly acquired knowledge in order to get on in society. I do not know how many of Edinburgh’s railwaymen borrowed and read the works of Marx or Nietzsche. What I do know, on the other hand, because their lecturers kept complaining about it, is what quite a few of the Scottish Labour College’s alumni did: rather than become better-educated trade-union or party officials, they cashed in on their training in public speaking, bookkeeping, psychology or grammar to find employment as insurance agents, making it clear that, once a member of the working class has gained access to the intellectual and cultural tools of upward social mobility, the chances are that he or she will use them to try and join the middle class. It is undoubtedly this ‘catch 22’ which J.P.M. Millar had in mind when he sent, in 1927, the following warning to all the labour college organizers of Britain:

  • 14 J.P.M. Millar, The Labour College Movement, London: NCLC Publishing Society, 1979, p. 250.

Escapist subjects must be rigorously pruned and only those which can be adapted to the social purpose of the workers’ movement accepted. […] A knowledge of economics can […] be of considerable help in training trade unionists to deal with employers, whereas a knowledge of how to play the violin would be of no assistance. Nor would it be of assistance to be able to distinguish one school of painters from another.14

21That is a good instance of what one might call the ‘Ramsay MacDonald syndrome’: the fear that gaining access to the language of high culture will inevitably lead to betrayal. The students “tended to be more interested in obtaining information from the lecturer rather than engaging in discussion”, sighed Millar, a complaint that is familiar to French University lecturers. The maieutic of emancipation had given way to the swotting of careerism and the smugness of workerism, utopia had ossified into bureaucracy. But a utopia of emancipation through knowledge, culture, and leisure there had been, which one ought to keep in mind when debating the redness of the Clyde.


1 Iain Mclean, The Legend of Red Clydeside, Edinburgh: John Donald, 1983. William Kenefick, Red Scotland!: The Rise and Fall of the Radical Left, c. 1872-1932, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

2 Katherine & John Bruce Glasier, Carolyne Martin, Margaret Macmillan, Clarice McNab, Archie MacArthur, Alex Gossip, William Martin Haddow.

3 Neil C. Rafeek, Communist Women in Scotland: Red Clydeside from the Russian Revolution to the end of the Soviet Union, London: Tauris Academis Studies, 2008 Chapter 2: “Becoming a militant: socialist politicization from childhood, 1914-44 pp. 25-54.

4 The Young Socialist was a monthly periodical published by the National Council of SSS and was first issued in Glasgow in 1901.

5 Rob Duncan, “Ideology and Provision; the WEA and the Politics of Workers’ Education in Early Twentieth Century Scotland” p. 177 in Steven K. Roberts, ed., A Ministry of Enthusiasm: Centenary Essays on the Workers’ Educational Association, London: Pluto, 2003.

6 Quoted in Brian Simon, Education and the Labour Movement, 1870-1920, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1974, p. 307.

7 Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1941, p. 263.

8 “A Plea for a Labour College”, 1916, in Nan Milton, John Maclean. In the Rapids of Revolution, London: Allison & Busby, 1978, pp. 116-22.

9 Both Maxton and Maclean had been founding members of the Scottish Socialist Teachers’ Society in 1911.

10 The Socialist, May 29, 1919.

11 Ian MacDougall, ed., Militant Miners, Edinburgh: Polygon, 1981, p. 34.

12 Raymond Challinor, The Origins of British Bolshevism, London: Croom Helm, 1977, p. 261.

13 Kenneth O. Morgan, Keir Hardie, Radical and Socialist, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1975, p. 45.

14 J.P.M. Millar, The Labour College Movement, London: NCLC Publishing Society, 1979, p. 250.


Professor Emeritus of British studies at the University of Strasbourg, and a founding member of the Société Française d’Etudes Ecossaises. He has written extensively on Scottish history, society and culture, notably Le Mouvement ouvrier écossais, 1900-1931, P.U.S., 1997; L’Ecosse depuis 1528, Ophrys, 1998; L’Ecosse contemporaine, Ellipses, 2002, and translated W. McIlvanney’s Docherty, P. U. de Grenoble, 1994.

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