Popular Education Conference
By Steve Izma
The Popular Education Conference had a general characteristic which
was quite refreshing and, in my experience, significantly advanced
from left conferences of the last few years. In a manner more concrete
than I am used to expecting the level of discussion was brought
down to actual examples and practice quite in contrast to the sloganeering
and shallow definition of terms that is typical of most formal intra-left
gatherings. In many of the discussions we found ourselves at a level
of description that demanded a much more precise use of language
than I have come to expect in encounters among left people who have
had no prior common practice.
For example, the term "working class" was nearly inoperative
and was one of the first concepts to be challenged. It was necessary
to talk about specific kinds of workers and their specific kinds
of experiences, exploited situations, and world-views before any
of our talk about strategies became comprehensible. We had to expand
the area of analysis usually occupied by the "working class"
to include other exploited areas of life, like consumption and education.
People felt the necessity to redefine other terms, so often riddled
with assumptions, such as 'consciousness', 'socialism', 'political
organizing', and, of course 'propaganda/popular education'.
Part of the reason why were able to discuss these things so readily
and so fundamentally (although, not fundamentally enough for some
people at the conference) is the common but scattered experiences
we have had over the last few years. Many of us have had to deal
with the sectarian left, either within it or outside of it, and
have been frustrated by its effects on ourselves, fellow left people,
and anyone else in contact with such groups. There is no point in
over-emphasizing this rather negative characteristic which gives
us a basis for unity, but I think that as we have tried to come
to grips with the problem posed by our experience with 'them', we
come to some common conclusions more or less on our own and in isolation
from most other 'independent left' groups.
These problems we discuss in various ways, but with essentially
the same content: the question of a Leninist party; the building
of non-authoritarian organizations; whether or not revolutionary
democratic organizations start now or "after the revolution",
and even, "how the hell can you have a dictatorship of the
Unfortunately, as a few people pointed out in the final plenary,
our critique during the conference of the sectarian groups did not
go beyond rejection of them. Not enough did we venture into the
important area of constructive discussion around these points. I
sense, but maybe I am just optimistic, that these discussions could
lead to a more specific, clearer form of unity among us, at least
in ideas (which is only a start) and perhaps in the development
of some common projects.
But I don't think we should consider success merely in terms of
more 'concrete' links among us as left groups. We must as well realize
that this kind of discussion among people who have been involved
in so many uncoordinated or unconnected situations can be crucial
to developing our abilities to work in our own situations. Hopefully
we will come back from discussions like this not only with a renewed
enthusiasm for our own projects but also with new ideas and new
However, we are confronting problems not only in the nature of the
links among ourselves as independent left groups, but also in the
forms of communication we use for popular education. We can easily
be critical of the simplistic rhetoric used by vanguard groups in
their newspapers, pamphlets and posters, but how critical are we
of our own language in the same media? Do we understand our own
elitism when we use brief words to represent concepts which we ourselves
have taken much work to understand? To what extent do our own words
mystify or even 'dazzle' other people? Such habits are not much
less manipulative than the rhetoric of you-know-who.
Crucial to our understanding of what kinds of language are appropriate
is our notion of what the 'mass media' is all about. Not knowing
or being able to agree about the nature of the group with whom we
are communicating doesn't help us shape a relevant language. But
there are many assumptions uncovered once we look into the area
of mass media with as critical an eye as we have used for discussing
Why are we interested in developing a mass audience or winning away
the audience of the mass media? Helping people see through the misconceptions
and manipulations of the commercial media is a crucial liberating
step. But attempting to do this by substituting ourselves as writers
of mass media is quite another thing. Is there really such a homogenous
group of people as 'the masses?'
I think, rather, that it is more important to challenge people's
concept of themselves as part of such a 'mass'. This is not to de-emphasize
class consciousness, but rather to help people build collective
identities based on what is real and specific. Present concepts
of mass that gloss over regional, cultural, sexual, and other distinctions
and never detail the specific conditions of different workers and
other people end up ignoring or causing people to ignore real needs
and possibilities. This is manipulative rather than liberating.
Therefore, does the size of our 'audience' determine the particular
form of media which we use? How can we communicate with any large
grouping of people without continuing a use of the same form as
the dominant/dominating media, that is, an authoritarian monologue.
Even though we might not intentionally be manipulative through our
dissemination of information, how do we overcome the condition that
has been well established by present educational and mass media
systems whereby information is passively accepted and consumed rather
than actively understood or rejected in terms of one's autonomous
experiences? How can this active learning process take place in
the realm of one-way print media?
This is not an implication that print media be abandoned as a means
of popular education. What it means is that written words need always
be supplemented by interaction of writers with readers. Perhaps
at this point, given the lack of effective periodicals for reaching
beyond the circles of the left, the priorities should be interactions
between the so-called educators and the people -- so that learning
proceeds in both directions and that language and conceptualizations
may be more realistically developed. In this case, writing would
be a supplement to practice.
We generally agree on the ways in which these interactions should
not take place. The elitist intervention of vanguard groups in strikes
and other issues has often been more divisive than unifying. Our
practice will probably be as small groups offering skills and resources
and some exchange of ideas.
The strength of the left in situations like these will be in its
versatility: the ability of the small groups to adapt their resources
to the particular circumstances of each struggle. This is quite
distinct from the sectarian strategies that reduce all struggles
to a particular rhetoric, or emphasize particular areas of activity
to be revolutionary, exclusive of all others.
The fact that the independent left already experiences a great variety
of activity gives us an important basis for this versatile, more
comprehensive practice. As we fully realized at the beginning of
the conference, a serious problem is that these experiences are
largely uncollated -- we don't know enough about what each other
has done. But we need to see this variety as a positive aspect and
not merely as a hindrance because of its fragmented nature.
It should be reassuring to look upon our range of experiences and
see all that we have to draw upon; from workers' struggles in and
out of trade unions, from activities in capitalist owned or state
controlled factories and institutions right through to worker owned,
occupied or controlled workplaces. Among our resources must be counted
many research and educational groups, grant funded or not, because
they can work to provide essential information for workers in industrial
situations who have little extra time for such research.
It is quite likely that further conferences similar to the Popular
Education Conference will be held. But the kinds of direct linkings
that are needed among left people interested in these concepts cannot
wait to be developed within such conferences. Nor should we wait
for directives sent out by any coordinating groups delegated at
Steve Izma lives in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. He is a member
of the Dumont Press Collective.
Published in Volume 1, Number 1 of The
Red Menace, February 1976.
at the Conference - By Ashley Chester.
Two Cents' Worth - Comments
from the Toronto Liberation School Collective.
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