Horizons of our imaginations: Anarchism and Education


Tom Murray looks at anarchist principles of education and argues that autonomous, co-operative learning is central to our finding new ways of challenging authority and dis- covering freer, more equal ways of being in the world.

In their own words, the Free Skool at Santa Cruz, California is ‘a completely grassroots effort, a collection of folks who decided to act collectively and autonomously to create a skill-sharing network’.[1] Groups meet regularly to learn about hacktivism, bike maintenance, arts and crafts, singing, local his- tory and philosophy among other things. Underpinning these activities is Smokey’s message (opposite) of self-reliance: ‘only you can prevent an empty calendar’. Simply by their existence, free skool initiatives like these raise important questions about who controls what you learn as well as how we might collectively organise or institutionalise cooperative learning. Education is always conditioned by the kind of society in which it takes place, invariably to produce the men and women it needs. In capitalist societies, learning to be productive and toe the line, whether through schooling or the wider experience of everyday life, has far-reaching and deeply rooted implications, particularly for popular understandings of what is possible politically.

Anarchists have not just opposed educational forms associated with compulsion but have created humane and reasonable alternatives in doing so. In this article, I want to map some of the early critiques and ideals of education that have emerged from the ever flowing river of anarchism, partly out of curiosity and partly to suggest their ongoing relevance today. I am going to argue that the impulse to defy authority is bound up with an individual’s intrinsic motivations, the kind that cannot be generated for someone on their behalf, and that these instincts for revolt are best discovered and nurtured through a culture and practice of mutual aid.

Learning to Toe the Line
Historically, Church, State and Capital have all used people’s formal and informal educational systems to propagate authoritarian morality, coercive discipline and mechanical work, with varying degrees of intensity and success. The specifics of these familiar despotisms need not detain us. Generally characterised by a hierarchical division of labour, these institutions’ enforced emphases on unintelligible jargon, discipline, morality and marketable skills come at the expense of independent reasoning, emotions, creativity or wider sensibilities. ‘Instruction’ smothers the horizon of our imaginations. It is through the school, Paul Goodman observed, that people learn that ‘life is inevitably routine, depersonalized, venally graded; that it is best to toe the mark and shut up; that there is no place for spontaneity, open sexuality and free spirit’.[2]

Beyond the school, of far greater importance to our education is the far greater realm of everyday life. [3] It is here that we really learn, consciously or unconsciously, through our experiences, notably of family in the private sphere or of civil society associations in the public. Here too is the terrain where collective learning for revolutionary organisation and social transformation must take place. Yet how busy people’s lives are, perhaps too crowded for them to engage in the labour of collective self-organisation? Work and family commitments matter here. So too does living in a relatively affluent, consumer society where a great many needs can be met through the market and where the motivation for collective action presents itself less frequently.[4] Finally, with mass media dominated by private corporations and the state, ‘the political’ is invariably defined by their interests and understood more generally in fairly remote or unchangeable terms. In these ideological, material and behavioural circumstances, popular capacities for collective action tend to be displaced by a grim fatalism towards existing conditions. Politics becomes like the weather: something we tend to talk about a lot but can do little about personally.

Unsurprisingly, authoritarian educational practices and pathologies of this sort tend to resurface, consciously or unconsciously, among groups or organisations claiming to challenge exploitation and oppression. I find Leo Tolstoy’s argument convincing here: reversions to compulsion in education occur either through haste or insufficient respect for the other. Speaking with leftists-who-know, to take a well-worn example, often resembles conversations with religious evangelicals, eager for converts to a fixed canon of beliefs.[5] To varying degrees, conversations are based less on listening than on waiting for the other to stop speaking so as to assert one’s identity as a believer and testify to the true doctrine. Organisations that promote class analyses like leftist answering-machines invariably isolate themselves, partly because reasonable people tend to dislike obedience and partly because revolutionary
analyses will struggle to establish ideological hegemony on the terrain of everyday, capitalist-consumerist life. So what’s the alternative?

Anarchist Visions of Education
Anarchists try to “teach” people as little as possible. In general, the golden rule is that successful learning flows from intrinsic motivations and natural talents. The anarchist vision of education thus begins and ends with trusting in the individual’s capacities not just to think for herself but to relate to others as equals and develop a social consciousness.[6] William Godwin, the 18th century anarchist thinker, argued that the ultimate aim of education was happiness. Godwin strongly identified this with forming a critical, independent mind. Emma Goldman developed this idea more explicitly. The goal of education, she claimed, was for the individual to develop through ‘the free play of characteristic traits’ and, in so doing, to discover herself as ‘a social being’. Similarly, for Herbert Read, this goal of ‘individuation of the self’ required that the individual’s sense of uniqueness was informed by a social consciousness (and vice versa).[7] Both Goldman and Read recognised the neglected role of the emotions and emphasised how important it was to encourage the individual’s self-confidence, primarily in order to overcome residual fears of using natural talents.

On the question of means to achieve these ends, Tolstoy makes a useful distinction, this time between ‘education’ and ‘culture’. ‘Education’ he defines as essentially coercive. Everything that does not spring organically from your will to educate yourself is an imposition of some sort by an external body, disassociated from your real needs and aspirations. In practical terms, compulsion, whether through haste or insufficient respect, not only retards would-be students’ ability to learn but also their desire to do so. Conversely, Tolstoy argues that ‘without compulsion, education is transformed into culture’, associated with a more lively will to self-educate. Beyond terminology, what is important here is the precise observation that success in developing anarchist ideas and practices will ultimately depend on the individual’s intrinsic motivation to learn and on the existence of conditions of trust and mutual aid where guidance can be offered if requested. Hence, to paraphrase Godwin, the anarchist as educator can excite curiosity, warn, inform, even instruct - but never inculcate. In practice, developing conditions of trust and mutual aid is a very time-consuming process, rooted in regular contact, dialogue and co-operation as well as example - which Goldman described as ‘the actual living of a truth once recognised’.

Unsurprisingly, anarchist forms of education do not have a checklist of operations or easy ‘how to’ guides. Instead, I think they begin to resemble Japanese martial arts where participants are instructed in a kata or ‘way of doing’ - only free of charge and without authority figures (hopefully). Here, regular, systematic practice is aimed not at transmitting rigid techniques but developing natural reflexes, principles of movement capable of infinite adaptation to one’s self and circumstances. Three principles of development seem to recur throughout and may be consiered fundamental. The first of these Colin Ward has described as ‘believing in your own experiences’, or starting from your needs, experiences and aspirations for life and discussing how anarchism relates to and emerges from those. Obedience to authority, often contingent on the threat or practice of coercion, also tends to get smuggled into our everyday lives almost unconsciously, occurring at a level resistant to articulation. Naming the world – attempting to choose consciously how we think about and relate to it – is central to developing a critical understanding of it.[8] Doing so in dialogue with others is central to developing capacities for independent thought.

Hence, the second principle is listening. The general attitude – ‘nothing you say surprises me’ – stems from a culture that tends to value having strong opinions and winning arguments, typically associated with patriarchy and patron-client relations whereby powerful men (e.g. politicians, bishops, economists) are accustomed to passive and respectful audiences. Contemporary capitalist society fosters these tendencies.[9] Anarchists thus have to take seriously the creation of conditions for thoughtfulness, fostering collective listening, attentiveness and dialogue in civil society. Horizontal dialogues constitute the slow, molecular transformations necessary to develop co-operative practices and, ultimately, confidence in both individual and collective effort. The third principle is ‘example’ or ‘learning by doing’. Anarchists have traditionally disliked abstract scholasticism, a product of the division of labour into manual and mental work. So, in the present instance, we cannot simply learn these ‘ways of doing’ by reading about them. Ultimately, that which we must learn to do, we learn by doing.

The Politics of Education: Then and Now
True to this last principle, anarchists’ visions of education did not stem from the library alone but rather emerged from a much broader, popular contestation of both church and nation-state systems of education. Conventionally, opposition to compulsory education has been interpreted as evidence of working class parents’ unwillingness to lose the extra wages provided by their children. Recently, however, social historians in Britain have shown that working-class neighbourhoods overwhelmingly preferred community-owned schools to charitable, religious or state schools. These schools used individual as opposed to authoritarian teaching methods, wasted no time on religious studies or moral uplift and successfully conveyed useful skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic.[10]

More directly, anarchists across geographies and generations developed co-operative educational principles in the course of setting up and vigorously defending experimental schools of their own. Today’s free skools have distinguished predecessors, including the Free School movements in the United Kingdom and the United States as well as the ateneos or cultural centres of pre-Civil War Spain. In particular, Francesco Ferrer, founder of the ‘modern schools’
in Spain, inspired the advance of secular education more widely. The effects of these patient revolutionaries have been profound. Ward attributes to them a quiet revolution in the classroom insofar as their example undermined some of the worst authoritarian practices in the state schooling system, notably corporal punishment.[11] We can and should take heart from these early, ongoing and sometimes un-seen successes as we face into contemporary battles over education.

The latest crisis of capitalism, occasioning greater pressures towards making our societies less democratic and less equal, is reshaping formal education systems the world over. Public education is under attack as new measures are introduced to bolster discipline, including tuition increases, managerialism and corporatisation.[12] In response, student protests have been held in Britain, Canada, Chile, Tai- wan and elsewhere. In Ireland, where similar pressures are readily apparent, there appear to be two key clusters of opposition. The first centres on those fighting to make more democratic and more equal the existing educational system, encompassing students’ unions as well as more radical groups such as F.E.E. (Free Education for Everyone) explicitly opposed to neoliberalism. The second involves the example of autonomous or popular educational forms provided by such diverse groups as Seomra Spraoi (Dublin’s premier social space), community-based People’s History Projects or even the WSM’s annual Anarchist Bookfair.

More generally, experience of recent struggles has demonstrated the enduring need to challenge ‘capitalist realism’, the pervasive ideological hegemony of the capitalist class, and the apparent necessity of austerity. (For what is austerity if not a ruling class ‘blaming its victims’ for their own excesses?)[13] If we want to challenge those ideas and the practices they justify, then we have to pay attention to popular education. Anarchist principles have an important role to play here. The horizontalist squares of late 2011 indicated the potential of assemblies as sites for autonomous learning, a potential that often fell victim to state hostility, resource constraints and sectarianism among other things.[14]

More recently, the success of Quebec’s ‘Red Square’ student movement suggests a new and possibly better synthesis of the two oppositional forms mentioned above: ‘occupy’-ing a single issue. Here, reglar, popular assemblies were an important means of mobilising, learning and confidence-building among students challenging university tuition hikes.[15] The consequences of their example for wider social struggles may yet prove enduring. As one banner in Chile’s earlier wave of student protests proudly declared: ‘Those who fight to learn soon learn to fight’.

[1] http://santacruz.freeskool.org/
[2] education and The Community of Scholars, Mis- p. 23. Paul Goodman, (1962) Compulsory
[3] See generally Paul Politics of Everyday Life, an of the practical barriers to mobilising politically in contemporary societies.
[4] Wolfgang Streeck, (2012) ‘Citizens as Consumers: Considerations on the New Politics 76, pp. of Consumption’ in New 27-47. Left Review,
[5] The doctrine sounds something like: sacrifice and obedience to the party (faith and good works) in the here and now to promote working class revolution (divine judgment and vengeance) with the promise of salvation in communist society (afterlife).
[6] Unless otherwise stated quotes are from Peter Marshall’s (2008) History of Anarchism. Demanding the Impossible: A
[8] See Paulo Oppressed. Freire (1968) Pedagogy of the Ginsborg (2005) The excellent summary Politics of Everyday
[10] Philip Gardner (1984) The Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian Britain.
[11] Colin Ward, (2004) ‘Freedom in Education’
[9] Ginsborg Life, pp. 139-145. (2005) The in Introduction
[12] Noam Indoctrinated to Obey’. Available at: http://www. alternet.org/story/154849/chomsky%3A_how_the_ young_are_indoctrinated_to_obey?paging=off
[13] Mark Fisher (2009) Capitalist Realism. David Graeber, ‘There’s no need for all this economic sadomasochism’ in The Guardian, 21.04.2013.
[14] On the Irish experience of Occupy as a popular educational form, see Cathal Larkin, (2012), to Anarchism, pp. 73-4. Chomsky (2012) ‘How the Young are ‘Unveiling Capitalism at Occupy’ in Irish Review: 6.
[15] The WSM is currently organising a speaking tour in Ireland’s universities of Vanessa Vela, a CLASSE delegate and feminist organiser during the mass student strike in Quebec. For background to the student strike, see http://www.studentstrike.net


This article is from Irish Anarchist Review no 8 Autumn 2013