Our two cents' worth...

Assessment by Toronto Liberation School Collective on the Popular Education Conference held in Toronto over the weekend of October 3-5, 1975.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on January 12, 2011

The Popular Education Conference raised more problems for us than it provided solutions. We consider that a mark of success, a step beyond the attitude, all too common on the left, that we have all the answers. When it comes down to it, we don't even know a lot of the questions.

The conference was a success to the extent that it posed problems, impelled people to evaluate their theories and their experiences, stimulated processes of critical and self-critical thinking.

At the same time, raising questions is not the be-all and the end-all of political activity. By itself, this can leave us wrapped in confused frustration, and indeed there were those at the conference whose experience was exactly that. One reason for this was that the conference itself was a poor example of problem-posing education. Despite all of our rhetoric about the need for new forms of political education, the conference was organized along rather traditional lines, although some attempts were made to develop a more participatory and reflective approach. (Perhaps we should consider the possibility that conferences are simply not suitable vehicles for the kind of collective self-education we are trying to develop.)

However, most of the problems of the conference had to do with the assumptions, experiences, and expectations of the people attending it and planning it. The original impetus came from a fairly wide-spread feeling on the independent left in Toronto that we were spending too much time talking to ourselves. How could we "reach" the working class? The answer, which was of course really no answer at all, was that we had to do "popular education". But how? What is popular education? How do you do it? None of us had answers that were very satisfactory.

Yet, there are after all many independent left groups and individuals engaged in a variety of different activities. It was hoped that bringing them together at a conference would result in a pooling of experiences and ideas.

The planning process for the conference took longer than anyone had initially expected. The problem was not with the technical details, but with political content and forms. To devise an agenda, arrange speakers, decide on topics, set up a balance between plenaries, workshops, displays, etc. meant making a series of political decisions, decisions about popular education as it was to occur at the conference and how it was to be presented at the conference. In effect, the planning committee had to develop a basic analysis of popular education before it could even set up a conference on the subject. With hindsight, it is easy to say that we were not terribly successful in working out a positive vision of what could and should happen.

But the shortcomings of the planning process cannot be attributed primarily to the planning committee, which in its politics and affiliations was fairly representative of the independent left in Toronto. The lack of political clarity among the planners of the conference, which is undeniable, was largely an expression of the political level of the left of which they are a part.

One thing that the conference served to emphasize was the fact that the independent left is not a homogenous whole. Yet it is frequently assumed, at least implicitly, that it is. But really the main thing that seems to bind it together, in addition to its general adherence to socialism (usually left undefined) is a rejection of the sectarian left. This rejection is more often than not not accompanied by any clear analysis of just what is being, rejected and why, or of what the alternatives are. Perhaps that is because the sectarian left is so obviously off base. It seems unnecessary to analyze its politics in a detailed way. But such an automatic rejection can have undesirable consequences. For one thing, it can lead to a tendency to reject large parts of the revolutionary socialist heritage simply because the sectarian left has loudly laid claim to it. This can cut us off from fruitful historical and theoretical lessons. On the other hand, a failure to analyze why the sectarian left is off base, why it is irrelevant, can and often does lead large sections of the independent left to continue accepting the basic assumptions and methods of sectarian leftism, even while rejecting its specific politics. The rejection is superficial, not based on a serious analysis of the root errors involved. For example, there are independent leftists who reject the various leninist parties that currently exist, but continue to accept various leninist formulae, like the need for a vanguard party, the transmission-belt theory of consciousness, the equation of education with propaganda, etc. Some of the specifics have been rejected, but the underlying assumptions remain. As long as there basic assumptions have not been rigorously dissected and examined, and either consciously rejected or consciously adopted, it is very difficult to construct a new politics that has a positive theoretical and practical basis.

This was a problem that was apparent at the conference. Beneath an assumed common purpose there lay an astounding hodge-podge of political conceptions that were rarely articulated, seldom discussed, and often not even thought out by those who held them. This in turn accounted for the fairly frequent and frustrating inability to find a common basis for dialogue. People were on different wave-lengths.

Yet this point should not be over-stated. Many people have worked out their politics in some detail, and many more have at least a gut-level under-standing of what constitutes good politics. Under different circumstances, this would have been enough to stimulate more solid political discussion than actually took place..

One problem was the rather passive, consumerist attitude of many of the people who came to the conference. People sat back, waiting to be educated. This again seemed to be at least partially due the format: there was far more discussion in informal get-togethers than there was at any of the plenaries that were supposed to "draw it all together". Of course, these informal discussions were part of the conference, but it is unfortunate that this process and its results could not have been generalized more. The fact that it wasn't stands as a challenge to our conceptions of popular education.

A cliched but important idea about the conference was that it had to be a moment in a process of political development. That it was, although the process proved to be less advanced than some of us had hoped. But the important thing now is that this process continue, that the questions raised there be pursued and discussed and re-defined and answered. Certainly the most encouraging result of the conference has been the amount of ongoing evaluation and discussion that it has provoked.

To reiterate some of the concerns that emerged:

What is the relationship between socialist groups and mass organizations at this time? What can it be?

The relationship between organizers and educators. Are they separate? Does this distinction imply political choices?

What is the relationship between solidarity work and organizing against capitalism in Canada?

What is the effect of mass culture on consciousness?

How can we integrate our theory and practice, to overcome the tendency for them to develop in isolation?

What can we do to assist the political unification of the independent left?

These are questions we all have to consider, carefully, thoroughly, and soon.

The Toronto Liberation School Collective

Published in Volume 1, Number 1 of The Red Menace, February 1976.
Taken from web-archived version of The Red Menace website.