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 proletariat?"
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 strategies.
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 class.
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 such times.
Steve Izma lives in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. He is a member of the Dumont Press Collective.