The Internationals’ schools

6 August, 2021

School of the SPD in 1906. Standing teachers, among them Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Bebel and Mehring.
School of the SPD in 1906. Standing teachers, among them Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Bebel and Mehring.

Looking at the schools and formative and educational developments of the social democratic parties before the First World Imperialist War and of the communists afterwards allows us to understand what the Internationals really were and how the “Conscious Proletariat” organized itself.

Table of Contents

A half-hidden story

Most of the literature available today on the People’s Houses and militant training schools, such as the German Social Democrat’s Reichsparteischule, has been published by foundations such as the Ebert one or the Pablo Iglesias one, dependent on the large institutional parties which keep calling themselves socialist. The common element of these texts is to make invisible the deep rupture that the war and the world Revolution break that implied at all levels and in all countries.

Thus, they depict a non-existent continuity between the original approach of the cultural and formative institutions of the network of worker democracy of the Second International and what then followed under the control of some trade unions and parties that by their support for imperialist war had proved to be historically and politically dead for the workers.

The political education of the SPD’s organizational apparatus

SPD schools in 1906. At the lectern Mehring, to his left Rosa Luxemburg.
SPD school in 1906. At the lectern Mehring, to his left Rosa Luxemburg.

During the SPD Congress in Gotha in 1876, where the party finally clarified its program after the merger with the Lassalleans, the proposal to “found a socialist university” had already been put forward. Bebel opposed it. Not on principle, but for lack of funds to provide it with a sufficient structure without endangering the general work of agitation.

Bebel himself will end up pushing for the founding of the Party school in 1906. It will be the reaction of the group of the founders (Liebknecht, Mehring, himself) in the face of the rise of the reformist wing. Half of the teachers will be chosen from the left wing, among them Rosa Luxemburg, who will deliver her famous Introductory Course in Political Economy, Mehring and Pannekoek, but will also include Hilferding, then head of revisionism in the party.

But proportions matter as much as commitment in understanding the why and how of Bebel’s change of position. In 1906 the SPD already had 384,227 members, which grew to 1,085,805 in 1914, when the vote in favor of war credits by the parliamentary group destroyed the International and in the process killed the school. And yet, during those eight years, only 203 students attended.

The catch is that the party paid not only the teachers, but also the expenses and upkeep of the students. Otherwise it would have been impossible for class militants, who were overwhelmingly workers and employees, most of them with dependent families, to take part in a program that demanded full dedication. For the party, but also for the unions and cooperatives that financed the costs, it was a considerable effort.

That is why they were not supposed to return to their jobs after finishing, but rather they were supposed to work full time in the structures of the party, the trade unions, the cooperatives and the workers’ cultural organizations.

Therefore, the syllabus included a good amount of hours and content on legal studies and management of trade unions and cooperatives, and not just the practice of Marxist critique, historical debate, verbal expression and text writing.

This is the same approach that the Third International would later take: political education and party schools will be understood as a way of confronting the reformist and accommodating tendencies of the organizational apparatuses of trade unions, cooperatives and sector-based organizations… while equipping the internationals with cadres trained for the management of daily tasks.

Militant training and “Cultural diffusion” go hand in hand

Graduates of the Socialist Schools at the inauguration of the Maison de l'Éducation , Brussels, December 21, 1913
Graduates of the Socialist Schools at the inauguration of the Maison de l’Éducation , Brussels, December 21, 1913

But the training of replacements for the organizational apparatus was only the tip of the iceberg of a much broader effort. Not only the SPD but virtually all the parties of the International from its inception made a remarkable effort of cultural outreach to their rank and file.

For instance, the Belgian POB organized permanent courses since 1895 among its militants to teach them how to defend arguments, structure ideas and texts, and debate in public. The objective was to turn every militant into a propagandist. In 1908 these courses were institutionalized at the local level in the “Socialist Schools”, financed by the growing number of cooperatives and socialist collectivities (a name which at the time distinguished worker cooperatives from consumer cooperatives). In turn, the Schools were centralized in 1911 into the “Centrale d’Éducation Ouvrière”.

In Switzerland, the PSS and its trade union central (ISS) create in 1912 the “National Commission for Workers’ Education”, a similar centralizing effort whose aim is, first and foremost, to politically arm the organized proletariat.

In Spain, the effort of García Quejido aimed at creating “cooperative agglomerations” and People’ Houses was bearing fruit: in 1907, thanks to the surpluses generated by 72 collectivities and workers’ cooperatives, 315,000 pesetas were collected in order to build the People’s House in Madrid.

One of the first regular activities it hosted was the “Escuela de Tipógrafos” (Typographers’ School), a workers’ school initiated by the “Arte de Imprimir” (Art of Printing) at the request of García Quejido himself -who had also been one of its founders- who began to teach classes in 1904.

In the first course, Grammar -which includes Syntax- was studied, Spelling exercises were carried out and students learned how to read manuscripts. In the second course, Grammar, i.e. the correct and comprehensible structuring of texts, is insisted on, combined with practices in the socialist presses. In the third course, in addition to the rules for proofreading, notions of Greek and Latin are taught, as well as the rudiments of Anglo-Saxon languages.

Born out of a workers’ society which had originally operated cooperative workshops of its own, the School’s program is highly significant because, although with an obvious orientation towards typesetting in print, its focus is not really professional but reflects the ideal of the “cultivated worker” propagated by the “conscious proletariat” organizing within the PSOE… while creating the basis for new collectivities which it promoted in order to maintain its independence from the state and employers.

The education of the workers and the “socialist” parties after the war

Holiday "Resting House" of the POB and the Belgian trade unions in Oost.
Holiday “Resting House” of the POB and the Belgian trade unions in Oost.

What happened during and after the World War is no secret. In Germany those left within the SPD after the breakup govern the new Republic. The once reformists became the spearhead of the counter-revolution. In Belgium they also form part of the government. In Spain the PSOE will place Largo Caballero -then General Secretary of the UGT trade union- as State Councilor during Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship.

Trade unions and the socialist parties became integrated into the state as a fundamental pillar of the state capitalism under which the bourgeoisie is reorganizing itself in the face of the crisis and the revolutionary upsurge. In this new stage, the state mutualizes a good part of the general costs of exploitation of the labor force: “social coverage” and Social Security appear, state education for children and the first rudiments of a health system are developed. The socialists will be in charge of selling it as “conquests” and part of a new “Social State”.

What about the formative and educational framework which remained in the hands of these parties? They became “Popular Education” then “Continuing Education” and literally became integrated into the state under the latter name.

In Belgium, with the appearance of paid vacations, these “mixed organs” of trade unionists and state bureaucracy will also become the “supervisors of workers’ leisure” and organizers of children’s and holiday camps. The state, which had taken “vocational training” into its own hands, will also put them in charge of the new “continuing education.”

In Switzerland the “National Commission for Workers’ Education” became in 1926 the “Swiss Central Workers’ Education Center” (CEO) and remained under exclusively trade union management until 1932 when the professionalization of management signals its transformation into a para-state organization already living on public subsidies.

In Spain, the School of Typographers began to receive state funds with the Dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. In 1931 the “Escuela de aprendices metalúrgicos”, founded by the metalworkers’ union in 1919, will also receive state funding. The main claim of the PSOE since the dictatorship will be to obtain their homologation as official state centers.

The continuity in the 3rd International and the Communist Left which would end up founding the 4th International

The meeting room of the Spanish Communist Left’s (ICE’s) People's House in Llerena is today a pub with live music
The meeting room of the Spanish Communist Left’s (ICE’s) People’s House in Llerena is today a pub with live music

Since Marx’s criticism of the Gotha program, workers contested state-led schooling and training. This was not a rhetorical matter. It was central to their assertion as a class, just as control of school and training had been and remains central to assertion of the bourgeoisie.

It is perfectly understandable that the official historiography today, the one produced by the foundations of the PSOE, the SPD and other parties of the PSE, directly erase from the record the educational work of the Third International first and, after 1931, of the foci of its left, which was to found the Fourth. But if we want to understand what the Internationals really were and draw political lessons from them, we cannot take their rigged story at face value.