A Pioneer in Workers’ Education:
Mark Starr and Workers' Education in
Great Britain

Ronda Hauben

Sadly, Mark Starr died on April 24, 1985, just three days before his 91st birthday. He had the remarkable experience of playing a significant role in the workers' education movements of both Great Britain and the United States over a period of more than seventy years—1915 to 1985. Following is a summary of an interview I held with Mark Starr in August, 1984.

Mark began our interview by encouraging me to continue in the work I had been doing writing short biographical articles on some of the local figures in the American Trade Union Movement. "I want to encourage you in your efforts to celebrate the local heroes," he told me and said it was good I had been persistent in efforts to correspond with him.

During this interview, I asked him to focus on his experiences in the British Labour Movement on the years he had spent in England before coming to the U.S. and joining, first Brookwood Labor College and then, the Education Department of the I.L.G.W.U., both pioneer U.S. efforts in Labour Education.

He agreed. He proceeded to establish the setting for me, describing the conditions in Great Britain at the turn of the century when he first became active in the labour movement. Before the coming of the Labour Party in England, he explained, there were several different socialist propaganda groups. There was the Independent Labour Party (I.L.P.), where names like James Ramsay MacDonald, Margaret Bonfield and Keir Hardie were cherished. Other groups existing at the time included the Social Democratic Federation, which Mark felt dogmatically advocated the Marxist doctrine and the class struggle. And he described the Fabian Society, which he characterized as. advocates of change "bit by bit" or as purveyors of "the inevitability of gradualness." As the nineteenth century petered out, Mark noted, there was a spurt in the growth of trade unions. And active within the trade unions were a diversity of rebel groups, each with its own guru. At first Labour candidates ran as Lib-Lab candidates in alliance with the Liberal Party.

The Labour part of the Lib-lab electoral ticket was made up of members from what was called the Labour Representation Committees. Eventually members from the Labour Representation Committees and members from various Socialist groupings of the period formed the British Labour Party.

It was presumed, Mark explained, that workers in Great Britain were ripe for some change. In this setting, the Labour Party in Great Britain came out very quickly. It soon became the opposition party and the Liberal Party faded from the scene.

After setting the stage, Mark went on to give a few details from his early life, to demonstrate how he personally got involved in the workers' education movement. "I was a wise acre, I left school at 13. . . went to work in the building industry and went underground (into the mines) at 14." [1] He explained how Somerset, England, where he grew up had a coalfield. When he went to work in the mines, he worked at night carrying powder to miners who were blasting a roadway underground. Soon he was promoted to work as a carting boy. The carting boy, Mark explained, was used in the coal mines to go where one couldn't send horses. With a chain around his neck, he pulled a sled, or a wagon (often drenched in water), and so forth.

"The harness they gave to young fellows made me a socialist," Mark said, describing why he joined the Independent Labour Party of Keir Hardie at a young age. He saw the difference between what was said about the capitalist system and the actual practice—the brutality of exploitation.

Following a brother who had gone to look for work in the South Wales coalfields, he left Somerset. He found a job in the Rhondda District and became active on the shop committee of the coal mine where he worked. This was 1914-15 and Mark heard about a scholarship provided by the South Wales Miners' Federation (the miners' union of South Wales). Mark entered the competition by writing an essay on the Osborne Judgement, a ruling handed down by the courts in 1908 to forbid unions from raising political funds from members. On the basis of his essay and his good record on the pit committee of his mine, the Rhondda No. 1 District of the South Wales Miners' Federation awarded him a scholarship. He was to go to study at the Central Labour college in London for a year or two. The Central Labour College, formed in 1909, grew out of a struggle worker-students waged against Ruskin College of Oxford University. The college was to be controlled by Labour to provide Labour with knowledge for effective political and economic struggle.

Once in London, Mark found life at the Central Labour College very stimulating. There were classes in English and public speaking. In philosophy, students studied the works of Joseph Dietzgen, a working class philosopher. There were classes in Karl Marx's economics. "I studied Capital," Mark recounted.

Responding to a question about the content of Labour College classes, Mark described the economics class. "We had papers to write," he commented, "we were very much textbook ridden." The instructor, he went on "would summarize the chapter, raise certain problems and difficulties and ask for questions. He'd give us problems to answer." One paper that Mark still remembered was the assignment to write an explanation of how foreign exchange worked. Why the dollar would be quoted thus? When students were confronted with a difficult problem, they debated their views with each other. Often, Mark explained, "they argued all night." At the Central Labour College, William Craik, a former railroad worker, was the history teacher. Craik, Mark explained, knew enough German to read the works of Karl Kautsky in German and to transmit what he read to students in his lectures (from works of Kautsky's like Sir Thomas More and History of Christianity.) Mark also told how Dennis Hird, the Principal of the Labour College, continued the work of Thomas Huxley, by popularizing the evolutionary views of Charles Darwin.

While in London, Mark went to the theatre for the first time. He began to write reviews of the plays he saw and sent the reviews back to be published in the Merthyr Pioneer, a newspaper in South Wales.

As part of his studies at the Central Labour College, Mark used to go out to teach on Sunday afternoon in a suburb of London, Walthamstow. "If you want to learn anything," he and Helen [2] recommended, "you only have to try to teach it to someone." Mark put together his notes from teaching his Sunday history class into a pamphlet called "A Worker Looks at History." Mark felt that the pamphlet was really intended as an introduction to history, and that "it should have been called a Worker Squints at History." He explained that he had never done original research, but rather saw himself as a popularizer. "A person who popularizes," he noted, "has a very legitimate function." His writings, having grown out of his teaching, and been tried out on a series of classes, always benefitted from the thinking of his students. Mark told how his pamphlet, "A Worker Looks at History" has been very widely used, both in England and around the world. He noted that a correspondence grew up around its use in Australia. It was one of the books that appeared for years on the publication list of the Plebs League, spreading from London, to Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales, to Liverpool, Cardiff, etc.

Mark went on to describe how his year at the Labour College was interrupted by the Conscription Act. As a conscientious objector, he appeared before the judges and talked about historical materialism. [3] He was sentenced to one year at Wormwood Scrubs, a British prison. When he arrived at the prison to begin his sentence, he was asked by the receiving agent to state his occupation. He answered that he was a miner. Upon hearing his name was Mark Starr, the jailer remarked, "I've seen your name." The prison official, having noticed Mark's name on a book in another prisoner's pocket, insisted, "You're not a miner, you're a writer." Mark admitted that it was the "peak of fame to be recognized as a writer at Wormwood Scrubs." And this gave him the option of doing civilian work outside of the prison during his year's confinement.

When Mark finished his term at Wormwood Scrubs, he briefly returned to the Central Labour College. Then he went back to work in the coal mines of South Wales and became active as a teacher for the Plebs League. At this time, there were two rival groups doing Workers' Education in South Wales—the Workers' Education Association (WEA), which existed, as Mark explained, "on capitalist subsidy", i.e. with government funding, and the Plebs League which drew its financial support from the unions. "We maintained," said Mark, "that the government wouldn't subsidize working class education. The thesis," he went on, "internationally of workers' education, was how can you trust . . . the capitalist state to subsidize its own downfall. True independence (in workers' education) means that the workers' education movement must finance itself." After he returned to South Wales, Mark Starr took up education work in the Aberdare Miners' district. On Sundays, he used to walk over a mountain to go to teach a class of workers in Merthyr. The young miners who came to classes were often part of the rebel groups in the miners' unions, Mark remembered. Many had substantial personal libraries of Charles Kerr publications (Kerr was a socialist publishing house in Chicago, Illinois.) Describing an example of how classes were conducted, Mark related an incident when James Maxton, a socialist, came to visit South Wales from Glasgow, Scotland. "I was discussing the materialist conception of history," Mark explained. The question raised was about the universalness of Marx's conception of history. "Wouldn't there be situations where the presence of some big factor of development would influence history? Couldn't individuals speed up or slow down historical progress? Wouldn't the great man theory operate on certain occasions.? The question stimulated considerable differences of opinion among the students, Mark related. Commenting on methods of teaching used by the teachers in the Plebs, Mark explained, "Nothing new was done in methods of teaching. I made my spiel, then there were questions and discussions," all in a friendly atmosphere.

Mark went on to describe the 1926 General Strike by the Labour Movement in Great Britain. "Orthodox labour leaders played a role," he acknowledged, "but it was as (Arthur Greenwood said it) lions led by asses." Mark described his life in the N.C.L.C. (National Council of Labour Colleges) during the period as "very hectic." He would start out at 8 a.m. in the morning from London to drive to Norwich to teach a class in labour history. Then he would go to Ipswich to lead a study group. In the evening, he would travel to Felixstowe to teach three classes. The next day he would have an engagement to teach at Colchester. That night, he would be due at Braintree. He would teach a class and then have to travel home. He was slated to teach three classes in the Eastern counties of England, and on Sunday, five classes.

Along with this vigorous teaching schedule, during the General Strike, he carried copy to Manchester for the official trade union newspaper which the TUC (Trade Union Congress) issued in London during the strike on a daily basis. "The General Strike," explained Mark, "sharpened the loyalty of the workers" to their movement.

The miners went back to work defeated. Yet, despite the loss, Mark recalled an incident that occurred when he went to speak to a bunch of workers in his home town. The police listened, but didn't interfere. They knew that the workers wouldn't put up with any interference with their right of free speech and assembly.

Following the failure of the General Strike, Mark said, "the South Wales Miners' Federation had little money to give to anybody. Their subsidy, along with that of the Railway Workers' Union, had been responsible for sustaining the Central Labour College in London. With the loss of that subsidy, the Central Labour College was forced to close its doors. "But thru all this, the Plebs Magazine" Mark observed, "lasted longer than any other (labour) journal in the history of Britain." Mark felt the journal of the Plebs League should have been preserved in some unofficial form, rather than being allowed to die.

In response to a question about the relationship of the Labour Party and the Plebs League. Mark replied, "the Plebs League was made up of volunteer enthusiasts who persuaded the unions to accept schemes of education with the National Council of Labour Colleges (N.C.L.C.). The Welsh Miners' Union (the South Wales Miners' Federation) was persuaded to contribute five cents per member for the whole membership. Holding correspondence classes, the Plebs remained primarily a group concerned with workers' education and not related to the Labour Party. The Labour Party in Great Britain grew during this period, but often in places that had never heard of the Plebs." "There was a strong orthodox Marxist section in the N.C.L.C. (Plebs)," Mark explained. Students going to the Labour College classes wouldn't go to the Labour Party meetings. The Plebs students wanted the Labour Party to be more militant. The Labour Party was based on ethical socialism. Keir Hardie, its leader, was never a Marxist.

The Plebs, Mark explained, did what it could to help the Labour Party candidates, but the theory of the inevitability of gradualness of the Webbs and other Fabians, grew to be the dominant ideology of the Labour Party.

In summing up the period, Mark recounted, "the general verdict in England during the 1880's and 1890's was that England was on the move, the capitalist system was faltering. Apart from Utopian ideas like those of Robert Owen, in each village, wherever there was latent leadership, study groups developed like the S.D.F. (Social Democratic Federation), etc. Those socialist groups began to organize and agitate for a Labour Party. Those groups organized to win recognition." He went on to explain that a Labour-Liberal Coalition called the Lib-Labs was formed. By 1893 the Independent Labour Party emerged, with a Socialist tinge. With crises continuing, the labour unions grew and hence a Labour Party formed eventually.

Commenting on the current state of the labour movement in England and the United States, Mark observed that the unions have become racked up with administrative activity. He felt people need something more than just hard facts to make the union; they need enthusiasm. The lesson from his life's experiences, he advised, was that it was important to be within the union movement, even when it seemed to be losing.

FOOTNOTES

1.   In a speech Mark gave when he retired in 1960 called "An Adventure in Education" he explains the economic conditions of his early years: "My father never went to school and started work at seven scaring crows in the wheat field. I was lucky to stay at school until 13." [—> main text]

2.   Helen Norton Starr, Mark's wife participated in the interview. She is a noted labour educator in her own right. [—> main text]

3.   In his pamphlet "A Worker Looks at History", Mark Starr offers this definition of historical materialism. "This theory of history shows that the change which precedes all changes in the superstructure of society, in politics, morals, laws, religion, etc., is a change in the economic foundation of society, the means and methods of wealth production and distribution." (p.5-6). [—> main text]



LLAFUR IV, 2 (1985)

ORAL HISTORY

MARK STARR, 1894-1985

The following interviews were conducted independently in New York; the first is a transcription by Martin Lawn of an interview in 1983 and the other a verbating [sic] account of Ronda Hauben's meeting with Mark Starr in 1984. [p. 91]

SOURCE: Hauben, Ronda. "A Pioneer in Workers' Education: Mark Starr and Workers' Education in Great Britain", Llafur, IV, 2, 1985, pp. 96-100, 102.

"Mark Starr: Socialist Educator": Interview with Martin Lawn

Mark Starr (1894-1985): Workers' Educationist

"Organized Labor and the Dewey Philosophy" by Mark Starr

"La Filozofio de Jozefo Ditsgen" de Mark Starr

Usona Mozaiko” (1968) de Mark Starr

Mark Starr in East Africa & Bulgaria (News Clippings, 1963)

Esperanto and Labour (by Mark Starr)

The Student Movement vs. . . . Mark Starr? (Kenneth Rexroth)

Esperanto & Laborista Movado / Esperanto & the Labor Movement

Esperanto Study Guide / Esperanto-Gvidilo

Offsite:

Communism and an International Language by Mark Starr

A Worker Looks At History by Mark Starr

A Worker Looks At History

Mark Starr @ Ĝirafo

The Semantics of Invention: Translation into Esperanto
by Humphrey Tonkin

Mark Starr (1894-1985) « Family Connections

Mark Starr - Vikipedio

Guide to the Mark Starr Photographs 1944-1955

See also: Guide to the Harry Wellington Laidler Photographs 1893-1968 (Bulk [1950-1960]) Photographs 009


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