Mark Starr: Socialist Educator

Martin Lawn

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 verbatim account of Ronda Hauben’s meeting with Mark Starr in 1984.

Mark Starr was a major figure in the Plebs League and The National Council of Labour Colleges before emigrating to the United States in the late twenties.

He was born in Shoscombe in the Somerset coalfield in 1894 in an area which was both radical in politics and Methodist in religion. After leaving school in 1907,he worked as a builder’s mortar boy for a year before working as a coalminer in the local mines at Radstock. In 1913 he moved to South Wales and soon after won a Rhondda Miners’ Scholarship to the Central Labour College in Earl’s Court, London. His study was interrupted by the first world war; registering as a conscientious objector he was allowed to go back to the mines rather than the armed forces in 1914 but in 1917 he was arrested and sent to Wormwood Scrubs and Dartmoor. On his release, in 1919, he was allowed by his union to finish his Labour College course.

From 1921, he was one of two divisional organizers for the National Council of Labour Colleges, working in the Eastern Counties Region. His working week involved Sunday classes in Norwich, Ipswich and Felixstowe, Monday in Colchester, Tuesday in Braintree and then later in the week, he taught Esperanto in Bethnal Green for the London County Council. In 1922 and in 1924, he was Labour Party parliamentary candidate for Wimbledon in the national elections. He was a prolific propagandist, writing A Worker Looks at History, in 1917, based on articles he had written for the Merthyr Pioneer, A Worker Looks at Economics (1925) and most important of all, Lies and Hate in Education (1928), a polemic against patriotic, nationalist education and a valuable sourcebook of information on education in the twenties. He was a correspondent for a Ukranian Esperanto journal in the twenties (Pedagogia Revro) and when later he worked at Brookwood, the New York Labour College, he was a correspondent for the paper of ‘One Big Union’, based in Winnipeg.

In 1928, he began working at Brookwood, teaching courses on the history of British labour in exchange for his board. In 1935, he became the educational director for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York and after his retirement in 1960 he became Chairman of the Esperanto Information Centre, acted as an advisor on workers’ education internationally and still teaches Esperanto in New York.

Mark Starr: I think I became a socialist due to the contrast between what I was reared on, the values given me in Sunday school, and indeed in St. Julians National school, where I attended until I was 13, the difference between the values there and the values in real life. That is I went to work carrying a hod for the masons, when I was 13, because the rest of my buddies had left school, and I wanted to go out and be a man and wear long trousers. And they paid me the magnificent sum of 4/-d a week for a week of 56 and a half hours. They only worked till 6 and a half on Saturday, they were kind in that respect. And out of that first 4/-d they took a shilling for my shovel that I used as a craftsman mixing mortar and so forth. And then going from the building industry into the mines at 14, I, and then going on to be a carting boy, I think that stimulated my tendency to protest, and think that there must be an easier way of getting a living. This wasn’t a fair way of carrying on, and that somebody was getting a part of the piece, there I found the class struggle built into the system of society. . . . . . found me, I didn’t find it. And I would think that resistance against oppression, and taking part in the miner strikes when the 8-hour day, when the minimum wage and so forth, that sort of steeled me, and I joined the independent Labour Party which as you know was founded in 1891 which had people like Dick Wallhead, Margaret Bondfield, Ramsay MacDonald, Keir Hardie and the real old classic beginners of Socialism. I didn’t know much about Hyndman and the Social Democratic Federation or anything of that sort, and my brother was an enthusiast, and he had his bicycle adapted so that he could put a bunch of pamphlets in, and we use to go out to villages and run meetings in co-operation with the local Socialists.

I shifted to Wales in 1913, because the seams were wider then, I didn’t have to wear the gus and crook I could stand upright in working and so forth, and I also took part in what was a rather memorable occasion, in which the South Wales Miners Federation said on the outbreak of the War, that they would freeze their wage if the employers would freeze their profits. The coal owners refused to freeze their profits, and so the miners came out on strike, and the whole area in Mountain Ash was placarded with posters showing what dire the penalties the miners were risking in that way. And it showed me that if enough people disobey the Law, the Law ends.

Well the South Wales Miners Federation as a financial supporter of the Central Labour College at Penywern Road, set up a competitions in its various districts in order to find out one or two candidates, and that was the way they financed the College. The essay which they asked us to write about. The subject which they wanted an essay about, pardon me, was the Osborne Judgement I remember, and so I wrote an essay on the Osborne Judgement its pros and cons, and was adjudged the person from the Rhondda No. 1 District to go to the Labour College. The College never really functioned full time, because the war was looming so, conscription was looming and so forth, and it looked as if both the faculty and the students would have to return home. We did have to return home.

In many cases during the War, with the faculty away, it was a self study proposition. We bought the books from Kerr, we studied them in the 13 Penywern Road, and then went out and developed them into lessons and so forth.

Don’t forget that I was a country boy, I had been reared Methodist. I found those ideas not competent to explain the problems that I met in every day. Or even to explain society, and so I took up Socialism as a religion. Looking back I see it now in that way, and, and I was inspired like other people to put in effort as a volunteer, without thought of individual reward or anything of the sort until I got jaded and tired and, and worn out. Dr. Clifford I think was the Baptist who had pioneered what they called the conscience clause, which if you could prove that you had a religious, I was going to say prejudice, that’s not quite the word . . . a religious belief, which told you not to shoot anybody, they’d send you off into the ambulance services and things of that sort. I had by then shelved such religious beliefs as I’d inherited from my family, and I just pleaded that I was a member of the working class, I’d seen the War coming, and I didn’t see that I should go and participate in it.

And finally I got picked up, and went to jail and stayed in jail about a year. I was in Wormwood Scrubs, meeting other people who have done a good deal for labour since, I knew Bob Smillie’s son there. Arthur Homer, the communist, was in that same jail and so forth.

The rationalisation of my War position came from L.B. Bouden here who wrote a book in order to prove that there was a difference between community of interest, and identity of interest. And it was possible for a socialist to go to War and become a soldier . . . just as the Union and the employer improves the elevator when it comes, but there never could be an identity of interests between the people who sell labour for and the people who buy it.

They said that is socialism, er, you, we cannot grant you anything, and so the local tribunal which judged these cases refused my application. I worked in the mines until the soldiers came to arrest me for delinquency, and then comes the Cardiff, the military square where the troops and you are openly disobey an order of the military officer. And that, qualifies you along with several other people to go to Wormwood Scrubs.

You weren’t allowed to organize, although with the boys that I went in, they gave us a slate to write on, and until they found we were doing it, it worked very well until the Warder came in and making a punctilious examination of the cell, found a written letter there, and even he was sharp enough to notice that communication was being operated.

In my vacation waiting to be arrested, my sister impregnated me with (ideas) and when I got into Wormwood Scrubs, I rang very early for the Chaplain, you had to do that in the morning if you were sick, or if you wanted something or the other, he came round to the cell and he took requests. And I told him that I had heard from people that had been in Wormwood Scrubs, that they had. . . . . and so I asked the Chaplain, would he be good enough to secure a copy of this for me, because otherwise it was very slow going, especially over the weekends, and so he bought me La. . . . . . the Gospels United in one story. And so I studied Esperanto and I wrote my letters to my sister in Esperanto while I was there. One a month. It wasn’t at all a painful thing, the only thing was the feeling that people outside were afraid you had no guts, that you were a coward and you were trying to dodge the war. The suspicion, or the fear of being thought to be afraid was, was the deadliest part of it. But for somebody who in a moment of passion committed a crime I would think Wormwood Scrubs would be very very bad. We felt we were doing the right you see, and . . .

After the War the Miners District in which I was living listened to my plea, that my scholarship had been disturbed, and so in 1919 or the beginning of 1920 it might have been, I went back for another year.

We had some people who had become outstanding since. Aneurin Bevan was one of my students, and Aneurin then had a first class stutter, which he uses as an attention getter. He got it cured later on. But, we use to keep our doors locked against Aneurin because he didn’t get up earlier enough to get to lectures, but he got up enough to come and talk to you while you were trying to subscribe to the ordinary curriculum of the College. All of them were very active Trade Unionists, they’d had experience there, and they were generally anti War, and determined to go back to their Unions in order to give away the knowledge that they had gotten in the Labour College itself.

We wanted to criticize and penetrate orthodox education. Our independence was thought to be a natural result of the growth of labour.

How could you convert the men you fought industrially for wages and hours? In politics how could you, by what alchemy could you convert him into your educational friend? Could he be your pal in education if he fought you in industry and in economics? And so the drive towards independence was present there, and noticeably voiced in the foundation of the Plebs League back in 1908 at Ruskin College, the strike of the Ruskin College students and so forth, and all the things that followed from that.

We wanted education for a new social order. Yes, teach people all the personal necessities to make good Union officers. But teach them the history of the labour movement. Teach them the economics, how they were exploited. Teach them the dangers of Imperialism. Teach them public speaking as tool courses. We divided the course into tool-courses and aim-courses. You can quite see why writing and speaking, public speaking particularly, would be a tool-course in order to get over the ideas that you had received.

We were critical about orthodox education, seeing it as an attempt to inflict bourgeois culture, nationalistic and pseudo-patriotic ideas on the working class. Catch them while they’re young, I remember my father, when education became compulsory, it didn’t, until somewhere round about the 80’s or something. He reports the old Tory vicar saying now we have to teach them, because it wasn’t safe to leave people with votes running round without ideas in their heads and so forth.

We were instinctively hostile although I don’t think (this hostility) was very articulate. We thought that the main purpose of the official educational system was to make robots for the current system. That if the educational system hadn’t trained the people technically, the capitalists would have had to have paid for their training. We thought that it gave them wrong biased ideas of thinking that their own country was the only country that mattered to them in the wide wide world. That it wasn’t prepared for the international situation which was coming through. We felt that no educational system, subsidized by the Government and the Tax payer could give a fair account. As I say we didn’t expect the employers to finance our political education, and by that time the Labour Party had grown to be a pretty strong force, and most of the teachers and students of the Labour College were members of what I would call the idealistic wing of the Labour Party. Until the Labour Party came into real power it was an agency for confirming the system. But we did object to the W.E.A. and its professed impartiality. We did object to the guy who was like the drunken bear who said all education is good. We said no, education can be used for bad purposes. We have to be alert on the evils as well as on the good things.

(In the Plebs League) We wanted first of all make sure the workers were able to read and write. The second place, that they understood their own position in society, and had learned to organize in order to remedy some of the obvious evils. And finally that the Unions with a syndicalist turn if you like, but to help them take over and run the system. Breed enough technicians, breed enough people that had management, and breed the social consciousness that socialism really needs, socialism has never really had in any country enough socialists to really make it successful—fully successful.

(The Plebs classes) were like one worker greeting another. I mean we claimed that we had been schooled in hard knocks, we knew about what it was to be on strike, to be on the picket line, to fight for every improvement that, that was possible. I would say they were the elite in class consciousness, the elite in seeking knowledge about their Unions, maybe the ambitious ones who wanted to become Shop Stewards, who wanted to become District Organizers, who wanted to get to Parliament, as many of them did, if you go back and look at the records there wasn’t only. . . . . Bevan who went to Parliament; there were other, quite a string of other people, went there too.

The Plebs controlled the Plebs magazine, and the Plebs came from a Daniel De Leon pamphlet about the Plebs and the Plebeians in Rome of long ago, and you probably know that, and its mark was a question mark. It was out to question orthodox theories about everything.

Our emphasis was on the group. If a guy wanted to go ahead and achieve success as an individual he usually went to technical college. We thought in terms of group solidarity, that our education would try to prove and demonstrate that that was necessary.

Not everybody who tried to teach, had the capacity for teaching, wasn’t a natural teacher in that way. And we probably were light on sort of training people in the arts of teaching. But, presumably they did it because they were volunteers and believed in what they were doing, and some of them were good teachers. Look, you go out, you learn from your mistakes and you go on and teach. I mean, you learn by doing in that way. But the inefficiency of the teaching staff of the N.C.L.C. was I think in part justified, and I’m admitting that as a loyal and devoted member of the N.C.L.C.

By the way the Labour College was supposed to train our teachers and to give them teaching methods and things of that sort. Although I don’t remember any teacher, any class while I was at the Labour College that taught us any methods of teaching, any new approaches or anything or that sort. We had a grammar teacher. We had a philosophy teacher. We had history of politics, history of the Labour Movement.

The classes were question and answer, and the people very much inclined to question. You didn’t get away with making any assertion without being asked to prove it occasionally. But in the main they were good and loyal students who came either in the evening or in Sundays and used their leisure time in order to give themselves what one might term social vision, social education. The Plebs League were an intelligent minority. I would think that they constituted an intelligent elite. We never claimed we were a mass movement in that way, although we did think that we did influence the Unions, and did exercise an influence much greater than our numerical weight. But that has been the picture of British politics all along, the Fabians were what just a handful, but they, but Sidney Webb wrote the programme of the Labour Party in 1919 somewhere. The National Guilds people were a tiny group. The influence of a promotional group upon the larger mass has always sort of been acknowledged and recognized there. How do ideas start, if not in the smaller group? But the fact that we didn’t have the mass following is I think in part the explanation of the difficulties of the Labour Party at the present time. Yet, the Labour Party owes its strength to what we helped the rank and file to understand, and the leaders that we trained.

I have always insisted that you cannot make socialism operate without socialists. We didn’t do a good enough, big enough, effective enough job.

The Plebs League had the signs of a new rebel movement, that is when you say you will not vote at your bosses command, you make a revolution. When you say you will strike at your own wish, you make a revolution. When you develop your own ideas, that is the most fundamental, and lasting revolution at all, that was their slogan.

LLAFUR IV, 2 (1985)


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: Lawn, Martin. "Mark Starr: Socialist Educator" [interview with Mark Starr], Llafur, IV, 2, 1985, pp. 91-96.

Mark Starr (1894-1985): Labor Educator & Esperantist
Study Guide

Includes all the following & more:

"A Pioneer in Workers' Education: Mark Starr and Workers' Education in Great Britain" by Ronda Hauben

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

Esperanto and Labour (by Mark Starr)

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

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

Esperanto & Laborista Movado / Esperanto & the Labor Movement

Esperanto Study Guide / Esperanto-Gvidilo


Communism and an International Language by Mark Starr

A Worker Looks At History by Mark Starr

A Worker Looks At History

Mark Starr @ Ĝirafo

Mark Starr (1894-1985) « Family Connections

Mark Starr - Vikipedio

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