frontline volume 2, issue 6. March 2008

The Battle of Ideas
An Introduction to Popular Education

Education has been identified as a key need for the SSP. But old methods of socialist education are often criticised as elitist, boring and outdated. Frances Curran, a former MSP and now a student of education, looks at some of the radical education alternatives.

All over the world there are people engaged in creating a space to discuss radical, anti capitalist and socialist ideas. Spaces where activists and communities come together to discuss and understand the nature of inequality, exploitation and oppression and the ways to challenge these dominant features of our society and the action needed to end them.

Many, many movements are tapping into, borrowing from, and learning how to adapt the ideas and methods of Popular Education for their own purpose. The Scottish Socialist Party and the campaigns we are involved in have much to learn from this tradition. When we launched the SSP ten years ago, it was overtly stated that we wanted to create a political party of a new type. A grassroots and democratic party with a constitution enshrining the power with the members and branches. We wanted to move away from the top down hierarchical models of existing parties and rejected the transmission of ideas from a few great leaders to the ranks of the party as a means of developing our ideas and programme. I believe this is the ethos of the SSP and reflects the open culture of the party.

But this can only be a start. For all of us who want to transform society and who would subscribe to the ideas of socialism, we have a big responsibility to discuss and develop those ideas and be able to connect them to the living experience of people in Scotland. That theory is important, that ideas and understanding are important that knowledge is important goes without saying.

Power and Ideas

The capitalist class see ideas and knowledge as instrumental in keeping their hands on power and wealth. They go to great lengths to ensure that ideas which bolster their system of inequality, huge disparities of wealth and oppression, become the dominant ideas in society.

The Guardian recently did a special report (1) looking at the top 25 think tanks in Britain to see what they were up to. Think tanks are organisations set up to specifically promote and develop ideas in the service of the capitalist system. On the whole they are financed by the wealthy and powerful, all with a stake in bolstering the existing economic and social system. The Bow Group is a think tank set up in 1951 to directly counter socialism. The Centre for Policy Studies was set up in 1974 by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher, whose aim amongst other things was to end the post war consensus and end “30 years of socialistic fashion” policies. This think tank was the architect of the free market policies which we now know as neo-liberalism. Thatcher was later to say “I do think we have accomplished the revival of the philosophy and principles of a free society. We have set up the Centre for Policy studies, and it has propagated those ideas, and they have become accepted”.

These ideas were not accepted without a battle, in the trade unions, in action through strikes such as the miners strike, over policies like the poll tax, in the Labour Party over the project of New Labour, in communities, in universities and in the minds of working class people. The intention was to wipe out any alternative to these ideas to make truth of the myth that “there is no alternative”. A line swallowed by many in the trade unions and Labour Party.

Radical Alternatives

The launch of the SSP was and is an important part of the process to challenge this myth. The SSP is also part of a global revival of anti-capitalist and socialist ideas, presenting a 21st century alternative to the neo-liberal agenda of the dominant economic powers. We are not alone and we have much to learn from contemporary anti-capitalist movements globally on the subject of education and participation. It is beyond the time for the SSP to embrace the theory of Popular Education. The term is associated with Latin America and the social movements of the 1960’s and 70’s. It asserts that no idea, no knowledge and no education is neutral. People are educated either to conform to the existing system or are educated to see, understand and challenge existing and unequal power structures, there is no in between. Every subject, every curriculum, every essay, every exam is biased in one direction or the other.

The term Popular Education does not mean just being populist and inclusive. It has a clear analysis of the nature of inequality, exploitation and oppression. The ideas that it discusses arise directly from the living experience and material interests of those workers and communities struggling against inequality and oppression. It is a collective learning experience and its whole intention is to link education with action to challenge and change society. It is, to quote from the founders of the ‘Popular Education Network’, “essentially and fundamentally a political project”. (2)

The Popular Education Network, was established in 1997 by academics in universities with the intention of fighting the battle in their own institutions and offering whatever assistance they can to grass roots campaigns and struggles in terms of research and educational resources. There are several members who live and work in Scotland.

Popular education is not a transmission belt of ideas from those perceived to have the ‘knowledge’ to those who don’t, albeit in a radical setting. Popular education is above all a dialogue which determines in all educational settings that everyone brings knowledge to the collective education project. The participants bring knowledge as well as the tutor. The reason for sharing the knowledge is to develop understanding and action. This would be done by using participatory education methods (that is for another article.)

Social Forums

The World Social Form where 100,000 people participated in Caracas and the European Social Forums involving tens of thousands of activists are specifically intended to create a space for education discussion of anti capitalist ideas using these methods. The next ESF is in Sweden in Malmo at the beginning of September, the SSP has much to contribute and plenty to learn.

In the meantime a new party network will be formally constituted at the SSP conference, The Radical Education Network will be launched to bring popular education to the SSP. There is much to discuss; the future of the SSP, Independence, a Red/Green alliance, feminism, class struggle politics, how capitalism works and of course the socialist alternative. The SSP has a major contribution to make in reviving and building the ideas of socialism in the 21st Century.

We need to work together and with other people to create the space for socialist and radical education and discussion. We can build grassroots bottom up socialist think tanks in our campaigns and in our communities. Our mission is to reclaim the space for alternative ideas- socialist ideas.

For more information about the Radical education Network e-mail frances,


(1) The Guardian online: http;//
(2) The Popular Education Network was set up in 1997, by academics and university researchers. It has 150 members in 57 institutions in 24 countries.