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Fabians Reading Group: The Fabians and Political Education

  • Fabians HQ 61 Petty France, Westminster, London SW1H 9EU United Kingdom (map)

Political education. Just below the surface of the Labour movement, this idea is circulating as the subject of intense scrutiny and debate. What exactly is political education, and what is it for?

Is it a relic of old-fashioned, top-down socialism? Or could it be a tool to help us overcome seemingly eternal problems getting the politically dis-engaged to take up the task of building a better, fairer society? Does education - that is, truth - ultimately have anything to do with politics, or are we really living in a ‘post-truth’ world?

This month at the London Fabians Reading Group, we’re going to try something a bit different. We’ll be reading a selection of short-form articles, which you can look through in no particular order, each touching on questions of education, communication, and movement-building as a practice of shaping ideas.

This is as opposed to a concept of politics as a purely expert-level, professional affair. This could be called politics-as-governance: where policy papers and studies are the daily bread, and ‘truth’ is something which can be measured precisely. On the other hand, for politics-in-public, the kind of politics which movements must always practice but especially when opposition, the ‘truth’ of a statement only matters if it can be effectively communicated. Since 2016, we have learned a lot about what happens when communicative effectiveness and evidence-based policymaking go out of sync with each other.

The Fabians are often thought to be the quintessential ‘elitist’ group of political insiders who treat socialism as dinner-party entertainment and deal exclusively in high-level policy analysis. But the readings below are meant to get us thinking about what kind of work the Fabians have done beyond the confines of Westminster in the past, and how they might get out into the wider world once again in the 21st century.

  1. This article from the cognitive science blog Slate Star Codex reviewing Fabian co-founder Edward Pease’s History of the Fabian Society provides a few interesting insights into the way early Fabians went about the task of building up the early Labour movement and ‘permeating’ politics(Phoebe Downing also writes about permeation theory for the Fabians website here). SSC is mostly popular in the tech community and has broadly unsympathetic politics, but its treatment of and respect for the early Fabians’ highly-successful early work in political education is fair, and very useful.

  2. This article by Tom Blackburn in New Socialist broadly introduces the concept of political education to unfamiliar readers and provides an essential look at how the Labour left conceives of its political-educational tasks.

  3. Finally, it’s worth having a quick look at the Overton window concept, as it describes quite effectively one of the key measures by which political education can be judged to succeeding or failing in a broad sense. The Overton window can be said to ‘move’ when a political concept or policy position goes from the fringes of debate to the acceptable range and finally to the realm of acceptance. This concept heavily informed the strategies of right-wing movements in and beyond 2016, but its relevance is universal.

We’re looking forward to a lively conversation about what, if any, relevance the ideas and concepts outlined in these articles have for the Fabians and the Labour movement today.

The event is from 18:00 till 20:00 at Fabians HQ in Westminster, after which time some of us will break for the pub. Looking forward to seeing everyone there!

If you’re interested in reading more, check out this article by Maximillian Alvarez in The Baffler about left-wing media and communication generally, as well as this article by Nathan J. Robinson in Current Affairs about the differences between ‘debate’ and ‘persuasion’ as well as the continuing relevance of rhetoric. These readings are optional, as they come from US publications, but the issues they raise are interesting for the question of political education in the 21st century.

The London Fabians Reading Group series is a project of the North East London Fabian Society. Find out more about what we do on our website, or find us on Twitter and Facebook. If you support the work we do, please consider joiningsponsoring us, or making a donation. Your support will go towards sustaining our events, our research, and our activism.