The Communist Party of Great Britain’s Schoolteachers during the Popular Front, 1935-1939

Matthew Kavanagh. History of Education. Volume 43, Issue 2. 2014.

Introduction: The CPGB, the British Labour Movement and Schoolteachers, 1920-1935

On 31 July 1920, 160 revolutionary socialists from across Britain came together in London to form the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB or CP). Lenin himself had invested time and money in the Party’s formation, and he also ensured that the emergent British communists would seek affiliation to the Labour Party, in his mind an essential precondition to capturing the British working class. Although CPGB membership never rose much above 5000 until 1926, in the aftermath of the failure of the General Strike there were 12,000 Party card holders, and communist influence in the trade unions was also on the increase. But radical changes which occurred in the politics of the Communist International (Comintern) during the late 1920s had a profound effect on the CP’s relationship with the British labour movement.

Under the influence of Stalin’s consolidation of power in the Soviet Union, at its 6th World Congress in summer 1928 the Comintern revealed its new position. It was declared that capitalism had entered the ‘Third Period’ of its recent history, a time of crisis and revolutionary opportunity. The thesis ran that capitalism was in decay, and mutating into fascism as a means of ensuring its survival. Thus any communist cooperation with social democrats in capitalist countries came to be regarded no longer as the way to winning the working class. Instead, such practice was now to be considered a collaborationist prop to a collapsing social order. By 1929 the CPGB had fully embraced this new position in the form of its ‘Class Against Class’ policy, which involved the denunciation of the non-communist British Left as ‘social fascists’ who were diverting the working class from the ‘truth’ of revolutionary socialism. ‘Class Against Class’ has generally been interpreted as a disaster for the CPGB. Its vote at the 1929 General Election was paltry, membership had plummeted to 2555 by November 1930, and communist influence in the trade unions was significantly weakened.

But the rise of fascism in Europe after 1932 encouraged a reappraisal of the Third Period position, both in Moscow and further afield. Though its rudiments can be found in national communist parties’ activities from as early as the international peace congresses in Amsterdam in 1932 and in Paris in 1933, the rearrangement of Comintern politics away from Third Period isolationism and towards building the broad alliances which became known as the ‘Popular Front’ was not formalised until its 7th World Congress during the summer of 1935. In the year which had preceded the Congress, the Soviet Union had joined the League of Nations, and the French Communist Party had entered an alliance with the Socialist Party. The CPGB had also been making overtures to the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party. These moves signalled the growing acceptability and plausibility of communist cooperation with ‘social fascists’, in order to do battle with a more dangerous fascist encroachment starkly highlighted by the coming to power of Hitler in 1933. The Comintern General Secretary Georgi Dimitrov officially announced the new position to the 7th World Congress thus:

With the outbreak of the present and most profound economic crisis, the sharp accentuation of the general crisis of capitalism … fascism has embarked upon a wide offensive. The ruling bourgeoisie is more and more seeking salvation in fascism, with the object of instituting exceptionally predatory measures against the toilers, preparing for an imperialist war of plunder, attacking the Soviet Union … and by all these measures preventing revolution.

In order to deal with this fascist advance, communists in capitalist countries were to come out and build alliances with others who opposed fascism, even those who were committed to social democracy. This was necessary to prevent the further establishment of fascist regimes like that in Germany. Thus, instead of regarding all those outside of the revolutionary vanguard as harmful as the fascists themselves, the new reading of the situation saw worth in making defensive gains within the field of bourgeois democracy. For this to be successful, communists would ‘have to find a common language with the broadest masses’. This raised the profile of intellectual and cultural struggle, encouraging communists in capitalist states to engage with their national culture in order to make meaningful interventions aimed at preserving it from fascist barbarism.

Certainly, the CPGB of the Popular Front period did offer a much more cordial environment for professional, intellectual and cultural activity than had existed previously. The repudiation of reformism in ‘Class Against Class’ was so fundamental as to encompass the cultural as well as the political. At this time, traditional forms of thought and expression were dismissed as ‘ideological weapons of the bourgeoisie’. This stance encouraged a suspicion towards ‘brain workers’, whose intellectual and creative faculties were seen as unavoidably tainted by association, an impediment to the future advancement of the proletariat. Despite the fact that a not insignificant number of schoolteachers had been members of the CPGB since its foundation, and the CPGB’s belief that teachers’ interests were bound with working-class parents and children in terms of their mutual suffering at the hands of educational economies imposed by government during the early 1930s, the teaching profession did not escape Third Period suspicion. This was evident in the admonishments dished out by the CP’s Industrial Department to Party teachers for supposed ‘right deviations’ and ‘capitulation to reformist elements’ when they attempted to get involved with wider teacher campaigns against economies during 1931. Even communist teachers themselves readily admitted that the teaching profession acted ‘as a disciplinary agent for the capitalist’ and as such ‘the teacher is to be classed with the policeman and the soldier rather than the productive workers’. Unsurprisingly, such an attitude did not encourage much meaningful exchange between communism and the teaching profession in Britain: by 1931 there were little over 100 active CP teachers and the vast majority of them were based in London.

In direct contrast with the peripheral and suspect position white-collar CPGB members occupied under ‘Class Against Class’, the Popular Front line offered such communists a decisive role in the future of the working class and in the establishment of socialism in Britain. As a result, academics, actors, writers, musicians and similar figures joined the CPGB in significant numbers, keen to combat the fascism they saw growing in the crisis of capitalism going on around them, and to take their place alongside the working class in creating a different political future. Although by no means all of the CP’s increase in membership during the Popular Front can be explained in terms of its new ‘intellectual’ recruits, their presence was undoubtedly important in the trebling of the Party’s 1930 membership by summer 1935, and a steady subsequent increase which was to result in almost 18,000 members on the eve of the Second World War. In return, the CPGB leadership was eager to emphasise that professional people could find a home in the Party as, in its leader Harry Pollitt’s words, ‘valuable allies who can be won for the working class’. And through various initiatives (some of the Party, others closely linked) such recruits contributed to a vibrant communist cultural life in the late 1930s: the Left Book Club, the journals Left Review and Modern Quarterly, the Artists’ International Association, Unity Theatre, Kino Films, the Workers’ Music Association and the Science and Society Movement were among the prominent examples.

But despite the CPGB’s official history stating that schoolteachers were present ‘above all’ among the Party’s Popular Front recruits, comparatively little scholarly attention has been paid towards their efforts in the period by historians of communism in Britain. That which has provides rich insights, but does not have an exploration of the relationship between the CPGB’s line and the activities and outlook of its teachers as its sole focus, and as such does not provide a comprehensive explanation of this part of the Party’s history. Furthermore, histories of the educational politics of the Left in 1930s Britain also omit serious consideration of the contribution of CP schoolteachers. This piece aims to fill such gaps. Utilising substantial collections of the personal papers and correspondence of several communist schoolteachers of the period, and an unpublished autobiography and biography of two CPGB teachers, as well as published communist teacher periodicals, educational texts and policy documents, this article posits that the Popular Front line was imbued with potential agency for schoolteachers, both in terms of exploring socialist ideas through their classroom practice and in uniting the teaching profession against fascism. It is argued that British communist schoolteachers prioritised the latter over the former, and that in doing so they made a not insubstantial contribution to wider teacher politics on the Left in Britain during the late 1930s.

The Educational Potentialities of the Popular Front Line

It is not surprising that teachers concerned about the dangers of fascism would find the Popular Front line relevant to them. Its shift in attitude towards ideological struggle had obvious implications for educators. If, as Dimitrov vividly described it, the ‘putrefaction of capitalism’ that fascism represented penetrated ‘to the innermost core of its ideology and culture’, then education, one of the key methods of transmitting ideology and culture to the masses, could be interpreted as being at the front line of the intellectual battle now being waged. In 1934, Willie Gallacher—who at the 1935 General Election would win a seat in the House of Commons for the CPGB—had spoken to Cambridge students on behalf of the CP Central Committee, emphasising that the Party needed good teachers. Pollitt, too, at the Party Congress of 1937, attributed the new attractiveness of communism to middle-class professionals to their concern about the danger that capitalism’s degeneration posed to children and education:

These people see that the situation has changed and the time gone by when they could feel assured that they would see their children in positions of comfort and security…. This anxious uncertainty for … their children has brought them to a clearer understanding and sympathy of the position of the working class and their common interests. They are able to put themselves in the place of mothers and fathers of South Wales and the North-East coast, where for the boys and girls of working-class families there is only the blind alley of unemployment. They feel the iniquity of the policy of leaving the Depressed Areas to rot, of allowing malnutrition to sap the vitality of the rising generation…. They have seen Fascism at work in Germany; they have observed the destruction of all forms of cultural, educational and scientific progress.

Schoolteachers, as key actors in the future progress of both children and education, did not have to look hard to see the significance of Pollitt’s words, and the new CPGB line, to their work. Pollitt mentioned teachers specifically as a group that was coming over to, and should be embraced by, the Party in his speech to the following year’s Congress too. The attraction of such emphases to schoolteachers can be detected in the experiences at this time of two figures who were to become central to CP educational policy and wider British teacher and education discourse in the coming years. Max Morris was in 1936 a 23-year-old starting his first teaching post at a school in Willesden. He had joined the Party upon graduating from university two years before, just as the change to the Popular Front line was taking place, firm in his ideas that a the future of society rested ‘first and foremost, on a good school for all’. He would go on to lead the CPGB’s National Education Advisory Committee, and spend 13 years on the Executive Committee of the NUT, as well as serving a year as its President. Brian Simon—who later became Professor of Education at the University of Leicester, a renowned historian of education and founder of the influential educational journal Forum—had experienced the danger fascism posed to education first hand: as a pupil during the early 1930s at Kurt Hahn’s progressive school at Salem, which was then under Nazi attack. Simon joined the CPGB in early 1935, and although then still an undergraduate at Cambridge, he later reflected upon how the communist line of the mid-1930s helped cement his desire to become a teacher. In his own words, it ‘no doubt fuelled the growing dissatisfaction with, and critique of, educational work and procedures’ that he and his fellow communist students were feeling. For schoolteachers already in the Party when the line changed, its attraction and relevance to their work was no less strong. Indeed, the organisation through which they had organised since the early 1920s, the Educational Workers’ League (EWL)—formerly known as the Teachers’ Labour League (TLL), but renamed in 1931, motivated by a ‘Class Against Class’ era desire to eschew the ‘bourgeois’ title of ‘teacher’ and distance the League from its early roots in the Labour Party—had been a keen advocate of the need for a united front against fascism and war. As early as May 1933, the EWL’s journal reported that its members ‘have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the rank and file movements for co-operation and unity against the common enemy’.

But just at the point when the Popular Front line was gaining ground among teachers, the EWL was wound up. The international group to which it was affiliated, the Educational Workers’ International (EWI), took the decision at its August 1935 conference to unify with its opposite number in the Second (Amsterdam) International, in order to create a single unified organisation that could more effectively wage a common struggle against fascism. As the EWI’s ‘British Section’, the EWL folded. Its dissolution was undertaken without fanfare: even G. C. T. Giles, one of the League’s longest serving members and a CP teacher stalwart since the mid-1920s, could not remember when the EWL ceased to exist, and another communist teacher who was active in the League similarly attested that it ‘died … without anyone really being aware of it’. Evidently the EWL’s disappearance was decided upon quickly, it was felt that the League had outlived its usefulness as the priorities of international communist politics shifted.

Schools at the Cross Roads

Given the saliency of the CPGB’s new line to teachers, dissolving the EWL was a strange decision, especially since a not insubstantial pamphlet had recently been published under the name of the ‘Educational Workers’ International (British Section)’. Schools at the Cross Roads opened with a statement which clearly outlined the relevance of the Popular Front line to education:

English education is at the crossroads. But we are free to choose which way we shall lead it; the way of Fascism, the way of reaction, or the way of progress and a new society? The articles within will, we hope, help teachers … to choose. The choice will have to be made sooner or later.

The pamphlet was published by the CPGB’s publishers and given a favourable review in Labour Monthly. Given that the latter publication was the signpost of the Party’s line, this was another signal of the importance communism ascribed to schoolteachers and the education of children as the Popular Front position began to take shape. Schools at the Cross Roads contained chapters on English, Soviet and fascist education. As its opening statement suggests, British communist teachers were hugely concerned at the threat fascism posed to schools. ‘Education is a subject that Fascism rates high in importance’ ran the argument, ‘but … Fascism claims a fundamental change of approach to the educational problem’. The essential shift in slant towards schooling made by fascism set it firmly against liberal education, in that the object of teaching and learning in the former was not to build a child’s intellect or powers of reason. On the contrary, pupils in fascist countries were fed a diet of militarism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, hero-worship and obedience. Compliance with the fascist ideal of man was the name of the game, not enlightenment. This approach had implications not only for students, but for their teachers: those who did not comply with the fascist vision of education would face dismissal, persecution and even arrest.

The pamphlet’s emphasis on contrasting fascist education with liberal, rather than socialist, education is instructive. It demonstrates that communist schoolteachers were corresponding to the thesis outlined by Dimitrov: namely that popular opposition to fascism must be built by emphasising the threat the ideology posed to existing national cultural norms, rather than just contrasting it with what could be achieved under socialism. That is not to say Schools at the Cross Roads did not celebrate the perceived triumphs of Soviet schools—it did—but the threat fascism posed to British pupils and teachers was firmly presented as a threat to what was best in a liberal education.

The Mind in Chains

Another major contribution by a CPGB schoolteacher to the discourse on the place of education in the political situation of the mid- to late 1930s made a similar effort. 1937’s The Mind in Chains was a Cecil Day-Lewis-edited symposium on the current state of culture under capitalism. Rex Warner, then a communist teacher at Frensham Heights School, contributed a chapter on education. Warner was careful to acknowledge that education had made ‘an enormous advance’ under liberalism. And, like Schools at the Cross Roads, his reading of the present educational position emphasised that much of this progress would be lost if fascism marched on:

There are educationists who voluntarily abandon the ground won by nineteenth-century criticism from superstition, and who make lofty and unreal mysticism the basis of their teaching. These people will assure us ‘all things work together for the good’ and that the duty of the young is to obey…. [W]e may expect this semi-mystical authoritarian tendency to increase.

Thus, Warner agreed with the British section of the EWI that schoolteachers would be a key agent in stopping the advance of fascism. To remain aloof from the struggle would be to abandon the rising generation to reaction:

All … systems of retreat from what some educationists scornfully call ‘politics’ are foredoomed…. Children brought up on the assumption that fair dealing and Christian virtues are the rules that govern contemporary society will, when they leave school, receive such a shock that … [they] will tend to fall back upon cynicism or mysticism…. If education is to remain true to itself it will have to become revolutionary.

So the stage was set for education to be key to the defeat of fascism, and communist teachers could be among its vanguard, ensuring that liberal educational advance would not be sacrificed to mysticism, reaction and obedience, but rather safeguarded by the bright future of socialism. In such circumstances, communist schoolteachers could plausibly seek to make qualitative interventions into the nature of the education they were providing for their pupils. Warner’s analysis had emphasised that if education were to have any real value, ‘the boy or girl at school has to be convinced there is some point in being educated…. On leaving school, the young man or young woman has got to be either for or against the social organisation of the time.’ And some communists recruited to the Party in this period were active in a developing experimentation in such ‘socialist’ education: Beatrix Tudor-Hart was instrumental in setting up the independent Fortis Green ‘pioneer’ school in London during 1936. Tudor-Hart presaged Warner’s statement about the necessity of teaching according to socialistic principles, and some Party members did send their children to Fortis Green. Yet, despite such experiments, and despite communist expositions of the potential for agency which schoolteachers had in defeating fascism, limits were simultaneously set on the way in which communist schoolteachers could explore any of the Popular Front’s educational potentialities.

The Need for Unity

Notwithstanding its exploration of the relationship between the content and philosophy of education under fascism, and the ability of fascist governments to cement their desired social transformation by inculcating their ideas in the classroom, Schools at the Cross Roads had made no effort to carry out a similar explanation in relation to schools under capitalism. The authors admitted that ‘the article on England deals only with education from the quantitative aspect. It makes no attempt … to analyse our system from the standpoint of the actual teaching.’ The reason given for this was a lack of space, but this seems disingenuous when one considers the amount given over to discussion of the content of fascist education. Such an omission was also strange given the previous outlook of communist teachers in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Even though, as will be discussed later, the ‘Class Against Class’ position officially eschewed the discussion of qualitative amelioration of education under capitalism along socialist lines as a futile reformist exercise, the TLL and EWL had nonetheless continued to consider such matters. Combating imperialist bias in teaching and textbooks; advocating secular education; promoting workers’ control of schools and ending the system of competitive examinations were topics that continued to receive coverage in the League’s journal throughout 1929-1933, so much so that the Party hierarchy felt compelled to write to the EWL, demanding that The Educational Worker restrict its discussion to ‘economic’ issues in accordance with the requirements of the ‘Class Against Class’.

Rather than a lack of space then, in Schools at the Cross Roads the qualitative debate on education was not addressed as it would be more controversial, and damage the potential of the pamphlet to chime with a teaching profession more easily convinced of the need to fight material encroachments on its work than to re-evaluate the nature of its current practice. Furthermore, to have stressed a requirement for socialist or class-conscious content in the curriculum would undermine communist attempts to portray socialism as the rightful protector of the best qualities of a liberal education. Warner admitted as much in The Mind in Chains:

There is no longer … any need for us in our propaganda to adopt that aggressive attitude which is appropriate to one who drags people from great darkness into the light. Our job now is … to insist patiently on following the approved principles of reason and morality … people who will not join us ‘for socialism’, let us at least be sure they are with us ‘against war and against fascism’.

Warner might well have added ‘and against the educational economies caused by them’ to his article. For the fight against the quantitative effects of fascism and war upon education was clearly an issue around which CPGB schoolteachers, and their Party leaders, felt they could best promote unity. The demands for educational change in Schools at the Cross Roads were limited to decreasing class sizes; raising the school leaving age; rebuilding and reconditioning school premises and the providing of free milk and meals in school for the children of the unemployed. In 1935, the CP’s major policy statement on education also rested upon equalising access to the existing system of schooling, by bringing all schools under the aegis of the state, and raising the leaving age to 16. The only mention of educational content was a demand for more trade and technical education.

The dissolution of the EWL in 1935 indicates that communist unity with the ‘mass’ of teachers was more important than the maintenance of a separate organisation for CP ones, or discussing the nature of education from a socialist standpoint. A semi-autobiographical novel set in the period backs this up, describing a Party teacher’s realisation that the CPGB’s ‘overriding aim was to obtain unity between Communist and non-Communist teachers in the fight for better educational conditions’, not to ‘raise controversial matters of secondary importance which might make unity harder to get’. For communist schoolteachers were not alone in seeing the potential of the school classroom as a site for safeguarding the future of democracy and reason. The Association of Education and Citizenship (AEC) had been formed in 1934 by the Liberal industrialist Ernest Simon, Brian Simon’s father. Like his communist son, Simon senior also felt that education had the potential to develop a more critical and informed citizenry which would be better equipped to defend democracy against the rise of fascism, telling the National Labour peer Lord Allen that whilst the politicians’ job was to save democracy here and now, the AEC sought to lay the basis for saving it in future by better education. But the AEC was concerned to avoid association with the CPGB, despite their overlapping concerns. When invited by the then CP-sympathising Left Book Club (LBC) to send an AEC representative to a rally at the Albert Hall in 1937, Simon declined lest he frighten off potential Labour and Liberal support. Thus, as Gary McCulloch put it, ‘the political tensions of the 1930s helped to discourage broad alliances in favour of “education for citizenship”’. It was awareness of these political tensions, and their divisive effect, which led communist schoolteachers to focus on careful cultivation of unity against fascism by the avoidance of controversial questions about the quality of education under capitalism. Though this approach may have failed to win over the AEC, communist teachers nonetheless managed to gain ground in the established teacher trade unions, and also founded and contributed to educational cause groups outside them.

International Solidarity: Germany and Spain

One such example is CP teachers’ close involvement in broad front campaigns and pressure groups which highlighted the effects of fascism on schools and schoolteachers abroad. The British Committee for the Relief of German Teachers (BCRGT) was formed in December 1933 as a sub-committee of the International Committee of the Teaching Profession against Fascism, Economies and War. G. C. T. Giles was on the Committee, and several other Party figures had pledged their support, including academic Maurice Dobb, scientist Hyman Levy and writer Amabel Williams-Ellis. The NAS and NUWT also provided assistance to it, as well as Victor Gollancz, Harold Laski, and the Society of Friends. It was thus undoubtedly a Popular Front venture, its stated aim being to help all teachers dismissed by the National Socialist Government, be they pacifist, Quakers, social democrats, communists or liberals. However, Giles was in a key position and took a highly active role in the Committee’s work. He was among a deputation which visited Berlin in 1934 to press for the release of Dr Theodore Neubauer, a schoolteacher and Communist Deputy who had given evidence against the prosecution at the 1933 Reichstag Fire Trial, for which he was arrested and incarcerated. Giles also made efforts to get other groups such as the Quakers and the Academic Assistance Council on board with the BCRGT. By 1935 the Committee had raised nearly £400, of which over half was secretly distributed to German teachers in need. The BCRGT was certainly considered to be an effective force by its parent body, as the International Committee of the Teaching Profession Against Fascism, Economies and War entrusted it to take over all of its work at the end of 1934, though retaining all the international names and appearances.

The rise of the far-right in Spain meant that the plight of teachers there was also a concern around which communists could participate in a coalition against fascism. As early as December 1934, CPGB teacher O. D. Morgan visited Madrid. He went alongside Leah Manning of the National Association of Labour Teachers (NALT). The fact that Morgan was now willing to work closely with Manning—she was a former TLL member who had walked away from that organisation in 1927 to form NALT due to her unhappiness at CPGB influence over it, and much invective had been thrown her way by the TLL in the meantime—illustrates the extent to which communist schoolteachers were reaching out to former reformist foes even before the official shift to the Popular Front line. Indeed, Manning had confessed in an earlier letter to G. C. T. Giles her difficulty in adjusting to the new courtesy being shown to her by communist teachers. The willingness of Labour Monthly to print an interview with Manning about the trip shows that the Party hierarchy sanctioned its teachers’ new readiness to collaborate with social democrats in united action. After the military rising by Franco’s forces in July 1936, G. C. T. Giles also travelled to Spain to assess the experiences of Spanish teachers. An International Committee for the Relief of Victimised Teachers was set up, presumably also a label for the work carried out by Giles and others on the BCRGT. The Committee sent funds to the Spanish teachers’ unions, and clothing and food were dispatched to a refugee children’s home. Another CPGB schoolteacher was involved in the most self-sacrificial commitment a British communist could make to fight fascism in Spain: in May 1937 Alan Gilchrist left England to serve in the Major Attlee Company of the British Battalion of the International Brigades. Injured by machine-gun fire whilst fighting at Ebro, also seeing action in Jarama, Brunete and Aragon, Gilchrist stayed in Spain until 1938, and was made a Political Commissar of the Anti-Tank Brigade. The extensive activity of CPGB teachers in the international teaching profession’s response to the plight of education and teachers under fascism highlights their priorities. Rather than fighting fascism through discussion of socialist educational objectives, they sought to maximise international teacher unity against it by focusing upon its harmful effects on the material conditions teachers enjoyed under liberal democracy.

The Teachers’ Anti-War Movement

The Teachers’ Anti-War Movement (TAWM) was another manifestation of this trend. It began in May 1932 when the EWL arranged a joint gathering with pacifist teachers, and those in favour of the League of Nations, in order to discuss how best to combat the danger of war, and the educational economies that preparation for it encouraged. Despite tensions arising from incompatibilities between the Third Period Comintern line and the pacifist and reformist elements within the TAWM, it managed to agree on a list of delegates to send to the Amsterdam Anti-War Congress in 1932, and second Congress in Paris the following year. These gatherings, attended by socialists, pacifists, liberals and communists, were arguably the germ of the Popular Front line.

By 1934, the TAWM claimed to have 650 members and felt it needed a regular publication to consolidate and extend its work. A journal, The Ploughshare, was launched that January, producing five issues a year. The TAWM has been described as a front for the CPGB, and Party figures were certainly prominent in its journal. Edward Upward—a Cambridge-educated poet and writer, who had in 1932 infused his artistic sensibilities with his politics, joined the CP and become a teacher of English at a public school in Dulwich—was its editor. Patty Jarvis, of the EWL’s CP faction, was on its History Commission. A letter of congratulations on the journal’s establishment came from the BCRGT. Delegates were at a Labour Monthly conference in London during January 1935. Party writers such as Christopher Isherwood and Amabel Williams-Ellis contributed pieces to The Ploughshare. Stephen Spender’s poetry was highly favourably reviewed, as were books by Party theorist Rajani Palme Dutt, and Party journalists Allan Hutt and Tom Wintringham. Before it folded, the Educational Worker was also advertised in The Ploughshare.

Given that schoolteachers were generally reluctant to publicise their communism, many of the articles in The Ploughshare are anonymous, initialled or attributed to pseudonyms. But their content and tone, coupled with the extent of Party involvement with the journal, leaves little doubt that many of them were written by communists. Such contributions reveal much about the importance which CPGB teachers attached to reaching out on issues of broad anti-fascist teacher unity, such as the education cuts caused by capitalism’s war drive. Indeed, the publication was specifically intended to be the ‘chief link’ between teachers who were ‘fighting with all their might against the Cerberus whose heads are War, so-called Economies and Tyranny’.

Teachers were urged to sell copies in their staff room, or at trade union meetings, and to form local teacher anti-war groups. This was not without success. By mid-1936 the TAWM had almost doubled its nationwide membership to 1000, and whilst its activities were primarily centred in London, there were provincial groups established across England and Wales. Considering that the journal was run on a voluntary basis and did not pay its contributors, this was quite a rate of development. Moreover, as will be outlined later, prominent Labour and even Conservative figures also contributed to the journal, indicating, alongside its membership figures, that the TAWM reached beyond the converted. In sum, The Ploughshare was the embodiment of Popular Front teacher politics, affiliated to no political party or trade union (officially, at any rate) and open to contributions from all teachers who wanted to combat fascism and educational cuts. The extent to which broader ideological differences could be subordinated to this shared goal, and the communist tinge of Ploughshare editorials, is indicated in the below excerpt from that key year of 1935:

[T]he gulf between capitalism and socialism grows daily wider. The former sinks into barbarism, the latter sails on to higher cultural achievements…. There can be no doubt on which side we stand. To be passive is to play into the hands of reaction…. Every penny spent on education means one less for war. Of whatever union, political party, religious denomination you belong, we can all join on this supreme issue. A united profession against war can hinder its outbreak.

The People’s Schools

A similar quantitative emphasis was also present in the most substantial contribution to the debate by a CPGB teacher in this period. Max Morris’s The People’s Schools was issued as an ‘educational’ choice for February 1939 by the LBC, and thus probably received among the widest domestic readership of any book on education at the time, and certainly benefited from greater circulation than any previous communist one. This point cannot have been lost on the Party leadership. Moreover, since Morris was a Popular Front recruit to the CPGB, the book’s focus is telling as to the priorities of CP schoolteachers at this time. In his foreword, Morris made plain the scope of the discussion:

… we have adopted what may be called a ‘quantitative’ approach. Little or no reference is made to the ‘content’ of education, to questions of curriculum, or, for example to the problem of biased textbooks. We have had perforce to be concerned almost solely with the system itself.

After surveying the growth and organisation of the school system in England and Wales, The People’s Schools concluded that an anti-working class bias was inherent in it, ‘not merely through biased textbooks, but through the structure of the education system itself’. Rather than adopt the Marxist standpoint that such bias was an inevitable part of the capitalist superstructure, Morris warned that its presence was ‘dangerous from the standpoint of a truly democratic community’. In doing so, he was cautioning that the systemic bias of education needed to be ameliorated in order to protect democracy, rather than to establish socialism. Morris’s view was that the ‘chief vices’ of the 1936 Education Act were exemptions for ‘beneficial employment’ and the lack of maintenance allowances in the legislation’s provisions for the raising of the school leaving age to 15, since they discriminated against poorer children. ‘Our real aim’, wrote Morris, was ‘the compulsory attendance at school, to the age of fifteen of all children’. Thus, the type of education received by children in Britain under bourgeois democracy was accepted as inherently beneficial. The ‘real aim’ was restricted to making sure enough working-class children got access to it. This chimes with Dimitrov’s instruction that communists were to make defensive gains against fascism within bourgeois democracy.

Prescriptions for the reform of children’s education made in The People’s Schools were as quantitative as its analysis of the problems: a massive extension of school building; a maximum class size of 30 pupils; playing fields for every school; the raising of the leaving age to 16; the aforementioned abolition of exemptions and the establishment of maintenance grants for secondary education. Virtually all of these recommendations had already been included in Schools at the Cross Roads, and could be found in the proposals of mainstream bodies such as the Association of Education Committees, NUT, School Age Council, Liberal and Labour figures, and even some Conservatives. The only difference between these and communist recommendations was the emphasis communists put on the provision of maintenance grants. As by June 1938 the National Government was considering delaying beyond 1939 its plan to raise the leaving age, many organisations had chosen to focus their fight on hedging ‘beneficial exemptions’ with restrictions so that the number of children actually exempted was minimal. The People’s Schools sympathised with this strategy but argued that any child not exempted would still be at school without adequate maintenance, so it was necessary ‘not to drop the agitation for allowances’. But, even here, it was conceded that this aim should not be pursued at the expense of ‘the beneficial exploitation of the Act’.

On the type of secondary education to be given, Morris’s caution is striking. His only demands for reform were the transferral of ‘senior’ elementary schools into the secondary system, and the ‘establishment of experimental multi-lateral schools’. This, just after the Spens Report, was a time when the common secondary school was a hot topic within the Labour Movement, elements of which were making proposals much less equivocal than Morris’. The TUC had proposed the nationwide establishment of multilateral schools in 1939. NALT advocated common schools as early as 1930, and by 1938 had advised the Labour-controlled London County Council (LCC) to introduce multilateral schools in the city. In 1939, the Labour Party’s Education Advisory Committee (ACE)—which by this point included among its number Brian Simon—recommended to the LCC that it should implement multilateral reorganisation in London in order to anticipate the same on a nationwide basis by a future Labour government. ACE also confirmed its approval of the multilateral ideas to Labour’s National Executive Committee that June. This is not to suggest that there was wholesale support for multilateralism within the Labour Party—there were significant doubters still attached to the grammar school—but, overall, Labour teachers were certainly making more ambitious suggestions for reform of secondary education than those outlined in The People’s Schools.

A review in Labour Monthly indicates that the CP was conscious of the limitations in Morris’s enquiry. It argued that the book showed ‘the need for a more comprehensive treatise on English education, both in theory and practice, from a Marxist point of view’. However, the reviewer approved that Morris had ‘deliberately refrained from entering the field of pedagogical and educational theory’ in order to ‘deliver a series of proposals for educational advance which will have the backing of the majority of teachers and educationalists’. There is hardly a more apposite description of the priorities of CPGB teacher politics during the Popular Front.

Part of the Union

Also crucial to securing the backing of the mainstream of teachers for the Popular Front was working in the established trade unions. In the early 1930s British communist schoolteachers had envisaged the EWL as a radical ‘red’ alternative to the reformist mainstream teaching unions. But by 1932, the CPGB’s ‘January Resolution’ somewhat curtailed militant British communists’ attempts to establish independent trade union movements, and the League pledged itself to working within existing organisations to build up rank-and-file coalitions against the perceived class-collaboration of their leaderships.

Consequently, by the advent of the Popular Front, CP schoolteachers were already active in their unions. However, emphasising the need to take the masses ‘as they are, and not as we should like to have them’, the Popular Front line copper-fastened their approach. Furthermore, accepting the legitimacy of existing trade union structures meant that communist teachers needed to make absolutely certain that the existing reformist leadership did not hand them over to the forces of reaction. This meant getting communists into responsible positions. This is demonstrated in The Ploughshare of summer 1935, in which a communist, a Labour Party and a pacifist teacher were asked what teachers could do for peace. The CPGB teacher’s response was that ‘our first steps lie in the teaching unions … the mouthpiece of the teaching profession’s united demand for peace’. It was ‘above all through the teaching unions’ that the profession could be roused against fascism, war and educational economies. Getting Party teachers into positions of influence and power was clearly central to this strategy. In 1937, GCT Giles was elected to the Executive Committee of the NUT, and Nan McMillan was voted Vice-President of the NUWT, becoming its national President during the Christmas holidays of 1938-1939. Both had been influential figures in their local associations for some time (Giles in Middlesex, McMillan in London) and McMillan had been on the Central Council of the NUWT as early as 1934, but it was not until after the change to the Popular Front line that they were elected to national office.

The CPGB leadership evidently approved of and encouraged this strategy, for it was not afraid to invite schoolteachers in union office to speak at Party events. For example, McMillan was a speaker at a 1938 Daily Worker conference, sharing the platform with other communist stalwarts of industrial politics Arthur Horner, R.F. Papworth and Wal Hannington. The Daily Worker report of the conference made great play of her position within the NUWT. This was despite the fact that she asked them not to do so, as she was attending the conference in a personal capacity. The attempt by the CP to imply that the NUWT endorsed the Party’s stance for a Popular Front caused much consternation among McMillan’s union colleagues.

Ruffling feathers was not the priority, however. Essentially, the aim of Party teachers in their unions was to build up the greatest possible unity in their profession. Demands for secular education, co-education, workers’ control of schools and to fight against ‘capitalist discipline and … imperialist teaching’—which had been stated issues for which EWL teachers were to lobby in their associations—were no longer pursued. For example, in the wake of the 1936 Education Act, the NUT journal The Schoolmaster gave a series of its front pages to various groups to give their reactions to it. When it was the turn of ‘Secular Educationists and the Act’, no communist teacher featured. Thus, when an issue of already stated communist concern threatened to rub against the grain of mainstream teachers, it was dropped. Another typical example of this can be found in the attitude of Party teachers towards gas drills in schools. In 1935 they were among those firmly opposed to holding them. The London Teachers’ Association (in which CPGB teacher David Capper was highly active) was praised in The Ploughshare for passing a resolution expressing strong opposition to such drills, citing them as instrumental in building up a ‘war psychology’. However, when teaching union leaders readily answered the call of the Board of Education to discuss the matter in April 1937 teachers were suddenly advised to drop their opposition.

However, this is not to say that communist teachers instantly became ‘respectable’ figures. They still faced prejudice within their unions, even those elected to high office. For example, Giles was warned by a fellow NUT Executive member that their General Secretary regarded him as a ‘cancer’ which needed to be removed from the Union. Similarly, there was much suspicion about Nan McMillan within the NUWT. Some members threatened to refuse to pay their subscriptions on hearing of her communism, and particular energy was put into a campaign against her by London Labour Party teachers. And as much as they called for unity, communist teachers themselves were not afraid to level strident criticism at union officialdom when they deemed it to be frustrating the fight against fascism or for peace. Both the NAS and NUT leadership were attacked for their lack of enthusiasm for the TAWM.

Hence, the union activity of CPGB schoolteachers during the Popular Front was not simply a timid acquiescence with their associations’ bureaucracies in an attempt to appear respectable. On the contrary, communists were vociferous and energetic: they just concentrated on a much more focused and less contentious set of issues as compared with the late 1920s and early 1930s. The threat posed by fascism and war to quantitative educational advance was a rallying cry around which many teachers previously hostile to working with communists could gather. For example, TLL secessionist Leah Manning could be found speaking at a Labour Monthly United Front conference, and working closely with Giles on the NUT Executive. By subordinating discussions of educational content to those of war, peace and widening access to the existing system, the CP’s teachers really were following Dimitrov’s advice and attempting to find a common language with the mass of their fellow educators. The election of Giles and McMillan to senior office in their unions demonstrates that they were successful in this endeavour.

The Primacy of Political Struggle

Although schoolteachers inside CPGB were no longer expected to turn their backs on their profession, they were still required to involve themselves energetically in the day-to-day legwork of life as a Party activist. And since the Popular Front line laid special emphasis on reaching out beyond the converted, such Party legwork was considerable: canvassing, selling the Daily Worker, addressing meetings, duties as a branch-secretary or literature secretary, carrying out Party education, and working on local Peace Councils, Aid to Spain campaigns, the LBC and the like. The primacy of such political work naturally detracted from the amount of time communist teachers could spend discussing education.

Brian Simon spent weeks away in the Rhondda campaigning for the Party in local elections in 1935 and 1936. Nan McMillan’s contribution to Daily Worker discussion conferences has already been mentioned. For Ben Ainley, a Party teacher in Manchester, the Popular Front was ‘the paramount issue of the day’. He threw himself wholeheartedly into building it up: sitting as the CP representative on the local branch of the National Council for Civil Liberties, building up support for the Peace Ballot, the Unity Campaign and, above all, in the LBC.

The LBC founder Victor Gollancz clearly saw education as the Club’s raison d’être, and this—coupled with the proximity of the Club to the CPGB before 1939—meant that Party teachers could and did play a significant part in its activities. One way in which they did this was through local LBC discussion groups. The network of such groups had reached over 1200 by summer 1939, and they were a primary site for discussion of the Club’s books and for education on how best to defeat fascism and war. Indeed, the Club’s National Group Organiser until 1940, Dr John Lewis (also a loyal supporter of the CPGB), described the groups’ role as ‘teaching work’. Gollancz himself felt that local CP branches ran many local groups by early 1939. Julian Symons and George Orwell made similar observations. If such perceptions were accurate, then it is likely that Party teachers, being the comrades with the necessary skills to convey information and marshal group discussion, would have been involved.

Certainly, Ainley’s activities in Manchester provide a fascinating snapshot of how closely a Party teacher could get involved in an LBC group. Frank Allaun—who was later to become Labour MP for Salford, but in the 1930s was a communist activist who ran Collett’s bookshop in Manchester, from where over 1000 LBC books a month were distributed—remembered that Ainley was ‘extremely active’ in the LBC in and around Manchester as a group convenor and a lecturer. Such was his involvement that Ainley influenced discussions in group meetings at which he was not even present. He provided a critical appraisal of each monthly LBC choice and a list of two or three questions pertinent to it, circulated to all the discussion group leaders in and around Manchester. Ainley was so effective that he led monthly training sessions for the other regional group leaders, and day schools for those from further afield. Nor was he preaching to the converted few: by far the majority who attended LBC groups in Manchester and Salford were Labour Party members, and such groups spread across the whole district, with a total membership of over 500.

And Ainley’s experience was not an isolated one. The LBC held a Teachers’ Conference in 1937, attended by over 200 schoolteachers, at which GCT Giles was a keynote speaker. Specialist LBC groups for teachers sprang up in its wake. Several such groups existed in London by the spring of 1938. Given the closeness of the LBC to the CP at this time, not to mention that the groups were coordinated by John Lewis, it is highly probable that communist teachers participated in them. Certainly, Nan McMillan was invited to speak to the Hackney LBC Teachers’ Group in early 1939. A Manchester Teachers’ Group was established in June 1938, and given his presence in Manchester’s LBC community it is extremely likely that this involved Ben Ainley.

Nonetheless, the primary task of LBC groups was to discuss book choices and educate adults about the necessity of a broad alliance against fascism and war, so it is doubtful that CPGB teachers often departed from this in order to start discussions about the qualitative aspects of education for children, even in specific teacher groups or at teacher conferences. Nan McMillan’s invitation to Hackney was to speak on the general subject of ‘The Defence of Culture’, rather than the education of children specifically. Furthermore, Left News’ summation of the 1937 Teacher Conference was that future such events should be ‘far less left’ and noted that ‘there is a great deal of work to be done in showing teachers what possibilities there are, even within the limits of the present system’. This was hardly a ringing endorsement of the LBC as a site from which teachers could hold radical discussions on educational content or method.

Soviet Conservatism

It was an LBC book that no doubt provided British communists with a further disincentive to think radically about educational method. Beatrice King’s Changing Man: The Education System of the USSR was issued by the Club in June 1937. It confirmed changes in Soviet schooling which had been taking place since the early 1930s. The experimentation and decentralisation of the 1920s were being reined in by a Stalinist system which valued above all loyalty to the Soviet state and its rapid drive for industrialisation. A number of decrees between 1931 and 1932 abolished the Project Method and Dalton Plan, returned teacher-led class lessons as the basic pedagogic method, limited the self-government of schools, and increased the authority of teachers over pupils. In 1934 compulsory revised syllabuses were imposed by central government, returning to the teaching of separate subjects ‘very much in the same way as in the general run of English schools’. Uniforms were reintroduced, coeducation ended and grading and examinations were given more importance.

Such seemingly retrograde steps were perceived and explained by British communists in a number of ways. King’s explanation was much like one she had begun in the Educational Worker back in February 1933. To her, the modifications in Soviet education were both a temporary aberration which reflected the priorities of the Second Five Year Plan and simultaneously a reaffirmation of the true principles of communist education, in that they demonstrated the truth of the Leninist maxim that the ‘educational system of any country is conditioned by the economic system prevailing at the time’. The Daily Worker had also reported on the shift in Soviet schools in 1935 and, like King, argued that the USSR’s educational policy had changed because the Soviet economy had changed. The stabilisation of the socialist planned economy meant that the changes were not ‘falling into line with bourgeois thought and method’, but rather that Soviet children were ‘being fitted for the society in which they are going to live … where they are needed to fill jobs for which they have been educated and prepared’. By contrast, capitalism’s decay meant that English parents ‘scarcely know in what manner of society their children will grow up and what to educate them for’.

A letter to the Daily Worker from Noel Brinton, a CP teacher who toured Soviet schools in the 1920s, further developed this argument. The reduction in Soviet educational experimentation was really evidence of the success of socialist planning and its ability to deliver mass education to a population where previously it did not exist. The USSR had to abandon the Dalton Plan and the Project Method as they were now unfeasible and costly, since there were so many more schools than in the 1920s, with larger class sizes. This explanation by a CPGB schoolteacher shows that the tendency of the Party’s teachers to focus arguments for educational advance quantitatively rather than qualitatively was not solely about attempting to build Popular Front unity, but also a consequence of developments in the USSR.

Continuity with ‘Class against Class’

However, the influence of educational practice in the Soviet lodestar and the tactical exigencies of anti-fascist unity were not the only reasons communist schoolteachers avoided discussion of educational content. An additional disincentive lay in the continuities between ‘Class Against Class’ and the Popular Front line. For although the former was over in the sense that the CPGB and its teachers now saw worth in working with bourgeois democrats, the Comintern analysis of the general crisis of capitalism and its relationship to fascism remained essentially unchanged. Communist willingness to work with reformists was not recognition that capitalism could be reformed, but a temporary measure designed to deal with a temporary delay in the coming revolution, simultaneously striking a blow against fascism and exposing the redundancy of reformism.

This reading of the situation influenced some CP teachers not only to refrain from discussions about the qualitative reform of education under capitalism, but rather to reject them as pointless tinkering with a school system that was, as an aegis of the capitalist state, unreformable in this regard. Previous accounts have identified this position with the strategy of the EWL during ‘Class Against Class’, but I argue it was by no means unanimous at that time: there remained opinion within the League that exposition and combat of the anti-working-class bias of educational content under capitalism was worth pursuing. As the Education Committee of the then communist-dominated League put it in 1931, ‘we must support every attempt to obtain part of our ideals, even in a capitalist society’. It was for the convenience of the nascent Popular Front from 1933 that such discussions were unequivocally rejected in the EWL, not the militant excesses of ‘Class Against Class’. However, the fundamental continuity of interpretation between the latter and the Popular Front in terms of the decline of capitalism into fascism meant that there was more to this than keeping quiet on such matters for the sake of unity.

This explains the suspicion demonstrated by CPGB teachers towards the limited communist experimentation with ‘socialist’ education which did go on during the Popular Front at schools like Fortis Green. Such efforts were dismissed in the Party press as doomed attempts to carry out socialist education in a capitalist society. And this tendency also made itself known in that most Popular Front of enterprises, the TAWM. During the late 1930s, a dialogue emerged among schoolteachers about using their positions to educate youth to properly play a part in building international cooperation and avoiding war in the future. These discussions were closely associated with the Advisory Committee on League of Nations Teaching and the New Commonwealth Society. The education committee of the LCC had similarly been engaged in efforts on this front: in 1934 it had suggested that Empire Day be substituted by ‘Commonwealth Day’. To this suggestion, the following rejoinder appeared in The Ploughshare. Changing the name and tone of Empire Day was

to merely deflect the propaganda from one emotional plane to another … [to] subtly create in [schoolchildren] such an intense love for country that they are forced to uphold any war of aggression in order to preserve their ideal of patriotism. But … what can teachers to express their resentment? As individuals nothing … it is impossible to conceive of education as divorced from the theory and practice of the state.

Later in the same year, The Ploughshare said it was ‘a waste of time … to teach international brotherhood and peace by arbitration’, since pupils would ‘never have chance to put it into effect’. To do so was akin to ‘sending them out naked into a hailstorm’. A 1935 article on how teaching geography correctly could help engender mutual understanding among nations was panned for similar reasons. This attitude was still apparent in the TAWM by the final months of 1935: contributions by ‘EFU’ (presumably the initials of Edward Falaise Upward) stressed that ‘to stop war … our first duty is to struggle against our own rulers’.

Admittedly, however, such strident communist criticism of efforts to ‘teach peace’ faded away as the march of fascism abroad continued. This was in step with general CPGB policy, by this time prepared to forgo the necessary preconditions of a Popular Front in favour of uniting all those who stood for collective security—even Conservatives—as the international situation deteriorated throughout 1937 and 1938. Around this time, there was a definite change in tone in The Ploughshare. A leading article was given to the Labour MP Philip Noel-Baker, an Executive Member of the International Peace Campaign (IPC), who was permitted to extol the worth of teaching collective security to children. By summer 1937 CP schoolteacher Margaret Clarke could be found at the NUT conference attempting to pass a resolution pledging full support to the IPC and the League of Nations Union, and quoting a letter from its Conservative president, Lord Cecil, to support her. Indeed, Cecil himself had a letter published in The Ploughshare extolling the virtues of the IPC and the viability of an effective peace built on the League of Nations. By the start of 1938 the editorial board of The Ploughshare decided in this spirit to hand over the journal to the Teachers’ Committee of the IPC in order to broaden its appeal even further.

However, the fact that The Ploughshare was never to publish another issue underlines that it was fundamentally a communist enterprise: without CP schoolteachers as its dynamic core, the journal folded. Thus, despite the softening of its stance by 1937, The Ploughshare’s early editions demonstrate that communist schoolteachers’ avoidance of discussion about alternative educational content or method was a logical imperative of the continuities between the Comintern’s Third Period and Popular Front analyses of capitalism as well as a tactical ploy to unify anti-fascist sentiment.


‘Teaching peace’ would be rendered irrelevant by September 1939. By then Britain was at war and, anyway, the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact the month before had seriously dented the anti-fascist credibility and Left unity that communists had been attempting to build up steadily since 1935. The decision of the Comintern, and subsequently the CPGB, to denounce the war as a struggle between rival imperialisms by October 1939 subjected communist schoolteachers to a domestic isolation from which they would not recover until the Soviet Union joined the war in June 1941. But the fact that GCT Giles would be elected as President of the NUT by 1944—playing an important role alongside other Party members in the negotiations that led to the formulation and passage of that year’s historic Education Act—and the fact that by 1948 the CP Teachers’ Group would be 2000 strong, was not only a testament to the credibility that military alliance between Britain and the USSR lent to British communism. It was also due in no small part to the links with the wider profession that communist schoolteachers had built up during the Popular Front period.

As has been demonstrated, the Popular Front line made the CPGB a much more amenable organisation for socialist professionals like teachers to join, and the emphasis the line placed upon socialism as the natural inheritor of liberal cultural values meant that schoolteachers were foremost among the ‘intellectual’ recruits that were attracted by British communism in the period, playing an enlarged role both in the life of the Party and in the broader educational politics of the Left in Britain, which deserves to be acknowledged and explored. However, such progress came at the expense of developing a socialist theory or practice of education, in favour of a focus on the quantitative expansion of access to the existing system of schooling. This was due primarily to the prioritisation of unity among the teaching profession as a means to oppose the deleterious effects of fascism and war on education. But it also sprang from the taming of radical educational practice in the Soviet Union, and continuities between the Third Period and the Popular Front positions.