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(en) Britain, Freedom journal - Practical Anarchism: the unlikely Bakuninists

Date Thu, 31 Aug 2006 21:13:47 +0300


A massive, unsung, but very anarchistic educational network is
spanning the UK. Martyn Everett investigates
Asked to give examples of how anarchist ideas work in practice most
anarchists would probably suggest the collectivisation of industry
during the Spanish Revolution. If pressed to give more recent examples
then some of the surviving small-scale worker co-operatives set up since
the late 1960s, or free schools such as Summerhill might be suggested.
Yet there is one successful organisation that few people would think
about, and that is the University of the Third Age (U3A) which was
established as a way of providing further education to the over 45s.

Deliberately set up in the early 1980s as an independent
community-based “Mutual Aid University”, and now has a
network of 574 local groups covering most of the major towns and
cities in the UK, and members in many small rural communities.

Although the numbers of elderly people studying in state-controlled
further education has spiralled downwards, total membership of the
U3A currently stands at over 153,00 (February 2006), and increases
yearly.

The U3A adopted a healthy anti-authoritarian approach right from
the outset, so that the formal role of the tutor was challenged and
usually abandoned altogether.

As Eric Midwinter wrote in an early account of the U3A: “Those
who teach will be encouraged also to learn and those who learn shall
also teach, or in other ways assist in the functioning of the institution
– e.g. through counselling other members, offering tuition and
help to the housebound, bedridden and hospitalised, by assisting in
research projects, by helping to provide intellectual stimulus for the
mass of the elderly in Britain.”

The deliberate decision to abandon formal tutoring whenever
possible was a social rather than an economic decision, based on the
“assemblage of experience and skills which is the automatic gift
of the third age.
By dint of living, working and travelling, enjoying hobbies and
holidays, fighting wars, raising children “a veritable treasury of
knowledge is spontaneously available and it is the task of the U3A to
mobilise and channel the resource which otherwise would … be
Pitifully wasted.”

This is how one member of Ealing U3A describes their organisation:
“Interest Groups are the heart of the U3A movement. Groups
meet mainly in each other's homes. Someone with particular
expertise and knowledge takes on the role of teacher, leading each
session. Alternatively, a member acts as secretary and helper with
group members taking it in turn to lead a meeting. Groups generally
meet fortnightly or monthly and everyone pays 20 pence a meeting
to cover tea and coffee.”

“The movement is a self-help organisation. Most of the teaching
and tuition comes from the ranks of its own members. It is a unique
educational self-help co-operative. While each U3A is an
autonomous unit responsible for organising its programme, the
Third
Age Trust - of which all local U3As are members - provides local
U3As with administrative and educational resources and support to
help in running their groups. It organises "subject networks" of
individuals who are willing to assist others in their particular field of
study, e.g. languages, history, geology etc.”

“As leadership comes from the members themselves, a U3A
member may be a student in one group one day and the leader or
tutor the next. It is not always necessary to have an expert as a
leader. In some subjects, members learn from each other and the
role of the leader is to encourage everyone to take part.

Interest groups are often quite small with meetings or classes taking
place in members' homes. Not only does this save on
accommodation costs, it makes for friendly contact among
members.”
In Norwich the U3A has over 700 members and more than 40 active
groups studying computing, science environmental sciences, seven
different languages, arts, crafts, literature, poetry, theatre, and nearly
20 leisure subjects, including music appreciation, bowls, philosophy
and vegetarian cooking.

While state-sponsored adult education now only runs courses that
result in certificated qualifications, the U3A does not mark or grade
educational activity, and the rigid boundaries between education and
leisure have been dropped.

In the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Peter Kropotkin defined anarchism
as a society without government, explaining that social harmony in
anarchist society would not be achieved by “by obedience to any
authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various
groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of
production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the
infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilised being.”

He went on to describe how this might be realised: “In a society
developed on these lines, the voluntary associations which already
now begin to cover all the fields of human activity would take a still
greater extension so as to substitute themselves for the State in all its
functions. They would represent an interwoven network, composed
of an infinite variety of groups and federations of all sizes and
degrees, local, regional, national and international - temporary or
more or less permanent - for all possible purposes: production,
consumption and exchange, communications, sanitary
arrangements, education, mutual protection, defence of the territory,
and so on; and, on the other side, for the satisfaction of an ever
increasing number of scientific, artistic, literary and sociable needs."
( Peter Kropotkin, “Anarchism”, Encyclopaedia Britannica,
11th edition, 1905.)

The U3A provides a living example of how people can organise
effectively to bypass and replace the state, demonstrating a method
that can be adapted to other forms of social activity. Of course there
are limits to what has been achieved, and no doubt in some groups
informal hierarchy may still exist.

But if member’s personal experience of non-hierarchical
organisation can be extended into other activities such as credit
unions, housing co-ops, communal allotments, then the social basis
for informal hierarchy will diminish.

The experience of the U3A demonstrates that in their daily lives
people organise in ways which are both autonomous and
anti-authoritarian because they provide effective solutions to social
problems, even if as individuals they do not advocate anarchism as a
political philosophy. Our role as anarchists is to argue that the
central principles of anarchism – autonomy, mutual aid,
self-help and direct action – are important as forms of social
organisation that provide a practical social basis for the
reconstruction of society.
The members of the U3A have quietly established one of the largest
movements for libertarian education in Europe, and in doing so have
demonstrated that the state is redundant.

- From Freedom anarchist newspaper -
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