YOUTH WORK & CLASS: THE STRUGGLE THAT DARE NOT SPEAK ITS NAME
This chapter will seek to explore the relationship between Youth Work and Class, Youth Work and Class Politics, Youth Work and the Class Struggle, albeit with trepidation. Today simply to mouth the phrase ‘the class struggle’ is to invite derision and disbelief, particularly perhaps from those within Youth Work (and I was taken a bit aback by how many there were), who danced in the streets over a decade ago as New Labour came to power. The renovated, former socialist party’s message was clear – class politics were redundant and irrelevant, consigned to the dustbin of history. The then revitalised, now sometime reviled leader, Tony Blair declared, ‘the class war is over’ [BBC 1999]. This evidently persuasive posture seems to be today's common-sense. Against this backcloth you may be forgiven for wondering whether the following impressionistic history is clinging on to the past for fear of the present. For example, is there any relationship between my participation in the incredibly emotional Durham Miners’ Gala in 1985, the first after the Great Strike, the ranks of unbowed working class men and women surging through the crowded streets in the wake of Lodge banners and brass bands, and my involvement in Youth Work? Is there any connection between the rhythm of the struggle of Capital versus Labour and the changing character and content of Youth Work? Is it possible to wonder whether the defeat of the Miners foreshadowed the retreat within Youth Work from social education to social engineering? These may seem absurd and irrelevant questions, reflecting no more than romantic sentiment, whether for a fighting working class or for youth workers committed to ‘voluntary association’. With the ‘end of history’ it seems that both are deemed to be dead
Nevertheless, despite the odds, this writer hopes to persuade you that the relationship of Youth Work to Class continues to haunt the Youth Work project, to influence significantly what we think we are up to with young people. Furthermore that the failure to take this on board has undermined fatally thus far the possibility of a holistic Youth Work practice opposed to all oppression and exploitation, which is unequivocally on the side of the struggle for genuine equality and authentic democracy. In closing the piece a few tentative proposals will suggest that all is not yet lost; that the political struggle outside of and inside Youth Work continues.
REFLECTIONS ON CLASS
It is necessary to begin with some sort of definition of Class Politics. So the following is a touch crude, but serves its purpose. For the past century and longer Class Politics has revealed itself in three ways, roughly equivalent to the much-used and abused notions of Right, Centre and Left:
To say the least, there have never been neat divisions, despite appearances, between these political positions, not least because Right, Centre and Left are all wedded to Capitalism. They differ only about how to manage the system, which is not to claim that the differences have had no significance, witness the rise and demise of the Welfare State [Gough 1979]. However, nowadays, it is increasingly difficult to put a cigarette paper between any of them. This is symbolised by Gordon Brown's journey from the reforming socialist of 1989, who complained of “an extraordinary transfer of resources from the poor to the rich” to today's “champion of privatisation, the market, of the interests of the super-rich, of globalisation, of the whole neo-liberal agenda” [Newsinger 2007].
But outside of this Unholy Trinity, it is possible to discover what might be called the Ultra-Left, occupying a revolutionary position, which aspires to the overthrow of Capitalism, the State and the Bureaucracy. Such a social and political transformation would herald a new dawn, where we ourselves and nobody else collectively control our society [Fontens 1953: Castoriadis 1988: Gerber 1988]. This is a Class Struggle position which knows that the ruling class is not going to relinquish its power without some severe hassle. Tragically this emancipatory view of Class Politics has been distorted disastrously by the Leninist tradition [Cleaver 1979], but bear with this interpretation, which holds that radical change must be the creative endeavour of the People themselves or we will just be changing the Masters. How far has this bottom-up, autonomous Class Struggle perspective ever influenced Youth Work?
In hoping to stimulate discussion, our reference point is the sixth chapter of Volume 2 in Bernard Davies’ seminal ‘History of the Youth Service in England’. Whilst exploring the fate of Issue-based Youth Work in a Thatcherite climate, he asks ‘Whatever Happened to Class?’ In the very moment of pondering the question, Davies recognises its irony, noting that historically Youth Work “has been preoccupied with reaching working-class youth and countering their worst excesses” [1999: 94]. He provides the answer to his own question here. Traditionally Youth Work has accepted class inequality, its task being to integrate youth into an acceptance of the capitalist system. Putting this into the context of the post-war situation, Bernard Davies reflects on two contrasting periods:
As for Youth Service’s response to this dramatically changing scenario, Davies marks its failure “to construct a practice, theory and ideology for responding to the class roots of the disadvantage experienced by young people” [1999:96]. He calls our attention to the pertinent questions, still utterly relevant today, posed by Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith fifteen years ago:
Do youth workers…….seek to encourage working-class young people to reflect critically on their experiences of the labour market? Or do they simply seek to ameliorate the situation? [1990: 221]
For what it’s worth, my own experience, interpreted of course in the light of my own politics - from the early 70’s as a part-time worker through being a Training Officer in the early 80’s to the absurdity of being a Chief Youth & Community Officer in the 90’s, up to and including present-day conversations with workers on the ground - has been overwhelmingly one of arguing with a profession that, rare exceptions aside, has poured oil uncritically on the troubled waters of class exploitation. Certainly Davies is right to stress Youth Work’s failure to construct an ideology, a politics supportive of working-class youth, but he stops short of putting his finger on the reason for this shortcoming. For the creation of an educational practice supportive of working-class young men and women would require a radical break from Youth Work’s acceptance of ruling class ideology. Youth workers would need to rupture a professional culture, which has seldom questioned its uncritical acceptance of the Market, the State and its Bureaucracy [Schmidt 2000]. When we talk of the Youth Service, perhaps we ought to speak of an agency in the service not of young people, but of Capital. Not that, obviously, the profession would recognise itself in the picture thus drawn.
All the more so as its full-time practitioners tend to believe that they possess a superior understanding of the condition of young people, compared, for example, to teachers, social workers or probation officers. But how might this be so? In what sense do youth workers have a superior critique of the way in which Capitalism burrows its way into every nook and cranny of young people’s and their own existence. To take but the obvious example prompted by Jeffs and Smith's questions, youth workers accept apparently the inevitability of injustice and inequality in the workplace. At best, they believe in ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s labour’, even as it’s patently obvious that what’s apparently enough for a Tesco cashier is not at all sufficient for the Tesco Chief Executive. It seems to be accepted within Youth Work that economic inequality is how the world is, the immovable background to human existence. Contrary to the hope expressed in the last sentence of their closing chapter, youth workers are swimming in a sea of capitalism and seem to be drowning in it [Jeffs and Smith 1990].
Of course this unfolding argument is heading for trouble. In the year 2008, don’t working people (in the widest sense) share the same shrug of their shoulders with youth workers? Many might well agree that things ought to be better, but feel little can be done about it. Contrary to the millennial rhetoric favoured by left-wing groups, of which I've been a member, the working class in this country is hardly straining at the leash to throw off its chains. In an apparent acceptance of the status quo, many have retreated into a ‘privatised’ world of individual rather than collective concern. As Cornelius Castoriadis  puts it, a mood of generalised conformity seems to prevail. It is taken-for-granted that a tiny minority rule over the vast majority and that this is called Democracy. Readers with long memories might remember the 7:84 Theatre Company (who once performed in a Youth Centre for which I was responsible). The ratio from which they took their name remains close to the mark, 7% of the world’s population possess 84% of the world’s wealth. Indeed the obvious obscene, contemporary example, whereby a celebrity footballer can earn around 16 million pounds a year, more than 200,000 nurses will earn in a lifetime, seems to elicit no more than a sigh of helpless resignation from the bulk of the country's citizens. Is it time to admit, despite our emotional attachment to the notion, that the class struggle is dead, and that youth workers can hardly be blamed for reflecting the dominant mood? For the moment the towel is not being thrown into the ring, for that would really let Youth Work sneak away unpunished. To find our bearings we need to pass back the dilemma to history and to a time when nobody could claim the Class War was over.
A return to the 1970’s into the 80’s and Davies's articulation of a shift in the social and economic conditions is required. To be blunt this is a euphemism for a sometimes bloody battle between Capital and Labour, a period of sustained attack upon a working-class too big for its own clogs by a ruling class desperate to regain its own control and profitability. Across this period Capital’s aim was to undermine and fracture the institutions and achievements, however partial, of class struggle and solidarity, from the trade unions through to the right of free education for all, including the very character of the post-Albermarle Youth Service itself. Indeed it was Davies himself, who led a critical response to the attack on Youth Work, posed, in particular, by the emergence of the Manpower Services Commission [MSC], via his prescient pamphlets, ‘In Whose Interests’  and ‘The State We’re In’ . Writing around the same time, I accused the MSC in suitably dramatic terms of desiring “the behavioural modification of the young proletariat” [Taylor 1981]. Proletariat indeed – now there’s a word that has gone out of fashion! Whatever, in Bernard's greatest achievement, ‘Threatening Youth’ (1986), he was at pains to recognise the class conflict underlying the fluctuations in social policy towards young people. We will see later that his challenging work had a positive impact upon trade union resistance to the attack on the supposed ‘soul’ of Youth Work or, more pragmatically, the threat to JNC pay and conditions. Yet this combative example is exceptional. The truth is that across this period of class turbulence, Youth Work was no more than a spectator at the drama unfolding before its eyes. Despite its claim to be a source of social and even political awareness, as an institution, as a profession, it contributed very little to the class struggles of those years. Complacently it shrugged its shoulders back then. This clavicular compliance was not by chance.
Obviously it is necessary to give a semblance of substance to these sweeping assertions. Thus what follows attempts to illustrate, using the example of Training, the glaring absence of a class politics ‘on the side of young people’ within most Youth Work. In contrast, drawing largely on my own history, I shall identify a smattering of initiatives, which sought to bring a class struggle or at least a class-conscious dimension to the work. This is not, I hope, personal indulgence. In the absence of recordings from within the work, it means no more than that this history is the history I know best. So too, in my time I made a great deal of arguing for a revolutionary socialist practice – witness a pretentious piece, ‘Youth Workers as Character-Builders: Constructing a Socialist Alternative’ . As for this ideological stance I’ll return in my conclusion to the critical question of the relationship between class, gender, race, sexuality and the political struggle.
TRAINING THE CADRE?
The social democratic inspired training of the initial vanguard of full-time youth workers in the 60’s, with its acceptance that class dilemmas were melting away, centred on supporting young people stripped of their class, gender, race, sexuality and dis'ability. The emancipatory potential of this training’s emphasis on a person-centred critical process was diminished greatly by its failure to root its subjects (both youth workers and young people) in the relations of class, in relations of power. My own training as a primary teacher in the same period (65-68) mirrored the same illusion. As far as class went, my sole memory is that of being lectured on Bernstein’s theory of elaborated (read sophisticated middle-class) and restricted (read backward working-class] codes of expression. Indeed the thrust of my Higher Education seemed intent (in retrospect) on undermining my very sense of being working-class. My respectable journey to becoming a professional ignored working class creativity and working class struggle.
From the 70’s onwards I came into contact with full-time qualifying courses either as a visiting lecturer, a practice-based supervisor or as an external examiner. In all these roles I found myself arguing for the inclusion of a Marxist understanding of class. My special pleading in Youth Work circles contrasted strongly with the situation in many Social and Community Work Departments, where prominent academic Marxists such as Peter Leonard, Paul Corrigan, Paul Willis and Cliff Slaughter held court. In 1980 I did an MA in Community Work Studies at Bradford, where, for example, I was encouraged to write a Marxist critique of Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire. The university was rife with a creative energy and tension around ‘the unhappy marriage of Marxism and Feminism’. But, to my knowledge, apart from isolated heretics such as Frank Booton, Tony Jeffs and Jean Spence in the North-East, this was not at all the case within Youth Work academia.
In this context it is not perhaps surprising that, even when Youth Work training was being radicalised in the late 70's and early 80's, class was seen as much less significant than gender and race, and later sexuality and dis'ability. If class did get onto the curriculum, it was via a sociological analysis (stressing status, occupation and culture) rather than a Marxist model of political conflict. Indeed, much later, in 1997, whilst lecturing at the Manchester Metropolitan University, I found myself arguing in its absence for the inclusion of a session on class in the opening Social Divisions module, seen as an ideological cornerstone of the course. My contention is that the necessary shift in the make-up of the staff in the institutions through the 80’s and 90’s saw the recruitment of men and women, black and white, gay and straight, whose ideological priorities were gender, race and sexuality. By and large, class was not prioritised in the same way, dashing hopes of an integrated analysis. Indeed to talk of class, to be a Marxist, never mind an anarchist, became less and less chic, even more so as post-modernism’s superficial sophistication gained in prestige.
Over in the arena of part-time youth worker training, as a fledgling tutor in the mid-70’s, I walked into the same battle about class. In Lancashire the Bessey model of part-time training ruled. It seemed that those organising and delivering the course thought that Power had something to do with the Electricity Board. Collision was inevitable. Although, accusing the Youth Service staff team of ‘class treachery’ was not perhaps one of my more astute tactical observations. Later, as a Training Officer, in first a metropolitan then a county council, from around 1978 through to 1985, I was involved in a number of efforts to introduce a class struggle dimension (not forgetting gender, race and sexuality) into the curriculum. The first effort was based on an experiential model, in which the raw material of the course was supplied by the members’ biographies. It was pretty scary stuff, as we delved deeply into workers’ personal lives. Yet whilst we were to review and criticise this process savagely, its premise that the consciousness of the worker is at the heart of the Youth Work relationship seems still to be enormously important. As a consequence, though of this self-criticism, I was involved then in a more structured approach, still using biography as a starting point, but with a greater emphasis on teaching people ‘how to listen and chat’ coupled to specific inputs on the ‘issues’. In neither of these cases, within Wigan and Leicester, did anyone contest the content of the courses directly. In retrospect, for a time, those hostile to this attempted politicisation of the work tended to keep quiet in public, intimidated perchance by our theoretical confidence. Such opponents contented themselves with undermining the purpose of the courses on the shop-floor, buttressing the conservatism of the workplace itself. Thus, whilst these training experiences were unpredictable hot-beds of argument, in tune with our views of what Youth Work ought to be, their impact on evening-to-evening practice was severely constrained. Unsurprisingly these attempts to shift the focus of training were shelved with relief, sooner or later, as the principal architects moved on.
On the other side of the coin I must mention being involved as an external with the Sheffield Community Work Apprentice Scheme from 1987-90, a product of Sheffield Council’s flirtation with municipal socialism. To the consternation of senior local government officers the Scheme sought to recruit to the course ‘activists committed to acting in the interests of the class’ - brave and noble sentiments indeed. Under the guidance of Jan Docking, a Marxist-Feminist out of the University of Warwick’s Social Work course, where both Peter Leonard  and Bernard Davies were tutors, the Scheme grappled seriously with tensions around class, gender and race, particularly as the composition of the students reflected the old Labour movement in the Steel City, the growing confidence of working-class women and the rise of a critical, combative Black presence in Sheffield. Sadly the 87-90 course saw the last run of this grounded and innovative venture.
Straightforwardly my contention is that Youth Work training since Albermarle, scattered instances aside, has never confronted class issues and class politics from a critical, working-class point of view. More broadly Jeffs and Smith note “the class nature of the experiences generated” in the work and the insidious acceptance of the superiority of bourgeois norms [1990, 220-221].
ARGUING AND THINKING
On this wider front than just training we can mark what used to be a favourite pastime within the Youth Work, ‘arguing endlessly about what we were doing, what we would like to do and what others ought not to be doing’: the arenas within which purpose, policy and practice were discussed. These discussions were dismissed by their detractors, the ‘doers’, as indulgent navel-gazing. However, through the late 70’s and 80’s this internal debate saw a range of attempts to influence practice from a working-class perspective. These efforts compromised articles, pamphlets and books written with class tensions in mind; individuals and groups intervening in staff meetings, in-service training and in the trade unions/professional associations; and even the organisation of independent discussion outside of the system. It was a rich period of argument, bedeviled by the question of how many people, what percentage of the Youth Service workforce were ever actually involved in this ferment? Crucially this intensity of debate was related intimately to the climate of political tension created by the living struggles of working-class women and men and working-class youth across that period – health workers, local government officers, fire-fighters, steelworkers, miners, Asian women at Grunwicks, black and white young people in Brixton and Toxteth. The space to argue critically was opened up by working people refusing to lie down in the face of capitalist provocation. Inspired by this reality, individuals and groups within Youth Work put in their pennyworth in different ways.
As mentioned earlier, Bernard Davies produced a series of influential pamphlets beginning with his ‘Part-Time youth work in an industrial town’  through to the book ‘Threatening Youth’  which sought to stress the significance of class relations and conflict for Youth Work. In particular his writing was catalytic in the Community and Youth Workers Union [CYWU] resistance to the attempted colonisation of work with young people by the Manpower Service Commission. Indeed I was Chair of the CYWU’s MSC Working group, which monitored and opposed the Commission’s attempts both to undermine wages and conditions and to impose an explicit employer-led agenda on practice with young people.
In 1978 the National Youth Bureau published ‘Realities of Training’, a searching Marxist interrogation of the claims of Youth Work training, written by Steve Butters and Sue Newhill. Given Youth Work’s suspicion of theory and politics, the impact of this remarkable piece of analysis was initially muted in its impact. Not all that astonishing, given that its concluding proposal was for a Radical Paradigm for Youth Work founded on the emancipatory potential of a working-class youth contesting its subordinate position in society. Except that extraordinarily a National Youth Agency initiative sponsored by the Brewer's Society, the Enfranchisement Project (1980-82), under the influence of such as Steve Bolger, Alec Oxford and Andy Smart, adopted Realities’ Five Models of Youth Work as the basis of a critical dialogue with youth workers across fifty Authorities and Voluntary Organisations in England and the Six Counties.
The Models were Character-Building, then the three elements of the Social Education Repertoire, namely Cultural Adjustment, Community Development and Institutional Reform, and finally the Radical Paradigm. The latter, in seeking to make a qualitative break from the politics of class compromise contained in the other models, identified itself in the following statement:
It’s no good being naïve about the police, the school system or youth unemployment. Too many campaigns and pressure groups overlook the ways in which these institutions reflect the interlocking systems of capitalism, patriarchy and racism. If we are really going to make a difference to young people’s lives then we have to work with them to overthrow these systems. For us as youth workers this will involve consciousness raising and political action. For some of us the way forward lies in building alliances with the organised working class in their historic struggle, not for more crumbs, but for the whole bloody bakery.
Others of us see the labour and trade union movement as so deeply sexist and racist that our commitment is to a programme of radical self-emancipation, breaking down conditioning and de-legitimising authority.
For us the usual channels are a con, which we may choose to exploit but we reject the cosiness of reform. Real change means struggle and conflict [Leigh and Smart 1985: 168]
Heady stuff methinks! Anyone involved in this Enfranchisement experience could not fail to be moved by the stark and complex differences it illustrated between youth workers. Initially I was part of the Wigan working group, but my most emotional experience came on a Leicestershire Community Education staff training weekend, where staff were asked to situate themselves in different rooms according to their political/professional allegiance to one of the five approaches to working with young people. The exercise forced workers to identify their ideological commitment. It was painful. Tears flowed. Whatever its faults, it remains one of the few courageous efforts in Youth Work to cut through a self-congratulatory ‘do-goodery’, the illusion that we’re all in the same game. It confronted people hiding their politics under a tarpaulin. It posed the right question from a class-conscious outlook: ‘In Whose Interests Are You Doing This Work?’ But, when the money ran out, the initiative contrived to die what seemed a natural death. Nevertheless, on the ground, some workers strove to maintain the momentum.
As perhaps an eccentric example it led in Leicestershire to the creation of a workers’ group, SYRUP (embarrassingly Socialist Youth Workers Revolutionary United Party!), made up of socialists, anarchists and feminists. The group met regularly in people’s homes, in people’s own time, to discuss policy and practice, the strategy and tactics for change. It was instrumental in winning support for one of the part-time workers’ courses mentioned earlier, which asserted that helping young people makes sense only if we have a firm grasp of how a young person’s class, her gender and her race influence the choices available in making sense of her world. In my opinion, at that time and now, such groupings which refuse professional boundaries, bringing together part-time and full-time youth workers, community tutors, officers, the Youth Training Scheme instructors of the past, the Connexions advisers and Advanced Practitioners or whomever of today, and, if possible, administrative staff are critical to developing collective, oppositional practice. This particular East Midlands group drew much energy from its involvement in supporting the Leicestershire striking miners, the ‘Dirty Thirty’. In significant contrast I remember arguing in 1984 with leading feminists within Youth Work who refused to be involved in the dispute, citing the unacceptable sexism of the miners – thus tragically cutting themselves off from all the possibilities of working with the women, the young women of the Great Strike.
The Leicestershire grouping and others I’ve been involved in, particularly in Wigan in the late 70’s, desired and invited support from fellow travellers. Indeed the Wigan Community and Youth Service Association [CYSA] in 1981 organised independently a conference ‘Youth Work & the Crisis’ in Manchester, which impacted upon the unionisation of youth workers and perhaps even contributed to the birth of ‘Youth & Policy’. After all, it was Frank Booton, a founder member of Y&P, who described the gathering of 40 or so people as ‘an historic event’! This acknowledged the overtures of these small, but energetic groupings were not widely applauded. A wider network of youth workers committed to organising a collective ‘socialist’ practice never materialised.
In passing, the influence (at least on some Youth Services) should not be forgotten of the agit-prop theatre groups of this period, exemplified by the Red Ladder Company, all of whom toured around community and youth centres and other local venues performing plays with an explicit class struggle content. This history remains invisible. By the end of the 80’s this movement was on the slide alongside the retreat of the working-class as a whole.
THE REALITY OF PRACTICE
Sadly we know little about the myriad of minor moments of intimate practice, within which a youth worker and young person(s) stumble into a conversation about trade unions, the police, the difference between Brown and Cameron, the morality of the invasion of Iraq, the significance of the G8 Summits or the use of Mosquito dispersal devices. Neither we, nor even the youth worker and young people involved, are sure what on earth these passing critical dialogues might mean today, tomorrow, or in a few years’ time. There are no guarantees of their significance, which is not to belittle their possible consequences.
But, even, on the more visible level, it is never easy to decipher the real character of the engagement between youth workers and young people. Indeed this applies whatever the politics of the interaction might be. Much goes unrecorded, whilst official versions of practice tend inevitably towards the self-congratulatory. Public self-criticism of our practice is in short supply. So where does this leave any sense of class-conscious youth work in action? To the best of my knowledge projects with an explicit commitment of this order have been thin on the ground. A Young People's Cooperative, to which I was close, made many attempts to reach out nationally to projects of a similar persuasion, but with little success.
In terms of work with informal groups, some workers stimulated by the struggles of the time took young people to concerts/gigs with an explicit political message, to the ‘Right to Work’ and ‘A Woman’s Right To Choose’ demonstrations, to Anti-Nazi League and Anti-Apartheid Rallies. What they told their managers or employers is another undocumented matter. Forgive the nostalgia, but, circa 1978, I bumped with my ‘kids’ into a youth worker with her ‘kids’ at a Tom Robinson gig in Salford. We po-goed in solidarity to the strains of his anti-statist anthem, ‘Power in the Darkness’. We were buzzing, but what it quite meant is another imponderable. At which point I can only note that up to this moment of light relief, my depiction of ‘class struggle youth work’ has sounded pretty heavy and daunting, hardly a chuckle and hardly likely to catch on! This argument needs to be complemented by a history of how to be a fun-loving, yet serious worker, always up for a laugh, but always up for a critical chat!
In terms of young people making contact with industrial struggles, youth workers have been shy of turning up on picket lines with youth groups. This may be for obvious reasons of self-preservation - just think nowadays of the risk-assessment issues! Yet it was illuminating to talk to activist and youth worker Tania St de Croix, about her experience on an Anti-Road Campaign in the mid-nineties, where, whilst teachers visited the camp with their pupils, youth workers were strikingly conspicuous by their absence. What might this suggest about the profession's political outlook?
But the crucial litmus test of practice, where a class struggle perspective is concerned, seems to be where the control of policy and resources is contested frontally by youth on behalf of all young people, whatever their gender, ethnicity, sexuality or dis'ability. It may be an expression of my compromised past, but I’ve only been involved in over thirty years in a few pieces of practice where young people took on both the profession itself, the Council’s officers and the ruling politicians. One was a struggle over their control of a Youth Centre, their right to decide how it was run. The second was a struggle to set up a Youth Council, which from the start was highly critical of the Youth Service itself and the local State. The third was a fight to defend a Youth Service against cuts in the 90’s, culminating in the biggest demonstration in Wigan for nigh on twenty years. In the first two cases the initiatives were closed down and the workers disciplined. Perhaps the third only just deserves to be in the frame as youth workers themselves were perhaps too much to the fore and the battle did not spill over into the occupation of youth clubs by young people, did not escalate into direct action.
My reference to occupations is serious, not at all flippant. Given its battering at different times over the last 30 years, if Youth Work was based on a politics of struggle rather than compromise and capitulation, its history would be littered with martyrs – sacked workers and proscribed youth groups. This is not the case. This is not to sneer at the absence. It is eminently understandable, but a price is paid for this silence. Thus the offices of the CYWU or UNISON do not display on their walls memorials to those sacked members, fighting alongside young people in defence of the Service, to whom respect must be given. Within the work there is no such a tradition, no such a collective history.
This said, the one place within Youth Work, separate from practice with young people, where a class struggle politics had an effect, was in the history of the CYSA, then CYWU, from the late 70’s to the middle 80’s. Much happened across this period as incoming workers, socialists, feminists, black activists, clashed with the existing ‘liberal’ membership. I remember a small group of us attending our first conference in 1980 naively astonished at the Conference dinner as the top table resplendent in their dinner jackets, chains of office around their necks, was clapped rhythmically into the dining hall! A couple of pompous sexist speeches later we walked out in a righteous huff, precipitating a major row concerning our uncouth, ill-mannered behaviour. Our perhaps petty response aside, this altercation said a great deal about CYSA’s political outlook at that time. In the next few years, Right, Centre and Left engaged in a messy and acrimonious battle. The spoils seemed to go to the Left. Roy Ratcliffe and I drew up a radical constitution for what had become the CYWU. I’ll mention but two of its proposals initially accepted, which were of a libertarian Marxist disposition.
Our report in the mid-80’s argued that the constitution should be turned upside down from a management orientation [in which power was imposed] to a democratic structure under the control of the membership [through which power was conferred only under instruction from below]. In fact the gains opened up by the new constitution were short-lived [Ratcliffe 1986]. They were overturned. The National Organiser, reverting almost immediately to General Secretary, has now been in his appointed job for nigh on 20 years and the understanding of caucuses narrowed to the right of the officially approved oppressed - women, black people, gays and lesbians and the disabled- to organise autonomously. Evidently there is no such thing in CYWU’s eyes as class exploitation and oppression. I remember vividly being told by a black member that I had no right to caucus as a socialist as I was not oppressed. I tried to put forward an argument on the basis of class struggle politics, but a fearful conference of youth and community workers rejected this perspective overwhelmingly. The General Secretary, Doug Nicholls, at that time a member of a Marxist-Leninist sect less than keen on the ‘unpredictable ingenuity’ of the working class [Castoriadis 2007], applauded his membership’s decision.
ANTI-CLASSIST YOUTH WORK!?
As this argument draws to its conclusion, a last throw of the dice might be permitted. In the discourse of Youth Work, since the 70's, sexism and racism have been central, but no mention of classism is to be found. Indeed neither Google nor the Microsoft Word dictionary recognise the would-be word. As for sexism there is little doubt that Youth Work has rightly recognised its responsibility to be anti-sexist. Whilst 40 years ago you would have found youth workers openly saying ‘a woman’s place is in the home’, this would be deeply frowned upon today. Similarly, you would have come across mainstream youth organisations that communicated the idea of the superiority of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ culture. From an anti-racist perspective this is rightly inadmissible and would be off limits today. None of which is to say that Sexism and Racism are now sorted within Youth Work’s agenda, far from it. In this context, though, if the word classism was allowed, what might being anti-classist mean?
It's necessary to return to the notions of Anti-Sexist and Anti-Racist practice in search of an answer. An Anti-Sexist practice seeks to contest and indeed end the domination of women by men. It aspires to challenge this abuse of power on a personal level (e.g. prejudiced language, attitudes) and on an institutional level. An Anti-Racist practice seeks to confront and indeed undermine utterly white power over black people. Again it strives to do so at a personal and institutional level. So, what about an Anti-Classist practice? It seems logical that such a practice seeks to oppose and indeed overthrow the domination of the working-class (widely defined) by the ruling capitalist class. It would attempt to do so on a personal and an institutional level.
It is important to recognise that anti-classist practice directed at the individual would differ somewhat from anti-racist/anti-sexist practice at the personal level. In the case of the latter, oppressor and oppressed, male/female, white/black, so to speak, rub shoulders together in the youth project, in the training group and in the staff meeting. Neither can escape the task of dealing with one another. Unfortunately, perhaps, because it would be therapeutic to give them some grief, members of the ruling class don’t attend in person the youth project or, as a rule, even become youth workers. Thus what an anti-classist practice proposes is that the attitudes and prejudices challenged are those that are within and against the class, those that undermine class solidarity and resistance. For certain, questioning sexist, racist and homophobic attitudes would be integral to an anti-classist practice, but in addition all manner of stereotyping other young people, according to which estate, neighbourhood, village or town they come from [and much, much more], would be confronted.
Perhaps it is transparent why anti-classism isn’t a feature of Youth Work practice. Whilst introducing an anti-classist perspective would enrich anti-racism and anti-sexism, would it create havoc, even chaos? If youth workers are opposed to classism, to Capitalism, to ruling class exploitation, to its institutional imperative, what do we do, as but an example, about Youth Work’s increasing involvement in preparing young people to be exploited on training schemes or in the workplace? Is this consistent with an anti-classist practice?
A final set of simplistic, but relevant questions might be posed. Would any youth worker vote for a Racist Party arguing for White Power or for a Sexist Party arguing for Male Power? This seems highly unlikely. So how is it to be explained that many voted for and continue to support a Classist Party, New Labour, utterly committed to the continuation of Capitalist Class Power? Of course there are supposedly sophisticated as well as pragmatic responses to the latter, focused on the necessity of influencing such a party from within. What cannot be denied is the dearth of debate within Youth Work about the class politics behind such New Labour initiatives as ‘Youth Matters'’ [Taylor 2006].
THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES
In focusing on a notion of the Class Struggle and its absence from Youth Work discourse I risk being seen as a geriatric Leftie, trying stubbornly to resurrect the discredited idea that class is primary, relegating the significance of other social relations. This is not at all my desire. My point is no more and no less than that the political struggle for equality, freedom and justice must have a rounded and interrelated sense of the relations of class, gender, race, sexuality and dis’ability. None of them make proper sense without reference to each other. If this inextricable knot is recognised, the silence about class within most Youth Work is deeply disturbing.
In one way, it would be refreshing never to mention the Class Struggle in a separate sense ever again. For the title of this chapter could have been ‘Youth Work & Politics: The Relationship That Dare Not Speak Its Name’. By politics is not meant tiresome gossip about the personality clashes inside New Labour’s Central Committee, the contemporary version of the wrangles of the Elizabethan court. Rather we mean the crucial questions of who has power, in whose interests do they use that power, what power do we have to change the situation if we disagree and so on. At this historical moment, we are led to ask, specifically in terms of Youth Work and the Youth Service
Despite the recurring rhetoric about participation it would seem very little. Leave aside the situation facing young women and men, the profession itself seems reluctant to oppose this state of affairs. By and large youth workers are perceived to be doing as they are told. Yet history illustrates that obeying orders is a class and political question. There is the world of difference between a Capitalist system in which the greed of Capital is contested at every turn by Labour; in which the right of management to manage is questioned and resisted; in which a male hierarchy is challenged in the name of Girls’ Work [back 30 years ago!] and a Capitalist system within which there is severely diminished working class opposition; in which management does as it wishes; in which the gains of the past, such as Girls’ Work and Black Youth Work, are divested of their radical edge, recuperated and rendered safe. In this latter scenario, which corresponds to the situation today, the powerful, their self-serving political and bureaucratic sycophants, and even layers of Youth Work management itself, are imposing an increasingly instrumental agenda [Smith 2003].
It is acknowledged that this historical account of the influence of class politics on Youth Work is highly subjective, fragmented and incomplete. However, it is hoped, whatever its shortcomings it might encourage others to interrogate the past, present and future with class in mind. For instance it would be fruitful to investigate further the relationship between the rise and fall of municipal socialism in the 80's and the fate of Radical Youth Work. Certainly, reflecting on Youth Work and Class underlines the urgency of [re]creating networks and collectives committed to critical argument and resistance in the face of the 'Enemy Within' - capitalist values, ideas and practices. Forgive the invocation of an old class struggle slogan, but yet again it's time to 'Educate, Agitate and Organise.'
Coordinator of the Critically Chatting Collective
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