Practical Anarchism: U3A, the Unlikely Bakuninists

01 February 2007
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U3 A web site imageMartyn Everett

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', it 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 153,000 (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.

They will be schools no longer; they will be popular academies, in which neither pupils nor masters will be known, where the people will come freely to get if they need it, free instructions, and in which, rich in their own experience, they will teach in their turn many things to the professors who shall bring them knowledge which they lack. This then will be a mutual instruction, an act of intellectual fraternity.

Bakunin, God and the State

'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 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.

(First published in Freedom , 29 July 2006)

 

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