Learning and unlearning: how does the radical left build its understanding?

How does the radical left build its understanding? Who are the theorists? Sølvi Qorda makes the case for Vygotskian pedagogy as a way of understanding our problems and also of finding better cultures to replace them.

Photo: Steve Eason
Photo: Steve Eason

For many of us, school is a humiliating experience made worse by testing. Upon leaving compulsory education, this experience can either be briefly contradicted by the freedom of undergraduate education, and then quickly revisited in exams, or further entrenched by that horror of horrors, staff training.

Learning has a bad reputation, mostly because the ways we are told we experience it are sectioned off and utilised for a very specific purpose; teaching us how to serve the needs of the workplace; socialising us into accepting the common sense view that education is about how best to meet targets. When joy in learning about the world appears, it is brief, as term rapidly accelerates towards end-of-year, end-of-unit, end-of-week assessments. Exploration becomes regurgitation, our futures are narrowed into trenches of employability.

Yet, as social creatures who, as Vygotsky wrote, have crafted ornate tools and signs for physical and linguistic interaction, our lives are defined by learning. We constantly learn, yet what gets valued as socially useful learning is a very small sliver. For the radical left, or at least the left that believes in agency, self-activity, constant struggle against oppression, and the emancipatory potential of the oppressed and exploited, thinking about how we learn is paramount. Thinking about how we unlearn is of equal importance.

At first pass, the idea that we need to learn, with all its associations of a retreat into academia, sounds ludicrous. Clearly we need struggle, courage, audacity. Whereas the language of learning, in relation to activism, suggests the training of NGO and Student Union operatives as professional activists, left-leaning bureaucrats.

But clearly we do need to learn. We have our analyses and methodologies that work, to an extent. Yet cases where the left has been ascendant across the world have been scant, indeed the populist right prevails. And neoliberalism has produced a global system that requires a frustratingly complex web of logistics, one that has not yet been matched by an equally organised form of international worker representation. The state has expanded into many fields of social life, enabled in part by the mass expansion of surveillance and big data analysis. How do we make sense of these things, and relate them to self-activity?

Marxist thinkers often encourage us to recognise the limits to human development that are placed on us by the dictates of accumulation. Whether in arresting climate catastrophe or developing space travel, even the dramatic capacities of capitalism are limited because of their need to produce results for market cycles. Thus research that could be achieved is limited both by the funding available and by the parameters of ‘useful’ research. Similarly, gross inequality and the hollowing out of social welfare means that scientific research is, to an extent, limited by the number of people who can access and engage in that level of formal education. Part of our dream of post-capitalist emancipation should always be the unleashing of human potential and scientific development that would accompany a world where hunger is not something you have to pay to avoid.

In the same way, while we are still stuck within capitalism, we cannot rely on theorists to provide us with answers. In practice, the sheer scale of the task ahead of us requires an extraordinary level of interrogation, thought and experimentation; any attempt to arrest the secular decline of the left, or develop something new, requires no less. And doing so requires the intellectual capacities of hundreds of thousands, of millions. But then this follow leads us to the political issue. Any left that values the agency of the oppressed and exploited cannot be one that separates intellectual and organisational labour. In a sense, such a division is artificial: each organisational decision requires an ideological assumption, whether stated or not. But such a division squanders self-activity, devaluing the insights that come from activity and abdicating responsibility for our collective development and understanding.

And of course it is understandable: we almost can’t help but reproduce a leftist image of capitalism’s hierarchies within our own organisations and movements. But if we don’t attempt to address our capacities on a collective level, we risk entrenching those hierarchies in the act of trying to upend them. Rather than lamenting the lack of another Lenin, another Tronti, another Luxemburg (cut and paste your fave revolutionary here), we could really benefit from thinking instead of what activities expand and embellish our zones of proximal development.

One opportunity for learning, although we rarely think of it as such, is a demonstration. Through a solidaristic bond, we call on people to attend. We try and read the political mood – how do we relate to those around us, how do we relate to those outside the demonstration, what are the purposes of our chants? We then use this to update our understanding of the world. (Honesty is vital for success here. Claiming either that twice the number of people marched, or that a few dozen more people could have broken police lines, don’t help clarify our understanding).

Yet the way we make these decisions is still largely determined by a minority of activist or leftist groups, who have already performed the intellectual labour of building a strategy before the decision is debated by the wider group, the wider movement.

And this isn’t necessarily a conspiracy, and I’m not making a moral denunciation. But I do think it resonates with our experience of how the self-organising left often functions. Which is almost strange, because the analysis of the world that informs those decisions, the range of understanding that exists and shifts, can’t help but be a collective understanding. The reason that the separation of leaders and followers isn’t about morality, is that the prevailing way we are taught to conceive of our agency is in terms of subservience. And impatience, anger and necessity can easily lead to us accepting that division of labour if it means we get shit done. What we should question, however, is the long-term health of our organisations and our world-views if we make that trade.

Co-learning in practice

So how could we begin to learn more effectively? With no shame, I’m going to give myself a get-out clause – ultimately the best learning practices will probably be things we have to learn from movements, from struggles for power. That doesn’t bar us from experimentation, however.

In Manchester rs21 we are in the process of planning out a 6-month co-learning project, focused on the nature of the modern state. What role does it perform, how has it changed, if it has, and what does that mean for what we do? In the context of the newly-formed Greater Manchester authority pushing for the construction of a supermax prison, how can we use our analysis to campaign against that prison, and what can our analysis gain from said campaigning? Here are some thoughts on how we can make that a co-learning experience:

  • Use a variety of media and meeting styles. We may aim to produce a couple of long pieces of writing. However, what do we learn from trying to express our ideas in a short video, a podcast, in shorter pieces or even, heaven forbid, a listicle? If we can’t explain our ideas on the level of a slogan, a placard or a sticker, do we need to work to express them better?
  • Share the task of research, and take responsibility for making our research accessible. If I research, say, Prevent, I have a responsibility to condense that research into a set of bullet points that can inform the rest of the group.
  • Understand each conversation, each attempt to set ideas into words, as part of a process towards greater understanding. The process is just as important, if not more important, than the text that we produce at the end.
  • Produce a plan, stick to it, then at the end of the process evaluate if and why the plan succeeded, with absolute honesty. If we expected too much of ourselves, why? If we underestimated ourselves, then why?
  • Draw out disagreements in a comradely way that grants the discussion momentum.
  • Put effort into getting engagement from all members, making materials and discussions available to people who can’t come to meetings and proactively encouraging them to express their opinions.
  • Attempt to test the efficacy of our ideas – do they make sense in the campaigns we’re engaged in? Do they make sense to the other people in the campaign?

To borrow a term favored by a friend, interlocution, not intervention, should be the core of our method. Co-learning requires openness to the experiences and insights of others as it – this is what will determine whether a project is engaging, or whether it slips into ‘teaching’.

As to how effective this all is in practice – I’ll let you know in six months.

In the spirit of interlocution, it seems correct to end with a set of questions.

  • What event, what movement, what moment have you learnt from most?
  • Do you disagree with me about formal education?
  • What practices or methods have you seen for getting the best engagement and most self-confidence from a group?
  • Have I neglected to talk about what we do when oppressive ideas enter our range of understanding? How do we understand that?
  • My reading of pedagogy is from a list of authors that is very white, and very male, and that’s a real weakness. Have people read books or articles that they would recommend to address this?


  1. interesting article. a question – i’ve not come across Vygotsky. anything you can recommend as an easy starter? like an article or somethng like that?


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