Practical anarchism - The Unlikely Bakuninists

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Practical Anarchism: U3A, the Unlikely Bakuninists

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 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 153,00
(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

“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.

Martyn Everett

First published in Freedom (29 July 2006)


“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)