A New School for Democratic Socialism

KEN CURRAN introduces a new political education initiative set to launch in Sheffield this autumn

Socialism as an idea and as a movement has a long history. But as a consequence of Thatcher’s election in 1979, the triumph of neo-liberalism and the collapse of Communism after 1989, socialism became unpopular. Key figures in Labour politics scrambled to avoid being described as socialists and political education and discussion was deliberately suppressed. Young people with radical sympathies turned increasingly to single-issue politics. All sense of direction was lost.

Yet the idea of socialism is arguably more relevant to humanity now than at its inception. The current construction of society is clearly unsustainable. We are degrading our environment to such an extent that we are on course for the planet’s sixth mass extinction. More immediately, there is the question of our response to current political developments, nationally and globally.

Something has to be done.

The purpose of our School for Democratic Socialism is to provide an opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to refresh themselves, or embark on serious study for the first time of key thinkers within the socialist tradition. This is not a school for dogma and we are not interested in “history for history’s sake”. We will approach our subject’s thought, and the historical movements to which they relate, in a liberal, critical spirit. We shall seek to understand, raise problems of interpretation, be open to criticism as well as approval, and evaluate and reflect.

The School of Democratic Socialism is therefore a school for co-operative dissent. We hold that while well-informed and free enquiry about our traditions is essential and will be our object, differences may well arise. The democratic exploration of the clash of opinion is necessary in finding viable ways forward.

Community of scholars

We welcome all who are interested in participating in this project. Some will have experience of study in the subject, while others have none, but we intend to operate in the democratic spirit appropriate to a community of scholars. Young people will be particularly welcome.

This programme will be carried out during 2011-2012. The plan is to devote two sessions to each topic. The first meeting will be devoted to introducing the topic and raising key issues for interpretation and discussion. It will provide guidance on reading. After a suitable interval for the completion of reading assignments, we will reassemble for further discussion and conclusions.

The programme will be facilitated initially by John Halstead, former tutor of miners, steelworkers, railwaymen, firemen and others undertaking adult education at the University of Sheffield. John was editor of the Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, and its successor Labour History Review, for many years; is a former Chair of the Society and is now a Vice-President. He is a long-standing Labour Party member and current Secretary of the Co-operative Party in Sheffield.

A steering committee is in process of formation to support the School. In addition to the Ken Curran and John Halstead, this will include Harry Barnes, former Member of Parliament for North East Derbyshire and philosophy tutor in adult education at the University of Sheffield, and Professor Andrew Gamble, formerly Professor at the University of Sheffield, now Professor and Head of Politics at the University of Cambridge.

The curriculum will be developed as we operate, but the first programme proposed includes the following:

  • Tom Paine: his views and their relevance
  • Robert Owen: his views and their relevance
  • Karl Marx: what to accept and what to reject?
  • The necessity and possibility of democratic socialism

A preliminary meeting of those interested will be convened to discuss the programme.

The venue will be:
Scotia Works
Leadmill Road
S1 4SE

The dates (all Sundays) will be:
Preliminary: 18 September 2011
Tom Paine: 9 & 30 October
Robert Owen: 20 November & 11 December
Karl Marx: 8 & 29 January 2012
Necessity of democratic socialism: 19 February & 11 March.

Assemble 13.30 each Sunday to start not later than 14.00 and finish at 16.00.

This series of meetings are part of a broader programme at the Scotia Works. The broader programme will include a series of occasional lectures by invitation from prominent speakers and personalities on topics important to the labour movement. These events will include space for informal social gathering as well as the lecture discussion at the premises of the Burton Street Foundation. An annual visit to the Working Class Movement Library in Salford or the People’s History Museum at Manchester is also planned.

Anyone interested should contact John Halstead on 0114 258 2541 or john.halstead@blueyonder.co.uk

Ken Curran is chair of the Manor and Castle Development Trust, a former trade union official and Sheffield City councillor, a Labour Party member and now chair of the Sheffield Branch of the Co-operative Party.

This initiative is supported by the Co-operative Party and the Sheffield District Labour Party.


  1. Harry Barnes
    30 October 2021
  2. Harry Barnes
    26 October 2021

    I am sad to record the death of John Halstead who played a major role in the above initiative. I first joined him teaching trade unionists on industrial day-release at Sheffield University in 1966, and continued to work with him until I went to work in parliament in 1987. He continued to teach there until his retirement.

    He had a solid involvement with the Society for the Study of Labour History and close links with the Workers’ Education Association at the Northern College, where I also had early connections.

    When I retired in 2005 we renewed our close links, although these had never been fully lost. We then attended ILP conferences and Labour Party discussion meetings together, plus the above school for democratic socialism. The last discussion we had together was in our back garden around June. It is very sad to have lost someone I was so close to and drew so much from.

  3. Linda Aizlewood
    1 June 2015

    Please putmeon themailing list

  4. Handle with Care - ILP
    1 March 2013

    […] is an edited version of a paper written by John Halstead for discussion at the School of Democratic Socialism started by Sheffield Co-operative Party in […]

  5. Vicky Seddon
    12 July 2011

    Please put me on your e-mailing list

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