It Started With a Little Socialist Library...
Education is vital to any socialist movement, and especially vital in an organization like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Within DSA’s big tent, we agree that socialism is the answer to society’s woes and the ills of capitalism. Not as obvious to our tens of thousands of members, however, is what form that socialism takes, how socialism can be the aforementioned answer, and what socialist movements of the past have tried, succeeded, and failed to do.
Education is how we address this problem. It’s how to find out what pages we’re all on and which pages we can be on together, and that’s vital for building a successful movement.
This is why, in the spring of 2018, I brought forward a motion to develop a (non-physical) socialist library in my local chapter, Southern Maine DSA. I was searching for a way to be useful to comrades. I had plenty of socialist and socialist-adjacent books, and was convinced other members did, too. We all just needed to get those books together and share them with anyone in the chapter interested in reading them. The membership could thereby learn about socialism and its history in a way our monthly meeting structure just did not allow.
The temporary library committee that sprung from this motion eventually became the more permanent Education Committee. Our Education Committee created a Socialism 101 reading list for members. We house that list on bookmarks, and those bookmarks come with us when we table so we can help point prospective members in the right direction. We’ve found that folks who aren’t entirely sure what DSA is about have appreciated some of the clarity this reading list gives, and the fact those books are available to borrow at no cost helps, too. It also gives our tablers an easy go-to if they aren’t yet comfortable talking to strangers about socialism. This, in turn, has helped give them the confidence to be more effective (and chattier) tablers.
While the library and bookmarks have been a success, it’s our monthly book club that has done the most for educating members and drawing in new ones. We’ve read, discussed, and dissected the work of Angela Y. Davis (Freedom is a Constant Struggle; Are Prisons Obsolete?), Howard Zinn (Disobedience and Democracy), V.I. Lenin (State and Revolution), Naomi Klein (Battle for Paradise), and many others. We’ve created a space outside of general meetings for those who want to talk more about what socialism is, what it means, and how socialists can, to use an industry term, do socialism.
We want other committees to use the Education Committee as well, like Prison Abolition or Climate and Eco Justice. When membership needs to know why an event or cause is crucial and requires organizing, we try to lend a hand both to educate and improve capacity. Book club attendees have also told the Education Committee what they want to learn more about, like Maine’s history with its indigenous people and how we, as Maine socialists, can organize with them in their present-day struggles against the state. This back-and-forth can do more than just educate, as it also helps guide what kind of work SMDSA does.
Our chapter’s meetings are a place where important work is done, but the education that prepares members for those meetings and the work to be done outside of them can’t necessarily occur at them. The book club, among other events, is meant to be that educational space. There are the workshops we’ve put on, from union organizing how-tos to worker co-operative talks, to a breakdown of the Russian Revolution and its present-day meaning. We host a monthly movie night, “Solidarity Cinema,” where we show socialist and socialist-adjacent films like Pride and Malcolm X. We’re beginning work on a welcome packet for new members that explains what the chapter does and what committees there are to join. We’re brainstorming a series that will focus on socialists and socialism in pop culture, as a reminder that socialism is much, much more than just some dead white guys from the 19th century, no matter what your high school history textbooks might have told you.
We’ve recently begun a series of structured, public debates, the first of which questioned if the Democratic Party was a viable vehicle for the left. Teams of two take each side of a motion and get their time to argue and counter-argue, while the audience votes their stance both before and after the debate in order for us to see whether the discussion moved the needle. In a meeting, in the rush before a vote takes place, it can be difficult to get all of these thoughts out in a manner that’s both fair and educational. On the side, though, through the Education Committee’s efforts, a more engaged, prepared, and productive membership is possible.
Don’t take that to mean that I or any members of the committee have all of the answers, because we certainly do not. We’re learning as we go, just as anyone who attends our events is learning, just as anyone who is out in the world base-building or interacting with the working class and marginalized groups is learning as they go. There is no one right way to educate socialists, but creating spaces where members are empowered to speak and participate, where we try to broaden perspectives and teach ourselves and each other, has worked well for us in Maine.
We’ve had some failures. Ironically, the library that helped start all of this in SMDSA is rarely used for much besides book club entries. There are bumps in usage when we run a themed reading list, as the Education Committee did for the October Revolution, Black History Month, and Women’s History Month, but overall, the library hasn’t done much more than I could do on my own bothering comrades to borrow a book of mine.
And that’s just fine, especially since the work of “building” the library is already done, and we are focused on other projects that have seen far more success. We’re figuring this out as we go, but we now feel empowered to do so, in a space we built ourselves.
To learn more about Southern Maine DSA’s library, visit http://southernmainedsa.org/library/. To contact the chapter about their work, email them at DSA. SouthernMaine@gmail.com You can also follow them on Twitter @DSA_SouthernME.