Morning. We assemble in the College of DuPage’s empty cafeteria. David, the co-organizer, arrives first. A few pink post-it notes stick out from his copy of Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, on the horrors of colonialism and the psychology of the oppressed. Ken, a Green, arrives second, always with coffee.
The rest file in from the parking lot. Barry, a veteran of the Communist Party and Amazon warehouse worker, now diligent organizer of the West Suburban chapter’s labor group, walks in talking to Giselle, a former Trotskyist. Nick arrives, then Tim. William, who is not a member of the DSA, but discovered the event through the Facebook page, drove all the way from Chicago to attend today’s meeting. The commute was rough, he says. Ken offers solidarity and banana chips.
The group has met monthly since we founded it one year ago. Four people attended our first meeting to discuss the Communist Manifesto. It is now common for twelve people to attend, although usually the number averages at eight to ten, weather depending. This is ideal. We’ve found larger study groups to be unwieldy, with too many opinions and not enough time to discuss how the material connects to the individual, which is vital.
The atmosphere is less than academic by design.
As moderator of the group, I depend on a reading group model resembling a Socratic circle rather than an academic lecture. Having experienced a trial by fire in my personal introduction to Marxism (where a list of books was presented to me, and when I read all fifty, only then would I be considered a Marxist) I understand the value of a kinder approach to people unfamiliar with the language of theory. After all, with minor exception, most of us have only been with DSA no more than two years. Rather than any member feigning absolute authority on the topics of socialism, the reading group evolves and grows with the contributions of each member. We’ve found enormous success in adopting this model and encourage other chapters to consider something similar.
We typically use two hours to discuss material no longer than two hundred pages in length, one hour being devoted to a summary of the book itself, the other hour reserved for asking how this can be applied to our current reality. How would Fanon analyze the unfolding situation in Venezuela? How has DSA organized around anti-imperialism? The reading is always topical. We vacillate between the classic and contemporary, depending on the mood of our members. Our meetings are a lightning storm of opinion, but everyone affords a tremendous amount of respect and love for each other. This prevailing attitude of respect, where every person is permitted to toy with enormous ideas without being chided or dismissed, is critical to allow thoughtful discussion, but it must be intentionally cultivated.
Everyone is heard. Highbrow elitism is not permitted and theory is not used as a cudgel against newer members. We learn together. At the end, we always finish the same way. First, five minutes are dedicated to selecting the next reading. Second, a joke. Then we part ways until we meet again next month.
Our reading group has been an enormous success in providing a space where our community can discuss radical ideas and members can develop their own politics. Despite what our ruling class would have us believe, most Americans have an appetite for radical solutions to the crises of capitalism. The effective reading group is not an echo chamber, it is active outreach. Beyond developing our membership into more informed socialists, the objective of a reading group is to expand the imagination of what is possible in our time.
By reading, we draw from the well of lessons and mistakes made by the great luminaries of human liberation, their trials and errors, and their achievements. More than just a meditation on what has been done, reading is an examination of what can be done, and what there is to do. There is tremendous power in this.
Some closing wisdom for chapters developing Marxist reading groups of their own: levity, levity, levity. Avoid becoming overly didactic. Facilitate a space where people can express their principles and reservations honestly and openly. Bring babka. Forgive. Give space for people to disagree, and meet them where they are. Avoid becoming tangled unnecessarily in the leftist squabbles of yesteryear. Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg had drastically conflicting tactics for realizing socialism. Read both. Never start with Das Kapital. Theory in service of people, not people in service of theory. Be the group that anyone could walk off the street and be a part of. Be the reading group you needed when you first began your journey.
Socialists across history have valued their reading groups, and for good reason. The work of the Marxist reading group may not put anyone on a poster, but it can be a powerful force in an organization slowly discovering the potency of a revolutionary socialist message.
A reading group can be an immeasurably rewarding experience. To paraphrase a bearded weirdo, the purpose of philosophy is not just to interpret the world, but to change it. Do the good work, and happy reading, comrades!