There is a long tradition of socialists hosting reading groups. There is almost just as old a joke about socialists thinking they can change the world with their five friends who they read Marx’s Capital with.
So why is the socialist movement so often associated with small reading groups in basements, bookshops and coffee shops? Why do socialists do so much reading?
The long tradition of socialist reading groups
Socialists grouping together and talking about ideas has a long tradition. Marx and Engels were immersed in the socialist intellectual milieu that extended across France, England and much of Europe. Rosa Luxemburg led socialist reading groups and classes in Germany and Poland in the early 19th century. Walter Rodney was at the centre of the bustling socialist scene in Dar es Salaam in the 1970s, while figures like George Padmore and Paul Robeson were exposed to socialist ideas and amongst London’s anti-imperialist movements in the 1920s.
Sometimes when looking online we come across people showing pictures of piles of books or talking about some lofty theory or scoffing at people that haven’t read Capital. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that reading and reading groups have been integral for socialists who are serious about changing the world.
When Lenin tried to communicate the lessons of the Russian revolution he stressed the role of experience and studying, noting “Russia achieved Marxism—the only correct revolutionary theory—through the agony she experienced in the course of half a century of unparalleled torment and sacrifice, of unparalleled revolutionary heroism, incredible energy, devoted searching, study, practical trial, disappointment, verification, and comparison with European experience.”
The Cuban revolutionaries brought literacy to villages through teaching socialist literature as did Chinese revolutionaries and Russians before them. The history of national liberation and socialist movements across the global South is filled with people with guns on their back and little red books in their pockets.
Sharing ideas and building confidence
At its most basic socialists read and discuss readings because they want to transmit ideas. Teamsters in the 1930s shared newspaper articles about socialist ideas, history and politics. Communists in Alabama in the 1930s read out loud to their illiterate friends and comrades about black liberation struggles around the world. And then discussed where these ideas came from, and how these lessons and ideas could be concretized and applied to their specific circumstances.
A contemporary example is that of the recent teacher strike wave. Many teachers in West Virginia and elsewhere were radicalized and developed networks of shared politics through reading groups that studied the caucus of rank and file educators from Chicago. By reading and sharing books about the Chicago teachers’ strike like “How to Jump Start Your Union” and “Strike for America” with their coworkers these teachers began to get a network of workers around them that had similar ideas and were motivated by a similar struggle. They took the lessons from Chicago and used it to help inform their fight back. By organizing people around them through a common set of ideas that were discussed and debated these educators built confidence, knowledge and sharpened their strategy and tactics.
Reflecting on the importance of their teacher reading group, one West Virginia teacher noted that the reading group “was a starting point for giving us confidence to begin organizing and to say: ‘We are the union. We’re dues-paying members, we’re not going to wait around for anybody else to change things for us.” Another rank and file teacher noted reading books like No Shortcuts was “really powerful because reading it made us realize: ‘Hey, socialists are usually at the front of a lot of big labor battles and strikes!’”
I have organized reading groups for many years now on topics that were as abstract as economics and imperialism, and as concrete examinations of specific strikes at an individual workplace. In every instance the goal is not to simply have an abstract discussion, but to bring people into a dialogue with history and a broader set of politics that helps situate our current circumstance in the wider world of class struggle. The goal is to help each other see that we are all theorists and political actors. Reading groups help us share ideas, ask questions and listen in order to collectively raise our ability to engage in class struggle and fight oppressions.
Connecting history with the present
By reading and discussing together we can better forge links between history and the present and connect the sometimes disparate struggles we are engaged in. Reading might seem like a solitary endeavour, but when we approach it through the prism of collective struggle and organizing it can open up a whole new world of questions, ideas and possibilities.
There is precious little space in our society for political reflection and political development. Reading together provides us with the opportunity to do so on a collective basis. Socialist reading is not done for reading’s sake, rather it aims to provide us with ideas and tools from the long rich socialist and anti-colonial traditions that better equip us to take on the struggles of today.
So by all means socialist should ‘read theory’ but it should be done with a purpose and a goal in mind. Reading together can help us build our networks, deepen our political relationships, boost our confidence and inform the work we do in trying to change the world as we know it.
Interested in joining Spring’s reading group? Come our reading group on Indigenous Sovereignty and Socialism on December 2, 7pm EST: https://springmag.ca/event/indigenous-sovereignty-and-socialism-reading-group-part-3
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