How to Run a Socialist Reading Group

By Neal Meyer

Reading groups have been the backbone of socialist groups since the start of our movement. They are where new people go to connect their intuition that the world is unjust to an analysis and critique of capitalism. They are where socialist activists go to learn from the past and adapt their forebears’ strategies to new conditions. Most important, reading groups are where socialists stop reading by themselves and start to socialize their knowledge.

Every local or organizing committee of the Democratic Socialists of America should use a reading group to grow. Strong locals can use one to increase members’ knowledge of current events and socialist strategy. Fledgling groups and new members find them the perfect first step for connecting with other socialists in the community.

Don’t know anyone else in Butte, Montana? Put out the word that you are starting a reading group to talk about socialism (mention Bernie Sanders, too). Put up posters at your library, the community college’s history and sociology departments, local coffee shops, and the bookstore. Make sure posters mention the date; time; location; contact information; and, above all, what you’re reading. Email some friends who might be interested and post to Facebook community groups. Email the DSA national office for a list of DSA members in your area. The office will notify the members.

A good reading group goes for about an hour and a half. Respect everyone’s time. For many people, the ideal start time is usually at 6 or 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, but it depends on your community and the shifts your target audience works. If you hope to attract people you don’t know, pick a public place, such as a coffee shop or library. Choose somewhere with parking, close to public transit, and that is wheelchair accessible. In your publicity, ask whether anyone needs child care.

Start with articles from Democratic Left. There is also great material in Jacobin, Dissent, In These Times, New Politics, and Dollars and Sense, among others. Choose a theme for each meeting and keep the readings to two to three short articles.

Before the meeting, recruit two friends to join you. Worst-case scenario: you have a nice conversation with them. Next, prepare a few discussion questions. Make sure your questions require more than a yes or no answer. “In your personal experience, how do you feel about…?” is a good place to start.

When the meeting begins, start by going around to get names and why people are there. It’s also useful to know how they found out about the group. Encourage basic questions.

During the discussion, don’t let anyone dominate. A successful reading group gives everyone a chance to talk. This may mean an initial go-round for the first question or two before you have cross discussion. A reading group is an organizing tool and is only useful if everyone participates. It is important to ask people who have been silent, by name, what they think of X or Y. They may pass, but you might be surprised by what they have to offer. At some point, you might have to ask someone to step back. Be polite but firm: “Hey, Al, I really appreciate your enthusiasm, but could we let a couple of new voices jump in?” And always ask people to spell out acronyms, define complicated terms, and explain who historical figures are.

Socialism won’t be built by reading groups. We need action, too. But considering our strengths at reading and talking, a reading group is a natural first step and ongoing activity.

For an introductory reading list to democratic socialism and DSA, look in the Basic Resources section of the official DSA website at www.dsausa.org/introductory_reading_list

Neal Meyer is a member of the New York City local of DSA and a staff member at Jacobin magazine, where he organizes Jacobin’s reading groups.

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

May 25, 2017
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Join DSA's Queer Socialists Working Group to discuss possible activities for the group and its proposed structure. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

What Is DSA? Training Call

May 30, 2017
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If you're a new DSAer, have been on a new member call, but still have questions about DSA's core values/strategy/core work and how to express these ideas in an accessible way to the media, as well as to friends, family and others who might be interested in joining DSA, this call is for you. 

We will talk through the basics of DSA's political orientation and strategy for moving toward democratic socialism, and also have call participants practice discussing these issues with each other. By the end of the call you should feel much more comfortable thinking about and expressing what DSA does and what makes our organization/strategy unique. 8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT. 70 minutes.

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
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Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 26 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

June 13, 2017
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Join Bill Barclay, Chicago DSA co-chair, and Peg Strobel, National Political Committee and Feminist Working Group co-chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement. 9:30 PM ET; 8:30 PM CT; 7:30 PM MT; 6:30 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Bill Barclay, chocolatehouse@sbcglobal.net.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 7 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
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Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.