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.
By Neal Meyer