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 on democratic socialism and DSA, look in the Basid Resources section of the official DSA website at

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.

This article originally appeared in the spring 2016 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

Showing 2 reactions

commented 2016-05-20 02:17:28 -0400 · Flag
“Basic” is misspelled in the second to last paragraph. Otherwise, great article with lots of useful, actionable advice.
commented 2016-05-18 12:41:20 -0400 · Flag
A reading group can be a useful tool. It can help members place their activism within a meaningful historical and ideological context. However in my view, it does not replace activism as the central purpose for DSA’s existence. Starting an OC with a reading group on socialism is perilous because such groups so easily retrogress into debate societies in which no activism is possible. Leftist intellectuals too easily slide into a pattern of splitting hairs over fine ideological points ad nauseam at the expense of activism because activism falls outside their comfort zone. It is my opinion that DSA needs to attract new members who are potential activists and the best way to accomplish that is to make issue or electoral activism what you are all about from the very beginning. Once a group has a more stable membership with some political program in place, establishing a reading group is very appropriate if members are interested.

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

November 03, 2016 · 6 rsvps
Introduction to Socialist Feminism

Join DSA activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 8-9pm ET, 7-8pm CT, 6-7pm MT, 5-6pm PT.


Feminist Working Group

November 15, 2016 · 5 rsvps
Feminist Working Group Call

People of all genders are welcome to join this call to discuss DSA's work on women's issues. We will discuss election results and their implications for DSA's work (30 minutes). Business will include reports on screenings of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, preparation for April Abortion Access Bowl-A-Thon fundraising, and leadership development (up to 1 hour). 9 pm ET; 8 pm CT; 7 pm MT; 6 pm PT.