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 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.

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.

LGBT Activism: A Brief History with Thoughts about the Future

April 01, 2017
· 67 rsvps

Historian John D'Emilio's presentation will do 3 things: Provide a brief explanation of how sexual and gender identities have emerged; provide an overview of the progression of LGBT activism since its origins in the 1950s, highlighting key moments of change; and, finally, suggest what issues, from a democratic socialist perspective, deserve prioritizing now. John co-authored Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, which was quoted by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision that ruled state sodomy laws unconstitutional. 1 pm ET; 12 pm CT; 11 am MT; 10 am PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
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  4. If you have questions, contact Peg Strobel, peg.strobel@sbcglobal.net.
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Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 30 rsvps

Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But also check out the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT. Here's a blog post about PHIT.

What Is DSA? Training Call

April 05, 2017
· 12 rsvps

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.

Feminist Working Group

April 12, 2017
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People of all genders are welcome to join this call to discuss DSA's work on women's and LGBTQ issues, especially in light of the new political reality that we face after the elections.  9 pm ET; 8 pm CT; 7 pm MT; 6 pm PT.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

April 16, 2017
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You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 10 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.