The Stacks

The Stacks – Issue 4

The Stacks: Night School Edition

This month, we’re excited to introduce a special issue of The Stacks, centered around a project that’s been months in development: our guide to building a Socialist Night School in your chapter.

There are plenty of reasons to be interested in developing your chapter’s political education efforts. Maybe members are asking big questions at meetings that no one feels confident answering. Maybe you see members struggling to articulate their deeply felt socialist beliefs. Maybe you’re looking for the common thread that motivates and unites all of your chapter’s exciting organizing projects. Or maybe members are directly asking for resources and guidance in this area.

We in the National Political Education Committee hope to help you address these immediate, practical concerns. But we also want to stress that there are more timeless reasons why socialists, in particular, have always taken political education seriously, and have put it at the heart of their project. These are what we stress in the Night School.

Marx famously said — and had inscribed on his gravestone — that “Until now, philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it.” Yet this sentiment is anything but a call to replace theory with practice. Marx himself was a philosopher. He did interpret the world, in the course of years of study, exchanges with contemporaries, and deep reflection. What he criticized was the idea that philosophy ends where participation in human affairs begins. For, in the same tract, he rejects the notion that people are purely shaped by “circumstances and upbringing,” perfectly static life-beings to be ponderously studied by a disinterested observer. This notion, he writes, “forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated.”

This kind of education takes place not in the classroom but in the world. For example: a socialist, understanding that workers’ power lies in their ability to halt production, might urge her coworkers to strike. But a strike, by necessity, depends on more than just one person. To survive, it must draw out the latent talents and knowledge of everybody involved. So in the process, the worker learns new things from her coworkers; she also learns new things about her employers, and the politicians in office, and thousands of other things that can only be taught in unpredictable moments of struggle. When we, as socialists, struggle to understand our conditions, we are also struggling to understand how to change them. And the highest measure of our success is if we can bring about moments — or epochs — where we ourselves are educated by the events that we have had a hand in bringing about.

Also contained within these comments by Marx is a deep respect for human agency and our ability to transform ourselves and the world. Regardless of “circumstances or upbringing,” he says, people do impact the course of history; and in so doing they become educators to a new generation. He also writes that “man must prove the truth […] of his thinking in practice.” What he means is that ideas must be tested by reality; if they fail there, it doesn’t matter how seductive they are in the classroom.

These two assertions have twin implications for socialists. First, we approach political education with the attitude that every person is capable both of understanding the world and of changing it. Each new face that walks through our door is intelligent; able to question and be questioned; able to be educators as well as the educated. We should never underestimate anyone’s ability to command an idea, nor anyone’s capacity to learn more and new things, or to revise previous beliefs. Second, our ideas are only as worthy as the practical forces we’re trying to meet them with. As we wrestle with new and old scholars alike, we must be willing to judge how their ideas have fared when tested against the forces of history; and to judge how they fare in our active organizing today.

These basic principles are what guide why socialists pursue political education, and how we do so — the orientation we take towards the material at hand and each other as we read, discuss, debate, and write. Here at The Stacks, and more generally in the National Political Education Committee, we’re determined to assist members as they bring these principles to life in their chapter.

To this effect, we’re proud to share our completed Night School Guide. It’s a downloadable PDF that walks you through everything from the pedagogical philosophy behind the Night School to samples of Night School sessions and questions about facilitation. We also invite you to attend a Zoom webinar with Night School organizers (and guide authors) Melissa Naschek and Jarek Ervin on Tuesday, August 28. During the webinar, we’ll be rolling out sample syllabi, as well as customizable promotional materials like Facebook banners and flyers, to support chapter organizers in the practical implementation of the Night School.

Read on for National Announcements and to hear, in The Ground Game, about how the Night School can connect to real-life organizing efforts. Finally, this month’s Martin Shkreli Award is dedicated to someone who’s determined to rob working people of the kind of transformational education socialists advocate. We hope you enjoy this special edition of The Stacks, and feel inspired and empowered to embark on building a Socialist Night School in your own chapter.

National Updates

  • On August 12 there will be a New Member Orientation call. Pass the Zoom link to the new members in your chapter, and listen in yourself for a model on how to engage the thousands of new socialists that have joined since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory. (National membership is at 47,000 and rising!!!)
  • The next print issue of the Democratic Left will be on socialist feminism. Read the call for pitches here and submit your own by August 6.
  • On Wednesday, August 1 our national Labor Commission is hosting a call with DSA Teamsters on the national UPS contract, which is being negotiated now. This contract fight won’t just set conditions for 230,000 UPS workers but for all private sector workers — and the future of private-sector unionism. Register for the call here.
  • Our national director Maria Svart was in the New York Daily News explaining democratic socialism and had an in-depth interview published in CNN.
  • In organizational news, the national organization has issued a guide on how chapters can begin benefiting from dues sharing; an apology and explanation regarding the Charlottesville Medical Funds distribution process; and minutes from the 2017 National Convention (resolutions passed were already published last year.)

The Ground Game

Each month, we’ll highlight a political education event, resource, or project developed by a local DSA chapter, in the interest of inspiring new ideas, collaboration, or just plain jealousy. This months contribution comes from Daniel Deck, of East Bay DSA. (If you have a story about your chapter’s political education program, email [email protected]).

In May of this year, political education and real-life struggle collided in a powerful way for California’s East Bay DSA chapter. That month, thousands of service workers, nurses, and other staff across the University of California system went on strike. These workers were protesting the austerity politics of neoliberalism — stagnant pay, increased healthcare premiums, outsourced jobs — against the backdrop of the already skyrocketing costs of living in California.

Uniquely, the striking unions invited DSA — which was already throwing itself into traditional means of strike support — to conduct teach-ins at the pickets. These teach-ins enabled DSA members to share their ideas about democratic socialism, the fight for Medicare For All, and our campaign to repeal Costa-Hawkins, the statewide law drastically limiting municipal rent control in California.

What prepared members to craft teach-ins that were relevant to the striking workers was our chapter’s Socialist Night School. The Night School is held twice a month and features topical discussions on a wide range of socialist theory and history. In the run up to the strike, Night School classes had focused on the limits of reformism, the history of the US labor movement, and the recent wave of teachers’ strikes.

For Robbie Nelson, an EBDSA member and graduate student instructor at UC Berkeley, this background was key to his experience on the picket line. The Night School “helped ground me in the importance of workers taking collective action,” he explained. “As an education worker within the UC system, learning about the mechanics of labor exploitation gave me confidence to stand alongside my fellow UC workers and talk about how having a common boss creates shared interests and solidarity.”

Moreover, “feeling anchored in the history of employer-based health insurance in the US, as well as what a Medicare-for-All system would provide, meant that we were able to effectively talk about the UC health plan,” added Nelson. This resonated with strikers, many of whom said they had chosen UC over higher-paying private-sector jobs because of the health benefits. So did the teach-ins about rent control, during which strikers shared their experiences of grueling three- or four-hour commutes as rising rents pushed them further and further from campus.

In this way, the strike was a big step forward for our chapter, allowing our members to use the skills and analysis they had developed in the Night School in a real struggle to confront capital.

— Daniel Deck, East Bay DSA

The Martin Shkreli Award

This month’s award goes to someone who’s already merited the distinction of having the creepiest nickname of the Trump administration: Mick “the Knife” Mulvaney. He’s also, in his role as Trump budget director — and now, aspiring chief of staff — proposed some of the most insidious attacks to date against education.

First, in May, he took aim at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s student protection unit. Nevermind that, with student loan debt as the second-highest consumer debt category, over 44 million people owe a collective $1.5 trillion in the United States. According to Mulvaney, the lone body in the federal government dedicated to advocating for student borrowers is just not necessary. It’s to be folded into the bureau’s office of financial education, so that student borrowers can be scolded about their choices rather than aided against predatory lenders.

Next, in June, Mulvaney moved to merge the federal Education and Labor departments into a behemoth “Department of Education and the Workforce.” The plan is unlikely to pass Congress, but its mission is clear: to yoke education more and more to the demands of employers. This is Mulvaney’s perverse response to the student debt crisis: not to challenge predatory lenders or make higher education free and public, but to make lifelong debt “worth it” by transforming syllabi to look like mirror images of Craigslist “help wanted” ads.

That’s what makes “Mick the Knife” our Class Enemy of the Month. Mick thinks that education should be about what bosses need from workers. We think it should be the opposite: a place where ordinary people are armed with the tools to chart their collective destiny. Whatever Mick says, we’re determined to make our alternative vision a reality.

That’s all for this month, folks! Remember to share with your friends, and send any comments or questions to [email protected].

Editorial team:
Ella Mahony, John Speranza, Ajmal Alami, Andrej Markovčič, Zoe Holden, Stephen Gose (graphic design).