Reading Groups and Political Education

Against abstract communism and abstract political education.

Communists love to tell people about communism. Communism is the best, we feel, because it’s the ideology for everyone and everything. If people just understood communism better, they would become communists, and to add a slight dimension of nuance, the more they understand communism, the better communists they will be.

The more people there are who understand communism better and are therefore better communists, the more communism will be out there, in the political world; the more this occurs, the more that we grow as a consequence, and the more that we grow, the more we win, right? On the surface, this seems to make some sense. But in political reality, this has failed time and again as various (often theoretically relatively advanced) organizations have come to mean very little and even disappeared because of a rather vulgar approach to political education.

There are three inter-related reasons why producing reading lists and challenging ourselves to make sure everyone just reads everything on them does not produce much in terms of real communist politics. These are three problems with the reality of communist politics which have made political education difficult for many of us, but which in turn, ought to inform how we rethink political education to make it possible going forward:

1) Communists don’t actually influence non-communists very much in the US at present

Communists’ immediate practical tasks are always limited by the organized forces we control and are allied with. These allies often include non-communists, and although practical agreement on work to carry out means they would be among the most useful recruits, unless we are particularly savvy at convincing others or they are already particularly inclined towards the idea of identifying with communists and learning more about communism, this means that a certain amount of our work and potential recruiting is done among people who, to put it bluntly, don’t care about the nonsense theory we’re always spouting.

This problem is very real and likely the experience of many readers. It is such a real and pronounced problem that many communists decide to simply hang out with other communists, do political work that involves only communists, recruit people primarily or even only in so far as we can convince them to be communists, in short: that old time Evangelical Protestant Communism, if you will.

As tempting as this is, it is both politically unserious and, ironically, not especially “orthodox communism”. The Manifesto, after all, implores us to eschew sectarianism:

They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.

They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.

The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

Chapter 2 of the Manifesto

…to work with non-communists, even non-proletarians if need be, for our common revolutionary democratic goals:

In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.

In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.

Finally, they labour everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries.

Chapter 4 of the Manifesto

…and above all else, we are not taught to conceptualize a struggle between communists and non-communists, but between oppressors and oppressed:

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed

Chapter 1 of the Manifesto

None the less, we do have a distinct political identity and theory. We are our own subjectivity for a reason. What this means, then, is that we have to on some level carry out political agitation and propaganda, to politically educate and lead, often to people who do not want what we are selling. Producing a list of the “must reads” of Marx, such as the above quoted Manifesto, for example, somewhat fails us when our first task with so many is convincing them it is worth reading Marx, to say nothing of convincing them to do further reading and thinking to contextualize and properly internalize the essential arguments!

This problem, of trying to understand how to get the basic ideas, and ultimately, the structured arguments found in communist texts, into the heads of people who simply do not care at all at present, actually leads to the second reason why setting ourselves a static syllabus and curriculum to go out to the masses with actually undermines the work of political education.

2) Communist theory is not metaphysical, but exists from and for social reality

Communists cannot be “world-denying” in our communism. Communist ideology and theory does not recognize a world outside communism and accordingly cannot recognize a communism “outside the world”. Communism rather is a particular logical and ideological outlook on all the various intellectual and practical problems the world faces. Ignorance of and disinterest in apparently “non-communist” topics of education will weaken and not strengthen our theory and practice, and consequently our identity as communists.

Communists should set an example in study; at all times they should be pupils of the masses as well as their teachers.

Mao Zedong

Whether we realize it or not, all of us had a particular path before communism that led us to become communists. The context varies a great deal from person to person just as it does from country to country or era to era. Maybe you had a lot of political radicals as teachers who normalized critical thinking and even radical theory. Maybe you were involved in union work and communists you worked with managed to get through to you in context. Maybe you were one of those fortunate “red diaper babies”, but even then, so many children of communists turn out apolitical or make excuses, so even there, you weren’t simply born into ideological awareness but lived a certain kind of life and had certain points of contact that made your parents’ ideology stick.

Just as there is no precise prefabricated model for how someone first embraces the ideology of communism, so too can we not posit a formula for how to introduce it to others. You can use your experience and the experiences of others as rough guides, looking for indicators of who to approach and how, but even then there will be no guarantees.

But communist ideology will be spread socially, and you must view those you seek to recruit, and indeed those already recruited in need of education, in terms of the personal and social journey they are on, and not simply as a computer in need of updates with certain drivers you can find on a checklist. Because there are factors you can only know through social discourse and practice, factors relevant to the people you’ll be interacting with and the social context in which you will be interacting with them.

3) An ignorant communist cannot produce enlightening education

Communists and non-communists in political struggle together face many practical problems and questions. We must be armed not only with ideology in the abstract but also education of diverse other kinds: labor laws, political history, gender politics, cultural savvy for better ability to communicate, multiple languages (such as Spanish, for example), knowledge of biology and chemistry necessary for health and first aid, wilderness survival, local criminal codes, digital opsec, arms training, the list could go on and on.

Communists are always learning these things and ought always to be teaching others these things as well. A chief concern of this piece is the frequent great error that many communists and those interested in communism often make, of assuming that a single coherent “political education” reading list can arm us for all possible questions and struggles in practice. As the above general list makes clear, a really functioning organization cannot be educated for practical politics simply on a list of Marxist classics alone.

So what does this mean for us in terms of formulating an organizational culture of political education? Do we simply recommend our cadres to read and know and teach everything to everyone? This does not feel more satisfying than the usual answer to simply digest all of Marx and Lenin.

Reading groups: what should they read, why, and how.

Reading groups should be established with great frequency among a functioning organization. These should meet at least once a month and ideally once a week. They can meet online but ideally in person, for reasons of opsec and reasons of breaking us out of the isolation which the internet and Covid have helped encourage on top of the existing trend of atomization of social life endemic in capitalism.

But what should they read?

A theoretically advanced cadre should be charged with seeding these reading groups, and part of their theoretical know-how should be demonstrated in a general knowledge of the Marxist classics, particularly Marx and Lenin. However, it is not their immediate task to instill in the whole group the reference texts and phraseology of our most preferred thinkers as if we were Christian missionaries of a bygone era teaching Pagans the four canonical gospels of the New Testament.

Indeed, a reading group should be formed not because a group has been identified which might be receptive to Marxism as such, but because a group has been identified who want to have a deeper discussion about politics and the world such as it exists. The choice of reading should in fact be chosen on this basis.

Let’s begin with an example of how and when to engage with canonical Marxist texts in social and political context:

People who decide to become communists are often instructed to read the Communist Manifesto, but even they often find its relevance opaque, even if they won’t say so out loud. In spite of critiques we might direct at this text (which Marx himself was unsure about writing due to the problem of producing a formal document outlining, as if this can be done across historical context “what communists believe”), both in terms of its inability to reckon with the outcome of the 1848 revolutions (as they were at that moment in progress) as well as issues of tone (particularly around gender), it is still very relevant in terms of its concise ability to describe the communist outlook towards the non-communist world. But again, precisely because it was written in a historical moment we no longer inhabit, this fact may be less than obvious to the reader.

Rather, we might recommend this text precisely when questions of political alliances, and the limitations of potential political allies is raised, and then suddenly this often formally read but rarely digested text suddenly becomes more relevant to the reader: the whole of the fourth chapter serves as an excellent rebuttal to those who try, in a sectarian fashion, to discard all political trends which are not explicitly communist as “bourgeois” when Marx is very clear that we must support the democratic content of their politics (both in an anti-fascist and national liberationist sense), while also distinguishing ourselves in our own politics even as we “support every revolutionary movement”: our lack of opportunism, our communist difference, is revealed not in rejection of the non-communists, but in carrying out our politics with “the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time” at the forefront of our decision-making and in determining our propaganda and agitation.

But just as Marxists are concerned with diverse allies and political movements, so too can a Marxist reading group be focused on works which come from diverse backgrounds. In the current climate of often violent transphobic discourse dressed up and hidden behind the claim of “radical feminism”, a Marxist leading a reading group can help arm our fellows with ammunition with which to disarm reactionaries who seek to divide the oppressed in practice precisely by reading radical feminist texts with a critical eye:

For example, the reader may not agree with all of the arguments and conclusions of Andrea Dworkin, for example, but this most fierce of second wave feminist theoreticians has every reason to be revived in reading groups today, precisely for her situating of anti-patriarchy politics as systemic and economic. In engaging with defenders and detractors of feminist theorists, it is important to have a firm grasp on the theoretical terrain on which one is arguing. A true return to source materials is key to making more convincing, coherent, and all-encompassing arguments. Memetic absorption of terms, even by those of us with correct positions, does not always suffice, neither for winning over real friends or defeating rhetorical enemies.

So how then should we read?

Too often, political education is treated as a matter of reading the approved texts and memorizing the correct ideas. This is wrong. Political education isn’t about being able to pass a multiple-choice text on Marx and Lenin, it’s about learning how to think. We should engage with a broad stream of thinkers and texts, and have faith in our ability to work out what is correct. If we want to change the world, we must be able to engage with it without having to consult a rulebook.

Reading recommendations, reading lists, these things should be emergent. A seasoned Marxist theoretician doesn’t have a pre-ordained list of texts to get through in a specific order, but rather chooses what to read when based on intellectual and political conditions of their own real experience. So too should we not recommend on the assumption of a “one-size-fits all” Marxist education: we must be familiar with the people we are educating, their concerns, and the direction their thinking is going. We must be directly socially engaged with their political activities and concerns leading them to textual engagement, with the discussions taking place around said texts, and with the next steps of practical political engagement implied by this pedagogical exercise.

In fact, with in-person and especially individual discourse, this should be extremely easy to do, but many of our communists, being too enamored with the counter-cultural “edginess” that comes with being a Marxist in the United States, will often simply recommend Marx and Lenin to their friends in a mindless fashion without any concern for whether or not this is done in such a way as to actually pique their interest. On an individual level, it is actually very easy to watch this method fail: Some of us have personally been asked by friends “oh, you’re a Marxist? what should I read to understand Marx?”, and replied with the Manifesto or the first part of Capital or some such, only to have those friends never become organized, never follow up, and continue to roll their eyes at our politics, even if some of those friends briefly fashionably identified as Marxists to look clever.

By contrast, many members of functioning Marxist organizations got their start in political education by arguing with organized Marxists about Foucault, or Gramsci, or Federici, or for that matter Ali Shariati. In such cases, the more theoretically advanced Marxists from whom they learned often didn’t say “don’t read that, read someone else instead”. In some cases they approved of the thinkers under discussion, in others they didn’t. The key ingredient was in identifying the essence of the author’s argument and its relevance to the young recruit’s social life and political interests. Mastering this ability creates a real and vibrant dialogue between people, and within an individual person’s mind as they learn to think more critically.

When we speak about dialogue, it bears mentioning that dialogue happens in the group setting also: a reading is assigned and then the group meets so as to discuss what they read. This discussion can involve asking clarifying questions of a group leader, but this is not a group leader’s most important task: rather it is to facilitate debates between participants, to tease out of them what the reading made them think of, both of which may lay the groundwork for the start of or changes to practical work with those involved, as well as suggestions for further reading to further explore the ideas being wrestled with.

Over time, participants will become more eager to recommend reading that has been troubling them themselves. This is also to be encouraged, even sometimes when a group leader considers the text in question “bad” or it deviates from the Marxist canon: negative lessons are also lessons, and much of the time can be rather good ones. When one reads non-Marxist texts, one also allows for the “less Marxist” with whom we might share reading groups to see that ours is not a sectarian worldview, but a scientific one, which in turn invites them to be more open when we propose reading, for example, Engels or Kollontai on gender politics.

Why read?

Reading groups are an ongoing dialogue and process with the participants. It is important to consider their prejudices, fight against them, and in doing so show how our worldview actually allows, in the final instance, for a more complete summation of the perspectives found in the manifold particular texts in which they are already interested. The point is not that people need to read (or need not read) any particular text or group of texts. The question is who is going to read what, when, why, and how.

Note that just as our political struggle is not (and never has been, per the Manifesto quotes above) a struggle to unite all communists against all non-communists, but rather we believe that communism is the ideology which can in the final instance most properly unite all oppressed in struggle against all oppression, so too does education in the service of this rely on the question of how to awaken and unite various forms of political consciousness and may draw on diverse thinkers and textual traditions.

If one’s aim is to become a theoretically advanced communist, one should thoroughly familiarize oneself with as much Marxist literature, particularly the classics, as possible. But if one’s aim is to be maximally useful as a political educator armed with the aforementioned Marxist knowledge, one should work resolutely to familiarize others with critical theory touching on all social issues. One should work to draw connections between them and show how, rather than tell that, Marxist theory can unite, systematize, and weaponize all critical approaches against the system which is ultimately the target of all criticism.

Recommended further reading: “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paolo Freire


Author: Struggle for a New World

Articles posted by the editorial collective of Struggle for a New World. Please submit inquiries, criticisms, pitches, and offers of large sums of untraceable cash to struggleforanewworld (at) gmail (dot) com.

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