Red Start: A Rational Reading Retrospective

Introduction

Background

It was a dark and unprecedented time -- the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In San Francisco, waves of shelter-in-place directives forced the “non-essential” of us to avoid all contact with others, while “essential” workers were shoved into unsafe, unrewarding working conditions. Several of my Red Star comrades, involved in a small reading group for several months, noticed the positive impact that this group had on our own political development and, surprisingly, mental health. Going through some difficult theory with a supportive group of thoughtful comrades was an overwhelmingly positive experience, helping us both refine our politics and feel part of a productive community at a time when in-person organizing was at an anxious standstill.

We looked around and saw that there weren’t any groups in our local chapter that were doing this type of work, though there were some other groups in other chapters (and nationally) that we were impressed with. Inspired by our own experiences and the effectiveness of other groups, we figured that it was worth trying to extend a version of our group to a broader group of people.

Beyond the somewhat-selfish desire to have a positive, constructive organizing project to work on, this project fits into a bigger set of ideas that the lot of us have around political education — we hold a firm belief in the importance of political education as a necessary part of revolutionary activity. In our minds, useful political education projects should have some clear goals:

  • Providing a basic theoretical background to neophytes — gives a basic vocabulary and ideology that drives action
  • Providing a space for people to connect around these concepts — agitation and organizing
  • Providing a way for more advanced revolutionaries to hone their skills and advance their own theoretical understanding
  • Providing some opinionated political perspective

For us, this isn’t a side concern for the broader socialist movement — it is an existential imperative. In the absence of active, effective political education programs, bourgeois ideology will remain entrenched. Moreover, these programs must be dialectical in their pedagogy — they should develop in concert with the needs and abilities of those being educated, the educators conditioned equally by the educated. In the words of Lenin:  

Since there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement the only choice is either bourgeois or socialist ideology.

This does not mean, of course, that the workers have no part in creating such an ideology. They take part, however, not as workers, but as socialist theoreticians, as Proudhons and Weitlings; in other words, they take part only when they are able, and to the extent that they are able, more or less, to acquire the knowledge of their age and develop that knowledge. But in order that working men may succeed in this more often, every effort must be made to raise the level of the consciousness of the workers in general; it is necessary that the workers do not confine themselves to the artificially restricted limits of “literature for workers” but that they learn to an increasing degree to master general literature.

— V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?

Looking Around, A Disease

We looked around at the educational programs in our chapter and generally did not see an effective and consistent movement towards achieving these goals.

Some natural questions came up in evaluating this:

  • If the goal of political education is to provide some theoretical understanding to a broad group of people, why are so many events ill-attended?
  • Why do the programs feel so unsupportive?
  • Why don’t these events generate enthusiasm and organizing energy?
  • Why is there so little repetition and re-use of materials?
  • Why did they frequently feel devoid of political content?

A Diagnosis

Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that organizers of many educational programs suffered from a mixture of some high-level problems beyond the more practical logistical ones.

Different Goals

Our opinion about the nature of useful political education is not a universally-shared one. Of course, then, we shouldn’t necessarily expect political education projects with different goals to be accomplishing ours!

Unfortunately, we think that some of the alternative goals (often implicit in the behaviors of organizers) do a disservice to DSA members who deserve good political education. Without psychologizing too much to arrive at these implicit goals, (it ultimately doesn’t really matter in terms of practically addressing their consequences), we saw some patterns in the personal attitudes of organizers that were sometimes made explicit in conversations:

  • Preserving an insular, small group of “elite intellectuals” (or just some social group). Many reading groups (or committees in general) become places where a small group of people can generate self-reinforcing mythology around how good of a job they’re doing. This encourages insularity, as outside input or criticism might do something to disrupt the mythology and force the difficult process of introspection.
  • Maintaining personal egos / elitist views. Sometimes people are less interested in organizing effectively than maintaining a sense of superiority that being in a role of expertise provides. Running or participating in an educational event can provide an opportunity to show off, browbeat others about not knowing things (or not having the “right” conclusions), and just generally feel good at the expense of others.
  • Maintaining freedom to act unaccountably as individuals within the larger DSA organizational apparatus. This follows a larger “anti-organizational” trend that favors individual autonomy over collective decision-making and action within democratic organizations.

No Goals or No Process

Another problem involves a lack of organization and seriousness in sustainably developing effective educational programs. This manifests itself in a variety of ways: lack of advertisement of events, lack of materials provided for events, lack of longer-term coherence in educational programs, lack of feedback mechanisms and serious attempts at ongoing improvement, etc.

This is an understandable phenomenon, for a couple of reasons:

  • Organizers in DSA are volunteers and don’t necessarily have a lot of time to devote to developing a curriculum and running “actively managed” educational programs.
  • Organizers in DSA are frequently inexperienced at running or participating in political education projects. Pedagogy and organizing are skills, and many people put into positions of leadership within DSA do not bring those skills to the table. This is fine, of course, but there are generally not great feedback mechanisms for leaders to hone their skills, leading to amateurism.
  • Organizers in DSA are often depoliticized in the name of “preserving the big tent”. In order to avoid “imposing views”, “alienating people”, or just generally producing anything resembling controversy, even radical organizers feel pressure to keep education “apolitical”.


Practically, this leads to a restriction of content to that which fits in a right-shifted Overton Window. For the DSA, this means an educational bent towards liberal social democracy and away from even considering historically effective revolutionary socialist movements.

Ideologically, this cedes ground to several objectionable liberal notions:

  • There is some sort of “apolitical” education that can happen around socialism and moreover that such a program would be desirable.
    We reject this framing entirely: all education has political content, especially education that bills itself as objective.
  • Injecting explicit political opinion into education taints the “marketplace of ideas” that allows people to come to their own (correct?) conclusions when presented with the “apolitical” version of things.
    This might be fine, but the ideology of “apolitical” educational content is that of the dominant bourgeois ideology — this “marketplace of ideas” is unstocked with the delicious fruit of radical socialist thought.
    People cannot be expected to come to correct conclusions if they are not presented with a decent spectrum of ideas.
    On top of that, people shouldn’t always be expected to dedicate the time and intellectual effort to develop a full political framework from scratch by themselves — they deserve some guidance.

A Praxtical Problem

Finally, there’s a broader ideological conflict to contend with: People often latch on to an un-dialectical view around the relationship between theory and practice — a very old problem in the history of socialism. In the minds of many, a false dichotomy between the two is set up, which Marxists ought to reject. Some caricatures generated by the opposing sides might help:

On one hand, there is the  “Theory Bro”, someone who hamfistedly and often cruelly insists on Just Reading Theory as a solution to incorrect politics. “If only the riff-raff were as educated as me, they would have the right opinions, and therefore would do the right thing!” This is, unfortunately, a Real Type Of Guy.

On the other hand, we have those who react to Theory Bro Arrogance by rejecting theory completely, partially out of spite, claiming that it is just a masturbatory distraction from Doing The Work. In their minds, theory can be spontaneously developed or just doesn’t need to be developed at all.

The reality, we believe, is more nuanced, and requires a dialectical view of revolutionary praxis that allows (and requires!) a continuous feedback loop between theoretical and practical development.


I don’t care how much theory you got, if it don’t have any practice applied to it, then that theory happens to be irrelevant. Right? Any theory you get, practice it. And when you practice it you make some mistakes. When you make a mistake, you correct that theory, and then it will be corrected theory that will be able to be applied and used in any situation. That’s what we’ve got to be able to do.

— Fred Hampton, Power Anywhere There’s People

What Was To Be Done?

Goals

Having developed some analysis of the broader problems with political education, we wanted to Do The Thing And Do It Right. The starting point (and a point of divergence from other projects) was a commitment to scientific socialism. We were going to try, as best as we could, to treat our program as an ongoing experiment with clearly-defined, measurable goals, with mechanisms for adapting our program to better achieve these goals over time.

So, we came up with a name for it (Red Start — it works on a couple of levels), and of course were immediately faced with the sort of practical, logistical decisions that, at the end of the day, make a huge difference in the quality of political education events.

We wanted our project to be good from the start, and having a cute name wasn’t enough — we had to formulate our initial hypothesis of what a good project looked like. To start, we looked at past experiments — what were good specific examples of political education that we’d seen? What were the things that they did that made them good? What were some bad examples? How could we avoid their mistakes?

First, there is the matter of defining what “good political education” is. In broad terms, this is political education that supports the goals outlined above – But what were our goals specifically? How would we know if we succeeded in achieving them?

We decided to lay them out explicitly, as part of a FAQ that was made available to participants:

  • Red Star wants to advance a stronger Marxist position within the chapter and for DSA at large. We think that part of this means reading texts that have been important to the historical development of socialism and discussing what we can learn from them. Most socialist organizations expect ongoing political education for their most active members and we think that should be part of being a DSA organizer.
  • Red Star is looking to find more members in a more methodical way. By engaging with people’s ideas of socialism in a public setting, we want to find and develop more DSA SF organizers into becoming caucus members.
  • Red Star believes that Marxism requires a continual application of our theoretical knowledge and a continuous re-evaluation of our knowledge based on our experience in practice. As such, we want to further our own understanding of revolutionary theory by joining and facilitating Red Start sessions.

Progress towards these goals has some clear (some qualitative) metrics, which we decided to measure as best we could:

  • attendance of events
  • accumulation of potential recruits
  • internal participation of Red Star members
  • amount of positive feedback from attendees, and
  • (maybe a bit nebulous) the propagation of the ideas presented in our educational program into the actions/thought of the attendees.

Designing The Format

Great, we had goals and some ways of measuring them, but what should the actual program look like?

We started with a format we were familiar with and attempted to correct the failures in other projects that we had witnessed — the reading group. This is a common format for political education within a chapter — in its most unstructured form, this consists of a Bunch of People Just Reading A Long Book over the course of a month or two, with periodic meetings to talk about every few chapters. More structured versions involve having excerpts, auxiliary materials, discussion questions, and more active facilitation of the meetings.

Depending on the intent and audience, this can be fine, and we decided to try doing a Reading-Group-Like Thing, but there are some common problems with this format that we thought could be addressed with a bit of effort. I’ll outline our thoughts, which hopefully will be of some practical use for other people thinking about educational projects.

Length and Approachability

Problem

The texts that are chosen by reading groups are often dense and decontextualized. Throwing a bunch of new learners into, say, reading Capital is both difficult and useless — many people do not have the historical or theoretical context around Marx’s writing to understand or use the text.  

If the goal is to provide some compelling, accessible political education to people of varying backgrounds, un-excerpted, dense foundational texts are a poor focus. If they are to be chosen, the organizers need to put in the effort to add this context and fill in these gaps, otherwise, much of the burden falls on those participating, which is a recipe for burnout and frustration.

In addition, there can be a lack of social support during the learning process — participants feel shame if they can’t finish the reading, feel insecure about participating in discussions, and generally are made to feel dumb or inadequate.

Solution

First, we decided to prefer more accessible texts that wouldn’t require more than 1 to 2 sessions to read (maybe after excerpting). These sessions would require 1-2 hours of reading per week, which we figured was a reasonable amount for most people.

To address alienation during the reading process itself and to encourage active reading, we provided standardized source material in the form of a collaborative Google Doc. The commenting feature of Google Docs allows for annotated “highlighting” of passages and spontaneous discussion between participants about those passages. Participants were provided with a link to this document and repeatedly encouraged to highlight it via in-line comments, with the facilitators taking the lead.

This had the effect of simulating “reading along” with a group and provided an opportunity for participants to feel comfortable asking clarifying questions.

Attendance and Enthusiasm

Problem

Common features of leftist reading groups are low attendance and enthusiasm. Primarily, this stems from a chronic lack of advertisement and encouragement of participants. The length and density of the source texts, required time commitments for keeping up, and drive towards insularity discussed above also contribute to people dropping out. Why should they bother putting in a bunch of time being alone and frustrated just to go to a meeting where they don’t feel comfortable participating? People do not see the point of doing this, which is especially a problem when they are primed to think that learning theory is not immediately useful.

Solution

Advertising works. We decided that we would come up with some sort of good graphics, post them on social media, and make sure that people were generally aware of how to participate in our events.

Importantly, this included maintaining email lists of registrants and past attendees and using them for outreach, engagement, and reminders about the upcoming sessions. We made a point of sending out friendly, repeated reminder emails about the sessions that people registered for, making sure to include the source material, time of the event, Zoom information, and other material we thought might be useful.

Accessibility

Problem

People don’t always like reading, may not have the time to devote to focused reading, or may have schedules that don’t permit attending a meeting at a given time. Choosing dense texts for political education with meetings at a fixed time, then, is necessarily going to exclude some groups of people that deserve to access educational material.

Solution

To address this, we tried different media for the sources. When we chose texts, we tried to pick ones that had available audiobook versions that were sent out to the participants – in one instance we got a participant to make their own!  

In order to help people that couldn’t attend — and to just generate reusable content that can be used multiple times, something frequently missed by people running educational events — we also turned some of the sessions into podcasts.

Political Content

Problem

Finally, there’s the fear of political narratives that many political education events suffer from. Many organizers seek to present things in a “neutral” way, refusing to editorialize or provide historical context out of a fear that this frames the content in a particular way. We felt that this aversion to politics in political education was doing a liberal disservice to the participants, and genuinely making it harder to understand things.

To be among the masses and fail to conduct propaganda and agitation or speak at meetings or conduct investigations and inquiries among them, and instead to be indifferent to them and show no concern for their well-being, forgetting that one is a Communist and behaving as if one were an ordinary non-Communist. This is a seventh type [of liberalism].

— Who Knows Who Wrote It?, Combat Liberalism

Solution

We decided to avoid any attempts at being “apolitical”, but also to be honest with our own political biases. We thought that this would show some integrity and also respect for the attendees’ ability to critically take in explicitly politicized ideas. To that end, we made each session include a short, punchy introduction to the topic, led by a primary facilitator. These introductions would include editorializing and some political lines that the Red Start organizers discussed in advance. We insisted that the facilitators not shy away from directly discussing political issues (and proposing political lines) in an inclusive way, and designed the discussion questions to encourage this type of constructive discussion.

The Immortal Science

So, having some hypotheses about what would work, we set out to test them. We ran the Red Start experiment for nearly an entire year. What, exactly, did we do? How did we adjust as we went along?

How It Went

We ran our first sessions bi-weekly (online) on some short texts that we thought would be useful as introductory Marxist texts. These sessions were 1.5 hours and consisted of a brief presentation led by a “primary facilitator” about the text. This was followed by the participants going into breakout rooms of 6-12 people, each of which had a facilitator that led a discussion guided by some discussion questions that were written in advance. Finally, participants re-convened and we had the breakout groups go around and give a short summary of what they discussed.

Importantly, we were methodical about organizing this process: we developed clear guidelines for facilitators of sessions, made sure that the documents were prepared in advance, wrote up discussion questions, provided extra material, and (most importantly) reminded participants of the session time.

We were absolutely floored by the attendance — the first session had more than 100 attendees. This high attendance was fairly consistent across the months that we ran the series, ranging from 30-70 people on average.

We ran the sessions in thematic units that connected several pieces to a broader chunk of thinking. This allowed us to treat these as “mini-courses” that reinforced each other. We started off with a trio of basic Marxist texts that we thought were pretty approachable and then moved into more specific things, e.g.: Imperialism and Its Discontents, Historical and Dialectical Materialism.

There were a couple of times we had to adapt, which we noticed by constantly reviewing feedback. For example, we saw that people generally felt uncomfortable in the report-back section of the event and that it didn’t really contribute to the understanding of the participants. As a result, we removed that and replaced it with a panel discussion led by Red Star members that gave “our take” on the reading and its relevance to present-day organizing. We were surprised to find that people really liked this, even with an initial fear that this might feel too prescriptive — the honest and direct communication was broadly appreciated.

What We Learned Along The Way

Coming away from it, the overall takeaway is: we did something that definitely worked.

In summary: the consistently high attendance, enthusiasm, and positive feedback support our overall design of the program, at least in terms of getting people interested over a long period of time. Given the minimal attendance that we had seen at many of our local reading groups and other events, it is clear that (through some combination of our differences in structure) we have produced an improved template for running highly-attended educational events.

To be a bit more specific, I think there are a few main insights derived from our experience, which are worth outlining.

Encouraged People Want To Learn!

In the early COVID quarantine era, we were competing for attention with all sorts of distractions and an anxiety-driven lack of motivation. In light of this, we expected that trying to get people to read some challenging socialist theory would be extremely difficult — not so! The enthusiasm and appreciation of the attendees of Red Start were consistently surprising — and invigorating for the organizers!

Different Formats Are Good!

People get burned out on reading long texts, or really, reading any texts at all. Try something different, and always have a goal to produce reusable material for the future! People enjoyed the interview speaker we had so much that we decided to let them speak for twice as long and run another session on the same subject. Run a panel! Do an interview! Talk about a film!

Opinions Are Good!

We found that people were eager to hear what members of Red Start had to say about the politics of the material covered in the session and its relevance to current DSA organizing. Our replacement of the report-backs from breakout groups with a Q&A session was received positively and provided reusable content for our podcast excerpts.

This Stuff Matters!

As mentioned earlier, a common reaction to political education comes from a (correct) frustration with a caricatured “Theory Bro”, someone who hamfistedly and often cruelly insists on Just Reading Theory as a solution to incorrect politics. This reaction is to reject theory at all, out of spite, claiming that it is just a masturbatory distraction from Doing The Work.

We reject both this reaction (as unavoidable) and its rationalization (as untrue). Red Start proves both of these: by making our sessions friendly, positive, and accessible, we largely avoided a knee-jerk reaction that wrote off the project. We also saw the downstream effects of this education within the chapter — rank and file members have become more interested in reading theory and applying it to their organizing. We’ve seen people applying more dialectical thinking to their organizing work and I believe wholeheartedly that this is a positive improvement in the political development of the chapter that ought to be pushed as much as possible.

What Next?

We’ve learned a lot from our experiences running Red Start, and we shouldn’t be wasting that knowledge.

First, we intend on taking these learnings and using them for improving our local chapter’s educational materials. Several Red Star members formed a Political Education subcommittee within the Steering Committee to attempt to do this -- it involves the statement of some educational principles and ideas for connecting chapter educational work that was inspired by Red Start. There is ongoing work in developing broad, meaningful educational reform in the chapter that we believe is progressing in a positive direction.

Second, there’s the dissemination of this knowledge to people in other chapters and collaboration that helps them grow their educational work. Hopefully, this piece provides some content that others will find useful in that capacity. To that end, we ran a joint event with the nascent La Mayoría caucus in Chicago. As we move forward to expand our involvement with the national organization and grow relationships with other chapters, we expect to develop more programs like this.

Finally, though we had to take a break from running Red Start late last year, we will be restarting the Red Start program. In doing so, we will test our hypothesis that reusing and revisiting educational materials will provide fertile ground to keep our education program dynamic, evolving, and relevant. Without education, we will lose more generations to propaganda, confusion, and inaction. With Red Start, we saw the mobilizing power of a social education program, and we can’t wait for others to see this as well.