For a lot of socialist groups, political education has a tendency to linger on abstracts.
This is something of an unfair stereotype, as plenty of socialist formations expand what they teach their members and supporters beyond the usual list of Lenin, Marx, Engels, Mao, and interpretations of the above. Inevitably, though, all socialists have to reckon with the legacy of Marx and the soaring achievements and miserable failures of the Soviet Union and these political education efforts return to reading Capital, or The Little Red Book, or The State and Revolution. Most groups structured along democratic centralist lines in the US have a new member vetting process and an intensive political education program that involves reading some or all of those thinkers.
This is not to say any of these books are unimportant, or the ideas in them lack vitality in the current times, or even that the kind of thorough political education that groups other than DSA engage in are bad. They absolutely are not. They are merely a different political approach that the one DSA uses, the difference being largely created by DSA’s looser and more open organizational structure and the political inexperience of your average new DSA member when compared to the average new member candidate for a democratic centralist group.
For instance, Workers World and the Party for Socialism and Liberation have both been developing their newer members from the anti-war movement and the anti-police violence movements that have coalesced around Black Lives Matter. The bulk of DSA’s bulge in membership stems from capturing a chunk of support from the Bernie Sanders’ campaign for President in 2016. Bluntly, it is far harder and requires a much greater degree of personal investment in and engagement with politics to be a part of confrontational protest movements than it does to vote in a Presidential primary.
All of this is to say: DSA has a need to develop basic political skills among its members. And I have been working on something to address that.
I have developed a short, one-day training to address this that I am calling an organizing clinic. This Saturday, I will be running one for the YDSA chapter at Virginia Commonwealth University. My aim is simple: I want to give everyone who attends an understanding of how to structure an organizing conversation in an effective manner and how to identify issues to organize around. We are also including modules on how organize in a purposeful fashion in communities of color and ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities in our organizing practice.
To quote from the preface of the 25th Anniversary edition of Robin D.G. Kelley’s masterwork, Hammer and Hoe, Dr. Kelley recalls something Lemon Johnson, a leader in the sharecroppers’ union in Alabama, told him:
When I asked Mr. Johnson how the union succeeded in winning some of their demands, without the slightest hesitation he reached into the drawer of his nightstand and pulled out a dog-eared copy of V. I. Lenin’s What Is To Be Done and a box of shotgun shells, set both firmly on the bed next to me and said, “Right thar, theory and practice. That’s how we did it. Theory and practice.”
My aim is to sharpen DSA’s practice so that it can be in a place to both learn more theory through shared political struggle and develop more effective practice.
For those who are interested, this is the handout that I am distributing at the training. Once the training is sufficiently refined and I have run it a few more times, I will be developing a train the trainer and a kit for the training to share these skills as broadly as possible.