Political Education and the Socialist Movement

Emmaline B. of Columbia University YDSA stresses the importance of political education and argues for the imperative to pass the ‘Developing a Robust National Political Education’ resolution at the upcoming YDSA convention.

As protests have erupted around the country these past two months, so too has the desire for political education from reading lists shared through social media to discussion groups on texts like Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? or Alex Vitale’s The End of Policing. It’s a good reminder to us, as socialists, that people’s ideas can indeed change rapidly in the course of struggle but also that it takes real commitment and organization to build on that potential and engage seriously in the task of learning collectively about the issues that face us today. 

Political education has always been a key part of my own development as a socialist organizer. I’ve identified as a socialist since high school, but since there weren’t any socialist groups in the area where I grew up, my process of radicalization for those first four years proceeded in a fairly isolated manner limited mostly to looking up Marx quotes and skimming through Wikipedia articles about socialism. All of this left me with a strong conviction in many of the core tenets of socialism internationalism, the centrality of the working class, and so on but with no idea of how to actually connect those abstract beliefs into the concrete work of day-to-day organizing and collective struggle. 

All of this changed in college, when I was lucky enough to join a socialist group at that time, a branch of the International Socialist Organization that placed a great deal of emphasis on political education and new member development. I went to branch meetings each week focused on topics ranging from the Syrian Revolution to teachers’ strikes; I joined a reading group for newer members about foundational topics in socialist theory, history, and practice; and I was paired with more experienced members in one-on-one mentorships to develop my own potential as an organizer. All of this meant that, by the end of my first year in college, I was no longer just a socialist in the abstract I was committed to building the socialist movement in the long term, and could connect all the organizing work I was doing on a day-to-day basis to that broader vision. 

Ever since that group dissolved, and as I became involved in a new YDSA chapter at my university this past year, I’ve been thinking about how we could use similar approaches to political education and membership development in YDSA. One of the biggest challenges that we’ve faced, as a new chapter at Columbia, is the fact that our active membership is relatively small, and even many of our core organizers are relatively new to socialist organizing. This has limited our capacity to launch the kinds of intensive reading groups, mentorships, and chapter-wide political discussions that were so critical to my own early formation as a socialist organizer. 

These experiences were what led me to some of the ideas proposed in the resolution for the upcoming YDSA convention, ‘Developing a Robust National Political Education Program,’ which I co-authored along with other comrades around the country. The proposals in this resolution would be building on some of the work that’s already been done by the National Political Education Committee (NPEC) in the past year — for instance, the School of Socialism syllabus and the Socialist Night School Manual — but expanding on it considerably.

The reason why I think we need to go beyond our current approach is that there’s still much more work to be done when it comes to the task of actually implementing these national political education initiatives at the local level. Distributing materials is a good first step, but this should be paired with trainings, workshops, and mentorships that can actually give chapter members the confidence to organize and facilitate their own political education events. 

We should also start thinking of political education as an opportunity for fostering discussion and building connections among YDSA members across different chapters, both regionally and nationally. I’ve seen some of this potential for cross-campus connections through reading groups I’ve helped to facilitate among DSA and YDSA members across the country this past summer. Another of the co-authors of the resolution has been involved in a similar regional effort, in the form of a political education series focused on Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts across the University of California campuses. Since informal efforts like this have already been quite successful, it makes sense for us to formalize them and contribute more resources toward making opportunities like this available for all YDSA members. 

As we proposed in the resolution, this could take the form of national calls organized around the topics in the syllabus developed by the NPEC, or around other topics that are relevant in the political moment or related to campaigns that YDSA chapters are organizing. These calls would be a valuable form of membership development, by giving members a chance to prepare talks on topics that interest them and learn how to facilitate breakout groups. Ideally, these calls will be as discussion-based as possible, in order to give YDSA members a chance to engage in debate and develop connections with members of other chapters. 

These national and regional political education calls would serve to address a number of needs within YDSA. First, they would help to counteract the current unevenness among chapters by providing all members with the opportunity to engage in political education, even if their local chapter doesn’t yet have the capacity to organize events like these on their own. Second, they would develop the confidence and skills of YDSA members and empower them to organize their own political education events at the local level. Finally, they would lay the groundwork for greater coordination among chapters at the regional and national level which would certainly have a positive impact on all the organizing work we do as YDSA, not just in the realm of political education. 

As with all the resolutions we’ll be voting on at convention, we should always be relating these specific proposals back to a broader vision of how we want YDSA to be organized and what role it should play in the wider socialist movement. Political education, in my view, is never an end goal in itself — rather, it should always be seen as one component of a broader strategy for furthering our class struggle.

That’s why I see a natural connection between this political education resolution and another resolution that we’ll be voting on at convention, ‘Establishing a YDSA Rank-and-File Pipeline.’ This resolution seeks to leverage the potential of YDSA to serve as a training ground for the next generation of socialist labor organizers. Political education plays a key role in this vision, as laid out in the proposals for syllabi, national calls, and speaking tours about labor organizing, along with more in-depth political education events for YDSA members seriously considering pursuing rank-and-file strategy. 

This resolution provides an incredibly valuable orientation toward political education as something which is not simply an abstract intellectual exercise, but actually an indispensable means of developing socialist organizers who can build the movement in the long term. Speaking for myself, the political education I received in socialist groups during college was key to my decision to pursue rank-and-file strategy as a teacher after graduation, but I would have benefited immensely from the more in-depth political education and membership development that this Rank-and-File Pipeline resolution lays out. 

My hope is that the resolution on ‘Developing a Robust National Political Education Program’ might bring a similar approach when it comes to many different realms of socialist organizing. I think that there is a widely-felt need and desire among our membership to debate and learn more about issues ranging from the connection between racism and capitalism to what our orientation toward the Democratic Party should be. YDSA is a large, multi-tendency organization that includes members with widely-varying perspectives on these issues, as well as members who are still in the process of learning about these debates, and so we should be thinking of ways to facilitate those important discussions in as inclusive, democratic, and meaningful a way as possible.

The purpose of this political education would not be to enforce the “correct line” about any of these issues, but rather to get ourselves into the habit of thinking strategically about these questions and engaging in comradely debates with other organizers, even when we have disagreements with one another. This is a crucial skill for all of us to learn, since it is what will enable us to make the most effective contributions to ongoing struggles — in a way that will hopefully contribute, in however small a way, to our long-term aim of working-class self-emancipation and socialist transformation. 

When it comes to political education, then, I always try to keep that famous precept of Marx’s in mind: “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” That is to say, understanding the world is a crucial first step to changing it — but it is only the first step. Good political education is what allows us to start bridging that divide between theory and practice, to build from a theoretical understanding of capitalism toward a concrete strategy for ultimately overthrowing it.

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