Crisis and the Personal is Not Enough: The Importance of Political Education

Date: 2021-11-20T20:46:34+00:00


Sudip Bhattacharya reflects on his experiences with political education, making the case that education is often as important as agitation and organization. 

After winning governmental power in the late 1990s behind decades of waging struggle against the forces of neoliberalism in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez rightfully expected his administration to be faced with an oncoming wave of disruption and economic sabotage spearheaded by the capitalists and their revanchist right-wing allies. The major capitalists, as they’ve done frequently throughout Latin America with the guiding hand of the CIA, would soon start to disinvest and transfer their wealth abroad, thus sowing economic instability, which would impact the lives of everyone, including the poor and working-class base of the Chavista movement. 

According to Marxist scholar Martha Harnecker, a close advisor to Chavez and other socialist leaders across Latin America, one of the ways that Chavez mitigated this incoming brutal future was to continue speaking to the masses through TV and radio programming, disseminating critical political knowledge about world events and, of course, about understanding how capitalism functions. In A World To Build, Harnecker stated, 

The program was a vehicle to reach the people every Sunday for several hours. With a simple style and attuned to popular idiosyncrasies, he would patiently explain to the people the negative effects of capitalism and the benefits of socialism, using concrete examples that related to people’s everyday life. On numerous occasions he used diagrams or maps to explain things. The increase in people’s political consciousness was due, in no small part, to the pedagogical capacities of the president, which he used not only during his Sunday program but also in his long and frequent speeches. 

The purpose of these educational sessions was to provide clarity to the Venezuelan masses, against the tide of misinformation and economic hardship. Chavez echoed the concerns that Marxists, such as Antonio Gramsci, have long ago expressed, a concern that as much as crisis provoked by capital can lead to people becoming increasingly frustrated at the capitalist system itself, it can also understandably lead to many feeling overwhelmed and confused. Crises can breed feelings and emotions that eat away at one’s belief in a socialist or progressive project, as I’ve witnessed among comrades over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. As Covid restrictions were being lifted earlier in the year, many Americans expressed a deep sense of anxiety and depression, stemming from their precarious financial situation, a product of forty plus years of neoliberal rule, now exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Regarding the opportunities and dangers of capitalist-induced crises, Gramsci himself wrote that “the crisis creates situations which are dangerous in the short run, since the various strata of the population are not all capable of orienting themselves equally swiftly, or of reorganizing with the same rhythm.” Chavez needed to prevent the poor and working masses from losing faith in socialismo, from starting to believe it was somehow “natural” for nothing to ever change, even when voting for someone like Chavez. Part of this process included supporting organizing efforts at the ground-level that would provide the masses some sense of community that is also necessary when living under the daily grind of capital. But partly, the answer also lay in what Harnecker described: an effort to educate enough people on the functioning of capitalism, the tenets of socialism and Venezuelan history. 

Learning about the world they’re in, the chaos had become demystified to a significant number of Chavez supporters. In turn, the pro-Chavez constituency deepened its resolve, and to this day, continues to defend the Bolivarian Revolution against loathsome figures promoted by the U.S. and the Venezuelan “middle class”, such as Juan Guiado, whose claim to fame is an attempted coup that fell apart over the course of a few hours. 

What we should learn from the situation in Venezuela, as well as other historical examples of socialist struggle, is that political education should not be viewed as secondary to organizing. Organizing, of course, should always be the core of what socialists pursue, for obvious reasons. One can’t win socialism without a constituency willing to fight for it. One can’t develop that constituency simply by writing articles and delivering speeches. Thus, the sometimes depressing situation socialists in the U.S. have been mired in for over forty years now, with many having “good ideas” about what needs to be done, and lacking the force that an organized working class can be, to achieve said “good ideas”. 

Still, political education supplements the socialist organizing that’s being done, and most importantly, serves the function of deepening resolve, of providing clarity, including to those who would lean toward the Left on important issues, as do most Americans, and to those who are already part of socialist politics. Political education is not solely about conversion, making conservatives suddenly turn away from deep-seeded toxic ideologies. That transformation requires campaigning around material needs for such people to develop a more positive view of progressives, let alone socialists. 

Instead, as demonstrated by the Venezuelan example, political education can play the realistic role of enhancing the political consciousness/vision of those who are already starting to question/critique the capitalist status quo, or at the very least, would be more open to discussions regarding transformative change, such as African Americans, and non-white groups and sections of the white poor and working class who wouldn’t identify as conservative. 

At our DSA chapter in the heart of central New Jersey, amidst glittering shopping malls and neighborhoods where peoples’ homes are covered in mold due to landlord intransigence, political education has been viewed as necessary by our leadership. Over the past few years, the emphasis has been on organizing campaigns on critical issues such as housing. Members are encouraged to knock on peoples’ doors, to hold conversations about the issue, and to repeat the process, until people attend meetings to discuss how to address the most pressing needs of the community, such as how to improve working peoples’ living conditions, while landlords and property developers are squeezing people dry of what they’ve earned. 

Most of our leadership has also been steeped in history and theory, including learning about movements beyond our region and era such as discussing the tactics of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the Young Lords (YL). Learning about such revolutionary groups has helped us avoid the oncoming wave of frustration, which can bleed into hopelessness, that all of us are susceptible to, as we witness both people we’re trying to organize and our comrades suffer along the way. 

The YL themselves, for example, valued political education, especially one that skewed toward Marxism and Marxist thought. Johanna Fernandez, Associate Professor of History and the author of The Young Lords: A Radical History, explained that,  

The YL modeled itself after the Black Panthers and adopted that group’s organizational model, which structured political education into the day-to-day work of the organization through the publication of a newspaper, daily internal meetings around the assessment of an immediate political issues connected to their work or key concepts such as class, lumpenproletariat, colonization, racism, patriarchy, capitalism, etc.1

Members were also mandated to read an hour a day, Fernandez added. 

Pulling insights from what the YL and BPP, among others, had done in the past, our leadership had a stronger sense of what we needed to do to become more effective in our organizing. Prior to Covid-19, this meant organizing community events where tenants from a nearby building could spend more time together, talking to one another while eating and drinking. This was something that groups like the BPP had done, viewing organizing for power to mean more than simply waging a struggle on a particular issue, but instead as the start to a process of developing a “culture” and sense of community among working people and an understanding that they’d need to effectively shift power away from the landlords and into their own hands. 

During the peak of Covid-19, membership dipped, and people expressed feeling overwhelmed. Leadership once again turned to what they’d learned from the BPP and YL and radical labor struggles, whereby discipline and structure had been one way to counteract the looming doom and gloom permeating the chapter’s work. Hence, leadership tapped seasoned organizers, held conversations with them, and encouraged them to organize our working groups (each one focused on a particular issues, such as housing or labor or mutual aid), around concrete goals that groups could conceivably achieve in the next few months, and around common principles and tasks that members of each group must follow-through, or ask for help.

The essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” by Jo Freeman also served as a guiding light for leadership and our more seasoned organizers. This essay, combined with the knowledge leadership had gathered regarding revolutionary groups and labor history, helped steer our organizing work in a revitalized direction that was extremely needed at the time. This new direction would not have been possible without some historical knowledge and some understanding of theory. 

But more importantly, the value of learning history and theory, and examining contemporary events, was seen in members who are not necessarily part of the formal core leadership. This includes newer members or seasoned organizers who run some of the working groups and others who participate in them. These are again people who have been in progressive and socialist spaces, or who are just starting to become interested in anti-capitalist critiques, many of whom have been introduced to Left politics since the rise of Occupy, BLM, and the Bernie Sanders’ campaigns for president. Since 2016, tracking alongside the rise of Sanders into the popular consciousness among others, like AOC and the “squad”, the popularity of socialism has grown exponentially, especially among millennials and zoomers. 

Over the years, it has been the case that groups like the DSA and other movements on the Left, are attracting more people into their ranks as well, people who most likely do not have a background in socialist politics. What does this mean, practically? That there is a growing interest in economic issues and seeking alternatives to capitalism, a product of forty-plus years of a gutted social safety net, declining wages, and people being buried under piles of debt. At the same time, given there hasn’t been a robust Left for the past four decades or so, and most people expressing an interest in socialism or for progressive policies have not had the understanding of labor history, socialist theory, and of how capitalism functions to develop the clarity one needs to withstand the pressures of surviving under capitalism, let alone comprehending what type of socialist society we would need, and how to win it. 

Hadas Thier, activist and scholar, and the author of A People’s Guide to Capitalism explained, “Thousands of people are flocking to socialist organizations. There’s a broader awareness in society about profits and who benefits at whose expense,” adding that, “…we need to go from broad socialist instincts and aims which are resonating with increasing numbers of people, to deepen and develop a class analysis of the system, and to understand the structures that we’re up against.”

Organizing people into campaigns is critical, but not having the time to reflect and learn can still lead people to develop a narrowed sense of politics. Without learning about what labor movements have done in the past, without discussing socialist alternatives to capitalism, and certainly, without trying to grapple with the material basis for why race/racism and gender oppression have become so necessary for capitalist rule in the U.S., people can lack the long-term political vision one needs when organizing. Yes, organizing is about meeting peoples’ immediate needs, such as helping someone fighting against an eviction order. But when someone starts to develop a new sense of what a free and liberated society should look like, a society where housing is not treated as a commodity, then one will build tactics that are far more necessary, as in attempting to put together a tenants’ union, to shift power overall. 

Furthermore, learning about the world beyond oneself or one’s involvement inside a campaign is essential in staving off the hopelessness that will always linger, as one inevitably comes across obstacles while growing as an organizer, and as one still has to survive within the constraints of capitalism. 

Even when someone joins the DSA, they have to pay their bills, they have to still juggle between jobs and responsibilities at home. They, like most Americans, lack the savings one needs for an emergency situation, like a healthcare crisis. None of this magically disappears when one is organizing toward socialism. “Precariousness is rather a form of life,” writes Dario Gentili in The Age of Precarity: Endless Crisis As an Art Of Government, “that form of life that results from the neoliberal government of human resources in pursuit of profit.”

Such pressures can A) limit one’s time to learn on their own about the world beyond oneself and B) force people to slip back into feelings of frustration or even apathy, or even becoming increasingly vulnerable to pro-capitalist propaganda. One could start to believe that oppression is eternal and all-encompassing, or that somehow, people are internally wired to compete against one another, etc. To quote Fernandez,

We need political education because without it, our perception of human phenomenon is likely to be swayed by ideology  — a system of perceiving reality and your place in it that assumes inevitability or that ‘human nature’ is at work.

At the peak of the pandemic, when we didn’t really know whether or not we’d ever see our loved ones in-person again and a general malaise seeped into our chapter members. It became clear, after speaking amongst each other that our sense of ourselves and of the world had narrowed once more. We were missing the clarity we needed, which can develop from re-engaging with learning history and theory. Subsequently, our political education group at our chapter, which I co-chair with several others, immediately organized more frequent discussions, which would take place nearly every other week, ranging from topics like Labor History 101,what countries like Vietnam and Cuba were doing and disentangling concepts such as “neoliberal capitalism”. We also led discussions on how our institutions function to pursue a greater understanding of how U.S. federalism functions to slow down our momentum as socialists pursuing systemic change.  

The experience during Covid-19 reminded me of my own during 2016, when Donald Trump had been elected. By then, I already viewed myself as a Leftist and even as a socialist, with my parents having come from a part of eastern India where voting Communist is as normal as voting for any other political party. Still, as Trump gained momentum and ultimately won the presidency (with the next four years being a nightmare), I developed a cynicism about politics and about the potential for change. My own experiences of being racially discriminated against, especially following the events of 9/11, and Trump’s rise, convinced me that white supremacy was immutable and the best any of us could hope for was to elect Democrats. 

Thus, my lived experiences were not sufficient, even if such experience initially guided me into acknowledging that oppression and exploitation were endemic and provided me with some type of link with other oppressed groups. As I began engaging with labor struggles and with the local DSA, however, I was introduced to texts on labor history and socialist theory that challenged me to re-evaluate many of my assumptions, assumptions that could’ve re-emerged during the pandemic, leading me once again down the road of cynicism and pessimism. 

“As human beings concerned with revolutionary social change, we must have a philosophy of revolution,” as the radical pairing of Grace Lee and James Boggs expressed in their seminal text, Revolution and Evolution. They add, “That is to say, we must have some very fundamental ideas about what a revolution means to the continuing advance of humanity.” What Grace Lee and James Boggs had been concerned with, much like Marx and others in the revolutionary socialist tradition, was how to move people along from identifying some immediate issues in society to developing a broader worldview recognizing the need and possibility for progressive social change, especially a socialist one. 

During the pandemic, the political education discussions helped generate some level of optimism amidst the chaos. It reminded many of us what we’re still capable of, as socialists, and for newer members, to offer the education they always deserved. The swirling chaos of our lives under capitalism and Covid-19 still persists, and will continue to, until capitalism is destroyed and replaced. But for now, many of us at least know tangibly what it is we’re up against, and that change is necessary and possible. 

Conducting political education to provide the clarity that people in socialist and progresisve groups need requires some structure and principle behind it as well. 

At the most basic level, political education is about learning in a collective group, not in isolation. Once someone is done reading an assigned text, they must be among comrades to better comprehend it. None of us can grapple with all of the major points being made in a text, or develop the kinds of questions we need to better understand what we’ve just read. We need others around us, since different people will notice things in a text that other people just won’t be able to. 

Furthermore, we develop our skills to listen to one another, and to become essentially, better thinkers, theorists, and comrades. “Knowledge is built up in the relations between human beings and the world, relations of transformation, and perfects itself in the critical problematization of these relations,” Paolo Freire writes in Education for Critical Consciousness

Still, this doesn’t mean that people are simply assigned a text, or they pick whatever they want to read and discuss it, without any format or direction. One’s lived experience can connect to certain texts more easily, but overall, some guidance is also necessary. 

Hence, the political education at our chapter is led by a core group of us who are educators, or have some experience teaching others. This level of experience has helped us conceive of what topics to cover, how to connect texts from one discussion to the next, and most importantly, how to balance between providing overviews for members, since many are working and sometimes too busy to skim between their shifts, and asking questions that could generate interesting conversations that help people develop politically. 

So far, our discussions include 15-20 minutes of overview of basic concepts in the text, or providing more context that is necessary to have a better grasp of what was written. Following that, we open up the floor for people to ask questions they have about the text, anything that remains unclear. If no one speaks up, we float questions that one of us has devised. Such questions include digging deeper into a concept, what it means, how it relates to our lives. Over the course of the next half-hour or so, depending on the rhythm of the discussion, we sometimes ask members to choose other questions on the list of questions we’ve shared that we may want to discuss next, or we ask new questions that explore further some of the material that’s being brought up. 

During one of our discussions about Angela Davis’ work on abolition, the discussion headed toward how we discuss this topic with our co-workers and friends beyond the socialist and progressive spaces we are usually in. This happened much sooner than I predicted, but since it was generating much more enthusiasm among members, I decided to combine earlier questions about basic concepts to what we were now exploring. Consequently, we discussed breaking down the concept of “abolition democracy”, a term used in Davis’ text, in a manner that connected to people we knew. 

Martina Manicastri, who is an English educator and co-chair of the political education working group, has been instrumental in shaping these discussions with a mix of overview and questions. She’s also been aware of what members need to learn and read based on the organizing work she’s connected with in other working groups, like mutual aid. This Freirean model of education, based on her own experiences of teaching and organizing, is meant to develop members into better organizers themselves, and to develop ways of being and seeing the world around them that counteract the chaos. 

“The purpose of doing so, is I think, instilling a system of political values that can be acted upon by the people we organize,” she explained, “This means that maybe our community gets better at identifying a problem, like when they’re political participation goes against their interests, or maybe it means our community gets better at resisting oppression because they have the language and tools to do so.”

But this approach depends on a core group of people who at some level, know what they are doing, and for what purpose. As Bill Fletcher, Jr., long-time labor organizer and thinker, explained, 

You need a committee of people that are knowledgeable who are going to be committed to researching and identifying potential sources and you have to be clear about the four questions that are essential. What do you want people to know, feel, understand and do as a result of the program? There’s not just one Marxist political education program. It depends on who you’re trying to reach, what the reading level is, what movements they come out of, what questions they’re grappling with. 

Further, as a group, we’ve been able to develop some 101 courses, which are designed explicitly for members who really don’t have the time nor energy to read but still would like to learn more about subjects like capitalism, the differences between socialism and progressivism, and histories of labor struggle, U.S. empire, and even concepts such as social reproduction theory. As a group, we’ve compiled a list of texts and sources, from Marx, to Lenin, to Kollontai, Angela Davis, Robin D.G. Kelley, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Nelson Lichenstein, Mike Davis, Bill Fletcher Jr., Donna Murch, Johanna Fernandez, Hadas Thier, Susan Ferguson, among numerous others, whose work we identify as helping trace the material roots of a critical issue, or the history of struggle. 

Finally, we introduce members to articles and essays from contemporary sources, such as Jacobin, Current Affairs, Regeneration, Cosmonaut, The American Prospect, The Nation, The New Republic, and Dissent magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baffler, N+1 magazine and the Guardian. As one can tell, this list includes Leftist and more “bourgeois” sources. “Bourgeois” publications like the New York Times are still useful when discussing issues like the latest budgetary battle that took place in Congress or in learning about topics like corporate lobbying, but on topics like U.S. interventions abroad, we defer to sources such as The Intercept or the Jacobin or the Grayzone for our analysis. When the issue is more related to labor, we rely more so on Dissent or In These Times or Labor Notes. Sometimes, we’ve read more conservative outlets as well, like the National Review, to interrogate the conservative worldview and how they think about the world, or we even read some pieces about international issues by publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post  as a way of practicing our skills identifying the pro-U.S. slant in their reporting. 

There are of course steps that can be taken to strengthen the work of political education in our chapter, and this does include allowing more members, besides the core and seasoned organizers, to lead discussions on topics they are passionate about and willing to prepare for. Leading a political education discussion is helpful in developing the skills members need as they’re becoming more involved in our campaigns, such as learning how to better listen to others, mediating conversations between people, learning how to ask the right questions, and guiding others toward realizing such things as the need to collectively organize. We must be willing to allow more members, even if they’re not educators, to lead, even if it’s learning through error. 

Another element that we’ve been trying to do more of has been to broaden the resources we use for educational purposes. Carissa Cunningham, also an educator and co-chair of political education, has begun to incorporate other methods of learning such as watching videos and dissecting them. For instance, she led a discussion on a ContraPoints video (instead of a text) and this allowed for a deep discussion on the subject of anti-trans politics, and how to contend with such regressive politics when such views are being championed by popular figures like J.K. Rowling. 

We plan on also developing a two-track system for members. One track would be a series of 101 discussions strung together like a basic college-level course on becoming a socialist. This would be mainly for newer members, or anyone in our chapter who hasn’t had the time to dig deeper into critical core subjects, like the functioning of capitalism, and theories of change, and learning the material roots of white supremacy and gender oppression. The other track would be our usual discussions, based on our core group assigning texts we feel the membership needs to tackle. 

Finally, we plan on also expanding efforts to have members write on topics as well. To help propagate the good word of socialism, we need to saturate the mediascape we’re in, from sending letters to the editor, to developing longer-form pieces for publications like the Cosmonaut

But none of this is possible without a core group. Over the summer, many of us, myself included, have had to cut back on leading discussions. I’ve had to devote more time to work, to my research, and to other forms of organizing. Not to mention devoting more time to those around me, those I care about. 

As our chapter is overall still recovering from the year we’ve endured, the political education group is also in a rebuilding mode. What we need is a deeper bench of people, and that necessitates time to train others and to support others to become more confident and capable in participating in the political education work that needs to be done. 

The pandemic has been draining on all of us, especially as working people trying to change the world. Still, political education is a guiding force, and a powerful one that membership needs. 

“Political education is liberatory. It leads to self-reflection and transformation,” Fernandez expressed, “And the process is often painful, but also deeply satisfying — for the meaning and purpose it adds to one’s life.”

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  1. This article wouldn’t have been possible without the insights shared with me by Hadas Thier, Johanna Fernandez, Martina Manicastri, and Bill Fletcher, Jr.