Oops, We Didn’t Do The Reading: Or, Why I Started a Leftist Book Club and Invited All My Friends
It feels like a confession of something shameful to say that I have only skimmed most of the theory that underpins my ethical and political beliefs. It’s true, though. If there’s a Cliff’s Notes version of the various “must-read” leftist texts, or a graphic novel zine that hits the main points, I have chosen that version every single time for 18 adult years. But when I listen to the people often cited as authorities for “the radical left” or “antifa”, I keep hearing many of these texts referred to with very little clarity on what they actually SAY. I mean, I’m reasonably sure I’m not a Marxist, contrary to what the alt-right may believe, but can I say why, exactly, I’m not?
It’s funny, because I have done this research for Christianity. Even though I was raised Pagan, I have by now read several translations of the Bible, and even tackled it in Latin years ago. Rather than trust what either atheists or fundamentalists say is in the Bible, I decided as a teenager to start reading it myself so I had a basis on which to form my own interpretation. The approach served me well, as did layering on top of it other people’s interpretations in order to form my own understanding. I realized it was long past time for me to do the work when it came to my own beliefs.
Tired of trusting other people’s impressions of “The Communist Manifesto” and “The Conquest of Bread”, I decided to do something about my ignorance. I started an online book club as part of an accountability process for myself, to incentivize reading leftist theory I had put off for years. Every month, we would choose a core text, read it together, and discuss it. It worked double duty for my own accountability — as the person running the book club, I not only would have to read it, I would have to understand it well enough to create some follow up discussion questions. Even though the topics are of interest to me, I didn’t read most of these books without peer pressure to do so. Hell, I won’t even sit and write at my desk unless I have someone holding me to it. A book club meant a sense of responsibility that I needed.
Apparently, I wasn’t alone. Within 24 hours, 40 people had joined me on my quest.
Getting Into The Nitty Gritty
The makeup of the book club is an interesting one. Granted, it’s a small, private group, and it’s mostly my friends, but they span the political spectrum, from libertarian to anarchist to socialist to liberal. Most of us have been out in the streets protesting, doing the day to day work even if we hadn’t done the reading. I’m excited for us to be able to have discussions about these concepts, what we agree with, and what we don’t, really understanding where our ethics stand.
I started to make up a book list, and asked people for recommendations to flesh it out. The titles varied from James Baldwin to Judith Butler, from Mao Zedong to Michel Foucault. Addition to the list was not a personal recommendation, nor was it a condemnation — I wanted to make these seminal texts accessible to the rest of us.
While future books would be decided by a vote, I decided to start with something simple — Peter Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread. His was a fascinating story, a Russian prince turned anarchist revolutionary. Many of us owned the book already but hadn’t cracked it open. Why not, I wondered? As classic theory goes it seems one of the most accessible, and probably one of the few that spans (and is cited by) multiple types of leftist.
“At St. Petersburg, if you are pursuing an invention, you go into a special laboratory or a workshop, where you are given a place, a carpenter’s bench, a turning lathe, all the necessary tools and scientific instruments, provided only you know how to use them; and you are allowed to work there as long as you please. There are the tools; interest others in your idea, join with fellow workers skilled in various crafts, or work alone if you prefer it. Invent a flying machine, or invent nothing — that is your own affair. You are pursuing an idea — that is enough.
In the same way, those who man the lifeboat do not ask credentials from the crew of a sinking ship; they launch their boats, risk their lives in the raging waves, and sometimes perish, all to save men whom they do not even know. And what need to know them? ‘They are human beings, and they need our aid — that is enough, that establishes their right — To the rescue!’” -Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread
It’s interesting to start actually reading and absorbing the text only to realize how many of the issues Kropotkin tackles — the need to value the work done at home as much as the work in factories, that cooperation is often better in the long run for survival than competition, that hungry people are easier to manipulate than satisfied ones — are still issues we discuss today, more than 100 years later. It’s engaging, and much of it is currently applicable.
His writing style, while certainly of the period, isn’t terribly difficult to absorb. So, then, why were there so many people in the same boat as me? For that matter, I like to read… why haven’t I read these books already? It’s a fair question for someone who was raised an anarchist and an activist. Many of the books on my list are pretty commonly cited required reading yet I had avoided them based on assumptions of opaqueness. I sat with my feelings of anxiety and tried to reckon with them.
To put it bluntly, I have felt repulsed by reading theory for a long time. If asked why, I often say it’s about the inherent classism and imperialism of valuing book learning over other types of education as an overarching reason, and the purposeful impenetrable nature of academic writing, and that’s not incorrect. Science writing, for example, is particularly bad about this, and has managed to raise the hackles of people as diverse as the Insane Clown Posse unsure how magnets work, pregnant people trying to understand the recommendations of doctors, and even other scientists, unable to replicate experiments written in unintelligible jargon.
But it’s also more personal than that. I have ADHD, and it’s just hard for me to focus well enough to read and comprehend dry academic texts all the way through on my own. I hate to look stupid, which is part of the reason why. Academic language is difficult for me to parse, and it’s written that way in part to be inaccessible. Even though I know that, when I can’t finish them, I feel angry at myself and ashamed at my failure. And I feel embarrassed asking questions when, publicly, it seems like I’m the only one who hasn’t done my homework. I’m obviously not, but it seems like we’re all a little nervous to admit it. What are we afraid of?
The Left Eating Its Own
All too often, in the streets and in the tweets, we focus so much on our differences vs on our similarities. Rather than focusing on getting on and riding to the next stop, we argue about which end of the route is better and miss the buses going by. Additionally, we alienate people by expecting them to regurgitate language more suited for an ivory tower than a protest front line and demanding they be academics. It is not lost on me that this very one-upmanship is what Emma Goldman was frustrated by in the paragraph often poorly summarized by “if I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution”.
It is vital, I think, to recognize that the path to our politics is an individual one. Some of us read passages from these texts in a university class, and our discussions lit a fire within us. Others came to our politics through activism around minimum wages and universal basic income, learning about leftist theories through collective actions. While we didn’t come to the table with the same experience, that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from each other, both in solidarity and in critique.
Everywhere I look, I see people who are in many ways fighting for the same goals I have taunting their supposed comrades for not having read theory often written a hundred years prior. I worry sometimes that we value being “right” over being curious, focusing too heavily on one type of intelligence over others, and shutting down queries. Vulnerability isn’t often respected, particularly in the fighting pits that are the internet. That approach doesn’t leave people less confused, but it does leave them afraid to admit what they don’t know.
As a community organizer and independent journalist, I have too often been silent in those discussions, dismissing “the discourse” to instead learn and teach by doing. At least, that’s what I said was why, to myself and to those who asked me to weigh in. The truth is, I didn’t want to be brushed off because I hadn’t read the right books, and I didn’t want to get sucked into a debate I wasn’t prepared for. The theory is, I think, important, but is typically useless without knowing how to apply it. That said, while I think it’s vital to get your hands dirty and be actively involved in direct action, I am also aware that I could strategize more effectively if I actually sat my ass down to read the theory! Both are important in creating a cohesive movement, and in better defining the world I want to help create.
Why Read These Now?
A good friend of mine once said to me “we make time for what we care about”, and it’s a phrase I repeat to myself often when I feel like I never have time for things I need to do, or even things I enjoy. It gives me a chance to reflect on what I’m actually spending my time doing, and if that is, in fact, reflective of what matters to me. It also allows me to figure out better ways to get my needs met. For example, I spend a lot of time skimming Facebook and Twitter, getting a sampling of social interaction from the smorgasbord that is social media. But I feel more fulfilled when I spend less time doing that and more time playing a tabletop RPG about feelings on Discord, or discussing a piece of media with my friends. Realizing this about myself allows me to increase the behavior that enriches me while decreasing the behavior that leaves me feeling restless.
What made me decide this week that I was going to start reading these books? Honestly, while people lumping communists and fascists and anarchists and “antifa” together has driven me up the wall for some time, it was really the continual demonization of anarchists in particular that made me want to arm myself with education, however futile. We’ve got the police claiming their use of force is necessary because of vaguely defined (and rarely proven) “violent anarchists”, and Ted Cruz claiming a violent act carried out by a far-right extremist was, in fact, by the same “violent anarchists”, no matter the facts. It’s a bipartisan issue — let’s face it, both Trump and Biden have spoken out condemning anarchists, and the context indicates that they have very little grasp on what an anarchist actually is. I find myself on social media explaining to friends (fellow leftists, even!) what a black bloc is, what it means to be “antifa”, and why property damage is better than human casualties, all the time.
In the last few months of sheltering in place, I was more interested in baking bread than reading “The Conquest of Bread”. Nothing wrong with that, mind! But while making sourdough and sharing with my neighbors was a vital part of the mutual aid I talk about, I realized this was also an opportunity for me to shift my priorities and establish new, healthier, happier patterns that better achieves my goals. Why not use this time to educate myself — and why not lean on my friends, with their diverse insights and skills, also interested in educating themselves?
A book club is, in a way, a small example of the kind of mutual aid and skill sharing I want to see in the world at large. People have different skills, and are good at different things, and together we may be able to make even dry texts relevant to us. The text informs us, but also we inform each other. And while it may not completely prevent me from wasting time on telling people they’re wrong on the internet… at least now, I’ll be able to cite exactly why I believe that, and that’s growth.