What Revolutionary Movements Can Teach Us About Our Book Clubs
In the weeks since the public lynching of George Floyd and racist killings of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and numous others, much has been written about books. Particularly, which books to read, how to read them, who to read them with, and who to ask for which books to read. Additionally, writers and activists called out the triviality of white people in particular for reading as a response to Black death, a point discussed in detail in Tre Johnson’s article titled “When Black People Are in Pain, White People Just Join Book Clubs.”
As folks that are both new and experienced with anti-racist movement work, it’s worth questioning--what is the role of reading in generating social change? In particular, how have previous anti-racist movements conceptualized the role of reading in relation to their movements?
Many prominent activist organizations have emphasized the importance of collective study--something often called political education. In order to join the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, for example, new members had “to attend Political Education classes as a Panther-in training and read two hours a day to stay abreast of the changing situations in the community and world.” Rather than positioning reflection as oppositional to action--something sometimes used to deride collective education projects---activist organizations often viewed these things dialectically, meaning that education should always inform action and vise versa.
Brazilian educational philosopher Paolo Friere used the term praxis to identify this intentional movement between action and reflection. Friere was deeply concerned with both progessive and revolutionary movements relying on propaganda and charismatic leaders to win the support of oppressed peoples. He tied the inclination towards centralization and authoritarianism that characterized many of the liberation movements of the 20th century to the failure of political programs to treat the oppressed as anything other than bodies and minds to be converted to the dogma of the struggle as efficiently as possible.
Friere was interested in building a movement not simply for the people or even by the people, but one in and of the people. The people, who Friere refers to as “the oppressed,” must develop their own critical consciousness and capacity to “name the world.” Only when the oppressed come to see their subjective experiences through the lens of “objective reality”--meaning through frameworks that describe how power functions in a society--could the oppressed build a movement and strategy for change that was truly transformative. In a period where people’s revolutions were often delivered--a tendency that made them both fragile and intransigent--Friere imagined a revolution that would be realized through action informed by reflection.
Though many national and international movements have headed Friere’s advice, revolutionaries and activists throughout time and space have differed on how exactly to balance action and reflection. Afterall, a tactic of the powerful often involves the use of endless fact-finding reports, investigative studies and even truth and reconciliation commissions to delay meaningful action. Additionally, social movements have often been stymied by what has been called (in admittedly ableist language) “analysis paralysis”--or the tendency to not take action because of the possibility of critique of any and all possible action.
Yet, running in the opposite direction towards action fails to insulate us from the trap of inadvertently reproducing dominant cultures and systems. An emphasis on action taking can lead people and movements to take ineffective action that they might have avoided had they understood the ways such action had failed in other places and times. Additionally, the action steps folks are often inclined to take are those that have been handed down from on high--things that, like voting and getting behind modest reform efforts, are sanctioned by the powers that be. Such actions not only often fail to deliver meaningful results, but often reinforce the functionality of the system itself. Those in power will gladly accommodate a minor reform initiative--whether it is mandatory anti-bias training in the workplace or making a statement condemning structural oppression--in order to absolve themselves from further action and have something to point to when accusations of harm or complicity in structural oppression inevitably reemerge.
More often than not, it is the white power structure that benefits the most from these types of reforms--for they frequently result in a return to relative social stability and teach all involved that the levers of change we have been granted--generally cast as our power to vote, consume and speak freely--are sufficient to create the just and equitable worlds of our imaginations. Audre Lorde warned against an overreliance on “the master's tools” or state-sanctioned approaches to creating change. W.E.B. Du Bois, who after moving from elistism to liberalism to socialism, applied for membership in the American Communist Party at the age of 93, writing “capitalism cannot reform itself--it is doomed to self-destruction. No universal selfishness can bring social good to all.”
So much has been written about the relation and tension between reform and revolution that it is practically its own genre in intellectual history. These debates are worth exploring in detail for those committed to anti-racism. In brief, however, these debates teach us that reforms should be carefully selected to shift power towards oppressed people. They teach us that we should be on alert for the elite power structure to claim these as evidence that the system does not need more fundamental transformation. They teach us that reading about these debates in the abstract can only take us so far and that answers will reveal themselves only through movement and action.
Finally, activists and writers such as authors Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun of “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture'' teach us that urgency is a learned impulse that often has its origins in white supremasist culture. The desire for urgent action constraints democratic decision making and often falls into the traps of taking action in the ways that are most familiar (and consequently seeped in dominant and white supremacist ideologies) that fail to propell movements forward. Additionally, overzealous action-taking often leads individuals and groups to target the most visible aspects of a problem at the expense of meaningfully engaging with its root causes. While there are certainly appropriate times to call for the resignation of people in power, such as police chiefs, university presidents and CEOs, strategies that simply remove leaders do little to change the systems of organizational hierarchy that often are generative of violence and racism.
Reading, then, inarguably has carved out its place in movements for social change. Reading groups must be attentive to how they are embodying praxis and be intentional about how they are balancing action and reflection. They must be grounded in the idea that, while it’s certainly good to commit to unlearning internalized patterns of dominance as quickly as possible, it is illusory to think that there is a point that one becomes sufficiently “prepared” to engage in collective struggle outside of these enclaves where “messing up” is low stakes. Reading must always accompany motion--for, in the words of Rosa Luxemburg, “history is the only true teacher, the revolution the best school.”
Reading groups must also notice and resist the ways that racial capitalism reconfigures our human impulse to understand and upend racialized violence into something palatable and even useful to the system as it is. This system will tempt you to make anti-racism yet another part of your personality you can purchase, import or project. The system will make anti-racism something you can get on a T-shirt at Target, something that fits into your consumer and voting patterns and goes well with wine and cheese at elite Ivory Tower gatherings. This system will itself read these books and reflect back to you a heavily redacted version of them on display in political speeches, in corporate advertisements and in our undemocratic and white supremacist workplaces. Revolutionary movements teach us to recognize appropriation, individualization and commercialization of movement values as the default reaction of a system incapable of meaningfully incorporating them.
The fact is that many of the book clubs folks find themselves in--especially white folks--likely don’t conceive of themselves as doing the type of “political education” the Black Panthers had in mind. Some of these folks resist stepping into a more radical approach to group study because they desperately seek to hold on to the perceived privileges, comforts and powers they hold in the world as it is. Some of these folks resist this radical orientation because they have been warned against so-called “extremism” their entire lives and have been spoon-fed the truism that the middle way is the safest, most rational and diplomatic way. Some folks resist a more radical orientation because their reading groups occur in the context of mandatory workplace initiatives and to push beyond the acceptable liberal discourses of racism could mean losing one's job, health care and source of income.
However, pointing out the limitations of these gatherings is not to dismiss them entirely. One thing revolutionary movements have taught us is that an ethic of comradely criticism--of critiquing the ideas and actions of others not to dismiss them but out of a desire to propel a struggle forward--is a vital ingredient to sustaining movement work. bell hooks offered criticism of the patriarchal and paternalistic elements of Friere’s work--something she did to push his thinking as what she termed a “comrade in solidarity.” This call out is not the kind of vitriolic cancelation we have become accustomed to that relies on the dominant carceral logics of disposability and punishment, but one that is additive, constructive and in motion. Most book clubs might be indulgent exercises in trying to feel less guilty about the state of the world--until they are not.
And though the revolution will not happen in living rooms (or, in our current reality, zoom-rooms) across the country, the seeds of revolutionary movement are often planted in surprising places.
If you’ve watched Hamilton in the last week, then you’ve learned that--regardless of how revolutionary you think the American Revolution may or may not have been--its foundational ideas and strategies were developed and debated in colonial taverns. The self-organized mutual aid societies built by Black folks in the South began as depoliticized community safety-nets and became incubators of radical visions for self-governance. The early working-class and Black women-led suffrage movement spread among middle and upper class white women largely via church sewing circles.
Self-organized groups of people can be benign and they can be transformative. While often comfortable and detached, they are ripe with possibility. When connected to radical traditions, they can propel struggle forward--they can be the seeds of fire that change the world.
By Lucy Griswold