Having organized a number of reading groups around these readers, we now have some sense of how to do so. What follows are not rules, but suggestions based on experience. Please alter them to fit your needs.
The most general points are as follows:
One may be inclined to approach these texts as representatives of various political perspectives, still active today, from among which one might choose one’s own present-day allegiances. However, in our experience, it is better to approach these texts as small windows into the past, to use them to figure out how various groups (or individuals) responded to the events of their times.
In that regard, it is usually better to reconstruct authors’ arguments first, roughly but not exactly in order, before criticizing them. It is also worthwhile to read the texts sympathetically, remembering that the authors of those texts did not know what tragedies would later befall their movements.
Finally, try to keep discussions focused on the texts, rather than on participants’ present-day political perspectives (not that these should not be mentioned, but it is distracting if they become the focus). This encourages a fuller relationship to the texts under discussion, and for that reason, makes possible a more complex and wide-ranging discussion of their continued relevance, later on.
Here are some more specific points about how the reading groups are organized:
Participation. Our groups are open to all, with the following caveats: people should come as individuals, looking to read, discuss, and learn with others. They should be discouraged from participating as representatives of pre-existing groups (whether or not they are also members of such groups is irrelevant). In that regard, it is important to make it clear that there will be no distribution of sectarian literature. References to one’s group should also be kept to a minimum.
Autonomy. People may also want to organize closed groups, whether these be among a select group of friends, or among people who share a common identity, e.g. as people of color. Our groups have been “mixed,” but we encourage and support the formation of autonomous reading groups.
First readings. Our readers are designed for people with some familiarity with Marxism and the history of communist debates, and often begin with challenging texts. For groups including readers new to Marxism or to the historical study of Marxism, it might be helpful to invite each participant to share and talk about a relevant reading of their own choosing at the first meeting. Having a sense of one another’s backgrounds and reasons for joining the group can be helpful in shaping the conversation while working through the reader during subsequent meetings.
Meetings. We generally meet every week, at the same time, for two hours.
Introductions. Every week, someone (or someones) introduces the texts we are reading. These introductions are short, limited to 10 minutes, and generally consist of short biographies of authors, as well as some attempt to place texts as interventions in their times. It may also be useful to say something about how authors’ perspectives developed in later years. Most of this information can be gleaned from online encyclopedias, or other pages on the internet. We try to make sure that new people do the introductions, in each week, although we do not require that everyone do this.
Stack. At the beginning of a meeting, someone volunteers to take stack. That means: when people want to speak, they do not try to edge their way into the conversation; instead, they signal their desire to speak to the stack-keeper, who writes down their names and calls on them in order. Some adjustments are made to the stack, so that those who have not yet spoken have a chance to speak before those who have already made numerous interventions. Also: when there are already five or more people on stack, it may be worthwhile to close and clear the stack first, and then to re-open it.
Time. The stack-keeper also keeps time (these tasks may be divided up, if necessary). Generally, we limit people to three minutes, giving speakers a signal when their time is up, but not cutting them off. People are allowed to finish their thoughts, although if they go on for much longer, they are politely asked to stop speaking. Time limits greatly improve the pace of the conversation.
Organization. Very little active organization is required for these groups. Still, it is helpful to have 2 to 5 people who agree to do the following: (a) to confirm times and locations, (b) to collect emails and then to send out reminders a few days in advance, for each week, (c) to make sure that someone has agreed to introduce the next week’s readings, and (d) to make sure that there are time-keepers and stack-takers for each meeting. Infrequently, it may also be necessary to pull someone aside and to ask them to alter their mode of participation in the group (for example, if they go on for too long, use offensive language, promote their sectarian literature, and so on).
Secondary readings. Some readers include suggested secondary readings. These help to clarify historical context, but are optional. Generally, there is so much to discuss that there isn’t really time to talk about the secondary readings themselves.