The Left Reading Group

To be completely honest, I had been eagerly waiting the first day of the Left Reading Group for some time – so much so, I believe I developed a few too many concrete ideas about it. Looking ahead at my schedule for the actual day, I had expected that the it would be a perfect mix of action and theory: I would first attend a Gaza solidarity rally in the afternoon followed by the reading group in the evening. I had anticipated that I should have my own defensible answer to questions like “what is left politics?” and “why is it important to meet and discuss in person?” By the day of the meeting, I thought I had everything reasonably well figured out in my head. As it turns out, and as it often does, the experience of the day, and the experiences it made me recall, taught me much more about the ideas that I thought I had established than any amount of prior thinking could have done.

It was, in fact, a good day to begin the Left Reading Group. I was the first to arrive and the second came carrying two flags – a rainbow striped one reading “PEACE” and a red flag of one of the left political groups. I knew instantly that we had just come from the same event. Hundreds had marched a loop around the city center, in the loudest and most diverse group of protesters I had seen yet in Helsinki. I remember seeing the PEACE flag positioned between Palestinian flags, flanked by parents pushing strollers bearing children, with posters of dead Palestinian children mounted to the top. It seemed to me that solidarity, today, was wrought with conflicting sentiments, but grounded in a sense of common purpose, power, and moral courage – perhaps this is how it always is.

It was then that I realized a part of me was subconsciously prepared for our reading group meeting to be an academic discussion, similar to the seminars or workshops of student life. The energy and emotion of the demonstration, however, had (rightfully) brought my attention back to what I think are the more basic issues for left politics, and for people in general, today: In the face of brutality, oppression and injustice, one feels that something must be done. As the reaction to these things drives us to action – and we must act – we must ask questions of theory, strategy and practice. What exactly should be done in response?

The question “what is to be done?” is, perhaps, a bit too romantic, or ostentatious, a description of the objective of the group. Really, the group is made up of those who want to learn from each other about left politics, by engaging and grappling with left classics, different modern left histories, and contemporary left issues. What better way to examine the great questions of political action, theory and strategy than in the company of fellow “lefties”?

I was happy to see a good turn out for the reading group. Someone had jokingly wished me luck with organizing the “left reading group”, saying they hoped that others would actually join and I wouldn’t be “left” reading… by myself.

As a newcomer to the university and to the country, I have been only too glad to meet other leftists during the past year and few months that I have spent in Finland. I am originally from the USA and I’ve spent some considerable time in Beijing, China and Taipei, Taiwan. Wherever I have been, I’ve been confident that I’m bound to meet interesting people, but it’s always particularly pleasant and refreshing to meet a politically like-minded individual when arriving in a new place. It is grounding, comforting, and makes me feel a bit more connected and at home in a way that other sorts of acquaintances can’t quite achieve.

It’s definitely a special and important thing to be around such people on a regular basis. I can say that there is a definite feeling to be around what I can loosely, yet affectionately, call “comrades”. In one sense, the term refers, perhaps in a slightly ostentatious way, to the old radical term used for those committed to the same cause in a struggle to change society in a fundamental way. This is captured more clearly in the Chinese term tongzhi, literally meaning one with “common aspirations”. In another sense, the term most definitely includes the sense of friendship, mutual knowing and like-mindedness. Here the Spanish compañero or even the Finnish toveri carry more of the sense of friendship with them.

Whatever the term used, I am tempted to use such a special word because of the feeling, or the knowing, that’s difficult to describe in definite terms. I might try and say that it is when one meets another person who is deeply aware of the suffering, oppression and injustice in the world, critical of their causes, and committed to establishing a better world based on equality, solidarity, and the free development and exploration of the human spirit. Well, perhaps I can’t impose that definition on all such people, but there it is. And yet, though it’s a bit presumptuous to say after our first meeting, I felt lucky that I had yet again met more people who gave me the same feeling I’d had in meeting other self-identified “lefties” I know. Perhaps I’d be obliged to call them my comrades.

I had wondered who the Left Reading Group might attract. We had not restricted or defined a certain “Left” when those who first organized the group made a rough invitation. Left politics, of course, involves a vast range of conflicting schools, though the group tonight was nowhere near erupting into factions. Nearly all were familiar with some Marx and Marxism and many embraced anarchist thought; others who expressed interest in joining also specifically espoused situationism, post-Marxism, radical environmentalism, or just general left-leaning-ism. We also discussed recent news of protest events, demonstrations, and the activities of political organizations of all stripes, and shared opportunities for action in the coming weeks, valuable knowledge in itself.

Of course, I should not have been worried that such an eclectic and non-partisan group would not be keen on criticism. In fact, as the topic for the first night was Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution, it wasn’t long before we plunged into critique of social democracy and social democratic parties. Soon we were trying to hammer down Luxemburg’s concept of revolution, and what revolution might mean for us today. While we ultimately had not defined revolution, or what “left” meant for us all, it seemed evident from the lively discussion that we felt the talk was worthy of our reading group. Left politics comes with a lot of heavy terms, laden with history and cultural specificity. I’m sure that through our meetings and conversations, the reading group will inevitably have to critically reexamine these ideas and identities – an advisable task, to be sure.

Sure enough, within the first few minutes of our meeting, different participants were putting forward their basic conceptions of certain staple left terms, like “socialism” or “marxism”. I was once took a class called “Transformations of Socialism from East to West” when I was an exchange student at Peking University in Beijing. The class was an incredible exposé of the rich diversity and sharp divisions within the history of Marxist thought. As an American, it shattered the well-propagated image of orthodox lineages of Marxist thought, embodied – or rather disembodied – by the classic “march of heads” found in old propaganda posters: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao. Not coincidentally, these representations of Marxism, and consequently all of “communism” and “socialism”, were agreed upon by both factions of the self-proclaimed capitalist and communist states in the post-WWII era, the former with disdain and the later with pride.

The march of heads.

To me it seemed that the professor intended to deconstruct the Chinese students’ concept of socialism, hoping that they would reestablish the concept on their own terms, given a fuller picture of the range of left thought. It seemed the professor wanted to give his students the kind of enlightening experience he had as a young man in Maoist China. If I recall correctly, he once recounted a time in his youth when he had stumbled across a work of Engels that was rarely published, if not outrightly banned, during the Mao era. The work was a revelation for him, reaffirming the absurdity not only of Maoist society but also the Chinese Communist Party’s claim to orthodox Marxism. He since went on to become a Marx scholar, translator and admirer of Rosa Luxemburg.

Luxemburg was a good starting point for our first meeting on left classics. She is one figure who has been claimed by a wide range of divided parts of today’s left, from libertarian communists with anarchist roots to new Trotskyists and many others. As one participant put it, she is seen by many left thinkers today as a great link to the radical left tradition – commitment to revolution goals, bottom-up “socialism from below” (in the words of Hal Draper), and her advancement of the study of international political economy.

In addition to her incredible contribution to left history, she is most definitely one of the great women thinkers and political actors of the last century. The original organizers of the group agreed that it was important to highlight women left thinkers, and to be aware of any tendencies to associate classical left thought with (often bearded) white, Western European men. Coincidentally, the participants on the first day, while not exclusively male, were predominantly dudes. I think I can speak on behalf of the men and women of the group that we hope not to be so “male heavy” in the future.

I perceived that most who attended left feeling the night hadn’t been wasted, and that they would come again. It had been a day of action, discussion, debate, and camaraderie. I feel that in modern life, these things are sometimes hard to come by, and to be cherished when found. I hope the whole group found it just as valuable as I did.

With that, I would like to invite all who are interested to come read, discuss and learn with us. You can find more information at our blog. Feel free to contact us and we’ll let you know where we’re meeting next!

Keegan Elmer

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