A field manual for organizers: A review of Revolutionary Education

Today, across the country, organizers and activists who fight for a better world are debating how to strengthen and push their movements forward. The new book, Revolutionary Education, Theory and Practice for Socialist Organizers, makes it very clear that the collective political education we foster is critically important for the success of these movements. Our success will depend not just on the correctness of our ideas, but on our ability to share these ideas with other working-class people who are fighting to end the problems everywhere in our community in capitalist America.

The new book from the Party for Socialism and Liberation, edited by Nino Brown, should serve not just as an interesting text, but more as a field manual for organizers who are on the front lines in popular movements confronting the police, courts, corporate lawyers, politicians and other agents of the capitalist system. Throughout the book are recurring and practically relevant questions we face daily in all the work we do. As the title suggests this book was in fact written to assist socialist organizers who embrace their duty as revolutionary educators.

The book comes from PSL’s Liberation School website, which is “maintained by a core editorial collective of PSL members, [who] are committed to providing political and historical clarity to the burning issues of our movement.” These editors are not just writers and observers, but active organizers grappling with the same questions on political education that all organizers face. In what follows, I discuss some of the themes that reappear throughout the book to show its utility and urgency.

Everyone has the ability expand political consciousness 

Throughout the book, we are reminded to never write off people based on an assumption that they cannot grow and expand political consciousness. We are challenged to re-examine the assumptions we have made about who can be brought into our collective. As organizers we understand people from the working class itself are potentially revolutionary and together are the most powerful agents for changing or even ending the system of capitalism.

In a chapter titled “Comrades: Made not Born,” Jane Cutter writes: “As an organizer, I have met people whom I frankly doubted had the capacity to become good comrades based on how they presented when we first met. Despite what I saw as unpromising attributes and prior experiences, some individuals were willing to participate, take on new tasks, accept criticism, and keep trying … these activists became real organizers by developing skills and habits of mind such as discipline, self-sacrifice, humility, investigation, compassionate listening and more.” This is a life lesson all organizers go through. 

Here the work of Lev Vygotsky becomes very useful. His foundational work is found in courses on education and psychology in schools around the world. In the United States, his work is usually presented divorced from his role as a Bolshevik revolutionary in the early years of the formation of the Soviet Union. Chapter 1 of the book explains the relevance of Vygotsky’s, “revolutionary educational psychology,” and as is stated in the introduction, the “dialectical insight that a society’s level of development is neither biologically fixed nor predetermined. It is historical and thus open to radical transformations.” 

Bourgeois society values the ability to merely appear “intelligent,” however, this is a superficial understanding. Cutter builds on the work of Lev Vygotsky and writes, “Rather than looking at how much a child had already learned as a means of assessing intelligence, Vygotsky was more interested in what the child could potentially do. He also took into consideration the understanding that what one has the potential to learn is also itself socially and historically conditioned.”

Role of leadership in political education

While the working class itself is understood to hold the ultimate potential for changing history, the book does not let the revolutionary leadership off the hook. Using the writings and experience of Vladimir Lenin, Paulo Friere, Amílcar Cabral and others writers, the book looks at the role of leadership in political education and revolutionary movements.

In Chapter 2, “Paulo Friere and revolutionary leadership,” Derek Ford writes, “Freire calls on Lenin when he demands that revolutionary leadership should be open to and trusting of the people.” Throughout the chapter, Ford examines the work of Freire. On one task of revolutionaries, Ford writes, we must, “engage with our class and our people in true, authentic dialogue, reflection and action. If we have dialogue and reflection without action, then we are little more than armchair revolutionaries. On the other hand, if we have only action without dialogue and reflection, we are mere activists and remain incapable of leading a revolution and erecting a new society.”

Here Ford brings forward work of Friere to weigh in on a long debate over the role of revolutionary leadership. Ford writes, “The prerequisite for such leadership is the rejection of the ‘myth of the ignorance of the people.’ Freire acknowledges that revolutionary leaders, ‘due to their revolutionary consciousness,’ have ‘a level of revolutionary knowledge different from the level of empirical knowledge held by the people.’ The act of dialogue unites lived experience with revolutionary theory so people understand what causes their lived experience to be as it is. This is a restatement of Lenin’s conviction that spontaneous knowledge of exploitation and oppression must be transformed through the party into revolutionary consciousness of the relationship of our experience to the relationship of broader social, economic and political forces at differing scales: within the factory, the city, the state and the world.”

Marxist theory as a weapon in class war

As working-class people build movements for revolutionary change they are confronted by the forces of the capitalist class who want to stop them from succeeding. These forces have overwhelming resources at their disposal in this confrontation. Oil corporations, for example, can have the police arrest and brutalize environmental activists and Indigenous people. Reactionary politicians can fill the Supreme Court with conservative judges who will rule against women fighting for access to abortion. On the other hand, working-class people are numerically much greater than the capitalist class. And, the working class has access to revolutionary theory and strategies to win. 

Reading the book ignites a sense of urgency to bring revolutionary theory to as many people as possible so that we can win. In Chapter 5, “Liberator, theorist, and educator Amílcar Cabral,” Curry Mallott writes about how theory and education played a crucial role in the defeat of the Portuguese colonialists by the people of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde.

Mallott writes that Cabral, who was a central African leader against Portuguese colonialism, “knew that the people must not only abstractly understand the interaction of forces behind the development of society, but they must forge an anti-colonial practice that concretely, collectively and creatively see themselves as one of those forces. To do so, however, the masses had to be organized into and represented by a Party.”

Mallott writes about Freire’s own formative experience in Guinea-Bissau. He explains: “The importance of education was elevated to new heights by Cabral and PAIGC leadership at every opportunity. It therefore made sense for the Commission on Education of the recently liberated Guinea-Bissau to invite the world’s leading expert on decolonial approaches to education, Paulo Freire, to participate in further developing their system of education. … Their task was to help uproot the colonial residue that remained as a result of generations of colonial education designed to de-Africanize the people.”

To help us use political education and Marxist theory as a weapon in class war, writers in the book draw on the experiences of many others. Included in the book are chapters about Marx’s method of research and presentation, community projects today in Philadelphia and Militant Journalism in the Cuban movement for socialism. Also included is an appendix about how to hold discussions and write study guides.  

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