Perspectives on Anarchist Theory

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Vol. 3 - No. 1
Spring, 1999


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Study Groups

Study groups have always been important to the left, although their purpose and structure has changed as the left has evolved.

An awareness of the history of study groups can help us develop contemporary educational and political strategies. The excerpt reprinted below gives an overview of study groups in the Old Left, New Left, and the Women’s Liberation Movement. It is reprinted from Revolutionary Theory by William Friedland (et al).


Serving a variety of purposes at different times, the study group demonstrates a combination of organizing, recruiting, and mobilizing concerns. The way in which study groups have served these functions has varied considerably in different contexts.

The Old Left
Particularly within the vanguard elements of the Old Left, the study group was viewed as an important educational and training device for recruitment. Consideration of the way Lenin defined the character of the vanguard organization […] shows how this conception of organization requires intermediate training grounds within which people can be educated and tested prior to admission to the revolutionary party.

Members of Old Left organizations such as the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, or the Socialist Workers Party functioned in a variety of broader organizations such as unions, public protest groups, and "front" organizations. Within such wider public environments revolutionaries sought to identify individuals who might be potential members of their group. Attempts would then be made to bring such people into study groups and other similar organizations where their education could be furthered and they could be tested through their participation in various kinds of activities.

When an individual appeared to have some potential, in the initial phases he or she was referred to as a "contact." As individual study group members became better known, often because of their participation in the group and in actions undertaken by the group, a person would become considered a "prospect," that is, a prospective member. With the continuation of activity and study, an individual might apply for or be suggested for membership.

At all stages, from contact to member, the educational development of the individual was considered of first importance. Since the vanguard concept requires a highly developed cadre of professional revolutionaries, the capability of individuals to understand and apply revolutionary theory and experience was regarded as vital. The study group constituted a major entity within which this educational process could unfold.

Old Left study groups would typically set out a course of study in the marxian classics. […] The specific works to be studied varied according to the experiences and capabilities of the students and the skill of the study group leader in recognizing how fast students could be moved into the more abstract and difficult revolutionary works. At all times, the going might become too difficult for some participants or they might find themselves in political disagreement and drop away.

Old Left study groups would often turn to current ideological issues and, in particular, the kinds of issues that delineated the specific organizational concerns of the study group sponsor. Trotskyist groups, for example, focused much discussion on the Russian Revolution, its degeneration, and the character of Stalinism. As students became sophisticated with ideas and with the special language of revolutionary analysis, the study group would move to works of increasing difficulty.

Study groups, in and of themselves, were inadequate preparation grounds. Participants, as they developed knowledge and sophistication, would be asked to translate their information into concrete action. This might range from being called on to distribute newspapers at some factory gate to representing the organization's viewpoint within one's own union. Sophisticated people were expected, in turn, to bring new contacts into the periphery of the organization and perhaps help to organize new study groups. The study group thus served the function of education, but individuals were expected to translate their new knowledge into concrete strategies for action before they could demonstrate their worthiness to belong to the vanguard organization.

The New Left
Many aspects of Old Left study groups were reproduced in those created by the New Left in the 1960s. As with the old, the primary function of study groups was seen as educational - providing opportunities for newcomers to familiarize themselves with classic socialist writers. Because the New Left was largely anti-vanguardist their study groups varied in purpose and tone from the older versions.

  • New Leftists were much more concerned about learning environments and the size of organization than were the older generation. One aim of New Left study groups, therefore, was to create a smaller-scale atmosphere within which people would feel more comfortable than they could in large meetings.

  • Because there were few vanguard groups for which to recruit, the study groups were not considered inter-mediate organizations in which people learned and were tested. Rather, these groups were intended to provide education and a linkage to action. Individual members were expected to determine their own degree of activism and involvement rather than striving for ultimate membership in the inner vanguard organization.

As with the Old Left, the New Left considered study groups to be useful but auxiliary devices to the main forms of organization and activism. The Old Left tended to be more thoroughly organized with respect to study groups and perhaps more detached from them, regarding them as necessary devices through which people could be tested. New Leftists brought spontaneous enthusiasm to their study groups so that their atmosphere was less serious and more personally engaging. Because of their lack of structure and spontaneity these groups often fell apart more easily than did Old Left study groups.

Women's Consciousness Raising Groups
The growth of the women's movement in the late 1960s saw the evolution of the study group as a distinctive form of mobilization with different intentions from either the Old or New Left. Although often ignoring a revolutionary perspective, some segments of the women's movement saw these groups as necessary for the formation of women's self-consciousness.

The women's liberation movement has argued the need for personal liberation groups as devices for mobilizing the energies of women for change, whether revolutionary or not. Because women tend to be isolated from each other and because of the competitiveness imposed on them by American society, women came to view the personal liberation group as the first step in mobilization and self-organization.

Generally, small groups of women (between six and twelve) would meet and begin to know each other on a personal basis. At this initial stage, women were concerned with recounting personal experiences with sexism and to release - to openly acknowledge - their bitterness, frustration, and anger. They might examine past experiences and interpret them in terms of how they felt about them. At this stage, participants strove to admit their feelings about themselves, about other women, and about men. The expressions of individuals would be eval-uated and discussed within the group, often by going around the room to seek comments and questions. Once individual "testi-monies" were obtained, the group ideally attempted to locate common elements in the experiences.

There were often reasonable fears for the refusal to develop a higher consciousness, fears of seeing one's life as wasted and meaningless; or the fear of feeling the full weight of the uncomfortable and painful present; or despair for the prospects for change in the future. Personal liberation groups sought to articulate these fears and analyze them in terms of the objective conditions of women's situations in the past and present.

Study groups often reached a stage where they turned to a broader consideration of the sources of oppression. At this point the common experiences of other oppressed groups might be examined and the similarities to and differences from those of women would be analyzed. Broadening consciousness was regarded as important since the condition of women was recognized by most women's liberationists as only one form of systemic oppression. Again, resistance might develop to this broadening tendency. Some women might remain committed solely to a women's struggle stance; others might again exper-ience despair; still others would recognize the broader elements of oppression and see the opportunities to join with other groups in a common struggle, while protecting the integrity of the women's struggle.

Finally, personal liberation groups often turned outward and moved toward action. In this mobilizational phase, women sought to join active struggles in their organizations or in common organizations with others engaged in similar efforts. At this stage, women were expected to confront their oppression and deal with it openly. Activism might involve actions such as organizing new personal liberation groups for novices, learning to express oneself in public through writing and speaking, developing political campaigns on issues affecting women, and undertaking public relations activities to educate the general public.

Women's liberation study groups were distinctly different from those found in the Old and New Left. With personal liberation as a primary emphasis, they moved from individual therapeutic approaches to a broadening of consciousness before moving to public activism. Like the New Left groups, however, the emphasis was on the need to create small-scale environments within which individuals could feel comfortable and grapple with their own experience. ~


Note: this excerpt is reprinted from Revolutionary Theory by William Friedland et al (Totowa, N.J.: Allanheld, Osmun & Co., 1982), pp. 133-136.