Learning from Popular Education

In mid-November, dozens of activists congregated in Braemar to exchange ideas, analyse our activism and plan for the future. Editor Jonathan Rimmer shares his thoughts on the weekend and the key areas socialists need to be battling in the coming months and years...

What does it mean to be a socialist in 2017? Does it just mean clipping a badge to your lapel or attending the odd march against austerity cuts? Does it just mean writing scathing opinion pieces and declaring 'something must be done on issue X' when the mood takes you?

Ahead of the PEN weekend, Frances Curran led on the point that we as left activists "want to change the world" for the better. Too often in Scotland, we have a tendency to sneer at such Utopian language. We're suspicious of politicians and organisers purporting to be saviours who will lead us to the promised land. And, as much as it might pain us to admit it, we're often just as naturally cautious and conservative as our southern neighbours.

As activists, this also manifests itself in a variety of ways. Hesitance and self-doubt can be crippling, and when we do stir ourselves into movement, it's easy to stick to habitual tasks within our own bubbles. On the surface of it, these seem like obvious points to make, but it's a trap we all repeatedly fall into if we don't constantly seek to educate ourselves and positively reinforce those around us.

Pushing out of these comfort zones was a key theme of the Braemar weekend, organised by the Positive Education Network. Activists and campaigners from RISE, the SSP, Better Than Zero, Living Rent and many more came together to discuss community activism and share visions for a better Scotland. 

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The first question it was important to address was "why?" What inspired each of us to become activists in the first place? Answers varied from the Iraq War to the independence referendum to personal tragedy, but the unifying motivation tended to be a sharpened outrage at injustice in all its forms. 

What was more difficult to pin down was how we channel this outrage in our various campaigns and causes and how effective that is in our local communities. There was much to learn from trade union comrades on this issue. Linda Somerville and Dawn Fyffe talked at length about the difference between mobilisation and organisation.

We as socialists can get in a habit of "rallying troops" for self-selecting activities under a pre-ordained time scale, but how much thought do we put into identifying leaders and key activists? How much effort do we put into persuading the neutral and opposed and how much do we put into building structures and agreeing on final outcomes?

If that sounds too much like jargon, consider this: whatever issue you're campaigning on, be it homelessness, community regeneration or a specific social inequality, who do you consult when making decisions? And, conversely, how communicative are you with the leaders and organisers you're working with? 

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There are lessons for us here at Conter, too. With every activist guide we put together, we must ask ourselves who we're reaching, to what extent the advice and information we share is useful, and who we intend to persuade. With every opinion piece we run, we must ask if it adds a new dimension to a key debate or reaches across the divides that exist on the Scottish left in a positive way.

That only comes from dialogue, and as an editor, I need to consider not only the views of editorial board members but also readers. As we enter 2018, we'll need to reach out to readers (and soon viewers) in order to build the site into a genuinely constructive resource for all Scottish anti-capitalists.

There was also food for thought in terms of policy, an area socialists need to be proactive and ambitious. Living Rent organiser Sean Baillie chaired an illuminating session on housing that bore this advice in mind. Activists were encouraged to develop concrete policies, as well as share ideas for useful community organisation tactics, and subsequently develop a step-by-step road map towards a society where housing is treated as it should be: a fundamental human right. Many of the ideas shared will be explored in more depth in our activist guide later this week.

Other big topics like land reform, local democracy and the inequality of wealth were tackled in interactive seminars. What marked these discussions out was that they were practical and constructive, with attention paid to the language we use when discussing these issues in a community context. Nobody was ignoring the usefulness of Marxist theory - indeed, key concepts should be an essential component of popular education - but all the sessions were open and participatory no matter your level of "knowledge".

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It's easy to preach the virtues of these weekends when you attend yourself, and I can only encourage others to get involved with the Popular Education Network, who run regular sessions. Whatever your perceived weaknesses, whether it be organisation, direct action, writing, public speaking or anything else, there is space to grow and develop.

On Conter, we split the site broadly between commentary and activism (Thought and Action), but the reality is we must always strive to analyse our activism and reflect on what we do. Winning positive changes - and make no mistake, socialists are winning key victories all over the country thanks to strong campaigns, strong messaging and community organisation - takes graft and willpower.

We all have the potential to "change the world" - it's not just cheesy rhetoric used by publicists and con artists but a genuine goal we all work towards by using our various talents. I'd urge activists to get involved with PEN and form their own circles wherever necessary because for those of us seeking social and political change, popular education is vital.

@rimmerjourno