Monday, January 03, 2011

From the archives: Food for thought

I wrote this piece in April 2004 which was a combination of a report and an attempt at looking at new ways of self education for activists. Currently I'm still doing something similar in Camden, and if you want an effective, top notch discussion forum where people both talk and listen - this is definitely the way to do it.

On Saturday we tried out an interesting experiment in Colchester. We didn't set world history on a new course but we did try something different that's worth telling people about.

A couple of us had been thinking for a while about the way that political discussion takes place on the left. We came up with some questions and tried to answer them;

  • "do you have to have an organisation to be allowed to discuss politics"
  • "do meetings have to start off with fifteen minutes [which in left wing language means 25 and feels like 40] of dry algebra first"
  • "Is there a way of allowing the participants of the discussion more direct control over the debate"
  • "How can we make the whole thing a more pleasant experience"

We felt that, apart from the odd exception, it has always been the discussion part of a political meeting that was the most interesting. So the first we decided to do is ditch the monologue at the start. We invited people round to one of our houses saying that we are going to have a political discussion and we're going to try out doing this in a far more friendly and relaxed way and let's see if it works.

The conditions were everyone brings food to share and everyone brings some thought they'd like to discuss. This could be a question they don't know the answer to, a problem we face as activists, an article they've recently read or an issue they simply feel passionately about.

For this first experiment we chose to have a broad title of the environment and I have to say it went extremely well, particularly my garlic mushrooms! Having the discussion round someone's house, over a meal makes things much more relaxed, and does not stop people coming if they don't have much money.

What about potential problems though? Aren't we limiting it to people we want to have dinner with and by not advertising we don't allow new faces? Both true and one of the problems of the left has been its reliance on closed cliques and circles - what I would say in response is that we were very careful not to invite a pure revolutionary core, but different people from different political perspectives and experience.

What the movement can't do away with is the public meeting, democracy and all of that. But what we did was create a free space where political discussion is not only possible but also the rigorous control of any over aching dogmatic theory was absent.

We estimated that the right number is between 6 and 8, although having tried it once it's possible you could have ten. It was pretty impressive how the discussion stayed (mainly) on track and didn't degenerate into how's it going at work, etc.

The lack of a "summing up" from the top table was really, really good - particularly because everyone brought different thoughts, the discussion had been so wide ranging and interesting, and at times quite stretching that the day ended with the feeling that we had covered a lot of ground in an in depth manner.

One worry I had was that of "keeping control" what if someone dominated the conversation or went on for ten minutes on a particular point? The fact is it didn't happen - so we'll cross that bridge if and when we get to it. There's something about not just talking left but bringing the social back into socialist that was extremely worth while.

I thought I'd report it here because it's something that everyone can do and it was interesting to take part in. The proof of that is that although we'd sort of thought it would be a couple of hours we ended up discussing politics for five hours, and even then we were cut short due to the fact that people had to work in the morning.


David said...

Hi Jim,
Loving the 'From the Archives'stuff. There's so much good stuff there I want you to slow down a bit. I hadn't checked here for a few days and it seems i'm seriously lagging behind :)

I love the idea of Food for thought. I've thought of a similar kind of thing crossed with a book group before but worried it would become a real cliche - liberal/lefty dinner-party in london. But what the heck, you only live once! With the mayoral elections not long away i think it could be really interesting and useful to get anti-Boris comrades round a table to discuss plans of action. Failing that, nibbling on some garlic mushrooms, smoking cigars and sipping whisky could also be fun.

Jim Jepps said...

Really glad you like them :)

Well there's lots of variety that could be introduced into the general framework.

For example the Camden ones at the moment are in a nice arabic coffee shop rather than round someone's house (due to room).

With the Colchester ones I always made sure that there was political diversity, so we had an SWP memebr, a Lib Dem who was active in Greenpeace, a Labour stalwart etc. The current one I'm doing are GP members but it probably works best with a broader range.

I think the idea of starting these up is a really good one and even if it only happens once or twice in your area it's still worth while I think.

David said...

I'm inspired so I just might do something about it. Unfortunately there aren't many (open) libdems around where I live. Having suffered many hours attending Respect/swp 'debates' I understand what you mean by the feedback/open floor part being the highlight. I may forget to invite the central committee high command to the first meet-up!

Jim Jepps said...

Lib Dems are not essential!

I think the lack of summing up is a really useful tool actually. The summing up is far, far more than the last word - it s a ten minute corrective to all those who are off message.

Although doubtless benign in intent the cumulative impact is that over every meeting the attendees are lectured and a hierarchy of ideas established - not through winning the discussion but through the structure of the talks.

It's a real dead hand - there's no real problem with just making sure someone is keeping an eye on the time and them saying "oh ten minutes left" and then "on that note - I need to get home for the kids"

It's also useful (and this is heresy) separating it out from activity. So don't combine it with organising a demo or leafleting or whatever. That can be earlier, on a different day and with slightly different people.

Turning ideas into organising tools blunts the ability to assess whether you're right or not - because being thoughtful doesn't help you sort out the placards.