Left is always right for D.C. reading group of socialists
On a recent spring afternoon in Washington, the revolution was not coming.
Capitalism was in full swing, as evidenced by Beltway bourgeois rushing about their business in Cleveland Park with little regard for the proletariat. At Yes Organic Market and California Tortilla, bosses were extracting surplus-value from their workers. “Chappie” — a movie about a machine with a soul crushed by corrupt humans — was playing at the Uptown, a distraction preventing workers from developing class consciousness. A grounds crew was busy in a front yard, tidying things to please a wealthy landowner.
But upstairs in the Cleveland Park library, the Jacobin reading group— about 40 members, men and women, mostly young— was talking socialism. The rhetoric was old, but some of it was coming from people born after the Reagan administration.
“The unions merely negotiate the exploitation of the working class,” said one.
“You can’t solve a problem by changing your job instead of the job you have,” argued another.
And the inescapable question: “What’s it going to take for the labor movement to come back?”
This reading group and others like it around the country, fostered by a magazine founded by a millennial, are trying to take a 19th-century idea that fell out of favor in the 20th century and
it with new life for a comeback in the 21st.
“You don’t get a lot of opportunities to have open political discussions about political economy and how culture relates to politics,” said Rob Wohl. A 26-yearold union employee inspired by the Occupy protests, Wohl is . . . a socialist. Right?
“Yeah, I guess,” he said. “If someone forced me and held me down and were like: ‘What are your political beliefs?’ ”
Wohl’s crew — folks with a fight, but no strong party affiliation — have a mouthpiece in Jacobin, a publication for a movement that has elected no members of Congress, has never put a candidate in the White House, and whose most prominent fellow traveler, Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, just defected to the Democrats to run for president.
“We’re a publication — we’re not a party,” publisher Bhaskar Sunkara said. Sunkara, 25, a former George Washington University student, founded Jacobin in 2010 while in college and named it in honor of the rebel slaves of the 1791-1804 Haitian Revolution. He estimated that there are up to 2,000 people at Jacobin reading groups around the country each month, and they’re facilitated — but not run by — the magazine, as part of reader outreach. You might even call it a brand.
“Southern Living, I’m sure, has little dinner parties or whatnot,” Sunkara said.
Though the publication has a full-time organizer to help those interested in starting Jacobin groups, the publisher said their growth is organic.
“We’re not sitting in a cigar-filled room saying, ‘Phoenix! We need Phoenix!’ ” Sunkara said. Though “I kind of wish we had the ability to do that.”
While the reading groups, at which participants often discuss selections from the magazine, don’t offer armed uprisings, Mao suits or storming of the barriin-fuse cades, they do offer, well, comradeship.
“I wouldn’t say it’s just a salon,” said Shawn Gude, a 25-year-old Baltimore resident and the magazine’s associate editor. He said the District’s Jacobin group is one of the largest; the biggest is in Brooklyn.
“It’s very important to be able to talk about how you see events and how you interpret the world,” Gude said. “That is often a prerequisite for political action.”
So, Jacobin has brought people together. What now? And what does it mean to be a socialist in 2015?
It’s not clear — and that may be the point.
“The reason that Jacobin has become a popular mag among a disaffected white bro socialist demo is that it’s sort of open about its lack of a program,” Wohl said.
There’s also the question of whether a reading group for a quarterly magazine (subscription: about $30 per year) is the right way to bring in a diverse subset of the working class.
“It was horrific at first,” Wohl said. “The first one I came to was 40 people and one woman. I said I wasn’t coming back.” “It’s really white,” Karina Stenquist said. “It’s pretty young. It’s awfully male.”
Stenquist, a 30-year-old journalist from Berkeley, Calif., is another Occupy veteran. Though already clear about her politics after growing up “in a pretty lefty place,” she says, her interest in socialism was further sparked after she lived in Spain for six years. But as committed as she is to the cause, she’s never been able to join a union. If Jacobin and socialism writ large have a demographic problem, it may be in its focus on organized labor in a country where union membership has sunk to a historic low: 11 percent. Indeed, at a recent D.C. Jacobin meeting, just two people raised their hands when asked how many were cardcarrying union members.
“Unions don’t fit into any perspective I’ve ever had,” Stenquist said.
For Mike Golash, 72, socialism is very different. The only senior citizen at the Cleveland Park meeting, Golash is a former Metro employee and a shop steward who helped lead a 1978 strike and eventually became president of the transit authority’s union.
“I was born on Lenin’s birthday,” Golash said. “Earth Day, also.”
Though retired, Golash is still “working with transit workers trying to develop their political consciousness,” he said. While the cause needs intellectuals — what Lenin might call a revolutionary vanguard — a workingclass movement depends, after all, on the working class.
“The Jacobins tend to be kind of wordy and a bit abstract, but they are trying to figure some of these things out,” Golash said. “I think you have to develop relationships with real workers.”
Still, Golash said, a movement must start somewhere. When “socialist” is a word many associate with the Soviet Union or North Vietnam — and some hurl at President Obama as if it’s an epithet— it’s easy to forget that it once was a vital force in American politics. A reading group can help people remember that — even if it doesn’t topple the powers that be.
“In the wider world, which I have lived and worked in, these ideas are legitimate,” Stenquist later said in an e-mail. “This is the reality of political discussion. I wanted to talk to others who knew that this was real.”
Jacobin’s fall 2013 issue. The magazine was named in honor of Haitian rebel slaves.