Left is al­ways right for D.C. read­ing group of so­cial­ists

The Washington Post - - STYLE - BY JUSTIN WM. MOYER

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.


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