Bwog staff writer Jake Tibbetts recently discovered the Marxism and labor history sections in Book Culture, a business that boasts an… ambivalent history with leftist causes. Break out the good stuff – it’s champagne socialism!
Even in New York, a city with an extensive history as a bastion of left-wing theorizing and organizing, there are few radical independent bookstores. Some may argue that this dearth is a direct result of the decline of socialist thought in the United States that occurred as a result of Cold-War era McCarthyism; others may argue that it is a symptom of a much bigger sickness—the rise of electronic commerce companies like Amazon and the subsequent fall of brick-and-mortar stores. Though the cause can be debated indefinitely, the effect is undeniable: The agitators, educators, and organizers of the New York Left have very few options when it comes to seeking out reading material. Sure, the anarchists have Bluestockings, a bookstore, cafe, and “activist center” on the Lower East Side; and sure, the Avakianites have Revolution Books, a small shop in Harlem that seemingly dedicates half of its floorspace to books and propaganda materials written by the founder of the cult-like Revolutionary Communist Party. But for non-doctrinaire leftists who aren’t so much interested in promoting any single ideology as they are in learning more and spreading information about the history of Marxist thought and left-wing political movements, there simply aren’t many options in New York.
That is, except for Book Culture, the popular store on W 112th St. frequented by students and faculty at Barnard and Columbia.
Hidden in a small corner on the second floor of the labyrinthine shop are two fairly sizable adjacent sections, one of which is devoted to Marxism and the other of which is dedicated to labor history. (Believe it or not, College Republicans, there is a difference between those two subjects.) The Marxism section is host to a diverse collection of materials that runs the gamut of popular theory. One can, of course, find copies of all three volumes of Marx’s Das Kapital, Lenin’s foundational State and Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg’s popular pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution?, and György Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, a philosophical reflection on alienation, reification, and, well, class consciousness. Works by post-Marxists like Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau are also featured prominently; multiple copies of books like On Populist Reason and Hegemony and Socialist Strategy are mixed in with more orthodox publications. Western Marxists like Perry Anderson, author of The Origins of Postmodernity, and structural Marxists like Louis Althusser, the brilliant mind behind the posthumously published On the Reproduction of Capitalism, also make appearances on the old, musty shelves of Book Culture.
If those books sound like they’re too complex to tackle, fear not! Book Culture is also in possession of a handful of copies of Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx was Right, which, I mean, pretty much tells you in as straightforward a manner as possible what the bottom line of all those other works is, right?
The labor history section is almost as wide-ranging and comprehensive. Philip S. Foner’s two-volume History of the Labor Movement in the United States and Philip Dray’s There is Power in a Union both provide a broad overview of working-class organizing in this country since colonial times. Hard Work, written by Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss, explores why American workers have failed to develop the powerful, robust unions that exist in other industrialized countries. And Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation, which Book Culture now keeps in stock, might be of special interest to Columbia students: It explores how millions of young people are spending months at a time earning nothing and learning little under the guise of the “internship” model.
Now, if you’re a campus left-wing organizer reading this piece, I know what you’re probably thinking: “Book Culture? Really? You’re really going to talk them up?”
Book Culture does have a somewhat spotty history when it comes to fighting for left-wing causes, I admit. It is true that in 2014, the co-owner of Book Culture fired five workers for attempting to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. It is also true that last year, Book Culture, after finding itself in a bit of trouble for selling a children’s book titled P is for Palestine, waded into a heated international debate by releasing an incredibly bizarre statement that condemned violence committed by Palestinians and declared Book Culture’s support for Israel’s right to exist. I can’t blame more skeptical readers for finding it strange that I am speaking so highly of Book Culture’s collection of Marxist literature despite the fact that those who run the store have, in the past, fought back against attempts by workers to organize and have wavered on the question of imperialism (or, as Lenin called it, the “highest stage of capitalism.”) One could argue, I suppose, that the team behind Book Culture is made up of the worst kinds of champagne socialists who are thirty degrees left of center in the best of times and thirty degrees right of center when things affect them personally.
But Book Culture has learned from its past mistakes! Really! Later in 2014, the co-owner of Book Culture rehired four of the workers he fired, offered a severance package to the fifth worker, and finally agreed to recognize the union. Furthermore, after an attempted boycott by pro-Palestinian activists earlier this year, Book Culture made it clear that they would not stop selling the controversial children’s book at the center of the catastrophe.
It’s easy to judge Book Culture for playing both sides by serving as a home for nerdy leftists who want to get their hands on new reading material while also equivocating on issues on which many leftists feel one should never equivocate. In many ways, though, Book Culture’s unique strand (that’s not a bookstore pun, I swear) of leftism is a perfect fit for Columbia. During the union debacle a few years ago, Chris Doeblin called himself while talking with a New York Times reporter “an extremely progressive liberal and the best kind,” but noted that he “do[es]n’t let ideology get in [his] way.” Though he eventually gave into the union’s demands, Doeblin described his store as “always being in opposition to the union.”
At a school where it is common for students to speak out against hate speech propagated by guest speakers like Mike Cernovich and Tommy Robinson but then refuse to engage in actions centered around confronting those ideas directly, a bookstore with a slightly radical bent owned by someone who is ambivalent at best about left-wing causes is a fantastic fit. At a school where students who call themselves “socialists” often find themselves on the fast track to lucrative careers in the financial sector, a bookstore that is host to a large assortment of Marxist texts but whose owner once stated that his “ideology is to make payroll, to make the rent, to make another mortgage payment” is an ideal companion. Even if you don’t agree with Book Culture’s approaches to the application of left-wing issues in real life, you have to admit the following: Book Culture’s brand of champagne socialism, caviar communism, or whatever else you want to call a selective application of left-wing principles is a perfect match for our identities as oh-so-progressive, social justice-oriented (or perhaps even “woke”), radicool Ivy League students. No, perhaps Book Culture won’t appeal to the anarchists, the Avakianites, the Trotskyists, the Maoists, the Posadists, or members of any other faction of the “old left”; for the cool kid campus commies who fight for graduate workers’ rights in April and then begin internships with Goldman Sachs or Raytheon or the Tyrell Corporation or whatever in May, though, it’s as good a place to brush up on the works of the revolutionary thinkers whom you occasionally share memes about online as they come.
The exploitation of labor leads to shelf-alienation via Jake Tibbetts