Tim Steller: At this coffee shop, being a Commie is cool

Discussion group topic is Marxism and its 'benefits'
2013-06-05T00:00:00Z Tim Steller: At this coffee shop, being a Commie is coolTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 05, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Talk of "proletarian revolution" may sound antiquated, but it remains topical every two weeks at a Tucson coffee shop.

Every first and third Sunday of the month, Revolutionary Grounds, 606 N. Fourth Ave., hosts a "Marxism discussion group."

When I heard of it, my first thought was, "People still discuss Marx?" My second thought: "I've got to attend."

It turns out there's a vibrant group of Tucsonans who consider Marx and related writings relevant to today's world. The reading for Sunday night's meeting was "Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism" by Vladimir Lenin, the leader of Russia's Bolshevik revolution.

The topic brought out about 30 people for an hourlong, intense discussion as the broiling heat of afternoon mellowed into evening warmth. Hosts Paul Gattone and Joy Soler, the couple who own the coffee shop, had to pull extra tables and chairs into the sandy backyard.

Holding their well-thumbed copies of the "Essential Works of Lenin," the attendees analyzed what the reading meant, and especially, what it means today.

Gattone, a local lawyer, has taken to calling first on David Myers, then moving on to take note of people raising their hands, calling on them one by one. Myers, a retired librarian and history professor who moved to Tucson two years ago, summarized the reading and gave a pinch of his own analysis.

"I love Lenin because he nevers screws around making his points," Myers said. "He bludgeons you with them."

What really struck Myers: "While I was reading this, I thought, my God, he must have written this in 2013."

He wasn't the only attendee to find similarities between that age and now.

"Now, banks control everything," Soler said, as she monitored her young daughter playing in the sand, "and we're not going to be able to do anything about it."

Inevitably, the conversation turned to inevitability - that is the inevitability of proletarian revolution. Lenin argued in the piece, written in 1916, that capitalism was in its final phase, imperialism, that would inevitably lead to international proletarian revolution.

And yet, here we were in Tucson a hundred years later, living in capitalism - happily, I might add, at least in my case.

"Lenin and his comrades at the time never would have expected capitalism to last this long," attendee Joe Bernick said. "We have to think about that when we think about revolution in our country."

"Capitalism, besides everything else, is resilient," Bernick added.

Gattone joked in response: "People say, 'It's inevitable; it's inevitable,' but does that mean we should go to a bar and wait?" As the discussion went on, a karaoke session kicked in at the neighboring IBT bar.

The youngest attendee, 17-year-old Jafe Arnold, did not seem in the mood to wait.

Lenin, Arnold said, "is establishing a framework for revolutionaries to work in the imperialist epoch, which as you're hearing around the table, remains our epoch."

"Imperialism is a moribund system," Arnold said, echoing Lenin's words. "The light at the end of the tunnel is proletarian revolution."

After the meeting, Arnold said he is a student at St. Gregory College Preparatory School who comes from a line of Communists in a family of Polish and Russian descent. Indeed, looking at his unwhiskered, Slavic face, I felt I was looking at a century-old picture of a young revolutionary.

Not everyone who attended was comfortable being quoted, photographed or named in the paper. Someone pointed out to me Tuesday a good reason why: Arizona law still specifies that employers may fire employees for being Communists.

While I enjoyed the intellectual grappling of the discussion, the lack of acknowledgement of some evils committed in the name of Marxism bothered me.

For example, I did a little reading Tuesday on the Red Terror, a campaign of violence by Lenin's Bolsheviks that peaked in 1918, just two years after he wrote "Imperialism." When I asked Myers about it Tuesday, he attributed the violence largely to Bolsheviks fighting counter-revolutionary Czarist forces, who were being helped by European militaries, and by their effort to consolidate power.

Also, the Sunday meeting was the first time I remember hearing anything positive said about Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, whom two people referred to as a sort of carrier of the Communist dream in Eastern Europe. I know him primarily as a dictator who imprisons thousands of dissidents and journalists, when his government isn't killing them.

Attendees at the Marxism group explained away this common wisdom the same way tea-party members and other political true believers have discounted inconvenient facts to me: The media doesn't tell you the truth.

Still, it was nice to be an Arizona Daily Star staff member among a group of people who would never consider the paper left-wing enough to call it the Red Star.

If you have a discussion group you'd like columnist Tim Steller to attend, contact him at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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