Conspicuous due to “The Communist Manifesto” nearly always displayed at their window, Groundwork Books, a non-profit student organization, sits in the middle of the Old Student Center on the UC San Diego campus. The old, brown buildings embracing it create a sense of antiquity, one that is mirrored by the history and politics held by the bookstore.
The name “Groundwork” is representative of the store’s mission statement: setting the groundwork for a new, more equal society. Originally founded by Marxists and Anarchists, this history of radical thought has been passed down and has manifested through organizing and activism. According to an anonymous Groundwork employee, A, “[they] are of the belief that the society that we live in, which is hierarchical, is eventually going to collapse, and when it does collapse, we would like to be there as a theoretical and social resource, for all working people and students, and be a groundwork for organizing in this post-capitalist future.”*
Aligning with these values, Groundwork functions as a non-hierarchical cooperative, and therefore, employees do not have assigned roles. Instead, their system is to go through their agenda (or goals) during their meetings, where members have the opportunity to volunteer for certain tasks. This is referred to as “residual responsibility,” since everyone’s primary responsibility is to volunteer at the store and be a part of the collective.
Groundwork is one of four cooperatives on campus at present (there used to be approximately 12 before), which includes the Food Co-Op, the General Store, the Ché Café and of course, Groundwork. All four cooperatives support and empower each other, according to A.
“Groundwork definitely feels organic,” A told The UCSD Guardian. “I come into the store, and there are lively conversations going on, all my friends are here and then I get to staff the store and meet new, interesting people and hopefully even recruit some into Groundwork.”
As for the variety of books in the store, Groundwork features sections including Marxist Theory, Queer Theory, Feminism, literary fiction and more. According to A, books from their Marxist section sell the most, particularly their bestseller, “The Communist Manifesto.” Groundwork buys approximately 20 copies per quarter, and they consistently sell out almost all of them.
Groundwork is always trying to stock more and update their existing collection. Recently, they have been trying to update their SWANA (Southwest Asia and North African) section, as well as purchase books by UCSD alumni including Angela Davis. A says that Groundwork tries to gauge what is interesting and in demand by students, and stocks books based on that. Additionally, Groundwork has an extensive used books section.
“We’ve always had a policy of not letting knowledge go to waste,” A told The Guardian. “And when someone does come into the bookstore and gives us a donation of books, we put them in the used books section.”
A says that one of his favorite aspects of Groundwork is meeting people who come into the store and strike up conversations with members. Many of them share the same political ideologies — namely Marxism and Marxist-adjacent political ideologies — and are interested in activism and organizing throughout campus.
A has met students who are interested in doing outreach with cops on campus, United Students Against Sweatshops (a pro-labor student organization at UCSD), students interested in Indigenous justice, and much more. A cites an example where in Spring Quarter 2022, after the Roe v. Wade overturning draft was leaked, several members organized at Groundwork. Thus, within a week, organizers were able to execute a successful protest outside Geisel Library. This protest, which was one of many, exemplifies their intent to hold individuals and organizations accountable for their actions.
As a consequence, Groundwork has been subject to right-wing attacks in the past. In 2017, there was an arson incident — which no one was ever caught or held accountable for — where someone burned down one of the book carts outside Groundwork. Groundwork believes that the arson was a right-wing attack motivated by opposition towards Groundwork’s leftist beliefs, and that their main intent was to burn down the actual bookstore, which they failed to accomplish.
As far as how the University views Groundwork and the other cooperatives on campus, A notes that in general, the campus has taken a negative attitude towards the cooperatives. They tried to shut down the cooperatives years ago, but ultimately failed and ended up signing a new master space agreement with all four co-ops.
According to A, they are viewed as “a thorn in the side of the UCSD administration” due to their heavy involvement in labor organizing and rallying strikes, such as a cost of living adjustment strike during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
A believes that the University has made a concerted effort to ensure that student life and social life are well-regulated; though there is a seven (soon to be eight) college system, there is no specific meeting area for students to organize or socialize, and there is a stigma that UCSD is “socially dead.”
“However, I think if you come to Groundwork, you will see that UCSD is not socially dead, and that one of the most important student-run places on campus is the Old Student Center, where we have all the other cooperatives,” A told The Guardian. “It is essential to keep these places up and running. Members are only here for four years and then they leave, but as a UCSD community, it is our responsibility to keep Groundwork alive, to keep these cooperatives alive and to ensure that we are here for posterity and retain Groundwork’s function as a safe space, an organizing space, and as a theoretical resource for students at UCSD.”
Editor’s Note: The interviewed student was granted anonymity by request to avoid any circumstances where they may be targeted by right-wing individuals/organizations.
Photo Courtesy of Millie Root.