Bhaskar Sunkara is very eager not to turn into one of the bosses he wants to overthrow. So he’s lugging copies of Jacobin, the socialist magazine he founded, up the stairs himself.
The magazine’s issue release party was held at a Spanish-language Episcopal church-slash-progressive community space in Bushwick. Sunkara and Neal Meyer, who runs Jacobin’s remarkably popular reading groups, are the only people there to set it up. No event staff, just them.
The modesty of the event undersells it. Jacobin has in the past five years become the leading intellectual voice of the American left, the most vibrant and relevant socialist publication in a very long time. And in 2016 it’s bigger than ever, thanks to Bernie Sanders, who’s making his millions of supporters curious about what democratic socialism actually means. That’s an opportunity that Jacobin is seizing to great effect, even if Sanders isn’t far enough left for their taste.
The Sanders campaign “could begin to legitimate the word ‘socialist,’ and spark a conversation around it, even if Sanders’s welfare-state socialism doesn’t go far enough,” Sunkara wrote earlier this year.
Sunkara started publishing copies of the magazine in his George Washington University dorm room back in 2011, when he was all of 21. The financial crisis appeared to have given socialism and Marxism another inning, and Sunkara wanted an outlet that took socialist theory more seriously than existing outlets like the Nation. Jacobin took off; it now boasts a print circulation of about 20,000 and has gained about 400 more subscribers a week since Bernie started his ascent in November. Jacobin’s success is a sign that even if Bernie fades, there’s still a constituency for socialist ideas — a fact that could turn out to be much more important than the Sanders campaign itself.
After hauling up the issues, Meyer, Sunkara and I head to a warehouse a couple of blocks over to buy beer for the release party. Sunkara asks, “Do you want to pick out a special beer? Y’know, for the nomenklatura?” We settle on a case of Magic Hat’s winter ale, in addition to many cases of cheaper beer; only Jacobin editors and friends get access to the good stuff. Sunkara then almost started bartering, offering the proprietor $23 for one of the cases.
When we return the handcarts we used to transport the beer, Sunkara says, “I said $23? Here’s $22.” (At one point, Meyer turned away during the bartering sessions, telling me, “I can’t watch Bhaskar haggling.”) The warehouse manager lets out a smile of grudging respect for the hustle.
For a committed socialist, Sunkara is perhaps the most naturally adept capitalist I’ve ever met.
Why Jacobin has taken off
Jacobin, which turned 5 this year, is perhaps the most relevant and important publication of the American political left today. Unlike more academic journals, it is always timely, globally oriented, and topically eclectic. Just this past week its website featured stories on the political crisis in Brazil, on the Kurdish militant group PKK (a key part of the anti-ISIS coalition), on how President Obama’s Supreme Court appointment exemplifies the ”liberal politics of accommodation,” and on the racial politics of metal fandom.
It’s written to be read by laypeople rather than academics. It’s funny, timely, and bracing; its best pieces aren’t just arguments, they’re provocations. Just look at some of their headlines:
- ”Burn the Constitution”
- ”Seize the Hamptons”
- ”Gimme the Loot” (a sympathetic piece on piracy)
- “Against Charity”
Even the magazine’s name is an intentional provocation, invoking Robespierre, Marat, and the most universally condemned stage of the French Revolution.
Jacobin has six full-time employees (including Sunkara and Meyer), and has lined up a number of high-profile contributors like famed Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Zizek and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The latest issue features an interview with British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) once emailed a Jacobin piece on poverty to every single member of Congress.
”It is unapologetic about its interests in political economy and Marxism; it’s completely in-your-face in its style and tone; it has this name, Jacobin, that just seems designed to push people’s buttons,” Brooklyn College professor Corey Robin, a longtime leftist writer who signed on early and is now a contributing editor at Jacobin, says. “How could I not get involved with it?”
The approach works. Sunkara tells me the magazine is up to a paid circulation of nearly 20,000, from both subscriptions and individual issue sales. The website gets nearly 1 million unique visitors and 2.7 million pageviews a month.
Jacobin isn’t a traditional journalistic outfit, and purposely so. Seth Ackerman, one of the magazine’s earliest contributors, says he and Sunkara wanted to explicitly avoid what the latter called “rosy reports from the front.” It’s not enough to just, say, publish “a profile of the progressive caucus congresswoman who’s fighting the good fight, without asking why we’re in this dismal situation in the first place.”
”We talked a lot about what we hated, or what we were annoyed by, in the Nation and places like that,” Ackerman recalls. “In the number one spot of complaints was a general lack of ideas, of taking ideas really seriously, of ideological work, as people say (or used to say) in the Marxist tradition. Of trying to connect, in a concrete way, a set of principles with a program and a language.”
Jacobin also does a better job than most left-wing publications at engaging with mainstream media outlets. Take Ackerman’s recent long piece critiquing Vox’s coverage of Bernie Sanders’ single-payer plan. You can have problems with that piece, but it spoke Vox’s own language. It cited the same kinds of studies, used the same kinds of graphs, worked in the same vernacular. It didn’t simply condemn us as sellout neoliberals (which … fair enough) and move along; it engaged with the arguments on their own terms.
During a panel at the issue release party, Sunkara praised Ackerman’s single-payer piece but noted, “I hesitate to say this, as we have someone in the crowd from Vox,” gesturing at me. “It’s fine. We can find him later and tell him what we think about it.” (No one did.)
Designing a socialist future
Jacobin owes much of its success to the design of its print editions. They’re works of art. The creative director, Remeike Forbes — probably the second most crucial part of the operation after Sunkara — has a distinctive aesthetic characterized by sharp contrasts of bold colors. It’s the single most gorgeous and visually clever magazine currently being published in print:
Forbes’s design deserves credit for the fact that tens of thousands of people are willing to pay money for a print publication in 2016 that they can read online for free. (Some stories are initially paywalled for a period of time, but all are eventually released to non-subscribers.) It’s part of what makes Jacobin a profitable business.
Forbes’s aesthetic has extended into Jacobin’s workplace as well. Forbes recently finished redecorating the magazine’s offices with furniture designed by the Italian communist artist Enzo Mari. (Sunkara explains, “He’s a Marxist. I wouldn’t care if it was designed by a fascist if it looked this good.
”Readers often notice that the magazine is unusually colorful for a left-wing rag, and that reflects a particular attitude I’ve tried to project through the visual content, which is confident, optimistic, forward-looking, and less bogged down in the dreariness so many have come to associate with the socialist left,” Forbes says. “The most interesting thing for me, however, is that we’ve always paired this with an editorial voice which too is confident and optimistic, but at the same time quite sober and deeply critical.”
Jacobin and actually existing American socialism
The single-payer piece points to the other reason Jacobin has taken off, especially in the past year: Bernie Sanders has made America safe for democratic socialism.
Jacobin is a 501(c)(3) and as such does not endorse candidates, but its coverage has been very favorable to Sanders. As early as May last year, Sunkara praised his candidacy, writing that it “could be a way for socialists to regroup, organize together, and articulate the kind of politics that speaks to the needs and aspirations of the vast majority of people. And it could begin to legitimate the word ‘socialist,’ and spark a conversation around it, even if Sanders’s welfare-state socialism doesn’t go far enough.”
The enthusiasm has only grown from there. While Sunkara’s first piece asked what would happen to the Sanders movement “when he fails,” a recent piece by contributing editor and Princeton historian Matt Karp agued that Bernie can win, declaring him a more viable general election candidate than Hillary Clinton.
”We need to understand that it’s ultimately not about Sanders. It’s about the political moment the campaign has created and its possibilities,” union organizer Nivedita Majumdar wrote in Jacobin in January. “Whether the Left rejects or chooses to take advantage of this opening may well define its trajectory for a long time to come.”
As any Jacobin editor would be the first to tell you, Sanders is a normal labor liberal, or at most a social democrat. He doesn’t go far enough. After Sanders delivered a speech defining what he meant when calling himself a democratic socialist, NYU grad student and International Socialist Organization member Paul Heideman wrote in Jacobin that it “offered much for American socialists to cheer, and much that could only be greeted with puzzlement, or even disgust.”
Regular contributor Connor Kilpatrick added, “This was the democratic socialism not even of Martin Luther King Jr (who nevertheless got some great shout-outs from Sanders) or Michael Harrington, but of FDR and LBJ. Which is to say, not ‘socialism’ in recognizable form.”
One of the biggest grievances has to do with foreign policy. Sanders may have voted against the war in Iraq, but he’s still vocally pro-Israel, supports the drone war and airstrikes against ISIS, and backed the US intervention in Kosovo.
In an interview with me after the speech, Sunkara attacked Sanders for praising Jordanian King Abdullah I — “I mean, you don’t even have to be as advanced as a socialist to oppose monarchs” — rather than “focus[ing] more on supporting democratic movements, on the tireless fight of the Kurds and other progressive forces in the region, and the need to build solidarity with those forces.”
First Bernie Sanders. Then a Brooklyn Soviet.
But the difference is about more than just foreign policy. Sanders has laid out an agenda that gets the US to roughly where the Scandinavian nations are now, where the government is roughly half the economy and there is a cradle-to-grave welfare state including universal, publicly funded health care, higher education, and child care. But few Jacobins look at Sweden and see their ideal society.
What we really need, Sunkara insists, is democratic worker control of the means of production. He cites approvingly the Meidner plan a Swedish initiative in the 1970s that would have seen “wage earner funds” controlled by unions slowly assume ownership over every company with more than 50 employees, by forcing corporations to issue stock and give it to the funds. It was still “far too tepid,” Sunkara told me, but it was a start.
Sunkara is surprisingly dour when asked how his vision of socialism could actually be achieved. “Can you legislate your way all the way to the kind of socialist society you want, with no capitalists, with workers democratically deciding things?” he asks, thinking out loud as much as anything.
”I think that one can win a majority and legislate, but especially in a country like the US, you would have extraparliamentary resistance by capitalists. Maybe then you’d be in a classic revolutionary position, dual power,” a reference to the period between revolutions in Russia in which a parliamentary government competed with the rival power of local workers councils, or Soviets.
He continues: “But I think more likely the real thing we’ll run up against as we’re on our road to legislating more and more reforms is capital flight, and the ability of capitalists to withhold investment.” This is what happened when Salvador Allende took power in Chile in 1970, nationalizing the banking and copper sectors in the process; it’s also what happened when François Mitterrand took power in France in the early 1980s. Investment just left in protest.
Trying to get more of a handle on his politics, I asked Sunkara to pick between Eduard Bernstein — the incrementalist German Marxist who sowed the seeds of modern social democracy — and Rosa Luxemburg, who assailed Bernstein for abandoning hope of revolution. ”Kautsky,” he answered, naming Bernstein and Luxemburg’s contemporary who split the difference between the two. “Maybe more Luxemburg.”
But we have a ways to go before revolutionary tactics are even close to the main concern of American socialists. First you need to build a social democratic electoral force — exactly what Bernie Sanders is trying to do.
Jacobin is working on that project abroad as well. The magazine is surprisingly well-connected with policymakers around the world but especially to the administration of Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour Party’s new radical leader. John McDonnell, who’ll serve as chancellor of the exchequer (the nation’s head economic policymaker) should Labour win the next election, is a regular, loyal reader. Sunkara jokes that Corbyn and McDonnell are “probably to my left on some stuff.”
Jacobin is also tight with Sinn Fein, which has shed its past as the electoral arm of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and become the leading left-wing party in Ireland — both the North and the Republic. Jacobin’s 21st issue is dedicated to Irish politics, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising and the martyrdom of James Connolly (one of the Rising’s main leaders and the father of Irish Marxism), and several of the articles focus on Sinn Fein and its potential to make the Irish left relevant.
”Class is a real thing, but it’s also an identity”
The 2016 race has also led Jacobin to dive head first into what’s perhaps the biggest internecine fight facing the left today: Is economic deprivation the core problem with America? Or is it one form of oppression among many?
Hillary Clinton versus Bernie Sanders is a perfect proxy battle for this dispute. Sanders is monomaniacally focused on economic issues, pivoting from just about any other topic to a discussion of income inequality and the wealthy’s influence on politics. That’s led to some frustration that he seems to think economic inequality is more important, more foundational, than racial inequality.
Clinton, meanwhile, has explicitly disputed this economic view of racism. “Not everything is about an economic theory, right?” she said at a Nevada rally in February. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow — and I will, if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will — would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community?”
More traditional leftists have been expressing reservations about “identitarian” complaints, which they view as a smoke screen for tepid centrist economic policies, for some time now. Disputes over this point led in 2014 to one of the magazine’s most famous controversies to date: Jacobinghazi, which is complicated but was basically a World War I–style intellectual dispute in which a small (real or perceived) aggression mobilized a series of alliances until the entire continent of left Twitter was engaged in brutal trench warfare.
And this dispute has only heated up in the primaries. When Ta-Nehisi Coates critiqued Sanders for opposing reparations for slavery, Adolph Reed, a black political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, condemned him as a ”black shock troop for neoliberalism.” (Coates later said he was voting for Sanders.) In Jacobin, Cedric Johnson, associate professor of African-American studies at the University of Illinois Chicago, piled on:
Antiracist liberalism thrives in a context where the performance of self-loathing, outrage, and concern are easily traded public currency, instead of the more socially costly politics of public sacrifice and the redistribution of societal resources.
Like [James] Baldwin, I think Coates fulfills a similar historical role in assuaging white guilt. What we need instead is solidarity.
Sarah Leonard, a senior editor at the Nation and former Dissent editor who recently co-edited a book with Sunkara, notes, “The great divider of the left in America has always been racism.”
She’s absolutely right: There’s solid empirical work to back up the idea that racism split the American working class in two and prevented the emergence of a labor party or socialist party, as occurred in just about every other rich country.
”Jacobin [is] making an argument about racial justice that’s consistent with their materialist analysis and their view that the way to relieve injustice in general is to have a multiracial socialist movement,” Leonard continues.
Sunkara is even blunter: “If you’re not focusing on class as your primary thing, then I can’t see how you can build an anti-racist program or anti-sexist program, unless it just means purely yelling at people and changing consciousness.”
”We care deeply about anti-oppression politics of all kinds,” he says. “I never use the term ‘identity politics.’ Class is a real thing but it’s also an identity the socialist movements helped foster and mold. Workers have this particular role; it’s an identity you can actually ascribe an agency to, that’s rooted in something real.”
It’s a great unifying syllogism: If all history is history of the class struggle, and class is an identity, then all history is the history of identity politics too.
That impulse behind Jacobin, to reach as many people as possible, also informs the style in which the magazine is written. One of the magazine’s defining pieces, ”Four Futures” by CUNY sociology PhD candidate Peter Frase from the fifth issue, is an excellent example. Frase argues that we’re on the precipice of four ways of dealing with resources and technology:
- If resources are abundant and the fruits of automation are shared broadly across society, we get utopian communism.
- If resources are abundant but the fruits of automation are hoarded, we get an absurd and unequal rentism.
- If resources are scarce — due to climate concerns or other factors — and the fruits of automation are shared, we get socialism, in which there are still limits to consumption but where millions need no longer work.
- If resources are scarce and the fruits of automation are not shared, we get exterminism, in which the rich sit back, accumulate wealth, and, having no more need for the proletariat’s labor, let them die in the streets.
These are not new ideas. The choice between socialism and exterminism brings to mind Rosa Luxemburg’s famous line, which Frase quotes: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” Marx’s vision of communism in Capital is much the same as Frase’s.
But while Frase cites Marx and Luxemburg, and includes the odd piece of Marxist terminology for the superfans, he also cites the New York Times’s Farhad Manjoo, mainstream MIT economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, Ender’s Game, and the Justin Timberlake movie In Time. This is not the prose of a Marxist academic writing:
Suppose, for example, that all production is by means of Star Trek’s replicator. In order to make money from selling replicated items, people must somehow be prevented from just making whatever they want for free, and this is the function of intellectual property. A replicator is only available from a company that licenses you the right to use one, since anyone who tried to give you a replicator or make one with their own replicator would be violating the terms of their license. What’s more, every time you make something with the replicator, you must pay a licensing fee to whoever owns the rights to that particular thing. In this world, if Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard wanted to replicate his beloved “tea, Earl Grey, hot”, he would have to pay the company that has copyrighted the replicator pattern for hot Earl Grey tea.
Because of the clarity of language, you can begin to imagine what the futures Frase details actually look like. You can see what a future of abundance but inequality looks like: It’s a world where replicator-produced Earl Grey is copyrighted.
”I see myself as essentially a popularizer,” says Frase, who’s now finishing up a book-length version of “Four Futures.” “It’s why I ended up quitting the academic track and why I enjoyed writing for Jacobin so much more.”
In this, the magazine takes after a movement known as Analytical Marxism (also known as “No-Bullshit Marxism”) that rose to prominence in the 1980s and tried to turn Marxist theory into a set of social scientific theories that can be rigorously tested.
While more traditional leftists recoiled at what they saw as a bastardization of Marx, Sunkara admires the analytical approach. “It can be challenged,” he says. “Put your ideas out there, write as clearly as possible, and let it be challenged.”
The Trinidadian Jacobin
The name Jacobin, while meant to invoke the French Revolution, has a different meaning for Sunkara. In naming the magazine, he was inspired at least in part by C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, a hugely influential Marxist history of the Haitian Revolution.
”We had a lot of C.L.R. James in the house, since he was Trinidadian,” just like Sunkara’s mother, he told New Left Review in a 2014 interview. “I actually heard of the Haitian Jacobins before I heard of the French ones. The Black Jacobins was probably in the back of my mind when I first started thinking about the magazine.”
Sunkara’s father was born in India and immigrated to Trinidad as a young man. His parents arrived in New York a year before Bhaskar was born.
James, a Trotskyist, was hugely influential on Sunkara, who said he first became radicalized in middle school. That background still comes through from time to time. I asked Bhaskar if he wanted to build a popular front — a term for socialist coalitions that include bourgeois liberals — as some acquaintances of his had suggested to me was his endgame. “They forget I’m a Trot,” he replied. “I’d form a united front, not a popular front.” (A united front lets in social democrats but not liberals.) A number of Jacobin’s contributors are members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), the largest Trotskyist group in North America.
But Sunkara’s allegiances have shifted; his loyalties now lie with Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the biggest remnant of the once-mighty Socialist Party of America following a 1972 split over the Vietnam War. Sunkara joined DSA at age 17 and got his writing start on the Activist, the blog of DSA’s youth chapter. That’s where he met a number of early Jacobin writers, including contributing editor Chris Maisano and “Four Futures” author Frase.
Sunkara is still heavily affiliated with DSA, serving as the group’s vice chair. But one of the most striking things about Jacobin is how ideologically ecumenical it is. The tradition of socialist publications is rife with factionalism and stiff party lines. Sunkara very explicitly does not want to take a line. Instead, he tells me, he draws a “box.” The magazine is not going to defend Stalin’s collectivizations or Mao’s Great Leap Forward or really any other aspect of “actually existing communism,” but other than that, Jacobin is pretty welcoming. It’s a place where social democrats and democratic socialists and Trotskyists and council communists and Chavistas and even the odd liberal can coexist.
That dynamic is a lot easier to foster now that the Cold War is over. When the USSR still existed and China was still meaningfully socialist, there were all kinds of fault lines along which socialist movements could fracture, because there were plenty of socialist nations making major decisions guaranteed to provoke controversy. Do you take Trotsky’s side or Stalin’s? Do you take Khrushchev’s side in the Sino-Soviet split or Mao’s? Do you endorse the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 or stand with Hungarian workers? Do you merely oppose the Vietnam War or actively support the National Liberation Front?
Distance from that history lets Jacobin promote a very different brand of socialism without being overly defensive about the past or feeling a need to redbait those to its left for being insufficiently anti-communist or pro-American. This historical distance is also perhaps the reason young people are so receptive to the idea of socialism today.
Frase recalls working with the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a post-Maoist group, while in high school. “The FRSO people I worked with sometimes had some crazy positions on, say, Stalin or North Korea,” he says. “But they knew how to organize a fucking rally and didn’t just stand around trying to sell newspapers.”
”I definitely think Jacobin represents a generation of socialists who want to kind of move forward from the historically specific battle lines that formed around 20th century socialism,” Frase continued.
The best socialist capitalist you’ve ever seen
The most important thing about the Sanders campaign for Sunkara, though, is its potential to massively expand the socialist movement in America even after a Sanders loss. At the issue release party, he declared, “God knows we don’t have enough younger leaders and politicians at that level nationally who can lead after this 74-year-old socialist, you know, dies” — but Jacobin’s subscription base is surging, as is membership at DSA, according to executive director Maria Svart.
But it’s a tricky opportunity, as people are being drawn in by a much milder form of democratic socialism without any background in socialist tradition. “How do you build cadres?” Sunkara asked Svart at the issue release party panel. “I would start by saying don’t use the word ‘cadre,’” Svart replied.
Sunkara does intend on teaching the Berners terminology, though. Soon Jacobin will be launching a second publication — Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy — that will be more academic and theoretical in orientation.
And more generally, Sunkara is planning on growth. In the roughly 24 hours I spent with him, I’d say that 60 percent of our conversations revolved around Jacobin’s business and subscriber numbers. Sunkara is obsessed, and often talks more like a new media CEO than a revolutionary.
And Jacobin’s leadership runs it like a business. “We’re all organized around the same goal: traffic,” Sunkara declared at one point. Checking subscription revenue in Stripe is, he declared, “honestly my favorite part of the day.”
Jacobin is not dependent on the backing of a major corporation or a wealthy donor, which is unusual for a left-wing publication in today’s publishing landscape. It makes the overwhelming share of its money the old-fashioned way: by selling subscriptions and print copies. That provides about $500,000 in revenue annually, enough to pay for printing costs and salaries and have a bit left over for a rainy day.
The long-term goal might be a revolutionary working class, but for now Sunkara is most passionate about trying to get more uniques than the New Republic or FiveThirtyEight. He has little patience for left-of-center writers who go out of their way to make enemies, saying of Gawker, “It’s less mean and snarky than it used to be. I don’t like that kind of mean internet humor. … Being mean as a way to fight the power is kind of ridiculous.”
He’s disarmingly forthcoming about the site’s finances. Every full-time worker makes between $35,000 and $39,000 at the moment — “if you’re a professional socialist, it’s not that bad.” The magazine gets insurance on the Obamacare exchanges, opting for a silver plan with a Flexible Spending Account. “People can get whatever health care they need,” he says; I resist the temptation to make a cheap crack about his enthusiasm for corporatist sell-out health care reform.
And one of his biggest heroes is a capitalist. His Twitter bio declares himself the “Chef Boyardee of Western Marxism,” clarifying in an interview that the “Western” part is ”just for style, to add balance to the sentence.” I asked him why.
”Chef Boyardee took some good shit, put it in a can, gave it to the people,” he explained. “And Stalin awarded him for it.”*
Correction: This post originally said Sunkara haggled over use of a handcart; it was over pricing for one of the cases of beer. We regret the error.
* A representative of ConAgra Foods, which owns the Chef Boyardee brand, says they have no record indicating Stalin gave the good Chef an Order of Lenin award: “Chef Hector Boiardi was very active serving American troops during World War II and was honored for his efforts with the Gold Star in 1946. We don’t have anything in our records to indicate that any foreign armies ever honored Chef Hector as well.”