Bhaskar Sunkara, Jacobin
Since the publication’s launch in 2011, Jacobin has provided key contributions to socialist strategy and critique. Over the course of the 2016 election – particularly through its engagement with the Bernie Sanders primary campaign – the magazine not only broadened the audience for a range of leftist analyses, but deepened the level on which these analyses were discussed. At the beginning of primary season, few would have predicted that an avowed socialist from Vermont would present a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton’s grip on the Democratic party nomination. The language of “socialism” has long been considered political poison in a US electoral landscape still heavily imprinted with the legacy of McCarthyism. This election showed, particularly in relation to younger voters, that this is no longer the case. Jacobin’s work has played a crucial role in shifting the boundaries of not only what is possible to say in popular political discourse, but what it is possible to do. What follows is an edited interview with Jacobin’s founding editor and publisher, Bhaskar Sunkara.
CPCJ: What is Jacobin’s goal as a publication?
Bhaskar Sunkara: Jacobin’s goals are to develop internally and popularize socialist ideas. We want to win over as many people as possible to our ideas and preserve a vision of socialist politics in this country by making it relevant to a broad mass of people. I think most publications of the sort have tried to do one or the other. They either tried to just preserve politics, which ends up being cloistered and sectarian, or they try to go and meet people exactly where they are. I think this leads to a vague and amorphous progressivism in publications like The Nation and others who are publishing good stuff but aren’t really pulling people in a distinct direction. I think Jacobin’s presence has been able to encourage people to think about things in ways that they wouldn’t have otherwise.
CPCJ: You have previously described the Left as “weak” and “fragmented.” Can you elaborate on what, exactly, you meant by that?
BS: The American Left is characterized largely by a disconnect in its social base. I think part of this is because we question how to reach out and connect with the people. We have one foot in the mainstream and are not embracing our marginality. But at the same time, we can be self-marginalizing by harping on this culture of lost causes. The truth is that the problems of the Left are bigger and more structural —the left isn’t weak because we’re sectarian, but it certainly doesn’t help matters.
The hard-socialist Left consists of maybe seven thousand people at most. Considering that figure, in certain ways, Jacobin actually has an oversized impact, but we need to be aware that, proportionally, this is probably the smallest socialist Left that has ever existed in a country of 330 million people. I think you could either encounter those facts with despair, or you could try to work your way out of it. I would say that since we started Jacobin, the socialist Left has grown exponentially, but that doesn’t change the fact it started at a very low number.
CPCJ: With the rising popularity of Bernie Sanders in 2016, do you think we have seen a shift in the way media talks about Socialism, or at the very least “democratic socialism”?
BS: I think there’s been a slow movement over the past few years. Basically, people have gone from associating Socialism with Stalinist states at the end of the Cold War to increasingly associating it with the welfare state. Even if that’s still not very precise, I think it’s still progress. With Bernie Sanders, there was a new push, not just among the public at large, which is still largely indifferent to socialism, but among young activists and others more willing to call themselves socialists. I would say that, generally, the temperament has moved from the anarchism seen at the time of Occupy to a social democratic common sense. I think that’s a better starting point. Demands are more productive than just a vague, amorphous “we’re angry” declaration. I think it’s moved in a positive direction.
We should not overstate to what extent Sanders’s voting block was motivated by him calling himself a socialist. I think it was just the combination of his basic demands meeting with how the general population perceived reality. Essentially, society thought they were in need of certain things and saw that there was only one candidate speaking to those needs and economic grievances. But beyond this, he was also speaking to an anti-establishment populism, which I think is the most fertile thing for the Left to build on. If we don’t, then the Donald Trumps of the world will be left to articulate things.
CPCJ: Bernie Sanders was the favorite of the young-adult demographic this election season. What would you say is the demographic of Jacobin’s readership?
BS: I would say, disproportionately, 24 through 40. Most of our base is comprised of people who are a couple of years out of school but have a hard time getting a job and are maybe working multiple part-time jobs. Graduate students are kind of our bread and butter. To an extent, we have a real rank-and-file base in the teacher unions, particularly because of our outreach efforts.
We also have a pretty international readership. About 40 percent of our readers are overseas—particularly in Europe. We have a lot of readers in Europe who have allowed us to make a huge impact on the European Left, especially facilitating a lot of debates around Syria and things like that. Right now we have a lot of readers active around the Jeremy Corbyn campaign.
CPCJ: Jacobin is not only successful in its online form, but also in print. How much do you think design plays into the number of people who are interested in purchasing the print edition?
BS: I think design is a major factor. Part of it is that we don’t believe that there’s such a thing as “Left-wing design.” We just think there’s good design or there’s bad design. The colors we use and the style we project are confident and bold, yet we look as professional as more mainstream publications. If we take that much time with the presentation, people assume we’ve also put time into the editorial and other aspects of Jacobin. I think it’s very important in that respect to try to do everything to the best of our abilities and avoid the old “Left style” typified by black-and-white Courier New-typeface, and instead go for something more confident and forward-looking.
CPCJ: Speaking of being forward-looking, Jacobin also offers reading groups where people can come together and discuss the magazine. Why do you think it is important to encourage this sort of mass, critical examination of texts?
BS: I think it does two things—one is to make us ambassadors for socialist ideas, which most people don’t encounter in any other form. The second thing it does is create a cultural space, rather than just an intellectual and political space, where people can come in, ask questions and meet other people. At the very least, it’s a good introduction to the American socialist Left. We want people to engage with Jacobin not as a passive consumerist product but because they feel affinity with these ideas. Maybe they’re not sure how they personally can contribute to the development of these ideas, but at the very least, they can be involved with these political networks.
CPCJ: Publishing a non-mainstream magazine must be, at times, rather trying. Have you had to make any personal sacrifices in order to produce Jacobin?
BS: Personally, part of the struggle is that you don’t come into this with any idea that you will be spending so much time doing it. There was never a conscious choice made on my part to spend all of my time working on a socialist publication. Jacobin was kind of just a side project that spiraled out of control. I would say, to that extent, it is a personal sacrifice. But obviously it’s very rewarding. As far as a concrete example of compromising for the publication, I can think of something that is sometimes difficult for me and the other editors—we publish pieces we don’t agree with because we think they’re important perspectives to hear. Every week, there are pieces that I don’t agree with, but Jacobin can’t just be a monolithic voice. It has to have tension and diversity in certain ways.