When Bhaskar Sunkara decided ten years ago to start a socialist magazine, we older socialist journalists were impressed and also amused. We admired his moxie. The kid hadn’t even graduated from college yet. He didn’t seem to realize how marginal socialism was! Or maybe, as a Knicks fan, he was just philosophical about losing.
We talked up the project. We got our friends to subscribe. We offered guidance when asked. We never thought Jacobin would last ten years — let alone become as widely read and influential as it is today.
Still, Jacobin looked terrific, thanks to great designers. It was intelligent and intellectual, eschewing platitudes and left cliché, yet also accessible. It was also frankly and unapologetically socialist.
At the time, there was hardly any socialist media in the United States. There was “independent” or “alternative” media, cautious words that had reflected the closeted nature of left discourse since at least the Reagan era. We barely even used the word “left” in those days, let alone “socialist.” There were alternative weeklies like New York City’s Village Voice or Philadelphia’s City Paper, which were mostly not that politically radical (though they provided invaluable local coverage and cultural commentary, and their disappearance from the landscape is a genuine loss). Less inspiringly, there were turgid, typo-ridden rags like Z magazine. There was the liberal Nation magazine, which published many socialist writers (including yours truly).
A handful of tiny socialist organizations and people affiliated with them ran publications, of which the most enduring and essential was (and still is) Labor Notes. Other less enduring but often noble efforts put out sadly timeless headlines like “Stop the Killing!” about which the late iconoclastic left-wing columnist Alexander Cockburn once quipped, “Oh come now, can’t we have some killings of our own?”
There was always some lively writing in the Nation and in the weeklies, as well as in some of the liberal blogosphere of the early aughts, but otherwise, most “independent” publications were a bore and a chore to read, as well as, in design terms, an eyesore. But in a way, this wasn’t entirely their fault. Their unwelcoming appearance and tone reflected the discouraging lost cause that was the Left (plus, they didn’t have Remeike Forbes to resurrect radicals’ once legendary aesthetic sense).
In order to be relevant, find an audience, and, most of all, find anything to cover other than how terrible everything is, dissident media needs vibrant dissident movements. Without such movements, media, however well produced or well written, has little to no impact on the world beyond “raising awareness.” This nebulous and dispiriting (but funder-friendly!) objective justified the existence of “alternative” media (and much progressive “activism,” especially in the nonprofit industrial complex) throughout the ’90s and early aughts.
There was no significant socialist movement when Jacobin started. The Left was weak and demoralized. Since the waning of the anti-globalization struggles of the ’90s, and the anti-war organizing of the next decade, it seemed we could no longer even organize mass protests, much less compete for state power, affect the popular imagination, expand our numbers, or win victories.
In 2011, the year after Jacobin started, Occupy Wall Street began. Although the occupations — near Wall Street in New York City but also around the country — didn’t last long, they focused and organized discontent with our economic system, and they politicized countless young people. Even if somewhat imprecisely, Occupy began to describe the problem and suggest the remedy: 1 percent of the population was hoarding power and money, a sorry state of affairs that the other 99 percent had the majoritarian power to change.
The following year, 2012, a seventeen-year-old kid named Trayvon Martin was killed by a racist neighborhood vigilante, sparking a protest movement in defense of black lives that has raged on and off ever since, culminating in perhaps our nation’s largest ever uprising this summer. Occupy may have been short-lived, but after Trayvon, Americans spent the rest of the decade showing that we had learned how to get into the streets again.
Meanwhile, millions around the world began suffering, witnessing, and anticipating the devastation of climate change, prompting many to question the cruelty of a system that valued profits over every form of life, including that of millions of human beings. People began to put their bodies in the way of fossil fuel projects, often stopping them. One of the most famous of these protests was the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
Then Bernie Sanders ran for president as a democratic socialist. Although he didn’t win the 2016 or 2020 primaries, he won countless converts to the idea of socialism, and he probably turned just as many passive left-leaning observers into serious activists. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) exploded in membership by thousands that year. Two years later, a young bartender and organizer named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had protested at Standing Rock, ran for Congress and won. DSA’s membership exploded by tens of thousands more and is up to seventy thousand at this writing.
Jacobin has thrived during this time, as the right publication for this democratic socialist moment. But also, during these years, the socialist media ecosystem changed completely. Jacobin was joined by new left publications like Current Affairs, Damage, and Viewpoint, as well as by more socialist podcasts than I can possibly name here. These publications and podcasts suffer from none of the dreariness and predictability associated with pre-Occupy left media. Many are funny and resist left pieties. Like them or not, along with all the organizing, they help win converts to the socialist cause. We’re also seeing the rise of socialist YouTube, a necessary counter to right-wing incel YouTube. Now, Jacobin even hosts podcasts and a video show of its own.
Socialists are running for local and state offices and winning. They’re fighting for tenant protections and winning. They’re organizing for Medicare for All, getting into the streets for racial and climate justice, and organizing against unsafe workplaces. As we do this work, our numbers continue to grow.
Jacobin’s relevance and interest depends completely on this socialist movement. As it thrives, so will we. If it dies, this magazine probably will, too. But at this writing, we’re optimistic that the movement will continue. We’ll keep trying to contribute as best we can.