In 2008, a teenager called Bhaskar Sunkara wrote to me expressing his interest in the Commune, a British libertarian-communist monthly then enjoying its (limited) heyday. To give an idea of its publishing clout, at the time I was living in an East London squat with no sockets, so I had to produce it from a nearby shop which sold sickly-sweet Bangladeshi cakes as well as by-the-hour Internet access.
It’s often reported that Sunkara started Jacobin from his dorm room, implying he had home access to word processing software and indeed the power supply — comforts which some of my squatter pals would have sneered at. But I think there are other good materialist reasons why Jacobin was better, and has become somehow iconic of the latest incarnation of the Anglophone left.
Looking at the Left of a decade ago, it wasn’t all bad — we were on the right side of many important fights. The Left’s history in Britain or the United States has far longer and deeper periods of defeat than of temporary breakthroughs, and in times of setback, it’s especially important to have your group of comrades, to nurture hope and to organize, even if it doesn’t shape the terms of national politics.
In the years after 2010, Jacobin partly fulfilled this same function — it soon became a magazine a great variety of socialists could identify with even while socialism remained a relatively fringe force. But it also did more than that, not just voicing the many forms of dissent or even looking cool, but training us to think of socialism as a realistic future responding to the material interests of the great majority.
This may sound staid. But it was refreshing compared to the common 2000s rebranding of Marxism as one more general school of radical “critique.” If various academic fads were held up as “transgressive” against a supposed gray Marxist orthodoxy, the one thing you never actually heard in a classroom was someone insisting changing the world really has quite a lot to do with economic planning and state-guaranteed rights.
Actually Existing Socialism
There’s a story where Eric Hobsbawm visits a factory, where he tells the workers he’s not come to preach but to hear about their experiences. One worker replies annoyed, “you, with all your expensive education, don’t have anything useful you can tell us?” Probably a lot of Jacobin readers are students and postgrads. That’s fine — but the important thing is to use whatever space we have to read and study, to help build off campus.
Personally, after devoting my free time to various kinds of activism from about 2005 to 2012, I then retreated into my history PhD. In 2015, when I first wrote for Jacobin, I still strongly doubted Jeremy Corbyn would achieve anything. Some readers will say — he (and Bernie Sanders) didn’t. But it’s harder to deny the last five years have prepared the ground for better days, in a way that, say, John McDonnell’s bid for the Labour leadership in 2007 didn’t really do.
Did Jacobin make that happen? Of course not. It has a lot more to do with the failures of liberalism and neoliberalized social democracy since the 2008 crisis. But I think the magazine has been brilliantly successful in interpreting and giving visibility to the political turn that has taken place on the Left. With projects like Catalyst and some of the foreign franchises, it can develop as a real site of strategic discussion and projection of what socialism would look like today.
In that vein, I think some of the best stuff ever to appear on Jacobin were pieces like Meagan Day’s “One Year Off, Every Seven Years,” or Seth Ackerman’s “The Red and the Black,” or indeed some of the articles we’ve run by Kristen Ghodsee about women’s liberation under state socialism. For they each point to how simple material reforms could produce far-reaching emancipatory effects.
People love to quote Antonio Gramsci as justification for whatever they happen to be doing anyway. I think if you want to talk about hegemony, that comes from mobilizing support for achievable political demands, not some nebulous idea of radical “culture.” While we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the publishing success of Jacobin has gained it a genuinely mass readership, what it can be is a key platform that organizers and socialist politicians can discuss in, learn from, identify with.
The revolution isn’t just the friends we made along the way, but that’s part of it. And for me, writing for Jacobin also allowed me to do lots of stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise — interviewing some people even my parents have heard of (like Pamela Anderson!) and funneling my thoughts on the Italian Communist Party to a semi-broad audience.
I haven’t spoken to him about it, but Sunkara will certainly have been annoyed to be presented as an up-and-coming wunderkind by the media. And I’m sure he’s looking forward to being one of the crotchety grumps of the Left rather than the latest bright young thing. So, I’m glad Jacobin is ten years old already, and here’s to many more decades to come.