Bhaskar Sunkara has been described as belonging to a new wave of American public intellectuals. All are under forty, not pursuing careers in academia and, in most cases, on the socialist left. The platform for their new found prominence has largely been based on the revival of left wing publications as a focus of political debate and discussion. These include The Baffler, The New Inquiry, Dissent and the magazine that Sunkara founded, Jacobin.
SEVEN YEARS AGO, in 2010, Jacobin magazine was a mere idea floating around inside the head of then college student Bhaskar Sunkara. Now he finds himself at the helm of arguably the most influential left wing publication in the United States. Such has been its growth its reputation has also grown internationally as well. With some 40,000 paid up subscribers and nearly three million visits to its website every month, it has also not only breached the left wing 'ghetto' that many similar publications often find themselves residing, it has the kind of readership that outstrips many mainstream political publications.
With an annual budget of some $700,000, it now boasts six full time employees, working out of offices in New York. The magazine has also landed a couple of book deals. Residing in the largely arid desert of what is optimistically called 'New Zealand left wing politics', one can't help but be envious about what has been achieved by Jacobin and the American left in a relatively short space in time. The United States was once described as being a 'backwater' for socialist politics - that certainly isn't the case today.
Although Jacobin is popularly assumed to refer to the French Revolution Sunkara says that he was inspired by C.L.R. James's The Black Jacobins, an important Marxist history of the Haitian Revolution.
"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 politics were sparked by George Orwell's Animal Farm, which was the catalyst for him to seek out the work of Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky. It wasn't long before he was blogging for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and writing for Dissent.
Jacobin arrived at an opportune time. While it struggled initially, the revival of socialist and left wing politics in the United States, first through Occupy and then the surge in support for Bernie Sanders, has meant that the 'catchment area' for a magazine like Jacobin has expanded considerably. Significantly its audience is relatively young. Having rejected the failed corporate politics of both the Democrats and Republicans, it is they who are filling the expanding ranks of left wing parties like the DSA- and who are reading Jacobin. As Abby Martin, the host of Empire Files has observed, 'it is a rejection of the politics that led to Trump'. Sunkara himself refers to the 'decay of liberal reform traditions'.
"If liberalism once had teeth, that memory has faded. Many in my generation who found voice in the Occupy protests had no knowledge of the way that strong liberal administrations, backed up by vigorous social movements, forced concessions from capital throughout the last century."
At Marxism 2018, held in Melbourne over Easter weekend, Sunkara was a guest speaker. His talk addressed Trump's America and the resistance that is developing and he returned again to the failure of liberalism. He regards liberalism as little more than a polite debate society for the comfortably well off among us and disconnected from the grubby reality of late capitalism. In one article he writes:
"Much of liberalism's discourse is still fixated on an eighteenth-century Enlightenment fantasy of the “Republic of Letters,” which paints politics as a salon discussion between polite people with competing ideas. The best program, when well argued by the wise and well-intentioned, is assumed to prevail in the end. Political action is disconnected, in this worldview, from the bloody entanglement of interests and passions that mark our lived existence. "
Jacobin has been able to prosper without watering down its politics, a dramatic achievement in a country where the ruling elite have tried to paint socialism as un-American. It has not been reduced to a near-socialist language that preaches little more than social democratic timidity and does little to increase left wing understanding - and is often an obstacle in the way of such understanding.
It has also benefited from having a relatively young audience, whose politics have developed in the post-Stalinist era. They aren't much interested in those seemingly interminable debates about 'Trotskyism', 'Leninism' and the like that engaged a few but alienated many. The battle lines that formed around twentieth century socialism have largely been left behind. Sunkara refreshing talks of a Marxism that isn't a turgid dogma, cast in stone forever. Jacobin isn't much interested in the sectarian model that attempted to mechanically apply Bolshevism to the USA.
" We aren’t dogmatic and orthodox, we don’t think the old ways of organizing and thinking are the way forward, but we’re committed to adapting those ways of thinking to new material realities. We're articulating radical left ideas and doing so in a way that is clear and accessible. The pieces are meant to be uncompromising in content but informed, accessible, and in good faith.We are also trying to bring a radical perspective on politics and economics to our predominately young audience, while other publications from our generation are focused more on culture. It’s very much in the tradition of the Second International radicals—Kautsky, Lenin, Luxemburg, and their contemporaries weren’t academics."
Jacobin has managed to insert itself into the American mainstream debate often jealously protected by conservatives and liberals alike. Like New Zealand, social democratic politics have been substituted for socialist politics and class collaboration for class struggle. Sunkara suggests that Jacobin has become, to a significant extent, too big for mainstream politics to ignore. Sunkara himself was invited to write an opinion piece for the not-very-radical New York Times in 2017.
"We are publishing what we want to publish, using the framework we think is useful – a Marxist framework and socialist politics. And in the process of creating the thing, you are creating the audience. We were not trying to “hide” Marxism. This would be a big mistake. I think it is better to be clear. If you write in a clear way and you are writing free of jargon, but you still keep some sort of analytical depth, it is easier for the honest people from the media to get engaged with your work. And as it is written in such a way that it demands engagement, we get engaged in politics somewhere on their level.
But what is the key for this mainstream attention is that we are reaching hundreds of thousands of people every month online. If you have enough traffic and if you have enough of an audience, to some degree you demand some attention."