“We were not trying to ‘hide’ Marxism”: interview with Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of the Jacobin magazine


Jacobin is one of the most successful radical left-wing publications in the contemporary world and, for sure, the most successful one in the United States. Though the project was only started in September 2010, their online audience has reached 700 000 visitors a month for the online version and 15 000 subscribers of the printed version in and outside of the US. The magazine covers current politics, economics and culture in the US and all over the world from a socialist perspective. To understand what the conditions and strategies of Jacobin’s advance were and what the future plans of the project are, ‘Commons’ decided to talk to the editor and publisher of the magazine, Bhaskar Sunkara, about the struggle Jacobin is fighting.

AL: In your other interviews you often emphasize that Jacobin is rather a product of younger generation. What is special about this generation?

BS: I do not think there is anything special about this generation. What is different is just the fact that the working and living expectations of this generation are going to be worse than the previous generations. There is a certain set of different objective economic situations: there is a larger mass of alienated, dismantled, unemployed youth, who have perceptions that they deserve stable full-time employment the way their parents generation had, but they do not have access to it. And obviously this leads to the level of anger that the left can exploit. And I think that the Sanders phenomena is indicative of this. Whereas for years and years people have been forwarded with the message that any particular problems which are happening are result of their personal failures, it is a result of the failure to retrain, the failure to adapt to the new economy, the failure to try hard enough to get a job. Sanders is emphasizing that the roots of these problems are social and the solutions to these problems are collective. So it is even in a form that a majority of the young population would support – some sort of redistributive welfare state – I think it is tremendous progress. And I also think it is fertile terrain for those of us who are on the radical left to built an opposition movement out of it.

So this situation is one of the factors of our rise, but honestly I think that we might be successful in other contexts as well. We could have probably built something, without growing as fast, but relatively capably, in worse political conditions.

AL: How do you manage to be present in the mainstream political debates with a radical left position?

BS: 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. So if Vox has a controversial article on health care, we would be looking at the way they are using data and how they are manipulating it and we break down and explain that, instead of keeping the denunciation on a purely moralistic level. I think that’s important.

There is another reason for us being able to debate with the mainstream – people on the centre left in the US may want to turn more to more left forces, because in the United States for a long time the centre left was considered to be the far left in many ways, that is what the political spectrum was. So we are a surprise for them. But what is the key for this mainstream attention is that we are reaching hundreds 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.

AL: Did you have doubts about using Marxist rhetoric in addressing the American public, which for many years was not using even the word “class”?

BS: I think, given the conditions on the ground, by late 2010 it was clear that there is a potential audience that would have interest in these kind of things, but I never thought about audience. 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 and you are training the audience. And we have taken the liberal left audience broadly and we trained them in many ways and we got the socialist audience. We were not trying to “hide” Marxism. This would be a big mistake. I think it is better to be clear. Obviously, you, in Ukraine, have a particular situation you are dealing with, which is the legacy of Stalinism, but to some degree in the United States we have to deal with the legacy of anti-communism, which is kind of a parallel. But if you leave Marxist terminology and language just to old Stalinist forces, then people will never have a conception of socialism as anti-authoritarian anyway. And the thing is that they are going to call you a Stalinist no matter what, no matter what your politics are, no matter in what language you describe it. So you can openly call yourself a socialist and openly use the terminology, because using words like “democratic left” you would not actually avoid the accusations. So head on and think in a more positive way!

AL: Being socialists, how do you address socialist projects of the past, which had a lot of contradictions?  

BS: Though we come from an intellectual and political tradition which has always been pretty centrally anti-Stalinist, we still get blamed. And sometimes the best way to respond to anti-communism is not to be completely defensive. In other words, we have no problem talking about the positive legacy of the Communist Party in the United States, and the organizing work they did. In the same way we have no problems talking about the role Cuba and other forces played in Angola, or the role that Soviets played in places like Vietnam. So we are very explicit that our model is different from those existed during history, but at the same time, we do want to push back against certain discourses. Especially the Western European liberal thought nowadays with this idea that Stalinism is not different from Nazism. That the Soviet Union and those they fought against were essentially one and the same – two bad forces fighting each other. And just for the sake of being honest about the history we criticize those visions. But in general we have enough distance from that cancered socialism which we are not part of.

AL: What role does Jacobin play in rise of Bernie Sanders?

BS: It is hard to say. But I think we contributed to the politicization of many of those who are actively involved on the ground for him, but it is kind of indirect. It would exist in some form even without us. We have raised the class consciousness of activists involved to some degree. And it is the goal by which we are inspired – to raise the level of class organisation and consciousness and  perspectives of the people engaged in actual movements. I do not think we can directly do anything beyond that.

AL: You publish amazingly sharp analyses on the situation in European countries and other parts of the world. Why is it important for you to have an international perspective and how do you maintain that?

BS: We are covering Europe, maybe because from afar we are able to facilitate networks we already have. I know at least few dozen good people with good, sharp, clear perspectives in almost every country in Europe. We even covered Moldova with couple of pieces. We are not a media organisation trying to make connections with other media organisations, we are socialists who have international ties and perspectives and obviously we think that a lot of these debates are of particular interest to the socialists in the US. For example, in Greece we see problems of state power in establishing even the most moderate of left projects, also we saw what happened in France with Hollande and so on. So all of these sad examples have relevance in the US. And Podemos – we are seeing an interesting political project and there is a lot to learn from. We are also seeing the limits to this populist rhetoric of neither left nor right populist rhetoric. Hopefully that is changing and things are moving in a good direction with Podemos. And, of course, this has a lot of relevance in here. So we kind of want to cover these things with a level of detail that the people in the countries themselves still can get something useful out of it, whereas a lot of other left publications, they would publish things on international events, but they intend to reach just their domestic audience instead of people who are directly affected by the events.

AL: You have started sharing the printed version of the journal internationally. In which other parts of the world is Jacobin popular, and do you think there is a chance that Jacobin will become the leading voice of the global left?

BS: We do not really set out those kinds of expectations. We do things well, piece by piece, day by day, instead of setting big targets. Our audience used to be even more international, by percentage. It is actually a good thing that we have grown so fast in the US over the past years, so our US audience outweighs the other audience. So we used to be 53-54% US based, over the past month the audience has grown to 66% US based. Some of the biggest countries are what you would expect – UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, India, Brazil, Sweden, the Netherlands. We do not do very well in Eastern Europe outside of Poland where we do really well and also in the Balkans and Greece we do really well. In Ukraine over the past month we only had a thousand unique visitors, which is quite low. And in the whole of Russia we had just three thousand. In Romania we have as many as in Russia.

AL: Could you tell us how Jacobin is organized from within? How people coordinate between themselves? And how do you deal with ideological differences?

BS: We are structured as a publication, all the editors have their sphere of expertise and interest. We have never been structured as a traditional journal. For us it is more about division of labour. If someone knows more about one subject, if someone publishes more about one subject, we give work to them. But the main thing is also that we are not an alarmist publication. We just need to generally know what the perimeters of our politics are, what’s acceptable, what’s unacceptable, we do not need to know what positions one needs to take. So, for example, on the Brexit there is an unimaginable diversity of opinions, but we do not need a line, as long as the articles are coming from the socialist perspective.

AL: What connections do you have with American academia?

BS: Essentially a lot of our content is coming from undergraduate student or young professors. But we do not directly draw from the research institutions, we draw from the expertise of people who have jobs and publish in academia.

AL: And the last question: what plans does Jacobin have for the future? Apart from the global revolution 😉

BS: So we are launching a more theoretical journal, a more academic journal, called Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy and edited by Robert Brenner and Vivek Chibber. It is to be launched in the fall. We are doing a few other projects. In general more things will come out by the end of the year. And besides this, internationally, as we continue to grow, I want us to maintain enough of a focus on the international perspective, covering such things as occupations in France or the crisis in Brazil very closely, but at the same time it is actually helping and a good thing that the coverage over the past years turned a bit more in the domestic direction, just in terms of the number of pieces. It shows that there is a real interest of audience in the United States in socialist politics. Obviously, it is a really good thing. I think the role of a socialist publication should be in covering things which are going on in Spain just like covering what is going on in Canada, to value things on their importance. But it is also good that we are building our domestic audience as far as we can, because if we built a radical socialist opposition out of Bernie Sanders supporters, it would be a tremendous advance.

Prepared by Alona Liasheva