Marxism, culture and class analysis for the 21st century

  • January 4, 2016

Capitalism & Crisis

George Souvlis interviews Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara about the political trajectory of his magazine and the state of the American and international left.

The Greek version of this interview originally appeared in Enthemata Avgis. The Italian version was published in Micromega.

In just five years, Jacobin has emerged as a “leading voice of the American left” and a key reference point for socialists worldwide. Historian George Souvlis, a PhD candidate at the European University Institute, recently sat down with the magazine’s founder and editor Bhaskar Sunkara to discuss the publication’s political trajectory, the legacy of Occupy Wall Street and the state of the left in North America and Europe.

Thanks to Dimitris Ioannou for his help with the transcript of the interview.

To begin with, tell us a few things about yourself — your studies, your engagement with the left, and so on.

I was born in the summer of 1989. My parents were immigrants who had come to the country the previous year from Trinidad and Tobago.

I was the youngest of five and the only one born in the States, so I saw in my family the kind of typical declassed immigrant trajectory. My older siblings had fewer opportunities than I did, but I grew up in an area with good public schools, access to libraries and so on. So I guess early on class and the disparities of opportunity were very obvious to me, as well as the social solution to many of those problems.

I saw how much in life is an accident. From a young age I was interested in broad liberal-left activism. It didn’t politicize me much beyond broad center-left inclinations though.

My engagement with the left began more intellectually. I would go the library after school, since my parents worked late and around the 7th grade — I must have been only 12 or 13 — I discovered George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and through that the debates over the Spanish Civil War and Trotsky directly.

So there was obviously a big disconnect between my broad liberal-ish activism and my intellectual exploration of all these socialist ideas for many years. So it was a very middle-class politicization. You can imagine if I had picked up the books of a philosopher like Ayn Rand I would have become a young member of the libertarian right or something.

As I grew up, late in high school, I started connecting with explicitly socialist milieus, though, and I did more organizing during my university years.

Which university?

George Washington University. It’s not that radical of a campus, but because it’s in DC, there’s politicization around the anti-globalization movement, the World Trade Organization protests and so on. There were a mix of people engaged with that and other things on campus, from people with more liberal inclinations to anarchists.

I always preferred to be at the left-wing of social democrats than on the right-wing of the anarchists. But what I perceived to be my more serious and pressing politicization was studying through the cannon of Marxist thought autodidactically and following the latest turns and debates among the myriad of left sects.

That’s when I got first interested in Syriza, by the way. It was still a party of 3%, but I had read about it in International Viewpoint or something or the other.

I was active in the Democratic Socialists of America, which is like a big tent, fairly moderate as an organization in the US, but the campus core, which I was a part of, formed something of the left-wing of the organization.

We were Marxists intellectually, didn’t call ourselves Leninist in the classical sense, but we studied the Russian Revolution. So the analysis was somewhat Trotskyist, even though we rejected the much of the Trotsykist style of politics, or at least what has become to be understood as the Trotskyist mode of organizing.

How did the publication begin? What was the initial inspiration for you?

At some point during school I took two semesters off because I was quite ill. When I felt better and was able to get back to university, I had some excess energy, and I also had connections with writers because I was already editing a blog called The Activist, the DSA youth section’s online publication.

I was 20-21 at the time, that’s when I decided to start Jacobin — a publication that was not quite Leninist, but also certainly not social democratic.

I felt like there was a huge amount of intellectual space there that wasn’t being filled. Other publications like the venerable Third Camp journal New Politics were born out of different generations that had a different style of engagement, so we felt that there was room for a new batch of young writers to engage in these ideas.

Within the left, I wanted to assert the primacy of class analysis and some of the oft-maligned “old ideas,” especially among young writers and academics who are usually culturalist in their orientation.

But it wasn’t just that, because I also thought that socialist ideas could still have broad appeal beyond the left and beyond academia. So Jacobin was set up to be a popular venue that would reach not just a few thousand people, but hundreds of thousands if not millions of people eventually.

So this is what set us apart from others. Everything was geared towards not just making an intervention within the left, but being as accessible as possible, visually engaging, and doing other things that it seemed many venues on the left were not doing.

What has changed since Jacobin’s launch, five years ago? Have there been any changes in your political orientation since then?

There have been shifts in the publication, but it’s been less intellectual or political shifts so much as to how direct we’re willing to be.

Right now, by the standards of the left, we’re quite mainstream: we have around 15,000 subscribers, but the big number is that we have around 700,000 unique visitors online a month, so it does have a big reach. Closer to the reach of large center-left publications like The Nation or The New Republic than anyone else on the far left.

But as we’ve got more mainstream in this regard, we’ve been more explicit in our discussion of Marx, of socialism. We’re even discussing Lenin, we’ve had more often people like Lars Lih contribute, which is obviously very unusual for a venue that has this kind of reach.

The idea that we’re trying to develop along with our audience is that you can’t change your content trying to be popular — the challenge is to try to make your most serious content, your reason for being, popular. So, as we’ve developed our audience, our audience has matured and we’ve got more politicized over the years, and also the climate changed with Occupy Wall Street. But we’ve been much more explicitly oriented as a socialist publication.

What do you think about the position of the journal in relation to other Anglophone journals or magazines of the left like Ralph Miliband’s old publication, Socialist Register, now edited by Leo Panitch and Greg Albo?

I think we’re reaching different audiences. By and large, our audience are people on the liberal-left, union shop stewards, teachers, young students and so on that are primarily on the liberal-left but they’re seeing for the first time socialist ideas and engaging with them.

Some are self-described socialists, some aren’t, but at least consider it an interesting intellectual position that helps inform their day-to-day activism and other work. So I think we’re addressing an audience that’s not exposed to these ideas, so it’s not a choice for them whether they’re going to read Jacobin instead of Historical Materialism. Instead, Jacobin is their entry point into this world of politics and maybe a percentage of them will become involved in political organizations or more interested in exploring Marxist ideas in longer form.

So we try to create a bridge between this audience and people like the Peter Thomases of the world. But first you need to know who Antonio Gramsci is before you care about what Peter Thomas, who a few years ago wrote a long book on Gramsci, says about his ideas.

You also started publishing books. Could you talk about this initiative? What are your plans regarding this effort? Do you plan to continue it?

We publish our books in conjunction with Verso Books, not independently. We specialize in magazines, don’t want to do what we’re not good at! There’s other great houses like Haymarket, Verso, OR Books. We’re supportive of them as much as we can, promoting those books, but we think we’d be sectarian to start our own when the world isn’t exactly crying out for an independent Jacobin press.

I would like to turn now to the Occupy movement. It started out with a great dynamic and soon lost much of its momentum, but still it has been useful to the global left. In a recent speech, for example, Podemos cited Occupy as an inspiration. What do you think?

There were some pitfalls with Occupy Wall Street. This is to be expected, you can’t think that people who’d never been politicized before, basically coming from an apolitical vacuum and immediately latch on to a completely coherent set of politics. So the fact that Occupy Wall Street was as good as it was — that it protested against police brutality, against economic injustice and in favor of union rights and so on — was wonderful.

And it also stands testament to the fact that, as left-wingers, at least in the US where we’ve been so isolated and so marginal for so long, we sometimes forget that the whole reason why the socialist movement has been such a force for two hundred years or so, is because these ideas are common sense, they’re rooted in day-to-day lives of people, they’re rooted in the exploitation and structural oppression of capitalism so, naturally, people don’t have to be told everything, they know their lives, they see the world around them, they’re not idiots.

That said, there is also the question of not just waiting for spontaneous events, of actively shaping them and building organizations to sustain them. In other words, the old socialist line was agitate, educate, organize — we kind of have become trapped in agitate, agitate, agitate.

Hopefully next time we’ll be more prepared to make sure that something with more long-term impact comes out of our movements, for now even despite the growth of movements like Black Lives Matter, I think there was a lot of wasted potential in Occupy.

Could you map the American left? What does it include nowadays?

There’s the left wing of the Democratic Party, organized around the Congressional Progressive Caucus. I don’t advocate working with the Democratic Party, at least as a way to realign and transform the party into a classical labor party, of course, but if you look line-by-line their positions, the CPC is actually a broadly social democratic caucus

Of course, they’re institutionally part of a party of capital, and they can’t win any of their program, at least in this current political climate. But if you actually look at their voting records, they’re probably more consistently voting for center-left things than their counterparts in Europe that are in these broad center-left labor parties.

Along the same lines, there’s the New York-based Working Families Party, kind of a labor party that often supports Democrats, but that’s rooted in the official trade union movement. It reflects a lot of the flaws and limitations of that union movement, though, of course, it’s objectively one of the most progressive forces we have.

People do forget that that kind of exists in the US and that also huge parts liberals mobilized around things like online petition site and advocacy group MoveOn that are essentially social-democratic in their values. There’s a publication, the magazine The Nation, that represents this type of tendency and trend.

Moving further to the left, but before you get to the far-left and the socialists, there’s this intermediate layer of people who are doing basically rank-and-file labor work, like Labor Notes, and a whole set of left-wing union caucuses, like many of those involved in the Chicago Teachers Union’s CORE. (Though of course many of the people involved are socialists so the dicthomoy is kind of an arbitrary one.)

On the socialist left, we have a variety of small groups. The Democratic Socialists of America is the largest, with around 6,000 paper members, but out of those only 400 or so are cadre, many of them in the youth wing that I came out of.

Our largest cadre organization is the International Socialist Organization, which a lot of the people around Jacobin, despite the fact that we are members of other organizations, work with fraternally. They have around 1,000 members. And then you have smaller Trotskyist groups like Socialist Alternative, who recently elected a city council member in Seattle.

There’s the Communist Party and its offshoot who tend to endorse Democratic candidates and left-liberal mainstream union officials and push them to the right, as part of a broader long-term strategy to, in their formulation, defeat the Right and build a broad popular movement. But there’s also Solidarity, another small organization, that shares with Jacobin a more rank-and-file approach to rebuilding the labor movement.

And then of course you have offshoots from the Maoist New Communist Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and various tendencies originally rooted from the Trotskyist movement, many of which have adopted the Maoist emphasis on anti-imperialist politics and defense of existing “workers’ states.”

Tell me what you think about the last US elections.

It looks like there’s a massive disconnect because voters vote for progressive initiatives, like minimum wage laws, abortion access, gay marriage, and yet the Republicans are still winning larger majorities.

So, I think there has been a leftward shift in US politics in the past four years, but it hasn’t been registered because of particularities like very low turn-out, a lot of the people that do vote are older, whiter folks who vote more conservative anyway and also beyond that.

One can’t underplay the role of gerrymandering in favor of the Republicans, for example in Pennsylvania: only 27% of the representatives are Democrats, but in the popular vote they got around 44%. So it seems like the state is much more Republican than it really is.

I think that a lot of the fault lies with the Democratic Party because they don’t sell people on a more ethical vision, a broad idea of a better society, a mission, here’s how we’re going to get there. They’ve been selling people on the fact that they’re not the Republicans, the classic trick of a centrist party in a two-party system.

The Republicans are much more disciplined and organized in terms of their ideology. I think that if the Democrats were offering more progressive alternatives, more people would be at the turnout. That said, given the nature of US politics, it’s not as simple as “the left should run independently and people will flock to us.” It’s not a matter of just running candidates, but of creating a broad formation that articulates social-democratic values but organized by socialists who meet people where they are and make sure that these ideas are out there in circulation.

So one of our tasks, in addition to reaching the broad mass of people alienated from establishment politics, is to divide the base of the Democratic Party from its increasingly technocratic and right-wing leadership. In other words, I think there is a majority in this country for broadly progressive politics. I don’t think there is enough support for socialism, there’s not even a registered minority for it, but for a future socialist movement, or an opposition movement that we’re trying to build, if we manage in my lifetime to get a small percentage of the population supporting socialist ideas, that would be a massive victory.

That would create lots of space for comrades in other parts of the world to get much more advanced in their struggle, and that would bring us in a position where we can make further advances. Keeping alive and articulating clear socialist ideas is really important for the stage we are at though — the socialist horizon has to be there, we can’t just jump into broad movements and not maintain our line about what class politics looks like and what kind of alternative to capitalism we want.

Do you support Bernie Sanders’ presidential run?

Yes, I do. I have qualms about the Democratic primary, I don’t believe the Democrats can be transformed into any sort of workers’ party, but you have a self-described socialist candidate getting national attention. The socialist movement in the US is way too weak to be passing up the chance to engage with the millions of people interested in his campaign. We have little to lose and something real to gain by engaging with the campaign.

The last question is about the European left, Syriza, Podemos… How do you see those political initiatives?

As far as the current situation in Greece: I appreciate the situation that Tsipras and the Syriza leadership found themselves in that and they accepted the latest austerity package begrudgingly and in generally good faith. They did not sell it as a victory, which is important. I reject the use of “betrayal” to describe the actions of the leadership.

However, the lack of preparedness for Greek exit, seems to speak to the ideological limits of left-Europeanism, which unfortunately many of our comrades in Die Linke and other formations are still enmeshed in.

The stance of many within Popular Unity, which has often been published in Jacobin, seems to speak to the type of strategic approach and bold politics that can win over a majority within Greek society as a whole. Obviously, their message didn’t get much traction in the last election, but I wish them luck as much as one can from afar. The battle against our class enemies isn’t over, in Greece or anywhere else.

Podemos I support, as well. I’m very uncomfortable with the style and rhetoric of their appeals, but they are capturing energy that would otherwise not be going to the left. What needs to be said, though, is that a party of the left needs to be a party of the working-class — “the people” don’t have the same class interests. I get the rhetorical appeals to everyone, but at its core the program must reflect the needs and aspirations of workers and from that foundation we can begin to struggle for hegemony among a wider social layer.

Bhaskar Sunkara

Bhaskar Sunkara is founder, editor and publisher of Jacobin.

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