One of the most interesting developments for progressives has been the publication of a new leftwing magazine on line, JACOBIN. The following excerpt from BOSTON REVIEW is an interview with the Jacobin’s founder and editor, Bhaskar Sunkara —
[“JB” is the interviewer, Jake Blumgart and “BS” is the interviewee, Bhaskar Sunkara]
JB: I’d like to hear more about the origins of the magazine, and yourself, while we’re at it.
BS:Like the first issue of a comic book, right? I never read comic books; I was stunted in that way as a child. But I plan to make up for it in a depressive holiday binge soon.
Anyway, I was in college and had to take two semesters off for medical reasons in 2009. I had a lot of time on my hands, and it wasn’t pleasant. I was just throwing up a lot. I spent a lot of time being autodidactic. That’s where I got a lot of my political background. I read a lot of Perry Anderson and Marx, back issues of New Left Review, in these fairly miserable circumstances.
I wrote my first article for Dissent around that time too. I started engaging more with other young leftists, albeit mostly remotely at the time. I had some friends and acquaintances who had more ideas and material than they could get published, so I just collected it all together and put it online. Originally I was thinking of a more satirical publication, working on my own strengths as a writer, but I realized I had to build it on the strengths of the writers I was commissioning.
As far as my own background, it’s middle class. My parents were immigrants just trying to get their footing in the States, and they eventually did. I’m the youngest of five, so I had it the easiest. It was an obvious sign to me that so much of our success in life depends on the opportunities that one is given. I have illiterate grandparents. I was given more than my brothers and sisters. It was an accident of birth and that realization itself was deeply politicizing.
But yes, I always worked through school, so it wasn’t until I was sick that I really had time to read and be an autodidact and discipline my time around that. It was actually, in hindsight, a gift that allowed me to develop as a person. And I guess that’s one ofJacobin’s main intellectual thrusts, as well—the importance of leisure and the wealth that time away from the production process could give people.
JB: Were you politicized prior to that?
BS:When I was young, both my parents were working 60 hours+ a week, so I would have to go to the library after school from around 3:00–7:00 because we didn’t have daycare. For the first hour there would be other kids there, but then I’d have three hours to rummage through the stacks. When I was in sixth or seventh grade, I discovered George Orwell. I read 1984 and then Animal Farm. In the preface to Animal Farm, I read that he was in Catalonia fighting for the P.O.U.M. with Trotskyites. And I was intrigued: “What the hell is Trotskyism?” So I read My Life by Leon Trotsky and I thought it was intellectually interesting.
Then in eleventh grade we got assigned Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. The book did nothing for me; I somewhat agree with Michael Kazin’s critique of him as Manichean. But the fact that our teacher prefaced it by saying Zinn was a socialist, I thought, hey, if someone had enough intellectual credibility to get assigned for class reading and still call himself a socialist, I guess I can call myself a socialist. You could associate with non-crazy, really admirable people like Zinn. HopefullyJacobin can do the same thing for people in high school and college today.
JB: Mainstream American liberals haven’t engaged with socialists much since Michael Harrington died in 1989. But there were still socialists around: Dissent, the Democratic Socialists of America. Why are you getting the kind of attention that was denied them?
BS: Well, there are objective conditions, such as Occupy. Adbusters had more to do with starting Occupy than any other left-wing publication, but Adbusters isn’t getting much attention because it doesn’t have much substance. Part of it is that our authors are sharper and have the same ideological sympathies. And everyone’s supporting each other and promoting each other in a way that wouldn’t be common in other milieus without this common political project. We’re just better.
JB: But Dissent in the 1990s had a common political project.
BS: Dissent had outlived their historical moment. Dissent was founded in 1954 amid Cold War politics. Journals have a lifespan; they shouldn’t go on forever. Jacobinwon’t go on forever.
JB: Issue 5 was released in the wake of Occupy and that was clearly when the magazine started looking more polished. Almost every essay was concerned with Occupy in one way or another. And there weren’t really any articles about Marxism, which popped up periodically in earlier issues.
BS: You shouldn’t have to do pre-requisite reading about Marxism to understandJacobin. We try to avoid language like “world historic” or “inexorable contradictions”—clichés that only make sense to people in the know. The Economistdoesn’t require you to read The Wealth of Nations to get their articles. Marxism today has become this super-academic hobby that has lost its political urgency and intellectual ability to clearly communicate information about the present and change it.
I would very much prefer to be in a conversation with The Nation than The Baffler and not just because of size. I’d rather engage with the mass mainstream of U.S. liberalism. That’s the future of any left: people who identify as liberals, some of whom would be attracted to a structural critique of capitalism, especially if it offers a coherent, sane intellectual vision that’s both radical and pragmatic at the same time.
JB: In “Liberalism and the Left” Harrington says that, in the 1950s, he was tearing into liberals but then realized that “some of the best liberals were social democrats without knowing it.” Do you see similar tendencies among today’s liberals?
BS: Liberalism has always been an inchoate, diverse ideology. You have some who are more or less operative social democrats; they are pro-union and trying to get back to that golden age of the welfare state. In other words, “class-struggle liberals.” Then you have technocratic liberals, your Ezra Kleins, who also have a very long intellectual tradition. You see it in the history of the press, where we went from a partisan, even ideological press to people like Walter Lippman who made liberalism part of a wider “clean cities, clean government” movement. In the 1960s these technocratic liberals were some of the people cleaning up white racist urban machines. Now they are attacking teachers’ unions and what they see as new city machines, which are predominantly made up of people of color—the people who have mainly benefited from public employment. History has cruel ironies like that.
I don’t want to fetishize working within or without the political parties. It depends on the situation.
Writers such as Klein are trying to do something good and clean with policy. They are trying to confront a real situation and make things run more efficiently. It’s not like they have bad intentions, but their actual policies are just crap. Their understanding of what they are doing is missing a theory of politics.
When I’m engaging with a commentator like Klein, I’m not trying to convince him that I’m right. I’m trying to state my position without distorting his position and heighten the contradictions that exist between us. I’m writing for the readership, not for him. People like Klein can be engaged with intelligently, but not won over. Class-struggle liberals can be brought to the left and introduced to a structural critique of capitalism.
JB: In the 1970s and 1980s, Harrington and the DSA worked within and through the Democratic Party. But despite such efforts, the Democrats moved demonstrably to the right in terms of economic policy. Why didn’t Harrington succeed? Should the same be attempted today?
BS: Harrington failed partly because of the historical moment: the structural crisis of social democracy, the combination of rising wages and declining profitability, and so on. I don’t want to fetishize working within or without. It depends on the situation. I’m against third-partyism as far as creating something like the Green Party. If you had a situation where the Green Party was close to being the second major party in America, that would mean you would have movements from below that are so powerful that you would not have a neoliberal Democratic Party to begin with. The Democratic Party is where the major constituents are, where labor and communities of color are, and for good reason. It represents their interests better than the Republicans. People are voting intelligently and rationally when they vote. You can’t change these conditions by an act of will alone.
The most important thing for the left is how to build power through national movements and skirt the electoral question for the time being. I think it is important that socialists reunify so that when something like Occupy arises, or when people are newly politicized in college, there can be a pole of attraction to articulate and develop socialist politics. I think that’s a short-term thing the radical left could do if it wasn’t overwhelmed by crazies.
JB: I’ve noticed Jacobin doesn’t mention religion much at all. There’s none of that “opium of the masses” stuff. Is there a place for religion in left-wing movements?
BS: The part of Occupy that was based on communal celebration isn’t just a glib distraction. It’s good and innate in humanity. Speaking in ethical terms is important too. As for religion itself, none of us are from the Christopher Hitchens school of anti-theism. It won’t affect our engagement with someone whether they believe in God or not. I don’t think there is anything to be gained from a major critique of religion. Everyone completely misinterprets that Marx quote. It’s the conditions that, in Marx’s formulation, force people to turn to religion for solace in the first place that need to be combated. But even that is patronizing! I believe religion will always exist in some form. People are drawn to it for existential reasons. I want to live in a world without material hardship driving people to religion, but we will always live in a world with depression, anxiety, heartbreak, angst, suffering.
Read BOSTON REVIEW at http://www.bostonreview.net
Read JACOBIN at jacobinmag.com