The Next Left: An Interview with Bhaskar Sunkara
December 28, 2012
Dec 28, 2012
17 Min read time
Outside of the odd bout of scare-mongering, socialism is a term with little currency in American political discourse. Only one member of Congress openly embraces the term. The Socialist Party itself was already a spent force by 1936 (when it barely outpaced the Prohibitionist Party). Since the end of the Cold War, America’s radical left has been marginalized by the Democratic Party and policy elite, and turned instead to anarchism and a vague kind of anti-corporatism.
However, socialism’s reputation is making a comeback, at least among the young. If Millennials need any pointers, the avowedly socialist editorial board of Jacobin is happy to oblige. Founded two years ago by Bhaskar Sunkara (then 21 years old), the magazine aims to reinvigorate America’s left with writing that is practical, accessible, and very radical. The enterprise so far has been surprisingly successful. Today, its Web site gets around 250,000 unique views a month. Sunkara decided the project would get boring if left entirely online and so financed a print magazine from a handful of subscriptions and $2,000 from his own pocket. Today the magazine has more than 2,000 subscribers, including influential activists, labor leaders, and some of the very mainstream media figures it occasionally targets. (Full disclosure: I periodically contribute to Jacobin.) The press is paying attention.
Last week, Sunkara and I spoke in a non-descript Manhattan office building overlooking the statue of the Wall Street Bull. Read on for the secrets of Sunkara’s origins, Jacobin’s engagement with liberals, and the political legacy of Michael Harrington, the last socialist to make a stir in the intellectual scene.
Jake Blumgart: Who is Jacobin’s intended audience? You don’t really seem to be trying to engage with conservatives.
Bhaskar Sunkara: The intended audience is connected to the two distinct goals of Jacobin. The first is an intra-left goal to reassert the importance of class and Marxist analysis in the context of an increasingly anarchist-inflected left. 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.
But there is another goal, which is more directed to the general public and—I don’t think I’ve put it this crassly before—to liberals: 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. Over the course of the project, this attempt has been wildly successful. We may get furious cries from the left for getting attention from people such as Christopher Hayes, Reihan Salam, Andrew Sullivan, and whatnot. But that’s part of our intended purpose. We don’t want a world where Hayes and Katrina vanden Heuvel are the de facto left in this country. That’s not saying anything against them; they are principled social democrats. That’s a lot for the American context. But by existing and getting the amount of mass media attention we get—from Rolling Stone to the New York Times—we’re visible reminders of a long-forgotten, and uncompromisingly socialist, political tradition. 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.
That’s not saying that those frameworks don’t have their place, and I love publications like n+1 and the like, but I’m talking about poverty critiques that feel like they have to start with a hook from The Wire. I think that’s bullshit. I think we can just write the essay on poverty and include a few line graphs in it. I think the left can do with a dose of empiricism and that our ideas can stand-up next to others by virtue of their seriousness.
The left has been speaking in euphemisms for too long, focused on branding and compromising their ideas. We say directly that we’re a socialist publication armed with a Marxist critique, seeking radical political goals, and we’re compelling enough to have entered into the spotlight. There’s something to be said for that.
We think our ideas should stand up to the same scrutiny as other publications. That’s why we get attention from people like Hayes and Salam.
JB: From the first article of the first issue, Jacobin has put forward ideas about the politics of free time vs. time spent at tedious jobs. “The Politics of Getting A Life” as Peter Frase memorably put it. Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum had a couple posts recently about the declining availability of low-skill human work, but he just describes a trend and says he can’t imagine how to change it. The options seem to be immiserating work or immiserating unemployment. Jacobin is one of the only places I’ve seen trying to show an alternative: Socialism as not just a redistributive but an emancipatory ideology.
BS: Yes, we are reclaiming freedom for the left. There is something in the vision of socialism that isn’t just rooted in the kitschy Soviet producerism. To some extent socialism could ideally be the ultimate ownership society. A radical extension of democracy and control into the social and economic realms, a society without the exploitation of person by person—it’s a realm of individual empowerment.
Take this recent debate: technological improvements could create mass unemployment or lead to shorter working hours. But changes in the mode of production do not necessarily mean improvement or emancipation unless there is a political will to change the way the fruits of this productivity are distributed. This is a pretty basic point. That’s why people would benefit from reading Marx. But if you don’t have it in your political repertoire, you end up as someone like Drum who has a profoundly stunted political imagination. Drum and all these people are running into the distant limits of their brand of analysis, and it’s clear even to them that Jacobin has ideas for the future—even if some of these aren’t too novel and are just updates on traditional left-wing ideas that meet the material needs of our moment.
JB: I recall Matt Yglesias’s response to Peter Frase’s “Four Futures” essay, which tried to imagine this society beyond low wages and incredibly long hours. Reducing the length of the workweek has been a historical project of the left, but it hasn’t been in the American conversation much recently, to my knowledge. It seems valuable that someone like Yglesias is engaging with that idea.
BS: We’re at a moment where it seems as though there are no ideas. But society is always constantly in motion; there are always little imperceptible changes even if we don’t acknowledge them as they come about. Human society hasn’t reached its peak, but we aren’t living in the worst of all possible worlds either. We live in a world in which worker movements and other progressive movements have made life more livable, and capitalism itself has been an intensely dynamic force, in many ways, for human civilization and its future possibilities. That being said, there is so much unnecessary suffering in the world. So much exploitation and oppression that should have become absolutely obsolete thanks to the material abundance and technology we do have. The problems facing society are mostly political ones rather than actual material ones. That’s not to imply any undue optimism about the future, but to suggest that it’s important to keep the political imagination open enough to embrace visions of a better society.
Marxism today has become this super-academic hobby that has lost its political urgency.
That’s on an intellectual level, but we are a political journal and we have to deal with the fact that the left is so fragmented and marginalized even with the emergence of something like Occupy. On some level the relevance of Jacobin will hinge on objective conditions and political developments. In the course of two years the magazine hasn’t become massive in the mainstream sense, but it’s in the conversation and lots of people read it.
JB: I’d like to hear more about the origin stories 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 of Jacobin’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. Hopefully Jacobin 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. Jacobin won’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 understand Jacobin. We try to avoid language like “world historic” or “inexorable contradictions”—clichés that only make sense to people in the know. The Economist doesn’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.
JB: Tell me a little about the book projects you’ve got next year, with Metropolitan Books and Verso. Let’s start with Metropolitan, which doesn’t have the radical political mission of Verso.
BS: The book is slated to be released in fall 2013. One of the big criticisms of Occupy was that there weren’t any ideas. Bullshit, of course. There were tons of ideas. With this book I tried to go beyond criticism: the first half is about the problems with the neoliberal consensus and in the second half we present programmatic solutions.
That second half itself is a crescendo that builds towards something. The early pieces could be interpreted, in isolation, as social democratic. In her contribution, Megan Erickson not only critiques neoliberal education reform but lays out what a good education system would look like. Chris Maisano addresses full employment, Peter Frase writes about freedom and socialism, Sarah Leonard writes about overcoming the sexual division of labor, Seth Ackerman presents a feasible market socialism. That’s the structure of this book, the first half is critique, the rolling back of the neoliberal consensus. The second part is rolling in these new ideas, institutions, and programs. With a more radical press, I’d really have to reach for that liberal audience and be more tentative making these arguments. With Metropolitan I have a better shot of giving the average Naomi Klein reader more of a hard-left critique.
JB: What about the Verso book series?
BS: I commission the books and edit them, Remeike Forbes designs the covers, and Verso handles the business side and some of the publicity. They’ve granted me an enormous amount of flexibility and I’m really happy for the opportunity. Especially on the left there is this phenomenon where authors have 30,000–40,000 words worth of stuff to say, but they drag it out to book-length form. The Verso series harkens back to the old pamphleteers with ideas made for people who aren’t specialists. Essentially I’m trying to take the critiques we have in Jacobin, flesh them out, and reach a wider audience, on the cheap. I think there’s a special place for the format.
Hopefully, it works out. But I won’t be too upset if people say I failed miserably as a book publisher at the age of 23. I feel like that’s a pretty forgivable sin.
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December 28, 2012
17 Min read time