When Jacobin comes to town

How and why does an American socialist magazine celebrate the 1916 centenary? Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin Magazine, talks to Sarah Taaffe-Maguire about 1916 commemorations, student journalism and how to do good socialism

FEATURESIn the midst of March, right after Paddy’s day and as deadlines loom, it’s easy to forget that people are bothered about 1916. It should make you feel like we’re living in a cool part of time when Jacobin magazine decides it wants in on the action.

What’s remarkable about Jacobin?

Not to be confused with the Jacobean era, Jacobin the magazine offers a socialist perspective on politics, economics and culture. Jacobin tries to “be old school Marxist, anti-poststructuralism and everything that’s come out of Academia for the last 20/30 years”. In that vein of thinking, he hates to describe it as such, but editor, Bhaskar Sunkara says the name Jacobin is “a floating signifier” of radicalness, evoking The Black Jacobin of the Haitian revolution (though Jacobins were born out of Europe). The title and image,  accompanied with the tagline “reason in revolt” is meant to denote “that socialist ideas are a kind of continuation of the enlightenment; a completion of the enlightenment.”

In an age of dying print, Jacobin has thrived both online and in physical form. Though Jacobin’s audience is “tipped in a more domestic direction” (mostly American), 45% of subscriptions are international. Indeed, the highest number of subscription per capita is in Athens, Greece. Sunkara thinks the success is the Jacobin world view itself; “obviously we’re putting forward perspectives that aren’t in other places.”

“We’re just as interested in the results of you know what’s happening in Greece, what’s happening in Ireland as we are with domestic struggles.” America is covered as “the centre of world capitalism but we have no particular fetishisation of our national context.” Though you’d be wrong to think that Jacobin’s reach is confined to socialists “we are attracting a very large audience, close to 8000 and above unique visitors every month and a little bit over half of them are in the US, and obviously… there’s not like half a million hard-core socialists in the United States.”

To Sunkara the success makes sense. Jacobin is intentionally accessible, yet presents ideas without dumbing them down. “In other words, you still might need to grapple with the ideas but you shouldn’t have any terminological questions, you shouldn’t be grappling with the words, you should be grappling with the ideas.” Contributors are mostly academics, but “every piece is written and rewritten at the level of style and ordered in such a way that’s more comprehensible.”

Unique to Jacobin are dedicated reading groups. Across the world participants pick a theme, read Jacobin articles related to it, meet up, and discuss. The Dublin Jacobin Reading Group on Facebook currently has 224 members. Overall there are about 90 reading group, with close to 60 in the United States. “Combined every single month in the United States alone if our average group is like roughly 30 people, you know, where we have close to 2000 people meeting at Jacobin reading groups every single month and I think that fills a real void”.

You can’t help but feel the groups fit perfectly into Jacobin’s overall aim; they “don’t want [people] to just engage with the publication as consumers of a product passively.” The groups can act as a kind of middle ground to allow people to ask “definitional questions about the socialist world view and interact with wider networks of people”. They serve as “mutual ground for people from different functions and traditions and groups to come and engage together.”

What’s the big deal about 1916?

Depending on your dedication to nationalism or interest in Irish history likely you’re not too fussed with commemorating the Easter Rising. Sunkara has “a good answer I should give you as a reporter and there’s a bad answer” as to why Ireland is getting a special 1916 issue. Former Trinity News editor, Ronan Burtenshaw, guest edited the issue. Simply, there was a group “of very enthusiastic Irish contributors” and desire to create a coherent Irish issue.

The better answer is, that in essence, Ireland is “a stand in for other examples across the world, so the failed national liberation movement”. Absent from official discussions is the desired legacy that didn’t result from the rising. The failure to establish “a robust stable welfare state, a labour party that was actually built in the interest of workers along the lines of other European countries” is not unique to Ireland. 1916 is representative of struggles elsewhere; “parallel failures of, I think, post-colonial and national liberation movements in the global south.”

The issue is about putting that aspect of Ireland in context. Though “on the Marxist left if anything we might overstate the socialist quality.” Internationally Sunkara thinks the centenary is “recognised as a day of national struggle and liberation”, that the Irish are seen “being on the right side of history for opposing the British empire.” He admits there “might be an over statement of how deep the political roots of it went” from those on the left.

Commemorating 1916 means the pressure is upped to commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution in 2017.  Sunkara is going to be careful, “we don’t want our pieces to just be historical re-enactments. We want them to have political takeaways.” Though basically he says “if it’s compelling then we’ll run it.” They cover a little over 1000 articles a year, so a lot of ground gets covered.

What about commemoration and the potential for toxic nationalism? Sunkara feels “Ireland has never been an imperialist power and in that case the nationalism there was generally less toxic in the international context.”

Jacobin’s making a big deal over the issue. The launch took place in Liberty Hall with talks from Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey, Donal Fallon, Robert Ballagh and Stephen Rea. The launch party is next Saturday evening in Jigsaw, there’ll be readings, performances, DJs, punch and a prize for the best Enda Kenny impression.

Doing socialism

Jacobin, coming from a socialist perspective, puts its theory into practice. “We keep a social democratic workplace, everyone’s paid, well, everyone’s paid basically flat decently considering our resources. There’s fixed limits on how much everyone is expected to work.” When it comes to spreading socialism, Sunkara is against shouting on street corners without context. It’s a more complex process. “If you can’t win social democratic demands and you can’t win a majority for social democracy” then it doesn’t make sense to yell at people. He advocates taking existing discussions and “existing activity in activist communities, the struggles, and try to raise the level of class consciousness in them.” His goal is “to establish a whole coherent and visible portion of American politics and opposition current of socialists.”

The future is bright for the left, Sunkara thinks; it’s a special moment in time. He reckons there’s a “finite window and the Sanders opportunity, the amount of work we might do in the next four or five months might be greater than the amount of work we’ll do be able to do in the next four or five years.” “Ten, fifteen years ago it was very easy to encounter people who would actively defend the system… working class people would be ideologically defending the system.” Part of this has to do with emergence of Bernie Sanders as a candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. He thinks Sanders may be the most popular politician today. “It’s less his label [a self-described socialist] that’s attractive to people at an ideological level… it’s the content behind his ideas”.

Sanders has provided the idea “that we are all facing similar hardship, and not only that, there is some sort of solution.” Sanders isn’t shy about saying who stands in the way of his solution: “He not only says vaguely the billionaire class, he names names, he names first names of people in the Walton family. I don’t even do that and I’m a revolutionary socialist, I leave the first names out of it.” Leaving things to get worse, or thinking that the worse things gets, the better is a “vulture kind of theory of socialism” to Sunkara, “people are angry, we need to speak to that anger.”

Student Journalism

Many Jacobin contributors and core editorial board members came from the Young Democratic Socialists. Involvement in student journalism helps to have “confidence and training, and more importantly you get a diverse group of people involved who otherwise wouldn’t get involved and step up and take leadership roles at a campus level.”

Sometimes you “won’t get the time or the chance to develop those abilities [in the workforce] and that’s really what we need more than anything.” Student participation generally is needed: “We have a 74-year-old socialist who joined the young people’s socialist league in the late 1950s as our standard bearer, now I’m worried will we have a gap of about 20, 30 years in between generations.”