Messing about on the internets, I stumbled upon a publication called Jacobin. Impressed, I emailed editor and founder Bhaskar Sunkara about an interview. Sunkara claims to be an undergraduate at George Washington, but I think that’s a front for some kind of advanced sociological research project. We discussed publishing, muscle cars and the gourmet character of the new international. -SS
Idiom: I came across Jacobin when checking up on Walter Benn. Bless the Wikipedia. Care to do an email interview about small magazines, politics, and other mistakes?
Bhaskar Sunkara: Sure, my schedule isn’t full enough to pass up on any measure of free publicity.
Idiom: Ha! Now there’s an undergraduate response to an interview request. So for those unfamiliar with your mission statement, which I enjoyed very much, what was the impetus behind Jacobin?
BS: If by undergraduate you mean casual and endearing, then yes, yes it is.
Jacobin was founded as an outlet for critical engagement, explicitly on the premise that there is still an audience for these kinds of interventions. We took a survey of the publications on the left and found, with few exceptions, that they were either needlessly esoteric or that they had abandoned critical thought completely, preferring to offer up reassuring bulletins and rosy reports from the front. To echo our first editorial statement a bit, we want to avoid both traps. Substantive engagement does not preclude entertainment. Discarding stale phrases and ideas does not necessitate avoiding thinking itself. Voicing discontent with the trappings of late capitalism does not mean we can’t grapple with culture at both aesthetic and political levels. Sober analysis of the present and criticisms of the left does not mean accommodation to the status quo.
Also, Jacobin is largely the product of a younger generation not quite as tied to the Cold War paradigms that sustained the old leftist intellectual milieus like Dissent or New Politics, but still eager to confront, rather than table, the questions that arose from the experience of the left in the 20th century.
Idiom: Are there publications, past or present, that you see as walking a similar line, between commitment and criticality, as we say in the artworld?
BS: I think there is a lot to admire in the general trajectory of the New Left Review, though I may disagree with some of their political stances. I could say the same about “Third Camp” publications like New Politics. It’s not a coincidence that democratic socialists and “Trotskyist” circles survived the fall of the Berlin Wall. They’re still marginal forces, of course, but you didn’t see the same mass defection or “God That Failed” onanism coming from these traditions, precisely because their commitment to a better world wasn’t bound up with illusions about the Soviet Union.
Idiom: How would you characterize Jacobin’s orientation? And if there isn’t one, would you care to speculate at all about the significance of that refusal?
BS: We have a grandiloquent little introductory statement that states that our contributors are only loosely bound by common values and sentiments:
+ As proponents of modernity and the unfilled project of the Enlightenment.
+ As asserters of the libertarian quality of the socialist ideal.
+ As internationalists and epicureans.
Not all of our contributors are self-described “Marxists,” but they all have a structural understanding of capitalism that goes beyond the both the illusions of the social democratic critique and the spastic moralism of the anarchist one. In practice the means some impassioned discontent with the state of the world today, but also a serious (and tempered) perspective on what’s required to change it. I try to avoid quoting dead Russians, but Trotsky wrote that Lenin “‘thought in terms of epochs and continents, where Churchill thought in terms of parliamentary fireworks and feuilletons (gossip).” The contemporary Left should do the same.
Idiom: Let’s take these one at a time. There seems to be a tension between this citation of ‘the unfulfilled promise of enlightenment’ and what you describe as the illusions of social democracy, no? Or does the public sphere take place otherwise?
BS: Perhaps, “limits” would have been a better word to use than “illusion.” The social democratic gains won by working people, especially during the “golden age” of the post-war period are very real and not illusory. But still, it is rather depressing to think that the bureaucratic grey of the welfare state, with all its contradictions, should be the highest aspiration of human civilization.
My own personal political perspective is animated by the aspiration for socialism after capitalism, not just within it. I’m not sure if anyone or any publication that doesn’t subscribe to this idea can be called “radical” (which after all is from the Latin word radicalis — “of roots”). The question of how to get from here to there, with the traditional social forces that the Left have relied on largely demobilized and shattered, is a political one that I hope Jacobin can help grapple with.
Idiom: I’m fascinated by what you describe as the libertarian quality of the socialist ideal. Can you speak a little about the unlikely marriage of these two terms?
BS: There has been an association, a well-warranted one given the experience of the 20th century, of socialism with statism and authoritarianism. Socialism is about precisely the opposite! It’s about extending the democratic gains we’ve won in the political realm into economic and social ones in order to bring about a condition “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Chris Maisano and Peter Frase’s pieces in the Winter 2011 issue of Jacobin are really good examples of socialists thinking about life and labor in ways that wouldn’t mesh well with the orthodoxies of either social democracy or Stalinism.
“Libertarianism” as popularly construed has been deeply ingrained into the American pathos. The rugged individualism, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality belies the fact that for most the American Dream is a lie. And for most Americans class struggle for better wages and living conditions in the short-term and movements for structural change in the long are in their self-interest and would enable them to live richer, and yes, more free, lives.
The left shouldn’t cede the language of “freedom” and “emancipation” to the right. Naomi Klein at a panel hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society critiqued Milton Friedman (author of “Capitalism and Freedom”) on the grounds that he was a “Utopian ideologue,” mentioning that she didn’t think that there was any great need for “grand projects of human freedom.” If someone holding these views — however commendable her work — is at the forefront of radical politics today, we have problems. It’s a weird brand of “radical liberalism.” If she doesn’t want anything more than a re-heated Keynesianism, what separates her from the left-wing of the Congressional Progressive Caucus besides a tactical affinity towards Zapatistas and militant street protests? How far has our political imagination shrunk?
Idiom: And ‘as internationalists and epicureans’? Talk a little about the gourmet character of the new international.
BS: Everyone on the left likes to describe themselves as “internationalists.” Historically it’s been more of an aspiration than a reality, perhaps, but we try as well. And a rather surprising amount of our subscribers and some of our contributors are based in Europe, so maybe we’re succeeding.
More likely though this “success” is a reflection of the fact that the political problems we are dealing with have been pretty universally felt, especially in the “advanced capitalist world.” We’re all dealing with the decline of the old parties and unions and other organs of working class political representation. We’re all dealing with austerity and the neoliberal offensive and though some of the peculiarities of the United States, like our historic lack of a mass labor party and the “ideology problem” I mentioned, make the situation even more acute here, I like to think that we’ll be publishing material of universal interest.
The “epicurean” moniker is a bit more novel. So many of the survivors what Perry Anderson likes to call the “vanquished left,” are, for lack of a better word, humorless. Or at least their politics appear that way from the outside. Yeah, there were yippies and there are still Anarchists busy with street theater, art collectives, May Day caroling troupes, or whatever the fuck they’re doing with their spare time, but serious “scientific socialists” have been a pretty dreary bunch: more ascetics than epicureans. The fact that the Stalinist-era bequeathed to the world both trashy “proletarian literature” (though I’ll go to bat for Mike Gold any day) and “socialist realism” is telling.
A friend of mind, Adrian Bleifuss Prados, once mentioned that anarchists, the more politically problematic ones especially, are the only radicals who are producing consistently humorous and emotionally stirring literature. I tend to agree. There is something oddly admirable about meeting a woman whose been a member of the same Trot or Maoist micro-sect since the 1960s (if you don’t mind accepting a “party” newspaper printed on recycled toilet paper and debating the New Economic Policy, you’d probably hear a good story of two), but also something a bit depressing about it. It’s like the existence of these bat-shit crazy sects are living monuments to the failure of the left in the 20th century. Sure, one may argue that there’s a contradiction between railing against the smirking irony of postmodernism and telling people selling Workers Vanguards in the pouring rain to lighten up a bit and consider the effectiveness of these old models, but I don’t think so.
I think we’re creative enough to deal with our political problems and recreate a left that doesn’t recall the drabness of the past or represent some sort of apolitical, nihilistic revolt. Hell, we’re radicals, we’re supposed to be the avant-garde, not positioning ourselves as the conservative opponents of a constantly revolutionizing capitalism. We’re supposed to be spreading the gospel of what’s possible, of what can be made out of the present– dreams, not nightmares…
People forget that Oscar Wilde was a socialist. The individual pursuit of sensual pleasure is a pretty damn admirable task. “Anti-consumerist” forces and the crazy wing of the environmental movement would do well to remember that the problem of the 21st century is how to enable more people to enjoy fruits of our social labor. I have my share of arguments with the Spiked! crew, but I’ve heard worse ideas for a political slogan than “Ferraris for all.” That’s the “gourmet character of the new international.”
Idiom: Nothing’s too good for the working class. Terry Eagleton made a similar point about Wilde recently. Other people were fighting for socialism, but dammit, he was living it.
Isn’t there something slightly contradictory, though, about demanding that politics, or ‘political’ people, be funny, or tasteful? It seems to presume that our politics exhaust us, that there is nothing for us outside of our very specific political commitments. Maybe the woman selling the Vanguard is an absolutely hilarious freelance saucier the five nights a week she isn’t making revolution.
Is it best to imagine we are political all the way down, so to speak, and hence the necessity of clearing a space for the finer things from within an all-consuming political practice? Or is it instead that politics is merely one of our many weekly or daily vocations, and that we can be funny at other times and in other places?
I ask because I am, of course, in sympathy with your point, but part of me feels like this is really an editorial problem, a function of us worrying that our publications are too damn pretentious and unfun, rather that it is an actual feature of the politically committed in their natural habitat.
BS: Well, let’s take a step back. I get what Eagleton was saying– Oscar Wilde was engaging in the arts, had enough time for leisure, so when he wasn’t being hounded by the offended moral sensibilities of late Victorian society, he was living a life to aspire to… but one of the flaws with anarchism, or at the New School, is the mistaking of lifestyle with politics. They are very different things. If the goal is structural change, one can’t just find some “liberated” space and begin a revolutionary “everyday life.”
And it’s not so much that the attitudes of individual activists need to change, it’s a wider culture of the Left and the culture of the micro-sect. The internal structure of these groups — the conformity to a party line, the bastardization of democratic centralism, the lack of internal debate and discussion — is the reason for lack of vibrancy. A condition like this would be a bit more tolerable if we had a party like the Greek CP that, for all their flaws, actually was a political force, but we don’t.
So, it’s not just about clearing the way for the “finer things within,” but creating a political program that still has something positive to propagate. I guess one can say there is something similar to this critique in the work of some of the more eccentric “anti-authoritarians” on the Left, but my suggested solution is quite a bit different. I’d like to think that the solution to the humorless micro-sect is more centralization, not less. Instead of a million different “parties” with a million different lines, how about a genuinely democratic and vibrant Party that allows for permanent factions and debate. I can’t shake my inner Leninist despite my disgust for “Leninism.”
I think about the October 2nd “One Nation” rally in Washington DC or any anti-war demonstration we have in the city. A young activist is confronted with dozens of different papers, dozens of different messages; all oozing with marginalization and failure… it’s confusing and a waste of resources and a projection of ineptitude and marginalization.
It might be a bit naive to think that a platform of reunification would do much for the Left. The project basically means bottling up the contradictions that formed the splits in the first place and hoping that in a condition of free debate the “right” line will win out. But still, I can’t help shake the feeling that SP-USA and Solidarity and FRSO, for example, do pretty much the same thing and shouldn’t be wasting paper or money printing three newspapers….
The Left could desperately use a coherent “oppositional pole,” an organization hegemonic enough that other leftists would be forced to orient their politics around it, an organization hegemonic enough to be a flag for the newly politicized. I’m straying from your question a bit, but I was just wanted to make clear that I don’t call for a revolution in consciousness, or in the culture of the Left, without significant structural change.
Idiom: Granted, but given the erosion of the historical mass basis of the left, both as a coherent identity position and as an organization, where are we to turn? The response has recently been the new social movements, or to cultural formations, which may be the last idiom common enough to serve as the basis for the sorts of structural consolidation you describe. This is sort of a chicken/egg conversation insofar as I am curious if you think the organization or the lived experience comes first.
BS: Unfortunately, I don’t have a blueprint, but I refuse to churn out the old leftist cliche about not “believing” in blueprints. I do know that this is the primary political problem facing the left today and the good thing about political problems is that they can be resolved. There just doesn’t seem to be that much debate and discussion going on now. Even mentioning “revolutionary strategy” at the present conjuncture seems a bit absurd for a lot of people.
I’m glad the new social movements exist, but they can’t replicate a revolutionary party. So I guess I’m an “egg” man. Whereas, a lot of people in the left argue that by supporting struggles from below we’ll reach a point where a party will emerge naturally from a new political environment, I think it might be necessary to talk seriously about a re-foundation of the left today. There’s no reason why the members of the left broadly subscribing to the same politics shouldn’t be in the same political formation. This might sound be “vanguardist,” but I think it’ll be a catalyst and at least create a pole hegemonic enough for anti-capitalists in North America to orient their politics in relation to.
We need the organizations in place to make gains when objective conditions change. We need organizations that don’t duplicate each other’s efforts. I look at England, where there was an admirable student upsurge and some momentum against austerity, but the left has sort of squandered this energy by having each tiny socialist party set up their own “front group.” Why exactly does the Socialist Party of England and Wales need to have their own group to compete with the Socialist Workers Party’s one? (And why exactly are we hiding our politics behind these euphemistic “front groups” anyway?)
It’s still going to yield a marginalized, largely irrelevant left in the short-term, but that’s a step up from marginalized, fragmented, and largely irrelevant, right? And after that we need to be patient. There are no short-cuts. The name of the game is overthrowing class cleavages, a fixture of human society since the Neolithic Revolution… this is a multi-generational project and we have a long way to go to even get back to where the movement was a century ago.
Idiom: Speaking of the impossible, I’m pleased to see that Jacobin appears in print. How do you manage that?
BS: Our printing costs, for an all glossy, all-color magazine are relatively cheap. The rest of the draw goes to bookstores… our sale rate exceeded expectations, but you don’t actually make a ton of money here (even The Nation only sells a couple thousand a week off newsstands). We get some revenue from advertisement and donations and manage to hover right around even.
When I tell people some of the other Jacobin contributors are better political thinkers and writers than I am, I’m not being modest. I just have other more bourgeois, entrepreneurial gifts that facilitate the project.
Soliciting good advertisers is one of the hardest part of the process. I’ve been procrastinating and delaying getting our new ad kit out in time. We offer a relatively good deal, cheap rates and people forget that magazines are passed around and read by multiple people…. still the economy sucks.
Idiom: I am in total sympathy with the having of bourgeois gifts. It is funny, isn’t it, how rare basic managerial skills are on the left… what are your hopes for the magazine in the future?
BS: And the left was once known as the total opposite — a tightly coordinated, highly disciplined bunch…
At the moment my goal is modest: an eight issue run at as high a print-run as is financially viable. Hopefully, we’ll have made at least one “intervention” of note by the end of the project and hopefully the issues we grapple with will at least make a dent in the consciousness of the “vanquished” left. A bit short of storming the Winter Palace, but we have to start somewhere, right?
I want to keep the style provocative and engaging and very visual, but I also want us geared towards politics and economics. We’re a young bunch, so we’re producing less on the economic end than I would like, but I expect this to change in the near future. And politically, I’d like to deal thoughtfully with what the left’s strategy should be at the present conjuncture… questions beyond my facilities as a writer (at the moment, at least), but there’s plenty of people worth publishing.
There’s a niche for this kind of material. I don’t really see anyone doing what we’re doing and I’m not sure whether I should be proud or disheartened by that. I do know that if the response to our haphazard launch is any indication, there is a market for what we’re producing (the same could be said of scatological porn and Thomas Friedman books, but that’s neither here nor there).
Idiom: If you could be advertising supported would you?
BS: Absolutely. I’d run public service announcements from the Republican National Committee and/or local drug dealers if it didn’t change the editorial content of the publication. The only goal is packing each issue with the best material possible and disseminating that material as widely as possible. We have to deal, at the moment, with the world as it is.