Review: Jacobin

4 stars
Smart journalism and analysis from a democratic socialist perspective

Jacobin is a New York based socialist quarterly magazine founded by Bhaskar Sunkara when he was 21 years old. It was started online in 2010 and is now also in print, with some content only available to subscribers of either edition. The website features news and analysis on an ongoing basis.

Sunkara is also a vice-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, and he takes the “democratic” part seriously (“Any socialism we build will need to have a free, open civil society and multiparty democracy”, he recently tweeted). At the same time, you will find in Jacobin a perspective that is deeply critical of US mainline politics. On Bernie Sanders’ run, Sunkara predicted that Sanders would lose in the primaries, but that his run could be “an opportunity for movement building”.

In an interview with New Left Review, Sunkara articulated this focus on movement-building as core to his political philosophy: “What’s needed is to build movements until we reach a point where electoral options are actually viable.”

The organization behind Jacobin is a non-profit with about $300K in revenue in 2014. There is no Annual Report, which is not surprising for a tiny organization. In the aforementioned interview, Sunkara stated that most of this revenue is from subscriptions, with donations accounting for about 20% of the budget. In spite of its political radicalism, Jacobin is under conventional copyright terms (including back issues), and offers no discussion forums or other interactive components.

The print issue of Jacobin contains in-depth articles alongside beautiful graphic design (example issue). Unlike quite a few leftist magazines, Jacobin doesn’t engage in a lot of postmodernist piffle; its articles are often supported by charts and data, and tend to share a focus on issues that have real world relevance, including occasional departures into sci/tech themes like 3D printing or Silicon Valley politics.

So what can we find here that’s not reported elsewhere? Here are a few examples:

One might wonder how a socialist magazine treats left-wing authoritarians. Will it applaud or rationalize as they restrict speech and political freedom, or will it criticize? The coverage of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s elected authoritarian Nicolás Maduro give us some idea. The Jacobin Castro obituary is in fact one of the better ones I’ve read, and is unambiguous in its criticism, for example:

“It was relatively simple to dismiss the calls for democracy from internal critics as imperialist propaganda, rather than a legitimate claim by working people that a socialism worthy of its name should transform them into the subjects of their own history. Public information was available only in the impenetrable form of the state newspaper Granma, and state institutions at every level were little more than channels for the communication of the leadership’s decisions.”

“An opaque bureaucracy, accountable to itself alone, with privileged access to goods and services, became increasingly corrupt in the context of an economy reduced to its minimal provisions. Castro’s occasional calls for ‘rectification’ removed some problem individuals but left the system intact.”

It concludes that “any socialism worth its name needs a deep and radical democracy.”

Jacobin’s coverage of Venezuela’s dysfunctional, corrupt and increasingly authoritarian government has been less robust and more likely to look for justifications primarily in the behavior of the right-wing opposition, though the article “Why ‘Twenty-First-Century Socialism’ Failed” by Venezuela-born socialist Eva María offers a more critical perspective which echoes the commitment to worker-focused democracy that defines Jacobin’s politics:

“The party, however, did not rely on its members’ active participation no matter how much Chávez liked to say it did. Instead, a bureaucratic structure, where criticism, open debates, and rank-and-file power were more often the exception than the rule, took over. The party formalized the bureaucratic layer of nominal Chavistas who were put in charge of different state sectors. In no time, this new caste engaged in corrupt behavior while continuing to deploy socialist rhetoric. The government’s ideas of funding and supporting popular power didn’t work in practice.”

The Verdict

Operating on a tiny budget, Jacobin offers a much-needed, intellectually coherent journalistic challenge to the prevailing social and economic order. The pitfalls of its political position are easy to pinpoint: the history of socialism and communism is riddled with failed economies, brutal autocrats and centralized bureaucracies, which calls into question whether its aspirations can ever be achieved in practice.

To build a mass movement for democratic socialism in the United States may seem like the remotest of possibilities, but the political successes of Bernie Sanders and the failure of the Democratic party to protect the progressive gains it has made under the Obama administration will lead many young people to search for alternatives.

Whether Jacobin can be a leading voice of that search for alternatives (within the two-party system, or outside mainline politics) will largely depend on whether it can maintain its commitment to a vision of radical democracy, consistently oppose political violence, and overcome any impulse to jump to the defense of authoritarian leaders who share some political objectives. The left is not immune to group polarization, and unreconstructed old-school socialists who habitually defend the indefensible are the political anchor around its neck.

I recommend Jacobin with reservations: read critically, it offers a useful complement to anyone’s diet of news and analysis. It is also aesthetically pleasing and edited with care, and their Twitter account is a good way to follow their work. 3.5 out of 5 stars, rounded up.