Leaving a Marx

A conversation with Bhaskar Sunkara
by Virginia Fu

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin, a publication that describes itself as the “ leading
voice of the American left.” Noam Chomsky believes that Jacobin is “a bright light in dark times….
an impressive contribution to sanity and hope,” and Chris Hayes “really like[s]
Jacobin.” Senior editor
Virginia Fu originally suggested this conversation take place at Applebee’s or Chuck E. Cheese,
but they decided on Silvana instead. If Sunkara had gone to Applebee’s, he would have ordered the
Jalapeño poppers, or just anything sizzling. He would not have eaten anything at Chuck E. Cheese.

 

Bhaskar Sunkara: Do you have to transcribe this yourself?

 

The Blue and White: Yeah.

 

BS: That sucks. Up until recently I had to transcribe things myself. Now we mostly have interns do it. We pay our interns pretty well so it’s costly.

 

B&W: How much do you pay them?


BS: Well it depends on if they’re getting money from their school. We pay anywhere from $12-15. $15 internships are not that bad. Our circulation manager position which is kind of like, a temp in our grunt work, pays $17. So you know I get paid a much lower hourly rate, but I just work 70 hours a week.


B&W: So Bhaskar, how did you get your start in socialism?


BS: I got started on two different tracks. First, I was interested in liberal left activism. I was born in 1989, so by the time I was coming into any sort of political consciousness, it was the buildup to the Iraq war. And you know it’s kind of one of those things where I would assume children or young people saw through it a lot easier than a lot of liberals. So I was kind of politicized through that, going to anti-war rallies when I was in middle school.


B&W: Middle school, huh. Did your parents take you?


BS: It was eighth grade so I could, you know, take the train down. Throughout high school I was interested in broad liberal left kind of political things that were going on in my area: Working Families Party endorsed candidate running for office and things like that. I had a sense of broad political consciousness because my parents were immigrants who came over in 1988. I was the youngest of 5 so my three older siblings didn’t nearly have the same opportunities as I did. My family struggled in the early years but by the time that I was older, we were much more comfortable, in large part because my dad was a public sector unionized employee working for the city. So that instilled in me some sort of broad understanding of the value of public goods. I was educated by a very good public school, I had access to a good library and my dad had a public sector job and so on.


So that was the first track. I want to say that that’s all pretty normal for someone who’s politically conscious who grew up in the New York area during those times. The unusual part is that I discovered Leon Trotsky. I read him in the seventh grade. I read Lenin and then Marx, and the New Left Review throughout high school. So it was kind of like a dual consciousness where I was engaged day to day in left mainstream politics but I also had intellectual sympathies with the far left, and it was only in college that I started doing more activism explicitly as a socialist.


B&W: You founded Jacobin in 2011 as an undergraduate. How did that come about?

 

BS: So on my 18th birthday I joined the Democratic Socialists of America. It seemed like they wouldn’t really ask me to do a lot and I would still have a card that would let me say I was a socialist. So I did that and almost immediately they offered me the opportunity to edit their blog. So I had some background, learning how to edit and commission writers. The work was obviously all volunteer, similar to student journalism.


Then in the summer of 2010 I thought of the idea of starting my own independent magazine. It was a journal but it was meant to be more visual and more accessible, more edited for style. I didn’t want for there to be knowledge prerequisites for someone to get it. And I never wanted to be on the outside banging at the door with radical ideas. I kind of wanted to pull radical ideas into the mainstream and not lose track of the mainstream. So I think Jacobin’s tone, even though it’s a socialist publication, is more in the vein of trying to win over and engage with liberals in contrast to the tone of, say, an anarchist publication which is just like, “Fuck you, this is our thing.” Our politics are politics that people want to engage with, whether or not they they agree with them. And I do think that socialist politics are in the interest of a vast majority of people.


B&W: Jacobin has received a lot of attention from mainstream outlets. Why do you think that is?


BS: So for one we’re kind of seeking it by engaging with figures especially from the liberal mainstream. We engage with the Ezra Kleins of the world, with people like Chris Hayes and Katrina vanden Heuvel, and they engage back. Also I think we’re somewhat fortuitous in hitting a political moment when people are looking to ideas to the left of liberalism.


And of course we do a lot of things right. Our publication, the branding and the layout design—even on a shoestring budget—is one of the best designed magazines in the country. And of course we have a lot of very good editors. So I think we attract attention partly because of our merit.


B&W: I first found out about Jacobin the summer I graduated from high school because I’d read about it in this New York Times article. I was working as a waitress and read it on my breaks. I was really struck by [Peter Frase’s] article about work. I thought, we should all work less!


BS: I think a lot of people discovered us around the same time. To be honest, I was working at Brooklyn College up until this time last year doing secretarial work. I was doing Jacobin during work and also on the side, and it was only recently that I’ve been able to do it full time.


Its growth did take me by surprise. I knew there was an audience for it, but didn’t ever think we would ramp up this quickly. Professionally I’ve learned how to become a very good publisher. A lot of our other production staff are not magazine people. We didn’t grow and say, hey we want to be in the magazine business. We grew up and said we want to do all sorts of different things but we discovered socialist politics and this is a way for us to be professional socialists. In the US there are only a couple dozen of us who could say they’re full-time professional socialists.


B&W: If you hadn’t gone through that spell of concentrated reading in college, do you think you would still call yourself a socialist or Marxist today?


BS: Well I started reading those ideas in the seventh grade. By ninth or tenth grade I’d read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History. The book wasn’t that groundbreaking to me, or even that good as a work of history in many ways, but it was really inspiring to me that this guy in the introduction called himself a socialist. And I was like hey, this guy is famous, he’s around, he’s calling himself a socialist. And I was reading Eric Hobsbawm and other historians who are explicitly calling themselves socialists. So I was like why don’t I just call myself a socialist.


Since then it’s been a pretty consistent part of my ethics and worldview, to be a socialist. Now being a Marxist—that’s contingent. You can’t say, oh I’m going to be a Marxist for the rest of my life, because that’s against the spirit of Marxism. It’s a framework to understand the world and obviously frameworks can be wrong. I’m more than willing to in the future abandon—though I don’t think I’ll ever do it—the Marxism part. The socialism part though is based on more of a moral and ethical framework of saying that domination and exploitation are bad. Everybody has the right to reach their full creative potential. We have Einsteins and Da Vincis living and dying in sweatshops and they’re working 12 hours a day. And also just like people who are not Einsteins and da Vincis. But I think we want a society where everyone can flourish, a society where, in that old line Marx uses, the “conditions for the development of one are the conditions for the development of another.” It’s a worthy goal and aspiration and, I think, the only basis for a fair and just society.


B&W: What publications do you hate?


BS: Hate’s a strong word. Well first, I’ll also say what I like. The Financial Times is good. It’s very interesting.
You should read it, especially if you want to know where bourgeois opinion is at. It’s like the most intelligent publication of bourgeois opinion. I read the Financial Times every week. They should put that on
their website—known socialist reads our publication every week.


The Economist is crap. The reason why it’s unsigned is because half the people are like 25 year old LSE grads who are just writing nonsense half the time.


I actually try to avoid the publications I don’t like. There are certain publications that are just purely focus on literary stuff. Jacobin is often lumped in with a smaller crop of literary publications even though we’re a publication about politics and economics in a pretty direct way.


B&W: Why should I read Jacobin when I can just steal my roommate’s Socialist Worker?


BS: I would say Socialist Worker and these other publications are good but they represent, well, not quite a line view but a view from one perspective. Jacobin is kind of a broader box. We do have things that define us and the people writing for us but it’s the difference between a publication that’s a straight line and a box where everything within the box is acceptable and everything outside is not. It’d be a bad way to run society but I think a publication needs a rudder.


B&W: What’s your rudder?


BS: I would say that there’s three things that kind of distinguishes what Jacobin and socialists in the Marxist tradition do. One is kind of we have a moral and ethical critique of capitalism. We think that capitalism is bad because exploitation and domination are bad. Because capitalism is a class society it’s built on exploitation and domination, and because of capitalism’s success it means there are material means and
resources to build a society that’s not structured this way. We’ve had class society since the neolithic revolution. We want to create like a post neolithic society. We want a society without class. Obviously it won’t be a perfect society, it won’t be a utopia, there’ll still be problems and inequities, there’ll still be heartbreak and angst and whatever.


So we have this critique of capitalism for the hierarchies and exploitation inherent in it but we also have this vision for a society after capitalism. A lot of radicals have those two things. What socialists in the Marxist tradition have and offer and the reason I think we’ve dominated the far left since the late 1800s—for better or worse—is some sort of theory of transition. So we can actually say we fight for reforms today and through this accumulation of resources and strength and fighting organizations, we can build movements capable of that transition.


B&W: One of my friends described Jacobin as “pop Marxism” but kind of in this disparaging way, as though Marxism were something that should remain in the classroom.


BS: That’s actually a great compliment. That’s basically what we try to do. On my Twitter profile my bio is “Chef Boyardee of Western Marxism.” The “Western” part is just for style, to add balance to the sentence.


Some people who are already on the left and already steeped in the ideas would have a “this is obvious” kind of approach to articles and that’s silly and condescending. No one was born with this kind of knowledge and background. You have to accumulate it somewhere. And while we’re on one level popularizing the work, but we’re also deepening and enriching it. We publish engaging serious articles. A lot of the articles are by academics popularizing longer works they did elsewhere and we edit and punch them up. The core of Jacobin is pretty weighty. We’re also launching a theoretical journal later this year. It’s going to be longer form and we’ll hopefully win over that crowd as well.


So I take it as a compliment. That sort of criticism never bothers me, it always bothers me in the other direction. The goal is never to talk to the existing left. Talking to a few thousand people is the opposite of what publishing or politics should be about. I always think we have to do better. 

 

B&W: Do you advocate a violent overthrow of global capitalism or is it the social democratic route for you?


BS: My own view is that essentially one should pursue a parliamentary road to socialism, but I don’t think capitalists will ever allow the final step. They might allow something up to Sweden in the 1970s but I don’t think they will actually allow us to take their stuff. My vision is the transformation would involve what Leninists call dual power. Power in the streets plus power in parliament. People would be protesting and occupying factories and workplaces and there would also be this broad parliamentary majority—I think you need the democratic mandate—but at some point the capitalists would violate their end of the bargain. So yeah, in a certain way I am saying my view is kind of a revolutionary socialist view.


B&W: Is Bernie Sanders the hero we need or the hero we deserve?


BS: He’s not a hero. What’s interesting about Sanders is he’s not the manifestation of a vibrant movement on the left. Normally you expect a mainstream electoral option to be to the right of where the people and the movements are. Sanders just came out of the blue in many ways but I think he’s capturing a sentiment. I think the majority of the American people when it comes down to it would vote for a social democratic
president or type of person who’s just a no-bullshit anti-establishment person saying, I’ll take on the millionaire billionaire class and give you a social safety net. I think there’s a majority for that in America.


I think groups on the far left have had a kind of vulture theory of capitalism. We’re just going to let things go to shit and then people are going to have a revolution. I think that’s not how politics works. Winning begets more winning. People have to be encouraged and build on victories and that’s how you can push more radical politics.


B&W: Do you think Bernie has a chance in the primaries?


BS: Not in the primaries. Unless there’s a Hillary Clinton scandal or—and I don’t wish this upon anyone including Hillary Clinton—if she stepped down because of health reasons, which is a possibility for someone of that age. There’s a high probability that would happen to Sanders.


I think in that case he would win the nomination and the general elections. I honestly think he’d win the general election despite his age. Without a doubt.


So we’ll see. I’m unapologetically pro-Sanders and I occasionally even go and hand out flyers.


B&W: Where do you see Jacobin going?


BS: I think that we can continue to gain around 200 new subscribers a week at least for the next year and who knows what we can do beyond that. But I think with our steady growth by the end of 2017 we’ll have between 25,000 and 35,000 paid subscribers. We’ll be a pretty large publication. The New Republic has
around 40,000 subscribers and that’s dropping. We’re growing really fast and we’re growing without any real funding. Other publications do direct mails, do discounts, and they lose their circulation. We don’t do anything. We just publish stuff, then sit back and wait.


I think we can continue to grow and the question is what that peak will be and that’s always stressful. It’s easy and fun running a publication that’s growing by leaps and bounds and it’ll be a bit depressing managing a decline or something that’s plateauing. I know there are going to be some setbacks ahead and it’s just a matter of bracing myself for it. My goal is just to keep pushing to forestall the decline, though it’s inevitable that we hit some sort of ceiling. I just think the ceiling is much higher than what people expect. I think the ceiling could be 80-90,000. Most people thought the ceiling for Jacobin was one or two thousand, but look where we are now.