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Ten Jacobin Articles That Shaped My Thinking

On Jacobin’s tenth anniversary, staff writer Meagan Day reflects on ten Jacobin articles that heavily influenced the way she thinks about politics.

Though Vivek Chibber's "Road to Power" was written for the print issue of Jacobin that marked the centennial of the Russian Revolution, its ultimate concern was the prospects for a socialist movement that was then in its first stages of renewal.

I first tuned in to Jacobin around 2013, and I became a regular reader when Bernie Sanders ran for president. Since then, I have read thousands of Jacobin articles and written hundreds of them myself. So many of them have influenced my political perspective, either by opening my eyes to new ideas entirely or reassuring me that I wasn’t so alone in my thinking after all. Narrowing them down to ten wasn’t easy.

I would not be the socialist I am today were it not for Jacobin. In all honesty, I figure there’s a decent chance I wouldn’t be a socialist at all. The thought that people might experience the same kind of inspiration and crystallization reading my articles that I did reading those of other contributors motivates me more than anything else.

Here’s to another decade of Jacobin, and as many as it takes to win a better world.

1

“Class Rules Everything Around Me” by Paul Heideman

Progressive politics is on the rise, which is an unequivocally positive development as far as socialists are concerned. But a Marxist understanding of class is still nowhere near hegemonic. This produces a problem where even many leftists imagine class as operating by the same logic as race, gender, and other identities, only of equal or greater importance.

Heideman’s 2019 article aimed to clarify things. While class produces social groupings that have cultural markers of their own, the capitalist economic structure that’s coextensive with class functions differently from regimes of identity. Heideman’s article helped move newly class-conscious socialists past a liberal view of class as “gradational” and toward a Marxist view of class as “relational,” a concept that’s necessary in order to understand why we focus on class at all.

2

“Engines of Solidarity” by Robbie Nelson

It’s now common sense for the broad progressive and democratic socialist left that we should push for universal social programs over means-tested ones. But that wasn’t nearly as unanimous before Bernie Sanders ran for president the first time on a platform structured around them, chiefly his flagship policy proposal, Medicare for All.

Likewise, the long-term implications of anchoring our politics in demands for universal social programs weren’t clear to many of us until Nelson spelled them out in this 2016 article, which argues that universal, generous, and visible social programs have the potential to ingrain solidarity where the design of our pitiful welfare state now encourages competition, division, and ultimately austerity. “Engines of Solidarity” has been so influential on my thinking that I persuaded my coauthor Micah Uetricht to name a chapter of our book, Bigger Than Bernie, after it.

3

“Our Road to Power” by Vivek Chibber

Though this 2017 article was written for the print issue of Jacobin that marked the centennial of the Russian Revolution, its ultimate concern was the prospects for a socialist movement that was then in its first stages of renewal.

Chibber’s article imparted three pieces of advice. The first was to resist allowing our organizations to become too diffuse, horizontalist, and ultimately ineffective in the necessary pursuit of internal democracy. The second was to root ourselves in the working class, rather than get comfortable behaving in an auxiliary capacity. The third was to build a strategy around a sober acceptance that the prospects for insurrection are presently minimal.

The article made a big impression on many of us who were then engaged in the arduous and ambitious project of establishing new chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) or reviving moribund ones. Its points remain as pressing and relevant today as on the occasion of their publication.

4

“The Promise of Socialist Feminism” by Johanna Brenner

In my twenties, years of exposure to the discourse of third-wave feminism left me with the distinct impression that second-wave feminism had been uniformly white, middle-class, and relatively politically conservative. The scales fell from my eyes when I read Brenner’s 2014 article, first published in Socialist Studies but widely circulated by Jacobin. Brenner argues that this characterization is appropriate when applied to liberal feminism, but while liberal feminism has its roots in the ’70s, it was actually less dominant then than it is now.

Instead, Brenner characterizes the primary strain of second-wave feminism as “social-welfare feminism,” focused in large part on securing the provision of public services and the socialization of care work. Social-welfare feminism was not without its faults — namely, it was naive about the urgent need to organize for feminist politics along class lines in order to confront capitalist power — but it was on the right track. To fulfill the promise of feminism, argues Brenner, we must rescue the best of what the second wave had to offer, and then deepen its commitment to class struggle.

5

“Why Liberals Separate Race from Class” by Touré F. Reed

In 2015, this article was like an oasis in the desert to me. Already, Bernie Sanders had been roundly admonished for “class reductionism,” and yet you rarely heard anyone state the obvious: that the ambitious reforms Sanders proposed would disproportionately benefit people of color. Furthermore, it seemed to me that Sanders’s universalist agenda would create new opportunities for people to unite across racial lines around shared material interests, which was the only concrete idea for ameliorating prejudice that ever struck me as feasible on a mass scale.

Reed’s article explained why liberals so insistently sever the link between race and class. He situated this ideology in a neoliberal political tradition that sought to secure buy-in from nonwhite voters while simultaneously pursuing an agenda that would devastate the disproportionately nonwhite working class.

“This framework only works if one sees racism and economic marginality as two separate things,” wrote Reed. And though there are more skeptics now, the artificial distinction is still alive and well, preserving the resonance of this article.

6

“The Glory Days Are Over” by Nicole Aschoff

Between the J20 inauguration protests, the record-breaking Women’s March, and the nationwide airport protests, the first months of 2017 were a time of action, not reflection. This article appeared online amid the turmoil, offering a welcome and grounding analysis of the new world we’d found ourselves in.

Brexit’s passage and Donald Trump’s victory, argued Aschoff, were cracks in the foundation of neoliberalism — which isn’t to say they signaled the end of capitalism, but rather the emergence of a capitalist vision that might supplant the dominant one, with it specific reliance on globalization and configuration of international alliances. Neoliberalism itself created multiple mutually intensifying crises that paved way for the rise of Trump, and Trump rose to power by threatening to demolish it.

Aschoff was admittedly skeptical that Trump would actually make good on this threat, but her analysis of the dynamics that produced him and the response to those dynamics that he symbolizes remains salient as we near the end of his first term.

7

“A Blueprint for a New Party” by Seth Ackerman

In this 2016 article, Ackerman thoroughly assessed the uniquely repressive legal system that prevents third parties from making inroads into American electoral politics. He also emphasized the necessity of an independent left-wing party grounded in the working class — one that develops its own platforms, contests elections, and disciplines candidates and elected officials affiliated with the party. So, if we need a party but can’t have one, what do we do?

Ackerman made great strides toward a solution by distinguishing between a party and a ballot line. United States electoral politics are forbidding to formal third parties, but Ackerman proposed that there is a way to remain ballot-line agnostic while building an organization that fulfills all the other functions of the party. I suspect no single Jacobin article has had more of an impact on DSA than this one.

8

“The Ballot and the Break” by Eric Blanc

Here’s another article that’s had a considerable impact on today’s American socialists.

Blanc began researching the successful independent Minnesota Farmer–Labor Party (FLP) about a year before this article was published in late 2017. He expected his research to vindicate the notion that socialists need to institute a “clean break” from the Democratic Party. What Blanc found instead was that the Minnesota FLP had shrewdly taken advantage of the institutional apparatuses and established platforms provided by both the Democratic and Republican parties, while also maintaining its own organization with a clear political agenda and a degree of autonomy.

Over the course of his research, Blanc came to believe that an alternative strategy was viable and preferable. This article gave us the term “dirty break,” meaning the use of major party ballot lines to build independent power and eventually end the two-party stranglehold.

9

“What is the Rank-and-File Strategy, and Why Does It Matter?” by Barry Eidlin

Published in early 2019, Eidlin’s article gave the reenergized socialist movement an opportunity to begin thinking about how to relate to the labor movement beyond its correct but unsophisticated consensus that unions are good. In it, Eidlin defined and argued for the rank-and-file strategy, an idea that has gained considerable purchase on the socialist left in the last half decade.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it the rank-and-file orientation, from which concrete strategy might flow. The basic idea is that in order to strengthen unions, socialists must orient ourselves toward their rank-and-file, and must attempt above all to foster, support, and even become part of a “militant minority” of class-conscious workplace leaders who are trusted by their coworkers. This article remains a necessary read for anyone who wants to participate in labor debates in the socialist movement today.

10

“The Working Class Is the Vast Majority of Society” by Hadas Thier

I’ll end this list where I started it, underscoring the importance of transcending a liberal analysis of class that views it as the sum of wealth, income, and/or educational attainment — or, more superficial yet, cultural attributes that are sometimes substituted for class, like having a regional accent or drinking lattes.

For Marxists, as Thier explained in this excerpt from A People’s Guide to Capitalism: An Introduction to Marxist Economics, class instead denotes a person’s relationship to the means of production, which determines whether they sell their labor to survive or buy and profit from other people’s labor. There are other options, too, which Thier enumerates, and none of this is to say that gradations within classes don’t matter — only that they’re downstream from the basic structure.

The Marxist conception of class has enormous political implications, suggesting as it does that the relationship between workers and capitalists is one of mutual dependence — and that therefore workers, who by this metric constitute the vast majority of society, are not only oppressed but have power to end their oppression and other social injustices.

The sooner today’s socialists grasp this idea, the better our chances of victory.