What Jacobin Taught Me — And a Generation of Socialists

Jacobin has been publishing for 10 years now. And we still retain the hope that the solution to the world’s ills will come through more popular democracy and freedom, and not less.

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I wish I could say I discovered Jacobin at Occupy Wall Street, or while canvassing for Bernie Sanders, or at some other event that would categorize me as your average millennial who became a socialist in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. But I didn’t.

By the time Jacobin launched, I had finished college and moved to Europe to escape the grim American job market and equally grim American political landscape. None of its early issues showed up on my radar, despite following Occupy and the literature around it closely.

In fact, the first Jacobin article I remember reading is a 2012 piece by Gavin Mueller about Sex House, an obscure satire of reality TV produced by the Onion that I was a fan of at the time. I had heard of the magazine prior to that, but it was a critical reading of a YouTube series informed by autonomist Marxism that finally got me to sit up and take notice. Impressed by the well-crafted prose and the novelty of a socialist magazine producing an intelligent discussion of nerdy internet humor, I quickly subscribed and eventually was even asked to write a few articles myself. Though I was grateful for the opportunity to pivot away from the more sectarian socialist politics I was engaged in at the time, only later did I grasp to what extent Jacobin would redefine what it meant to be a socialist for my generation and, hopefully, many more to come.

It Came From the Swamp

Like many American socialists in their thirties and forties, my first interactions with the Left were facilitated by teenage boredom and surfing the internet in the 1990s, before moving into high gear in the aftermath of 9/11. As the George W. Bush administration launched criminal (but, initially, popular) wars, I and millions of others began mobilizing for weekly anti-war protest marches.

The politics of the anti-war movement was eclectic, ranging from liberals, anarchists, and Green Party members to the Revolutionary Communist Party and its ubiquitous front organization, World Can’t Wait. Organized labor was largely absent. Any talk about strikes was limited to the conjecture of Marxist sects explaining what could be possible if only we had a mass socialist party rooted in a militant workers’ movement.

Sooner or later, most of us convinced ourselves that the only way out of this mess was to elect a Democrat — any Democrat — and kick Bush out of office. At the time, I thought we were turning protest into politics. In retrospect, I would say we abandoned our politics and rallied behind John Kerry, a bland centrist who ended up losing the election anyway.

Nevertheless, the experience of the Kerry campaign led some of us to conclude that those Marxist sects had been on to something after all: whether we liked it or not, we had to build a socialist alternative to social movementism and Democratic Party electoralism, neither of which had managed to stop the war and ultimately led us into a political dead end. As fantastical as it sounded, without a base in the working class, it was clear that socialist ideas would forever remain consigned to society’s fringes. We had no choice but to “build the party.”

This task was easier said than done. The socialist left in the mid-2000s was a motley crew of small, ideologically rigid groups with no base to speak of, often defining themselves by their interpretation of when the Soviet Union turned sour. Since none of them were particularly substantial, picking which group to join was a bit like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. Which road to socialism sounded more exciting: the parliamentary or the revolutionary? Which uprising in a crisis-stricken empire seemed more romantic: the Russian or the Chinese? Deciding what kind of socialist you were had just as much to do with your zodiac sign or who you went to college with as it did the facts on the ground.

Like any small group, whether religious, cultural, or political, they cultivated their own habits and vocabulary. As you became a “cadre,” you started using certain phrases and quoting obscure figures who played an important role in your preferred group’s intellectual life. These confirmed your place among the ranks to other members, and they had the secondary effect of making you feel like a serious political person. If you were lucky enough to be asked to write an article, they appeared in publications that were produced, as my mother diplomatically put it after reading some of my early work, “by a small group of people, for a small group of people.”

Necessary but Not Sufficient

We meant well, and we participated in many fights that I’m proud of, but in retrospect, we were hopelessly out of touch. For every new person we recruited, we lost two more to political frustration, personal exhaustion, or a mix of both.

It was thus a minor miracle that the team of people who started Jacobin managed to emerge from this state of affairs largely unscathed and pioneer a style of socialist writing that was fresh, accessible, and, most important, did not view the small, existing socialist left as its target audience. Even early articles like the review of Sex House approached the world on its own terms, without presupposing the reader had a background in radical politics or abstract theoretical debates. This made Jacobin — and continues to make Jacobin — an invaluable resource for socialists of all stripes, regardless of how you feel about its reading of Russia in 1917 or the merits of geoengineering.

Jacobin can’t take credit for the revival of the socialist left that we have watched unfold over the last five years — we can thank capitalism for that. But it can take credit for being one of the most widely read socialist publications in the world today that serves as a point of orientation for people radicalized by the financial crisis and mobilized by the Bernie Sanders campaign. The thousands of articles we’ve published have familiarized a generation with socialist theory and history, introducing ideas that were almost extinct one decade ago back into the political mainstream. In that sense, Jacobin has been necessary, but not sufficient. A slick magazine alone wasn’t enough to jump-start socialism in America, but it’s certainly played a small part.

For those of us who came to the magazine from the pre-Bernie socialist Left, writing for Jacobin was a similarly invaluable resource in terms of learning to shed the wooden language of our various “traditions” and write for people who don’t spend most of their waking life thinking and reading about socialism.

Why discuss your “lived experience” when oftentimes “experience” will suffice? Why reference obscure European theorists or internecine squabbles if they fail to add anything to your argument, while potentially alienating readers? Jacobin doesn’t ask writers to sacrifice complexity, but it pushes them to think twice about whether they can express the same thing in a clearer fashion. It made me and many others better writers, ensuring that whatever insights we picked up over the years could be communicated to a broader audience.

The past few years have seen the founding of foreign-language editions of Jacobin in a number of countries, including Germany, where I live and helped found the magazine. Each one approaches the project a bit differently, but we share the conviction that our respective country’s left stands to benefit from the combination of ambition, humility, and style that Jacobin has made its trademark.

Decades of political defeat have lowered our expectations, but we all retain the hope that the solution to the world’s ills will come through more popular democracy and freedom, and not less.