A Jacobin Primer

Read the CliffsNotes, impress your fancy friends.

It’s finally happened: Jacobin’s in the New York Times. So to help commemorate this special moment — when the Grey Lady herself acknowledged the presence of a dyed-in-the-wool socialist quarterly — I thought I’d write up a brief “Jacobin’s greatest hits” to help any new readers get acquainted with us and find out what makes us different from other left-wing publications.

Hard to believe but it’s been less than two years since I joined up with this outfit. Considering our reputation for slick presentations, the early days — before superstar creative director Remeike Forbes joined up — look mighty crude. It makes me wonder just how it was that we were able to impress from the start.

The answer is grim for the radical left but good for Jacobin: because the bar was so, so low.

But it was always clear from the very first issue that our founder Bhaskar Sunkara had assembled the best young minds from the socialist left. And it was more than clear that whatever the differences between the editors and the contributors, a definite “Jacobin perspective” began to take shape almost immediately.

Our first issue was something like a hoisted flag — a dog whistle to a young left who were ready to get serious and rebuild what the Cold War and “the end of history” had annihilated. And ready to engage in a dialog with the “class struggle liberals” on our right flank.

As our favorite Rhinelander once said, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world . . . the point is to change it.”

The first Jacobin article I read was editor Peter Frase’s essay “Resenting Hipsters” and I loved it so much that I punched in a Facebook “like” both for Jacobin and Peter’s article — and sent off for a subscription. Peter’s essay was itself a response to a popular Salon.com piece entitled “A Hipster on Food Stamps.” Salon’s article was about college-educated — but underemployed — young people trying to eat tasty, healthy meals using government SNAP cards.

The hipsters in question had chosen more creative work: fashion, design, production. And, not surprisingly, it stirred up a shitstorm of controversy: “hipsters think they’re too good and too cool for Velveeta?! I hate those little shits! And now they’re on welfare!?”

Peter’s essay shined a light on how the near universal hatred of “hipsters” is really the ultimate embrace of the Protestant work ethic that keeps the wealthy fat, happy and free and the rest of us strung-out and shackled to jobs we hate. And in this work-obsessed country, “the hipster” has come to stand for everything that violates that ethic. To hate the hipster is, as Peter argues, to play into the hands of a capitalist ideology that would prefer that you ask less, not more, out of life and work.

At Jacobin, we’re firm believers that nothing’s too good for the working class, a sentiment that was once universal among the Left.  The problem with “the sweet life” isn’t that it’s too sweet: it’s that under capitalism, only the rich get to enjoy it.

With the second issue, the polemic really started to pick up. Editor Seth Ackerman’s manifesto “Burn the Constitution” exposed the anti-democratic, reactionary ethos behind our cherished founding document — and today’s unhealthy, liberal love affair with it. It’s not that Americans are just more conservative folk, Seth argues, it’s that our constitution makes progressive change — even with strong majority support — almost impossible.

The third issue, Liberalism is Dead, opened with an editor’s note chiding all the radicals in the corner who were then rooting for the decline of liberalism after the sudden rise of the Tea Party in the 2010 midterms. But “the worse it gets, the better for us” — otherwise known as “the vulture theory of socialism” — has never been true. A strong liberalism is good for the Left.

Editor Mike Beggs’s “Zombie Marx” took a stand against socialists who dismiss the whole of mainstream economics with little more than a few dusty catechisms ripped from Capital. In one of my favorite passages, Mike quotes the great Keynesian economist Joan Robinson who once told a radical friend that while he kept Marx in his “mouth,” Robinson kept her Marxism “in my bones.” And he ended with a remarkably concise explanation of just what it means to call oneself a “Marxist” in the 21st century: to examine “the social preconditions that lie beneath the concepts of political economy, and especially their dependence on class relationships; and second, to demonstrate these social relations as historical, not eternal.”

That’s it. In other words, it’s the spirit of Marx that we should honor, not the reanimated corpse assembled from scripture.

Issue five, our first one post-Occupy, kicks off with Peter Frase’s “Four Futures.” It’s the kind of essay that we do best: socialism for Star Trek: The Next Generation fans. Needless to say, it was a big hit on the Internet. “Four Futures” offered a fun and alternately terrifying look at four possible scenarios of capitalism’s next metamorphosis — utopias and barbarisms both. Peter examined not only how we might overcome capitalism but how it might cling to life even in a world full of robots, limitless energy and 3D printers. What good is abundance if a tiny, ruling elite still won’t let us enjoy it?

This issue also saw our first two articles on education, now a Jacobin specialty. Editor Megan Erickson’s “A Nation of Little Lebowski Urban Achievers” (still my favorite Jacobin title) dissected the thirty-year lie behind the education reform movement. But more than that, it shows how the movement’s zeal for self-help pieties has brought the ethos and judgment of the corporate boardroom into the country’s most impoverished school districts: “If a poor kid couldn’t succeed, she just didn’t have the right attitude. That is not an overstatement; it is the central assumption that animates every initiative we gather together and call education reform.”

What does this achieve for the capitalist class, you might ask? “Now, instead of saying ‘our socioeconomic system is failing us,’ an entire generation of children will learn to say, ‘I have failed myself.’” Andrew Hartman’s “Teach for America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal Do-Gooders” exposed the grim truth on just how awful “Teach for America” has been for our education system — despite being the epitome of liberal meritocratic thinking. It was reprinted in the Washington Post.

Issue six was the debut of our logo, inspired by CLR James’s masterful account of the Haitian Revolution. Creative Director Remeike Forbes’s essay “The Black Jacobin” is the story of how he convinced us to brand our magazine with the visage of the great Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture. Because as much as the idea of Jacobinism is associated with a single nation, the Haitian Revolution is the story of how an ideology that sprang up in a country thousands of miles across the ocean could make it’s way over and inspire the most oppressed to rise up and accomplish the impossible.

The slave revolt struck at the heart of existing contradictions in the Western Enlightenment . . . turning it into a genuine project of emancipation, they confounded, terrified, and defeated every empire on the block from the enraged Napoleon Bonaparte who sought to strip the epaulettes off of every nigger on the island to the Southern planters of the US who refused to recognize the independent state. In the most profound displays of internationalism, they also inspired as many as they enraged: from radical French republicans who stood by the free blacks to the Latin American revolutionary Simón Bolívar who took up refuge in Haiti. Imagine the confusion of Napoleon’s soldiers upon hearing Haitian troops sing the Marseillaise.

It’s that kind of universalism to which Jacobin remains absolutely committed. Socialism must be international else it is doomed to fail.

The Haitian Revolution encapsulates the historic mission of the Left: that is, the truest realization of the Enlightenment. That those ideals, wrested from the hypocrites who hawk them and seized by the wretched of the earth, can become a radical project for human emancipation. Marx saw through the contradictions; his was both a critique of Enlightenment and a project to expand Enlightenment ideals of political emancipation into a project for genuine human emancipation. And so sounds off the Left’s history. It’s the demand that those principles formalized in our political institutions extend to our lived experience—in our social and economic life, in the home, and on our streets.


Kate Redburn’s “Pink Different” and Curtis White’s “The Philanthropic Complex” took on the growing power of nonprofit organizations in addressing social ills. As Kate’s essay demonstrates, this means that women’s health is largely handed over to the “generosity” of the private sector. But when a powerful nonprofit funded by the largesse of the ruling class decides to bend to the power of conservative backlash and cut services, there’s no backup.

If there were adequate public funding for health care, including preventive screenings, the private pullout would barely register on our radars . . . What do you expect when the social safety net is replaced by corporate benevolence?

Kate reminds us that buying pink keychains or yellow wristbands is a pathetic substitution for “demanding publicly funded healthcare for all, and insisting on a health system whose egalitarianism would be ingrained in its very structure, not cited as an incidental byproduct of corporate goodwill.”

“The Case for Cinderblocks,” Megan’s critique of the Unschooling movement so beloved by the ultra-left, was one of our more polemical essays. Unschooling is essentially homeschooling for progressive-minded people designed to isolate their children from anything that smacks of authority or hierarchy — even if it’s in the form of a schoolteacher. The goal is to remove all compulsion, coercion and structure from children’s education and to simply let them “explore” on their own.

But as Megan points out, this vision of the state withdrawing from the responsibility to fund education lines up perfectly with the so-called “education reform” movement that’s already wildly popular among the country’s elite in both political parties: “the values of freedom, autonomy, and choice are in perfect accordance with market-based ‘reforms,’ and with the neoliberal vision of society on which they’re based.”

And it’s just bad pedagogy. “[Unschooling] contradicts everything we know about learning and cognition. Inquiry and engagement are important, but students also need scaffolding.”

Chris Maisano’s “Working for the Weekend” in the seventh issue opened with a portrait of Old Economy Steven, Steven being a stand-in for the young, unionized worker of the 1970s who barely squeezed through high school, paid a pittance for college and ended up with the kind of job (pension, health insurance and raises) that remains far out of reach for Millennials.

How did this happen? Old Economy Steven, as Chris explained, was the beneficiary of a near full-employment economy.  And our ruling elite has a strong class interest in keeping Old Economy Steven as little more than a ghost. Because, in a full employment economy, “[T]he power of the boss shrinks not only in the individual workplace but in the economy as a whole, giving workers a longer leash and raising their capacity to mount a challenge . . . Accepting a full employment economy would be tantamount to unilateral disarmament in the class struggle.”

Exasperated liberals like Paul Krugman point to higher GDP growth under the economy of the 1960s in order to refute the “free market” policies of the last three decades. But what liberals like Krugman don’t get is that while GDP growth under neoliberalism can’t compare to the post-war golden age, it has restored class power to the capitalists, not to mention the size of their financial portfolios.

The rise of neoliberalism and “free market” policies in the late 1970s wasn’t just a bad idea that inexplicably went viral. It solved a very real crisis in capitalism. As a society, we were faced with two choices: transition out of capitalism or give the 1% back all the power they’d lost. We got the latter. Despite what Ed Schultz would have you believe, a return to the high-tax and hard-hats capitalist model of the 1960s isn’t a sustainable answer.

Seth’s “The Red and the Black” in our latest issue did the unthinkable and actually explained, in some detail, how we could start the economic transition out of capitalism. By examining the specific failures of the state-socialist models of the eastern bloc, Seth explains how we could have socialism with markets and without old school “nationalization.” Abolish the private capital market and socialize finance, Seth argues, not the businesses themselves.

Seth’s proposal calls for a compulsory “cashing out” of everyone’s financial assets — stocks, bonds, mutual funds, etc. — in return for liquidity. The elite lose power, because control over our society’s productive assets is achieved through finance, not checking accounts. The moneymen who finance enterprises go on salary, no longer able to direct the stream of capital into their own pockets. Profit would thus be put in its proper place: still important but no longer dominant. Only then after the ruling class’s power is checked can we begin to talk about true democracy and real socialism.

And that’s at the core of the Jacobin product, as best as I can explain it. The next issues will continue to get better and better, but we need your support. All the press in the world doesn’t mean anything if we don’t grow out subscriber rolls and build a sustainable donor-base.

And while we appreciate the hype from the culture-creator class, don’t forget that it’s always those critically-acclaimed shows that bite the dust first. We don’t want to be the left-wing Arrested Development. So please subscribe so we can keep on going long past our prime. Just like ER.

Yeah, that’s it: the ER of socialist quarterlies. We may lose our Clooneys along the way, but with your support, we can always hold onto our Noah Wyles.

Let’s make sure of it.