On the brink of war, just after President Trump’s horrifically stupid decision to assassinate Qassem Soleimani, the headline on a CNBC op-ed read, “America just took out a man many consider the world’s No. 1 bad guy.” At a slightly higher reading level, over at the Atlantic, we were assured that the Iranian general’s death was “greeted with elation” in Iran. It often feels as if we’re in North Korea (or Iran!), with the media working hard to make even the government’s worst policies look good.
Despite this almost constant onslaught of brayingly ill-informed and bellicose opinion disguised as news, we at Jacobin are the ones more often dismissed as “propagandists.”
As accusations go, it’s a fun one, in a retro sort of way. But it’s also an interesting question: Is Jacobin propaganda, and if so, is that a bad thing?
We certainly have a point of view. Jacobin’s content constitutes an ongoing argument for democratic socialism, and against many other political agendas.
Presumably, we’re more likely to be viewed as propagandists than a magazine like the Atlantic — despite the clear evidence that such publications, too, have an agenda, and in our view a murderous and mendacious one — because of advocacy for ideas that are still largely outside the political mainstream.
One of the legacies of the Cold War is that Americans assume propaganda is bad. While the term “propaganda” has often implied that creators were taking a manipulative or deceptive approach to their message — or glossing over something horrific, like World War I, the Third Reich, or Stalin’s purges — the word hasn’t always carried that baggage. Lenin viewed propaganda as critical to building the socialist movement. In his 1902 pamphlet What Is to Be Done?, it’s clear that his ideal propaganda is an informative, well-reasoned argument, drawing on expertise and information that the working class might not already have. That’s what we try to do at Jacobin.
But writers are supposed to be individual geniuses, not enthusiastic joiners like us. Publications are supposed to be independent of movements, parties, and politicians. Lenin jokes about this tension between creative inspiration — politically crucial — and the accountability of the socialist newspaper to the socialist movement, especially when leadership isn’t as radical as the propagandists. “That is what we should dream of,” he wrote, envisioning an all-Russia socialist newspaper in What Is to Be Done? Then, after a line break, Lenin interrupts himself:
“We should dream!” I wrote these words and became alarmed. I imagined myself sitting at a “unity conference” . . . Comrade Martynov rises and, turning to me, says sternly: “Permit me to ask you, has an autonomous editorial board the right to dream without first soliciting the opinion of the Party committees?” He is followed by Comrade Krichevsky; who . . . continues even more sternly: “I go further. I ask, has a Marxist any right at all to dream, knowing that according to Marx, mankind always sets itself the tasks it can solve and that tactics is a process of the growth of Party tasks which grow together with the Party?”
The very thought of these stern questions sends a cold shiver down my spine and makes me wish for nothing but a place to hide in.
Jacobin wouldn’t be the magazine that it is with a political party running it in the way Lenin is joking about. But that doesn’t mean we’re merely expressing ourselves. We do have a set of core beliefs, and we do see ourselves as serving a cause.
For the last few decades, with weak movements and not many left politicians, left media has described itself as “independent”; the implication was not only that we weren’t owned by any major corporations, but also that we weren’t responsible to anyone. The latter has never been the case for Jacobin, which has always been part of a democratic socialist movement.
Lenin saw that while propaganda was not enough to mobilize people by itself, it was crucial to movement building, in concert with face-to-face organizing. I saw this firsthand one weekend in January, while canvassing in a Brooklyn housing project for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). My canvassing partner and I interrupted a young man, a National Guardsman, while he was watching football. He turned out to be a strong Bernie supporter who identified as a socialist. He was well informed about Medicare for All and the Green New Deal — all because of left-wing YouTube, including Krystal Ball and the Young Turks. He signed up to join DSA and volunteer for our campaigns. YouTube made him more open to our appeals, although his media diet alone probably wouldn’t have moved him to take action. Propaganda is just one dimension of what it takes for all of us to be organized and organizing all the time — but it’s a critical one.
At Jacobin, despite our ballooning audience, we see our role not as some left-wing version of Breitbart, but as committed to exposing even difficult truths. Our journalism is fact-checked, and our scholarly articles are backed with empirical data. We try to challenge our assumptions, even as we remain firm in our egalitarian convictions. This balance of persuasion and truth is the only way to navigate being a socialist magazine in such urgent times; people are suffering and dying, and we have a world to win. To get there, we need persuasive arguments, and we also need facts.
As the political environment changes, as our ideas become more potent and connected to mass movements of people, Jacobin will continue to change, as will the role of all socialist propagandists. But we hope to remain useful in whatever way we can, and we ask for your support in 2020 and beyond.
Please consider making a donation to us either online at jacobinmag.com/donate or via check to Jacobin Foundation, 388 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11217.