Jacobin’s Achievement — And Our Mission in the Decade to Come

There is much to celebrate in Jacobin’s ten-year anniversary. We’re fostering a stable of socialist researchers and journalists — intellectuals who can deploy the same techniques as the professoriate, but toward ends that are dictated by their political commitments, not professional pressures. 

Eric Hobsbawm with one of his books. Wikimedia Commons

There is much to celebrate in Jacobin’s ten-year anniversary. In a remarkably short time, what started as a tiny online nook has grown to become a major voice on the global left. This is no doubt partly a sign of the times. It is hard to imagine that it would have met with a similar success if it had started in 2000, as opposed to 2010.

Jacobin came at the perfect moment, when a global rebellion against neoliberalism was starting to gain momentum and, most remarkably, discussions around socialism suddenly reentered the political culture thanks to Bernie Sanders. But while these factors have served as a most fertile environment, they cannot of themselves account for Jacobin’s success. Plenty of other socialist ventures have failed during these years or remained confined to a tiny corner of the Left online arena. Jacobin’s success is very much an achievement, however much it has been buoyed by the growing interest in socialism.

I would suggest that two aspects of Jacobin’s efforts are particularly noteworthy, one political and the other institutional. Politically, the magazine has had a remarkably clear vision and a focus that is unmatched on the intellectual left, not just among new magazines, but more widely.

From its inception, Jacobin has never waivered from its basic commitment to a democratic and internationalist vision of socialism. This clarity of purpose has been accompanied by an even more remarkable openness to discussions of strategy and tactics, something that one might think ought to come naturally to anyone serious about politics but that is in fact on the verge of extinction on the Left. Hence, along with their sharp interventions on current politics, Jacobin has reignited an examination of older strategic debates — most notably those during the halcyon days of the Second International, but also in the years of Social Democratic advance in the postwar era in Europe, and after decolonization in the Global South. It has revisited those discussions with an intensity and openness that is remarkable, not just for its seriousness, but for the maturity that belies the young age of many of its participants.

The very intensity of its interventions and the seriousness with which they are undertaken is matched by the lucidity of its writing. Jacobin stands out on the Left in its lack of pretension. It is obvious that every article published by the magazine — whether online or in print — is vetted for its readability as much as its content. There was a time when this could be taken for granted on the Left, but it is just one of the components of socialist culture that has frayed as we have lost touch with the working class.

Jacobin is a magazine that seeks to be read, not just admired. And this is no doubt part of the reason why it has attracted so much talent to its pages. Authors want to write for it because they know their articles will actually reach a mass audience, not just some section of the chattering classes. Hence, in this short span, not only has Jacobin grown beyond anyone’s widest expectations, but it has become a magnet for the Left’s strongest thinkers.

This brings us to the second achievement, more institutional in nature. Through its rapid expansion, its seriousness, the depth of its intellectual commitment, and the platform that it provides for debate, Jacobin is helping create an intellectual space that is free from the university system. It is not the only magazine contributing to this end, but it is the most significant. And the importance of this achievement cannot be overstated.

From its inception in the nineteenth century, and for the century that followed, the Left always had its own intellectuals, magazines, newspapers, and theoretical organs. It produced its own intelligentsia, typically outside the universities but sometimes embedded in them. But even when they came from the professoriate, they were disciplined to a great extent by the culture of the socialist movement, whose center of gravity was located outside the cloistered world of academic production.

This space was sustained by the various organizations of the Left, of which trade unions and working-class parties were the most important. And it was absolutely crucial in the development of strategy and political engagement. Some of the publications were narrowly concerned with organizational matters, others devoted to tactical ones, and yet others to more abstruse theoretical or philosophical debates. But their internal culture was consistent across these domains, and they inhabited a moral culture that was shaped by political commitments — not professional ones. This quite autonomous intellectual sphere was not the creation of the socialist movement alone, it was also inhabited by left-liberals; but it was nourished tremendously by the former.

By the closing decades of the century, this space was rapidly receding, or more accurately, being colonized by the university system and corporate media. And it continues today. For the state of debate on the Left, the consequences have been devastating. It has meant that both the form and content of “left” discourse has come to reflect the style and the interests of the professional class — of professors, aspiring professors, journalists, and media personalities. Even in the case of self-styled Marxist journals, the content is almost entirely filled by academics, whose links to the world outside the university system are so thin as to be mostly irrelevant. These outlets have been folded into the moral and political universe of the professional-managerial class, rarely read by other actors and, in turn, quite uninterested in them.

Jacobin has managed to open up a space which, while it still has to draw on that academic world, is not beholden to it. This is a huge achievement. First of all, by its gravitational pull, it has managed to attract those scattered socialists among the professional classes who otherwise would have been absorbed by the university system. By providing them a platform, it has been able to draw upon the resources of the academy without being colonized by it. And it has provided them a haven to pursue their agendas, which otherwise would have no doubt languished.

But, even more important, the magazine is fostering a stable of its own researchers and journalists — intellectuals who are not aspirant academics, often trained in the university but not captured by it, who can deploy the same techniques as the professoriate, but toward ends that are dictated by their political commitments, not professional pressures. If this continues on a wider scale, with more magazines pressing forward in this fashion, it will be an important step in recreating what was once a central part of the socialist movement.

Events are moving fast. Socialists are a minority within the self-styled left, and the Left itself is still too housed within the professional strata. The only chance socialism has of surviving as a political force, rather than as a subculture among young professionals, is if it breaks out of the middle class and embeds itself, as it once did, among working people. The task is daunting, maybe even out of reach. We are only at the very beginning of recreating a Left that is capable of it. Within that effort, the fledging media organs that have cropped up in recent years will play an important role.

Jacobin has already proven itself an indispensable contributor to the mission. May it continue on this path, and may its integrity inspire others to join in the struggle.