Don’t Study Collective Action Alone: Ten Years of Jacobin

Before the resurgence of socialist activism in the United States, Jacobin Reading Groups provided a halfway house between passive, primarily intellectual engagement with the socialist project and full-fledged organizational commitment for thousands of people. They played a real role in resurrecting the US left.

Early books from the Jacobin Series with Verso.

In 2012, Jacobin launched its reading groups program with the slogan “Don’t Study Collective Action Alone.” For many years, it was far too easy for budding socialists and radicals to do precisely that — to feel a sense of profound unease with capitalist civilization’s approach to the cliff’s edge, while not being able to do much of anything about it.

That began to change when Occupy Wall Street went from a small encampment in Lower Manhattan to an international phenomenon practically overnight. Occupy didn’t immediately result in the establishment of new political formations — at least not those in the mold of more traditional parties or cadre groups. But it sent the old mole digging anew, and it put wind in the sails of what was, at that time, a fledgling publication still looking to make its mark.

After Occupy, media reports on the “new socialist wunderkinds of America” often mentioned Jacobin in the same breath as publications like n+1 or the New Inquiry. While this comparison wasn’t entirely unjustified, Jacobin never had the same literary ambitions as those publications. It was always more of a straightforward, left-wing agitprop campaign, a constant fire hose of material telling you the world can be better if we organize and fight. It sought not to emulate Partisan Review, but to resuscitate the spirit of a publication like The Masses for those organizing after the historic defeat of left and workers’ movements.

Like The Masses, we saw ourselves as inextricably linked to the working-class struggles and movements for social liberation in our time. Above all, we sought to create an intellectual and institutional pole of attraction that could help to cohere the swirling discontents of the 2010s into a lasting organizational expression.

Before 2016, it was very difficult to bring radicalizing young people into any of the existing socialist organizations and keep them there. From the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to the Spartacist League, the organized left was too marginal, too stodgy, too boring to attract and retain any but the most committed socialists.

More profoundly, decades of neoliberalism undermined not just socialism but the notion of organized, collective action itself. The very idea of joining an organization with bylaws, a mission statement, and regular in-person meetings in shabby church basements just seemed weird, particularly to those who were socialized on the internet. What’s more, the organized left simply didn’t exist outside the few places where it was strong enough in the twentieth century to leave an institutional and cultural residue behind. In most places around the country, you couldn’t really join a socialist political organization even if you wanted to.

This is why the Jacobin Reading Groups were so important to the refoundation of the US left. For thousands of people in this country and around the world, they provided a halfway house between passive, primarily intellectual engagement with the socialist project and full-fledged organizational commitment. You couldn’t join Jacobin. But by providing support and resources for readers who wanted to meet up with like-minded people, the magazine did the important work of normalizing the idea of regular, face-to-face political engagement and discussion in a world where this was increasingly rare.

Just as important, it habituated those who were in charge of coordinating reading groups to doing the very unglamorous but indispensable work that makes any successful group run: finding meeting space, doing outreach, keeping records, ordering pizza, formulating agendas, answering email.

By 2016, there were more than sixty reading groups in cities and towns across the country. You could find them in all of the places you’d expect: New York, Chicago, the Bay Area, Boston, college and university towns. But the groups had a much wider geographic dispersal than the usual suspects, which reflected Jacobin’s reach beyond the ranks of the already converted. The impetus for organizing these groups, came, as it were, from above and below. As Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara put it in an interview with New Left Review: “We let people know that we have resources they can use — sample syllabuses, free magazines — and that we can help with finding space, with logistics.”

Bringing them together was the task of Jacobin’s reading groups coordinator. These coordinators — Neal Meyer and, later, Julia Damphouse — worked closely with readers to get groups off the ground and to keep their momentum going. Crucially, these groups weren’t just isolated in their own neighborhoods, towns, or cities. As Sunkara put it in the same interview, “They’re now connected to each other in a sort of community, talking about their readings and discussing them online.” This gave participants the sense that they were part of something larger than just their own reading group in their own town. Your reading group could be meeting at the same time or discussing the same articles as another group on the other side of the country — or even in Germany, the Philippines, or South Africa.

The idea of hawking newspapers and pamphlets has become something of a running joke on the Left. But our socialist forebears were right to view publications not just as sources of education and agitation, but as organizing tools as well. Jacobin and its reading groups helped to knit like-minded, discontented people together across a far-flung, socially atomized, and politically disorganized country.

In the wake of Bernie Sanders’s unexpected success, and the shock of Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, reading group regulars swelled the ranks of organizations like DSA and helped to remake them for a new era. Would they have done so if Jacobin hadn’t already been plowing fields and sowing seeds for years? Some undoubtedly would have. But if not for Jacobin — and, more important, the 2016 Sanders campaign — many probably would have either joined the #Resistance or withdrawn from political engagement in despair.

There is a good reason why publishers, editors, journalists, and writers have played an important role in socialist movements historically. It’s not just because the written word has, since its inception, been one of the most powerful tools for human emancipation. To paraphrase someone who had a lot to say about newspapers, in political movements, publications are like the scaffolding around a building under construction. They allow the workers to communicate with one another, share tools and materials, and get a common view of what they’re building together.

Here’s to many more years of building together.