Jacobin has been publishing in print and online since late 2010. In case you haven’t been with us for that long — or if you need a refresher — we’ve compiled a list of essential socialist reading on politics, economics, history, and more from our archives.
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One of Jacobin’s primary goals from the beginning has been to popularize the idea of democratic socialism. In that vein, Neal Meyer’s “What Is Democratic Socialism?” from 2018 is a useful and highly shareable explainer, as is “Democratic Socialism Is About Democracy” by longtime Jacobin editor Shawn Gude, which briefly lays out one of socialists’ central motivations: the desire for a world free of domination.
But our visions of a better world are grounded in a clearheaded analysis of the political-economic system that we find ourselves in right now: capitalism. Our ABCs of Capitalism pamphlet series by Vivek Chibber offers a pithy introduction to capitalism, from its nature as a system of accumulation to the structural leverage that it gives the ruling class over the state to the need for workers to engage in collective struggle to further their interests.
The centrality of class to capitalism — and to its potential overcoming — is why Jacobin identifies with the Marxist tradition. “Why We Still Talk About the Working Class” and “Class Rules Everything Around Me” present the basics of the Marxist view that the working class is the central agent in winning emancipatory social change. “Why We’re Marxists” by Nivedita Majdumar offers a helpful primer on the enduring relevance of Karl Marx’s thought.
Marxism and Politics
One of Marxism’s most important insights is that, even in liberal democracies, capitalists wield immense leverage over the political process. In 2019, Leo Panitch summed up the legacy of his mentor Ralph Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society, one of the pioneering Marxist analyses of capitalist power over the state, for Jacobin. Miliband’s work on the capitalist state remains a touchstone for socialists trying to trace the threads of elite influence in politics today — see, for instance, staff writer Meagan Day’s 2018 write-up of contemporary social research showing that corporate elites are massively overrepresented in US presidential administrations.
But capitalists don’t primarily exercise influence on the state by becoming government bureaucrats themselves. Even more important is the leverage they wield through their power over investment: being able to threaten governments with the prospect of capital strikes or capital flight, the subject of “When Capitalists Go on Strike.” In his classic “The Ruling Class Does Not Rule,” reprinted in Jacobin, Fred Block grapples with the serious challenges that capitalist power over investment poses to left-wing attempts at reforming or moving beyond capitalism.
Given capital’s fierce resistance to pro-worker reforms, let alone a fundamental break with capitalism, socialists have long recognized the importance of workers having a political party of their own. Some of Jacobin’s classic articles have been concerned with how we might build such a formation in the United States. In his 2016 essay “A Blueprint for a New Party,” Seth Ackerman argued that, given the significant legal hurdles facing third parties in the United States, socialists should build up a formal party apparatus that could run candidates in Democratic or Republican primaries or as independents where feasible; we shouldn’t get hung up on the need for an independent ballot line in the short term. In the months and years after its publication, hundreds of members of the Democratic Socialists of America entered elected office at the local, state, and federal level, often through Democratic primaries — but in a far less coordinated fashion than we imagined.
Building a political party of and for the working class, however, will mean grappling with the forces that have been undermining workers’ representation in the political system. Class dealignment has been affecting center-left parties across the advanced capitalist world, as parties that were traditionally seen as the natural home of labor — the New Deal Democrats in the United States and social democratic parties elsewhere — have seen their working-class bases flee while welcoming larger numbers of more educated and higher-income voters. Thomas Piketty, Clara Martínez-Toledano, and Amory Gethin discussed the global phenomenon of “Brahminizing” left parties in a 2022 interview with Jacobin, while the late historian Judith Stein explained to us how Democrats’ turn toward pro-business policies and away from the New Deal alienated large parts of the working class. Dustin Guastella and Matt Karp have charted how the phenomenon of class dealignment continues apace today in the United States and argued that the Left must champion a program focused on economic issues if it wants to win over the working-class voters who are increasingly abandoning the Democrats.
The United States is not only distinctive for its two-party system and its lack of a workers’ party, but also for its especially antidemocratic constitution. Jacobin has long been preoccupied with the question of constitutional reform for that reason: we’ve published on the need to gut the Supreme Court, to abolish the Senate, and to seek republican reforms more generally.
Workers of the World, Unite
Because workers are at the heart of capitalism — and our hopes for replacing it with something better — we take labor movement strategy very seriously. That was the topic of our 2016 print issue, “Rank and File,” which featured important contributions from Jane McAlevey and Sam Gindin, among others. Gindin’s contribution, “Beyond Social Movement Unionism,” examines the rise of a current of unionism purporting to fight for “common good” demands and not just the bread-and-butter interests of the members of particular unions. Gindin argued that, despite the interest in social movement unionism, unions genuinely fighting for broader demands were in fact few and far between — and that the transformation of unions in a more radical direction would require a socialist party, rooted in the labor movement.
“What Is the Rank-and-File Strategy, and Why Does It Matter?” takes up the question of how socialists should relate to the labor movement. Barry Eidlin writes that socialist rank-and-file workplace organizers played a key role in building the US labor movement and giving it a militant character during its heyday in the 1930s and ’40s; but the bureaucratization of unions and the post–World War II Red Scare isolated the Left from the unions. To revive a fighting labor movement and build a working-class base for moving beyond capitalism, Eidlin argues, socialists should seek to reconnect labor and the Left by embedding ourselves in shop floor struggles.
This is also the theme of Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht’s interview with labor scholar Eric Blanc, who argues that the wildcat red-state teacher strikes of 2018 demonstrates the importance of the “militant minority”: a core of class-conscious, especially dedicated rank-and-file organizers, which has often included socialists and nonsocialists, who help inspire their coworkers to take action. In 2023, Uetricht sat down with veteran labor organizer and writer Jane McAlevey for a wide-ranging conversation on how to rebuild a fighting labor movement, from the importance of organizing workers’ communities outside the workplace to the power of open bargaining in union negotiations.
Liberals sometimes criticize socialists for focusing on class to the exclusion of other forms of oppression. We think that’s a gross distortion of history. In “Socialism and Black Oppression” Paul Heideman charts American socialists’ long, proud history of fighting racism. The universalistic, anti-capitalist vision promoted by socialists differed sharply from other traditions, such as that of Marcus Garvey, whose politics and career are discussed by Paul Prescod in a 2023 article; for Prescod, programs of black capitalism are dead ends for emancipatory politics. A better way forward is the mass working-class organizing exemplified by the civil rights movement, with its “civil rights unionism.”
In recent years, historian Touré F. Reed has also cautioned against attempts to combat racial injustice that focus on individual moral or spiritual improvement rather than attacking the economic roots of racial inequality. Addressing the question of women’s oppression, contributing editor Nicole Aschoff argues in a similar vein that achieving gender equality requires anti-capitalist struggle.
Know Your History
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously wrote that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” We agree, which is why we’ve published extensively on history. In interviews with Jacobin, historians William Hogeland and Tom Cutterham offered competing interpretations of the American Revolution. Our Summer 2015 print issue, “Struggle and Progress,” was devoted to what is sometimes called the “Second American Revolution”: the Civil War and Emancipation. The issue included a long interview with renowned historian Eric Foner on the antislavery movement and Reconstruction. Matt Karp’s 2020 article “Slavery Was Defeated Through Mass Politics” argues that the antislavery forces that achieved victory in the Civil War constituted a mass movement, rooted in a program that appealed to the material interests and personal liberty of the majority of Americans in the Northern states.
Paul Heideman took an extensive dive into the history of the Socialist Party of America of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in his “The Rise and Fall of the Socialist Party of America.” The complicated legacy of the New Deal, which has figured prominently in Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns and recent calls for a Green New Deal, gets its due in historian Steve Fraser’s essay “The New Deal in the American Political Imagination.” And Heideman explores a very different era of left-wing movement history in “Half the Way With Mao Zedong,” examining the rise and devastating fall of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s in an issue marking the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 revolts.
One of our aims in publishing historical pieces has been to excavate the United States’ rich but often buried radical tradition. Martin Luther King Jr, Helen Keller, and Eugene Debs weren’t just titanic figures in American history; they were committed democratic socialists. The civil rights and labor movements weren’t simple strides toward progress; they were hard-fought struggles indelibly shaped by democratic socialists. For all the tales about the United States as a congenitally right-of-center country, socialists and proto-socialists have been around from the beginning.
We’ve covered global history widely as well, with a particular interest in the democratic and socialist revolutions around the world. Discussing our visual identity, our publisher Remeike Forbes explained how “the Haitian Revolution encapsulates the historic mission of the Left: that is, the truest realization of the Enlightenment.” For Bastille Day 2015, Jonah Walters produced “A Guide to the French Revolution”; Samuel Farber wrote about the world-historic implications of the Haitian Revolution in 2016; and Jacobin’s founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara took on the Russian Revolution in 2017. To name a few, we’ve published on the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic, the French Popular Front, the Chinese Revolution, the rise and fall of Salvador Allende’s socialist experiment in Chile, the 1978 Saur Revolution in Afghanistan, and the following year’s Grenadian revolution.
As socialists living in a post-Soviet world, Jacobin has grappled with the failures of state socialism. But it’s been equally important for us to examine the successes and pitfalls of the social democratic experiments of the twentieth century. Sweden probably boasted the most successful such experiment, where Social Democrats governed uninterrupted for decades and oversaw a heavily unionized, full-employment economy with a generous welfare state, achieving economic dynamism while suppressing economic inequality. But the Swedish model eventually went into retreat in the 1970s in the face of economic crisis and a concerted business counterattack.
The era of social democracy in France came to an end around the same time, with socialists themselves gutting that country’s welfare state: after President François Mitterrand was elected in 1981 on a platform of sweeping economic reforms that he said would lay the groundwork for a “French road to socialism,” his government was soon forced to reverse course by capital flight and economic crisis and turned to austerity.
In “Social Democracy Is Good. But Not Good Enough,” Bhaskar Sunkara and Joseph M. Schwartz argue that the rollback of social democratic policies in France, Sweden, and elsewhere reflects a deeper problem with attempts to establish more worker-friendly variants of capitalism: if control of the economy is left in the hands of capitalists, they will use their structural leverage to dismantle and undermine reforms that threaten their profits and power whenever they have the opportunity. The instability of social democracy shows the need for the thorough democratization of the economy — i.e., socialism.
The Road to Power
But how do we get to there from here? In 2014, Sam Gindin offered nine pieces of advice to socialists organizing in the United States. For Gindin, the power of US capitalists and the US state in directing global capitalism means that American socialists have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to advance the cause of global justice by organizing to take on the power of capitalists within our own borders.
In “Our Road to Power” from 2017, Vivek Chibber argued that today’s left must build disciplined, cadre-based organizations that both organize in the workplace and contest elections, with the aim of confronting capitalist power and developing a new model of socialism that dispenses with the authoritarianism and command economy associated with the Soviet Union. In “The Two Paths of Democratic Socialism: Coalition and Confrontation,” Jared Abbott explores different approaches to socialist electoral strategy, noting the strengths and weaknesses of strategies that emphasize building coalitions with broader progressive forces and those that insist on the need for independent, confrontational class organization. Jo Freeman’s classic feminist essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” from the early 1970s, republished in Jacobin in 2019, argues powerfully that political organizations need to have formal leadership structures and decision-making mechanisms to allow for effective, democratic organizations.
Democratic socialists want to go beyond social democracy, but social democratic reforms may be an essential waypoint on the road to socialism. Considering the prospect of a Bernie Sanders presidency in 2019, Bhaskar Sunkara described how a confrontational Sanders presidency — attempting to enact measures like Medicare for All and a federal jobs guarantee — could empower workers and lay the groundwork for more radical social transformation. But this “class struggle social democracy,” like past attempts at social democracy, would be precarious, and any left government would need support in the form of mass protests and strikes.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
Socialists must grapple with economics to understand the pathologies and the resilience of capitalism, and to work out what is to be done to move beyond it. There is an unfortunate tendency in some Marxist circles to interpret economics from chapter and verse of Capital, ironically upholding the concerns and framing of nineteenth-century political economy rather than engaging with the present.
In “Zombie Marx” from 2011, Mike Beggs argued that the point of Marx’s “critique of political economy” was not to build and defend a new school of economics, but to “demonstrate 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.” Jacobin has engaged with contemporary economics in that spirit: the point is to apply Marx’s critical spirit to today’s economic analysis.
In 2018, we published “Economics for the Socialist Autodidact,” an introductory reading list for economics-curious socialists, setting out paths into Marxian, post-Keynesian, and mainstream economic thought. Over the years we have published commentary on current economic events, as well as critical engagements with other strands of thought on the left.
In a controversial intervention, Doug Henwood tackled one of the great economics trends of the 2010s in “Modern Monetary Theory Isn’t Helping.” He argues that Modern Monetary Theory has little to offer beyond an uncontroversial antiausterity message: it evades difficult politics and class tensions of capitalism with a “one weird trick” solution. This year, Seth Ackerman turned on another simplification in a critique of the “YIMBY” obsession with planning controls: “YIMBYs are right that the US needs a major expansion of its housing supply. Unfortunately, eliminating restrictions on private housing development won’t do much to get us there.”
Socialism for the Twenty-First Century
What comes after social democracy, if we reject the Soviet model? Despite Marx’s cautions against writing “recipes for the cookshops of the future,“ Jacobin has emphasized the importance of illustrating what a feasible and desirable socialism might look like, to convince people it’s a workable idea and something worth fighting for.
In “The Red and the Black,” Seth Ackerman argues that the main problem with state socialism, even the more market-friendly version eventually adopted by Hungary, was the lack of capital markets. With that in mind, Ackerman argues for a vision of socialism in which all financial assets are transferred to ownership by a public fund, which would then be responsible for financing worker-controlled firms; but markets would otherwise operate similarly to how they do in capitalism, “with a multiplicity of socialized banks and investment funds owning and allocating capital among the means of production.”
Sam Gindin’s “We Need to Say What Socialism Will Look Like” takes seriously arguments for the importance of market price signals, and offers a model of socialism that makes extensive use of markets as well as planning. A distinctive feature of Gindin’s proposal is the use of sectoral councils, which he argues are essential to mediate between individual worker-run firms and a national-level central planning authority.
Like Ackerman and Gindin, Mike Beggs tackles the question of a feasible socialism in “We Can Craft a Workable Workplace Democracy for a Socialist Future,” which is primarily addressed to the question of how worker-managed firms might avoid some of the problems that typically beset proposals for worker ownership. Beggs suggests that firms be run as partnerships between publicly owned banks, who would finance firms, and the firm’s workers, who would democratically oversee their workplaces on a day-to-day basis.
There you have it: some of our favorites from Jacobin’s writing so far. (We also produce a ton of podcasts and videos for those interested.) We hope the next thirteen years are as rewarding as the last have been.
Once again, if you want us to keep publishing for another decade (or two!) please consider making a donation to support our work.