Jacobin after Bernie
August 12, 2022
The following is an edited transcript of an interview Doug Lain of Sublation Media's Diet Soap Podcast conducted on June 3, 2022, with Bhaskar Sunkara, the founding editor of Jacobin magazine, president of the Nation magazine, and publisher of the theoretical journal, Catalyst, as well as of the British socialist magazine, Tribune.
Doug Lain (DL): I have asked you on to talk about the left, publishing on the left, and the aftermath of what seemed like a socialist moment. But, before I start, I want to ask you whether you have ever seen the movie “After Hours”?
Bhaskar Sunkara (BS): No, I have not.
DL: At the beginning of that movie, there’s a character who starts talking to the main character about his dream. He says, “What l want is to start a magazine for intellectuals that are being excluded. I could really get into publishing.” And the main character just completely tunes him out. He’s like a joke. When I saw that in the eighties, I thought, “oh my God, I’m a cliche.” So that’s the set-up. When you were starting out, did you have that dream of starting a magazine and of being a publisher for people who weren’t getting published?
BS: Not really. To be honest, I was probably even more ideological than I am now. My goal then was to help advance a set of politics and to be involved with the same group of people that I had been doing activism with — within the Democratic Socialist America, particularly the Young Democratic Socialists — and to use the platform of a website to communicate views that were at times heterodox, and to win over and reinvigorate the left at the same time. I didn’t know that there was such a title as “publisher’’ until very close to the release of Jacobin. I only discovered it by looking at the masthead of other publications. So, for me the goal was crassly political.
DL: Perhaps not crass, just not as narcissistic as the goal of the publisher or the artist. Anyway, that’s an interesting answer, not what I would have expected. So, when you started out, you’d already formed your ideological commitments. Tell me about how that came to be. How did you become a Marxist and committed to that kind of leftist politics?
BS: Well, I became a socialist pretty young in my teenage years, maybe 14 years old. I became a socialist largely because I was attracted at first to a broadly social democratic vision in the sense of believing in the welfare state, seeing the role that the state played in my family’s own, to some degree, upward mobility. My three older siblings didn’t get a chance to go to college, whereas I was, at a young age, put on the college track. I was only one born in the United States and benefited from a good public school district, good public libraries, after-school programs, and whatever else. And, at the time, the center of gravity in the US was such that there was nothing really to the left, it seemed, of Paul Krugman or Jon Stewart in the mainstream. So, I had those commitments.
Then kind of randomly I became intellectually attracted to the Marxist left because of a study of history. I read Eric Hobsbawm. I read the Isaac Deutscher trilogy and was really attracted to Trotsky as a historical figure. I also dabbled in some work by Ralph Miliband, but, more importantly, for my development, was Michael Harrington. Also, Irving Howe to some degree. So, there was this unusual intellectual thing for a high schooler who was otherwise fairly normal. So, the two things were almost separate. One was a bread-and-butter commitment to the welfare state, unions, or whatever else, the other was an intellectual attraction to Marxism. Obviously, I wanted a way to reconcile the two, because we all want a Marxist worldview but also a socialist politics that’s actually relevant, that can fight, and doesn’t just seem like a defeated good idea. A lot of my intellectual evolution was finding discarded and defeated ideas and seeing the relevance and utility of them.
Particularly when I was in late high school and college, I was attracted to the pushback against postmodernism and the cultural turn. The more vulgar Marxism the better, I felt, just because I thought it was correcting for something. I became involved with the Democratic Socialist America through the Young Democratic Socialists late in my senior year of high school. I joined in April 2007 and graduated from high school in June 2007. I started Jacobin in the summer between my sophomore and junior of college, in 2010. So, pretty early on I had formed my worldview. Obviously, I was influenced by the small core people around the Young Democratic Socialists, people like Chris Maisano and Peter Frase. There was a handful of people who were active and still are, many of whom were especially featured in the early issues of Jacobin. It was kind of an extension of a publication that I helped edit for the Young Democratic Socialists called The Activist. I was the editor from maybe 2008 until 2010.
DL: So, you started out by telling me you weren’t that interested in being a publisher and that, for you, it was all about politics. What about writing? Were you drawn to being a journalist and writing before or at the same time? Did you see writing as your way to be political?
BS: I thought that, if in doubt if there was a period of defeat, it was best to write and propagandize, to do that instead of just falling into the trap of actionism. So, I was attracted to writing, but I was just turning 21 when I started Jacobin and I wasn’t well equipped to be a writer. I wrote the opening editorial for the issue, as well as an essay called “Why We Love the Zapatistas,” and I did interviews — for instance, one with Walter Benn Michaels in that first issue. Intellectually, politically, stylistically, they’re fine, but I was aware of my limitations. So, I had to figure out how to become an editor — how to work on simplifying academics’ rhetoric, how to try to make submissions punchier, and how to try to attract readers that weren’t already on the left. At some point, that combined with managing circulation and trying to build circulation, which is not what an editor, but what a publisher does. But I definitely thought (maybe this is too self-aggrandizing) that I would have become a strong writer over time. But, instead, the premature development of Jacobin led me in the direction of editing and publishing.
To be a good editor, obviously, a lot of what you need is just general knowledge, knowing how to ask the right questions. You don’t zero in and specialize. You’re working with specialists and conducting the symphony, as it were.
DL: I discovered Jacobin as a writer. I was writing short stories, I had written a novel, but I wanted to become a more political writer. In that context, I looked at Jacobin and as a potential place to publish. And I remember you and N+1 came across my radar at the same time. Was there a relationship between N+1 and Jacobin in the early days, or is that a false association?
BS: There was an opportunistic relationship between Jacobin and the existing coterie of little magazines in New York. A lot of them, especially N+1, were getting media buzz when we were just starting, so I thought that being associated with those publications was a good way for us to grow our profile. There’s a lot to like about that period of N+1 just in terms of the quality of the writing. Clearly, it gathered some very talented writers. Many of them, like Ben Kunkel, had leftist commitments, some others were more apolitical. They’re generally just friendly people. But mostly, despite the kind of appreciation for the form, there wasn’t any deep intellectual connection, at least at first.
The people around Jacobin came from a different universe. What we were doing much more directly political; that was our niche. Then, when we launched our book series with Verso, we had Ben Kunkel brought his series of essays to it. He had done literary books, but that was a more directly political set of essays and we were the natural home for that. So, it was a positive relationship, but there wasn’t that much overlap in the magazines themselves. I saw Jacobin as much closer (though with different politics) to Dissent or Monthly Review. It was meant to be a journal but also meant to be accessible, aiming to create a kind of political center around it.
And it’s noteworthy that when Hal Draper talks about the concept of a political center in his writing, he cites not only various Trotskyist groupings that had tried to form a broad, non-party political center in a period of relative decline for the Left, but he talked about a social democratic center around Dissent that had formed and also another, quasi-Maoist center that had formed around the Monthly Review or The Guardian, which was a very important publication on the Left in the seventies and eighties. So, that’s where I considered the debating ground for Jacobin, not really ever as a literary project.
DL: Well, it strikes me that you started Jacobin after Obama had been elected. I’m a bit older than you, and I remember Left publications having the quality of Z Magazine, on the one hand, or, of a less serious kind, something like Anarchy magazine. Then there were the various [sectarian] newspapers and also something like Adbusters.
BS: I started reading Z Magazine in maybe like 2006-2007, because it was mentioned in the documentary version of Manufacturing Dissent. For me, it was like, “Oh, Chomsky says, read Z Magazine. I should check it out and check out Michael Albert.”
DL: And now, years later, after seeing that same movie, I know Michael Albert and even published him at Zer0 Books. He’s still out there working. But Jacobin came along and was clearly different from what had gone before. It didn’t have the same feel as Z Magazine or as Adbusters, which had a kind of anarcho-hippie art school feel. How much do you think that what enabled you to come into being was a change in the Left that had to do with the election of Barack Obama?
BS: It was more voluntaristic than that. Mainly, it was a generational thing of having fresh eyes and wanting to do something that seemed more accessible and spoke in a different language just based on coming from younger people. Obviously, I don’t put much stock in generational politics, I just mean it as a matter of communication — knowing how to build a social media presence, knowing how to reach people, and to move towards relevance, while at the same time not really changing the content.
If you look at the early issues, it is clear where our intellectual interests were, what we were talking about. We were not really following trends. Still, that was the initial instinct: to be fresh and to avoid nostalgia. The biggest addition was Remeike Forbes, who is now our publisher. A little bit more than a year in, he came on to design Jacobin and be our creative director. What he brought aesthetically and otherwise had a major impact on how we were perceived. Because, prior to that, we weren’t actually read that much. This was right around the Occupy movement.
So, the actual setting up of Jacobin was very based on the same people we had at The Activist. To the extent we brought in more people in those new issues, it was people like Richard Seymour, Walter Benn Michaels, and Lars Lih. So, it was not different content really than what you found in other Marxist publications.
DL: But you were taken up by a Left that was disaffected with the Obama administration’s failure to cope adequately with the economic crisis (though I don’t know who would have been able to cope with it). Occupy was the Left’s repudiation of the Obama administration, among other things.
BS: Yeah, it was. To some extent we were tailing Occupy, obviously, because the initial impulse and the initial precursor to Occupy very much came out of the anarchist movement. Particularly in its tactical orientation, it was far more anarchistic than socialist, representing the last gasp of the anti-globalization movement of the nineties. It drew on things like the New School occupation and the struggles in the University of California movement. It had some of that spirit. The reason why it got popular resonance is that it showed that a broadly egalitarian, anti-austerity politics had mass support. So, the reason why it mattered was its broadly socialist or social democratic impulse, not its tactical orientation. I went to Occupy early on, and I was willing to go along with it.
Still, I thought, this is kind of ludicrous as a tactic. I was wrong.
DL: In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd massive protests erupted that even dwarfed to Occupy in this country. From my vantage point in the Pacific Northwest, when kids were trying to keep the George Floyd movement, the abolish the police movement, going, what they picked up were anarchist books and the forms they embraced were anarchist. There was a feeling that direct action, anarchist self-organization was called for in a moment of massive riots. It seems like in America, especially, but perhaps elsewhere, too, anarchists are always the ones that come out in moments of crisis to sort of shape the political response of what calls itself the Left.And then it peters out.
BS: I was about to say that at a time when the Left was discredited or seemed old and defeated, anarchists were the ones willingto take action, to do things, whereas we were tryingto assess the balance of forces. I don’t know if you remember the One Nation rally that the unions put on in the autumn of 2010. I had more hope for that as a socialist and a Marxist. I thought, “ok, this is the broad front. From this there’s going to be an anti-austerity movement to counter the Tea Party, and from that mass trade union and left progressive-backed movement, we’re going to be able to carve out a socialist flank.” It was a very rigid view, whereas the anarchists were like, “let’s sit in a bunch of squares.”
Part of the attraction of going back to 1990s post-Marxism — say, Empire by Hardt and Negri, John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power, or The Coming Insurrection later on — is precisely in their vagueness. That is part of their strength. Even Crimethinc was like this. It’s like reading poetry. It’s not like reading about, say, how to follow the Cuban Road. The thing about socialism is that it does have a history. It does have a track record, and a form connected to the mass party. It can just be very direct, which is what we’re trying to do, at least in theory.But not too long ago, that direct political character was less sexy than vague post-political theory.
DL: Yeah, that’s for sure, and defines the 1990s to a tee. The anarchists dominated again, not just because I was in the Pacific Northwest, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and really longer ago than that. Do you know the band Crass? I did a reading in New York at the Blue Stockings with Gee Vaucher, who was an illustrator for all their albums, a kind of member of the band. I said, “we need to get beyond this notion that we can just imagine a new tomorrow. Maybe we need to shape some sort of vanguard that can think these things through.” She replied, “can you do it?”I was like, “well, probably not.” And she said, “then shut up.” Basically, she didn’t want any of the politics. I like her a lot, but I know exactly what you’re talking about.
I want to ask you about 2016. So, you were involved in the DSA, which wasnot the big force that it is now. It was not thought of as being where the Left was going to go. Did you think that the DSA was going to explode when you got involved with it? Did you have a prediction of that,or were you just lucky that Trump got elected?
BS: No, part of the first wave of growth in DSA — growing an organization five thousand people to one of ten or fifteen thousand — was really just a product of savvy organizing and hard work. A lot of people started things on campus and just doing basic, common-sense organizing to build abase. To some degree, Occupy helped. With Bernie, we jumped to like twenty thousand, and then, after that, it exploded with Trump. I did not anticipate that.
As a member of DSA, I thought, “all right, if you’re a socialist, you should be a member of a socialist organization.” DSA was flexible and was not doing anything barbarous, so I thought, “I can find a home here.”I definitely thought that things needed to be shaken up. I was probably more interested in the idea of Left regroupment as a way to do that, drawing together the existing strands of democratic socialism, post-Leninism, and post-Maoism. A lot in these traditions converged, albeit with different styles and different histories. There wasn’t a lot of difference between us and the politics of a post-Maoist group like Freedom Road. They were a little bit softer on the Democratic Party than most of us were in DSA. The same applied to the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy & Socialism, and the Communist Party.
There were also people around Freedom Road and other kinds of left-wing constellations and activist forces. So, I thought that was a way to take an organization with five or six thousand people and make one with ten thousand, to act as a pole of attraction for other parts of the Left andbe ready for the next upsurge. But I also thought that a lot of the task of the DSA and of Jacobin was keeping alive socialist ideas for a new generation to be useful many years in the future.
I definitely saw the coming resurgence of socialism, in part simply because I thought that the materialist worldview informed by Marxism was based on objective reality. I thought that there was a contradiction between those who have power and wealth and those who don’t, and there’s always going to be conflict over the distribution of resources and power. So, I knew there was going to be some sort of upsurge. I just saw it as laying the groundwork for maybe 2025 or 2030. Some of the early Jacobin people used, for whatever reason, to joke about 2036 as the year of our return and resurgence. That was kind of an inside joke for a while.
DL: How old will you be in 2036?
DL: So, by that time, you’ll be seasoned and mature and can run for office. I want to ask you about the Democratic Party. You said the DSA was harder on the Democrats than the Maoists were.
BS: The DSA didn’t even endorse Obama in 2008. It just didn’t make an endorsement in that election, not even as regards people living in swing states.
DL: In a lot of ways you may be absolutely right: The supposedly more sectarian, doctrinaire Marxist organizations within America are sometimes softer on the Democrats than the DSA, which has a more direct relationship to the Democrats, in my mind anyway, because of the way it was founded and what it’s for. So, just to tell a personal anecdote, the organization I was with absolutely hated the Democrats until it came to election time, in which point they would all just hold their nose and vote Democrat. Certainly, with Trump, they would rail against how much of a threat Trump was, therefore you had to vote for the most secure, middle-of-the-road Democrat. Basically, the Biden argument coming from Marxists, right? Whereas the DSA was like, we will risk short-term security in order to push the Democratic Party to the Left.
BS: For a lot of the official Communist movements around the world, their goal became self-preservation under state attack and at times social isolation. They went from maneuvering for state power, from what the French socialist leader Leon Blum would call the conquest of power — proletarian forces actually taking control of the state and ushering in socialism — to stepping back to what Blum would call the exercise of power, which is kind of getting into power, implementing structural reforms to get closer to the point that he could conquer power. But, then, ultimately when Blum actually took power, what he thought he was doing was neither the conquest nor the exercise of power, but merely holding power, because, otherwise, the far-right (unlike now, with Trump, in the 1930s there were actually mass fascist forces in France) would have taken power, which would have made it all the more unlikely in the future that the worker's movement would be able to either exercise or conquer power.
Some of that mentality came to characterize Communists all around the world, whether in national liberation movements, broad fronts, or coalitions. They subsumed their identity and just hoped to create alliances between the Left and center to stay alive and to fight another day. And there is, in certain environments, validity in that. To me, it’s a tactical question.
Left-center alliances might make sense in a country on the cusp of fascism or to prevent counter-revolution, like in Chile [in 1971] or wherever else. I just thought it was hyperbole now in the United States. I thought that the biggest danger, in the long run, was not having a Left that existed at all — programmatically, in people’s imaginations, or at an organizational level in their communities. And I thought we had to distance ourselves from what was decrepit in liberalism, from the mainstream of the Democratic Party, even if we were using the vehicles of elections.
This was the most important thing. Neoliberalism is part of what’s creating the far-right, and a short-term move to uphold the present order just makes it all the more likely that, when it falls apart (which it will), the right is going to be the only oppositional force. I still believe that. I’m still happy I didn’t canvas for Hillary Clinton or vote for her or for Biden, because, in part, the crisis of the Democratic Party has to be seen as an opportunity for us and not something to prevent.
DL: What you just said about the crisis of the Democratic Party strikes a chord for me, because in 2016 I was not that enamored with Bernie Sanders until after he lost to Hillary. But in 2020, for the first time my life, I gave money to a political candidate, to Bernie. That’s how bad it was for me. I hoped that him almost getting the nomination would cause a crisis within the party and would do damage. That was what I wanted to see. Was that what you wanted to see come out of the Bernie Sanders campaign, or did you want him to get the nomination? How did you think of it?
BS: I initially thought of it as just carving out an opposition movement. So, I was part of a DraftBernie Sanders movement before he came in. But if you read what I wrote at the time, including what I wrote the day he announced (obviously I prewritten it), my goal was for there to be mainstream socialism in the US rhetorically, for him to be a voice in a Left-populist sense for discontent with inequality and to help us organize the outside as a result. And we actually accomplished those tasks. While I’m not sure if I actually wrote this down, my goal was to have him beat out O’Malley.I wanted him to be a very distant second place.That was like the height of my ambition.
Obviously, when it took off, you get greedy at a certain point. You’re at the blackjack table and you think, “well, I really wanted to make $20 and go home. But, now that I made $20, I might as well try to make it $40.” And so, we got a bit greedy, and by “we” I mean socialists who supported the Sanders campaign. But I did think that the goal was to create a distinct oppositional profile for the Left. We were in a country without a Left and we needed to create one. Since we had hollowed out institutions in civil society and since the worker's movement had been all but defeated (trade unions have been all but defeated in the US), we had to use this kind of Left-populist tactic — running an election using the mass media, using communicative tools, not because we thought that this was the route to power in a direct sense, but because we thought that was a way to unblock and reenergize politics in the country.
DL: Why was Bernie Sanders superior, in your mind, to someone like John Edwards?
BS: I actually supported Edwards.
DL: Yeah, I was for Edwards too. But it seems to me that we've seen this every election: There’s always somebody who talks vaguely like an old New Deal Democrat, someone who comes along and talks about “the two Americas,” as with John Edwards or Dennis Kucinich. What about Sanders made him more important in your mind before Trump in 2016?
BS: There was a far sharper level of class delineation in what he was expressing. It reminds me of the history of the Civil War. If you know a little bit about the Civil War, you know it’s all about slavery. If you spend a couple of years learning about it in high school, you say, “oh, it’s pretty complicated. It’s about five different factors and whatever else.” Then, if you really spend years studying history, you say, “oh, yeah, it was about slavery.” It's like that with Sanders. He was a man of the Left, even of the far Left. This was someone who was an elector for the Socialist Workers Party in the 1980s, who did, even as mayor of Burlington later on when he had moved into more mainstream policies, express solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and became involved with solidarity work with struggles in Nicaragua and El Salvador. This is someone who has views of the far Left.
He’s modulated some of those, but there remains this old Left, common sense, class-centric quality to him. There’s something about the fact that he came from an older generation of the Left. He learned how to communicate with people that made him more attractive. And I would actually contrast that rhetoric and that very distinct worldview with the rhetoric and worldview of, say, AOC and other members of the Squad. Their rhetoric is much more academic and heavily identitarian. That comes from the more recent campus Left and is very different than Bernie.
So, perhaps it’s a matter of degrees. The fact that he called himself a socialist was certainly significant. He didn’t just decide to call himself a socialist. He had to call himself a democratic socialist because he couldn’t escape decades of self-identification. For instance, he was in YPSL (Young People’s Socialist League). That mattered because you’re tying your class-centric worldview, your class-struggle worldview, with an ideology that’s outside of the American mainstream. So, those ingredients combined with a younger, more confrontational base saying, “Bernie is distinct and different than the Democratic Party.” A lot stemmed from his simplicity and focus on class.
Many people want to argue that his rhetoric didn’t change in the next election cycle, but it’s very clear that he adopted a lot of the identitarian trappings of the Democratic Party, in part because he wanted to win in Democratic Party primaries, which are often an interest-group-based fight. You don’t employ one universal, common-sense message. Instead, you tailor your language to every single (sometimes made-up) constituency and so-called “community,” because those NGOs kind of make the Democratic Party go.
DL: Do you think that he could have gotten the nomination if he hadn’t changed his rhetoric in 2020?
BS: It probably would have played out similarly. Biden has some weird parallels with Sanders in his communication style. They are both men from a different era. That’s something older Democratic voters actually like. So, you have people whose firstpreference was Sanders and second preference was Biden, and vice versa. So, there was something similar in their communication style. Biden learned politics in an era when you had to talk to trade unions and had to be relatable, as opposed to now, when you can just be put into a safe, deep-blue district and placed on the path to power. It’s unclear to me that Kamala Harris has ever built a real base.
DL: Adolph Reed was recently interviewed on This is Revolution, which is a podcast hosted by Jason Myles and Pascal Robert. There he stated that he had supported the Sanders campaign with the hope of building a kind of long-term movement that would outlast the campaign and could create new institutions for class-based struggle. In fact, that was not the result of the Sanders campaign; no new institutions or movements arose out of it. He didn’t explain exactly why, but I have a theory that this is due to the funding mechanism that Sanders used, the way his funding was tied to the Democratic Party. The supporters’ list that he created was tied to the Democratic Party. What he built up in his campaign became assets of the Democrats after the election, and that was probably always going to be the case. So, if we just ignore the fact that some people thought that he was on track to get the nomination (and it seemed to me that he was closer in 2020, though maybe I didn’t pay close enough attention the first time around). . .
BS: There was at least a week and a half where I thought he probably had it.
DL: Nate Silver told me he had a 99% chance of getting the nomination. And Nate is not some kind of Berniecrat, but, it turns out, that he is not good at his job.
BS: What I like about Nate Silvers is he gives a take. I’m a huge sports fan. I grew up listening to New York sports radio. So, you would have a host, say Mike and the Mad Dog, make the stupidest prediction, be proven wrong, and just power through. The next day they would back on the radio. Somehow, every time Nate Silver does it, every time he comes forward. . .
DL: I think “Oh, I got to listen to him because he’s smart!”
So, what do you think accounts for the Sanders campaign failure, in the way that Adolph Reed described it — its failure to create any movement?
BS: Part of it was due to Sanders himself, to his not prioritizing that. He’s not that kind of leader. But there’s also the question, who was he going to lead? He built a base through a Left populist campaign. He built a base of voters, of people who liked this individual figure and his class-struggle messaging. That’s what he built. Did he really build a base of activists that had any sort of leverage from which they can organize?
In other words, let’s say Sanders tried to build a mass movement and he attracted, let’s say, the activist 1% of his broad voting block: Would it have looked very different from what DSA is now? In other words, like a motley collection of people recruited in ones and twos, far more identity-focused than most Americans, far more college-educated, far more fringe, and prone to splitting than the base. Where was the big trade union that had a billion militants ready to fight for Sanders and to help implement his program? It wasn’t that kind of thing.
It was a fleeting attempt. Because it was this Left populist attempt, it really only would have worked with state power. It only would have worked with maybe a general election run or simply if the campaign had lasted a longer period of time, so that it had the ability to use a greater bully pulpit to direct people to mass action, to kind of unblock the state.
Even Trump to some degree — obviously, I’m not a supporter of the January 6th insurrection or whatever you want to call it, but what was that? A president trying to do a bad thing, trying to use mass action to create the results in the state machinery that he wanted. That’s what Sanders administration could have, in theory, been like. That’s the type of action that you could have gotten. But I don’t think you could generate a party beyond the Left with just the activist base of the Sanders campaign.
Honestly, I’m not sure any of us would want to be a part of whatever would have emerged given the actual existing Left. So, how do you create a Leftactually rooted in the working class? That’s a much longer-term project, and that should be where we’re starting. Not, can we create a bigger DSA or whatever else? But, can we create a more rooted Left?
DL: During the Sanders campaign, you and Adolph were both members of the DSA, right? Did you guys talk strategically at all during that period?
BS: No, though I talked to Adolph a lot. I’m a big admirer of his work for more than a decade, since maybe 2009. When we were first in touch, we were probably not talking at a strategic level about what DSA should do. It was more complaining about things being done in various quarters of the Left, right? Especially this hyperracialization of American politics in recent years. . .
DL: But was there a consensus among the DSA people backing Sanders about what was necessary for Sanders to do to build the movement they wanted? How quickly was it recognized? Obviously, we all got swept up in that Nate Silvers moment. We all thought there was a moment there, but how quickly did people recognize the truth of what you just said? Were you guys having strategic conversations to avoid maybe committing the same mistake? Because, on the one hand, we on the Left need to be rooted in the working class, but, on the other hand, I'm not quite sure what that means. It doesn’t mean just supporting trade unions right now, not that we shouldn’t.
BS: It means making sure that our appeals contribute to building a majority base by rooting them in common sense and material interest appeals. Then, we have to be willing to be present and to support mass working-class action in many different forms. So, the yellow vest actions in France — that was a form of working-class revolt that socialists were involved in. Communists and France were involved in that and it made sense for them to be involved in it.
In other countries, the Left populist window hasn’t really closed. In France, it hasn’t fully closed but is kind of uneven. In other countries, a more traditional Left party and program is making progress, like in Belgium with the Workers Party of Belgium. So, rootedness to me means thinking through how to shift politics away from this culture war terrain, which in part means employing, in the short-term, populist tactics. Not because I believe in populism as a grand theory, but in this moment in American politics, when you have highly polarized rooted identities tied to these cultural struggles, it makes sense to try to create a politics that’s more top-versus-bottom and bottom-versus-top, than Left, Center, and Right. It’s an easier terrain for us to build, an egalitarian movement.
So, take something like the recent Black Lives Matter protests — yes, they were large, but how much more disruptive would those protests have been if they were tied to an assault on the prerogatives of capital in a very direct way? They were less disruptive than Occupy, and were more easily cooptable, not because of some crafty “elite capture,” but because the demands themselves were so vague and so easily coopted into something actually anti-working class.
DL: They were more disruptive for everyday working people than Occupy was by far but less disruptive of the political structure of America. My final question for you — as one publisher to another, as one person working on the Left to another — is this: How do we work on the Left, publish on the Left, think on the Left, and maintain a commitment to being strategic, which means being able to talk critically to each other across sectarian divides? Have you encountered a lot of that on the Left? To be honest, I don’t encounter a lot of sectarianism, which is a bad thing, sometimes, because it means that people are just incredibly apt to follow whatever the consensus of the day is. When they do break with social and cultural consensus of the Left, they break from the moral and ethical aspect of the Left and the socialist project, which is a world without exploitation, a world without oppression, a world where we’re breaking with capitalism, and we’re constructing something else, a socialist society. It seems to me that there’s a lot of pressure now to go along with whatever the norms are. To me, it is necessary to avoid that temptation just to see that the Left that we’re trying to create is not the existing Left.
But what do we do — as publishers, as individuals, as activists, as organizers — to create the Left of the future? Are we engaging in opportunism today that might undermine our project tomorrow? And if we think in terms of a medium-term time horizon, then why would we do some of these things? At certain moments, it might make sense to modulate and be careful with the way we express a criticism. Let’s say we criticize the Black Lives Matter movement, we should state the caveat that a lot of people were engaged with it for egalitarian reasons. We should state that we believe in the disruption part of it, but we think a more focused program or whatever is necessary. So, there are practical modulations that aren’t quite the same thing as opportunism. There’s a fine balance between all these things. And I agree that we’re in a better position now than we were ten years ago. But now that we’ve gotten a taste to some limited degree of relevance, gotten a taste of reaching millions of people with class-struggle rhetoric and appeals, it’s hard to be satisfied.
BS: As you know, things are now pretty bleak, and they could become much bleaker in the future. We’re on a pretty bad course now. Our politics is completely dominated by culture war, completely polarized in just the stupidest way possible, and working-class people are going to continue to be alienated from politics.
DL: You’re being optimistic. I criticized Black Lives Matter in 2020 because I was watching a lot of these things happen through my kids who were out there protesting things. I, of course, supported what they were doing in spirit, but was trying to direct them. And that’s how I feel about the whole thing. But you’re being optimistic, saying that we’re going to continue to have the culture war issues and continue being dominated by the neoliberal wing of capital. Because I look at what’s happening in Ukraine, and it could be a lot worse than what you’re talking about. We could long for the days when we were irritated by woke takes on Twitter. Do you feel a sense of emergency around Ukraine?
BS: I disagree with the policies of the Biden administration. Much of the West has turned from common sense policies. Even German foreign policy, not particularly radical, has turned from engagement with Russia and seeking some sort of solution towards going along with the war. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s going to be a massive escalation towards another world war or towards direct USinterventionism. And I do think part of our emphasis should be on what’s become a very far-right regime in Russia that could unilaterally end the war and whose presence, whose actions — above all, the Russian Right’s action of invading Ukraine — is bolstering the Right in the US and across the West. This is the way it always is, and we need to focus on both sides of the equation there. I don’t want to make it seem like I’m downplaying my disagreement with, my opposition to, the Biden administration. But it’s tricky trying to mobilize mass support for an anti-war movement when the US is just engaged in a proxy conflict.
DL: When you say that Putin’s war in Ukraine is bolstering the Right in the US, do you mean it’s helping the Trump movement?
BS: No, I mean the foreign policy establishment in the US and NATO. This is common sense to me, though this argument got Jacobin attacked by a lot of liberals. To me it is a common sense position — I’m a socialist, I oppose capitalism and I oppose the division of the world into classes that has existed since the Neolithic revolution. Is it a big surprise that I oppose the North Atlantic Treaty Organization? No. Yet, somehow this has become controversial.
There are many things to criticize DSA on, but opposing NATO is not one. But the way things are going, it seems like only Ireland is going to hold out of NATO. God bless the Irish. They will probably never join NATO. If they do ever join it, then I just call it quits here on earth.
DL: Oh, don’t do that.
BS: Counterrevolution in Cuba and Ireland joining NATO — it’ll take both of those happening.