What’s the deal with Jacobin magazine?
Ned Isakoff, played by Todd Kimsey, Seinfeld, NBC
From New Left Review:
To what extent is Jacobin feeding off changes in us political culture in the last few years?
I think there has been a shift of sorts. You no longer find as many people actively defending the system—there’s a sense of dejection, a sense that the system can’t be changed, but there’s less active defence. This has happened in my generation, and I think it leaves an opening to show people that there is an alternative. There’s definitely an audience for the idea that the immiseration people are experiencing is actually very easy to fix—technically, we have plenty of resources to do so, the only barriers are political. Generationally, I think there’s also been a change in the perception of socialism. When the Berlin Wall fell, there was this idea that it would open the way for a democratic socialist thought no longer bound by Cold War paradigms. But it immediately became apparent that this wasn’t true—there was a tremendous swing to the right, and in the 1990s life for people in the former Eastern Bloc, and the developing world more generally, was considerably worse than when the Soviet Union was around. We may now be getting to the point, though, where socialism is no longer so closely associated with the ussr. For example, according to a Pew poll from 2011, people in the us between the ages of 19 and 30 have more positive sentiments towards socialism than capitalism. Of course, what they mean by socialism is something like the Scandinavian welfare state, but that’s still progress over an association with gulags and military parades.
At the same time, the leftward shift people tend to see in the New York publishing scene is often overstated—it’s definitely a welcome development, but we’re talking about fairly small circles. A lot of the most significant gains that have been made organizationally are on the right. Progressives often describe it as astroturf, but there is a degree of grassroots energy in the Tea Party that has helped them make inroads, for example against reproductive rights. There have been some shifts, and there is an opening for us on the left, but I would say we’re at the very beginning of what we need to be doing.
What was Jacobin’s relationship to Occupy?
Most of us were involved as individuals—we were either in universities or major urban centres where the occupations happened. At the time we were only a year old, and had a circulation of less than 1,000. We played no direct role in organizing, though we did host a panel that became one of the more famous Occupy events, partly because the New York Times freelancer Natasha Lennard lost her job after participating in it. We did some online pieces on Occupy that were very widely read at the time, too. It certainly opened up space for Jacobin, partly because people were looking for something that was neither the prefigurative politics of the anarchists nor MoveOn.org-style liberalism. Just by virtue of being socialists we offered a more compelling political alternative—not only the moral and ethical critique of capitalism, but a plausible transition to a successor society.
You’ve talked about Jacobin operating in the middle ground between Leninism and social democracy. What does that mean in terms of strategy—does it imply a kind of neo-Popular Front politics?
It’s true that we wouldn’t see liberals as our enemies, and we’d envisage common action with them where possible. It’s also useful to make a distinction between the Democratic Party and a section of its base. The mainstream of the party, as represented by Obama, as well as the more technocratic dlc types, hold economic views diametrically opposed to a substantial part of the base, who still largely buy into the New Deal, the Great Society, welfare, social goods and so on. If we want to build a socialist or even left-liberal opposition movement today, one to the left of the mainstream Democrats, its votes and support will have to come from some of these people—they’re the ones we need to be engaging with and directing our activism towards.
Isn’t there a tension, though, between the social-democratic and radical socialist perspectives being offered in Jacobin?
I don’t think so. One day, in a dream scenario where you have a socialist movement pushing for full social ownership, say, and it’s encountering active opposition from the bourgeoisie, then you would have a clash. But that debate is very much in the future. In the short and medium term, I don’t think there’s a tension between the two poles. There are tensions with our liberal supporters, though. One of the reasons Jacobin has grown so much is that we’re attracting liberals who are interested in left-wing ideas, and at the moment we serve a useful purpose for them—having someone intelligent to the left of them allows them to assume their natural position as centrists. But it’s not clear we would get that kind of support from those people if there was actually a proper movement advancing views diametrically opposed to theirs, or at least challenging their dominance within a broader left movement.