‘Socialism was hardly in the air in the suburban US’
Image by Paul Sableman via Flickr (cc)
Socialism was hardly in the air in the suburban us of the late 90s and early 2000s. In Sunkara’s characteristically breezy telling, it took a lingering oasis of American social democracy, the local public library, to acquaint him with socialist literature: ‘By chance, I picked up Leon Trotsky’s My Life the summer after seventh grade, didn’t particularly like it (still don’t), but was sufficiently intrigued to read the Isaac Deutscher biographies of Trotsky.’ In a readerly itinerary that tacked between the headings of social democracy and social revolution—a pair of stars that still forms the constellation over Sunkara’s adult career—he soon steered forward in time to Michael Harrington and Ralph Miliband, and backward to ‘the mysterious Karl Marx himself’. The phrase signals friendliness to the neophyte reader to whom The Socialist Manifesto is obviously, but not exclusively, addressed.
Sunkara’s foraging for intellectual nourishment in the municipal stacks took place at a time when there was not to be found on the periodicals shelves any publication resembling Jacobin or, for that matter, the other little magazines of the left that have sprung up on the American scene over the past fifteen years: journals firm in their radical commitments but addressed to the general reader as opposed to historical-materialist cognoscenti. Back then, the choice was between genuinely radical journals like Monthly Review or nlr itself that in their different ways took for granted their readers’ prior theoretical formation or political orientation, and social-democratic outlets such as The Nation or Dissent that offered meekly progressive takes on current events, with little evident hope and less concept of any ultimate socialist overhaul of us society. It testifies in no small part to Sunkara’s achievement in Jacobin that left-curious American teenagers today would no longer find themselves as intellectually lonely as he (and, for what it’s worth, I) once did, and that the broad Marxist tradition no longer looks like such an antiquarian or specialist concern.