Every successful magazine, like every successful revolution, condenses an atmosphere. The atmosphere may be political or it may be cultural. It may be a matter of taste or a question of style. Very often it is generational.
If your youth was anything like mine, you grew up reading what your parents kept around the house, and for a time you unthinkingly shaped yourself to the sensibilities of those publications. And then one day you looked up and saw that the world you knew, the world you were living in, was unrecognizable in the pages you were reading. Maybe you discovered that the jokes weren’t that funny anymore, or never were. Maybe you realized that you couldn’t care less about the people they thought were important, couldn’t imagine why they didn’t spend more pages on the artists, celebrities, and athletes you knew were a hundred times more interesting. Maybe you found yourself no longer convinced by their arguments. Maybe they just seemed old.
New magazines begin here: with the sure knowledge that something is missing, that the existing options aren’t cutting it. And it is for this reason, I suspect, that the founders of successful magazines tend to emerge from a fairly narrow demographic band. Francis Underwood was 32 years old when he persuaded Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and a few others to help him start The Atlantic Monthly in 1857. Harold Ross and his wife, the pioneering journalist Jane Grant, were the same age when they founded The New Yorker in 1925. Henry Luce and Briton Hadden were 24 and 25, respectively, when they started Time. Hugh Hefner was 27 when he started Playboy, as was John H. Johnson when he started Ebony. Gloria Steinem was 37 when she and several other women produced the first issue of Ms. as an insert in New York, which had launched as an independent magazine when Milton Glaser was 38 and Clay Felker was a relatively ancient 42. Dave Eggers was 28 when he started McSweeney’s, and he was 33 when McSweeney’s spawned The Believer, whose founding editors—Vendela Vida, Heidi Julavits, and Ed Park—were 31, 34, and 33.
When Bhaskar Sunkara decided to start Jacobin—the socialist quarterly that has proved itself the most successful American ideological magazine to launch in the past decade—he was just 21. To start a magazine that young, even one that survived for more than a handful of issues, was hardly unprecedented. Jann Wenner was the same age when he founded Rolling Stone. But whereas Wenner had a once-in-a-century cultural renaissance to help him on his way, Sunkara started Jacobin under a doubly vexed sign: in 2010, when Jacobin got its start, the only surer bets than the impossibility of a Donald Trump presidency were that print media was in a death spiral and American socialism was a permanent fossil. And yet, since then, Jacobin has succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, not least Sunkara’s. The print magazine, with a circulation of 40,000, now stands at the center of an expanding enterprise that includes a book imprint, podcasts, an academic journal called Catalyst, and a website with over a million monthly visitors. Last fall, Jacobin adopted an elder sibling, in the form of Tribune, a leftist British magazine founded in 1937, and in November it launched its first foreign-language edition, in Italy.
In October, Sunkara met me for lunch at a restaurant near the magazine’s office in Brooklyn. Dressed in a blue shirt with a button-down collar, on the short side of average height, he had black hair trimmed neatly around his ears and a few days’ worth of beard. After ordering a Diet Coke and a sandwich, Sunkara explained that his aim in starting Jacobin had been “to plant a flag for a certain kind of democratic-socialist politics.” Concerned that fundamental Marxist ideas like unions and class conflict had fallen out of style, he sought to provide a socialist alternative to anarchism and to Obama-style liberalism. At the same time, he felt a strong aversion to the academic jargon and petty factionalism that had been hallmarks of American socialism in recent years. With an eye toward attracting the readers on the left edge of liberalism—the people who watched Chris Hayes on MSNBC or read the bloggers at Crooked Timber—he set out to create a magazine whose language and tone would not be too proud to court new readers, or too stuffy to entertain them.
There’s little about this plan that sounds strange today. Bernie Sanders, who ran openly as a democratic socialist against Hillary Clinton in 2016, is already considered a front-runner for the Democratic nomination next year. And it was just last fall that two more democratic socialists, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, were elected to Congress. Lately even Francis Fukuyama, the political theorist best known for predicting the permanent triumph of market capitalism thirty years ago, has decided that socialism “ought to come back.”
But to understand what Sunkara was up against when he started Jacobin, it helps to remember what “socialism” signified a decade ago. Those were the years, you may recall, when the bank bailouts and the fight over the Affordable Care Act turned the word into the worst sort of slur. The prevailing state of affairs was captured by Beverly Gage, a professor of history at Yale. “We might as well call it: The American left is dead,” Gage wrote in the Times in 2011. “Today, the dream of socialism exists mostly as a far-right phantom.”
These days, by contrast, the Times has taken to running cheery quizzes asking its readers, “Are You a Democratic Socialist?” As the quiz indicates, there is still what one might generously call a productive confusion about who ought to be counted in the category. (A Jacobin editor, for instance, described Sanders as “a deeply flawed representative of the Left” in late 2015.) But what seems indisputable is that “socialist” has been sapped, at least among Democrats, of its derisive force. And while it’s too much to suggest that Jacobin was responsible for this change, it’s equally too little to suggest that the magazine was swept along helplessly but happily by a rising red tide. More than once Sunkara told me that he has always thought of Jacobin as a political project, not a media project. What the rise of Jacobin suggests, however, is just how inextricable, and maybe even indistinguishable, those categories turn out to be.
Luck looms large in the story Sunkara likes to tell about himself. He found his way to socialism early and, in his account, mostly by accident. He was born in the summer of 1989, a year after his parents and four older siblings immigrated from Trinidad. When they got to the United States, Sunkara’s parents both took 60-hour-a-week jobs, his mother as a telemarketer, his father at a welfare clinic. With five kids, there wasn’t much money to go around, but they earned enough to rent a house in Pleasantville, an upscale community just north of New York City that gave their children access to high-quality public schools.
Sunkara says that the Pleasantville library, where he spent afternoons waiting for his parents to get off their shifts, proved especially important. It was there, in seventh or eighth grade, right around the time the Iraq War was getting underway, that he first read George Orwell. From Homage to Catalonia he became interested in the Spanish Civil War, which led him to Leon Trotsky and other Marxists. “I think it was just completely random,” Sunkara says now. He counts himself fortunate he didn’t stumble on Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman first.
While books helped shape his worldview, by far the deeper pull toward politics came from his experience as the only natural-born citizen in his family. Unlike his immigrant siblings, Sunkara grew up with the full complement of Pleasantville’s property-tax-funded social programs. He says he was attracted to socialism in large part “because I saw how much of life was an accident of birth.”
Sunkara went to his first Democratic Socialists of America meeting just before graduating high school. The DSA then had just 6,000 members nationwide, and the New York chapter, which Sunkara attended, skewed old and Jewish. He recalls sitting patiently through hours of stories about what it was like to grow up in the Bronx in the forties and fifties, when everyone had to choose whether they were an anti-Stalinist socialist or a party-line Communist. “It felt like they were trying to make certain things relevant,” he says, “but it was basically relics.”
In college, at George Washington University in DC, Sunkara supported John Edwards’s presidential run and began editing the blog of the youth wing of the DSA. He developed a taste for British polemicists—Alexander Cockburn, Perry Anderson, Christopher Hitchens, V.S. Naipaul—and read back through the archives of left-wing stalwarts like Dissent, New Politics, New Left Review, and The Nation. He admired many of these publications, but he also identified unclaimed territory between those that seemed almost afraid to be too accessible to their readers, and others that settled for mindless cheerleading. (In a blog post he published around the same time, Sunkara lamented “the deterioration of The Nation into a vapid, politically complacent mouthpiece of the establishment.”)
When he decided to start a new magazine, in the summer of 2010, Sunkara looked to William F. Buckley’s National Review as a model. That magazine had been careful to define itself as conservative, not Republican, and it had taken certain positions—encouraging Barry Goldwater to run for president in 1964, for instance—even when they might spell short-term trouble for the Republican Party. In a similar way, Sunkara says, he hoped to use Jacobin “to cohere people around a set of ideas, and to interact with the mainstream of liberalism with that set of ideas.”
Sunkara says now he had no real idea how to run a magazine—he didn’t know, for instance, that publisher was a job title a person might aspire to. But what his youth cost him in experience, connections, and, most critically, cash (his initial annual budget was just $240) compensated Sunkara with a certain editorial liberty. For decades, Marxism had been treated as a fringe concern by mainstream media outlets. Free enterprise was the American way, and any suggestion otherwise, it was understood, risked planting a fatal first step on the slippery slope toward Stalinism. But these hangups had little purchase for the millennial cohort Sunkara hoped to address. Having lived their entire adult lives under the shadow of the Great Recession, for them it was capitalism, not Communism, that counted as the god that failed.
What his youth cost him in experience, connections, and, most critically, cash compensated Sunkara with a certain editorial liberty.
The editor’s note introducing the first online issue of Jacobin was echt Sunkara: at once swaggering and modest, funny and sober, earnest and desperately afraid of being caught taking itself too seriously. “Publications with tiny audiences have a knack for mighty pronouncements,” he wrote. “A grandiloquent opening, some platitudes about ‘resurrecting intellectual discourse’ followed by issue after issue of the same old shit.’” The About page described Jacobin in a style (and with a typo) only an undergraduate could love: “A magazine of culture and polemic that Edmund Burke ceaselessly berates on his Twitter page. Each of our issue’s contents are poured over in taverns and other houses of ill-repute and best enjoyed with a well-shaken can of lukewarm beer.” Sunkara solicited writers he knew from the DSA blog and from Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer listserv. His first issue included essays on European social democracy and the Zapatistas, interviews with Azar Nafisi (the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran) and Walter Benn Michaels (The Trouble with Diversity), and a review that found in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad Love Story “a distracting, superficial critique of capitalism.”
By any standard, the launch was a dud. The site registered only 600 visitors in its first month, causing him to reconsider the project. Unconvinced that a website alone could distinguish Jacobin among the glut of other small online outlets, Sunkara decided he needed a print magazine. This idea was, to put it extremely mildly, counterintuitive. After all, 2010 was the year Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of MIT Media Lab, declared that physical books would be dead in half a decade, the same year Apple introduced the iPad, which was widely seen as the last best hope to rescue the magazine industry from otherwise certain extinction.
If you could get an actual copy of your magazine into the hands of your readers, you could force them to pay attention.
Sunkara had no idea that both of these predictions would prove wildly mistaken, but he figured that a physical object couldn’t be ignored as easily as a blog post. If you could get an actual copy of your magazine into the hands of your readers, you could force them to pay attention. With this logic in mind, he prepared a print issue that duplicated much of what had already appeared for free online, and published it early in 2011.
The first print issue sold well enough to convince Sunkara that he ought to start work on a second. Later that year, he told an interviewer that he had stumbled into a niche. “I don’t really see anyone doing what we’re doing and I’m not sure whether I should be proud or disheartened by that,” he said. “I do know that if the response to our haphazard launch is any indication, there is a market for what we’re producing.” His goal, he said, was to produce an eight-issue run.
In September 2011, a day after Gage noted that “the left has mounted no effective mass protests, inspired no significant uprisings” in the Times, Occupy Wall Street set up in New York’s Zuccotti Park. Jacobin covered the movement on its blog and was mostly bemused about its anarchist flavor. But while the protest would have an important long-term influence—it taught a generation of activists to think in terms of class—its most immediate effect on Jacobin was the publicity generated by an Occupy-themed video that went viral thanks to a concentrated blast of right-wing outrage.
Around the same time, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design named Remeike Forbes emailed Sunkara, offering to design a T-shirt as a fundraiser. It didn’t take long for Forbes to be drafted as the magazine’s sole designer. His involvement led to an immediate improvement. The first issues of Jacobin, with hot-pink display copy and four-color art, had offered clear proof that Sunkara wanted nothing to do with the drab design of most left-wing publications, which seemed to draw aesthetic inspiration from the East German Plattenbauten. But the earliest issues of the magazine were erratically laid out, with odd accumulations of negative space that betrayed their amateur origins.
Forbes’s covers established a hip new tone for the magazine, whether it was the Bastille-era guillotine done up as an Ikea assembly diagram or an unflattering allusion to Jacobin’s Gen X antecedent, The Baffler, which implied that it was time to turn the page—literally—on the previous generation. (Sunkara admitted to me that he had no idea The Baffler existed until a year or two after he started Jacobin.) Forbes’s most distinctive contribution was a stylized silhouette of the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture that appeared on the cover of the Spring 2012 issue. In an accompanying essay, Forbes wrote that the choice of a black person as Jacobin’s logo “provoked some anxiety on the editorial board,” given the potential for causing offense. But as a black Jamaican immigrant himself, he saw in L’Ouverture’s revolution an encapsulation of “the historic mission of the Left.” (L’Ouverture was also the subject of The Black Jacobins, by the Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James, which Sunkara has credited with indirectly inspiring the name of his magazine.)
Jacobin’s design was easily the most distinctive thing about it, and helped propel the magazine from 2,000 subscribers in early 2013 to 7,000 the following year. But the magazine also began to attract notice for its frank and often surprisingly sensible articles on the theory and practice of socialism. Mike Beggs, a lecturer at the University of Sydney, had a hit with “Zombie Marx,” from the Summer 2011 issue, while Peter Frase’s “Four Futures,” from Winter 2012, imagined a taxonomy of possible outcomes that might follow the deployment of full automation, such that the economy no longer required human labor.
And yet as important as these articles were for Jacobin’s reputation, the magazine more closely resembled Wenner’s Rolling Stone, or Harold Hayes’s Esquire, or Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair than it did Dissent or the New Left Review in at least one respect: its whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Reading Jacobin you got the sense that socialism had as much to do with a sensibility as any particular set of arguments. It was, or became, part of who you were.
Henwood, who has an essay in the latest issue of Jacobin, its twenty-seventh, told me recently that the magazine’s success in making socialism seem vibrant should not be underestimated. When he started writing for leftist publications in the 1980s, “it was just such a lonely landscape. You’d go to these left spaces and they are often filled with freaks, like really odd people.” Jacobin, he says, helped American socialism escape its dreary Cold War reputation. “To have this lively, attractive magazine, this young culture—it’s definitely a very important part of what turned this thing around. It created an audience for radical socialist politics among a younger generation.”
“[Jacobin] created an audience for radical socialist politics among a younger generation.”
Keenly aware of how few options there were for people who might be curious about socialist politics but not ready to dive headfirst into the DSA, Sunkara helped facilitate the organization of Jacobin reading groups across the country and around the world. Over lunch, he told me that he still felt this practical urgency. “What most people encounter as Marxism—from going to college, for instance—is Frankfurt School cultural criticism, things that are actually quite complicated and often pretty meaningless. We just say, ‘This is the core idea, and you can understand it.’” A similar spirit informed The ABCs of Socialism, a book Jacobin published in 2016, and Sunkara’s own Socialist Manifesto, which Basic Books is publishing in April. He told me that he wrote the book, a history of socialism, in hopes that a high school student would “be able to pick it up and understand it and be interested in it.” Last year, as part of a themed issue on childhood, Jacobin even published a children’s book about socialist bats.
On a clear Monday night in mid-October, I went to watch Sunkara debate Gene Epstein in Manhattan. Epstein, who is 74, is the former economics editor of Barron’s and the director of the Soho Forum, the organization that sponsored the debate. The event was a reprise of a similar debate that Sunkara had organized in 2017, during which he and Vivek Chibber, the editor of Catalyst, had debated two editors from Reason, the libertarian magazine, in front of a left-leaning audience at Cooper Union. Now the libertarians would have their revenge: it would be Sunkara’s charge to defend the thesis that “socialism is more effective than capitalism in bringing freedom to the masses” at a debate series whose mission is “to enhance social and professional ties within the NYC libertarian community.”
Before the debate began, a comedian in an unzipped hoodie warmed up the crowd with jokes about #MeToo and Bernie Sanders. Shortly after an ill-considered crack about hungry Africans earned him a few boos from the audience—“I’m sorry if I stereotyped Africa,” he told his hecklers, not sorry at all—he ceded the stage to Sunkara, Epstein, and the debate’s moderator, Naomi Brockwell, a red-haired bitcoin enthusiast.
Sunkara took to the lectern dressed like a McKinsey associate, in a pale-blue business shirt and brown leather derbys. He made little effort to dispel the impression that the event had attracted something less than his full enthusiasm, reminding the audience that he’d been paid for his appearance at the debate. A thundering Eugene Debs he was not: When his prepared text summoned a future in which workers might “reach their God-given potential,” Sunkara stopped himself abruptly and looked up from his notes. “I’m an atheist, I’m not sure why I said God.” Later he broke out laughing when he realized that his claim that “to be a socialist is to assert the moral worth of every person no matter who they are, where they came from, or what they did” very nearly plagiarized the chorus of a Backstreet Boys song.
“He’s a capitalist success story! He started a magazine that’s got 38,000 subscribers! He bought a magazine in Britain! He’s the wunderkind of socialism!”
Epstein proved the more natural debater, but about an hour into the program, his emotions got the better of him. “Walk the walk and quit talking the talk!” he sputtered at Sunkara, waving his hands like an aggravated pelican. “Bhaskar, learn some economics!”
After the debate I found Epstein at the center of a circle well-wishers. A few of them were trading news about a blockchain conference in Malta and a cruise off the coast of the Mexican Riviera whose entire purpose, according to Brockwell, was “talking about how much they dislike Paul Krugman.” Epstein was gracious about his erstwhile opponent. “Isn’t he kind of a charming personality?” he said to a man with an Ayn Rand Institute pin in his lapel. When I asked why he wanted to debate Sunkara, Epstein grew rhapsodic: “The guy is the socialist entrepreneur par excellence! He’s a capitalist success story! He started a magazine that’s got 38,000 subscribers! He bought a magazine in Britain! He’s the wunderkind of socialism!”
Epstein’s awe at Sunkara’s output speaks to a commonly held view that socialism is the last refuge of the truly unproductive. Socialists are “the kind of people who would casually crash the best of plans with a last-minute bad hair day,” the libertarian economist Bryan Caplan suggested recently. “They radiate incompetence. I doubt their families would trust them to plan a simple trip to Sea World.” This notion is by no means exclusively held by the right. As Micah Uetricht, Jacobin’s managing editor, told me recently, “If you’ve hung out on the left for a while, you’re not used to people having a fire under their ass to do much of anything.”
Sunkara couldn’t play more contrary to type. He has written about his fondness for starting businesses as a high school and college student, including a “shady business import/exporting out-of-market software” and a “small-scale bootlegging” operation. During Jacobin’s early years, while working as a receptionist at Brooklyn College to support himself, he occasionally flipped used Playstations for a profit on Craigslist.
“He’s a real hustler. He’s a real operator,” Henwood says. “And charming: he’s not an obnoxious thruster.” Uetricht marveled at Sunkara’s drive. “He likes the competition part. He likes when we’re up and our enemies are down. He enjoys that kind of thing, as well as figuring out the big picture. If you are in charge of an organization, you have everything from, ‘What will be the lead editorial?’ to ‘How much are we paying for shipping?’ He likes every aspect of that process. I once went with him to a shipper. We met with this guy in this industrial area, and Bhaskar just came alive discussing the shrink wrap per-piece rates. ‘Can we get a discount?’ It’s like, we need to negotiate a good rate for the bags for our issue, because that is part of how we are going to move more further toward socialism.”
“Bhaskar just came alive discussing the shrink wrap per-piece rates.
Sunkara, for his part, told me that there’s no contradiction between his entrepreneurial enthusiasm and his socialist ideals. “The market logic of creating a publication,” he says—attracting readers, getting them to subscribe, finding competitive advantages that will keep them on the rolls—“is politically pure.” By contrast, he finds “profoundly narcissistic” the idea that publishing worthy ideas is a sufficient reason to expect a sustaining income. “When people are, like, ‘I want to create a publication because I believe in community, and I believe in bringing together all these people and ideas,’ part of me is, like, This is fucking all bullshit,” he says. “No. You want to create a publication, you have to think about who are going to be your readers, and how your readers are going to give you money. Otherwise you won’t have a publication.”
At the start, Sunkara thought that Jacobin would subsist on a steady diet of advertising revenue, supplemented by donations, subscriptions, and a Kickstarter campaign. (“I’d run public service announcements from the Republican National Committee and/or local drug dealers if it didn’t change the editorial content of the publication,” he said early on.) Very quickly, however, he learned the same lesson that the rest of the industry has spent the past decade rediscovering: subscription revenue was the way to go.
“Print publications are very simple,” he says. “You produce a good, and you take subscriptions. You make sure, over the course of the year, that the goods cost less than the cost of fulfillment. Let’s say we have 1,000 lifetime subscribers, and we get $300,000 from those lifetime subscribers. That’s $300,000 up front. Obviously it’s a liability, too, but not one they can call all at once. A lifetime subscriber can’t say, ‘Give me twenty years of issues right now.’ It’s almost like a finance game. Your liability isn’t a fixed thing, it’s a moving target. Let’s say 15 years is a lifetime subscription. You then have to make another assumption: what’s your median print run over the course of that 15 years? From that you deduce your cost of goods sold. If we make the assumption that it’s 15 years, and it’s going to cost 10 dollars per year to fulfill that subscription, then you can spend $150,000. You can hire staff, you can expand, or whatnot. But the best way to spend that $150,000 is to do things that will actually lower your cost of goods sold. It’s very simple.”
That the economics of print publishing are as simple as Sunkara suggests might strike someone familiar with the media business as naive if not slightly insane. And yet to see Jacobin’s bottom line, as captured on its IRS filings—since 2014 the magazine has been organized as a non-profit organization—is to discover what appears to be a socialist magazine operating in rude economic health. In its first year as a non-profit, the magazine received a stock donation worth nearly $100,000 from Alex Payne, who was one of the earliest employees at Twitter—also, full disclosure, a cash donation worth $140 from me—but in the three years that followed, donations never accounted for more than a fifth of Jacobin’s operating revenue. Revenue from magazine subscriptions and book sales, meanwhile, grew from just under $200,000 in 2014 to more than $1.1 million in 2017. Sunkara is wary of claiming to be profitable, and not only for the obvious political reason. Lifetime and multiyear subscribers, he says, constitute a long-term accounting liability not captured on his tax forms. Still, it’s significant that Jacobin reported a six-digit surplus in each of those four years. (Over the same period, the free-market-cheering Reason Foundation, which subsists almost entirely on contributions, gifts, and grants, reported annual operating deficits of more than $2 million from its magazine and website.)
What Sunkara’s neat story about the economics of lifetime subscriptions leaves out is just how much uncompensated sweat equity he and his colleagues put into the operation. For the first three issues, Sunkara did essentially all the production, design, business, and publicity work himself. (He gave his writers official-sounding titles on the masthead to make the operation seem bigger than it was.) Eventually he assembled an editorial board to help with commissions and brought Forbes on board as the magazine’s first full-time employee. In 2013 Sunkara started paying his print writers, but he did not take a salary for himself until two years later, and then only $36,000 a year.
Uetricht became Jacobin’s first paid editor in 2013. At the time, he’d been working as a labor organizer in Chicago, but he started out on the left under the sway of a punk-inflected anarchism that was relatively common in the mid-2000s. He says that his road to democratic socialism started in 2008, at a protest outside the Republican National Convention, when a police officer’s rubber bullet landed two inches from his groin. “That was probably the actual moment where I was like, ‘Why was I doing that? Why was I with these people picking fights with the cops for no discernible reason? It could have been really bad, and we didn’t really accomplish anything here. That was a real turning point, laying on my cot in jail.”
Uetricht, who is now 30, had never been an editor when Sunkara hired him to edit Jacobin’s website; his only relevant experience was writing a book under the Jacobin imprint at Verso. He says he learned his new job by doing, editing one or two articles a day and making, as he puts it, “half-time wages for full-time hours.” After a brief stint in Canada for graduate school, Uetricht came back to work as Jacobin’s managing editor. Today he works out of the magazine’s Chicago office and, over Slack, helps Sunkara and Forbes oversee five online editors, two designers, and four staff writers, two of whom are full time. The staff writers are responsible for most of the twenty-five pieces that are published each week online. And while the editors have heard complaints that Jacobin doesn’t pay enough for its freelance pieces—rates start at $75 per piece—Sunkara figures the magazine spent more than $100,000 on freelancers over the past year.
“Online is where you spend your money,” he told me, since the pull for fresh content on the internet—content that has to be commissioned, edited, and promoted—is essentially endless. Like magazines several times its size, Jacobin uses its website as a loss leader for its print publication. “It’s kind of a freemium thing,” Sunkara says. “Our goal is to convert people.” He is not at all apologetic about using every means at his disposal to attract attention. Nor was he embarrassed when the Times revealed in 2018 that Jacobin was one of several publications and celebrities to purchase followers on Twitter. At the time, Uetricht was trying to convince Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s agent to let him publish an essay by the former Lakers star. Sunkara thought a round number would help make the case, so he purchased a thousand followers without telling Uetricht. (The piece, on the exploitation of college athletes, ran in November 2014.)
Sunkara also spent heavily on Facebook advertising, at least until a few years ago. “We had a really good Facebook strategy,” he says. “Facebook is like a bottleneck, in that you can’t publish things one on top of each other. The Nation, The New Republic—all these publications have the money to produce twelve or thirteen pieces a day. We only have the money for four. But because of the Facebook bottleneck, it was a leveler.” When Facebook changed its algorithm in the middle of 2017, Sunkara told me, Jacobin’s referrals from the site fell 40 percent. These days, he says, he gets much more mileage out of conventional subscription campaigns that rely on email marketing, or even direct mail.
Less conventional is Sunkara’s insistence that revenue maximization should not be his primary goal. “Part of what we do with staff positions, is we want to give young socialists training and expertise and jobs,” he says. Sunkara likes to boast that Jacobin’s employees get good benefits and belong to a union, and he is justifiably proud that the gap between the lowest and highest salaries at the magazine is less than ten thousand dollars. “If the goal was revenue maximization, Jacobin would probably have a slightly smaller circulation, and we would publish a lot less online. I could make it profitable. But the goal isn’t profit,” he says. “The goal is reaching as many people as possible, within certain moral limits.”
In May 2015, just a few days after Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination, Jacobin published a long essay called “The Problem with Bernie Sanders.” The essay, by Ashley Smith, argued that “the Democratic Party has co-opted and changed Sanders,” and that the same was bound to happen to any leftists foolish enough to place their hopes in two-party electoral politics. Sunkara, writing around the same time, took a different view. Though Sanders was certain to lose against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary, Sunkara argued, the Vermont senator might prove a boon to the left in the long run. “Having Sanders openly defend socialism, and contest the New Democrat record before a national audience, is a baby step in the right direction,” he wrote. “When he fails, there’s every reason to believe that radical voices can take his place.”
Nearly four years later, it seems clear that Sunkara had the more prescient perspective. Sanders’s surprisingly competitive run for the Democratic primary—during which he won 23 states and 13 million votes—persuaded many people to believe that American socialism, however vaguely defined, might still have a future.
Meagan Day, one of Jacobin’s two full-time staff writers, was one of them. Before 2015, Day told me recently by phone, she’d considered herself a “left-liberal”—a faithful reader of The Nation and The Atlantic—but by no means a socialist. She’d been in college when the Great Recession hit, and like most of her classmates was too young to understand what it was all about. (At a Mountain Goats concert she attended, John Darnielle had asked the crowd what they thought about the bank bailouts. “There were crickets,” Day recalled. “He was like, ‘Do you guys even know what I’m talking about?’”) Though Day was demoralized by her one visit to Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street—“weirdos and drum circles,” she recalls—she says that the protest’s motto had stuck with her. “Some part of my mind was insistent on applying that ninety-nine percent versus one percent framework to the news.”
Day first encountered Jacobin while she was living in Turkey in the wake of the Gezi Park protests, at a time when she was “starting to see the importance of class division and of class conflict everywhere, and was finding that left-liberal media was insufficient to explaining the world.” Still she says, she remained “ideologically free-floating” until Sanders came along.
“I just really fucking liked Bernie Sanders,” she says. “I liked him because he is a straight shooter, and the things that he was saying made sense, and nobody else would say them. I didn’t know what single-payer health care was until Bernie Sanders started talking about it. You read a little bit about what he’s proposing, and you’re like, ‘Why in the hell don’t we have that?’” Day says now that Sanders oriented her political inclinations much the way a magnet shapes a tray of iron filings. “That’s what it felt like for me when Bernie Sanders came along. I already had the makings of a socialist, but I felt completely emboldened to pursue those politics.”
Day’s political evolution proved the plausibility of the thesis that Sunkara had laid out in 2015. “Jacobin actually helped me understand what it means to be a socialist,” she told me. “It turned me from somebody who was sympathetic to socialism, and maybe even willing to identify as a socialist, into somebody who was capable of understanding socialist strategy and applying it to real-world political activity.”
“[Jacobin] turned me from somebody who was sympathetic to socialism. . . into somebody who was capable of understanding socialist strategy and applying it to real-world political activity.”
Sanders’s run—and Trump’s victory—proved crucial to Jacobin’s growth. Though the magazine’s 501(c)3 nonprofit status meant that it could not explicitly endorse political candidates, Jacobin’s Bernie-friendly editorial outlook made it a natural intellectual home for his new admirers. The magazine became the unofficial house organ of the movement and saw its circulation triple as a result, from 10,000 in the summer of 2015 to 32,000 in the first issue of 2017. (Jacobin attracted 16,000 new subscribers in the two months after Trump was elected.)
Jacobin has also benefited from its symbiotic relationship with the DSA, which grew from around 6,000 in 2015 to more than 50,000 last fall. Given Sunkara’s own relatively long membership in the organization, the overlap of Jacobin’s readership and DSA’s membership is hardly a surprise. But Sunkara says that he is careful to try to keep the magazine a step removed from day-to-day political concerns. Jacobin’s loyalty to socialist ideas expresses itself in what he describes as an editorial box, as distinct from an editorial line: “A line publication says, ‘This is what we think about this.’ A box publication says, ‘Here’s the debating ground on which we operate. Nothing outside, but everything within in it.’” Though many of Jacobin’s staff are members of the DSA, Sunkara says that “everybody knows to keep separate debates in DSA from the publication. The publication has its own logic, its own mission.”
Jacobin’s current print circulation of 40,000 far outpaces Sunkara’s original aspirations. He told me that he’d originally hoped only to match the high-water mark of the Partisan Review, which topped out at 15,000 subscribers. And while he’s convinced that Jacobin could last for fifty years if managed properly, he also feels that Jacobin is running in overtime: “It has completed what it initially set out to do. We helped put socialism back on the map in the United States, we helped shape and cohere a new generation of people who are on the left, a new generation of socialists. And now we have to figure out what we are.”
Though Sunkara believes that this is the best time to be on the American left since at least the late sixties, he guesses that it will be difficult to expand his subscriber base much beyond 50,000 without changing the magazine significantly. “I think we used to be in an era where you could have a flagship publication and it just builds. You would build up The Nation to like 150,000 subscribers, or Mother Jones to like a quarter million.” Now, though, he says, “the way that publishing is working is extreme segmented markets. I think that in order to get to the six-figure size, there would have to be some sort of dilution, becoming something you’re not.”
To avoid that fate, Sunkara has embarked on several new projects. In addition to its book imprint, published by Verso, which averages four books a year, Jacobin has launched Catalyst, its academic journal, plus a series of podcasts and Jacobin Italia. The Italian edition runs on what Sunkara calls “a classic franchise model”: Jacobin provides publishing and editorial advice, and takes a small cut of revenue, but otherwise lets it run independently. The podcasts, too, receive marketing and business support. It’s a way, Sunkara says, of expanding Jacobin’s reach without taking too much risk: “We severely limit our upside, but in return we have little to no downside.”
Jacobin’s biggest recent bet was the purchase, last year, of Tribune, a left-wing British magazine that once employed George Orwell as literary editor. Sunkara’s interest in the British left is long-standing. He has established connections with the upper echelons of the Labour party, led by democratic socialist Jeremy Corbyn, and Jacobin has not hesitated to defend Corbyn against accusations of anti-Semitism. (At the Tribune launch in Liverpool, Corbyn was introduced to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French socialist who ran for president in 2012 and 2017.) Sunkara says that by contrast with Jacobin, Tribune is mainstream and institutional: “Jacobin is more flippant and immature and insurgent, whereas Tribune is more avuncular and burdened by history.”
The Tribune acquisition was not without controversy. Under the previous owner, Owen Oyston, a convicted rapist who was found to have “illegitimately stripped” more than £26 million from the professional soccer team he owned, Tribune had been in dire straits. Three writers who were owed back pay from Oyston agreed to accept 70 percent of their claims from Sunkara, believing that this compromise would facilitate their continued involvement with the magazine. When Tribune’s new editorial staff did not ask the writers to contribute to the first issue, they took their complaints public. (“In the capitalist world someone who buys an ailing company and dumps its committed workers is known as an asset-stripper or robber baron,” one wrote in an open letter, “but at least they don’t claim to be socialists.”) Sunkara insists that the plan all along was to invite the writers to contribute to the second and third issues. “They thought, and had reason to think, that they would be incorporated into the relaunch at a closer level. . . . But the thing is, they have different models and different visions than some of the new staff.”
In late November, I met up with Sunkara at a mostly empty bar in Brooklyn, not long after he’d returned from the UK, where he’d hawked Jacobin at the annual Historical Materialism conference and met with Tribune’s new editors. The trip was one of several he’d made to Europe in recent months. While the Pixies brayed from the overhead speakers, Sunkara told me, with evident relief, that Tribune had signed up 4,000 subscribers since its relaunch, a quarter of whom came in the first 72 hours. “One thing with Tribune is it has every advantage, unlike Jacobin. It’s not really a bootstrap project—it has resources and lists, things like that, at its disposal. So the stakes are higher, and its expectations are higher.”
“What I discovered over the course of the years, is that publishing is a craft just like editing or just like writing. It’s just practiced by fewer.”
Sunkara clearly enjoys the challenge. “What I discovered over the course of the years, is that publishing is a craft just like editing or just like writing. It’s just practiced by fewer,” he told me. “If you think of your work as worthwhile, and you think of your political mission as worthwhile, then I think there is a tendency to chase scale. If you’re connecting with 500 people, then can’t you do this in 12 cities or 15 cities? If it works in the US, can’t we encourage it in different countries? You want it to spiral out of control.”
I mentioned to Sunkara what Uetricht had said to me, that his appetite for the cut and thrust of business did not seem to be an especially common attitude on the left. From memory, Sunkara quoted A. Philip Randolph’s suggestion that “at the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take and you keep what you can hold onto.” He noted that “it sounds like the most rabid, aggressive, right-wing whatever,” before noting that Randolph was a socialist. “He was talking about helping people organize for some basics of their livelihood.”
We packed up to leave the bar. Earlier in the evening, Sunkara had told me that he tries to avoid New York publishing and media circles whenever he can. Instead he spends ten to 14 hours a week watching NBA basketball, he goes out once a week with his high school and college friends, and he visits his girlfriend, a law student at Harvard. He said he hopes to get married and have kids in the next couple of years. As we walked out onto a sidewalk still heaped with snow from a storm a few days before, he told me, “If you want to be happy, then you can find happiness in your personal life. In my personal life I have a very stable routine, because in your personal life you’re not in a conflict to succeed. But if you’re engaging in a political project, that’s not your imperative. Your imperative is to win, right?”
Correction: The piece has been updated to reflect that Bhaskar Sunkara did not personally introduce Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Mélenchon and that Meagan Day did not live in Turkey during the Gezi protests. It has also been updated to clarify that Jacobin’s podcasts do not share revenue with the magazine.
TOP IMAGE: Bhaskar Sunkara. Photo: Matthew David Roberts.