“We want to get to the class dynamics behind stories”

Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of socialist magazine Jacobin, on the US strike wave, the beleaguered German Left, and the role of Left journalists. Plus, should Bernie run again in 2024?


Jacobin is the socialist magazine that needs no introduction. It’s become a major mouthpiece for the revived Left in the US and beyond, with publications in Italy, Brazil, broader Latin America, and here in Germany.

Last week in Berlin, Jacobin and Transform Europe hosted a conference called Socialism in Our Time, which brought together leading Left thinkers and office holders, including star speaker Jeremy Corbyn, to tackle the urgent questions facing the socialist movement. Ella Teevan from The Left Berlin sat down with Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara to talk about how US socialists should approach labor and elections, the prospects for the German Left, and how Left journalists should see themselves as political people first, journalists second.

What’s your connection to Berlin?

I’ve been here about once a year because of Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung events or Transform Europe or Jacobin Deutschland events. I last came here in 2019.

What are the biggest projects the US Left should be taking on right now? And what are its biggest challenges?

I think the US Left should be focused on sinking deeper roots into working-class life. Right now in the US, you could speak really distinctively about the Left and a movement of workers, and what the working class thinks and what the Left thinks about a variety of social or cultural issues. But I think, instead of being pessimistic about the base we’ve built, we need to take this base and direct it towards either workplace actions or industrializations, but also to supporting movements as they arise.

I’m a big fan of the work done by EWOC [Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee] and around DSA [Democratic Socialists of America]. The Amazon Labor Union, I think, is a really big step. Starbucks is more like a media event, just because the shops are much smaller in scale, but I think it will make a big difference, too, potentially.

So, in essence, a lot of what we should be doing in the short term is labor movementism, while at the same time preserving our existing base of elected officials, and continuing to run in campaigns to use the bully pulpit there. But I think it’s important those elected have a much more narrow scope than they do now. One reason why I think Corbyn struggled in his election was that, at the end of the election cycle, you could say that Labour stood for four hundred things – free this, free that, free whatever – whereas one thing I thought Bernie did very well in his first campaign was repeating, “I’m just going to talk about Medicare for All, I’m just going talk about inequality, I’m just going to talk about millionaires and billionaires.” In Bernie’s second campaign, I think even messages like canceling medical debt – things that I advocated for at the time – just created too much diffusion of the left populist message.

In other words, we need to think about where the working class is and orient our work towards it, both through direct workplace organizing and through the rhetoric that we use in our electoral campaigns.

Jacobin just ran a piece advocating for Bernie running again in 2024. Do you have a take on that?

I think, ultimately, it’s up to Bernie. Any run he does in 2024 would be a symbolic run, largely. Is it going to be a net benefit? I think it would galvanize more people than it would take up energy. So yes, I think he should run. But I think it will be very different from his previous runs.

I think Bernie’s also going to be pretty careful with whoever the Democratic Party presumptive nominee is – probably Biden – and the Left needs to brace itself for that. He needs to find a way to run combatively within whatever constraints he sets, because he doesn’t want to be perceived as a spoiler in the general election. And I think that’s the big danger. Because I think Biden is the only Democrat who can win in 2024, in part because he’s already president. Once you lose the incumbent advantage, it’s a 50-50 race, and then the Democrats have a bad economy and whatever else to run on.

I want to move from US politics to Berlin. Berlin has a long and rich history of left and workers’ movements – you’ve written about this in The Socialist Manifesto. Why did you and Jacobin pick Berlin for Socialism in Our Time? And what’s especially exciting, or troubling, about German politics for you right now?

There’s nothing exciting about German politics right now, unfortunately. But we have a great base of contributors in Berlin. Jacobin Deutschland is great. And I think it’s important in general for Jacobin as it builds a bigger base in the US to not be completely US-centric and to pay attention to other things happening in the advanced capitalist world. I would say that Germany and the Anglophone world used to be out of sync with the cycles of our struggles. Now, for better or worse – mostly worse – we’re in sync, and we’re in a period of downturn, for the Anglo-American Left and also for the German Left.

I think Germany had a higher starting point to begin with, with the history of the workers’ movement, with the institutional strength of die Linke that’s been squandered, and it’s worth figuring out why or how. Obviously, as an outsider, I don’t have the best vantage point about why, but yes, I think we’re in somewhat bleak times for both. But at least there’s still a newness about the Left in the US, where here the Left has been an entrenched force but still hasn’t made a breakthrough.

A bit of a bleak assessment, but I don’t disagree. Speaking of The Socialist Manifesto, in the book, you give a 101 history of the revolutions and almost-revolutions that socialists should know. Do you see parallels between any of those historical moments and the one we’re in right now? What lessons might we act on from them?

I think the most important lesson in the book relates to the experience of social democracy and what that meant. In the book, I pose the idea that there could have been a social democratic road to socialism. I explain why that didn’t happen, what contradictions and roadblocks it faced. But I think for us today it’s important for us to embrace a day-to-day quest to construct the type of social democracy that’s not driven by bureaucrats, but actively engages ordinary people and might help encourage those people to take more ownership in their parties, take more ownership in their government, and not be demobilized by the experience of power. I do think there is a social democratic road to socialism, and I think the chapter where I discuss Swedish social democracy and its trajectory is relevant today for people, especially people engaged in politics in a country like Germany.

I want to switch gears and talk about the magazine. Jacobin is the reason we’re here. The big news on the Left is obviously the Jacobin redesign that just happened.

Right. Have you seen a copy?

I have. In fact, I shelled out an arm and a leg for an international subscription.

Yeah, especially because in Berlin, that’s, like, a month’s rent. No, I’m just kidding, it’s something like 50 dollars.

Well, you’re not wrong. Why the new look? And more broadly, why is it important to have visually compelling print media on the Left?

There are two components to the redesign. One is just the cosmetic change. I think the branding does make Jacobin more distinctive, and it also lends itself to different brand applications. But content-wise, in the issue, every spread has an article, it has a list, and it has events or it has infographics. So it’s made to be a little bit less linear than a traditional issue of Jacobin, where you start at the beginning and you go to the end. This is more like a regular magazine that you can pick up, read any article or skim.

In a way, I think it’s us finally getting the resources to fully go from a Marxist journal to a socialist magazine. And I think that’s a positive development. We also publish Catalyst, which is a more traditional journal, if you really want unadorned writing. But the idea is not just to create more value for existing subscribers but to help reach a wider base, even if we’re in a tough year politically, because if the magazine is good and interesting, it’s something you’re more apt to give to a friend, or to spread around. At some point we just believe the quality of the magazine will reflect itself in its subscriptions over time.

Speaking of the mission of having a mainstream or accessible socialist journalist project, what would you say to someone who wants to start doing Left journalism right now?

I would say they should consider themselves political people first, or even auto-didactic scholars first, even if they have no university affiliation, then journalists second. It’s really useful to have a speciality, and often that comes from some sort of academic background, but a lot of that could be learned outside of academia, like through policy. I think that everyone should have a baseline understanding of history, but besides that, if you live in a place like Berlin, you could become a specialist, if you will, through reading white papers and academic literature on housing, and on debates about densities and zoning and rent controls and the way public housing has been effectively employed in the past. I think that gives you more background to tackle, even if you’re doing it journalistically, something like a rent strike or a referendum on rent controls and stabilizations. It also helps immerse you in a world view.

I think a lot of quote-unquote bourgeois journalists are hyper-focused on the craft of journalism, which just involves setting the scene, describing events, and taking both sides. But we want to get to the class dynamics behind stories. Sometimes you can use the former approach and get to those class dynamics. But often – I know this makes me sound very dogmatic – it takes looking at the objective dynamic, for instance, that renters all basically want a certain thing, and landlords all basically want a certain thing. We can complicate it a little bit more and say landlords are under certain constraints because of the market and state regulations and how these things interact with each other.

I think everyone should be able to do journalism. It’s not something you have to go to school for. The reasons people go to journalism school are either to give themselves time to hone their craft, or for networks that come out of it. But my own approach when I started Jacobin was that I worked as a secretary at Brooklyn College for many years to earn an hourly wage. I found a job that gave me enough mental space and time to be able to work on Jacobin and other pursuits. And I audited a few classes at NYU, for free, with socialist professors like Vivek Chibber and others during that time. So you’re taking the work or task seriously, without necessarily thinking you have to grind away as a copyeditor because you need to be full-time in the profession; meanwhile you’re copy-editing material you couldn’t care less about. I think that we might need to take one step backward to de-professionalization to get a firmer grasp on certain issues.

So I don’t think people on the Left should necessarily pursue professionalized journalistic careers. I think a lot of them should pursue jobs that they find rewarding, that can remunerate them and offer them enough spare time that they can be amateur journalists who take the truth and scholarship very seriously, which I think is slightly different. Then, hopefully, there can be outlets like Jacobin who can pay for that work. But these outlets will probably never be able to pay for full-time bureaus the way that newspapers can. It needs to be a political act.