A Young Publisher Takes Marx Into the Mainstream
When Bhaskar Sunkara was growing up in Westchester County, he likes to say, he dreamed of being a professional basketball player.
But the height gods, among others, didn’t smile in his favor. So in 2009, during a medical leave from his sophomore year at George Washington University, Mr. Sunkara turned to Plan B: creating a magazine dedicated to bringing jargon-free neo-Marxist thinking to the masses.
If that hardly seems less of a long shot at fame, let alone fortune, he’s the first to agree.
“I had no right to start a print publication when I was 21,” he said in an interview in a cafe near his apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “Looking back, I see it as a moment of creative ignorance. You have to have enough intelligence to execute something like this but be stupid enough to think it could be successful.”
The resulting magazine, Jacobin, whose ninth issue just landed, has certainly been an improbable hit, buoyed by the radical stirrings of the Occupy movement and a bitingly satirical but serious-minded style. Since its debut in September 2010 it has attracted nearly 2,000 print and digital subscribers, some 250,000 Web hits a month, regular name-checks from prominent bloggers, and book deals from two New York publishers.
It has also earned Mr. Sunkara, now a ripe 23, extravagant praise from members of a (slightly) older guard who see his success as heartening sign that the socialist “brand” — to use a word he throws around with un-self-conscious ease — hasn’t been totally killed off by Tea Party invective.
“Bhaskar’s a really remarkable — I want to say kid, but that sounds condescending,” said the MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who gave Jacobin a shout-out in Rolling Stone last June before inviting Mr. Sunkara onto his show. (Mr. Sunkara skipped part of his college graduation to appear.) “He’s got the combination of boastful assurance and competence of a very good young rapper.”
And the praise doesn’t come only from the left-hand side of the spectrum. The National Review blogger Reihan Salam, who has linked to numerous Jacobin articles, called Mr. Sunkara “an almost hilariously savvy character who knows how to deploy mockery and flattery to great effect.”
The magazine’s injection of a “vital left-of-left-of-center” viewpoint into the conversation, he added, “has been very fun to watch.”
In writing Mr. Sunkara can come on like a one-man insult-comedy squad, whether the target is regular whipping boys like the Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein (“a young liberal with a lust for properly punctuated policy memos”) or the capitalist vampire squid itself.
But in person he’s more straightforwardly earnest and quick to emphasize that the magazine he founded in his dorm room has evolved into a collective endeavor. Jacobin’s success, he said, springs from the highly cohesive politics of the four co-editors he has recruited and their shared commitment to advancing a critique of liberalism that is free of obscurantist academic theory or “cheap hooks.”
Not that Mr. Sunkara, who is also the magazine’s publisher, dismisses the value of pop-culture come-ons (the new issue includes a radical analysis of the Onion’s online reality-television satire “Sex House”) or good visuals. The sleek design by Remeike Forbes, an M.F.A. student from the Rhode Island School of Design who e-mailed Mr. Sunkara out of the blue in 2011 offering to design a Jacobin T-shirt, has been essential to getting people to take the magazine seriously, he said.
And when Seth Ackerman, a graduate student at Cornell University, turned in a scathing analysis of the Constitution’s inherent conservatism for the second issue, Mr. Sunkara knew it needed something to really pop.
“Seth had a title with nine words and a semicolon,” he recalled. “I crossed it out and wrote ‘Burn the Constitution.’ ”
That article, along with “Zombie Marx,” a critique of chapter-and-verse Marxist economics by Mike Beggs, a young lecturer in political economy at the University of Sydney who Mr. Sunkara met (like Mr. Ackerman) through the e-mail list of Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer, got some pickup on blogs. But it was a packed Jacobin-organized panel on the Occupy movement, held in a downtown Manhattan bookstore three weeks after the protests began in Zuccotti Park in September 2011, that really put the magazine on the map, drawing attention from Politico and Glenn Beck.
“The purpose was to force people to actually talk about ideology, about which ideas Occupy would stand for, about whether there should be any ideology at all,” Mr. Ackerman said, adding that many people he sees mentioning Jacobin on social media come from “Occupy-ish” circles.
Meanwhile the magazine was also attracting attention from more established figures on the left, who saw it as raising fundamental questions that had been off the table since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Corey Robin, an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College who became a contributing editor last winter, pointed in particular to articles by Mr. Ackerman and Peter Frase, another early Jacobin recruit, debating the possibility of a post-capitalist economy involving, among other things, drastically reduced working hours.
“So many people are not working or already getting wages subsidized by the state — maybe there’s something already at play that we haven’t paid enough attention to,” Mr. Robin said.
Mr. Sunkara, the son of middle-class South Asian immigrants who was voted “most likely to succeed” in high school, traces his politics less to experience than to reading. In seventh grade a stray reference in an introduction to “Animal Farm” sent him to Trotsky’s own writings. By his freshman year of college he was editing a blog for Democratic Socialists of America and writing for Dissent.
His multitasking work ethic hardly shows signs of flagging. In addition to his position as a staff writer for the progressive monthly In These Times his 2013 projects include an essay collection for Metropolitan Books (edited with Sarah Leonard of Dissent), to appear in September; a series of Jacobin-branded books published by Verso; a $7,500 fund-raising drive; and, if he gets around to it, a podcast called “This American Strife” — ideally followed, he likes to say, by a lawsuit from Ira Glass.
Mr. Sunkara also plans to keep writing for Vice magazine, where he has compared outrage over rich professional athletes to outrage over “overpaid” public-sector employees, all of whom he sees as just trying to negotiate their fair share.
That time, Mr. Sunkara’s editor wrote the headline, the Vice-like “Jeremy Lin Is Not Greedy, You’re Just Stupid.” But when it comes to Jacobin’s goal of smuggling radical analysis out of the intellectual ghetto and into the mainstream Mr. Sunkara’s motto seems to be: by any means necessary.
It helps, he said, “that liberals think we are relatively sane.”