Reasonably Revolting: The “Socialism” of Jacobin

Toussaint L’Ouverture, the ‘Black Jacobin’ of the Haitian Revolution, provides an example Jacobin consistently fails to live up to

CC, Baile Átha Cliath

Jacobin is a left-wing magazine based in the United States. Styling themselves as the “leading voice of the American left”, [1] they ostensibly offer a socialist analysis of politics, economics, and culture. If one visits the ‘About us’ section of their website, they are greeted with a warning-sign yellow background, and modern art depictions of both their namesake (the ‘Black Jacobin’, Toussaint L’Ouverture), and Karl Marx.  The motto of the paper, “reason in revolt”, reflects the overt references to dissent found in their branding. However, despite their aesthetic, the “Brooklyn Socialism” of Jacobin amounts to little more than the same meek demands of democratic socialism, but in radical dress.

Their ideology is characterised by their inability to see beyond electoral politics even in the face of persistent failure, and their role as a mouthpiece of US imperialism, the latter manifesting in their regurgitating of approved foreign policy talking points, and their sponsoring of conferences that host proponents of US regime change around the world. As this piece hopes to demonstrate, Jacobin ultimately fails to live up to their motto, with their “revolt” functionally non-existent, and their “reason” being driven by opportunism, cowardice, greed, and imperialism.  

 

The Political Cul-De-Sac of “Brooklyn Socialism”

When Bernie Sanders announced to an unsurprised public that he would be giving the Presidential election one more crack, none supported him more zealously than Jacobin. Following his dropping out of the race in April 2020, Jacobin declared that his campaigns since 2015 had laid “the foundational socialist demands” for the American left.

Victory or defeat, Sanders had left the Left in a stronger position than he found it, both larger and more self-aware, and far less tempted by either the sour futility of third-party campaigns or the saccharine cheerleading of party-approved ‘progressives’. [2]

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, Jacobin proved to be a useful asset for the Sanders campaign, particularly when a wide range of candidates began to express interest in running for the Democratic nomination in the next cycle. When Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic Party Representative from Hawaii (who had endorsed Sanders in 2016), attracted voters with her policies of opposing endless wars, and holding a similar economic stance to Sanders, the magazine went on the attack. In an article titled ‘Tulsi Gabbard is Not Your Friend’, the paper criticised the source of her opposition to endless war, claiming that unlike Sanders, the major drive behind Gabbard’s criticism of past American intervention was rooted in a “concern about the Americans who fight them”, [3] unlike Sanders who’s anti-imperialism was guided by the belief of a “global community in which people have the decent jobs, food, clean water, education, healthcare and housing they need”. [4] While Sanders’ supposed anti-imperialism will be touched on later, there are serious concerns over how principled the hit piece on Gabbard actually is. When detailing the nationalism of Gabbard, it emphasised how much she impressed Steve Bannon, a former Trump advisor and editor-in-chief of the right-wing outlet Breitbart, who “loves her” and “wants to work with her on everything”. [5] While Jacobin used this to highlight her nationalist edge it seemed to forget that Bannon is also fond of Sanders, who he admires for “generating populist energy” in the left. [6] However Jacobin focused only on Gabbard, which begs the question of why such a hit piece was crafted in the first place. Even worse than this though is the painting of Sanders as the prime anti-imperialist figure of the left.

Steve Bannon, darling ideologue of the American right circa 2016, found elements to praise in both Gabbard and Sanders. Jacobin, however, only chose to highlight one of these

While Jacobin is right that Gabbard is no anti-imperialist it draws its conclusions for the wrong reasons. This becomes very apparent in their discussion of Sanders’ anti-imperialist credentials. Jacobin declared, only two years after their piece on Gabbard, that Sanders was “the only anti-imperialist candidate”. [7] Unfortunately, Sanders’ anti-imperialism was simply a rejigged formula of the old international binary, framed now as “Democracy” versus “Authoritarianism”. While Sanders was not shy of voicing opposition to China, he was far less clear as to how he would offset the power of the foreign policy “blob” which grew like a tumour in US bureaucracy. Despite this lack of clarity, the US left were expected to throw their weight behind Sanders. Those who came from the very political wave that Sanders inspired were to either fall in line, or be ostracised.

As the wheels of the election crushed on it soon became clear. The Iowa caucus of 3 February 2020 was make or break for both Sanders and his Democratic rival Pete Buttigieg. In the polling leading up to the caucus, Sanders was a clear favourite. However, as the day wore on, it became clear that something was wrong, as the app being used to tally the voting was proving extremely unreliable. Despite the fact it was impossible to release the results, the Buttigieg campaign (in a move reminiscent of their Venezuelan poster-boy at the time Juan Guaido) announced their victory, a claim that went unchallenged by many national outlets. After three days of recounts and recanvasing, Buttigieg had passed Sanders (who had initially secured the popular vote) and won the most state delegates. It seemed Iowa would become the graveyard of Sanders’ progressive revolution. If we take a look behind the curtain though, we can see more at play here.

Despite Sanders winning the popular vote in Iowa, Buttigieg still walked away with more state delegates at 12 to 9. (Source: Iowa Democratic Party)

The app used to tally votes was developed by the ominously titled Shadow Inc. (now called Bluelink). As information trickled out, it was revealed that the owner of Shadow Inc., American billionaire Seth Klarman, was a prominent pro-Israel lobbyist who backed the development of settlements in the West Bank, and also funded and backed the Buttigieg campaign. [8] The events at the Iowa caucus should have opened up an opportunity for Jacobin and other self-professed radical left-wing American entities to fully embrace the revolutionary aesthetics they exhibit. Unfortunately, in an article for The Guardian, Bhaskar Sunkara, Jacobin’s founding editor, reaffirmed loyalty to the Democratic Party in the wake of working-class dismay. He discussed how the real achievement and metric of Sanders’ success was in fact how far his campaign progressed working-class movements, one of the conclusions drawn being that “electoral activity has proven to be an effective means of raising the expectations, political horizons and organisations of working people”. [9] However, Jacobin refused to address the issue of how a working-class movement can enter and use the Democratic Party to achieve victories for the American working class. Iowa should have shown that the established elite in the Democratic Party will always work in unity with the rich and other forces opposed to a working-class movement in order to prevent them from exercising control. Instead however, he simply stated that, “If they organise and turn out to vote they can indeed win”, and, “we should have confidence in their [the Democratic National Committee’s] integrity”. [10]

The collapse of Sanders’ campaign provided an opportunity to truly advance class politics in America. The co-ordinated attempt to smother his campaign by establishment Democrats and their wealthy allies should have provided groups like Jacobin the opportunity to explore the possibility of working-class movements outside of endless electoral failures. Instead, they opted to reaffirm their commitment to blind electoralism, and redirect the working-class into voting for established candidates like Biden. The whole disaster summarises the political goals of Brooklyn Socialism, leading working-class movements into irrelevancy in the name of upholding electoral politics while simultaneously paying lip service to revolutionary politics.

 

Friends in High Places

It sounds like the start of a bad joke: a “socialist”, and a former US Secretary of State walk into a NATO security conference. Unfortunately, it is indeed the grim reality in which we live. In April 2020, Jacobin announced a new podcast, hosted by Ana Kasparian (best known for her work on The Young Turks), and the late journalist Michael Brooks with the tag line “liberals are hypocrites, and conservatives are cruel, but we have an alternative”. [11] They do in fact have an alternative: they somehow manage to do both! In 2020, Kasparian was brought all the way to the Munich Security Conference by her employers at The Young Turks, which revolved around the topic of a growing “Westlessness” [12] in global society due to a newly emergent great power competition. “Hotspots” such as Iran and Libya were discussed, but these were mere appetisers compared to the true enemy who was the culprit of the cracks appearing in Western domination: the People’s Republic of China. While the special role China occupies in the eyes of Jacobin will be discussed later, for now, what did Kasparian get up to at the conference? Did she challenge this global meeting of imperialists? Did she push back against this notion of a “Westless” society with its ethnically-charged undertones? No, of course not.  

Ana Kasparian (left) with Madeleine Albright (right)

During the conference, Kasparian was given the opportunity to interview various world leaders, but none stuck out more than her interview with Madeleine Albright. The former US Secretary of State has a dark history, for instance, ushering in sanctions against Iraq. During a 60 Minutes interview in 1996 when confronted with a statistic which indicated half a million Iraqi children died as a result of US sanctions she infamously responded “we think the price is worth it”. [13] Albright has also been accused of ethnically charged remarks towards Serbians and refused to label the killings in Rwanda as a genocide despite the contemporary evidence indicating it was. It was only seconds from when the interview started when Kasparian threw herself onto the floor in front of the war criminal claiming it was a “pleasure and honour” to have her here. [14] The interview was nothing of substance, simply liberal critiques of Trump’s vulgar nature and his protectionist policies, without an ounce of accountability expected from the imperialist whose hands were drenched in the blood of Iraqi children.  

The lack of any socialist principles does not stop there regarding who Jacobin platforms and supports. In 2019, Jacobin sponsored and funded ‘Socialism2019’, a conference which featured a string of US State Department speakers denouncing Latin American states, offering analyses of the Arab Spring, and, of course, China. One of the speakers, Anand Gopal, the host of a talk on the Arab Spring, himself worked at the New American Foundation, an organisation which takes direct funding from the US State Department. [15] More panels at this conference were set up to savage the states of Cuba and Nicaragua. Dan La Botz, a figure within the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), had a panel on Nicaragua where he expressed ideas of regime change. La Botz had also played host to right wing activists from Nicaragua, who got to meet Republican lawmakers in a move organised and funded by Freedom House. [16] The Socialism Conference has, in the past, criticised Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro for “not being radical enough” and their use of “Socialism from Below” as a vague programme that would not achieve what it set out to do. [17] While this view was expressed by participants in ‘Socialism2019’ not directly affiliated to Jacobin (but rather to the now disbanded Trostkyist International Socialist Organisation), it was effectively endorsed by papers like Jacobin who are the conference’s yearly sponsors.

Socialism2019. Ironically, the conference’s main organisers, the ISO, disbanded mere weeks before, so as to better pursue a programme of entryism in the DSA

Jacobin cares more about radical posturing then any revolutionary acts of substance. When confronted with an opportunity to direct working class movements out of the Democratic Party, they instead fell in line, reaffirming their position of electoralism. It should therefore come as no surprise that they also hold conferences effectively signing off on US State Department talking points about socialist states, and those states engaged in anti-imperialist struggle under the suffocating grip of global US hegemony. However, one socialist state has garnered a concentrated hatred and ire from Jacobin like no other: the People’s Republic of China.

 

China and the New Cold War

Jacobin dedicates a slew of article towards it’s position on China such as articles decrying the new geopolitical rivalry as “capitalist competition”, [18] or the supposed genocide against the Uyghur minority group in Xinjiang, in which Jacobin claims it can oppose their repression in China while at the same time “oppose the sabre-rattling and militarism of the US’s China hawks”. [19] However, as has already been demonstrated, Jacobin does not truly oppose US militarism. If it did, it wouldn’t sponsor conferences discussing ideas of regime change, with individuals from US state-sponsored NGO’s arguing in favour. This supposed stance of opposing China while also opposing imperialist interests is summarised in another piece on China, proudly exclaiming “socialists should side workers, not the American or Chinese ruling class”. [20] 

Just some of the articles Jacobin has published focusing on China

Of course, this conveniently forgets that the Chinese state enjoys high levels of support from the Chinese people. [21]  The argument used by many on the left, of offering principled critiques of China as America and it’s empire beat the drums of war, is challenged in an article from Qiao Collective, a Chinese diaspora group, offering their own analysis of this new cold war. As they demonstrate, “criticism does not exist in a vacuum” and objectively serves the interests of the US and its key allies. [22] The guise of principled critique only serves to destroy the momentum of those opposed to the US.

However, the critique of the new American and Chinese capitalist competition is not even principled. [23] ‘Socialism2019’ featured a plethora of anti-China activists and groups funded and backed by the National Endowment for Democracy, a US state-backed group which aims to create a fertile environment for right-wing regime change in socialist states. One panel at the conference sought to liken American imperialism to Chinese foreign policy. In one article an example of China’s malicious imperialism was giving “tests, ventilators and masks” to present itself as a friendly world leader. [24] This stance of American imperialism being on the same level as Chinese imperialism is not only wrong and endangers China, but it also downplays the incredibly unique evil of American imperialism. Many of the speakers on the panels which discussed China at the conference came from NED funded groups: Elaine Lu and Kevin Lin both come from Chinese labour watch movements that receive direct funding from the NED. [25] The other speaker, Ashley Smith, is an American Trotskyist who in an article for the Socialist Worker details how “Stalinist groups” have been engaging in campism and have refused to support the genuine Syrian peoples struggle against Assad, concluding that the Western left must “collaborate with Syrian revolutionaries”. [26]

Jacobin is not a socialist paper. It exists because the US capitalist media allows it. When Jacobin was climbing the mountain that is US media, it received a crowning glory from the chief achievement of the liberal US media, Vox. They declared that the paper had won “the left’s war of ideas” a testament to their closely built links with the well-established US capitalist media. [27] Jacobin uses the aesthetics of radical politics but never acts on them, choosing to trap American working class movements in endless electoralism. The publication  has been essential in creating apathy among the Western left towards US imperialism by repeating US State Department talking points and emphasising points of “principled” critique, which don’t turn out to be principled at all. To put it plainly, Jacobin is the newspaper the imperialists want you to read to form a “nuanced” view on intervention. Down with Brooklyn Socialism! Down with Western imperialism!

 

Endnotes

[1] ‘About Us’, Jacobin, https://jacobinmag.com/about

[2] Matt Karp, ‘Bernie Sanders’ Five Year War, Jacobin, 28.08.2020 https://jacobinmag.com/2020/08/bernie-sanders-five-year-war

[3] Branko Marcetic, ‘Tulsi Gabbard Is Not Your Friend’, Jacobin, 26.05.2017, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/05/tulsi-gabbard-president-sanders-democratic-party

[4] Daniel Bessner, ‘On Foreign Policy, Bernie Stands Alone’, Jacobin, 08.10.2019, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/10/foreign-policy-bernie-sanders-elizabeth-warren-2020-presidential-campaign

[5] Branko Marcetic, ‘Tulsi Gabbard Is Not Your Friend’, Jacobin, 26.05.2017, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/05/tulsi-gabbard-president-sanders-democratic-party

[6] Jonathan Swan, ‘What Stephen Bannon wants to do in Trumps’ White House’, The Hill, 15.11.2016, https://thehill.com/homenews/news/305999-trump-taps-incendiary-bannon-for-role-of-chief-wh-strategist

[7] Jacobin Twitter post, 12.12.2019 https://twitter.com/jacobinmag/status/1204998441170018304?lang=en

[8] Max Blumenthal, ‘Billionaire pro-Israel Buttigieg backer Seth Klarman funds group behind Iowa’s disastrous voting app’, The Grayzone, 04.02.2020, https://thegrayzone.com/2020/02/04/pro-israel-buttigieg-seth-klarman-iowas-voting-app/

[9] Bhaskar Sunkara, ‘The DNC can’t steal the election from Bernie Sanders despite the Iowa chaos’, The Guardian, 05.02.2020,https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/05/the-dnc-cant-steal-the-election-from-bernie-sanders-despite-the-iowa-chaos

[10] Ibid

[11] Editors, ‘Weekends with Ana Kasparian and Michael Brooks’, Jacobin, 09.04.2020, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/04/weekends-with-ana-kasparian-and-michael-brooks

[12] Munich Security Conference, ‘The MSC 2020 at a Glance’, Munich Security Conference, https://securityconference.org/en/msc-2020/overview/

[13] Rahul Mahajan, ‘”We Think the Price is Worth It”: Media uncurious about Iraq policy’s effects–there or here’, FAIR, 11.2001,https://fair.org/extra/we-think-the-price-is-worth-it/

[14] ‘Madeleine Albright: “We owe an apology to Mitt Romney” | Ana Kasparian | #yourMSC’, 16.02.2019, YouTube – yourMSC, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zsy3uG0tljU

[15] Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal ‘DSA/Jacobin/Haymarket-sponsored ‘Socialism’ conference features US gov-funded regime-change activists’, The Grayzone, 06.07.2019, https://thegrayzone.com/2019/07/06/dsa-jacobin-iso-socialism-conference-us-funded-regime-change/

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Ho-Fung Hung, ‘The US-China Rivalry Is About Capitalist Competition’, Jacobin, 11.07.2020,https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/07/us-china-competition-capitalism-rivalry

[19] Sean R. Roberts, ‘Demanding an End to Uyghur Oppression’, Jacobin, 29.04.2021, https://jacobinmag.com/2021/04/uyghur-oppression-ccp-surveillance-reeducation-war-on-terror

[20] Ashley Smith, ‘Socialists Should Side With Workers — Not the Chinese or American Ruling Class: An interview with Eli Friedman’, Jacobin, 29.04.20120, https://jacobinmag.com/2020/04/china-united-states-new-cold-war-nationalism-socialists

[21] Emily Feng, ‘As U.S. Views of China Grow More Negative, Chinese Support For Their Government Rises’, NPR, 23.08.2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/09/23/913650298/as-u-s-views-of-china-grow-more-negative-chinese-support-for-their-government-ri?t=1620134080087

[22] Qiao Collective, ‘What Does Critique Do? – On the Critical Predation of China’, Qiao Collective, 01.2020, https://www.qiaocollective.com/en/articles/what-does-critique-do

[23] Ho-Fung Hung, ‘The US-China Rivalry Is About Capitalist Competition’, Jacobin, 11.07.2020,https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/07/us-china-competition-capitalism-rivalry

[24] Ashley Smith, ‘Socialists Should Side With Workers — Not the Chinese or American Ruling Class: An interview with Eli Friedman’, Jacobin, 29.04.20120, https://jacobinmag.com/2020/04/china-united-states-new-cold-war-nationalism-socialists

[25] Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal ‘DSA/Jacobin/Haymarket-sponsored ‘Socialism’ conference features US gov-funded regime-change activists’, The Grayzone, 06.07.2019, https://thegrayzone.com/2019/07/06/dsa-jacobin-iso-socialism-conference-us-funded-regime-change/

[26] Ashley Smith, ‘Anti-imperialism and the Syrian Revolution’, Socialist Worker, 25.08.2016, https://socialistworker.org/2016/08/25/anti-imperialism-and-the-syrian-revolution

[27] Dylan Matthews, ‘Inside Jacobin: How a socialist magazine is winning the left’s war of ideas’, Vox, 21.05.2016, https://www.vox.com/2016/3/21/11265092/jacobin-bhaskar-sunkara.



 

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