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Wednesday, April 8th...a date etched in black for socialists and progressives, marking the end of a beautiful fantasy. It was on that doleful day that Senator Bernie Sanders — acknowledging the inevitable, having depleted his pocketful of dreams — announced the suspension of his presidential campaign. It was the sagging anticlimax to an electoral saga that came in like a lion and went out with a wheeze. For months the pieces had been falling into place for Sanders to secure the Democratic nomination, only to fall apart in rapid slow motion on successive Super Tuesdays, a reversal of fortune that left political savants even more dumbstruck than usual. Taking to social media, some of Sanders’ most fervent and stalwart supporters in journalism, punditry, and podcasting responded to the news of his withdrawal with the stoical grace we’ve come to expect from these scarlet ninja. Shuja Haider, a high-profile leftist polemicist who’s appeared in the Guardian, The Believer, and the New York Times, tweeted: “Well the democratic party just officially lost the support and participation of an entire generation. Congratulations assholes.” (On Twitter, commas and capital letters are considered optional, even a trifle fussy.) Will Menaker, a fur-bearing alpha member of the ever popular Chapo Trap House podcast (the audio clubhouse of the self-proclaimed “dirtbag left”), declared that with Bernie out of the race, Joe Biden, “has his work cut out for him when it comes to winning the votes of a restive Left that distrusts and dislikes him. It’s not impossible if he starts now by sucking my dick.” Others were equally pithy.
It fell upon Jacobin, the neo-Marxist quarterly and church of the one true faith, to lend a touch of class to the valedictory outpourings. Political admiration mingled with personal affection as it paid homage to the man who had taken them so far, but not far enough. On its website (the print edition is published quarterly) it uncorked a choral suite of tributes, elegies, and inspirational messages urging supporters to keep their chins up, their eyes on the horizon, their gunpowder dry, a song in their hearts: “Bernie Supporters, Don’t Give Up,” “We Lost the Battle, but We’ll Win the War,” “Bernie Lost. But His Legacy Will Only Grow.” In this spirit, the magazine’s editor and founder, Bhaksara Sunkara, author of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality, conducted a postmortem requiem on YouTube with his Jacobin comrades processing their grief and commiserating over their disappointment. Near the end of the ceremony, Sunkara declared that Bernie’s legacy would be as a moral hero akin to Martin Luther King, Mother Jones, and Eugene V. Debs. Which offered a measure of bittersweet consolation, but was not what Sunkara had originally, thirstily desired. “I wanted him to be fucking Lenin. I wanted him to take power and institute change.” But the Bernie train never reached the Finland Station, leaving the Jacobins cooling their heels on the platform and craning their necks in vain.
Politically and emotionally they had banked everything on him. “Socialism is the name of our desire,” Irving Howe and Lewis Coser had famously written, and for long fallow seasons that desire lay slumbrous on the lips until awakened by Bernie Sanders, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, the former mayor of Burlington, Vermont, the junior senator of that state, and lifelong champion of the underdog. Where so many longtime Washington figures had been led astray by sinecures, Aspen conferences, and unlimited canapes, Sanders had been fighting the good fight for decades without being co-opted by Georgetown insiders and neoliberal think tanks, like a protest singer who had never gone electric. He might not be a profound thinker or a sonorously eloquent orator (on a tired day he can sound like a hoarse seagull), and his legislative achievement may be a bit scanty, but his tireless ability to keep pounding the same nails appealed to youthful activists that had come to distrust or even detest the lofty cadences of Barack Obama now that he was gone from office and appeared to halo into Oprah-hood. Eight years of beguilement and what had it materially gotten them? grumbled millennials slumped under student debt and toiling in unpaid internships. What Bernie lacked in movie-poster charisma could be furnished by Jacobin, which emblazoned him as a lion in winter.
So confident was Jacobin that the next great moment in history was within its grasp that in the winter of 2019 it devoted a special issue to the presidency of Bernie Sanders, whose cover, adorned with an oval portrait of Sanders gazing skyward, proclaimed: “I, President of the United States and How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of The Future.” Subheads emphasized that this was not just an issue of a magazine, a mere collation of ink and paper, it was the beginning of a crusade — a twenty-year plan to remake America. Avengers, assemble! At the public launch of the “I, President” issue, Sunkara rhetorically asked, “Is there a point in spending all day trying to explain, like, the Marxist theory of exploitation to some 18-year-old? Yes! Because that kid might be the next Bernie Sanders.”
Alas, Jacobin made the mistake of counting their red berets before they were hatched, and now the issue is fated to become a collector’s item, a poignant keepsake of what might have been. Had Sanders remained in the race and won the presidency, Jacobin would have been as credited, identified, and intimately associated with the country’s first socialist administration as William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review was with Ronald Reagan’s. Jacobin could have functioned as its ad hoc brain trust, or at least its nagging conscience. From that carousel of possibilities the magazine instead finds itself reckoning with the divorce of its socialist platform from its standard bearer, facing the prospect of being just another journal of opinion jousting for attention. No longer ramped up as a Bernie launch vehicle, Jacobin must tend to the churning ardor for grand-scale structural change and keep its large flock of followers from straying off into the bushes, which is not easy to do after any loss, no matter how noble. “In America, politics, like everything else, tends to be all or nothing,” Irving Howe observed in Socialism and America. And after working so hard on Bernie’s behalf, it’s hard to walk away with bupkis.Jacobin possesses a strong set of jaws, however. It will not be letting go of its hold in the marketplace of ideas anytime soon. For better or ill, it will continue to set the tone and tempo on the left even in the absence of its sainted gran’pop. Since initiating publication in 2010, Jacobin has established itself as an entrepreneurial success, a publishing sensation, and an ideological mothership. It has built up its own storehouse of intellectual capital, an identifiable brand. Taking its name and sabre’d bravado from the group founded by Maximilien Robespierre that conducted the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror (an early issue featured an IKEA-like guillotine on the cover, presumably for those fancying to stage their own backyard beheadings — “assembly required,” the caption read), Jacobin located a large slumbering discontent in the post-Occupy Wall Street/Great Recession stagnancy among the educated underemployed and gave it a drumbeat rhythm and direction.
From the outset the magazine exuded undefeatable confidence, the impression that history with a capital H was at its back. Its confidence in itself proved not misplaced. Where even before the coronavirus most print magazines were on IV drips, barely sustainable and in the throes of a personality crisis, Jacobin’s circulation has grown to 40,000 plus (more than three times that of Partisan Review in its imperious prime); it has sired and inspired a rebirth of socialist polemic (Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism, The ABCs of Socialism, Why You Should Be a Socialist, and the forthcoming In Defense of Looting), and helped recruit a young army of activists to bring throbbing life to Democratic Socialists of America, whose membership rolls as of late 2019 topped 56,000, with local chapters popping up like fever blisters.
The editorial innovation of Sunkara’s Jacobin was that it tapped into animal spirits to promote its indictments and remedies, animal spirits normally being the province of sports fans, day traders, and bachelorette parties but not of redistributionists, egalitarians, and social upheavers. Even its subscription form is cheeky: “The more years you select, the better we can construct our master plan to seize state power.” Although the ground game of socialism was traditionally understood as a conscientious slog — meetings upon meetings, caucusing until the cows come home, microscopic hair-splitting of doctrinal points — Jacobin lit up the scoreboard with rhetoric and visuals that evoked the heroic romanticism of revolution, history aflush with a red-rose ardor. The articles can be dense and hoarse with exhortations (“we must build…,” “we must insist...” we must, we must), the writing unspiced by wit, irony, and allusion (anything that smacks of mandarin refinement), and the infographics more finicky than instructive, but the
overall package has a jack-in-the-box boing!, a kinetic aesthetic that can be credited to its creative director, Remeike Forbes. Not since the radical Ramparts of the 1960s, designed by Dugald Stermer, has any leftist magazine captured lightning in a bottle with such flair.
Effervescence is what sets Jacobin apart from senior enterprises on the left such as The Nation, Dissent, New Left Review, and that perennial underdog Monthly Review, its closest cousin being Teen Vogue, Conde Nast’s revolutionary student council fan mag — the Tiger Beat of glossy wokeness. When not extolling celebrity styling (“Kylie Jenner’s New Rainbow Manicure Is Perfect for Spring”), Teen Vogue posts junior Jacobin tutorials on Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Marx, whose “writings have inspired social movements in Soviet Russia, China, Cuba, Argentina, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and more...” (most of those movements didn’t pan out so well, but they left no impact on Kylie’s manicure).Jacobin recognized that hedonics are vital for the morale and engagement of the troops, who can’t be expected to keep chipping away forever at the fundament of the late-capitalist, post-industrial, Eye of Sauron hegemon. No longer would socialists be associated with aging lefties in leaky basements cranking the mimeograph machine and handing out leaflets on the Upper West Side — socialism now had a hip new home in Brooklyn where the hormones were hopping and bopping pre-corona. “‘Everybody looks fuckin’ sexy as hell,’” shouted [Bianca] Cunningham, NYC-DSA’s co-chair. ‘This is amazing to have everybody here looking beautiful in the same room, spreading the message of socialism.’” So recorded Simon van Zuylen-Wood in “Pinkos Have More Fun,” his urban safari into the dating-mating, party-hearty socialist scene for New York magazine.
In the middle of the dance floor I ran into Nicole Carty, a DSA-curious professional organizer I also hadn’t seen since college, who made a name for herself doing tenant work after Occupy Wall Street. (DSA can feel like a never-ending Brown University reunion.) “Movements are, yeah, about causes and about progress and beliefs and feelings, but the strength of movements comes from social ties and peer pressure and relationships,” Carty said. “People are craving this. Your social world intersecting with your politics. A world of our own.”
Jacobin’s closest companion and competitor in the romancing of the young and the restless is The Baffler, founded in 1988, at the height of the Reagan imperium, allowed to lapse in 2006, revived from cryogenic slumber in 2010, and going strong ever since. Both quarterlies publish extensive and densely granulated reporting and analytical pieces on corporate greed, treadmill education, factory farming, and America’s prison archipelago, though The Baffler slants more essayistic and art-conscious, a Weimar journal for our time. The chief difference, however, is one of temperament and morale. Where Jacobin, surveying the wreckage and pillage, holds out the promise that the cavalry is assembling, preparing to ride, The Baffler often affects a weary-sneery, everything-sucks, post-grad-school vape lounge cynicism, as if the battle for a better future is a futile quest — the game is rigged, the outcome preordained. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”The Bafflerʼs bullpen of highly evolved futilitarians leans hard on the words “hell” and “shit” to register their scorn and disgust at the degradation of politics and culture in our benighted age by rapacious capital with the complicity of champagne-flute elitists and the good old dumb-ox American booboisie. It’s Menckenesque misanthropy (minus Mencken’s thunder rolls of genius) meets Bladerunner dystopia with a dab of Terry Southern nihilism, and it’s not entirely a warped perspective — the world is being gouged on all sides by kleptocratic plunder. But The Baffler offers mostly confirmation of the system’s machinations, the latest horrors executed in fine needlepoint, no exit from the miasma. Each issue arrives as an invitation to brittle despair.Jacobin, by contrast, acts as more of an agent of transmutation, a mojo enhancer for the socialist mission. This is from “Are You Reading Propaganda Right Now?” by Liza Featherstone, which appeared in its winter 2020 issue:
One of the legacies of the Cold War is that Americans assume propaganda is bad. While the term “propaganda” has often implied that creators were taking a manip-ulative or deceptive approach to their message — or glossing over something horrific, like World War I, the Third Reich, or Stalin’s purges — the word hasn’t always carried that baggage. Lenin viewed propaganda as critical to building the socialist movement. In his 1902 pamphlet What Is to Be Done?, it’s clear that his ideal propaganda is an informative, well-reasoned argument, drawing on expertise and information that the working-class might not already have. That’s what we try to do at Jacobin.
It is worth asking how much these excitable Leninists actually know about their Bolshie role model. Did they notice Bernie’s response to Michael Bloomberg’s use of the word “communist” to describe him at one of the debates? He called it “a cheap shot.” Say what you will about Sanders, but he recoiled at the charge. He, at least, is familiar with Lenin’s work.
Jacobin’s mistake was to think it could play kingmaker too. In It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks delineated the unpatchable differences between “building a social movement and establishing a political party,” or, in this case, taking over an existing one. (As Irving Howe cautioned, “You cannot opt for the rhythms of a democratic politics and still expect it to yield the pathos and excitement of revolutionary movements.”) Political parties represent varied coalitions and competing interests, requiring expediency, horse trading, and tedious, exhausting staff work to achieve legislative ends. Lipset and Marks: “Social movements, by contrast, invoke moralistic passions that differentiate them sharply from other contenders. Emphasis on the intrinsic justice of a cause often leads to a rigid us-them, friend-foe orientation.”
The friend-foe antipathy becomes heightened and sharpened all the more in the Fight Club of social media, where the battle of ideas is waged with head butts and low blows. In print and online, Jacobin wasn’t just Sanders’ heraldic evangelist, message machine, and ringside announcer (“After Bernie’s Win in Iowa, the Democratic Party Is Shitting Its Pants” — actual headline), it doubled as the campaign’s primary enforcer, methodically maligning and elbowing aside any false messiah obstructing the road to the White House, ably assisted by the bully brigade of “Bernie Bros” and other nogoodniks who left their cleat marks all across Twitter. Excoriation was lavished upon pretenders who had entered the race out of relative obscurity and momentarily snagged the media’s besotted attention, such as Texas’ lean and toothy Beto O’Rourke, whose campaign peaked when he appeared as Vanity Fair’s cover boy and petered out from there (“Beto’s Fifteen Minutes Are Over. And Not a Moment Too Soon,”
wrote Jacobin’s Luke Savage, signing the campaign’s death certificate).
Pete Buttigieg received a more brutal hazing, ad hominemized from every angle. Jacobin despised him from the moment his Eddie Haskell head peeped over the parapet — that this Rhodes scholar, military veteran who served in Afghanistan, and current mayor of South Bend, Indiana had written a tribute to Bernie Sanders when he was in high school only made him seem more fishily Machiavellian in their minds. A sympathetic, personally informed profile by James T. Kloppenberg in the Catholic monthly Commonweal portrayed Buttigieg as a serious, driven omnivore of self-improvement, but in Jacobin he barely registered as a human being, derided as “an objectively creepy figure” by Connor Kilpatrick (“That he is so disliked by the American public while Sanders is so beloved...should hearten us all”), and roasted by Liza Feather-stone for being so conceited about his smarts, an inveterate showoff unlike you-know-who: “Bernie Sanders, instead of showing off his University of Chicago education, touts the power of the masses: ‘Not Me, Us.’ The cult of the Smart Dude leads us into just the opposite place, which is probably why some liberals like it so much.”
There was no accomplishment of Buttigieg’s that Jacobin couldn’t deride. Buttigieg’s learning Norwegian (he speaks eight languages) to read the novelist Erlend Loe would impress
most civilians, but to Jacobin it was more feather-preening, and un-self-aware besides: “Pete Buttigieg’s Favorite Author Despises People Like Him,” asserted Ellen Engelstad with serene assurance in one of the magazine’s few stabs at lit crit. Even Buttigieg’s father — the renowned Joseph Buttigieg, a professor of literature at Notre Dame who translated Antonio Gramsci and founded The International Gramsci Society — might have washed his hands of this upstart twerp, according to Jacobin. By embracing mainstream Democratic politics, “Pete Buttigieg Just Dealt a Blow to His Father’s Legacy,” Joshua Manson editorialized. The American people, Norwegian novelists, the other kids in the cafeteria, Hamlet’s ghost — the message was clear: nobody likes you, Pete! Take your salad fork and go home!
Buttigieg may have betrayed his Gramscian legacy but it was small beans compared to the treachery of which another Sanders rival was capable. In “How the Cool Kids of the Left Turned on Elizabeth Warren,” Politico reporter Ruairi Arrieta-Kenna chronicled Jacobin’s spiky pivot against Elizabeth Warren, that conniving vixen. Arrieta-Kenna: “It wasn’t so
long ago that you could read an article in Jacobin that argued, ‘If Bernie Sanders weren’t running, an Elizabeth Warren presidency would probably be the best-case scenario.’ In April,
another Jacobin article conceded that Warren is ‘no socialist’ but added that ‘she’s a tough-minded liberal who makes the right kind of enemies,’ and her policy proposals ‘would make this country a better place.’” Her platform and Sanders’ shared many of the same planks, after all.
Planks, schmanks, the dame was becoming a problem to the Jacobin project, cutting into Bernie’s constituency and being annoyingly indefatigable, waving her arms around like a baton twirler. Warren needed to be sandbagged to open a clear lane for Bernie. Hence, “in the pages of Jacobin,” Arrieta-Kenna wrote, “Warren has gone from seeming like a close second to Sanders to being a member of the neoliberal opposition, perhaps made even worse by her desire to claim the mantle of the party’s left.” The J-squad proceeded to work her over with a battery of negative stories headlined “Elizabeth Warren’s Head Tax Is Indefensible,” “Elizabeth Warren’s Plan to Finance Medicare for All Is a Disaster,” and “Elizabeth Warren Is Jeopar-dizing Our Fight for Medicare for All,” and warned, quoting Arrieta-Kenna again, “that a vote for Warren would be ‘an unconditional surrender to class dealignment.’” When Warren claimed that Sanders had told her privately that a woman couldn’t defeat Donald Trump and declined to shake Bernie’s hand after the January 14 Democratic debate, she completed the arc from valorous ally to squishy opportunist to Hillary-ish villainess. Little green snake emojis slithered from every cranny of Twitter at the mention of Warren’s name, often accompanied by the hashtag #WarrenIsASnake, just in case the emojis were too subtle. Compounding her trespasses, Warren declined to endorse Sanders after she withdrew from the race, blowing her one shot at semi-redemption and a remission of sins. Near the end of Jacobin’s YouTube postmortem, Sunkara expressed sentiments that seemed to be universal in his cenacle: “Fuck Elizabeth Warren,” he explained, “and her whole crew.”
Once Buttigieg and Warren dropped out of serious contention, the sole remaining obstacle was Joe Biden, whom Jacobin considered a paper-mache relic in a dark suit loaned out from the prop department and seemingly incapable of formulating a complete sentence, much less a coherent set of policies — an entirely plausible caricature, as caricatures go. Occasion-ally goofy and even surreal in his off-the-cuff remarks, Biden doesn’t suggest deep reserves of fortitude and gravitas. In February 2020, Verso published Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden by Jacobin staff writer Branko Marcetic, its cover photograph showing an ashen Biden looking downcast and abject, as if bowing his weary head to the chopping block of posterity. But on the first Super Tuesday, the Biden candidacy, buoyed by the endorsement by the formidable James Clyburn and the resultant victory in South Carolina, rose from the dusty hallows and knocked Sanders’ sideways. It was the revenge of the mummy, palpable proof that socialism may have been in vogue with the media and the millennials but rank and file Democrats, especially those of color, weren’t interested in lacing up their marching boots. For them, the overriding imperative was not Medicare for All or the Green New Deal but denying Donald Trump a second term and the opportunity to reap four more years of havoc and disfigurement. In lieu of Eliot Ness, Joe Biden was deemed the guy who had the best shot of taking down Trump and his carious crew.
For a publication so enthralled to the Will of the People and the workers in their hard-won wisdom, it’s remarkable how badly Jacobin misread the mood of Democratic voters and projected its own revolutionary ferment on to it — a misreading rooted in a basic lack of respect for the Democratic Party, its values, its history, its heroes (apart from FDR, since Sanders often cited him), its institutional culture, its coalitional permutations — all this intensified with an ingrained loathing for liberalism itself. From its inception, Jacobin, like so many of its brethren on the Left, has displayed far more contempt and loathing for liberals, liberalism, and the useless cogs it labels “centrists” than for the conservatives and reactionaries and neo-fascists intent on turning the country into a garrison state with ample parking. It has a softer spot for hucksters, too. It greeted libertarian blowhard podcaster Joe Rogan’s endorsement of Sanders as a positive augury — “It’s Good Joe Rogan Endorsed Bernie. Now We Organize” — and published a sympathetic profile of the odious Fox News host Tucker Carlson. This has been its modus operandi all along. In a plucky takedown of the magazine in 2017 called “Jacobin Is for Posers,” Christopher England noted, “It can claim two issues with titles like ‘Liberalism is Dead,’ and none, henceforth, that have shined such a harsh light on conservatism.” For Jacobin, liberalism may be dead or playing possum but it keeps having to be dug up and killed again, not only for the exercise but because, England writes, “conservatism, as its contributors consistently note, can only be defeated if liberalism is brought low.” Remove the flab and torpor of tired liberalism and let the taut sinews of the true change-maker spring into jaguar action.
Which might make for some jungle excitement, but certainly goes against historical precedent. “In the United States, socialist movements have usually thrived during times of liberal upswing,” Irving Howe wrote in Socialism and America, cautioning, “They have hastened their own destruction whenever they have pitted themselves head-on against liberalism.” Tell that to Jacobin, which either didn’t learn that lesson or considered it démodé, irrelevant in the current theater of conflict. With the Democratic Party so plodding and set in its ways, a rheumy dinosaur that wouldn’t do the dignified thing and flop dead, the next best thing was to occupy and replenish the host body with fresh recruits drawn from young voters, new voters, disaffected independents, blue-collar remnants, and pink-collar workers. Tap into this vast reservoir of idealism and frustration to unleash bottoms-up change and topple the status quo, writing fini to politics as usual. Based on 2016 and how strongly Sanders ran above expectations, this wasn’t a reefer dream.
The slogan for this campaign was “Not Me. Us,” and it turned out there were a lot fewer “us” this time around. “Mr. Sanders failed to deliver the voters he promised,” wrote John Hudak, a deputy director and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, analyzing the 2020 shortfall. “Namely, he argued that liberal voters, new voters, and young voters would dominate the political landscape and propel him and his ideas to the nomination. However, in nearly every primary through early March, those voters composed significantly smaller percentages of the Democratic electorate than they did in 2016.” It wasn’t simply a matter of Sanders competing in a more crowded field this time, Hudak reported. In the nine primaries after Warren’s withdrawal, when it became a two-person race, “Mr. Sanders underperformed his 2016 totals by an average of 16.0%, including losing three states that he won in 2016 (Idaho, Michigan, and Washington).” How did Jacobin miss the Incredible Sanders Shrinkage of 2020?
It became encoiled in its own feedback loop, hopped up on its own hype. “Twitter — a medium that structurally encourages moral grandstanding, savage infighting, and collective action — is where young socialism lives,” van Zuylen-Wood had observed in “Pinkos Have More Fun,” and Twitter, to state the obvious, is not the real world, but a freakhouse simulacrum abounding with trolls, bots, shut-ins, and soreheads. Jacobin and its allies so dominated online discourse that they didn’t comprehend the limits of that dominance until it hit them between the mule ears. They fell victim to what has come to be known as Cuomo’s Law, which takes its name from the New York gubernatorial contest in 2018 between Andrew Cuomo and challenger Cynthia Nixon, a former cast member of Sex and the City and avowed democratic socialist. On Twitter, Nixon had appeared the overwhelming popular favorite, Cuomo the saturnine droner that no one had the slightest passion for. But Cuomo handily defeated Nixon, demonstrating the disconnect between online swarming and actual turnout: ergo, Cuomo’s Law.
Confirming Cuomo’s Law, Joe Biden probably had less Twitter presence and support than any of the other major candidates, barely registering on the radar compared to Sanders, and yet he coasted to the top of the delegate count until the coronavirus hit the pause button on the primary season. Sanders’ endorsement of Biden in a joint livestream video on April 13th not only conceded the inevitable but delivered a genuine moment of reconciliation that caught many off-guard, steeped in the residual rancor of 2016. Whatever his personal disappointment, Sanders seems to have made peace with defeat and with accepting a useful supporting role in 2020; he refuses to dwell in acrimony. The same can’t be said about many of the
defiant dead-enders associated with Jacobin, who, when not rumor-mongering about Biden’s purported crumbling health, cognitive decline, incipient dementia, and basement mold, attempted to kite Tara Reade’s tenuous charges of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of Biden into a full-scale Harvey Weinstein horror show, hoping the resultant furor would dislodge Biden from the top of the ticket and rectify the wrong done by benighted primary voters. For so Jacobin had written and so it was said: “If Joe Biden Drops Out, Bernie Sanders Must Be the Democratic Nominee.”
Like Norman Thomas, the longtime leader of the Socialist Party in America, Bernie Sanders bestowed a paternal beneficence upon the left that has given it a semblance of unity and personal identity. He is the rare politician one might picture holding a shepherd’s crook. The problem is that identification with a singular leader is an unsteady thing for a movement to lean on. Long before Thomas died in 1968, having run for the presidency six times, the socialist movement had receded into gray twilight, upstaged by the revolutionary tumult on campuses and in cities. Jacobin is determined to make sure history doesn’t reprise itself once Sanders enters his On Golden Pond years. Preparing the post-Bernie stage of the socialist movement, a pair of Jacobin authors, Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht, collaborated on Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism (Verso), a combination instruction manual and inspirational hymnal.
The duo doesn’t lack for reasons to optimize the upside for the ardent young socialists looking to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as their new scoutmaster. The coronavirus crisis has laid bare rickety infrastructure, the lack of preparedness, near-sociopathic incompetence, and widespread financial insecurity that turned a manageable crisis into a marauding catastrophe, making massive expansion of health coverage, universal basic income, and debt relief far more feasible propositions. The roiling convulsions following the death of George Floyd once again exposed the brutal racism and paramilitarization of our police forces. A better, more humane future has never cried out more for the taking. But there is a catch: it can be seized only in partnership with liberal and moderate Democrats, no matter how clammy the clasping hands might be, no matter how mushy the joint resolutions, and this will be galling for Jacobin’s pride and vocation, making it harder for them to roll out the tumbrils with the same gusto henceforth. The magazine, after conducting introspective postmortems (“Why the Left Keeps Losing — and How We Can Win”) and intraparty etiquette lessons (“How to Argue with Your Comrades”), finds itself feeling its way forward, with the occasional fumble. When Bhaskar Sunkara announced on Twitter that he intends to cast his presidential vote for Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins (who he?), one of those showy public gestures that leaves no trace, he received pushback from fellow comrades in The Nation (“WTF Is Jacobin’s Editor Thinking in Voting Green?”) and elsewhere. Clarifying his position in The New York Times, where clarifications learn to stand up tall and straight, Sunkara assured the quivering jellies who read the opinion pages that “contrary to stereotypes, we are not pushing a third candidate or eager to see Mr. Trump’s re-election. Instead we are campaigning for core demands like Medicare for All, saving the U.S. Postal Service from bipartisan destruction, organizing essential workers to fight for better pay and conditions throughout the coronavirus crisis and backing down-ballot candidates, mostly running on the Democratic ballot line… Far from unhinged sectarianism, this is a pragmatic strategy.”
Jacobin pragmatism? This is a historical novelty. By November we will know if they are able to make it to the altar without killing each other. It’s hard to settle once you’ve had a taste of Lenin.