From James Connolly to Bernie Sanders

Jacobin, a left-wing US magazine, is publishing an issue on the legacy of 1916. Its publisher, Bhaskar Sunkara, explains why it’s a fitting subject

 

Socialism in the United States is having an unexpected revival, and Bhaskar Sunkara is part of this groundswell. The young American Marxist writer and Bernie Sanders supporter, who has been profiled by the New York Times and featured on MSNBC, publishes Jacobin, a snazzily designed quarterly magazine with a knack for snappy, rabble-rousing soundbites. “Burn the Constitution” ran one headline.

Jacobin is dedicating an entire issue to the 1916 Rising. The cover is adorned with key years in Irish revolutionary history (1798, 1848, 1867, 1913 and 1916) and quotes from James Connolly (“All hail the mob!”).

The issue is guest-edited by the Irish journalist Ronan Burtenshawand features articles by a host of Irish historians and writers, all reframing the Rising in a socialist context and an analysis of left-wing politics in Ireland to this day.

Jacobin is aimed not at an ageing Irish-American readership interested in all things Hibernian but at an audience of cosmopolitan youngsters interested in all things socialist. The readership is “disproportionately very, very young, 22 to 30”, says Sunkara, “and it overlaps heavily with the Bernie Sanders support”.

The pieces in the 1916 issue are celebratory in places but not uncritical. They include articles on Connolly’s affinity for German imperialism; how he was influenced by the Paris Commune; the role of women in the Rising; the reactionary forces at work in 20th-century Ireland; the historic ineffectiveness of the Labour Party; and two pieces about contemporary Sinn Féin.

One is a slightly soft interview with the Sinn Féin councillor Eoin Ó Broin, the other a very good forensic examination of the party’s policy shifts, its contradictory class politics north and south, and its historically shaky commitment to left-wing ideals.

Sunkara is in Dublin this weekend to launch the magazine at the Workers’ Republic Conference, at Liberty Hall on Saturday. He recently discussed the origins of Jacobin, the unforeseen revival of socialism in the US, and why he allowed Irish revolutionaries from 100 years ago to dominate his magazine.

Marx, Orwell, Hemingway

The real origins of his politicisation, he says, were his own family circumstances. His parents were immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago who came to the US in 1988. Sunkara was born the following year.

“I’m the youngest of five siblings, and I had a very different life trajectory to my older siblings. My three oldest siblings didn’t have the chance to go to college. They had different opportunities presented to them.

“For me, by the time I was growing up I was in a nice suburb of New York City, with access to very good public schools and a public library where I spent a lot of time. It was easy to see how a lot of your life’s chances were related to access to social goods.”

Sunkara began Jacobin in 2010, situating it “somewhere between the really radical left and the social democratic left”. This was before the Occupy movement and the Sanders swing.

“Socialism was forgotten in the United States,” he says. “People like myself saw their mission as trying to carry the torch but didn’t think there would be a pay-off for a very long time.”

Despite an initial dearth of readers, Sunkara did endeavour to make his magazine readable, something at which Marxist magazines often fail.

Jacobin examines politics and economics at a fairly low level of abstraction,” he says, “whereas I think a lot of the left had taken a turn towards more philosophical work and cultural analysis, which isn’t designed to persuade or figure out a political agenda.

“We felt there was a need to win people over to a political vision, not to keep it in rarefied circles . . . You don’t have to read Adam Smith to understand the Economist; similarly, I don’t think you should have read the Marxist classics to understand Jacobin.”

Sunkara did not expect the magazine to be popular, and he certainly did not predict the swing to the left among US voters.

“There are millions of people rallying for [Sanders], a self-described socialist candidate who’s pushing for really radical social-democratic reforms and is talking about the billionaire class: the Walton family – the Walmart family – Goldman Sachs.

“He’s creating this antagonism and saying people have to organise together if they’re to achieve anything . . . Sanders and [Donald] Trump are both reaching segments of electorate that other people aren’t speaking to. Trump happens to be reaching them through a demagoguery and right-wing populism that in addition to blaming things like trade deals blames immigrants and other scapegoats.”

Still, they are both “speaking to a constituency the Democratic party have stopped speaking to”.

Is the political narrative up for grabs for young socialists? “Without a doubt,” Sunkara says. “Republicans have been using the word ‘socialist’ to describe Obama as a slur, and in a way it’s backfired and normalised the word . . . The hostility to socialism, the anti-communist feelings, were gone by the time I was getting into politics.

“If you look at the polling of 18- to 29-year-olds, they have a [more positive] perception of socialism than of capitalism, and that was before the Bernie Sanders campaign. If you look at the exit polls in places like Iowa you have a huge percentage of the people voting in the Democratic primaries self-describing as socialist.”

Sunkara sees this first hand when he talks at colleges, although he acknowledges that, 25 years after the cold war, what some people mean by “socialism” can be a bit vague.

Starting point

He sees this socialist resurgence as a wider western phenomenon, pointing to the large left-wing block in the new Irish Dáil.

What motivated an all-Irish issue? (It’s only Jacobin’s second issue themed on non-American subject matter.) Sunkara says the idea came from Burtenshaw, but he has long been personally interested in James Connolly as an important left-wing figure.

“I think that Connolly is important and often forgotten in the wider international context,” he says. “He is not thrown into the same category as Lenin and Trotsky and Luxemburg, and not taken seriously for his theoretical ideas or remembered broadly.

“There’s something to be said about having a real rigorous socialist analysis of the Rising that is, at the same time, not a totally fawning thing . . . We don’t just want to publish propaganda.”

Sunkara aims for something more vigorous, and he is dismissive of empty political posturing, both in the US and in Ireland.

“The left needs to establish itself as not just a protest vote but as a group of people who have a plan and a programme,” he says. “Not just that they can do something radical sometime in the future but that they can actually administer a government and deliver real victories to their constituencies.

“Since the 1970s, I’d say, there’s been no real coherent left/social-democratic plan for governing a country. And especially with globalisation, and especially in the euro zone, it’s been increasingly difficult. Syriza is a dramatic example. All the concentrated power of Europe and class power attacking this radical-left government in a tiny country.

“We really need to develop a programme and figure out some sort of alternative between administering austerity and not being able to accomplish anything.”

In their eagerness to discuss the romance of revolutionary periods, Sunkara says, people are often reluctant to properly examine the underlying ideals.

“People like Connolly, for all their faults, were truly democrats committed to a vision of mass politics. The Rising was meant to spark a deeply democratic republic. They had to use certain tactics, and people either denounce or fetishise those tactics, but I think the mass democratic-socialist politics that inspired them should be remembered too.”

The Workers’ Republic Conference starts at Liberty Hall, Dublin, at noon on Saturday, March 19th; see on.fb.me/1U7Matz. The Jacobin is at jacobinmag.com

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