When the history of our era is written, it is likely that there will be a place for Jacobin magazine in it. If democratic socialism remains and even grows as a political force in the United States, Jacobin will have played a role in making that possible. In the now surprisingly crowded field of American socialist magazines new and old, Jacobin has seen the most explosive growth. The idiosyncratic idea of Bhaskar Sunkara when he was just an undergraduate at George Washington University, the magazine published its first issue in 2011. In the years since, Jacobin has become a prominent voice of millennial socialism in particular—and though Sunkara would probably not like the term, it is also a successful brand. It has simultaneously been able to mobilize socialist activists (there are Jacobin reading clubs across the country, often affiliated with chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America) and to find a level of mainstream acceptance (the magazine has been spotted on racks at Whole Foods next to Vanity Fair).
Discussing Jacobin in left circles is almost certain to generate a response. Some will be effusive, some respectful but critical, and some may react with an eye roll. But this emotional reaction exists in part because the magazine has placed itself in territory worth fighting over. In its early issues it was more ecumenical, drawing from a broad range of left opinion. But it has mostly settled on a point of view: Sunkara and the magazine defend democratic socialism, meaning a noncapitalist economy free from the profit motive yet achieved through and operating under political democracy. It rejects authoritarian versions of communism (like the centralized party dictatorship of the Soviet Union), while insisting on the need to transcend social democracy (a still fundamentally capitalist system made more palatable by an extensive welfare state). Now, in The Socialist Manifesto, Sunkara describes in broader terms his vision of socialist politics for the twenty-first century, and takes the reader through the interpretation of history that has led him to these conclusions. It is a generally appealing vision, though it is not clear if it is a realizable one. Even if it isn’t, however, liberals and social democrats should be glad that the left’s renewal is taking place under the banner of democratic socialism rather than another variant, and must take seriously the socialist critiques of the limits on existing liberal projects that seek a more just and equal social order.