The ABCs of Jacobin


Bhaskar Sunkara
. PHOTO/Matthew David Roberts.

Every successful magazine, like every successful revolution, condenses an atmosphere. The atmosphere may be political or it may be cultural. It may be a matter of taste or a question of style. Very often it is generational.

If your youth was anything like mine, you grew up reading what your parents kept around the house, and for a time you unthinkingly shaped yourself to the sensibilities of those publications. And then one day you looked up and saw that the world you knew, the world you were living in, was unrecognizable in the pages you were reading. Maybe you discovered that the jokes weren’t that funny anymore, or never were. Maybe you realized that you couldn’t care less about the people they thought were important, couldn’t imagine why they didn’t spend more pages on the artists, celebrities, and athletes you knew were a hundred times more interesting. Maybe you found yourself no longer convinced by their arguments. Maybe they just seemed old.

New magazines begin here: with the sure knowledge that something is missing, that the existing options aren’t cutting it. And it is for this reason, I suspect, that the founders of successful magazines tend to emerge from a fairly narrow demographic band. Francis Underwood was 32 years old when he persuaded Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and a few others to help him start The Atlantic Monthly in 1857. Harold Ross and his wife, the pioneering journalist Jane Grant, were the same age when they founded The New Yorker in 1925. Henry Luce and Briton Hadden were 24 and 25, respectively, when they started Time. Hugh Hefner was 27 when he started Playboy, as was John H. Johnson when he started Ebony. Gloria Steinem was 37 when she and several other women produced the first issue of Ms. as an insert in New York, which had launched as an independent magazine when Milton Glaser was 38 and Clay Felker was a relatively ancient 42. Dave Eggers was 28 when he started McSweeney’s, and he was 33 when McSweeney’s spawned The Believer, whose founding editors—Vendela Vida, Heidi Julavits, and Ed Park—were 31, 34, and 33.

When Bhaskar Sunkara decided to start Jacobin—the socialist quarterly that has proved itself the most successful American ideological magazine to launch in the past decade—he was just 21. To start a magazine that young, even one that survived for more than a handful of issues, was hardly unprecedented. Jann Wenner was the same age when he founded Rolling Stone. But whereas Wenner had a once-in-a-century cultural renaissance to help him on his way, Sunkara started Jacobin under a doubly vexed sign: in 2010, when Jacobin got its start, the only surer bets than the impossibility of a Donald Trump presidency were that print media was in a death spiral and American socialism was a permanent fossil. And yet, since then, Jacobin has succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, not least Sunkara’s. The print magazine, with a circulation of 40,000, now stands at the center of an expanding enterprise that includes a book imprint, podcasts, an academic journal called Catalyst, and a website with over a million monthly visitors. Last fall, Jacobin adopted an elder sibling, in the form of Tribune, a leftist British magazine founded in 1937, and in November it launched its first foreign-language edition, in Italy.

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