Peter Frase of the US socialist magazine Jacobin visited the UK from 23 September to 7 October and took part in a tour of Momentum groups and student Labour Clubs to speak about his book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. He spoke to Martin Thomas and Sacha Ismail.
What did you think of the tour?
It was interesting to go to so many different places and see a movement which is struggling with the same sort of issues that US socialists are wrestling with after the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. The difference, of course, is that here you have the Labour Party already as a framework.
The challenges are different. I was surprised by the heterogeneity, both political and geographical, within Momentum. From the USA it looks more monolithic. Some people round Jacobin see Momentum as a model, and I’d say they need to get that in perspective and realise that there are a lot more complexities than are apparent from outside.
At the meetings I’ve asked people to say whether they are socialists, and what socialism means to them. The answers range from defining socialism as just basic fairness and being nice to each other, to full-scale control of the means of production. But people have been open to considering alternatives after capitalism.
They recognise that there are crises now which will have to be resolved in some direction, and not necessarily in a socialist and emancipatory direction. In each chapter of my book, I’m trying to do two things, to identify something going on now and to extrapolate to the choices it will pose. Yes, it’s an unusual book. The ideas are not that novel, but they are argued in a different way from usual.
What did it come from?
Reading a lot of Marx and a lot of science fiction. I’m a big fan of Star Trek, and I started with the question: what if we had the material basis of Star Trek society, and the social structures of today?
My first effort was a blog post. It got some circulation. That grew into an essay for Jacobin magazine in 2012, and then the book.
How did you become a socialist?
I didn’t grow up in a socialist family. It was a middle-class liberal family. I came across socialism by reading, around the age of 14 or 15, before I met organised socialists at the age of 16 and 17. I had a brief encounter with the American SWP [no relation to the British SWP] because they had some presence in Minneapolis, where I lived.
That didn’t last long; they seemed very sectarian and disconnected from everyday struggles. Then, while I was still at high school, I worked with Freedom Road [a Maoist group]. Though I disagreed with them, I learned a lot about organising from them. Then I went to university in Chicago and drifted into the Democratic Socialists of America, where I’ve been ever since.
You now work on Jacobin magazine. It has been spectacularly successful since starting in 2010, now reaching 15,000 print subscribers and 700,000 readers on the web every month. What has made it so successful?
Being in the right place at the right time helps a lot. The US left was ready for it. When Bhaskar Sunkara started it, he was just 20 years old. I’m about ten years older, but knew Bhaskar through DSA.
At first I thought, well, every 20 year old has a right to an impossible dream, and I should help Bhaskar try his out. But Bhaskar is an incredible small businessman, and has the political drive and ambition to build the magazine. It has hard politics but speaks in a way that liberals can appreciate.
Fairly early Remeike Forbes came on board as the art director of the magazine, and that’s been very important. We got a boost from Occupy Wall Street — the New York Times did a profile on us — and the Bernie Sanders campaign has given us a big boost. The initial network was independent of the DSA, but a lot of us knew each other from there.
In the early stages there was a big element of what I’d call internet socialism too. A lot of the connections were formed on the internet. When choosing a name for the magazine, Bhaskar wanted to convey militancy and yet not explicitly use a reference from our tradition, because that might trap us in a sectarian space. The name Jacobin conveyed militancy without tying us down.
Within the first couple of issues, a process of accretion started. Only later on was there enough money for paid staff and an office. The art director was the first paid worker. Now we have a staff of ten, including an organiser to coordinate Jacobin reading groups.
From the start Bhaskar had the idea that Jacobin was not just a magazine but a political project, and the reading groups are the way we pursue that at present. The issue of democracy, in the sense of the reading groups having control over the magazine? So far it has not really arisen. No-one yet wants to go for an organisation rather than a gathering around a magazine.
What's the project's political centre of gravity, so to speak?
We are socialists, in the sense of wanting a different system from capitalism. Beyond that there is not a party line. Obviously someone who wants to write an overt racist article will not be welcome, and we’ve had people leave the magazine when they’re not happy about its slant on a particular issue, on Syria recently for example, but there is plenty of room for differences.
Now we have organised groups involved with the magazine, mainly the International Socialist Organization [a group expelled from the British SWP’s international network in 2001]. An ISO member is on the staff, and many write articles. Many people from other groups at least write articles. We are open to various traditions.
Bhaskar Sunkara told us that on Stalinism he agrees with a Workers’ Liberty article from 2002, “The tragedy of Afghanistan”, and that he sees nothing socialist about Cuba. Yet there is a swathe of the left which sees Cuba as a socialist model. How do you negotiate such issues?
There has been a generational shift on the left. Today many see such issues as not very relevant. They are post-Cold-War socialists. The idea of seeing Cuba or somewhere as a model of socialism seems fairly ridiculous.
There are questions about what and how much we might defend in Cuba and Venezuela against US imperialism, but views which see them as a model stand outside the box of what we publish. Some of our writers have positive things to say about Venezuela, but not as a model. Everyone involved has their own different preoccupations.
You can see it in the themes chosen for the issues of the magazine. The latest issue is on organised labour in the USA. I have written a lot about post-work trends in socialism, criticising the romanticisation of labour in some left thought. Another editor has written a lot deconstructing mainstream bourgeois economics. The politics of education have been central to the magazine.
What's your demographic?
Occupationally, our strongest links are with teachers. Our subscribers tend to be young, meaning mid-30s and younger, disproportionately white, a lot in academic and white-collar work. We’ve had a semi-intentional strategy of targeting mainstream liberal bourgeois media, such as Vox, which has given us a reach into such areas.
Geographically, our subscribers are densest in the Midwest and on the East Coast, thinner on the West Coast, mostly in big cities and places with college campuses. We’re reaching out internationally. Over 10% of our web traffic is now from the UK.
How do Jacobin supporters operate as a collective where there is a sufficient mass of them to make a difference, in the DSA or in unions?
Right now there is a dialectical interplay between us organising in our own various more traditional ways and the magazine. I’m in the left caucus of the DSA, which overlaps with Jacobin, and didn’t exist before Jacobin, but is distinct.
Jacobin has taken the form of an ideological centre rather than a political party because in the USA we have a history of left parties being formed before they have an adequate base. I’d like to see a genuinely left socialist political party in the USA, but a lot needs to be don on a much smaller scale before that is possible.
It sounds as if some of you are influenced by what Hal Draper wrote after quitting organised socialist politics, about an ideological centre being the thing to build rather than what he called a “micro-sect”, except that you are doing it and he didn’t.
Yes, many of us are influenced by Draper.
And you, in your writings about labour, are influenced by Moishe Postone? By the operaista-”autonomist” current?
Yes, Postone clarified for me some things I already believed; but I didn’t come across him when I was in Chicago, and I don’t go all the way with him on ideas like the disappearance of the working class as an agent.
The operaisti and “autonomists” have influenced me. I think Toni Negri has gone in directions which are not very useful any more, but I still read writers like Mario Tronti, and a few other people round Jacobin are engaged with that.
Bhaskar Sunkara said to me that he agreed with Ralph Miliband’s ideas about socialist strategy.
Yes, Miliband is a common reference among Jacobin people, more for some than for others, especially on how to relate to social democracy and on linking immediate struggles to the project of overthrowing capitalism. Some people round Jacobin will want you to read Trotsky. Some see Michael Harrington as a reference. And we read the classics, like Marx himself. But a variety of books attract our attention. Naomi Murakawa has written about the US prison boom and its political implications. One of our editors is a big [US] Civil War buff. We are relatively coherent, but eclectic.
We are all socialists, though I don’t know that everyone would call themselves Marxist. To the extent that there is a right flank of Jacobin, it’s people who see socialism as socialisation of investment and so on, but no more. Our structure has always been very loose. There are periodic general discussions of the editorial staff, but it’s been a while since we had a proper meeting, and day to day Bhaskar as editor takes the editorial decisions.
Hopefully in the future we will be able to build towards a national structure, but that’s not where we are right now.
What has made the Bernie Sanders campaign, and other developments on the US left, possible, is the will to be bold and say you’re going to do things differently. It is a new kind of politics, not in the sense that the ideas have never been heard before, but in the sense of the clarity of the break with the old politics. That would be a lesson for your movement in the UK, I'd say.
After attending The World Transformed with other Jacobin comrades, Peter spoke to meetings sponsored by Momentum groups in Newcastle, Edinburgh, Manchester, Chesterfield, Sheffield, Camden, Leicester and Tower Hamlets; and to meetings put on by the Labour Clubs at Glasgow and Goldsmiths universities. Workers’ Liberty members were also involved in making the tour happen.
The audiences varied from about 15 to 80 people. This was a good opportunity for British left activists to hear about what’s going on in the States and how Jacobin has emerged out of that — but also to raise the political level in our own movement.
It is still relatively rare for Momentum groups to discuss political demands and ideas, let alone the wider framework of socialist politics. This was an opportunity to do that. Peter said he was surprised to find that there is more buzz about the term “socialism” on the US left than in Britain — partly because Bernie Sanders has used it so prominently. Throughout he stressed the need to have a clear (outline) vision of the different world we are fighting for, one we work to make popular so we can reshape political debate.
That is also necessary to give sense and drive to much more limited struggles today. The discussion at most meetings moved back and forth between visions of the future and what we should be demanding and organising for now. The wider picture produced some thought-provoking discussion on what the left should be agitating for, including debates about a shorter working week, nationalising the banks and the “universal basic income”.
This kind of discussion is something Momentum itself should be fostering. We are pleased about the links the tour made with comrades in the US and hope to build on them in the months ahead.