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Oppression, Class Struggle, and Other Things Jacobin Doesn’t Care About

Jacobin Magazine recently released its first issue of 2022. The issue is full of defenses for the Democratic Party, but it has no articles about either class struggle or the oppressed.

Sybil Davis and Otto Fors

February 27, 2022
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A protester holds a large Black Power fist in the middle of a crowd gathered in New York on June 14, 2020.
Image: Ira L. Black

Jacobin Magazine’s latest quarterly edition opens with a quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Unfortunately, the actual content of the magazine is more tragicomic than divine. Indeed, for all of the magazine’s talk of “purgatory,” it does, at times, read as if the magazine was written in some alternate universe where the events of the past few years simply didn’t take place. How else could the total absence of any discussion of class struggle or the oppressed be explained? The attacks on reproductive rights, trans people, and people of color are never mentioned — this includes the Black Lives Matter movement. Nor are there any articles about Striketober, the unionization attempts at Amazon and Starbucks, or the pandemic. All of these huge and important developments over the past year have simply been ignored. 

Jacobin’s age-old strategy of being attached at the hip (or, rather, the tail) of the Democratic Party has led it away from class struggle to the point where an issue dedicated to “the Left,” published after a year that saw such an uptick in labor struggle that NBC News of all people deemed 2021 the “year of the worker,” doesn’t even talk about labor. This isn’t just a mistake; it’s something much deeper: the end result of a strategy that draws socialists closer to a capitalist and imperialist political party and pushes them to make excuses for that party. This has led it to ignore huge shifts in the situation — such as the uptick in labor and the co-optation of the Black Lives Matter movement — in order to put forward the argument that we need more of the same — despite Jacobin’s own admission that the Left is in retreat. Rather than alter its analysis, Jacobin erases class struggle from its picture of the current situation. This is irresponsible from the leading magazine of the socialist Left. 

If 2021 was in part defined by a resurgence of labor struggle, then it was also defined by an advance of the Right, specifically targeting the oppressed. States across the country passed anti-queer laws (typically targetting trans children), Texas passed its pro-vigilantee anti-abortion bill, and it seems likely that Roe v. Wade is about to be overturned. This is all in addition to the attacks on voting rights that numerous states have seen, attacks that specifically target people of color. But Jacobin doesn’t talk about any of this, once again putting blinders on its analysis of the situation to produce its desired results. However, this erasure is an inexcusable attempt to support their electoral strategy at the cost of the oppressed. This discussion also represents a chilling turn that Jacobin commits to throughout the issue: that Democrats and socialists should abandon the oppressed in order to win power. 

Jacobin’s abandonment of the oppressed is particularly jarring given that these groups are experiencing historic attacks. Across the United States, people are losing access to abortion as conservative legislatures and judges chip away at the right to bodily autonomy. Trans rights have become the site of a new culture war, where states are introducing bills to dictate which bathroom people can use, prevent trans students from competing in sports, and even force schools to out queer students. Black and Brown people bear the brunt of bloated police budgets and politicians cracking down on crime. And migrants and refugees are still subjected to inhumane border policies as President Biden maintains, and even expands, many of Trump’s draconian laws. 

Notably, these attacks are occurring under a Democratic presidency. That Jacobin steadfastly supports this party — and fills its pages with strategy for electing more Democrats — speaks volumes about its political priorities. They have long claimed to have “critical support” for the Democratic Party, but this current issue has far more support than criticism — even the article about the end of the Sanders campaign has no mention of the role of the Democratic Party establishment in suppressing left-wing elements. The magazine is carrying water for a racist, imperialist party that is no friend of the working class and is ignoring the very groups that are under attack. 

The centerpiece of Jacobin’s argument for abandoning the oppressed is an interview with Jared Abbott and David Shor, two political analysts, who spoke with the magazine to defend the much-maligned “Commonsense Solidarity” study that argues that “working-class voters” (measured from a sample size of only a few thousand people in swings states drawn only from those who don’t have a college degree and aren’t registered Republicans) don’t respond to “activist” or “woke” rhetoric. To quote from David Shor in the interview: 

Working-class people aren’t reactionaries. But they are much more moderate on social issues — especially if you compare them to young people working in Democratic politics. On the flip side, however, working-class people do hold a lot of very progressive economic views… The reality is that, in the con- text of a campaign cycle, you have to meet voters where they are. The history of successful socialist movements in Europe is a tale of popularism. They maintained strict ideological discipline so that they couldn’t be painted as Soviet. They also focused on economic issues that people cared about…. If you want to change people’s values, you have to do so in a nonideological context. That’s because people don’t necessarily take their cues from Democratic politicians or liberal activists.

To put this another way, Shor seems to be arguing for an escalation of what has largely been the Jacobin line for years: if you want to win power, stop talking about the oppressed, “meet voters where they are,” and only talk about “class-wide” economic demands. Never mind the actual demographic make-up of the working class — which, as Kim Moody has shown us, is incredibly and increasingly diverse. 

This position — that the working class doesn’t care about special oppression — erases all oppressed members of the working class and re-defines it in exclusionary terms as being hegemonically white, non-urban, and socially conservative. But, of course, the working class is Black, Brown, queer, femme, disabled, immigrant, and including any number of other groups who face special oppression that Jacobin wants to ignore. 

To make matters even worse, Jacobin isn’t even interested in the class struggle among its limited definition of working class. It doesn’t, for example, write about the overwhelmingly white rural workers at John Deere and their struggle against both the bosses and their own union leadership to win a fair contract. Nor does it write about Kellogg workers or Amazon workers. Jacobin is ignoring the very people it claims to be in support of. 

Concerningly, Shor doesn’t just stop there. He goes on to criticize Hillary Clinton for being too progressive and praise Donald Trump for his working class politics. He says:

Even though people like us really hate him, the working class saw Trump differently. He was willing to abandon the most unpopular part of the Republican policy agenda — slashing enti- tlements — and he took stances on immigration that were probably much closer to the median voter’s than Hillary Clinton’s were. On immigration, I like to say that Donald Trump was more right- wing than maybe 60 percent of the population. But Hillary Clinton was probably more liberal than 90 percent of it…. I don’t want to claim Trump as the mantle of popularism. But he did set aside the political priorities of people like the Koch brothers and instead focused on what working-class people wanted. And he got a lot of votes for it.

This, of course, is nonsense. Both Clinton and Trump were right-wing candidates who took exceedingly anti-worker positions, and both were right-wing on immigration. Indeed, in terms of immigration, both parties have been in relative lock-step for years. The cages were built by Obama, overseen by Trump, and continued by Biden. To present these two as diametrically opposed is building completely false illusions in the political content of the Democratic Party, which will serve to stop leftists from leaving their electoral coalition — this, after all, is basically the entire point of the study: to prove why socialists should continue working with Democrats and how best to do so. So, in essence, Jacobin is defending the Democratic position on immigration as being “90 percent more liberal” than most “workers.” 

In this sense, the argument of Shor and Abbott — and by extension, Jacobin, for funding the study— would be more at home on CNN than in a socialist magazine. It has defined the working class in an incredibly narrow way — literally defining the working class as only people without college degrees, despite the fact that 35 percent of the U.S. labor force has degrees, and the study only surveyed voters in four swing states, effectively ignoring the urban working class — and is using that narrow definition (and very questionable data interpretation) to advise the Democratic Party and the socialist movement to further move away from defending the oppressed. 

This is not just a betrayal — it’s downright dangerous. It is dangerous, in a moment when the Right is escalating attacks on queer people, people of color, and those who can become pregnant to argue that the Left should abandon the field of battle. In a moment when oppressed groups need solidarity, Jacobin is proposing that we ignore them (a thing that Jacobin has been doing for a long time) because their issues don’t poll as well. It is little more than a left skin on the years-old liberal argument that “trans bathrooms lose Democrats elections.” It’s been echoed nearly constantly for years, an easy way to cover up the actual reasons that Democrats have lost elections historically and seem poised to lose in the midterms: they’re capitalist criminals who care more about protecting capitalist profits and American imperialism abroad than they do about delivery on their campaign promises. 

By counterposing economic issues to social issues, Jacobin plays into this false narrative that only serves to build illusions in the Democrats — as if the Left’s weakness is a messaging, rather than political, issue. The magazine’s class reductionism also highlights the weakness of its strategy. It is true that the working class holds a strategic position under capitalism: it can put a halt to production and hit capitalists’ profits. By organizing and withholding their labor, workers have the power to win key demands and force concessions from capitalists. Working-class unity is only possible by fighting against all these forms of oppression, taking up historical and theoretical studies of these different oppressions to better understand them, and taking up the specific demands of these marginalized groups, who often contain the most active and combative workers. Strengthening working-class consciousness and unity is the true way forward for the Left. 

Fighting oppression is also vital because the fight against oppression can often spark wider class struggle. In this sense, it is even more inexcusable that Jacobin doesn’t deem to write about instances where the working class takes up the fight against oppression as workers — such as when bus drivers refused to collaborate with the police during BLM or when dock workers shut down west coast ports in solidarity with the movement. 

Why does it ignore these developments? Because they show the real path forward: workers using their strength and position as workers to fight oppression and the capitalist system that allows for it. Jacobin is instead more interested in continuing to carry water for the Democrats, marginalizing the oppressed, and ignoring class struggle. These issues are endemic of all things that should have no place on the Left.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

Otto Fors

Otto is a college professor in the New York area.

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