When socialism is invoked in American political discourse, it's usually derisively. Prior to this election cycle, there hasn't been a self-described socialist with even remotely respectable polls in a presidential campaign since Eugene V. Debs. Since then, the term has been used mostly by conservatives as a slur or in poorly formulated broadsides equating America's public sector with the Gulag.
But this year, the protest candidacy of democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is outperforming all expectations - he effectively tied Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses last week and is favored to win Tuesday's New Hampshire primary - threatening to restore legitimacy to the term.
That's a welcome turn of events for the Philly Socialists, a small and scrappy group that organizes low-income tenants and provides services such as community gardening and English-as-a-second-language classes in Philly's rowhouse communities. The group is not involved in electoral politics but is willing to capitalize on possibilities opened up by the Sanders campaign. To that end, the group invited the editor of Jacobin magazine, Bhaskar Sunkara, to Philadelphia, where he will host a discussion on the future of leftist organizing at Drexel.
Jacobin is an explicitly socialist magazine founded by Sunkara in 2010, when he was an undergraduate at George Washington University. Dozens of niche publications and blogs are created every year under similar circumstances only to shrivel due to a lack of readership and funding. But Jacobin found an audience by mixing data-driven analysis and Marxist commentary with an irreverent and accessible style. (Disclosure: I contributed a few articles to Jacobin in its early years.)
Sunkara says the circulation of the print publication has hit 20,000, while the website gets about 750,000 unique visitors a month. That suggests a readership close to that of the most popular American socialist publication of all time, Appeal to Reason, a Kansas-based newspaper that was popular in the early 20th century. Now based in Brooklyn, Jacobin has been praised by Noam Chomsky, linked and quoted in the Washington Post, and profiled by the New York Times.
Sunkara is not a member of the Philly Socialists, although he is a vice chair of the venerable group Democratic Socialists of America. But he says the distinctions among small, leftist political factions aren't as important to today's activists as they have been. Historically, such groups have been riven by the kind of fractiousness that Monty Python teased in Life of Brian - the Judean People's Front vs. the People's Front of Judea - and plagued by internecine squabbling.
"We are trying to communicate and work together and not talk about organizational boundaries," said Sunkara, who describes himself on Twitter as "the Chef Boyardee of Western Marxism." With more people Googling "socialism" because of the Sanders campaign, he hopes such minutiae will be shelved. "Socialism is still a fringe ideology and fringe thinking in the U.S. But the ideas are appealing to way more than a fringe and way more than to people who are self-consciously identifying as progressives or liberals."
Sunkara will speak about the history and future of socialism in the United States, followed by a question-and-answer session. The discussion will be on the first floor of Nesbitt Hall on the Drexel University campus, at 3215 Market St., Saturday, Feb. 13, from 7 to 9:30 p.m.