The publication began as an online magazine released in September 2010, but expanded into a print journal later that year. Jacobin has been described by its founder, Bhaskar Sunkara, as a radical publication, "largely the product of a younger generation not quite as tied to the Cold War paradigms that sustained the old leftist intellectual milieus like Dissent or New Politics." Sunkara has said that the aim of the magazine was to create a publication which combined resolutely socialist politics with the accessibility of titles such as The Nation and The New Republic.
Earlier in 2013, "Jacobin Books" was announced, a partnership with Verso Books and Random House. A collection of essays by Jacobin contributors was published by Henry Holt and Company in 2016. "Class Action: An Activist Teacher's Handbook," produced in conjunction with the Chicago Teachers Union's CORE Caucus and Jacobin was distributed to trade union activists in the 16 cities in the United States and Canada. Additionally, since the fall of 2014, Jacobin has sponsored more than 80 socialist reading groups.
The name of the magazine derives from the book The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C. L. R. James, in which James ascribes the Black Haitian revolutionists a greater purity in regards to the ideals of the French Revolution than the "White Jacobins". According to creative director Remeike Forbes, the logo was inspired by a scene in the movie Burn! referring to Nicaraguan national hero José Dolores Estrada, but represents Toussaint Louverture, the most well known leader of the only successful slave revolt in human history.
The magazine's motto, "Reason in Revolt", is a reference to a line from "The Internationale".
Notable Jacobin contributors include Slavoj Žižek, Bob Herbert, Yanis Varoufakis, Hilary Wainwright, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jeremy Corbyn and Pablo Iglesias Turrión. Sunkara has said he feels that "all of our writers fit within a broad socialist tradition", noting that the magazine does sometimes publish articles by liberals and social democrats but that such pieces are written from a perspective that is consistent with the magazine's editorial vision: "we might publish a piece by a liberal advocating single-payer healthcare, because they’re calling for the decommodification of a sector; and since we believe in the decommodification of the whole economy, it fits in". In terms of the sociological background of contributors, Sunkara acknowledged that they were mostly under the age of 35, and stated that "there are a lot of grad students, young adjunct professors or tenured professors. We also have quite a few organizers and union researchers involved... and people working in NGOs or around housing rights, that kind of thing".
It has been variously described as democratic socialist, socialist, and Marxist. According to an article published by the Nieman Journalism Lab it is a journal of "democratic socialist thought." Max Strasser, writing in the New Statesman, suggested that the journal claims to "take the mantle of Marxist thought of Ralph Miliband and a similar vein of democratic socialism."
In an interview published in New Left Review, Sunkara named a number of ideological influences on the magazine, including Michael Harrington, who he described as "very underrated as a popularizer of Marxist thought"; Ralph Miliband and others influenced by Trotskyism without fully embracing it, such as Leo Panitch; theorists working in the Eurocommunist tradition; and "Second International radicals" including Lenin and Karl Kautsky.
In an article published in the Weekly Worker, Jim Creegan highlighted the association of a number of the magazine's editors and writers with the Democratic Socialists of America, describing Jacobin as "the closest thing to a flagship publication of the DSA left", whilst also stressing the political diversity of contributors, incorporating "everyone from social democratic liberals to avowed revolutionaries". He also noted several features of the publication's editorial stance: its rejection of anti-communism; its skepicism regarding the possibility of the Democratic Party being transformed into a social-democratic movement through internal pressure, advocating instead the formation of a mass-based independent labor party; criticism of the parties of the Socialist International, which they argue have been responsible for imposing neoliberal austerity policies; and a conviction that the nordic model of social democracy is ultimately not viable, and that the only alternative to capitalism would be for militant labor and socialist movements to struggle to replace capitalism with socialism.
The New York Times ran a profile of Bhaskar Sunkara, the founding editor and publisher of Jacobin in January 2013, commenting on the publication's unexpected success and engagement with mainstream liberalism. In a 2013 article for Tablet Magazine, Michelle Goldberg discussed Jacobin as part of a revival of interest in Marxism among young intellectuals. Jake Blumgart, who contributed to the magazine in its early years, stated that it "found an audience by mixing data-driven analysis and Marxist commentary with an irreverent and accessible style."