Book Reviews

Socialism’s Comeback

Liberals should be glad that the left’s renewal is taking place under the banner of democratic socialism rather than another variant.

By Patrick Iber

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The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality By Bhaskar Sunkara • Basic Books • 2019 • 288 pages • $16.99

When the history of our era is written, it is likely that there will be a place for Jacobin magazine in it. If democratic socialism remains and even grows as a political force in the United States, Jacobin will have played a role in making that possible. In the now surprisingly crowded field of American socialist magazines new and old, Jacobin has seen the most explosive growth. The idiosyncratic idea of Bhaskar Sunkara when he was just an undergraduate at George Washington University, the magazine published its first issue in 2011. In the years since, Jacobin has become a prominent voice of millennial socialism in particular—and though Sunkara would probably not like the term, it is also a successful brand. It has simultaneously been able to mobilize socialist activists (there are Jacobin reading clubs across the country, often affiliated with chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America) and to find a level of mainstream acceptance (the magazine has been spotted on racks at Whole Foods next to Vanity Fair).

Discussing Jacobin in left circles is almost certain to generate a response. Some will be effusive, some respectful but critical, and some may react with an eye roll. But this emotional reaction exists in part because the magazine has placed itself in territory worth fighting over. In its early issues it was more ecumenical, drawing from a broad range of left opinion. But it has mostly settled on a point of view: Sunkara and the magazine defend democratic socialism, meaning a noncapitalist economy free from the profit motive yet achieved through and operating under political democracy. It rejects authoritarian versions of communism (like the centralized party dictatorship of the Soviet Union), while insisting on the need to transcend social democracy (a still fundamentally capitalist system made more palatable by an extensive welfare state). 

Now, in The Socialist Manifesto, Sunkara describes in broader terms his vision of socialist politics for the twenty-first century, and takes the reader through the interpretation of history that has led him to these conclusions. It is a generally appealing vision, though it is not clear if it is a realizable one. Even if it isn’t, however, liberals and social democrats should be glad that the left’s renewal is taking place under the banner of democratic socialism rather than another variant, and must take seriously the socialist critiques of the limits on existing liberal projects that seek a more just and equal social order.

Sunkara is an editor, a publisher, a writer, a thinker, but he is perhaps best understood as a committed popularizer. His Twitter bio used to describe him as the “Chef Boyardee of Western Marxism.” (It now describes him as the “hype man” for the Democratic Socialists of America.) But the “Chef Boyardee” reference is supposed to indicate that he can make digestible and popular what might otherwise be less palatable products. There are days when Sunkara’s tweets are more about basketball (he grew up in New York and likes the Knicks) or hip-hop (frequently Ja Rule, who he once suggested might be capable of leading a post-capitalist state) than about politics. His Marxism can be worn lightly; there’s no reason a few jokes can’t be had while waiting for the contradictions to heighten. In a 2014 interview about the Jacobin project, Sunkara described his ambition for making something that is in some ways “the equivalent of what The New Republic is for liberals. I don’t even mind using the world ‘middlebrow.’ Jacobin…[is] explicitly Marxist, it’s programmatically socialist, yet our goal is to speak to as many people as possible.” Jacobin publishes much unimpeachably excellent analysis, and, like any magazine, the occasional flop misstep. But the overall effect is indeed a kind of well-executed middlebrow agitprop. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have appeared twice in its pages, and also note that I’m on the editorial board of Dissent, which is a kind of rival to Jacobin.)

The first chapter of The Socialist Manifesto puts Sunkara’s skills in integrating Marxist theory with modern pop culture on full display. It is a charming version of Marxism 101, set in a “Bongiovi” pasta sauce factory—named, naturally, after “the most popular and critically acclaimed musician of this era,” Jon Bon Jovi. Sunkara imagines a few versions of this scenario: first, alienated and exploited labor under capitalism, in which pasta-sauce-bottling is an ultimately deadening routine that enriches the boss. Then he imagines a left-populist movement, under the symbolic leadership of a Sanders-like Bruce Springsteen, bringing improvements to working conditions and delivering a more social-democratic arrangement. But capitalists fight back against Springsteenism, insisting on the need to maintain their profits. A strike wave and factory occupations lead to collective ownership of the means of production.

In this final scenario, which moves beyond social democracy, Sunkara imagines that democratic planning and worker ownership could serve as alternatives to the traditional socialist mechanisms of central planning and state ownership. Markets in labor could be ended; salaries could be set by general agreement within firms, with relatively tight ratios between the highest- and lowest-paid workers. Capital markets, too, might be abolished, with banks nationalized and new investments determined by regional planning boards. Markets in goods and services would remain, as would political competition.

Inefficient firms would still fail, their employees protected by strong welfare states. It wouldn’t be a perfect society. There would still be frustration, heartbreak, bad luck, and, though Sunkara doesn’t mention it, probably too many meetings. But, Sunkara also argues (channeling Corey Robin), this kind of society would offer both more human freedom than does capitalism and that “even if we can’t solve the human condition, we can turn a world filled with excruciating misery into one where ordinary unhappiness reigns.”

That’s all in the first chapter. Most of the remainder of The Socialist Manifesto is not particularly manifesto-like. It builds instead from the “Western Marxism” part of the “Chef Boyardee of Western Marxism” biography to engage with a canon of thinkers and activists from Rosa Luxemburg to Mao Zedong. The humor is more diluted here amid the tales of capitalist development and revolutionary struggle, though it still comes through in moments: “Jordan and Pippen. Sonny and Cher. Marx and Engels. One of history’s great partnerships was forged with a week of drinking and conversation in Paris.” But the purpose of these historical chapters is to explain to the reader why Sunkara believes what he does. Notably, this also involves explaining what he does not believe.

First: Sunkara does not believe in anti-communism. Born in 1989, with no memory of the Cold War, Sunkara—like many of his generation—feels no need to take anti-communism seriously. Communists in power have a deadly record, as he concedes. When not in power, on the other hand, communists have sometimes made contributions to struggles for greater equality. But most importantly, Sunkara sees the Marxist tradition not as a blueprint for a communist society but as a set of analytical tools for understanding capitalism as a system of social organization, and a lens through which to recognize the suffering capitalism creates. He quotes Engels in conversation with an English capitalist of the mid-nineteenth century, a decent family man who listens to descriptions of terrible living and working conditions for the industrial proletariat and responds: “And yet there is a great deal of money made here.” Marxism, for Sunkara, is a tradition based on the goal, and the expectation, of human liberation. In this, Sunkara differs from someone like Polish dissident Leszek Kolakowski, another amusing Marxist, who concluded from life experience, and much study, that totalitarianism was logically contained within Marxist ways of thinking. Sunkara accepts that Marxism can be transformed into stale dogma, but thinks that Marx’s ideas are, first and foremost, “radically democratic.”

Second: If Sunkara is not an anti-communist, neither is he a communist. Sunkara is not, in the language of our time, a “tankie”—an apologist for Stalin or authoritarian socialism. Sunkara credits Lenin and the Bolshevik revolutionaries with good intentions and avers that “Lenin didn’t leave social democracy. It left him.” But conditions of civil war, he says, led to “collective punishment, state terror, and intimidation” that were institutionalized by the Bolsheviks. He describes the Soviet Union under Stalin as a “horrific totalitarian regime unlike any the world had ever seen” and writes that “the worldwide Communist movement became a tool of Russian national interests rather than one of working-class emancipation.” He also sees the policies of the so-called “Third Period”—the period from 1928 to 1935 when Communists declared social democrats to be their worst enemies (“social fascists”)—to have been disastrous because they impeded cooperation with other left groups.

Yet, finally, Sunkara is also not a social democrat. To explain why, he turns to Sweden, often thought of as the paradigmatic social democratic state. He has high praise for its accomplishments in the postwar period, which he attributes not to Swedish culture or ethnic homogeneity but to relatively late industrialization and late adoption of universal male suffrage, which meant that labor organizing was strong on the shop floor and that class-consciousness therefore abounded. The strength of the Swedish Social Democrats, in combination with the agrarian party, led to a favorable balance of forces when it came to bargaining with capital. Private ownership remained in Sweden, but in a context of active labor market policy that compressed wage differentials. It achieved egalitarian ends without giving up democratic government or engaging in authoritarian practices.

Yet, according to Sunkara, this form of social democracy was not sustainable. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the system showed strain. Strikes broke out, and many workers endorsed the Meidner Plan, which would have created a collectively owned wage-earner fund. Over time, the profits invested there would have allowed workers to take control of industry. “We cannot fundamentally change society without changing its ownership structure,” said Rudolf Meidner, the economist responsible for much of the Swedish model and for whom the plan was named. Yet business interests—capital—pushed back, attacking the plan and the social democratic compact. Sweden’s Social Democrats lost ground electorally, and since then Sweden’s welfare state has been in retreat, even if still strong compared to other places in the world. (This is where the Bongiovi factory workers would rise up, in Sunkara’s dream world, taking the path not taken in actually-existing Sweden.) Sunkara sees this as a fundamental structural contradiction of social democracy: “[I]t was still dependent on private sector profits and the calculation by business that maintaining the peace with a powerful labor movement was worth the cost.” And social democratic parties, meanwhile, need to win elections, for which it helps to maintain social peace. That means discouraging working-class mobilization, undermining left goals in the long run. In the last decades, European social democratic parties have lost both ambition and their social base. As French socialist Lionel Jospin complains, social democrats once offered a middle way between communism and capitalism. Now they offer only a middle way between social democracy and neoliberalism.

What Sunkara wants is a truly democratic, inclusive, egalitarian socialism. If “social democracy” involves a strongly redistributive state and a favorable bargain between labor, capital, and the state, “democratic socialism” would mean actually removing the power of capital from the table. Sunkara’s interpretation of our 170 or so years of capitalist history leads him to acknowledge the impossibility of achieving social justice either via Soviet-style concentrated state power or by a compromise with capital that leaves much of its power intact. He is looking for something new: an arrangement that, it might be observed, has never existed. Sunkara is asking us to try to squeeze through the cracks of existing yet inadequate alternatives and dare to imagine something new.

The prescription to get us there is not particularly surprising. It involves building working-class power (among wage earners in multiple sectors, not just factory workers). It involves strikes. It involves supporting politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who aspire to expand universal programs, and who are willing to foreground class in their appeal to voters. (Though it might be noted that Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist and has done much to detoxify the term in American political discourse, never talks about the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but instead the 99 percent and the 1 percent.) Above all, Sunkara’s plan is going to require a lot more convinced socialists—that is why, he writes, “training a new generation of nonsectarian socialist organizers is so important.”

There are plenty of things one might find to criticize among Sunkara’s arguments. His interpretations of Marx and Lenin are certainly debatable, and are probably best read less as definitive than as yet another leftist generation’s effort to conjure the Marx that it needs for its moment. He might well be underrating the authoritarian potential of the institutional arrangement he seeks to achieve. Perhaps, despite his aspirations, there is no way to get beyond social democracy while retaining electoral democracy and bourgeois rights like freedom of speech. Perhaps permanently nationalizing the banking sector would be economically ruinous. Perhaps, since economic fluctuations are somewhat inevitable and recessions are likely to lead to changes in political power, the only way for an electoral left to maintain permanent hegemony would be to abandon democracy in the name of class rule. Perhaps the left is too sectarian to not turn against itself. Perhaps the number of socialists you would need to achieve true democratic socialism is totally unrealistic, especially if they all have to read Marxist theory to come by these convictions. Perhaps trying to create an independent socialist party will prove to be a mistake. Perhaps a Sanders or Corbyn administration would be disappointing and demobilizing, rather than galvanizing.

But, to make the quickest possible counterargument to these worries: perhaps not! Even for those who harbor some doubts, Sunkara’s point of view has many virtues. It is undeniable that the energy and the ideas right now for building an effective opposition to Trump have come from the left. Being able to articulate a vision for an inclusive political community requires the use of the language of class struggle, however adapted to the American scene. (And not, certainly, to the exclusion of discussion of other important identities such as race and gender.) Bernie Sanders is right to run in the Democratic primary, considering the winner-take-all voting system of the presidency, but socialist candidates for school boards and city councils have cropped up across the country, potentially decalcifying and democratizing political machines in Democratic metro areas. And DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has proved an adept, appealing, and principled politician who should have a long future in advancing progressive causes. Sunkara has indeed concluded, from the experience of the Sanders campaign in 2016, that participating in social-democratic electoral politics is not selling out, but in fact helps to build more socialists. If Jacobin’s historic task proves to be convincing erstwhile radicals to participate in American electoral politics, that will be no small achievement.

Indeed, even liberals wary of socialists and their ideas probably need to admit how important socialists have become to any plan to realize liberal goals, not least because of the strangely forgotten fact that building power is necessary for political victory. (The Obama years should permanently bury any notion that power would concede something in response to a sound logic and reasonable argument.) Now many liberals, social democrats, and Sunkara-style democratic socialists share the goal of decommodifying goods like health care, believing that all should have access to them. More democratic workplaces can be built via cooperatives, union organizing, codetermination and workers’ councils, and even better regulation. And adaptations to climate change are going to require a more egalitarian society anyway—because solving the problem will require new public goods like housing and transportation, and because the effort will require taking the resources of the global rich and putting them to use for the common good. Because there are areas of common concern, and because Sunkara’s socialism is generally nonsectarian, it seems to me that at least some disagreements among the broad left can therefore probably be put off for a few decades rather than fought out now with tooth and claw.

Nevertheless, I suspect that the democratic socialist scenario Sunkara outlines is unlikely to come to pass. But that hardly means that it will be a wasted effort. This is not the first time in American history in which socialism enjoyed some mainstream acceptance; Eugene Debs’s best showing topped out at 6 percent of the national popular vote in 1912. Nonetheless, the socialists of that era transformed municipal politics for the better, and mainstream politicians like Franklin Roosevelt took up some good socialist ideas. Yet 40 years later, in 1954, the first issue of Dissent admitted that in the United States “there is no socialist movement and that, in all likelihood, no such movement will appear in the immediate future.” But today’s socialists do not have to make the same concession. The point, someone wrote, is not simply to interpret the world, but to change it. And it is changing.

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Patrick Iber is assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America.

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