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Will a New Form of Socialism Rise? On Bhaskar Sunkara's 'The Socialist Manifesto'

Socialists need to do better in fighting against identity-based discrimination, as editor of Jacobin Bhaskar Sunkara notes in The Socialist Manifesto, but that struggle will only be effective if waged as part of a larger struggle against neoliberal capitalism.

The Socialist Manifesto: The Case For Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality
Bhaskar Sunkara

Basic Books

Apr 2019


To say that socialism is surging in the United States is simply to repeat what a wave of other commentators -- from The Economist on the right to The Washington Post and The Guardian on the, well, centre -- have already pointed out. A 2018 Gallup poll put a more objective face on socialism's explosion in popularity: more young Americans aged 18 to 29 feel positively about socialism (51 percent) than about capitalism (45 percent).

When it comes to the growth and appeal of socialism in the United States, Bhaskar Sunkara has played a tremendously important role. His journal Jacobin is one of the key spaces for catalytic, progressive thought in the present moment; it's been called "the leading intellectual voice of the American left." Its unabashed radical socialism and gorgeous, aesthetically attentive layout coupled with a jaunty attitude that appeals to young readers (while retaining intelligent intellectual analysis), is representative of the approach to socialism that is gaining adherents in the traditional heartland of capitalism.

Periodicals like Jacobin can be just as powerful and influential as major books of theory when it comes to building and catalyzing movements. Nevertheless, Sunkara has expanded his reach with a full-length book: The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality.

The book makes worthwhile reading, even though it's not really a manifesto per se. It consists of three principal parts. The first part is an imaginary journey into "A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen". It imagines life in a future socialist America, in the year 2036. It's written in the style of socialist speculative fiction that was an influential literary tradition in the past (Edward Bellamy's 1888 bestseller Looking Backward is a prime example); and it's a tradition that's perhaps worth reviving, if only to lend hope to the present moment. Sunkara's imaginary journey is a bit too short and densely detailed to fully achieve its aims; efforts to inject pop culture references to make it hip don't really succeed either, but it deserves credit for imagination and ambition.

The second and lengthiest portion of the book offers a brief recap of the rise and fall of socialist movements in modern history in several national contexts: Germany, Russia, Sweden, China, and of course its strangulation in early twentieth century America. A common theme emerges: a socialist movement develops and reaches a crisis of growth at a certain point where it struggles with whether to accept co-optation into the prevailing capitalist order, or to continue struggling for a post-capitalist society. Reform or revolution? Compromise or confrontation? Often the socialist movement compromises, dooming itself (Germany, Sweden). In other cases, it degenerates into a savage form of totalitarian capitalism (Russia, China). In the United States, it was bluntly repressed at the outbreak of the First World War just as it was beginning to achieve significant gains.

Sunkara hits his stride in these chapters – he's a first-rate storyteller, and at his best when spinning out an engaging narrative, with smart yet accessible political analysis – but the goal of this section is less clear. The stories all share pessimistic outcomes. It's difficult to tell what lesson is meant to be learned here, especially if the book aspires to be a manifesto. Perhaps the lesson is that socialists ought to avoid compromise – a burning concern, no doubt, as socialists like Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK face immense pressure to do just that. Perhaps, too, the aim is to legitimize socialism by raising awareness of its strong historical legacy in modern times, and to arm nascent socialists with an awareness of what threats, dangers, and pitfalls may accompany the movement's growth.

The final portion of the book is the most manifesto-like and offers a succinctly outlined list of important points for socialist organizers to keep in mind as their movement grows. Fundamental to Sunkara's argument in this section is the need for socialists to engage broadly -- to bring their socialist perspective to mainstream organizing within the Democratic party, in elections, in labour union organizing and strikes, and in other social movements. The presence of socialists in these spaces is key both to recruiting more socialists as well as building organizational experience and capacity. It's also critical to pushing forward the beginnings of a socialist agenda and making life better for everyday Americans along the way.

This is cogent advice. Victor Serge, the prolific writer, journalist, and revolutionary who played a key role in the Russian Revolution, reflected in his later years about the Revolution's successes and failures. From exile in Mexico (he was briefly imprisoned but managed to flee the Soviet Union ahead of Stalin's murderous purges), he wrote toward the end of his life that "What constituted the strength and the grandeur of the Russian revolutionaries was that they constituted an environment...of the highest quality, formed a cultivated milieu, educated, trained in the Marxist method, animated by a revolutionary passion, profoundly honest..."

He's hit on a key point, which he elaborates elsewhere. The decades of organizing, both under repression in Russia and in exile abroad, led to a flourishing body of literature, theory and debate which created, for the Russian activists, "an environment". This environment -- modern academic parlance might call it an "ecology" of activism -- established a critical foundation for the revolutionaries to build upon; it gave them a common operating system, and while they disagreed with each other on many points (disagreements which would sometimes prove fatally divisive) it empowered them with a common set of values, principles, goals and framework for understanding the world. An analogy might be drawn with religious movements like Christianity. There's plenty of diversity and difference within Christianity -- differences that are sometimes fatally divisive -- yet its strength as a globalizing faith was predicated on the common worldview within which its adherents, for all their differences, were able to cooperatively function.

Photo of Bhaskar Sunkara by © Erin Baiano (courtesy of Basic Books)

While some might gaze with despair upon the fragmentation of today's left-wing thought, others might see within that diversity the makings of the 'environment' of which Serge writes (and perhaps what theorists like Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams refer to as an "organisational ecology"). The proliferation of socialist and hard left cultural production -- Sunkara's Jacobin Magazine, radical publishing houses like Verso Books and AK Press in the UK, PM Press and Haymarket Books in the US, Black Rose Books and Fernwood Publishers in Canada, among others -- are building the sort of critical mass of thought and literature which is a necessary base for such an environment. That, coupled with the growing freedom of increasingly mainstream commentators in North America to openly embrace socialism and situate themselves within a socialist spectrum, also helps both to normalize socialism's presence in the political spectrum as well as increase its attraction as a viable option for political neophytes and youth.

Yet, as Sunkara notes, other elements that have helped bolster socialist politics elsewhere in the world have yet to emerge, in a practical way, in the US. A party, for instance. While Sunkara urges socialists to organize within the established parties (especially the Democratic Party, where they have already established a significant presence), he's doubtful about the capacity of the Democratic Party to achieve socialist aims in the long run. America's parties, he notes, aren't really political parties in the commonly understood sense of the term. They don't have platforms per se, that members can vote on and advocate around. This is both a strength -- it renders them extremely flexible and adaptable, and creates openings for radical influence -- but also a weakness, in that it works against a coherent policy framework and disenfranchises members from the ability to directly affect policy change. Socialists need a party, he concludes – and offers examples from other countries to guide this process (Podemos in Spain, Die Linke in Germany, Left Bloc in Portugal). Yet at the same time, he warns, US socialists shouldn't just expect to import movements from other countries wholesale: it's important to pay attention to particularities of the American context. But a mass membership party is, eventually, a viable and important goal, he suggests.

How to Win

Sunkara's road map in this final section breaks down into a few broad points. First of all, as mentioned previously – socialists need to engage. They need to be involved in social movements, in labour unions, in other political parties. Socialism will get nowhere if socialists just sit around in their basement together.

Second, socialists need to be prepared for the backlash from the establishment, especially once they start winning power. It's that backlash, and a lack of preparation for it, which has often caught left-wing parties off guard in other countries and contexts, and led to a panicked accommodation or co-optation by establishment elites. In countries that have elected populist left-wing governments – Venezuela, for example – capitalist countries and corporations have quickly rallied to try to isolate and crush nascent socialist regimes. Where they do not succeed (Cuba, Venezuela) their efforts often drive the socialist regimes into a violently defensive mode which spirals into authoritarianism and ultimately undermines the potential for democratic socialism (something of the sort could be argued to have occurred after the Russian Revolution, as well).

Even within democratic countries, the prospect of socialists rising to power has spurred rapid backlash from establishment forces and business interests. In the US, Bernie Sanders' unexpected popularity spurred the Democratic party establishment to conspire against him; in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn's unexpected election as Labour party leader, which has presaged a sharp turn to the left for that party, has been accompanied by a virulent series of attacks by former prominent Labour centrists and right-wingers, as well as formerly Labour-friendly media. Corbyn's leadership is a demonstrative example of the nervous tokenism with which progressive establishment parties regard socialists: right-wing and centrist Labour officials were happy to pat Corbyn on the back and applaud his name on the ballot, as a performative demonstration of political plurality and token socialism in the party, until it became apparent that he might actually win, at which point all the guns were suddenly turned on him (too late). Similarly, socialists must be prepared for the firm backlash which will inevitably come from the right and from liberals alike when they start winning.

Above all, socialism needs more socialists. This is another reason for socialists to engage in other parties and movements. Winning new adherents won't happen in a vacuum.

Socialists need to adopt a universalist politics, as well. The supposed divide between identity-based social movements and class-based social movements has been a thorn in socialism's side for over a century. Sunkara, along with other socialists, argues it's time to move past that. History has shown that socialists do need to pay attention to the politics of recognition and be more attentive to racism, sexism, and other forms of identity-based oppression than they have in the past. On the other hand, history has also shown that the class struggle is real, despite neoliberalism's claims that society has moved past it.

Class is a more potent division now than at any point in the past century, and the dubious accomplishment of identity-based movements which failed to critique capitalism has been to replicate its injustices. Creating space for women, queers, black Americans and other minorities to enter society's elites has done little to mitigate the broader problems of sexism, homophobia, racism, and other forms of oppression. Identity-based oppression and exploitation is woven into the fabric of capitalism, argue socialists. A better formula, assert Sunkara and other socialists, is to merge the struggles against capitalism and against discrimination. Socialists need to do better in fighting against identity-based discrimination, but that struggle will only be effective if waged as part of a larger struggle against neoliberal capitalism.

He makes a number of other useful points in this thoughtful section, but perhaps the most important is his concluding one: "history matters". The historical lesson Sunkara repeatedly emphasizes is that which reveals the inadequacy of a simple reformist, progressive neoliberalism masquerading as socialism-lite: "the antidemocratic power of capital will overwhelm democratically backed pro worker reforms…while we defend newly won gains, we must fight to avoid the crippling bureaucratization that pushed the great social-democratic movements of the early twentieth century into a self-defeating accommodation with the system."

It might sound odd to be concerned with such things at such an early stage of building a viable socialist movement, yet one of the strengths of Jacobin and the movement associated with it is their dedication to prefiguring a socialist future – legitimizing it and lending it credibility, and thus bringing it closer, by acting as though we are already half-way there; tackling the problems of the future before they catch us off-guard in the present. If inspired writers like Sunkara continue to do that, the movement they envision will surely emerge the stronger for it.

Twenty-first century socialism will by necessity be a creature of its own invention, attentive to the unique needs of the present and future, yet it can be helpfully guided by the lessons – both positive and negative – of the past. It's here that Sunkara's manifesto coheres as a whole: the histories of part two informing his road map in part three, with the goal of achieving the socialist future imagined in part one. It's not exactly a manifesto, but The Socialist Manifesto is important reading for our tumultuous and transformative present.

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