Not a manifesto but part of a discussion: A review of Bhaskar Sunkara's 'The Socialist Manifesto'

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The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality.
By Bhaskar Sunkara.
New York: Basic Books, 2019.
276 pages, including index. Hardcover, $28.00.

Review by Paul Le Blanc

July 21, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — “Whippersnapper” refers to “a young and inexperienced person considered to be presumptuous or overconfident.” The online Urban Dictionary says it is “most often used by old people (see geezer) to describe an arrogant young person.” An example: “The whippersnapper ran right by me and almost knocked me over.” That is how some see Bhaskar Sunkara.

I prefer not to follow up on the meaning of “geezer” – let’s just focus on this particular whippersnapper (young, less experienced than some of us, sometimes perhaps presumptuous or overconfident) and his book. He and some of his pals publish a socialist journal, more popular than other journals of the left, called Jacobin. It is said they can be flippant and arrogant, and they have rubbed some the wrong way – but I confess to finding them very interesting.

Already something of a phenomenon in the publishing world, Sunkara has now written The Socialist Manifesto while still in his late 20s – the same age as a couple of other whippersnappers who wrote The Communist Manifesto. Sunkara doesn’t measure up to either Karl Marx or Fredrich Engels, and his 2019 book compares poorly with their 1848 pamphlet. (These are points emphasized by geezers, young and old.) One of Sunkara’s saving graces is that he doesn’t pretend to measure up to Marx and Engels, whom he respectfully discusses in this book. 

Nor is The Socialist Manifesto really a manifesto. It is, instead, a substantial, though also succinct and snappy, contribution to a discussion process among the growing numbers of socialist activists in the United States. They are largely young (some even younger than Sunkara) and relatively inexperienced (some even more inexperienced than Sunkara). They are part of the hope for the future, what could become a mass socialist movement that might, if things go right, effectively challenge capitalism, replacing it with a socialist democracy.

The book starts with a whimsical fantasy that morphs into a persuasive sketch addressing a pair of commonly asked questions: is socialism really possible in the United States and what would it look like? What Sunkara does next (from pages 35 to 186) is explained on page 236: “While the excitement around socialism today feels new and fresh … we have little hope of realizing our aims if we don’t learn from those who marched and organized and dreamed before us.”

Our history 

In six chapters, we get a whirlwind history of world socialism. The history is also lucid, coherent, and seems to add up to something. Highly simplified, it leaves out many things, and is hardly free from mistakes. Yet it is vastly superior – more sophisticated, more nuanced, more informative, more accurate – than summaries to which most people (including in today’s rising socialist movement) have been exposed. 

“Gravediggers” begins with the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe, going on to transformations wrought by the Industrial Revolution, with a growing working class that is horribly oppressed by a rising capitalist elite, super-rich through exploiting the labor of many millions of men, women and children. The consequent labor-radical and socialist ferment yields analyses and a fighting program developed by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. They conclude that a mass movement of the working class can and must defend its elementary rights, challenge the immense economic and political power of the capitalists, and bring a socialist future in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

“The Future We Lost” tells of a European socialist labor movement arising in the late nineteenth century, then crashing into the catastrophe of World War I. The biggest and seemingly most effective manifestation of the movement is in Germany, where Marxism provides essential guidance. Phenomenal growth seems to promise triumph. But the movement’s size and complexities generate a bureaucratic apparatus, and the movement’s effectiveness bring opportunities which generate opportunism, crystallizing into a powerful gradualist and reformist current, given voice by Eduard Bernstein. Even serious Marxists such as Karl Kautsky are compromised, and such principled revolutionaries as Rosa Luxemburg are marginalized. World War and post-war revolutionary ferment result in betrayals of principles and the murder of revolutionaries.  

“The Few Who Won” recounts the triumph and tragedy of the Russian Revolution. Despite shortcomings, the general narrative strikes me as more or less consistent with my own accounts in Lenin and the Revolutionary Party and October Song. Impressive efforts of those in the revolutionary wing of Russia’s socialist workers’ movement, and the revolutionary-democratic upsurge led by Lenin and Trotsky, were followed by a ferocious civil war, foreign intervention, and the failure of expected revolutions elsewhere. This led to desperate and authoritarian measures that, combined with Russia’s poverty and isolation, culminated in the rise of the bureaucratic dictatorship associated with Joseph Stalin. The next chapter is graced with a delicious name, “The God That Failed,” reminiscent of the anti-Communist classic by the same name. But this particular failed “God” was the Social Democracy’s welfare-state. It involved a Cold War labor-capitalist social and economic compromise that dominated the economically-advanced capitalist world from the mid-1940s to the 1980s. The neo-liberal onslaught launched by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher destroyed it. “Pragmatic” paragons of Social Democracy either became irrelevant or joined the neo-liberal crusade. 

Least satisfying is the chapter entitled “The Third World Revolution,” which tries to encompass the experience of three continents in twenty-eight pages. China receives something approximating its due. After positive comments about the Chinese Revolution, Sunkara’s account becomes quite critical. Some of the criticisms I share, but he piles on negative assertions so disturbing that I would like to see more documentation to back up what he is saying. My skepticism comes from the 2010 collection edited by Gregor Benton and Lin Chun, Was Mao Really a Monster? The Academic Response. (Inadequate documentation is an affliction of many popularizations, including The Socialist Manifesto.) On struggles led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, as well as the Cuban Revolution’s limitations, the balance is more positive but not uncritical. Experiences in Algeria, Chile, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Korea, South Africa, Venezuela, Vietnam receive at best fleeting mention. Yet doing justice to them would double or triple the book’s 243-page narrative. Sunkara also advances an interesting challenge that may limit his consideration of Asia, Africa, and Latin America: “The Third World’s experience with socialism vindicates Marx. He argued that a successful socialist economy requires already developed economic forces and that a robust socialist democracy requires a self-organized working class.”  

“Socialism and America” surveys developments from 1820 to 1989, and factual errors inevitably creep in: eight police officers, not one, died from the 1886 bomb thrown in Haymarket Square; Daniel De Leon was not the first to create an English-language socialist newspaper – J.P. McDonnell’s Labor Standard and Albert Parsons’s Alarm were among those that came earlier. Some of Sunkara’s interpretations are also open to question: the Socialist Party in the 1930s opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal because it defended capitalism, not because it brought about reforms; nor was Norman Thomas “cut in the figure” of Eugene V. Debs. Yet much is packed into these 27-pages, and Sunkara pulls it off fairly well,

The past flows into the future

Sharp-shooting over details would miss the point of the historical survey in The Socialist Manifesto. The historical chapters stand as relatively positive and useful resources to advance a discussion about the struggle to build an effective socialist movement today and tomorrow. In that spirit, I will focus on a few problems with implications for future efforts. 

On pages 67 and 68, we are told the anti-revolutionary gradualism of Bernstein in the early 1900s was welcomed by “organized labor,” while Luxemburg’s revolutionary mass strike agitation provided “a persistent headache for the trade unions.” Yet as Sunkara himself shows, what constituted organized labor was not simply trade unions – the labor movement certainly consisted the trade unions, but also the political party, the cooperatives, the socialist newspapers and publications, women’s groups and youth groups, a rich array of cultural and sports groups, study groups, party schools, and more. And many militant working-class comrades in these entities, including in the trade unions, were in agreement not with Bernstein and the bureaucratizing labor leadership, but with Luxemburg. (See Mary Nolan’s 1981 study, Social Democracy and Society: Working-Class Radicalism in Düsseldorf, 1890-1920.) 

According to page 104, in the 1920s, “a few hundred miles to the west of Moscow, democratic socialism came close to becoming a reality.” This refers to Germany’s Weimar Republic, a class compromise embraced by anti-revolutionary bureaucrats such as Friedrich Ebert and Philip Scheidemann, who led the German Social Democratic Party. They could hardly be expected to betray, for the cause of any genuine socialism, the aristocratic generals and bankers and industrialists with whom they had struck a deal. They preferred to go along with the murder of such revolutionaries as Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

It is asserted (pages 110 and 178) that by the mid-1930s the Stalin-led Communist International “began seeking alliances – ‘popular fronts’ – with other left movements where possible,” and that “the Comintern inaugurated a Popular Front across the West, composed not just of working-class parties but also middle class reformers.” On page 179 Sunkara adds that in the United States this meant “aligning with Democrats.” But all this is incredibly problematical. 

First of all, Sunkara seems to equate a united front alliance with popular fronts. In his classic 1982 study Twilight of the Comintern, 1930-1935, E.H. Carr has explained that Stalin’s views were transmitted in a 1935 report to the Communist International by George Dimitrov, expanding the notion of united front into something new: the popular front. Carr explains: “Lenin’s ‘united front’ had been designed to hasten the advent of the proletarian revolution,” while “Dimitrov’s ‘popular front’ was designed to keep the proletarian revolution in abeyance in order to deal with the pressing emergency of Fascism.” Nor did this involve alliances simply with “middle class reformers.” It meant creating class-collaborationist governments in a global alliance against the Axis Powers. As Carr explains: “Care was taken not to ruffle the susceptibilities of those imperialist Powers whose support Comintern was seeking to woo for the anti-Fascist front.” Aligning with Democrats meant precisely this – an alliance not just with “middle class reformers” but with people like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, reform-minded to be sure, but representing a U.S. corporate capitalism advancing its own imperialist interests.

This relates to a weakness regarding imperialism. On page 156, looking at the problems faced by the laboring and oppressed majorities of Asia, Africa and Latin America, Sunkara writes: “Why do these countries need to go through the same destructive sequence as those in the Global North? Wouldn’t a just world subsidize those who – through mere accidents of birth – were born in poor countries?” It is not clear what is being said here. If Sunkara is referring to a world already in the process of developing an international socialist economy, that is one thing. If he is referring to our global capitalism, even with a “do-good” overlay of social-democratic reformist governments, that is something else.

Although discussing Luxemburg, Lenin, and Nikolai Bukharin in positive terms, Sunkara doesn’t explore what they had to say about imperialism, let alone what has been offered in more recent theorizations of Paul Baran, Ernest Mandel, Harry Magdoff or David Harvey. Nor is there treatment of the actualities of imperialism, inexorably driven forward, as Luxemburg explained, by a voracious capital accumulation process doing damage to innumerable peoples and cultures, and coupled with militarism and war. “Modernization” of the Third World with aid from economically more advanced countries has traditionally been a recipe for exploitation. Yet this is absent from The Socialist Manifesto’s thoughtful discussions. 

Today and tomorrow

The book’s concluding chapters approach “what is to be done” today and tomorrow. Setting aside the light and peppy concluding chapter, we will focus on the two preceding it.

The eighth chapter is entitled “Return of the Mack.” According to an online definition, a mack is “an individual skilled in the art of seduction using verbal skills.” A 1973 film was entitled “Return of the Mack,” about hustlers, pimps and prostitutes. It is also the title of a song.

Whatever the meaning of its title, the chapter describes the triumph, corruptions, and disasters of neo-liberalism, spawning mass protest and radicalization – including the Occupy movement as well as the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom and Bernie Sanders in the United States (presented as key elements for advancing socialism in our time).

The title of the penultimate chapter, “How We Win,” clearly matches its content. “The dilemma for socialists today is figuring out how to take the anger at the unjust outcomes of capitalism and turn it into a challenge to the system itself,” we are told. This is followed by the assertion that in the United States we have lacked the necessary ingredients of a mass party: an activist base, and a mobilized working class. We need to build “working-class parties and unions,” Sunkara argues, that can “unite scattered resistance into a socialist movement.” 

He goes on to offer what he calls a “roadmap” to accomplish this, consisting of fifteen points that interested readers can explore for themselves. Sunkara offers an interesting comparison (page 216) between what he terms “modern social democracy” and Corbyn and Sanders, whose demands are “essentially social democratic” but are spiced by the present context: “Whereas social democracy morphed in the postwar period into a tool to suppress class conflict in favor of tripartite arrangement among business, labor, and the state, both of these leaders encourage a renewal of class antagonism and movements from below.” He adds: “Sanders’s movement is about creating a ‘political revolution’ to get what is rightfully ours from ‘millionaires and billionaires.’ His program leads to polarization along class lines; indeed, calls for it.”

Sunkara seems alive to the question of how to make elected socialist candidates accountable to an increasingly class-conscious constituency: “The solution is through creating some pressure of our own. Street protests and strike actions can discipline wayward candidates for not going along with a redistributive agenda and can force businesses to make concessions to reformers once they are elected.” 

Internationalism and mass action

In assuring us that a socialist program can be achieved in the United States, Sunkara says something odd: “Luckily, the United States doesn’t have to contend with antidemocratic supranational organizations like the eurozone, and it has immense resources to work with. We ultimately have larger ambitions than ‘socialism in one country,’ but if it’s possible anywhere, it’s possible here” (page 221). 

There are at least three issues here. First is a recognition of the immense authoritarian power of the European Union (EU) in thwarting democracy and socialism in European countries. In Greece, with the purportedly radical socialist leadership of Syriza, people sought to fight clear of the debt and austerity that global capitalism was imposing on the great majority of them. The EU crushed that. That Sunkara remains clear on this aspect of the EU suggests he is more astute than many on the Left who – while correctly opposing xenophobia – seem to align with a potent class enemy. Yet the notion of an “exceptional” United States creating its own socialism while the global economy remains capitalist seems incredibly naïve, comparable in its own way to the naiveté of some Syriza leaders (and, in a different way, comparable to what Stalinists imagined could be accomplished by the Soviet Union). Third, and most important, the element of revolutionary internationalism – not as a slogan or as a humanitarian sentiment, but as a practical and strategic necessity for US socialists no less than other socialists – seems obviously and disturbingly absent from Sunkara’s vision.    

A sobering point Sunkara makes – in a tone of seeming revolutionary optimism – also gives one pause. Let him say it in his own words (pages 222 to 223):

Our task is formidable. Democratic socialists must secure decisive majorities in legislatures while winning hegemony in the unions. Then [my emphasis] our organizations must be willing to flex our social power in the form of mass mobilizations and political strikes to counter the structural power of capital and ensure that our leaders choose confrontation over accommodation with elites. This is the sole way we’ll not only make our reforms durable but break with capitalism entirely and bring about a world that values people over profit.

What he describes after the emphasized word then is socialist revolution. But what comes before then seems problematical. By when can we “secure decisive majorities in the legislatures” and “hegemony in the unions,” and – seriously – how would such an immense task actually be accomplished? It’s enough to make one wonder about the possibility of revolution and genuine socialism. With the threats of ecological catastrophe (not to mention imperialism, war, new forms of fascism), we hardly have all the time in the world. 

But perhaps Sunkara – despite his critical stance toward Kautsky and sympathies for Luxemburg – is too close to Germany Social Democracy’s “pope of Marxism,” missing Red Rosa’s “mass strike” pathway:

German Social-Democrats have sought to apply to revolutions the home-made wisdom of the parliamentary nursery: in order to carry anything, you must first have a majority. The same, they say, applies to a revolution: first let’s become a “majority.” The true dialectic of revolutions, however, stands this wisdom of parliamentary moles on its head: not through a majority to revolutionary tactics, but through revolutionary tactics to a majority – that’s the way the road runs.

Building cadres, developing perspectives

Such matters cannot be resolved through theoretical discussions years before the dynamic realities of revolution unfold. More immediate, incredibly urgent tasks face serious socialists today. Again, it is worth allowing Sunkara himself to say it (pages 223-224):

“Tens of thousands of people, if organized in common campaigns, if trained to speak and connect with people and assist them in their struggles, can indeed have a national impact.  Many fewer than that can swing local races and bring new ideas and demands into popular consciousness.

“That’s why training a new generation of nonsectarian socialist organizers is so important. We need democratic socialists who are skilled speakers, effective writers, and sharp thinkers – who are humble enough to learn but bold enough to inspire confidence. Our organizations depend on a disciplined core of such people if we hope to rebuild working-class power that can exert an alternative pressure to that of capital. Even though their efforts won’t be enough in and of themselves, we can’t achieve socialism without them.”

Accumulating such socialist cadres is essential. Such cadres and the many they help draw into the expanding movement will together be wrestling with the questions explored here. Ongoing discussion, self-corrections, and clarifications are crucial for the future of that movement. The Socialist Manifesto is a contribution to that process.