Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 6, 2016

Sanders, Sweden and Socialism

Filed under: electoral strategy,Sweden — louisproyect @ 4:46 pm

A man with a plan for implementing socialism piecemeal

While far apart in age and ideology, Bhaskar Sunkara and John Bellamy Foster share the distinction of being the helmsmen of two flagships of American Marxism: Jacobin and Monthly Review. They also have in common authorship of recent op-ed pieces in the Washington Post in praise of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Oddly enough, despite the perception some might have of MR occupying a space to the left of Jacobin, a publication loosely affiliated to the DSA, Foster’s piece is more flattering to Sanders. Titled “Is democratic socialism the American Dream?”, it embraces the Scandinavian model of socialism that forms the core of Sanders’s political program:

In advocating democratic socialism, Sanders has promoted a pragmatic politics of the left. His proposals include a sharp increase in taxes on the billionaire class, free college tuition and single-payer health insurance, guaranteeing health insurance to the entire population regardless of jobs and income. He advocates job programs in the tradition of the New Deal. All of these proposals represent things that have been accomplished in other countries, particularly the Scandinavian social democracies, where the populations are better off according to every social indicator. By portraying them as possible here, Sanders has brought the idea of socialism — even a moderate kind — from the margins into the center of U.S. political culture.

In Sunkara’s article, “The ‘Sanders Democrat’ is paving the way for the radical left”, the good name of the Scandinavian model is invoked again:

Many of the young people now trumpeting socialism aren’t clear about what they mean by the word. It’s safe to guess that they’re referring broadly to the tattered social protections that do exist in the United States or to the more robust Scandinavian welfare states that Sanders often speaks of. Worker ownership of the means of production is not on the agenda for Sanders socialists just yet, nor are other questions about democratic control and social rights, ones key to the traditional socialist worldview.

Leaving aside the question of the value of pro-socialist think pieces in Jeff Bezos’s newspaper that is largely disdained by the very workers whose interests they defend, there is a failure to critically examine the Scandinavian model that even contributors to the two journals view with skepticism or outright hostility. If we can reasonably identify Sweden as the most representative example of the model, there is an obvious disconnect between the op-ed pieces and what can be found in Jacobin and MR.

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  1. Sanders is a cod socialist, but it does seem that he has (at least for the time being) brought the words “socialist” and “socialism” back out into the daylight of actually acceptable discourse. They have been swearwords to most people for all of my 67+ years.

    As the Mafia guy said, “there’s so many ways you could f* this up,” but this is progress of a limited kind. (Oddly enough, Sanders’s actually being elected president might be the very thing to put the genie permanently back into the bottle.)

    The real question is what socialists can/should be/are doing to capitalize on this perhaps temporary bit of sunshine. Apart from selling magazines, that is.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — April 6, 2016 @ 9:33 pm

  2. To paraphrase Marx : if Jacobin and MR are Marxists then I’m not one.

    The class struggle lives in the daily conditions of the working class, not the pages of barely read magazines written by academics.

    Comment by Paul from PA — April 7, 2016 @ 4:33 pm

  3. Pete, a recent poll suggests that young Americans have a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism. That’s a real change!

    Comment by Paul from PA — April 7, 2016 @ 4:35 pm

  4. The material basis of the New Deal was mobilization for WW2 and a strong working class movement.

    The material basis of the Great Society was Vietnam and a strong black nationalist movement.

    There is no material basis for social democracy in the US today. Sanders is a left foil intended to route disenchanted people back into the fold of the Democrats.

    Comment by Paul from PA — April 7, 2016 @ 4:39 pm

  5. Paul, if there’s no material basis for social democracy, how can there be a material basis for socialism, social democracy being a last-ditch standoff of socialism and hence derivative from the socialist material basis? And if there’s no material basis for socialism, how can a Marxist derive any satisfaction from the alleged preference of American “young people” for the word “socialism”?

    Without a material basis, this means nothing, right? Conversely (is that right?) if it means something, there must be a material basis of some kind. Otherwise, what’s the point, apart from the pleasure in always having the last word, which is generally guaranteed if one is speaking only to oneself?

    Comment by Pete Glosser — April 7, 2016 @ 6:41 pm

  6. The material basis for socialism is capitalism. Socialism is workers control of the means of production under a state controlled by the working class. If there is a working class and wage slavery (that is, if there is capitalism), there is a material basis for socialism.

    Social democracy is a reformist brand of capitalism that was used in the ascendant stage of capitalism and among mass mobilization for international imperialist warfare. It was forged on the graves of millions of workers and totally destroyed and devastated countries. Capitalism has no room for it in a decadent stage with depression, falling rate of profit and massive overproduction. Look around. This is an era of austerity, not reform. In any event the the bourgeoisie won’t be scared into attempting it now even if it could as the working class is not waging a serious struggle even to hold the ground it has already won. Social democracy would require an economic basis and a political motivation that are not present right now.

    Things can and will change. The future is socialism or barbarism. The prior isn’t any more likely than the latter unfortunately.

    Comment by Paul from PA — April 7, 2016 @ 7:56 pm

  7. Paul: I don’t entirely disagree with you, except for your rather overcooked tone of Lenin-like infallibility (oh left-wing masculinity), but I do think you’ve conveniently sidestepped the real issues, which are 1) what do these “young people” understand by “socialism,” and 2) what concretely can we do or expect the working class to do toward socialism in the United States in this age of austerity?

    When you say capitalism is the material basis of socialism, you are saying absolutely nothing about the specific dynamics of the present situation in this country. Indeed, you seem to be invoking some sort of purely mechanical process in which socialism arises by spontaneous generation out of capitalism, like mice out of a pile of medieval rags. Switching metaphors somewhat, there’s an almost neoliberal automatism there, a version of the dialectic as a kind of socialist Invisible Hand, which frankly strikes me as being at least as decadent as the social and economic reality of our times, which we both decry. Your “basis for socialism” very pointedly excludes socialists.

    How do you expect socialism to emerge in the U.S.? Based on what you’ve said so far, I think the true answer is that you do not really expect it and do not see a concrete way forward by which it could emerge. Your “material basis” is as remote in time and space as some extraterrestrial fiction of Voltaire or Jules Verne. Where are the actual stirrings of the thing itself? Is there anything more than a word-choice on some questionnaire?

    In reality, I suggest, your skepticism about the possibility of social democracy is a mask for a deeper pessimism about the possibility of socialism, which in your view is reduced to a kind of pro forma final cause without blood, sinew, bone, or indeed any of the concrete reality of its basis, capitalism. Hence the fear of “barbarism.” (With all due respect to Ms. Luxembourg, BTW, I must point to the Eurocentric implications of this word, arising as it did out of the bigotry of the ancient Greeks toward non-Greeks, whom they saw as incapable of using real words, but rather just babbling “bar-bar-bar” like idiots or some kind of animals. I suggest we stop opposing socialism to “barbarism.”)

    I think that the kinds of social-democratic reforms Sander is proposing–and a good deal more besides–are entirely feasible temporarily within the financialized late capitalist economy. It is only a matter of redistributing some of the ever-increasing sums of money that are accruing at present to what, for short, we are used to calling “the 1%.” As long as this phony wealth continues to increase, it can be spread around at least enough to neutralize “socialist” political opposition. Furthermore, some of the reform measures that are being proposed–breaking up the big banks, etc., would probably have the effect of slowing the process of capitalist decline, just as a higher minimum wage could lead to more economic activity in the short run and thus possibly to some sort of economic upturn. How long these social-democratic measures would last and what they would lead to is another question, but for the ruling class it is only a question of responding to the threat of socialism by buying a little peace. At present, they mostly do not seem to believe that they have to make any largeconcessions. But if the “basis for socialism” (beyond capitalism itself, QED) becomes more active and apparent, that could change. Needless to say, even a modest institutionalized wealth redistribution would entrain the working class of the United States quite deeply in the imperialism of our rentier classes, and would present a formidable obstacle to socialism–as long as it lasted. And I do not think we will see a recrudescence of feudalism or slavery as an alternative to what I am describing.

    There is no reason why a big chunk of the people of an “advanced” country could not receive some increased share of the benefits accruing from the debt peonage inflicted by their rulers on the rest the world–including disfavored groups at home–if that proved convenient for the rulers.

    I do not in fact think think U.S. capitalism is in such a state of crisis that it could not defer total collapse for a very long time by a combination of harsh and soft measures–indeed, that’s one of my own biggest fears. I am not even convinced, pace Michael Hudson, that the current capitalist shell game can be entirely reduced to an actual Ponzi scheme, which all that implies of a mathematically inevitable fall.

    Would the watered-down social democracy to which I refer equal the full Monty of the “classic” Swedish model as anatomized by Louis in his benchmark series of articles on the subject? He makes a very persuasive case for that being past its historical moment. But what I’m describing wouldn’t have to meet that test. The weak-tea version is perfectly possible in some form and for some significant period given some series of favorable historical developments.

    What does this do to the possibility of socialism? That’s a very good question–I think it’s important to look at this objectively.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — April 7, 2016 @ 10:19 pm

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