Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 7, 2019

Bhaskar Sunkara “The Socialist Manifesto”: a review

Filed under: reformism,social democracy — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

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To get a handle on the theoretical foundations for Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Socialist Manifesto”, the best place to look is in the Acknowledgements where he gives his props to a sociology professor:

“I’d be remiss if I failed to mention how much I’ve learned from New York University professor Vivek Chibber over the years. If he’s a great chef, I’m doing to his recipes what Chef Boyardee did to pasta. I happen to like SpaghettiOs. I hope you do too.”

Chibber is the editor of Catalyst, a high-toned theoretical journal that is part of Sunkara’s burgeoning publishing empire. Two years ago, in a special issue of Jacobin devoted to the Russian Revolution, Chibber’s article “Our Road to Power” summed up this great chef’s understanding of what the fight for socialism amounts to today:

The Russian road, as it were, was for many parties a viable one. But starting in the 1950s, openings for this kind of strategy narrowed. And today, it seems entirely hallucinatory to think about socialism through this lens…If this is so, then the lessons that the Russian experience has to offer — as a model of socialist transition — are limited. Our strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach. For the foreseeable future, left strategy has to revolve around building a movement to pressure the state, gain power within it, change the institutional structure of capitalism, and erode the structural power of capital — rather than vaulting over it. This entails a combination of electoral and mobilizational politics.

Using a language in keeping with his Chef Boyardee credentials, Sunkara said about the same thing a decade ago when he said farewell to the Marxism list I moderate: “I’ll be in the DSA, in the cesspool of the Democratic Party, in the mainstream unions, where the working people are, until you comrades can prove me wrong and build a viable alternative for working people and then I’ll apologize and happily join you.”

If you were about building a left-oriented publishing empire, the last thing you needed was an albatross chained to your neck like the Russian Revolution. The New Yorker Magazine, a symbol of middle-class complacency if there ever was one, interviewed Sunkara about his new book in April and inadvertently indicated their shared preferences through a perceptive question:

Your book also evinces a certain respect for reformist, rather than radical, politics, and you write that you are aware of “how profound the gains of reform can be.” So why is Sweden insufficient? I think a lot of people would look at Sweden and say, “O.K., it’s not perfect. It can get better. But it’s about as good as any society that humans have been able to construct.

Sunkara does have a thing for Sweden. In chapter five (The God that Failed), he describes it not only as the most livable society in history but one in which socialists made more headway against capitalism than any other European country in the post-WWII period. One supposes that this might be news to people who lived in Eastern Europe where capitalism was abolished under Soviet occupation. While it is true Swedes enjoyed political freedom, it was only in the Eastern bloc where the capitalist class was expropriated.

Sunkara’s capsule history of 20th century Swedish history is a cherry-picking exercise. The Social Democratic party is extolled as defending the interests of the working class in constructing a “people’s home” for the entire population. The folkhemmet, Swedish for people’s home, sounds rather benign—like a Norman Rockwell painting of people at a Thanksgiving Day dinner.

Folkhemmet was a key to the eugenics program that Gunnar and Alva Myrdal espoused. It blurred the lines between the family unit, the state and the seemingly progressive character of the welfare state that the social democrats promoted. Between 1935 and 1976 Social Democratic governments forced 63,000 women to be sterilized. As part of a eugenics program meant to weed out the genetically or racially ”inferior,” the women were told that they would lose benefits and be separated from their living children if they refused. Typically the women were poor, learning disabled or people with non-Nordic or mixed ethnic backgrounds.

Under folkhemmet, the goal was not to overturn property relations but to reduce the differences in income between those at the top of society and those at the bottom. Isn’t this what attracts people like Bernie Sanders to Swedish “socialism” even though it has little to do with Karl Marx’s call for revolutionary change?

Like the New Deal, Swedish social democracy historically was a deal between the rich and the state to fund welfare programs to mollify a restive population that was attracted to the USSR, where unemployment had been eradicated and public services were abundant. Sweden even developed a brand of deficit spending to kick-start the economy after the fashion of John Maynard Keynes.

Between 1932 and 1976, Sweden was ruled by social democratic governments that were a poster child for the kind of socialism Sunkara advocates. What he does not mention were the circumstances that led to the first elected social democratic government. In 1931, sawmill workers in Adalen organized a general strike for better pay and working conditions. In a peaceful march on May 14, they were blocked by the police and army from reaching the barracks where scabs were being housed. They were finally stopped in their tracks when a cop opened fire on the strikers with a machine gun, leaving five dead and many wounded. There was such outrage throughout Sweden over this massacre that voters elected the first in a series of social democratic governments. The irony is that the workers were mostly Communist Party members or supporters, according to most historians. The Social Democrats banned members from attending the funerals of those on May 14 because they were seen as sympathetic to the Communists.

During WWII, Sweden managed to stay aloof from the anti-fascist military campaign that most historians regard as largely dependent on Soviet arms, materiel and manpower. Aloof might not be the most appropriate word in this instance since Sweden allowed the Nazis to use their railways to transport troops to the Eastern front for the invasion of the USSR. The two very blonde and Aryan nations bonded together economically during the war. Between 1933 and 1943, nearly 25 million tons of iron ore was sold to the Nazis while Sweden bought German coke and coal, as well as German weapons that by all accounts were very cost-efficient. In November 1934, Hitler admitted that without Swedish iron ore, Germany would not be able to make war.

Does Sunkara know anything about this? If he did and cared not to factor this into his love poem to Sweden, then shame on him. It is entirely possible that given the long hours he puts into his publishing empire, he simply does not have the time to dig too deeply into Swedish history or any other history for that matter. As we continue our stroll through the Socialist Manifesto, this will become glaringly obvious.

Chapter four (The Few Who Won) of The Socialist Manifesto is conventional anti-Communist history with the mandatory observation that Stalinism had its roots in Bolshevism. After reviewing all of the well-known Stalinist distortions imposed on Soviet society, Sunkara sums up the main lesson: this “model” came to be synonymous with the socialist ideal itself.

To drive home this point, he renders his judgement on “The Third World Revolution” in chapter six. Compared to Sweden, the colonial revolution led by Communists resulted in disasters. Of course, if China or Vietnam were selling iron ore to Hitler during WWII, things might have turned out better. But we don’t deal in hypotheticals, do we?

Like Russia, China gets treated as a violation of democratic socialism, leaving the reader feeling rather deflated. We discover that in the 1950s the backyard steel furnaces were a fiasco and that a campaign against the “four pests” (flies, mosquitos, rats and sparrows) led to a famine. Though pests in many ways, these creatures fed on the grasshoppers that now lacking a natural predator were free to feast on grain. Despite such Maoist bungling, whatever attraction China had as a model all but evaporated after Nixon’s trip to China and the subsequent transformation of China into a capitalist economy, something accepted by most on the left except those intoxicated by Stalinist dogma such as Roland Boer, the Australian theologian who blogs as Stalin’s Moustache.

In the same chapter where China gets a thumb’s down, Cuba is also dismissed, almost as an afterthought. With sixteen pages on China versus the single page that discusses Cuba, you might have expected Sunkara to take a closer look at the one country in the world that is still trying to build socialism. (I don’t include North Korea because it is such a grotesque Stalinist/Confucian outlier.) After acknowledging Cuba’s giant strides in education and health care, he gives it a failing grade for lacking democracy. One has to wonder where he gets his yardstick for passing such judgements. What if Sweden had been invaded and occupied by the USA for a century to prevent it from becoming the welfare state he so admired? If it was finally able to drive out an oligarchy and begin instituting the measures Cubans enjoy, would the Swedes tolerate political parties funding by the USA to overturn the welfare state? I don’t believe in hypotheticals but it is always necessary to put democratic rights into context. Perhaps on a day when he was less subject to anti-Communist thinking, Sunkara might have understood why Cuba had not become an “Open Society”, to use George Soros’s terminology. In this chapter on third world revolutions, he has a brief reference to our hemisphere’s sorry history:

Elsewhere in the Americas, democratic roads to socialism in Nicaragua and Chile, the latter supported by a powerful working-class movement, were blocked by conservative domestic elites and American meddling. The nature of this US interference was not always coups and invasions but also sanctions, trade sabotage, and election rigging. Even where Third World socialist movements had democratic impulses, the experience of those like Allende seemed to encourage authoritarian paths to change.

Referring to Cuba’s “revolution from above” in the very next paragraph, he doesn’t seem to make the connection. As the president of the board of one of the largest Nicaragua solidarity organizations, I have bitter memories of how the USA was able to interfere in Nicaraguan elections. If Cuba had to choose between children being fed, educated, housed and kept healthy on one hand and catering to Human Rights Watch’s litmus tests on the other, I’ll go with the children.

After having covered (or covered up) European, Latin American and Asian history, Sunkara finally gets around to reviewing socialist movements in the USA. In keeping with DSA iconography, Eugene V. Debs gets a clean bill of health. Moving right along, he finds the Communist Party to his liking, not so much for its Stalinism but its civil rights and trade union activism. But he particularly admires their close ties to the New Deal, an alliance that has inspired the DSA’s support for Bernie Sanders who has insisted that his socialism is identical to the New Deal rather than misbegotten Soviet experiments.

Unlike the CP, the Socialist Party advocated a clean break with the two-party system just as Eugene V. Debs did. In the 1930s, it was led by Norman Thomas who was once asked by a reporter how he felt about Roosevelt carrying out his party’s program. His pithy reply was that it was carried out but on a stretcher. Sunkara writes:

But Thomas and most of the Socialist Party clung to its Debsian-era strategy of opposition to bourgeois reformers—class independence was paramount. Thomas saw the New Deal as a “program that makes concessions to workers in order to keep them quiet a while longer and so stabilize the power of private owners.” No doubt this was true, but these reforms didn’t placate workers; they led them to demand more.36

If you check endnote number 36, you’ll discover that it is a reference to Irving Howe’s “Socialism and America”. This is like writing that Trump has been a great president and backing it up with a citation to a book written by Sean Hannity.

Referring to the 1936 election, Sunkara makes Norman Thomas’s SP practically look like the Spartacist League—an ultraleft purist sect that did not recognize the profound realities of American society:

In the 1936 presidential election, workers around the country were making a rational decision to support the Democratic Party, hungry to continue Roosevelt’s reforms and recognizing the institutional barriers to independent politics. Thomas’s cohort couldn’t offer a strategy to overcome any of those barriers or even a way to not counterpoise themselves to the best New Deal reforms. They just had slogans about opposing capitalist parties. Ironically, the more fringe Communist Party was better able to relate to Roosevelt supporters.

To start with, the CP was not exactly “fringe”. In 1936, it had perhaps ten times as many members as the SP and could count on people like Count Basie or Bennie Goodman to play at a benefit for the Spanish Civil War, and even the NY Times for articles supporting the Moscow Trials. In any case, the bigger problem was the CP’s ongoing sabotage of any attempts to start a Labor Party in the USA, something that would have had a great amount of traction in 1936. The New Deal might have been able to provide low-paying jobs in the WPA but it had not broken the back of the Great Depression. To show you the lengths that the New Deal left would go to elect FDR, it helped to create the American Labor Party that while nominally independent placed FDR on its ballot line. It was the same kind of shifty electoral maneuvering that the Working Families Party adopted when it put Andrew Cuomo on its ballot line in the last gubernatorial election. These parties are independent in name only.

The 1960s radicalization that made me the person I am today—for better or for worse—gets about as brief a mention in The Socialist Manifesto as Cuba. There were just as many young people in the 1960s committed to bringing about socialism as there are in the DSA today but the word meant something different to us. It meant abolishing wage slavery just like Radical Republicanism meant abolishing chattel slavery to Frederick Douglass.

Yes, we were fragmented by sectarian notions of who was the genuine continuation of Lenin’s party but we put our lives on the line. For all practical purposes, the attempts to build such parties has come to an end with the self-liquidation of the International Socialists Organization. Many, if not most of its members, have hooked up with the DSA and are as eager to recreate the New Deal as Bernie Sanders.

Sunkara finally gets around to outlining a strategy to establish socialism in the USA in chapter nine, titled “How We Win”. It consists of 15 points that few would disagree with since they are anodyne proposals for the most part. For example, there is this:

The socialist premise is clear: at their core people want dignity, respect, and a fair shot at a good life. A democratic class politics is the best way to unite people against our common opponent and win the type of change that will help the most marginalized, all while engaging in a far longer campaign against oppression rooted in race, gender, sexuality, and more.

Well, of course. Who could argue with this? The real issue, however, is the same as it has been since the mid-1930s when the largest group on the left became embedded in the Democratic Party. As long as we continue to search in vain for the Democrat on horseback who can ride into the White House and put things right, the real struggle for socialism will be ineffective.

This time it will be different, according to Sunkara:

It will come as no surprise that I’ve been a registered Democrat since my eighteenth birthday—the same day I joined the Democratic Socialists of America. I joined the latter because the DSA reflected my actual political beliefs, the former because I lived in New York and wanted to participate in the only meaningful elections in my area, which were closed Democratic Party primaries. As a registered Democrat, I don’t have the power to influence the party’s politics in any meaningful way: like most registered voters in this country, I don’t get a vote when it comes to my own party’s political platform. But on the flip side, there’s no way for the Democrats to expel me or hold me to a political program. I can spend most of my waking hours attacking the Clintons and other corporate Democrats, and I can’t be disciplined in any way. I can only lose my ability to vote in Democratic primaries in New York if I change my registration or commit a felony and am incarcerated or on parole. Precisely because it is so undemocratic, the Democratic Party may actually be vulnerable to what Ackerman calls “the electoral equivalent of a guerilla insurgency.”

A guerrilla insurgency? Hardly. The Democratic Party has been around since the time of Andrew Jackson and has weathered challenges by “insurgents” going back to its co-optation of Tom Watson’s Populists. What Bhaskar Sunkara and his comrades do not understand is that the presence of “democratic socialists” in the Democratic Party helps to keep its brand alive. Even if Ilhan Omar is the target of racist tweets, even if she keeps Nancy Pelosi awake at night and even if she costs the Democrats the 2020 Presidential election, the “Squad” and Bernie Sanders will help to sustain the illusion that the party can become an instrument of genuine political transformation.

When Ralph Nader ran for president in 2004, Democratic Party lawyers fought to keep him and his running mate Peter Camejo off the ballot across the entire country. The DP elite wants to make sure that efforts to outflank it from the left never get off the ground. If we are serious about launching a true “guerrilla insurgency”, the first step is supporting Howie Hawkins for President in 2020 as the Green Party candidate. Last December Hawkins made the case for independent class politics that would be the first step in reconstituting an authentic socialist movement in the USA incorporating the best that the SP, the CP and even the Trotskyist movement I joined over a half-century ago could offer:

So what would a socialist alternative to the capitalist Democrats look like, both as a program for social transformation and as a movement of the working class for its own freedom? Sanders’s regulatory and social insurance reforms of capitalism do not end the polarization of society into rich and poor flowing from the exploitation of working people. Those reforms do not end the oppression, alienation, and disempowerment of working people. Those reforms do not stop capitalism’s competitive drive for mindless growth that is devouring the environment and roasting the planet. Socialism as a program has traditionally meant economic democracy—social ownership of the means of production for democratic planning and allocation of economic surpluses—as a necessary condition for full political democracy and freedom. But in the absence of a sizable socialist Left that runs its own candidates against both capitalist parties, socialism has been reduced in popular parlance to simply government programs.

These words encapsulate in my mind what a real socialist manifesto would begin to look like. For information on Howie Hawkins’s campaign, go to https://howiehawkins.us/.

1 Comment »

  1. per Sunkara, people want “and a fair shot at a good life” . A Republican could say this, and probably has.

    Comment by Bill — August 14, 2019 @ 3:43 am


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