The more Americans talk about socialism, the more the word becomes drained of any functional meaning. Some blame for that belongs to Republicans, who have spent decades hurling socialist as an epithet at anything to the left of a Kiwanis Club meeting. But some also lies with Bernie Sanders, who brought the term roaring back to life with his presidential campaign in 2016. The trouble was that while the senator called himself a “democratic socialist,” his platform mostly consisted of expanding the welfare state and more strictly regulating big banks. Those goals were completely compatible with, well, capitalism.
That’s why, despite being a mushy, center-left type myself, I was excited to read The Socialist Manifesto. The book’s author, Bhaskar Sunkara, is the founding editor of Jacobin, a quarterly political magazine that has become the house organ of America’s far-left boomlet over the past decade. And the book’s tagline promises “the case for radical politics in an era of extreme inequality.” Here, I figured, was a work that would plant a flag on the irksome question of what socialism actually is, and mount an argument for why we need it.
What I got instead was a book that mostly dwells on how socialist movements have failed throughout history, either falling short of their goals or descending into nightmarish authoritarianism. Even Sweden, famous for its generous welfare state, is treated as a cautionary tale. “The best we can say about socialism in the twentieth century is that it was a false start,” Sunkara writes. Out of this dismal track record, Sunkara tries to draw lessons about how today’s radical leftists can do better, but the result is not always inspiring. A more fitting title might have been The Socialist Manifesto: Let’s Try to Get It Right This Time.
First, the definition: From the get-go, Sunkara draws a bright line between social democracy—a capitalist economy where workers have strong legal rights and enjoy a robust welfare state, which is to say, Denmark—and democratic socialism, aka socialism, but with a democratically elected government. Social democracy sands off capitalism’s rough edges; democratic socialism feeds capitalism into the wood chipper, then builds something else in its place. Sunkara very much wants to make mulch from our current system of private enterprise.
But how, exactly, would he do it? Sunkara imagines a world where individual companies are technically owned by the state but collectively controlled by their workers, who get to keep and split the profits, while all lending and startup funding are handled by a government development bank (goodbye, J.P. Morgan). His utopia is not a Soviet-style command economy; businesses would still compete freely with one another. But the labor and financial markets as we know them would no longer exist. (Sunkara handles much of this description in an oddly whimsical chapter involving a pasta sauce factory owned by Jon Bon Jovi’s family and a political movement started by Bruce Springsteen.* The term “pasta proletarian” is deployed.) There are, of course, other ideas floating around the internet about how socialism could work in practice. But the model Sunkara outlines hews to the decentralized ideals preached by Democratic Socialists of America, the small but influential political group that’s grown to about 60,000 members in the post-Sanders era (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez belonged).
I’m not sure that vision is what most Americans have in mind when they hear the word socialism these days, rather than, say, “Medicare for All” and free college, which fall comfortably under the definition of social democracy. But it would be useful if more pundits and politicians made as clear a distinction between the two concepts as Sunkara does. His definition also raises the question of whether Sanders himself is really a socialist in more than name, though Sunkara argues the Vermonter counts because he talks in terms of class conflict. “What separates social democracy from democratic socialism isn’t just whether one believes there’s a place for capitalist private property in a just society, but how one goes about fighting for reforms,” he writes. Later, he concludes: “Sanders gave American socialism a lifeline by returning it to its roots: class struggle and a class base.” Of course, other candidates, like Elizabeth Warren, have also campaigned as class warriors, even while paying homage to capitalism. The main difference seems to be that Sanders calls himself a socialist, which makes his rhetoric a bit of a gateway drug for the real thing.
But Sunkara isn’t really making the case for Bernie. He’s making the case for jettisoning capitalism. In doing so, though, he treats the history of the far-left as a long, sad slide deck about the ways good Marxist intentions are either not enough or can go horribly awry.
Some of that history is a bit dry, but it points to the practical reasons socialist movements have often failed to take flight. For instance, the left-wing activists are often more radical than the labor unions and workers they rely on for support, who tend to have more quotidian concerns than revolution. In the early 20th century, Germany’s Social Democratic Party had to moderate its politics and abandon plans for mass strikes in order to appease conservative trade unions. In the United States, the Industrial Workers of the World shot themselves in the work boot by refusing to sign any contracts with employers, which its leaders basically thought would be a sellout move to capitalism.* Most workers, quite understandably, decided they were better off with more moderate unions that would actually put their hard-fought wage agreements in writing.
Other chapters are more tragic. Sunkara explains how the Bolsheviks resorted to a murderous crackdown on their political opposition in the midst of a brutal civil war, and the way Stalin “used a food shortage to transform the Soviet Union from an authoritarian state into a horrific totalitarian regime unlike any the world has ever known.” He lays out how Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” resulted in famine and gets into the gory details of the Cultural Revolution, when infants were murdered for being “counterrevolutionary offspring.” Sunkara avoids the leftist cliché of downplaying China and the Soviets because they didn’t stick to socialism’s ideals, and instead tries to honestly reckon with their legacy. “The teleological streak in Marxism, its belief in laws of history—that through conscious political activity humanity could be pushed toward a new, more advanced stage of civllization—surely made Stalin and Mao feel justified in their cruelties,” he writes. “Any ideology built around a notion of destiny—nationalism and socialism alike—runs the risk of calamity.” (Coincidentally, this appears to have been the moral of the Game of Thrones finale.)
Though I’m pleased he didn’t sugarcoat things, this all leads to the question that hangs over much of Sunkara’s book: Why should anybody be interested in socialism, given its often disastrous track record, when they could opt for social democracy instead? Why do we need to eliminate Bank of America and hand Walmart over to its associates when we could just raise taxes, expand Medicare, and avoid, like, struggle sessions?
Sunkara tries out a few answers, to varying degrees of success. Wage labor is inherently exploitative, he insists, which is the sort of argument you either believe or don’t. Sunkara also speculates, kind of meekly, that a socialist government might be in a better position to fight climate change, and starrily suggests that international socialism might help bring about world peace. But in the end, a lot of his case seems to hinge on the idea that as long as capitalists are allowed to walk the earth in their Tod’s, they’ll eventually try to wage war on big government and the welfare state.
For most Americans, this capitalist threat might bring to mind the Koch brothers or Mercer family. But Sunkara points to Europe, where business leaders revolted in the ’70s and ’80s, as case studies. In Sweden, a powerful labor movement took advantage of the rapidly expanding postwar economy to build the most “livable” society in the world. But as growth slowed and inflation picked up, conservatives pushed back, curtailing some welfare programs and regulations, while crushing a plan that would have forced companies to share a portion of their profits. In France, business leaders pulled billions of dollars out of the country after a wave of nationalizations, effectively bullying the country’s socialist party into submission.
“Social democracy bolstered the power of labor to degrees few thought possible, but still left capital structurally dominant with the power to withhold investment,” Sunkara writes of Europe. “With the economy still reliant on their profits, capitalists were able to hold democratic governments hostage and roll back reforms.” In other words, better to wipe out the bankers and private equity guys entirely, lest they go Galt. (Sunkara isn’t wrong when he argues that capital tends to strike back. But while Sweden might not have achieved the socialist dream, for instance, it’s still a pretty nice place to live. Plus, many people believe the neoliberal reforms were good for the economy.)
What’s a bit frustrating and ultimately disappointing about the book is that while Sunkara can imagine the danger of leaving the Kochs around to fight Medicare for All, he doesn’t really grapple with the potential downsides of, say, putting business lending and venture capital entirely in the hands of the federal government. Just try to picture a world where all startup funding is controlled by a democratically elected government as corrupt or politically vindictive as the Donald Trump administration—it’s not pretty, and it’s an easy way to understand why it’s good to have thriving private enterprises around as a check on government power, the same as it’s good to have a strong government as a check on corporate power.
I’m sure Sunkara would respond that there would be safeguards in place to head off graft and make sure government moneymen made wise decisions. But as his book makes clear, history tends to make a mockery of our plans. The nice thing about a mixed economy is that when things don’t quite pan out as intended, you still have the private sector to fall back on.
In the end, these debates are still a bit academic (no matter how vicious they might get on Twitter). The short-term goals of the true Jacobin left and the people who would just like to see the U.S. transition into a low-grade social democracy overlap in a lot of ways—a point that’s become all the more clear as Joe Biden, an actual moderate, has stepped out to an early lead in the Democratic primary, much to the left and far-left’s collective dismay. Those camps might disagree on whether we need Canadian-style single payer or a mixed health care system like Australia’s, but both want a lot more government involvement in health care. Both groups want to tax the living heck out of the nation’s billionaires. Going forward, Sunkara might wish that the left would see the path to true socialism and fight to get there, but he hasn’t made a particularly good case for why anybody should.
Correction, May 22, 2019: This piece originally misstated that the pasta sauce factory owned by Jon Bon Jovi’s family was “made-up.” It is real. The piece also misidentified the Industrial Workers of the World as the International Workers of the World.