Book Review from the July 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Socialist Manifesto. The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality. By Bhaskar Sunkara. Verso, 2019.
Sunkara is the founder of Jacobin, the US left-wing magazine, and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, an offshoot founded by Michael Harrington of the old Socialist Party of America that, when this broke up in 1973, decided to work within the US Democratic Party. His book sets out to explain what he sees as socialism to American readers who up till recently regarded it as a dirty word.
He describes himself as a ‘democratic socialist’ as opposed to a ‘social democrat’, the difference in his mind being that the latter seek to introduce reforms from above while the former want to see them introduced as a result of mass popular pressure. But this is a distinction without a difference. He is, then, a left-wing social democrat. His rather confusing conception of socialism is an economy of worker-run firms producing for the market with a free health service and a basic income scheme.
Despite this, his book makes a good criticism of capitalism and provides a useful history of those who, in the last century, called themselves socialists, the chapter on the German SPD in particular. It could serve as a basic introduction to the background to the debates about the meaning and best way to achieve socialism that we ourselves engage in.
Of course his point of view is not ours, but that of a social democrat who regards himself as a Marxist. He could be worse. He could have been a Trotskyist or some other member of the Russian Revolution re-enactment society. In fact he recognises that it is not possible to establish socialism unless the conditions for it exist, which they didn’t in Russia, China or the other economically backward countries governed at one time by people claiming to be Marxist:
‘The Third World’s experience with socialism vindicates Marx. He argued that a successful socialist economy requires already developed productive forces and that a robust socialist democracy requires a self-organized working class.’
He is aware of the criticism we have always made of the Labour Party and its Social Democratic equivalents abroad as, in discussing the failure of the 1929-31 MacDonald Labour government, he quotes both what we said before (‘No matter how able, how sincere, and how sympathetic the Labour men and women may be who undertake to administer capitalism, capitalism will bring their undertaking to disaster’) and after (‘it is not possible for the Labour Party or any other party to administer capitalism in such a way that the workers’ problems can be solved within the framework of the existing system’).
He seems to take this on board as he writes later on that ‘administering a capitalist state requires maintaining business confidence and corporate profits’ and that ‘Social democracy’s dilemma is impossible to resolve: even when nominally anti-capitalist, it is reliant on the continued profitability of private capitalist firms.’ And in his verdict on European Social Democracy:
‘Even with the more modest ambition of just humanizing capitalism, no national left government in Europe has been able to carry out its program in at least forty years.’
The one example of success, albeit temporary, he gives is Sweden until the 1970s, where the government and the trade unions reached an agreement with the private capitalists, leaving them to pursue profits in return for them handing over a part of these to be used for welfare and other reforms. With the end of the post-war boom in the 1970s, however, this collapsed.
He still thinks the best way to replace capitalism is via the election of a Social Democrat government, backed by a mass movement which, when the government comes up against the economic constraints of the profit system, can pressure it not to retreat (as all such governments have done) but to go on to break with capitalism. As he puts it, ‘we will probably only be driven down the path to socialism by practical necessity, by the day-to-day struggles to preserve and expand reforms.’ This is the old, discredited theory that socialist consciousness will emerge from the pursuit of reforms.
Sunkara quotes Michael Harrington (who wrote a passable book on Socialism himself) as saying that socialists had to ‘walk a perilous tightrope’ between being ‘true to the socialist vision of a new society’ and ‘bringing ‘that vision into contact with the actual movement fighting not to transform the system, but to gain some little increment of dignity or even just a piece of bread’. True, socialists are on such a tightrope and cannot be indifferent to the sufferings of workers under capitalism. However, history, specifically that of the political perspective Sunkara wants to revive, shows that to pursue reforms leads to falling off into the bog of reformism and forgetting all about socialism.