How a New Generation of Socialists Can Win Power (While Avoiding the Mistakes of the Past)

In his new book The Socialist Manifesto, Bhaskar Sunkara lays out a compelling vision for how today’s socialists can forge a political path to power in the 21st Century.

Kristen R. Ghodsee

Past socialist movements have made severe mistakes. This time can be different. (New York City Democratic Socialists of America)

Tucked away in a corner in the permanent exhibition of the Deutsches Historisches Museum in what is now the heart of reunified Berlin, a humble placard captures one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th Century Left: The fall of the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s.

The Socialist Manifesto is both a warning and guide to the struggles ahead.

Fresh from the annual Liebknecht-Luxemburg demonstration commemorating the murders of two of socialism’s most beloved martyrs — Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg — I spent a few hours lingering among the cases of posters and memorabilia from the short-lived egalitarian and democratic Weimar Republic, which stood from 1918 to its dissolution in 1933. In reflecting on the interwar German economy and its struggles against the combined effects of the global Great Depression and the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the museum’s curators documented the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) — the Nazis — and lamented the lack of unity that could have prevented Hitler’s rule:

The radical Left blamed the economic and social misery on the governing bourgeoisie and the ruling financial capital. To combat these alleged causes of the global economic crisis, the German Communist Party (KPD) trumpeted the end of capitalism and the immediate beginning of the longed-for world revolution. Politically, the KPD profited from the depression and was continually able to increase its membership….

…The KPD accused the SPD [Social Democratic Party] of betraying the labour movement and on May 1929 proclaimed war on the social fascism of the SPD as one of their primary political goals. At the beginning of the thirties the bitter division in the labor movement hindered the formation of a united Red Front, which members of both parties had called for from time to time against the up-and-coming NSDAP.

In these two short paragraphs, the custodians of Germany’s official history placed the blame for Hitler’s rise on the persistent disunity of the communists and social democrats, whose internecine squabbles blinded them to the potential power of the far right.

With socialist ideas now resurgent in the United States, and parts of Europe, Bhaskar Sunkara’s timely and lucid new book is a necessary reflection on the mistakes of the past and a clarion call for future solidarity.

The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality is an exciting and accessible text for young socialists attempting to forge a new political path into the 21st Century. In this short volume, Sunkara — founder and editor of the socialist publication Jacobin—provides a crash course on the history of global socialism. Through a handful of concise overviews of previous political and economic movements in Germany, Sweden, the Soviet Union, China and the United States, Sunkara navigates a path between the brutal failures of authoritarianism and the often flaccid and easily reversed gains of social democracy. 

Sunkara begins his narrative with a fanciful description of the life of a factory worker laboring in Jon Bon Jovi’s family business in New Jersey bottling Classic Curry” pasta sauce. Suddenly, the Garden State becomes the epicenter of a left-populist movement led by none other than everyone’s working-class hero, Bruce Springsteen. In Sunkara’s imagination, Springsteen is a charismatic social democrat who wins the presidency and whose party dominates Congress. With this popular mandate, Springsteen ushers in a sweeping catalog of political and economic reforms that effectively turns the United States into a version of Sweden, though larger and more diverse.

But Springsteen compromises with economic elites and division and disagreement spread among his constituents, creating deepening fissures between those who support The Boss’s desire to preserve gains already won by making tactical concession to capitalists,” those who are willing to settle for as much socialism as capitalism can take, supporting cooperatives and helping enlarge the public sector to mitigate the power of big corporations,” and those who want to break from capitalism entirely and create an even more democratic and egalitarian society.”

Unlike the Germans of the Weimar Republic, Springsteen manages to hold his movement together even as its left-wing radicalizes and pushes for the abolition of both private ownership of the means of production and of wage labor. Through a series of mass strikes, owner lockouts and strategic kidnappings, the socialists win the day. Sunkara spends the rest of this opening chapter detailing the improved life choices of ordinary Americans in a post-capitalist economy.

As someone who has spent the last three decades studying the history and lived experiences of socialism and post-socialism in Eastern Europe, what I find most refreshing about Sunkara’s book is his unwavering optimism that future leftist movements will avoid the mistakes of their predecessors and remain united in the face of both reactionary right-wing machinations and legitimate internal disagreements about how to build socialism in a world dominated by plutocrats.

Indeed, the goal of The Socialist Manifesto seems to be specifically aimed at addressing this problem of how to maintain broad-based solidarity while still respecting diversity and pluralism within the movement. As we have seen from history, having a common enemy is not enough. To change the world, leftists need a shared vision of how to move forward once capitalism has been vanquished.

Sunkara’s passionate ninth chapter, How We Win,” provides a concrete 15-point program that builds on his historical chapters to elucidate the core lessons from the socialist experiments of the 19th and 20th centuries. While Sunkara argues that social democracy has just been the more humane face of neoliberalism,” he also believes the road to democratic socialism runs through social democracy. But rather that accepting a new version of capitalism with a human face, democratic socialists must move quickly from extracting concessions from capital to remaking the economy along socialist lines. Included in his 15-point program is a demand for socialists to embed themselves in working-class struggles,” to democratize existing unions and abolish the electoral college, and to form new left-wing political parties like Die Linke in Germany or Podemos in Spain. Sunkara also calls for a universalist form of politics, working to overcome both racism and sexism without being internally divided by them.

For Sunkara, if there is anything to be learned from the history of Swedish social democracy, it is that expansions of the welfare state can easily be reversed as long as elites maintain private ownership of the means of production. When prospects for economic expansion faltered in the late 1970s and 1980s while globalization presented new challenges to the growth of private sector profits, Swedish employers reneged on their previous compromises with the working class, embracing neoliberal reforms that undermined the Meidner Plan for the socialization of Swedish industry.

On the other hand, the experience of the Soviet Union shows us that the overnight abolition of private property by administrative decree — and the imposition of socialism from above by a radicalized vanguard party without a mass base — can quickly devolve into authoritarianism, particularly when faced with both domestic and international counterrevolutionary forces.

For contemporary socialists, what Sunkara calls class struggle social democracy” cannot be enough. A truly democratic and more egalitarian society — as well as a society that can adequately deal with the future threats of climate change and increasing automation — requires an end to capitalist exploitation through social ownership of the economy. Only when the profits of collectively-directed enterprises can be reinvested into society to serve the long-term goals of public welfare (versus the short-term aims of private profit) will we be able to reverse the multiple catastrophes of environmental degradation, extreme inequality, pathological individualism, and the alienation and loneliness that have driven millions into poverty, depression and premature death.

The Socialist Manifesto is both a warning and guide to the struggles ahead. With a sense of breathless urgency, the book calls once again for a united Red Front,” the very thing that proved so elusive in Weimar Germany almost a century ago. With millions of youth flocking to socialist ideas and with politicians such as Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez leading the charge, Bhaskar Sunkara makes a convincing case that this time around we just might get it right.

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Kristen R. Ghodsee is a professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence and Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War.
The War on Protest Cover
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.