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 April 25, 2019

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 Bön 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.

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.
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