The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality
by Bhaskar Sunkara
Basic Books 2019

Bhaskar Sunkara’s 2019 book, The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality is an important contribution to the debate about how to end capitalism – which has produced one disaster after another – and what we mean by socialism. Bhaskar’s book roots his analysis in an extensive survey of important episodes in the history of the labor and socialist movement internationally over the past 150 years. But as we explain in this review, this survey also has many important omissions and flawed conclusions which reflect the limitations of Sunkara’s political approach.

Sunkara is the editor of Jacobin magazine and an important figure in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), both of which have played a key role in the current revival in interest in socialism, particularly among young people. His book addresses a key question facing socialists – which of course is not new -namely whether the change we need can be won through a radical series of reforms, or whether a more decisive, revolutionary break with capitalism is required. This debate today is conditioned by the collapse of Stalinism as well as several decades of anti-worker neoliberal attacks to the benefit of the billionaire class which have resulted in a much weaker labor movement.

As a result, the current generation of working-class activists, which has proven its willingness to fight, is still feeling its way, beginning to draw conclusions from its experience, and asking deeper questions. The throwing back of the historic left and a still-weakened labor movement are huge but not insurmountable challenges. A pivotal part of the fight for socialism must be relearning the lessons of the class struggle internationally over the past 150 years – both the victories and the defeats – to draw the correct conclusions today.

Preparing for a New Period

The U.S. has seen a reawakening of the working class marked by the biggest strike wave since the 1980s beginning two years ago with the West Virginia teachers, alongside international youth actions against climate change, and Bernie Sanders’ call for a political revolution as a self-identified democratic socialist. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer found 56% of people surveyed believe that capitalism is “doing more harm than good in its current form.” Internationally, the current phase of deep economic crisis was preceded by the biggest wave of revolts against inequality and corruption from Chile to Iraq to Hong Kong in 50 years. Now, the coronavirus pandemic has ushered in a global economic catastrophe which puts on full display the bankrupt capitalist system. With this background, we can explore the usefulness of The Socialist Manifesto as a guide to action for today’s struggles.

To build the democratic, socialist society we’re fighting for, it is critical that we study the successes and failures of revolutionary processes and workers movements of the past. Given the stakes, it’s crucial to be precise on questions of strategy and the revolutionary potential of the working class given what we’re up against in the power of the billionaire class.

Bhaskar is a “democratic socialist,” advocating an approach that correctly calls for the working class and its leaders to “choose confrontation over accommodation with the elites” as the “sole way we’ll not only make our reforms durable but break with capitalism entirely” (pp. 222-3). But he does not adequately address the inevitable resistance of the ruling class to a challenge against its dominance, nor how the working class can defeat the resistance of the 0.01% to a democratic socialist transformation. He clearly favors the approach of figures in the left wing of European social democracy as opposed to the revolutionary tradition of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky from which we draw inspiration.

Lessons from Social Democracy

Drawing lessons from history, Sunkara analyzes the degeneration of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Early 20th century German social democracy was a mass organization still formally committed to Marxism but increasingly pulled by a growing layer of trade union officials and elected representatives toward an accommodation with capitalism. Once a leading defender of Marxism in the SPD, Karl Kautsky failed the test of Word War I by failing to oppose the party leadership’s support for the ruling class’ war efforts, abandoning the Marxist program and becoming a staunch opponent of the Russian Revolution. He emerged from the war advocating a path to socialism through parliament.

While Sunkara explains how the right wing leadership of the SPD in government used “decisive and cruel measures” after the war including getting the far right to murder revolutionary fighters like Luxemburg and Liebknecht, he glosses over Kautsky’s role saying that he and other “centrists” in Germany “simply fought for peace”(p.78). Kautsky’s wing of the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) actively worked against preparing the working class for revolution after the war before returning to the SPD fold.

Sunkara also discusses the post World War II period when social democracy played a key role in administering the capitalist state in many European countries during the period of economic expansion that lasted until the 1970s. By then, the leadership of the SPD and other social democratic parties had largely abandoned even the pretense of having a Marxist position. Sunkara elaborates on postwar social democracy’s achievements in Western Europe, particularly in Sweden and Britain, but has less to say on how these gains were systematically eroded in the neo-liberal era beginning in the 1980s often with the help of the same social democratic parties. In reality, the postwar period and the development of the welfare state was an exceptional situation.

Every reform won under capitalism can be eroded, like the expanded welfare states won by social democratic parties in Europe which has been under attack in the neoliberal period often by the same parties now completely transformed into pro-capitalist establishment parties.

Marxists and the Role of the Working Class

While Sunkara sees the working class as the key force to achieve significant reform, his analysis discounts the potential of the working class to achieve revolutionary change, both in the neo-colonial and advanced capitalist world. On this point, The Socialist Manifesto’s historical analysis has important omissions and distortions.

The problems begin with Sunkara’s fundamentally negative attitude to the most historic victory for a fighting socialist program: the Russian Revolution of 1917 under the leadership of Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolshevik party.

Up to World War I, Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia looked to the German Marxists for inspiration and leadership. However, the Bolshevik approach, as one of the two wings of Russian socialism, was forged through their experience and debates on how to address the tasks of the revolution in a society dominated by a feudal aristocracy with a weak capitalist class. The Mensheviks, the other wing, saw the coming revolution as a classic bourgeois revolution with the working class in a supporting role while the Bolsheviks saw that the Russian capitalists were too weak and compromised to lead “their own” revolution and that the working class would have to play the leading role. Flowing from their perspective, the Bolsheviks argued for an organization of “professional revolutionaries” which the Mensheviks rejected.

Following the important experience of the failed 1905 revolution, the debate – that had already led to a split in 1903 – was shown to have very real implications in actual policy. After the February 1917 revolution, the Mensheviks argued that socialists should support an alliance with capitalist politicians in the post-Tsar provisional government. The Bolsheviks explained that the capitalists would never pull Russia out of the war or transform the lives of workers and peasants. They therefore called for expelling the capitalists from the government and for “all power to the soviets” i.e. to the councils the workers had created in 1905 and February. Over the course of 1917, the Bolsheviks won the majority of the working class to this position. The Bolsheviks then led the working class to power in the October Revolution with the support of the peasantry and rank and file soldiers.

Sunkara calls the Bolshevik Revolution a “moral catastrophe” yet stops short of agreeing with the capitalist apologists who call it a “coup.” While he faults all involved, including the Russian working class, his point seems to be that if only the left-wing Menshevik Julius Martov and his small group had stood in front of the “train of Bolshevism,” then a) maybe the liberal coalition could have won some reforms, and b) Stalinism could have been avoided. However, the “train” in this situation was not the Bolshevik Party, but the larger force of the working class driving toward revolution with the demands for “land, bread, and peace.”

Sunkara’s analysis dismisses the potential for workers’ revolution in the wave of mass action that swept Western Europe after the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1918, revolutions took place in Germany and Austria-Hungary. From March to August 1919, a soviet republic was formed in Hungary.

In Italy, 1919 -1920 is known as the biennio rosso (the two red years) marked by mass strike actions of millions including factory occupations led by workers councils, particularly in Turin and Milan. On July 20-21, 1919, a general strike was called in solidarity with the Russian Revolution. The revolutionary fervor in Italy was derailed by the Italian Socialist Party avoiding decisive action, pointing instead toward a legislative road. Indecisiveness doesn’t go unanswered, and the revolutionary period was followed by a wave of violent reaction by the Fascist Blackshirt Militia, and in 1922 by Mussolini taking power.
This phase came to an end without victory for the revolution in Europe centrally because of the lack of a tested and authoritative revolutionary leadership. But the outcome could have been very different and capitalism only survived with the most ruthless contortions. If they had won it would also have relieved the pressure on the Soviet state and acted as a massive counterweight to Stalinist degeneration.

Trotsky describes the balance of forces in this period with an analogy in The First Five Years of the Communist International (1924):

“When a ship loses its rudder, it is sometimes necessary to keep its left and right engines running alternately. The ship moves in zigzags, a great amount of energy is expended, but the ship keeps moving. Such at the present time is the steering device of the capitalist states of Europe. The bourgeoisie is compelled to alternate fascist and Social-Democratic methods. Fascism was and remains strongest in those countries where the proletariat came closest to power, but was unable to take it or hold it: Italy, Germany, Hungary, etc.”

Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks acknowledged that it was not possible to build socialism, in isolated, under-developed Russia and therefore looked to the massive Western European working classes – particularly in Germany – as the only force that could save the Russian revolution against counter-revolution from the capitalists or bureaucratic degeneration. Sunkara describes this “hope for a breakthrough” as a “failed gamble” (p.97).

Sunkara is also very forgiving of France’s 1936-1938 Popular Front government and its leader Leon Blum. Sunkara treats Blum’s approach as a strategic calculation, rather than a capitulation to bourgeois forces: “Blum grappled with the question of why and under what conditions a socialist would enter government. He distinguished between the ‘exercise of power’ (taking office to prepare the groundwork for socialism) and the ‘conquest of power’ (the actual dismantling of capitalism). In the end, Blum settled for ‘the occupation of power,’ to keep it out of the grasp of fascists” (p.110). In part due to increased confidence after Blum’s government came to power, the French working class took persistent mass actions and won wide sweeping labor and social reforms (the Matignon Accords). But the “popular front” between the socialists, the Communist Party, and the bourgeois “radicals” acted to restrain the working class and to block the only road that could have pushed back fascism: the socialist revolution.

While addressing the unprincipled coalitions between the Stalinized Comintern and social democracy, Sunkara concludes “the reforms also contained the seeds of their undoing” (p.111). Sunkara seems to see Blum’s government as some sort of “example” but the hard truth is that the reformist “occupation of power” opened the door to fascism.

Sunkara then fails to address the potential for socialist revolution in the period immediately following World War II. In spite of the fact that the Kremlin did not seek to lead struggles for social liberation, more than 25 countries had working-class or anti-imperialist uprisings from 1944-1948, from Algeria to Thailand. It’s unclear why, but he also doesn’t take up the historic general strike in France, alongside the mass social movements and strikes that shook the global ruling class to its core in 1968.

The Chinese Revolution

Sunkara tries to address the different problems facing the revolution in the neo-colonial world by assessing the less-well-known Chinese Revolution of 1925-7 as well as the better known Revolution of 1949 which brought Mao to power. Sunkara says that in order to avoid the “excesses of nationalism or socialism alike…[t]he solution is a banal one: valuing and protecting rights and liberties, while ensuring that ordinary people are not only consulted through mass rallies but actually have democratic avenues to make choices and hold their leaders accountable. Without this bedrock, any postcapitalist [sic] society risks creating a new caste of oppressors,” (p. 153).

This is a muddled analysis and falls short of articulating a program for revolutionary struggle in the neo-colonial world. Concretely, the Chinese revolution of 1925-7 was centered on the urban working class and was betrayed by the zig-zag policies of the Comintern.

The 1949 revolution was based on a peasant army with the urban working class reduced to the role of passive spectator. The result was a Stalinist regime that ended capitalism but the bureaucratic elite blocked the working class from political power. The working class – with the social and economic cohesion to create a democratically planned economy – is the only truly progressive force in modern society. The Chinese “Communist” Party had no internal democratic life, the opposite of the Bolsheviks. For genuine socialism, the core ideas are democratic planning and a liberated society, not the bureaucratization of Stalinism and the Chinese dictatorship. Revolutionary movements face the possibility of the greatest victories, or the most bloody defeats.

Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution explains that the imperialist domination imposed on the then colonial world meant these countries could not replicate the “normal” bourgeois development of the advanced capitalist countries. In this situation, only the working class, by leading the fight for national liberation, could take on the tasks of a bourgeois revolution (for land reform, democracy, and throwing off the imperialists). Having seized power, the working class, leading the broad urban and rural masses, must begin to carry out the socialist tasks of the revolution by seizing control of the economy from the capitalists and linking up with the working class internationally to do the same globally.

Reform or Revolution

For the working class, it can be fatal to underestimate the viciousness of capitalism, and to ignore that the levers of power lie with the system’s defenders. The ruling class does not sit back when challenged, but fights ever more viciously to maintain a grip on a massively unequal society, using the state, the “armed bodies of men” in Engels’ words, as its main tool. A strong working-class movement will inevitably be faced with the question of reform or revolution to overcome the power and resources of the billionaire class. History shows repeatedly the terrible danger of a “half a revolution” when the leadership of the workers’ movement isn’t prepared to split and break up the existing state apparatus, and establish a democratic, workers’ government.

Sunkara describes the question of reform or revolution as a difference of emphasis: Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, and revolutionary Marxists generally delineate this as a foundational difference. The central issue is one of perspectives for Marxists: is it possible to achieve an egalitarian socialist society without a decisive rupture? Working people have repeatedly moved in the direction of revolution when the road of reform is blocked. But the punishment for a failed revolutionary situation is brutal repression, or an open door to reaction. This is not a question of preference, but of life and death, representing either the greatest gains or setbacks.

The sad truth is that the consequences of getting “reform or revolution” wrong have been bloody and brutal. For example, in Chile in the early 1970s, avowed socialist Salvador Allende was elected president and began arguing for legislating a path toward socialism.

In Chile, the working class was the driving force in the movement that catapulted a coalition of left parties called Popular Unity (UP) and Salvador Allende into power in 1970. Immediately, President Allende nationalized a number of major economic industries including copper mining and banking, and developed a national health care service. Unfortunately, Allende didn’t think it was necessary to purge the reactionaries out of the officer corps while mobilizing the working class to defend the gains that had been made, and instead kept many of the generals and military apparatus intact. Because of the mass support that existed for Allende, and the popularity of the nationalization of profitable industries to the benefit of the Chilean working class, the global ruling class feared these ideas would embolden revolutions internationally.

In 1973, Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a U.S.-backed coup led by General Augusto Pinnochet.

A U.S.-backed coup brought General Augusto Pinochet to power in 1973. Pinochet’s government murdered leftists and tortured thousands, outlawed labor unions, and “liberalized” the economy leading to a rapid, massive upsurge in inequality. While Allende cannot be blamed for the decades of dictatorship that followed with Pinochet’s rule, his mistaken approach to the state under capitalism is a lesson that building the new world requires a decisive break with the old.

Even more radical social democrats have found themselves in an insoluble contradiction because without rooting themselves in the possibility and necessity of revolution, their program leads to class compromise at best and bloody defeat at worst. The reformist leaders of European-style social democracy in the 20th century ultimately denied the need to break with capitalism – Karl Kautsky, Leon Blum, Salvador Allende, Olof Palme, Francois Mitterand – and did not wage a decisive battle against their respective bourgeois. These social-democratic leaders presided over left (but not revolutionary) parties. In the end, even with the very favorable situation of the post-World War II boom, when capitalism was willing and able to make some concessions to maintain class peace, in the longer term the tragic outcome is that the gains won by the working class under social democratic leadership were reversed.

In our time, Greece shows the bankruptcy of reformism taken to its logical conclusion. Originally elected on a mandate to reject European Union austerity in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008-9, the radical left coalition SYRIZA raised the hopes of the working class then dashed them to pieces when its leader Alexis Tsipras cut deals with the European banking institutions. By trying to compromise on the basis of accepting a “Greek debt” and enforcing the same austerity measures imposed in a previous government led by the social democratic party PASOK, SYRIZA both failed to prepare the Greek working class for a confrontation with the EU and tragically miscalculated the international capitalist institutions’ (EU, ECB, and IMF) determination to defend finance capital even if meant pauperizing the Greek people. The outcome was a historic defeat of the Greek working class.

Marxism on the Role of the State

Marx and Engels’ thinking on the state was shaped by the experience of the revolutions of 1848 which showed the need for working class independence. They further solidified their views on what workers’ power could achieve through the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871. The working class “communards” were directly making decisions through their elected councils and were able to push for a system that addressed their needs, rather than lobbying for this or that reform. The communards fought to end the power of the church, liberalize education, end child labor, and passed far reaching reforms for gender and economic equality. Ultimately, the capitalist government re-assembled its forces, and bloodily ended the commune’s temporary liberation of the Parisian workers under capitalism.

The whole history of the 20th century shows that the capitalist class will not simply surrender without a fight. We have to examine from the experiences of the countless working-class people who learned this lesson the hard way to take revolutionary theory seriously, rather than rewrite history to justify the political features of today.

We Need A New Party Of, By, and For the Working Class

The Socialist Manifesto’s fifteen point conclusion on “How We Win,” includes Sunkara’s democratic-socialist view of how a new mass workers’ party could emerge. His idea is that “class struggle social democracy” of the Corbyn/Sanders/AOC variety should facilitate an electoral breakthrough, first writing that, “class struggle social democracy isn’t a foe to democratic socialism – the road to the latter runs through the former” (p.222). For the DSA, this has meant a strategy of using the Democratic Party ballot line.

Continuing emphasis on reforming the Democratic Party has led Jacobin and others in the DSA to underestimate what is possible and necessary as the establishment again moved to block Sanders. They have actively opposed calling for a new party even as millions are infuriated with the party establishment which seeks to impose the desperately weak Biden.
Sunkara generally calls for a mass mobilization to build “class struggle social democracy” with the goal of “generating working-class strength through electoral campaigns rather than subordinating existing struggles to the goal of getting a few people elected” (p. 217). In essence, he advocates winning a base of support for a broad social democratic program which he believes would then pave the road for greater struggle and a more fundamental change.

What is the role of the working class in this process? Without building a new party where working people can participate, can democratically debate its program, and run candidates that reject corporate cash and are required to adhere to the party’s platform, how does this base keep accountable the socialists that have won “decisive majorities in legislatures while winning hegemony in the unions” (p.222)?

Flowing from this, is it possible to legislate our way into an egalitarian, socialist society? Although Sunkara agrees that the working class is a critical force for change, his end goal is ill-defined, placing crucial forms of class struggle – like strikes – into an auxiliary role. This approach goes against the recent experiences such as that of Syriza in Greece in 2015 along with historic examples like the Allende government in Chile in the 1970s, where the parliamentary approach simply wasn’t enough. A mass workers party with a fighting leadership is crucial to connect our struggle for every reform possible under capitalism with the fight to restructure society on the basis of socialist planning. Decisive change requires that the working class must be more than a voting block in the struggle against capitalism.

While the American working class has historically waged enormous battles without the benefit of a mass workers party, this has also been a decisive limitation. Far more extensive gains could have been won and a real left tradition maintained over the decades. More than ever, it is critical to coalesce our class around a fighting program pointing toward ending capitalism.
The flood of new members into the DSA in 2017 and 2018, mostly young people with a desire to fight for radical change, has pushed the organization toward deeper debate on what they stand for. This includes members challenging the DSA’s historic orientation to the Democratic Party versus the project of building a new party by and for the working class in the U.S. on the basis of mass struggle. At this point, it’s broadly accepted within the DSA that a mass party is eventually necessary which is certainly a very positive step forward.

A fighting program is necessary to mobilize the wider working class, which given its role in society and production has the capacity to defeat its oppressors – but this is not straightforward. Initially riding waves of mass struggle to major electoral breakthroughs, new left parties like Syriza in Greece and PODEMOS in Spain have largely failed to meet expectations when tested by the workers’ movement as a tool against the establishment parties of austerity.

It is also striking that while Sunkara writes that we need a new party and uses many international examples like the Left Bloc in Portugal and Podemos, he doesn’t discuss the glaring absence and potential for international organization. Millions of people, especially young people, have strong internationalist instincts. This is evident in the global climate movement and the women’s movement. The greatest potential in decades exists for the building of international socialist organizations that makes decisive moves to galvanize the power of working people through mass action in direct confrontations with the billionaire class. Internationalism is fundamental in the fight to dismantle capitalism which itself is a global system. We must urgently rebuild the international organizations that can coordinate this struggle.

The Role of Socialists

If the organized working class underestimates the strength of the forces defending capitalism, the situation won’t remain stagnant. The military, right-wing political parties, and the far-right forces we see emboldened in the situation today, will assert themselves and try to crush any attempt by the working class to achieve fundamental change. But equally we can not underestimate the capacity and necessity of the multi-racial, multi-gender working class – if organized and unified with a tested revolutionary leadership – to isolate the tiny minority of exploiters and lead society out of the cul-de-sac of capitalism.

We’re entering an economic crisis which even capitalist economists admit will be far worse than 2008. The key question for the left remains: how to rebuild a fighting labor movement and a new mass party with a clear socialist program. This requires forging a new leadership that truly bases itself on the social power of the working class.

Sunkara has failed to understand the full extent of the weaknesses that led to the rapid demise of both Sanders and Corbyn, which in turn exposes the limits of his conception of “class struggle social democracy.”

Jeremy Corbyn’s unwillingness to fully mobilize his base against the establishment, Blairite wing of the Labour party who sought to sabotage and undermine him at every step contributed directly to Labour’s loss in the recent general election after which he stepped down as Labour leader. Millionaire Keir Starmer’s recent ascendancy to the Labour leadership is the beginning of the Blairite wing re-asserting its control of the party. It’s a set-back for the British left. To be clear it was not because his overall platform was “too radical” for the British working-class electorate.

Sanders’ capitulation sheds light on the main obstacle that left-Democrats face in trying to take over the Democratic Party apparatus with a working class program: overcoming the sabotage of the powerful establishment that is tied by a million threads to the corporate elite and is completely hostile to such a program. While COVID-19 impacted the primary process, what we’ve written from the beginning stands: it would have required nothing short of a mass movement outside the Democratic Party for Bernie Sanders to win the nomination.

This is why Socialist Alternative has campaigned for a new party of, by, and for the working class at every step of the way while supporting Sanders. Sunkara writes that “a political party should be the decisive link between explicitly socialist currents and a wider workers’ movement,” but places emphasis on a longer term “a socialist workers movement” (p.230). He poses the question but abstracts the answer to some ill-defined time in the future. “Class struggle social democracy” has given up just when it should be coalescing the working class and socialists into a force organized enough to resist the billionaire class’ attacks on the working class that we know are coming in the face of global economic collapse.

The potential exists today to fill the vacuum on the left with the internationalist, revolutionary forces needed to turn these lessons into a coordinated, global fight against capitalism. One thing is clear: the stakes for humanity are high and ideas matter in our struggle for a better world.

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