A twenty-first century utopian socialist

The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality

By Bhaskar Sunkara

Published by Verso, 2020 (pbk), £9-99

Reviewed by Mark Best

Bhaskar Sunkara is the editor of Jacobin magazine, a publication orientated to the Democratic Socialists of America, and behind the attempt to relaunch Tribune in 2018 as a magazine aimed at Corbynistas.

His book, published as a hardback last year but now released in paperback, attempts to explain what socialism is, to give a history of the socialist movement, and point a way forward for young people looking towards socialist ideas today.

He opens by looking at the life of a fictional factory worker in the US whose job and livelihood exists at the whims of the market and the firm he works for remaining profitable. This situation is contrasted with another fictional worker in a “slightly idealised version of Sweden, a mix of what social democracy actually accomplished in that country and what it could (or even should) have”. This version of how Sunkara wishes Scandinavian Social Democracy to be has a generous welfare state and employment rights, yet still relies on capitalist firms being profitable and part of a global capitalist market.

Sunkara then asks if there is an alternative superior to his already fictitious “most humane social system ever constructed”. In an example of “political fanfiction”, he imagines a turn of events in which Bruce Springsteen leads a left populist movement, becomes president, wins a majority in the US Congress, and implements social democratic reforms over the course of a decade. This slowly takes power away from the capitalist class through profit-sharing workers’ ownership funds, and nationalisations of failing companies.

Evoking in the title similarities to the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Sunkara’s approach has more in common with the utopian socialists they railed against in the Manifesto. He imagines how a future socialist USA may operate in 2036, just as the utopian socialists like Robert Owen built communities to show how they knew what was best for workers and the poor. Sunkara says this is a “crucial task” of today.

Socialists, according to Sunkara, have not sufficiently put forward what they are fighting for, only what they are against – capitalism. He develops schemas to get around the, as he sees it, ‘inefficiency’ of democratic centralised planning; worker owned co-ops that pay taxes to central government on capital assets. The detail includes systems of regional banks, an example of a pay scale for a particular factory, and how innovation would be rewarded under his new society. It is how he would like society to run, without a serious appraisal of the barriers that are faced to a new society, in the form of the capitalist class, and how they can be removed. In his imagined world, by the 2070s there are still those who, in a parody of Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition in the 1920s Soviet Union, argue for “more vigorous support for the workers’ movement abroad and more extensive democratic planning at home”. Even in his fantasy then, capitalism would still exist and an internationalist working class organisation would be a point of contention.

A Marxist analysis of the state is a closed book to Sunkara. The state, which includes political systems, the courts, the civil service and the police, exists to maintain the position of the ruling class at the top exploiting the majority of the population. When faced with an attack on not only their profits but to slowly shift them from their position of economic and political power, as Sunkara advocates, the capitalist class will use all means available to stop this.

He brings up capital flight, both when dealing with the real reactions of the capitalist class to reforms and as a weapon used against his Bruce Springsteen fictional government. But it is presented as an inevitable consequence of increased spending or reforms in favour of the working class, akin to inflation. But capital flight, investment strikes, and lock outs are the capitalist class taking direct action to sabotage, undermine and bring down threats to their system. Even the right-wing Labour reformist, George Brown, deputy prime minister in the Harold Wilson government of 1964-1970, admitted that “no privileged group disappears from history without a struggle”.

But for Sunkara the task is not to prepare to take on the capitalist class but to imagine a nicer future. In striving for this the working class will beat back the capitalists with strikes and occupations, but the need to establish a democratic workers’ state is left out. In the end in his utopia the capitalists will be ground down and give up, continue to resist but remain in a minority (what actions of resistance they may take is left unsaid) or embrace socialism.

This naivety about the capitalist state and the actions of the ruling class to remain in power informs Sunkara’s approach to the politics of today. Writing a year ago, Sunkara saw in Bernie Sanders in the USA and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain a real hope for his “class struggle social democracy”. A year on we have seen the consequences of his approach with both Sanders and Corbyn losing support from their previous elections.

A major factor in both cases was the scepticism from working class people of their ability to lead a fight against the capitalist class. Sanders backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 and continued to orientate towards the capitalist Democratic Party instead of using his 2016 campaign as a springboard to boldly launch a new party to represent workers and young people around a fighting programme. And Corbyn was unwilling to take on the representatives of the capitalist class in the Labour Party, the Blairites, making concessions to them instead in his position on Brexit and other issues. If neither Sanders nor Corbyn were going to properly take on the capitalist class before they were in power, what hope was there for them when faced with the onslaught after coming to power?

Sunkara sees the need for socialism as a moral issue, just as the utopian socialists did. His reasoning for why socialism is necessary is that suffering is a moral wrong, as is exploitation inherent in wage labour; that reforms won are only temporary; and the climate crisis. He combines this with a disbelief that workers will struggle for a new society if they have a comfortable standard of living now – they have “more to lose than their chains”. The only way we can convince workers of the need for socialism then is through proving that it will be a better system, both through achieving reforms and what Marx called “recipes for the cook shops of tomorrow” – the schemes of the utopians.

But it is through struggling for a programme, coming up against the reality of the capitalist system, and realising their collective strength as a class, that workers draw conclusions of the necessity to run society on a socialist basis. With capitalism in crisis the long term stability and profits that allowed the past concessions to social democracy is no longer there. The Socialist Party supports and takes part in any struggles to improve the lives of working class people, but it is wrong as Sunkara does to emphasise demands as “achievable” without putting forward what is necessary to win them, and linking that struggle to the need to transform society itself. Capitalism in crisis is unable to offer workers and young people a decent future; the fight for decent wages, socially useful jobs, fair pay, or solving the climate crisis, will bring them directly into conflict with the capitalist class.

In his reformulating of Marx’s theories of historical materialism, Sunkara writes out the capitalist revolutions of England, France and Germany. Society and technology had developed such that feudalism was no longer capable of taking production forward. But the old lords did not bow out, they fought to maintain their positions and their power had to be swept away by mass actions before a new society could be built. That is the task facing us today as capitalism is throwing back the conditions of the majority of people across the world. It is only by the necessary steps of taking the economic power out of the hands of the capitalist class and running society on a democratically planned socialist basis that we can end exploitation.