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The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality BY Bhaskar Sunkara. Basic Books. Hardcover, 288 pages. $28.

Bhaskar Sunkara’s Socialist Manifesto begins by entering an imaginary world. It’s 2018 and “you” are a die-hard fan of Jon Bon Jovi, “the most popular and critically acclaimed musician of this era.” So devoted are you to the singer-songwriter that you’ve found work at the pasta sauce factory his father owns in New Jersey. The job isn’t great, but it’s better than nothing. After a year, your wages rise from $15 an hour to $17, a 13 percent increase that fails to match your recent 25 percent increase in productivity; meanwhile your colleague Debra, who’s been working there for three years, is still only making $13 an hour. Your grievances lead to the formation of a union.

Yet the rigors of the global sauce economy—low-wage competitors in India are fierce—strain the firm’s owners and its workers to the breaking point; though the union blocks management from issuing layoffs and extending the workday by an hour, things are bad regardless: “At the end of every day you’re physically and emotionally exhausted and unable to do the things outside of work you used to love.”

The scene then shifts to a fantasy Sweden, “the most humane social system ever constructed,” where strong labor laws and unions ensure your wages are high and an ample welfare state permits you to choose and change jobs with far greater ease; it’s good, Sunkara says, but we can do better. Now imagine that you’re back in Jersey, here transformed into “the epicenter of a radical political upheaval” that eventually catapults “a new left-populist movement fronted by Bruce Springsteen” into power. Controlling the White House and a congressional majority, the movement passes laws remaking the United States into a Swedish-style social democracy. Since “the economy is still driven by private enterprise,” the gains of social democracy are resented and assailed by a capitalist class eager to recover its former privileges and profit margins. Yet the organized Left now firmly controls the political high ground and successfully pushes to abolish capitalism as such: Though markets for nonessential goods continue to operate, primary resources such as food, affordable housing, and education are guaranteed and the banks are nationalized. “The decades pass on, and you eventually retire, cared for by the society that you contributed so much to, while enjoying the love of friends and family.”

Who is this scenario written for? The narrative tends to abstraction, but Sunkara does not entirely skirt the question of his audience’s identity. “Your ancestors were peasants,” he stipulates. Much later, near the book’s end, he returns to “your” medieval history. If you lived centuries ago, you would have been conscripted for war by your feudal lord: “You rallied under a blue banner with a griffin or some such creature on it.” In the present you recognize Bon Jovi and Springsteen as cultural touchstones; furthermore, “You’re an above-average student, a hard worker, and capable of thinking creatively and solving problems.” Like the final porridge bowl to Goldilocks, like Eddie Van Halen to David Lee Roth, you’re just right. If you’re not educated, pale, and left of center already, you can certainly imagine reaching that level of development; a little bit of bland imagining is all it takes. In other words, “you” are part of the 99 percent of the United States, a formation understood to be essentially white; as with Jacobin, the magazine of politics and policy Sunkara founded as a DC undergraduate in 2010, the core audience for the Manifesto is swing voters who prefer their critiques of capitalism unsullied by identitarian cant about racial divisions. The “ordinary people” the Manifesto cites are simply united; and who can fault Sunkara as he deigns to appeal to the people as they are?

A former vice-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, Sunkara can plausibly present himself, at the age of twenty-nine, as the éminence grise of a nascent American socialist movement. The Socialist Manifesto is written in the same style and bears much the same tone as his regular columns for The Guardian. A stickler for concision, Sunkara packs into its 288-page frame, alongside the inaugural speculative fiction, a condensed history of prior socialist movements across the world and a program for what is to be done politically by “our” present-day American Left. This trinity—what might be, what once was, what will be—is elaborated with a clarity best described as Orwellian. No sentence is difficult to diagram; the imposing analytic thickets typical of Western Marxist writing have been leveled down to the simplicity of grass.

Sunkara’s history of socialism begins by detailing the early decades of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), where for the first time ever Marx’s pupils headed a mass organization of the urban proletariat; the book retraces their arguments regarding policy and strategy—reform or revolution? for or against imperialism?—with diligence and insight. As a narrator Sunkara aspires to flat description. Yet his preference for Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the “radical democrats” who founded the German Communist Party, is unmistakable. Their murder in 1919 by protofascist paramilitaries in collusion with the ruling SPD represents the closure of two historical paths: Capitalism remained undefeated in the West, and socialism, forced to fend for itself outside the developed world, was barbarized. “In its most formative period,” Sunkara writes, “isolated in the harsh conditions of Russia, socialism became synonymous with a bloodied collectivism.”

The book’s survey of Third World socialism presents similar evidence in the service of the same conclusion. After recounting the experience of Chinese Communism in substantial detail—its birth in the extremities of foreign invasion and civil war, its dictatorial triumph, its apocalyptic famines, its waves of mass political killings, its eventual stabilization without democratic freedom—Sunkara delivers the same verdict he did on the Soviet Union: The Chinese Communist Party’s revolution “is best understood as a national, authoritarian project, capable of delivering progress at times but far removed from the classic vision of socialism.” A cursory tour of the rest of the Red Global South (too poor, too bad, Cuba’s workers don’t have rights) concludes with an authoritative statement: “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.” In other words, the presence of undemocratic socialism in the Third World is taken as proof that democratic socialism is possible only in the First World.

During the vogue for Maoism in the 1960s and ’70s, the variant known commonly as Third Worldism posited that since there existed a racialized class system between nations just as within them, revolution could only take place in the peripheral, proletarian, poor zones of the Global South. Though acknowledging in passing that the United States is “the capital of capitalism” and that “capital’s drive is global,” Sunkara seems to have arrived at an exact inversion, a First Worldism that flatters his core audience by ascribing to it transformative potential it has yet to display, a unique opportunity to create what he describes as a “better sort of socialism.” It is much to his credit that, as he reviews the fortunes of the Left in the civilized, wealthy, industrial Global North, he admits that socialism has yet to exist there. The fate of Olof Palme’s Sweden proves how social democracy, having harnessed capital without abolishing it, becomes vulnerable in stagnant times to demands for a freer rein, a rollback of welfare benefits to restore profitability. Meanwhile François Mitterrand’s France demonstrates the hazards of leaping from social democracy to democratic socialism. Faced with expropriation, the captains of finance and industry retaliated with a capital strike, crushing an already weak economy by withdrawing and withholding investment until Mitterrand capitulated. “The French socialists were forced into a dramatic U-turn, not just halting their march forward but embracing the politics of austerity.”

And what’s left in these United States, generally regarded as a developed country? Sunkara presents an encyclopedic knowledge of various American anti-capitalist parties, many of them socialist, some of them playing important roles in larger fights for social equality, but none of them close to taking power. By the end of the recital a lamenting tone creeps into his measured prose. “Why was the United States different from other advanced capitalist countries? Why didn’t it have an independent working-class party to build, if not socialism, then at least a social-democratic welfare state? . . . Why is there no socialism in the United States?” In answer, he attributes the disarray of the American working class primarily to “the threat of violent repression.” (One wonders, then, why mass socialist parties succeeded in China and Russia under no less brutal conditions.) Still, the “popularity of the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and the inspiring activism of the last several years” give him hope in the darkness. The book’s final section consists of a summation of Western neoliberalism; a recollection of Corbyn’s Labour takeover and a relitigation of Sanders’s 2016 Democratic primary campaign; a fifteen-point road map for building a socialist party in America; and a promise that socialist politics is the best solution to the looming perils of nationalism and global warming.

How does one review a manifesto fairly? As Sunkara’s fifteenth point says, “History matters.” Like The Communist Manifesto, his book exemplifies how the past dictates the future. The reading of what was determines the horizons of what will be. The difference is that while Marx interpreted the history of capitalism to justify the future emergence of world communism, Sunkara is interpreting the history of Marx’s own apostles as he hopes for the future emergence of American socialism. The novelty of Marx’s manifesto electrifies; knowing that nothing like communism has existed before, it speeds toward the day when communism will be everything. The Socialist Manifesto is restrained, almost apologetic; it is haunted by the specters of pessimism and belatedness, the knowledge that socialism has already been tried, already been found wanting.

Lacking dialectical prowess, what’s left to fall back on? It’s no accident that Sunkara’s approach to facts resembles nothing so much as that of a Southern Baptist youth pastor; readers are coached like kids ready to stray at the slightest indication that faith is difficult to keep. The book applauds the lively disputes between socialists in prewar Germany and Russia, but the existence of Western Marxist currents other than its own is buried in silence. The pervasive and all but insoluble bigotry that characterized most of the American labor movement throughout its “long and distinguished history” is stowed away in endnotes. The critical role of the American state in exterminating socialist movements across the Third World is mentioned once; its role in shutting socialist parties out of power in Western Europe is not mentioned at all. The Cold War is barely mentioned and never examined.

The intent behind this airbrushing appears to be tactical, to render American socialism more palatable by playing down the degree to which socialism has been anti-American and America has been anti-socialist. Yet what is lost, really, by acknowledging how much the extreme hostility of the American capitalist state to socialist freedom movements across the world has contributed to their failure? By demonstrating how that state’s tremendous military, covert, and financial power has been consistently deployed to besiege and undermine its enemies, to the point that socialists must adopt a paranoid, militarized, hierarchical organization to survive (thereby surrendering democracy), open up to capital investment and exploitation (thereby surrendering socialism), or else surrender unconditionally? Why obscure the fact that capital, in the West, under neoliberalism, is on permanent strike, its primary profits divorced from both employment and the manufacturing sector, and thus essentially immune to labor agitation? Why pretend that an America under socialism would retain its privileged status in the world economy, despite that status being dependent on the linked imperial rents of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve, fossil-fuel conglomerates, and the military-industrial complex? “Better than others, we [socialists] can perceive class relations and how they offer common avenues of struggle,” Sunkara claims. But a sustained and penetrating analysis of present-day America—its economy, society, culture, and politics—is as absent from The Socialist Manifesto as the hard accounting of how much risk one runs in seeking to improve America for its most oppressed citizens. Not only does this book begin with make-believe, its unrealness never ends.


Frank Guan is a writer living in New York.