Defending Bhaskar Sunkara

Matt McManus

July 30, 2022

Contra the pious essentialism of some, there are several kinds of legitimate socialism out there. I’ll concern myself with two here. There is a socialism where the goal of “socialist revolution” is — ideologically and rhetorically — largely the end in itself. It tends to see any kind of reformism as a compromise and even condemns material improvements in the conditions of workers and marginalized peoples as so many efforts to stave off the more radical insurrection to come. In its more rhetorically extravagant moments, it even characterizes the welfare state — however inadequate, the most substantial achievement of socialist and left parties thus far — as its “historical opponent.” (I suppose we’ll give the socially conservative, plutocratic authoritarians and outright fascists drooling at the prospect of winning permanent power a pass.) Then there is a socialism whose chief concern is the practical task of creating a society better than the reactionary neoliberal hellhole into which we are sinking, a society in which individuals create a shared world together through political and economic democracy and the “development of human powers as an end in itself” — as Marx put it in Capital, Volume Three. In the century and a half since socialism burst onto the geopolitical scene through the formation of labor parties, the latter has been chiefly responsible for constructing the freest and most prosperous societies the world has yet seen. They remain the most tangible victory yet achieved by and for the working classes, however fragile and insufficient. And yet, still, the most tired and settled debate in socialist circles must carry on, rather like how we’ll always be threatened by new reboots of trashy films no one enjoyed in the first place.

Against Democratic Socialist Reformism

I say this in response to a recent article published by Will Stratford on “The Circular Logic of Bhaskar Sunkara.” Stratford takes issue with Sunkara’s “narrowed conception” of what the left should be, criticizing him for being unable to move beyond “progressive-populist conceptions of the Left” focused on electing a Bernie Sanders-type figure to leadership of the Democratic Party and ultimately winning the presidency. This is a particular note of condemnation for Stratford, who disdains Sunkara’s belief that the left can make headway through a fundamentally “capitalist party” which reduces it to the fringe status of a loyal opposition. By contrast, Stratford seems to prefer mobilization in a revolutionary workers party which works on “building a robust network of working-class organizations within civil society — publishing houses, childcare, youth clubs, adult education centers, legal counsel, Socialist Sunday Schools, drinking groups, choirs, sports clubs, and more — which [in the past] contributed to the goal of self-organizing the working class as an autonomous force in society, eventually united to take over the state.” While the Democratic Socialists of America might seem an obvious candidate for such a party, Stratford rejects DSA for selling out and following the Democrats’ “descent into the culture war, especially around race, which has systematically divided the working class and impeded the consolidation of a ‘social base’ for a left politics.”

Beyond these tactical and strategic concerns, Stratford criticizes Sunkara’s socialism as ultimately little more than technocratic welfarism aimed at propping up the capitalist state through pacifying working-class animosity. There are several dimensions to Stratford’s critique. One is his aforementioned concern with the chilling effects of welfarism on working-class agitation, the famous buying off of class consciousness. The second is more important. Stratford is concerned that by blunting our antagonism towards the capitalist state, whether in its welfarist or capitalism-with-the-gloves-off forms, we risk perpetuating the ongoing domination of the working class by more or less benign forms of statism. A more gilded cage remains a cage after all. This point is made most clearly about midway through his essay:

Rather than appealing to the state for progressive reforms to improve the condition of working people, Socialists proposed that the working class should organize itself to take state power. They objected to welfare measures, believing there was nothing leftist, much less socialist, about rendering workers dependent upon the state rather than upon their movement, their union, and their party. The stronger the American welfare state grew through the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the weaker the political movement for socialism became. The right to dissent, whether through speech or strikes, eroded under the enlarged role of the state, which prioritized the fostering of American national community above citizens’ civil liberties. The substitution of regulatory state policies for the struggle to overcome capitalism, beginning with the Left’s dissolution into the New Deal coalition in the West and the Stalinist Communist parties in the East, spelled the end of the socialist Left. But for Sunkara, it marks the jumping-off point. In effect, he reduces a century of workers’ struggle for socialism from the 1840s to the 1940s to its final decades, when its goal of socialist revolution receded out of sight. Sunkara’s political vision essentially comprises nostalgia for mid-century Fordist capitalism.