Socialism as a Necessity
February 16, 2023
How to explain socialism to the uninitiated seems to be a constant challenge for the left. Given the long, tumultuous history and variety of theoretical interpretations of the subject, perhaps this isn’t so surprising. However, especially today during socialism’s “comeback” in America, there’s almost a fetish among leftists for the perfect “socialism 101” explainer. Whether through books, podcasts, Youtube videos or any other form of media, the “explain socialism to me” market is in a boom. On one hand it’s a positive thing to see socialist ideas proliferating, but on the other, these explanations tend to be flawed in various ways. Introductions to complex ideas almost inevitably lead to simplifications, and each is going to be subject to its author's own biases. The result is that many popular introductions to socialism are often misleading.
The latest example of this is Jacobin founding editor Bhaksar Sunkara’s appearance on the inexplicably popular Lex Fridman podcast. Fridman is a typical right-leaning big tech proponent who, in the guise or branding himself as politically neutral, will occasionally interview people on the left such as Richard Wolff and Noam Chomsky. This is the kind of opportunity to speak to a mainstream audience that gets leftists excited, and while the impact of a podcast appearance is definitely overrated by some, any chance for the left to break through the noise of the media sphere and speak to a wider audience should be taken. It’s safe to say that Sunkara is one of the intellectual leaders of the current DSA/Bernie Sanders-inspired left, which in theory should make him an ideal candidate for this type of interview.
Unfortunately, Sunkara’s approach leaves a lot to be desired. Throughout an interview lasting more than three hours, Fridman questions Sunkara about everything from his vision of socialism, to the history of communism, labor unions, Karl Marx, Bernie Sanders, and other relevant topics. Fridman seems sincere in his effort to talk openly and honestly about a subject he is clearly not comfortable with, but his skepticism isn’t the main problem. His resistance to socialism is no surprise, but Sunkara is all too willing to speak on the terms Fridman lays out in his questions. Fridman is concerned with things like GDP growth, labor productivity, etc; essentially, the concerns of capital. As Sunkara attempts to lay out his idea of how a socialist society would work, all Fridman wants to know is: will it be like capitalism? Sunkara’s response amounts to saying that socialism will actually do what capitalism does better than capitalism. For example, when Fridman asks how people will be incentivized to be productive if they don’t have to work for the basic necessities of life, Sunkara responds that people are productive for reasons other than money and that innovations in the market will continue. In another instance, Fridman worries about the treatment of CEOs and billionaires, arguing that certain people deserve credit for all the value they create. Sunkara agrees, assuring Fridman that under socialism, brilliant people such as Lebron James will still be recognized for their accomplishments.
Now, what’s wrong with all of this? Certainly, it’s not as if questions about productivity, wealth distribution and social hierarchies aren’t relevant to socialism. After all, these problems will have to be worked out in the event of a socialist party taking power. The problem is that this is all speculation, specifically Bhaskar Sunkara’s own personal speculation about what he wants socialism to look like. His point of view is for the most part limited to electoral reforms, and this results in a largely technocratic conversation where Sunkara offers his fixes to the problems Fridman proposes. Unfortunately for Fridman’s audience, this is an entirely false representation of what socialism is about. Sunkara describes himself as a Marxist, but Marxism has never understood socialism to be a set of policy proposals or an electoral strategy. But the reasons to reject Sunkara’s framework are more than for mere ideological purity. The position or arguing for socialism as an idea, or set of ideas, that will work out if we just gave them a chance, is fundamentally weak. Instead, socialism should be called for as a historical necessity.
Marx and Engels developed their theory of socialism through historical materialism. This roots the origins of society in human activity, the way we organize our lives and how they’re reproduced through different modes of production. Distinct social classes arise out of these modes of production, as different groups of people play different roles in the system. The central classes of capitalist society are the propertied class, or bourgeoisie, and the propertyless class, the proletariat. Marx described the dynamic between the two classes in The Holy Family in the following way: “Private property as private property, as wealth, is compelled to preserve its own existence, and thereby the existence of its opposite, the proletariat….The proletariat, on the other hand, is compelled to abolish itself and thereby its conditioning opposite - private property - which makes it a proletariat.” The crucial word here is compelled. The proletariat, by the nature of its conditions as a proletariat, is compelled to end its existence as a proletariat, necessarily ending the existence of the propertied class as well in the process. This compulsion of the working class is the driving force of socialism.
When Fridman questions Sunkara about class struggle, saying it’s an abstract concept and that the real difference is between successful and unsuccessful people. Sunkara responds by going along with Fridman’s assumptions and attempts to explain how even if workers are better off now there’s still a power imbalance and all the gains they’ve made could be lost at any moment. The conversation then devolves into exploring Fridman’s fears about “workers running the show” and whether people will still be able to be fired in this scenario. At no point does Sunkara explain the actual nature of class struggle as being constitutive of capitalism, or why this concept was important for Marx and subsequent thinkers. Nowhere in the interview does Sunkara explain why the proletariat is the driving force of socialism. To quote Marx from the same text above: “If socialist writers attribute this world-historical role to the proletariat, this is by no means…because they regard the proletarians as gods…Since all the living conditions of contemporary society have reached the acme of inhumanity in the living conditions of the proletariat, since in the proletariat, man has lost himself, although at the same time he has both acquired a theoretical consciousness of this loss, and has been directly forced into indignation against this inhumanity by virtue of an inexorable, utterly unembellishable, absolutely imperious need, that practical expression of necessity - because of all this, the proletariat itself can and must liberate itself.”
This is the message that is missing from Sunkara’s brand of socialism. Socialism is the historical task of the proletariat because their conditions embody all the contradictions and problems of capitalist society. It’s these conditions themselves that create the need in the proletariat to destroy their own existence as this class. Now, to take Sunkara’s side, perhaps this explanation wouldn’t be very palatable for Lex Fridman and his audience. Maybe it’s easier to talk about capitalist reforms and cooperative markets. Again, this is not to say that these topics aren’t relevant or worth thinking about. Indeed, reforms similar to what Sunkara suggests may even be necessary in the transition to socialism. The problem is that framing reforms as the essence of socialism obscures the theoretical foundations of socialism as Marxism understands it.
Another reason this historical view of socialism is important is that it solves the problem of Sunkara’s statism. His democratic socialist future society necessarily involves not only a strong welfare state, but a substantial amount of state control and regulation throughout the whole society. Obviously for Sunkara this would be a truly democratic state controlled by a socialist party with mechanisms in place to hold representatives accountable and prevent abuses of power etc. For Fridman and his audience however, the mere mention of the state is a red flag. A right wing or even just general apolitical audience is never going to be totally comfortable with the idea of the state playing a large role in their lives, no matter how democratic and benevolent Sunkara insists it may be. For most people, the state means our current bourgeois capitalist state, and all the incompetence and authoritarianism that entails.The problem with Sunkara is that his project doesn’t differentiate itself from this bourgeois state. His version of socialism essentially boils down to capitalism with cooperative markets and state regulation. Whereas if we accept Marx’s claims about socialism being a historical necessity for the proletariat, we get a different picture. Since the proletariat is compelled to destroy its own conditions, along with those of the bourgeoisie, it seems reasonable to assume that if a socialist party takes power and the working class is then in control of society, the state as we know it today would no longer exist. The capitalist state in the hands of the working class, or to use the dreaded phrase a, “dictatorship of the proletariat,” will be fundamentally different and serve a different function than what we associate with the state today. In other words, a socialist state can’t be defined by government programs and regulations.
Of course, there’s no reason to think a conservative audience would embrace this idea either. Most likely they’ll be even more horrified at this scenario than Sunkara’s. Maybe Lex Fridman and his Youtube audience can’t be won over to socialism, but they could at least have a more accurate understanding of it and the kind of social transformation it entails. This goes for leftists as well. In America socialism is a dirty word, an unacceptable idea. Reading Marx and Engels, let alone someone like Lenin, is unthinkable to most people. With the shadow of Stalinism constantly lurking, socialism is associated with “big government,” or authoritarian state control. Even those who consider themselves socialists may not even bother trying to learn theory or history. Given the intellectual environment we’re in, it’s hard to blame them. However an environment of ignorance can only produce more ignorance. If socialism is going to have any chance of becoming a political force in America again, before we can educate the public, we have to educate ourselves, even if it means challenging the fundamentals of what we’ve been told socialism is or isn’t. If we want to be socialists instead of technocrats, we need to discover socialism for ourselves again.