The Circular Logic of Bhaskar Sunkara

Will Stratford

July 20, 2022

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin and, as of February, president of The Nation. He has appeared on two interviews this June, “Socialism is Supposed to Be a Working-Class Movement. Why Isn’t It?” on the Ezra Klein Show, and Jacobin after Bernie” on Doug Lain’s Sublation Media Youtube channel. In both, the interviewers prompt Sunkara to take stock of the current moment and address the question, what is the long-term political strategy of America’s leading “socialist” publisher? In response, Sunkara attempts to delineate a plausible strategy centered around canvassing for a Sanders-like Democrat to win the presidency and implement an expansion of the welfare state, which will in turn create the necessary political space for socialist organizing to begin. Whether Sunkara puts on his progressive face when interviewed by the liberal Ezra Klein or his populist face when talking to the leftist Doug Lain, both masks represent two aspects of leftist embeddedness in the Democratic Party at the heart of his strategy for socialism. Thus, he remains uncritical of the Sanders campaigns, whose tactical outlook of stacking the progressive-populist pole of the Democratic Party he shares. The missed opportunity for leftist self-reassessment that these interviews represent must not go unnoticed. Not only does Sunkara obscure how Sanders’ campaigns have crippled the Left by absorbing them into the Democratic Party, he also relinquishes historical socialist strategy, which understood the need to organize the working class independently from the state and, especially, non-socialist (capitalist) parties. Through this abuse of history, Sunkara, as the most prominent face of American “socialism” today, obscures consciousness of the repressed necessity of the present: (re)building a mass socialist Left.

First, we must clarify Sunkara’s long-term strategy for reaching socialism, which involves taking his comments more seriously than he may want to. The most charitable reconstruction of his vision goes something like this: a “populist” leftist campaign (Bernie) generates a new cadre of leaders, made up of progressive activists steeped in “class-first” sensibilities, who themselves serve to “create a Left with actual rootedness in the working class” and the “keeping alive [of] socialist ideas for a new generation to be useful many years in the future,” that is, until the next Bernie-like figure, who will hopefully win the presidency and then use their office as a bully pulpit to “unblock the state” and finally unleash the conditions for organizing the working class for socialism. In this manner, Sunkara envisions a step-wise path to socialism and not simply a leftward shift of the Democratic Party as a final goal. Therefore, he frames mobilizing activists within the Democratic Party as a tactical means for getting beyond electoralism, “to connect with and build a base and move them along to more progressive policies and rhetoric.” The question is, if the Left ties its socialist hopes to the vicissitudes of the Democratic Party, how do we make sure that it is we who are taking advantage of the Democrats and not the other way around?

Within his schema, Sunkara sees us today as somewhere along phase two, insofar as the Sanders movement constituted an upsurge of leftist politics. “The state of the Left is far better than I could have imagined where it would be ten years ago,” he tells Klein, since now “the Left is a presence in American life.” According to Sunkara’s game plan, funneling the Left into the Democratic Party has gotten us closer to socialism, since the extra-electoral organizing necessary for socialism cannot really begin until certain progressive-populist conditions of the state have been met. In other words, only by making headway through a capitalist party is a socialist party possible. Thus, Sunkara submits, Sanders advanced us along our way, since he helped the Left win the requisite political legitimacy necessary for organizing the working class for socialism. But the question is, in pursuing this strategy have we normalized the Left’s status as the loyal opposition to the Democrats to such a degree that we do not even treat it as a strategic decision? And, if so, doesn’t this run directly against the long-term strategies of the historical Left? According to the Socialist Party of America (SPA), which constituted a mass socialist movement in the first two decades of the twentieth century, workers needed their own organizational vehicle, the socialist party. They needed this to politically represent their class interests, as distinct from the bourgeois and petit bourgeois interests of non-socialist parties, and they could not afford to wait to build it.

Against historical socialism, which distinguished itself sharply from American Progressivism and Populism, Sunkara redefines socialist politics as populism plus progressivism, that is, identity-indifferent welfare statism. This dimension of Sunkara’s strategy comes out especially clearly in his interview with Ezra Klein. At one point in that conversation, in what can only be described as a confab between Democrat-minded technocrats, Klein and Sunkara digress into a lengthy exchange about how to make the federal government more efficient with the funds allocated to infrastructure. For Sunkara, the infrastructure problem comes down to a tension between “expertise and democracy,” in part “a matter of trusting the experts.” As he assured his listeners, “it doesn’t mean that the model of having an empowered bureaucracy is wrong. It means that the bureaucracy was not conducting the right sort of reviews.” That is, we simply need “better trained, more empowered experts.” Part of the political problem, Sunkara suggests, is what he terms “a rooted distrust in the state.” “In other countries,” he says, “there is a lot more trust there.” Today in the US, he says, “it’s all a far cry from what we used to do,” reminiscing about “the original Tennessee Valley Authority” of the New Deal. The whole dialogue suggest