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Defending Bhaskar Sunkara

Matt McManus

April 19, 2022

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. This point is an old one that nevertheless deserves further theorization. For my money this was accomplished most effectively by Ernest Mandel is his classic 1975 book Late Capitalism. Written near the peak of the welfarist era, the title can seem a little optimistic given that the rise of neoliberalism was already portended in Chile. Nevertheless, his critique of welfarism tracks very closely with Stratford’s and elaborates upon it in helpful ways. Put simply, Mandel diagnosed a major contradiction emerging in capitalism through the modern era: that between a drive for totalizing unification in the name of stability and pushing more radical forms of particularization at the levels of production. This included stratification by class, yes, but also along the racialized and sexuated lines early socialists paid far too little attention to (Engels being a notable exception ). These in turn became reified through law and political institutions in a process I’ve elsewhere called the “production of difference.” All of this was necessary for the expansion and efficiency of capitalism, but, of course, created stupendous social tensions as the vaunted unity and order cherished by conservatives and right-wing liberals were continuously undermined by the very capitalist differentiation they supported. Later thinkers like Fredric Jameson brilliantly extended this analysis to the cultural sphere, diagnosing the breakdown of sources of the self and the emergence of militant particularist identity politics to the postmodern culture emerging in the mid-century and reaching its full expression under the capitalist realism of neoliberalism. As it has accomplished so often before and since, Mandel argued that capitalism managed to pacify this potentially lethal contradiction through the development of the managerial welfare state. This entailed marginal changes in the redistribution of public goods and very marginal transitions in relations of production where labor movements were particularly strong; as in West Germany under the CDU-SPD grand coalition. But these would be marginal. Led by technocratic elites operating at a high level of withdrawal from even the minimal constraints of liberal democracy, the welfare state offered tactical concessions to sufficiently militant groups while strategically keeping real power comfortably in the hands of capital. Mandel’s analysis, while brilliant, is occasionally lopsided in the same way that Stratford’s can be. He is absolutely right to stress the fact that welfarist reforms were partially a means to placate working-class activism, but fails to acknowledge how important workers’ efforts were in achieving these gains. The achievement of tactical concessions through welfare was by no means inevitable, much as the shortening of the working day achieved by labor in the 19th century — the “Magna Carta of the working class” as Marx put it — was hard fought and well deserved. This is especially true in the Nordic context emphasized by Sunkara in The Socialist Manifesto, where the “grand compromise” between capital and labor was only achieved after decades of class struggle that threatened to erupt into outright civil war. But it even applies in the American context, where civil rights leaders and socialists like A. Philip Randolph were instrumental in pressuring the Roosevelt administration to move left on issues of unionization and racial equality. That the American welfare state was never as comprehensive as its European counterparts owes more to the fact that working-class movements were not as strong, along with the persistence of anti-left and anti-communist vitriol. It had little to do with some vaguely transhistorical principle which holds that there is an inverse ratio between how expansive the welfare state is and how small socialist movements will become. Despite these flaws there is no doubt that the welfarist social democracies constructed during the era constituted a fragile and inadequate compromise; one that was quickly rolled back during the conservative revolutions of the 1980s. Though never entirely. It’s worth noting Jeremy Gilbert’s observation that, even at the peak of the Thatcherite era, the NHS (the most socialist institution in the United Kingdom) remained so overwhelmingly popular that the Conservative Party wouldn’t dare come out publicly against it. Defending Bhaskar Sunkara The biggest problem with Stratford’s condemnation of Sunkara is his conviction that the latter is unaware of this complex history and the lessons to be learned from it. Stratford bases his analysis on two recent interviews where Sunkara largely discusses recent politics in the United States and hypothesizes about how the left can win medium-term success. This ignores the far more extensive treatment of all these subjects given in Sunkara’s excellent book The Socialist Manifesto (reviewed by me here ). In The Socialist Manifesto Sunkara takes a sober look at the achievements and failures of socialist movements in the 20th century. This rightly includes an extensive critique of Soviet and Maoist totalitarianism, whose lack of democratic organization led to the rise of statist command economies responsible for the deaths of millions. Sunkara rightly points out that efforts to discredit Marx on that basis are lazy and do a disservice to his genius, while stressing that the German polymath was in fact far from dogmatic on what forms of social struggle workers should engage in. During his lifetime Marx supported demands for the extension of liberal rights (particularly to assembly and expression), commended parliamentary drives to shorten the working day, and had many good things to say about leaders like Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the American Civil War. He castigated the utopian conceit that even revolutionary victory would result in a social tabula rasa upon which radicals would construct a new society, insisting in the Critique of the Gotha Program that a historical and dialectical socialism needed to recognize that any better society would be “stamped” by many features of the old. These points were reiterated by Engels in his lengthy letter to Bloch in which he stressed the need for socialists to be conceptually and strategically flexible in their approach to political analysis and agitation: According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form . There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise, the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree. When making comments about the marginality of the “culture war, especially around race” Stratford misses precisely the plasticity of socialist dialectics that once gave it such power. Sunkara is far more sophisticated in his recognition that the struggle against capital must predominate, but that others are hardly peripheral (especially for participants). His inspiring claim in The Socialist Manifesto that “at their core people want dignity, respect, and a fair shot at a good life. A democratic class politics is the best way to unite people against our common opponent and win the type of change that will help the most marginalized, all while engaging in a far longer campaign against oppression rooted in race, gender, sexuality, and more” is the correct approach. Indeed, far from toeing the centrist line in foregrounding identity politics, Stratford seems unaware of how consistently Sunkara has been a nuanced critic of its excesses. More importantly, Stratford totally ignores Sunkara’s sophisticated analysis and critique of the welfarist model throughout his book. The core is in his treatment of the Nordic welfarist models, which Sunkara rightly points to as the gold standard 21st-century socialists should learn from and improve upon. As mentioned, contra Stratford and critics like Mandel, Sunkara emphasizes how important militant worker’s movements were to the establishment of Nordic social democracy. This was accomplished through forming major parties, yes, but also through constructing and preserving many of the “working class organizations” Stratford admires. Much of the Nordic model’s success and longevity can be chalked up to a willingness to combine redistributive measures with robust support for political democracy, unionization, and a social safety net that allows workers to leave exploitative workplaces when they wish. These are extraordinary achievements that resulted from decades of hard-fought class struggle. Dismissing these forms of welfarism as a “historical opponent” of socialism is, quite frankly, bizarre. Of course, Sunkara doesn’t lionize Nordic social democracy. His analysis is balanced with acknowledgment of its very real limitations and failures, particularly in the post-1970s period. Like many of us, Sunkara sees Nordic social democracy as running up against very real limits when capitalists were confronted with the prospect of peaceful retirement through radical measures like the Meidner plan, which would have entailed rapidly achieving worker ownership of the means of production through creating labor wage funds paid for by high corporate taxes. It proved a bridge too far for Nordic capitalists. Sunkara is very critical of social democrats and socialists for backing down in the face of these political pressures, seeing it as a missed opportunity to genuinely achieve a post-capitalist society. One of the reasons for this failure is that welfarist reformers, even if they went further than anyone else, didn’t go far enough in restructuring the power dynamics within society to ensure a counterattack would fail. This is an important lesson for 21st-century socialists, and in his ruminations about getting us “Five Minutes After Capitalism” Sunkara foregrounds the need to confront capitalist power more comprehensively. The reason for focusing on the Meidner plan is that Sunkara recognizes that to achieve a successful transition past capitalism, it is necessary to win public support at every stage. This can only be done by demonstrating the tangible benefits and entrenching gains so thoroughly that conservative forces will be unable to dislodge them, at least not without risking an uprising against them. When applying these insights to the United States, Sunkara stresses that winning a major political victory through electing a left-wing Democratic president like Bernie Sanders would just be the first step. Securing better material conditions through redistributive policies like universal healthcare would be crucial, both as a matter of rightness and to demonstrate the tangible improvements to ordinary people’s lives that come about by electing democratic socialists. This last point is crucially important, yet it is almost always disregarded by the most militant who often write as though the goal of socialist politics is revolution rather than human flourishing. The more effective way to win support for socialism is to actually be effective socialists. Sunkara also stresses that politics would only begin with the election of Bernie or someone else to office. Empowering worker’s organizations like the DSA, enacting legal reforms making it easier to unionize, and extending political democracy in the face of Republican efforts to curb the vote would just be a few of the necessary first steps. In the long run, Sunkara imagines a realignment where the United States becomes a fully democratic socialist society defined by large-scale democratization of the means of production. Sometimes this can get exceptionally concrete, a welcome change from the airiness that accompanies so much left theorizing. In the first chapter of his book, “A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen,” Sunkara describes the different experience one would have living in a socialist society where the “power imbalances” that exist within the capitalist workplace are overcome. It is one where life is still filled with difficult choices and certain inequalities still persist, but most of these inequities flow from choices made under conditions of reasonable affluence for all, meaning they are far less motivated by necessity with a consistent cap imposed on disparities that would fundamentally result in highly stratified power dynamics returning. Political competition would persist in a democratic system where the capacity to impact electoral outcomes is greatly equalized, with a social-democratic-leaning right and radical left arguing over the extent to which residual market mechanisms may be just or efficient. This is a long way from Stratford’s caricature of Sunkara as “actively mislead[ing]” young people through a denial of socialism’s radical ambitions and flogging the “Left’s stinking corpse” by having the audacity to say nice things about the most successful left politicians to emerge in the United States since Martin Luther King, Jr. Conclusion I’ve said it before and I will say it again: the ambition of socialism is not revolution or radicalism. These are mere means to a much higher end, a just society where the flourishing of all, rather than just a few, is possible. That is not at all the world we live in, which hangs on the precipice of regression to a barbarism simultaneously as wicked and stupid as any in history. In the face of this the rejuvenation of the left in the United States and elsewhere, including nearly a hundred thousand members in DSA and a democratic socialist candidate who can seriously compete to become the most powerful person in the world, is not just something to celebrate, it is a shield against the fall. Early in his article Stratford complains about the lack of “consolidation” for a left politics, which is ironic given the acidic barbs directed against one of the left’s most inspiring intellectuals. If consolidation is what he wants, all I can say is its time to put idle differences aside and unite around the most successful movements we’ve all spent decades building. Thanks to Ben Burgis for his suggestions throughout.

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