The Socialist Manifesto

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Commentary on Bhaskar Sunkara's Book

In the preface to the 1888 English edition of the The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Frederick Engels explained why he and Marx did not name their text the “Socialist Manifesto”. According to Engels, socialism was identified with utopian dreamers and reformers "who wanted to eliminate social ills through their various panaceas without injuring capital and profit in the least". In contrast to the socialists, the communists were considered dangerous to the ruling class, since they were for working class revolution and the “radical reconstruction of society”, which would end all exploitation and oppression. In other words, Marx and Engels were quite clear in differentiating themselves from this “socialism”. Perhaps without realizing it, Bhaskar Sunkara, founder and editor of Jacobin Magazine and a prominent member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) group, wrote The Socialist Manifesto while a primer on the history of socialism and how we can achieve it today.

The socialist strategy proposed by Sunkara is a democratic strategy to be conducted primarily through elections. A large part of the book is devoted to discussions of historical examples of socialists who followed such a path, such as the social democratic parties, which made up the Second International. When discussing the first socialist parties, such as the German Social Democratic Party, Sunkara locates the key tension that ran through them, their desire for a radical transformation of society and also for achieving immediate reforms. Sunkara argues that the social democratic strategy of accumulating reforms gradually seemed sound, as winning reforms led to growth in party membership and more votes in elections. Furthermore, bureaucrats and party officials had a vested interest in reforms, as they now had vested interests in the existing order that would be undermined if there was a revolution. The end result of this strategy was the betrayal of internationalist principles by social democracy and its support for the carnage that was the First World War.

However, Sunkara argues that what happened in 1914 was not the inevitable result of reformism; for him, this could have been avoided through “institutional measures” to make the party bureaucracy more subordinate to the rank and file (p. 78).[1] However, The Socialist Manifesto avoids any serious discussion of the roots of the Second International's degeneration, such as imperialism, the conservative role of the labor aristocracy, and the abandonment of Marxist theory in favor of "practical results". Thus, Sunkara avoids serious examination of complicated and uncomfortable aspects about the strategy he claims.

In seeking positive examples of what he calls democratic socialism, Sunkara devotes a great deal of time to post-World War II Swedish social democracy, which he claims was responsible for “the most humane system ever built” (p. 14). The Socialist Manifesto claims that Sweden went further in attacking capitalism than any other social democratic experiment in trying to implement the Meidner Plan in the mid-1970s. The Meidner Plan proposed the gradual socialization of the Swedish economy by forcing large companies to issue shares continuously, which would be transferred to collective funds of workers controlled by unions. Gradually, the unions, and by extension their members, would take control of the country's means of production. However, the version of the Plan that was implemented was a watered-down one, and the capitalists ended up defeating it anyway. Sunkara claims that the failure of the Meidner Plan reveals the main dilemmas of social democracy, which depends on electoral victories, on delivering results, on an expanding economy and on partnership with capitalists willing to make compromises about deep reforms. All this means that social-democratic reforms are precarious and are always at risk of being reversed (p. 123-124). Nevertheless, Sunkara argues that “the road to socialism beyond capitalism passes through the struggle for reforms and for social democracy, which are not different paths” (p. 30).

Still, this raises the question of how democratic socialists could avoid the failures of the Swedish case and other social democratic experiments. Sunkara proposes a number of solutions; for example, he recognizes that, if the social democrats were elected, they would face the same challenges and pressures as their predecessors, since passing reforms requires maintaining business confidence and profits. As Sunkara observes, most social democrats are willing to accept corporate pressures and abandon their reform programs. His solution is for social movements to put pressure on reformers to remain faithful to reforms (which is a well-worn social-democratic mantra). Sukara further states that a serious democratic socialist experience must understand that the capitalist class will “do everything to stop us” through capital strikes and investment blockade.

Despite acknowledging that “history matters” (p. 236), Sunkara ignores the history that proves his democratic socialist strategy wrong, especially the “Chilean road to socialism”. The election of Salvador Allende, in 1970, under a program of parliamentary path to socialism, represented a much more radical experience than the Meidner Plan. This program included the nationalization of copper mines, then under the control of powerful US corporations, expropriation and redistribution of land, nationalization of banks, among other measures. In line with Sunkara's strategy, Allende's government won elections and was supported by radical movements in the streets, and support for Allende's party even rose in the following years. However, in the end, the Chilean road to socialism failed. It was crippled by business strikes, sabotage by US imperialism and, finally, a violent military coup in 1973.

Salvador Allende's failure proves a simple truth that Sunkara refuses to acknowledge: the nature of power. In a capitalist society, the State, especially the armed forces, is an instrument of class domination that needs to be crushed by the organized and armed working class. If the power and privileges of the capitalist class are under substantial threat, as they were in Chile, capital will respond with brute force, no matter how “legalistic” and “peaceful” the socialists are. Ultimately, the peaceful road to socialism is not peaceful at all, but results in the bloodbath of the disarmed working class in the face of capitalist resistance. Therefore, it is necessary to crush the bourgeois state together with its police, army and all repressive apparatus, and replace it with instruments of popular power to suppress the resistance of the capitalist class and open the way to socialism. nothing that The Socialist Manifesto proposes confronts this reality; instead, Sunkara's program only paves the way for further defeats.

The Socialist Manifesto it is not limited to a historical discussion of social democracy, it also debates revolutionary experiences in Russia and the Third World. Despite his rejection of the revolutionary path, Sunkara does not outright condemn the Russian Revolution. Instead, he spends several pages confronting the openly anti-Communist narrative about 1917 and the notion that Leninism simply led to Stalinist totalitarianism. Sunkara emphasizes that Lenin's revolutionary strategy did not lead to Stalinism; it was based, in fact, on orthodox social democracy: “But it was not a blueprint for building a radically different party; rather, these were necessary tactics for a movement prevented from following the legal organization and parliamentary action developed by its counterparts in other countries. Once Tsarism was overthrown, backward Russia and its small working class could develop on the Western model and fight for more” (p. 83). The Bolsheviks' social democratic origins meant that they were a lively democratic party, rooted in the working class. This changed with the outbreak of World War I and the revolutions of 1917, when the Bolsheviks broke with social democracy and seized power. However, Sunkara rejects the simplistic narrative that the Bolsheviks staged a coup in 1917. Instead, he argues that, while “it was certainly not as spontaneous as the February Revolution, the October Revolution represented a genuine popular revolution led by industrial workers, allied with elements of the peasantry” (p. 93).

According to Sunkara, after taking power, the Bolsheviks struggled to build a new order while facing economic collapse, foreign intervention and civil war. This unprecedented situation led Lenin to centralize power and resort to Red terror in a desperate struggle against the counterrevolutionaries. Although Sunkara did not believe that terror was an essential part of Bolshevism, he chastises Lenin for holding back democracy and open debate in Russia (p. 98).

In contrast to other democratic socialists, Sunkara does not dismiss the Russian Revolution as an experiment that would have been totalitarian from the start. Instead, he rescues the heroic vision of 1917. Still, The Socialist Manifesto argues that there was no other outcome for the Bolsheviks than Stalinism, as “Russia was not materially ripe for socialism” (p. 88). Sunkara believes that, due to the unfavorable objective circumstances, and the fact that there was no model to base it on, the Bolsheviks had no real options, but he concludes that their model, which would be “based on errors and excesses, forged in the worst of conditions, it ended up becoming synonymous with the very idea of ​​socialism” (p. 103-104). He sees no other alternative proposed by other Bolsheviks. Leon Trotsky himself is treated as “the greatest critic of Stalinism”, but one who “did not admit that each and every part of the system that he so detested had its genesis in the initial repression that he himself helped to build” (p. 101). . As a result, the emergence of Stalinism as “a terrible totalitarian regime unlike anything the world had ever seen” was a tragic but inevitable result of Russian backwardness (p. 102). Ultimately, Sunkara's view of 1917 is as a tragedy, with an attitude that revolutionary ideas have no relevance today.

Sunkara's assessment of the revolutions in China, Cuba and Vietnam is not very different. He recognizes that it was Leninism, not social democracy, that he called for Third World mobilization, as it emphasized the struggle against imperialism and the needs of the peasant majority. Following the line defended by the founder of the DSA, Michael Harrirington, Sunkara argues that, as the Third World did not have the necessary preconditions for the construction of socialism, Marxists were forced to rely on “surrogates for the proletariat”, such as peasants , in order to lay the foundations of capitalist modernity. As a result, the Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions were made from above and “ruled from above and in the name of the oppressed, not through them” (p. 131). However, in his book “A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Victory of the Guerrillas” (unpublished in Portuguese), Steve Cushion, contrary to what Sunkara claims, demonstrates that there was involvement of the working class throughout the course of the Cuban Revolution, and that it cannot be reduced to a revolution from above. There is no consideration, on Sunkara's part, of the possibility that peasants may be a revolutionary subject, which would require a much deeper analysis of the dynamics of the Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions than the ones he presents. Instead of, The Socialist Manifesto concludes that Third World revolutions reaffirm the notion that socialism demands an advanced productive base to be victorious; otherwise, the result will be an authoritarian collectivism.

This argument is based on a rigidly staged reading of Marx's work, as well as a seriously misguided historical reading. This is something Marx himself rejected in his later writings on the Russian commune. In them, Marx was much more open about the possibilities of a socialist revolution in underdeveloped countries, as opposed to the need for all nations to follow the same historical path mirrored in that of western Europe. Even worse is that, despite knowing Trotsky's writings well, Sunkara does not even debate his theory of permanent revolution, which argued that a revolution could occur in the capitalist periphery before it occurred in its center. Trotsky emphatically criticized a staged way: “To imagine that the dictatorship of the proletariat somehow automatically depends on the development and technical resources of a country is to draw a false conclusion from an 'economic' materialism simplified to the point of absurdity. This point of view has nothing to do with Marxism.” The revolutions in the Third World confirmed the theory of permanent revolution, since the masses did not wait passively and idly for the development of capitalism. On the contrary, they carried forward the tasks of the bourgeois revolution and went further by entering the socialist road. Despite the mistakes, limitations and setbacks of the Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions, they did more to advance the socialist cause than the Western European social democracies, which all made peace with imperialism.

From your view of history, what does Sunkara concretely propose for US socialists? He argues that socialists must take into account the country's particular situation, namely the two-party system, which makes forming an independent socialist party so difficult. While not rejecting the formation of a socialist party as a distant goal, Sunkara believes it necessary to operate within the Democratic Party indefinitely. However, unlike Michael Harrington, Sunkara does not believe that realigning the Democrats is a viable strategy. What he argues is that, due to the loose ties of the Democratic Party, it is vulnerable to “an electoral equivalent of a guerrilla insurgency” (p. 232). He points to the example of Bernie Sanders and his 2016 election campaign, which fought against the Democratic Party machine: “Sanders believed that the way to achieve reforms was through confrontation with the elites… [He] breathed life into socialism. in the US by returning it to its roots: class struggle and a class base” (p. 201). For Sunkara, Bernie Sanders represented a true alternative program and his campaign created a new political force, the “bernicratas”, who fight against inequality. The Socialist Manifesto argues that socialists should build on Sanders' campaign by building their own alternative narrative so that they can win elections and approve various reforms.

Sunkara's argument downplays the power of the Democratic Party and its ability to co-opt social movements, presenting it as a people's party, even as it serves the interests of liberal capitalism. Furthermore, your argument that Bernie Sanders represents a watershed in US politics is misguided and ignores his track record. While it could be said that Sanders was a “classist Social Democrat” in his youth, this has not been true for many decades. As Murray Bookchin and Alexander Cockburn have pointed out, Sanders is basically a career politician and a Democrat in every respect but name. Sanders systematically supports and finances imperialist wars and Israeli apartheid and does not defend a socialist program, but a liberalism à la NewDeal, as he himself recently admitted.

Unlike Sunkara, we socialists must recognize the limitations of Sanders and the Democratic Party and clearly demarcate ourselves by creating independent organizations and advocating for a revolutionary alternative.

Credit must be given to Bhaskar Sunkara for The Socialist Manifesto be easy to read. Undoubtedly, Sunkara's work will reach a wide audience, especially those who desire a synthesis of the ideas and strategy of democratic socialism. However, a serious discussion of socialism must begin with the recognition that it was not democratic socialism but revolutionary communism that broke the shackles of imperialism. This means that we must take a critical look at the organisations, methods and means necessary to make a revolution possible, rather than repeating the failed strategies of reformism. This is something that The Socialist Manifesto it does not, meaning that it is of little value to a proper understanding of what is needed to achieve socialism.

*Doug Enaa Greene is a historian. Author, among other books, of Communist Insurgent: Blanqui's Politics of Revolution (Haymarket Books).

Translation: Marcio Lauria Monteiro, with revision of Morgana Romao.

Originally published on the website cosmonaut.


Bhaskar Sunkara. The Socialist Manifesto: In Defense of Radical Politics in an Age of Extreme Inequality. Translation: Artur Renzo. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2021, 296 pages.

Translator's note

[1] The cited pagination refers to the original edition of the Basic Books (New York, 2019)

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