Socialism is neither dead nor a utopia

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Socialism is neither dead nor a utopia

The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era… by Bhaskar Sunkara, Basic Books, US $28.00, Pp 274, April 2019, ISBN 978-1541617391

What if you were born or were living in a Scandinavian welfare state instead of America? For many of us, these countries have different socio-economic systems. In reality, both countries are capitalist countries. The modern American socialists have been debating for years about what exactly we oppose in capitalism and what we can live with. In The Socialist Manifesto, Bhaskar Sunkara says that, in a Scandinavian welfare state like Sweden, more spheres of life are de-commodified, meaning they are taken out of the market and enjoyed as social rights. If you are unemployed, you can rely on benefits, engage in civic life, and take some time to consider what to do next.

Capitalism is a social system based on private ownership of the means of production and wage labor market. It relies on multiple markets: markets for goods and services and the capital market. Bhaskar Sunkara says that, outside of theory, there is no such thing as a free market. Capitalism requires both planning and a regulated market. Leftists haven’t been daydreaming utopians. For both good and ill, socialists won power, at various points across much of the world. But nowhere have we been able to decisively break with capitalism and build a democratic alternative. Even with the more modest ambition of just humanizing capitalism, no national left government in Europe has been able to carry its program in at least forty years. In the United States, the socialist movement hasn’t been relevant for decades longer than that.

Bhaskar Sunkara believes that a better future still seems in reach. He argues, for all its resilience, capitalism remains prone to crisis. Its inequalities provoke resistance. Billions resent the unfair choices offered to them. But most people don’t have any reason to believe that politics can improve their lives. Collective action — either in the workplace or outside it — is often riskier than accepting the status quo. The dilemma for socialists today is figuring out how to take anger at the unjust outcomes of capitalism and turn it into a challenge to the system itself. Bhaskar Sunkara says that the task is made even more daunting by the fact that we in the United States lack the three ingredients necessary for almost every socialist advance of the past hundred fifty years — mass parties, an activist base, and a mobilized working class. We’re not starting from scratch, though. The Bernie Sanders campaign encouraged millions to believe that things can be different. New mass actions, such as 2018’s teacher strikes, have also revealed in our own age the power of working people. What we need now are organizations: working-class parties and unions that can unite scattered resistance into a socialist movement.

Bhaskar Sunkara says that, on the face of it, Corbyn and Sanders advocate a set of demands that are essentially social-democratic. But they represent something far different from modern social democracy. Whereas social democracy morphed in the postwar period into a tool to suppress class conflict in favor of tripartite arrangements among business, labor, and the state, both leaders encourage a renewal of class antagonism and movements from below. Bhaskar Sunkara says that, to Sanders, the path to reform is through confrontation with elites. Bhaskar Sunkara argues that Sander’s movement is about creating a political revolution to get what is rightfully ours from millionaires and billionaires. It is not about talking about an entire nation struggling together to restore the US economy and shared prosperity. Neither is it about seeking to negotiate a better settlement with business leaders. His program leads to polarization along class lines. Indeed, it calls for it.

Bhaskar Sunkara says that Sanders and Corbyn don’t represent a social-democratic politics that will serve as a moderate alternative to more militant socialist demands. Rather, they offer a radical alternative to a decrepit center-left. They have introduced a language of class struggle and redistribution to audiences that haven’t ever heard demands like these. Class-struggle social democracy is generating working-class strength through electoral campaigns rather than subordinating existing struggles to the goal of getting a few people elected. The difference between this political current and the social democracy of Tony Blair or even Olaf Palme is striking.

The Socialist Manifesto is a very timely addition to the political debate in the United States. The rise of politicians such as Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom has brought the socialist dream back in the limelight. Bhaskar Sunkara powerfully argues that the United States is ripe for a democratic socialist future. The Socialist Manifesto is a meticulously researched and well-nuanced study of the left and the debate on socialism in the United States. The debate generated by The Socialist Manifesto will help us shape our democratic future. Every American must read it before deciding who to vote for in the 2020 presidential election but also other gubernatorial and Congressional elections.

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