Originally published in the August/September 2019 issue of First Things.
The Socialist Manifesto
by Bhaskar Sunkara
Basic Books, 288 pages, $28
In the spring of 2019, even the staid old AFL-CIO began to dabble in guillotine imagery. The occasion was a dispute between Delta and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The airline had issued a flier reading: “Union dues cost around $700 a year. A new video game system with the latest hits sounds like fun. Put your money towards that instead of paying dues to the union.” The AFL-CIO responded by tweeting an image of a flier reading: “A guillotine only costs $1200 to build. Delta’s CEO made $13.2 million dollars last year. Get outside with your buddies, share some brews—sounds like fun.” Five days after sharing the guillotine meme, the AFL-CIO posted a video in which a self-described “marxist / roofer” gives a two-minute lecture about class and exploitation, which it tweeted with the comment: “We all need to seize the means of production.”
Bhaskar Sunkara has written a manifesto for our socialist moment, a moment he did much to create as founder of Jacobin magazine. He has not entirely succeeded in capturing the spirit of his influential quarterly between hardback covers, partly because so much of the Jacobin experience is visual. Its signature style is an eye-catching cross between an IKEA catalogue and a Brian Eno album cover. The front of the Spring 2019 issue, about the housing crisis, looks like a page of futuristic real estate listings with descriptions like “comrade citizens [rose emoji] register for summer beach house cozy & sunny” and “public pool ~~~gym [arm emoji] newly_expropriated.”
Sunkara preserves this whimsicality in his book’s first and most ambitious chapter, “A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen,” a vision of our cooperative future through the eyes of a worker at a pasta sauce plant owned by Jon Bon Jovi’s family. He describes two alternatives to capitalism. The first is a Nordic-style social democracy in which you, our factory worker, enjoy a cradle-to-grave welfare state, and “even though having children isn’t for you”—Sunkara knows his audience—you “look forward to your frequent vacations.” The second alternative is democratic socialism, which differs from social democracy in featuring worker control of firms and government control of investment. The rest of the book is a breezy tour of the history of socialism from Engels to the present day, in which Sunkara dials down the playfulness, though perhaps not enough for a chapter on “Iron Felix” Dzerzhinsky.
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The figure from socialist history that Sunkara most resembles is not any of the worthies described in his book but the British publisher Victor Gollancz, another left-wing child of immigrants with an abundance of capitalist hustle. Like Gollancz, Sunkara is an impresario rather than an intellectual. It is a rarer set of skills. For every hundred scribblers, there is one man who can rally those scribblers around a grander vision. Gollancz’s vision was to bring the message of socialism to the masses, which he did by launching the Left Book Club in 1936. A monthly fee bought subscribers one selection from a catalogue of such titles as Red Star Over China, Soviet Policy and Its Critics, and Forward from Liberalism. At its peak, the Left Book Club had more than fifty thousand subscribers and discussion groups in nearly every city in Britain.
Encouragingly for Sunkara, Gollancz won. Socialism came to Britain in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Newspapers said that Gollancz had “done more than any other single man to put a Socialist Government in power.” Eight of the ministers in Attlee’s government were Left Book Club authors. In 1936, the trade publication The Bookseller noted that the firm of Victor Gollancz, Ltd. was making great strides “in making books about Socialism ‘respectable.’” Ten years and six million books later, socialism was not just respectable. It was in charge.
Of course, Labour’s victory also depended on changes in the composition of the electorate. The 1918 Representation of the People Act tripled the number of voters in Britain, from 7.7 million to 21.4 million, after which the working class was bound to become more influential. America’s contemporary turn toward socialism is demographic, too. The millennial generation is more liberal in part because it is more diverse. Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans are all more politically liberal than the white majority. In a Pew survey that asked respondents how they felt about various political words (“liberal,” “progressive,” “libertarian”), Hispanics had a higher negative response rate to the word “capitalism” than any other group, including supporters of Occupy Wall Street.
There are those who blame the leftward skew of first- and second-generation immigrants on Republican brand toxicity and insufficient minority outreach. But warmed-over Reaganism has lost its hold on its natural constituency. Why should anyone expect it to capture new converts at a time when the old faithful are fleeing in droves? A better explanation is that immigrants import political terms of reference from their home countries, and no nation in Asia, Africa, or Latin America has a political spectrum in which the right pole is anchored by small-government classical liberalism. It would be strange if immigrants from those countries assimilated instantly to something so foreign.
In order to adapt to a more diverse America, the Republican party may need to move away from that unique Anglo-American hothouse flower, small-government conservatism, and closer to the conservatism that exists everywhere else in the world. These global varieties of conservatism are, importantly, strongly anti-socialist.
Right-wing parties in places like Latin America may not be absolutely in love with capitalism, but they are definitely against socialism, which to them means not just overspending but anti-clericalism and state involvement in every sphere of life, with no zones left sacred. When socialism goes too far and creates an economic mess, conservative parties will embrace pure neoliberalism implemented by technocrats (Spain’s Stabilization Plan of 1959, Brazil’s Plano Real of 1994), but when the crisis is over, those technocrats realize that their ideas have no popular support. In the absence of an emergency, the default economic policy of the average right-wing party is something closer to Trumpian economic nationalism.
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One reason America is having a socialist moment is that our working class is in terrible condition, battered by the twin forces of economic globalization and mass immigration. In a tragic irony, at the very moment in the 1990s when politicians had to decide how to confront these challenges, the parties of the working class were captured by neoliberal triangulators like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, whose loyalties were to the meritocratic elite. The liberal parties of the Western democracies were supposed to be the most powerful vehicles in human history for the political power of the common man. Instead, those parties now represent the interests of “woke capital,” that is, corporations that are equally committed to unfettered markets and liberal social causes and don’t hesitate to use their power under the former to enforce the latter.
The great question in American politics now is which party will take up the cause of the abandoned working class. The answer will depend on which is easier to defeat, zombie Reaganism or woke capitalism. I am not optimistic about the ability of Sunkara and his followers to defeat woke capital on behalf of workers. He can’t even read the state of the battlefield correctly. He claims that “the substantive victories in civil rights for LGBT people . . . came from grassroots mobilization, not Democratic initiatives.” But the forces of wealth and power were decisively on his side in that one.
He can’t tell when capital is on his side, and he can’t tell when it isn’t. If Sunkara’s brand of socialism has a central weakness, it is this: its failure to realize that corporations embrace the modern progressive agenda precisely because so much of it makes workers weaker. Subsidized abortion and contraception, which Sunkara endorses as female empowerment, are loved by corporations because they like it when women put off childbearing until forty. Employees without children are more tractable, willing to work longer hours for lower pay. The borderless, high-immigration world supported by the progressive left serves to keep wages low more than it serves its ostensible purpose of anti-racism. Wall Street was given a scare by Occupy, but it doubled down on wokeness and its reward has been left-wing acclaim, as exemplified by the Vox headline claiming that “Corporations Are Replacing Churches as America’s Conscience.”
I have more faith in the possibility of defeating zombie Reaganism. For one thing, Donald Trump is currently president of the United States. And zombie Reaganism is intellectually weak. The conservatives who resist any departure from free-market orthodoxy all love the graph that shows global capitalism lifting billions of people out of extreme poverty in the last forty years. But the majority of those billions have been in east Asia. The policies that brought prosperity to South Korea, Taiwan, and above all, China have not been those advocated by the Republican old guard. Nothing succeeds like success, and these days free-market absolutism doesn’t have success on its side any more than socialism does.
Without knowing anything else about him, try to guess the political affiliation of the man who delivered this speech:
Today’s society benefits those who shaped it, and it has been shaped not by working men and women but by the new aristocratic elite. Big banks, big tech, big multi-national corporations, along with their allies in the academy and the media—these are the aristocrats of our age. . . . They’ve effectively run this country for decades. And their legacy is national division and decline.
That’s Sen. Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, on the floor of the Senate in May. The things that are attractive in socialism are present in his speech: the appeal to the dignity of ordinary people and to solidarity; the insistence that we can imagine a better future, that it doesn’t have to be this way. Sunkara has made his pitch. Conservatives like Hawley are making theirs. We will find out which one the working class prefers in the next election.