‘The Socialist Manifesto’ and the rise of social democracy

Writers across the range of socialist and communist groups are openly grappling with strategies to achieve socialism. Every viable socialist organization needs an analysis of the past in order to look toward the future. With the growth of social-democratic organizations, how should revolutionaries view the path toward socialism? 

Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder of Jacobin magazine as well as a former vice chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, is one of the most influential leaders in the growing U.S. socialist movement. Jacobin, with over 40,000 subscribers and millions of online views a month, is a major venue for ideological and practical debate. With 60,000 members, DSA has become the largest organization publicly identified with socialism. Sunkara’s book, “The Socialist Manifesto, The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality,” reviews the history of various trends within the socialist movement from a social-democratic viewpoint.

Originally titled “Socialism in Our Time,” “The Socialist Manifesto” is part historical analysis of workers’ states and capitalist social democracies, part hypothetical social-democratic future, and eventually a 15-point call to action which synthesizes Sunkara’s interpretation of the past and compels the development of “class struggle social democracy.” 

The author of this “Manifesto” ignores the control by the corporations and ruling billionaires over the state apparatus — the FBI, COINTELPRO, the Pentagon, the police, the courts and the prisons. Here, police prepare to attack Indigenous and other protesters against the Dakota Access pipeline.

Electoral road to ‘democratic socialism’

Sunkara has never argued for a socialist revolution similar to those led by the Bolsheviks, the Chinese Communist Party or the July 26th Movement in Cuba. Throughout his book, Sunkara goes to great lengths to reiterate numerous popular talking points on what he considers the limitations of these revolutions. One could find these in any bourgeois newspaper.

Sunkara acknowledges some failures of social-democratic parties to build socialism. He acknowledges the shortfalls of the Social Democratic Party in Germany which enabled World War I, the rise of Hitler and the annihilation of German communists.  

Seeking a hopeful example of successful social democracy leading in the direction of socialism, Sunkara looks fondly at the five decades of social democracy in Sweden — or in his words, “the most humane social system ever constructed” (p. 14). Sunkara laments the lost potential for 1970s Sweden to transition from social democracy to democratic socialism. The main components of the capitalist economy — the banks, major industries and the state — still remained under the control of a few Swedish families. Unsurprisingly, the 15 families who owned the vast majority of the economy blocked legislation to create wage-earners’ funds which would allow workers eventually to collectively own these industries.

There is no mention of Sweden’s supplying the Nazis with iron ore, its pillaging of African nations, its sending of over 6,000 troops to Congo in 1960 in an effort that led to the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, or of Sweden taking control of Congo’s copper mines. Swedish imperialism’s junior partnership with other leading empires is omitted, much in the same way that the Marxist-Leninist concept of imperialism is ignored. 

Sunkara sees the transition from social democracy to democratic socialism in hypothetical thought exercises like this one about the U.S. in 2036: “With more decisions in the hands of ordinary people, civil life is full of political debate and new ideas. Even distributional questions are still not settled: a center-right party advocates for more market incentives and a reduction in the basic income; a center-left party questions traditional metrics of growth, proposing a happiness index instead; an internationalist left calls for more vigorous support for the workers’ movement abroad and more extensive democratic planning at home. And yes, there is a Right calling for the restoration of capitalism, but its support diminishes over time, much like monarchism slowly lost supporters in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (pp. 27-28).

Further elaborating, at the end of the book, Sunkara writes: “Our task is formidable. Democratic socialists must secure decisive majorities in legislatures while winning hegemony in the unions. Then our organizations must be willing to flex our social power in the form of mass mobilizations and political strikes to counter the structural power of capital and ensure that our leaders choose confrontation over accommodation with elites. This is the sole way we’ll not only make our reforms durable but break with capitalism entirely and bring about a world that values people over profit.” 

‘Denial of class dictatorship’

This conception of a multiparty U.S. Congress striving toward democratic socialism denies the reality of the class dictatorship in which we currently live. This democratic transition to socialism ignores the control by the corporations and ruling billionaires of the state apparatus — the FBI, COINTELPRO, the Pentagon, the police, the courts, the prisons, etc. —  and the impact of bourgeois control over education, the media, and religious and cultural institutions. This state enforces all forms of racist, ableist, misogynist, patriarchal, class oppression. 

While it may be attractive to imagine a peaceful transition to socialism, this exercise denies that the history of the U.S. is one of occupation, economic sanctions, police and military violence, and genocidal attacks on every country that has attempted to break free from Wall Street domination. The question of which class will control the state — the billionaires or the working class — is not resolved by Sunkara’s imagined scenarios. His gradualistic hypothesis at best mediates class conflict, but it cannot lead to the establishment of a bonafide workers’ state.

V.I. Lenin’s classic “The State and Revolution,” based on lived, revolutionary experience, reads like a direct response to “The Socialist Manifesto” as it answers such utopian visions of socialist transformation. Lenin writes in the first chapter: “If the state is the product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms, if it is a power standing above society and ‘alienating’ itself more and more from it; it is clear that the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class and which is the embodiment of this ‘alienation.’” Lenin goes to lengths to challenge writers of his day who, like Sunkara, advocated for reform of capitalist governing structures.

Imperialism, national liberation and opportunism

Leninists have always pointed to how national liberation and socialism have been vitally connected over the past 100 years of socialist revolutions. Sam Marcy, the founding chairperson of Workers World Party, explained this significance in 1983, writing: “Of all the great domestic political problems facing the working class and the oppressed people, none surpasses in importance the relationship of national oppression to the class struggle. Indeed, one may say that it is at the heart of the basic social problem in the United States. It touches every form of social existence, and no sector of society is free from it.”

Sunkara says the left should be “universalist” and that 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” (p. 236).  This represents a dominant view within the DSA, which has downplayed the relevance of special oppressions like racism, sexism, ableism and anti-LGBTQ2S+ oppression (“identity politics”) in favor of a purportedly class-focused approach. 

Sunkara rarely mentions fighting racism or other forms of oppression as a key component of fighting for socialism. Throughout his chapter on the history of socialism in the U.S., the vast majority of his discussion focuses on Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and later Michael Harrington and DSA. There is no mention of the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, the Young Lords or any other national liberation struggles inside the U.S. which combined the struggle against racism and the struggle for socialism. 

In the era of imperialism, supporting national liberation and fighting racism are fundamental to an international socialist strategy. Sunkara discounts the efforts of China, Angola, Vietnam, Korea and beyond, calling them using socialism to command a type of authoritarian capitalist development. Cuba, covered in a scant, disparaging four paragraphs, is considered a “revolution from above” whose future is in the “hands of a new generation of state bureaucrats and reemerging business interests” (p. 155). This analysis is shocking to those who have seen Cuba’s radical democracy firsthand and admire the leaders’ ability to mobilize and unite with the people to defend their revolution. 

Venezuela, perhaps the greatest example in recent history of how mass socialist parties can use existing electoral processes to win major gains and expand true democracy and human rights for the most oppressed, is not mentioned once. Yet the challenges currently facing Venezuela demonstrate exactly the need for a socialist revolution to disarm and dismantle the oligarchy and the imperialists, who bear responsibility for Venezuela’s problems today. 

Sunkara holds the view that socialism can only be built in “developed” imperialist countries. This, like his elevation of Swedish social democracies over the victories of billions of people from countries oppressed by imperialism, and the way he and others in DSA promote class over identity politics, reeks of chauvinism. 

At the same time, Sunkara’s “class-based,” social-democratic gradualism represents a negation of the foundation of scientific Marxism: the irreconcilability of class antagonisms between labor and capital. To argue that socialism can be achieved peacefully via the bourgeois electoral process is to mislead and disorient the working class and the oppressed. History — consider the bloody 1973 CIA coup in Chile — has proven the opposite. 

Ultimately, Sunkara’s brand of socialism seeks to be respectable to bourgeois, anti-communist intellectuals as well as the more privileged sectors of the working class, who see no future beyond imperialism and thus seek an opportunist compromise on essential socialist values. 

Opposing U.S. imperialism at every turn; supporting the abolition of the capitalist police, military and state structures; fighting racism and all forms of oppression; and defending countries that are building socialism from imperialist attacks are key principles of a revolutionary strategy. 

Turning back the clock on imperialism’s decay

“Social democracy was always predicated on economic expansion” (p. 123). Sunkara is correct in that social democracy has made gains in periods of imperialist expansion. 

Unfortunately for social democracy, the owners of capital face a systemic crisis. The growth of high-tech capitalist production — originally designed to maximize profits by minimizing the number of workers — has become so capital-intensive that it leads to what Marx explained was “the falling rate of profit.” In fact, this is the terminal period of imperialism, a decadent system which has plundered the earth so thoroughly that all life is threatened.

As Marx explained, the capitalists must “expand or die,” and at this time they are struggling to open new markets and grow their profits. Precisely because the system is so productive, capitalism has entered a period of permanent overproduction. There is little room for the “economic expansion” that is the material basis of social democracy.

For the past two decades of “jobless recoveries,” workers have continued to be thrown out of the labor market while capitalists invest stolen wages in the financial sector rather than the productive economy.

The global labor market has doubled in the past 30 years, meaning the capitalists have at their disposal a larger “reserve army of labor,” as Marxists put it. They no longer need as many comparatively privileged workers in the imperialist countries. White supremacist terror, permanent austerity, low wages, shorter life expectancies and the expansion of mass incarceration are symptoms of the crisis of imperialism. 

Given this context, Sunkara has absurdly sought to turn back time to an idealized compromise between the capitalists and the workers. 

Rebuild the communist movement

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote “The Communist Manifesto” in the revolutionary period of 1848. “The Communist Manifesto” represented a leap forward in the science of revolution which has inspired billions of people to this day. “The Socialist Manifesto,” written in a time when the international socialist movement has suffered serious losses, reflects the weakness of the left and the inability to see beyond capitalism.

Meanwhile, the earth is on fire because of the policies of the Pentagon, U.S. banks and corporations. We don’t have time to compromise with these capitalists. To defend the future of humanity, we must fight for working-class control to defeat the very banks and corporations that threaten life. 

Revolutionary socialist, Leninist and communist parties have seen growth in recent years, although, for now, nothing as dramatic as DSA. These organizations, like Workers World Party, tie their politics to the experiences of successful revolutions across the world that have occurred since the Bolshevik Revolution, including their analysis of capitalism; imperialism; racism; gender, sexuality and ableist oppressions; defense of socialist countries; and solidarity with the most oppressed. We must dedicate ourselves to popularizing these principles of Leninism and continue fighting for socialist revolution.

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