Socialism: How We Win: An Interview with Bhaskar Sunkara

2 May 2019 — Verso Books
Bhaskar Sunkara explores socialism’s history and presents a realistic vision for its future.

Corbyn_mural--

Mural by graffiti artist Loretto, London. via Flickr.

Leftists haven’t just 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 out its program in at least forty years. In the United States, the socialist movement hasn’t been relevant for decades longer than that.

Yet a better future still seems in reach. For all its resilience, capitalism remains prone to crisis, as people today know well. 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.

What follows in an edited excerpt from The Socialist Manifesto; offering some thinking points to inform ways to challenge capitalism and create a democratic socialist alternative to it.

Class-struggle social democracy does not close avenues
for radicals; it opens them

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 post-war period into a tool to suppress class conflict in favour of tripartite arrangements among business, labour, and the state, both of these leaders encourage a renewal of class antagonism and movements from below.

To Sanders, the path to reform is through confrontation with elites. Rather than talking about an entire nation struggling together to restore the US economy and shared prosperity, and rather than seeking to negotiate a better settlement with business leaders (if only they saw that progressive change was in their interests!), Sanders’s movement is about creating a “political revolution” to get what is rightfully ours from “millionaires and billionaires.” His program leads to polarization along class lines; indeed, it calls for it.

Sanders’s vision is conflated so often with that of progressives that commentators frequently talk about the Democratic Party’s “Sanders-Warren wing.” But there is a vital difference between the class struggle approach of Sanders and the more wonkish approach of someone like Elizabeth Warren, who seeks to construct better policy but not an alternative politics. Not surprisingly, Warren is quick to assure business interests that she believes that “strong, healthy markets are the key to a strong, healthy America” and that she “is a capitalist.”

Sanders was trained as a student in the Young People’s Socialist League and through trade union and civil rights organizing. His worldview was formed by this unusual background. For his part, Corbyn has been a long-standing member of the Labour left, a socialist committed to social movement and union struggles and the battle against Blairism.

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, then, 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 Olof Palme is striking.

Winning an election isn’t the same thing as winning 
power

There’s been something of an overcorrection on the Left, from the “change the world without taking power” drum circle days of the postsocialist 1990s to an overemphasis on electoral mobilization today.

Elections are indeed important. In many countries, voting and paying attention to campaigns are the only political acts that most people engage in. Electoral races not only help advance our political vision, including among those who might otherwise not be listening to us, but also involve the construction of organizations and networks that can galvanize energy beyond the campaign trail.

But what’s the point of winning an election unless we can actually do the things we promise? In certain contexts, we could justify merely “occupying power”—like French socialist Léon Blum did in the 1930s—to keep out the Right for an election cycle or two or to dull the impact of austerity on workers, but that’s a surefire way to disillusion your base and lose in the medium- and long-term. Ever since the 1980s—with the impasse of François Mitterrand’s government and the retreat of Nordic welfare states—social democracy has just been the more humane face of neoliberalism. What appears at first to be a victory can soon enough be revealed as a defeat.

Working-class voters today are generally disillusioned with the ruling- class political consensus. But they and other voters don’t have faith in the potential of politics to change their lives; they don’t turn out to vote, and they’re less active in parties, unions, and civic organizations than they once were. This “crisis of politics” is principally a crisis of the Left. The European center-right doesn’t need a conscious, active base of supporters to carry out their program; they can manage capitalism in the interests of capitalists with the help of just a dozen EU technocrats. In the United States, the Right is very effective at seizing and wielding power as a minority, through its institutions, gerrymandering, and the court system. Yet the Left has always depended on mass mobilization, not only to win elections, but to enact change.

So how do we make elections work for us? Class-struggle social democracy through the ballot box is exceedingly difficult, because candidates face both incentives to compromise and structural pressure: administering a capitalist state requires maintaining business confidence and corporate profits. This was the dilemma that Mitterrand’s government ran into. The solution is through creating some pressure of our own. Street protests and strike actions can discipline wayward candidates for not going along with a redistributive agenda and can force businesses to make concessions to reformers once they are elected.

Still, one dilemma is unresolved: we need a mass base to win reforms but struggle to rally that base without giving people proof that politics can change their lives for the better.

They’ll do everything to stop us

Donald Trump’s early days in office were a good lesson in Marxist state theory. He brought with him a contradictory set of politics: a right-populist challenge to both NATO and the network of US-led free trade deals, on the one hand, and more traditional pro-business Republican pledges, on the other. The parts that got through, not surprisingly, were those that capital found more acceptable. Paul Ryan–backed tax cuts have been passed, but Trump’s more extreme protectionist plans have gotten stymied, and gone is Steve Bannon, along with his dreams of a massive jobs program built around deficit-financed infrastructure construction.

If these are the pressures that rabidly pro-capitalist Trump was under, we can only imagine the forces that could be brought to bear on a President Sanders in 2021. For one thing, he would have to contend with a vicious media offensive—each new policy or proposal would be systematically smeared, with eager help from corporate Democrats.

The example of Jeremy Corbyn’s first years as Labour leader might offer an instructive preview. By the end of his first term, Corbyn had faced smear attempts from both Conservative and establishment Labour voices, a move from inside his own party to purge many of his supporters from the voting rolls, and many other challenges. From claims of anti-Semitism and sexism, to criticism of his opposition to a second Brexit vote, the internal opposition to Corbyn has taken on a progressive guise to undermine his leadership.

More significant will be the role of capital strikes—businesses choosing to withhold investment until more “favorable conditions” prevail, black- mailing left-voting workers in the process. Some of these threats will be less dramatic than others. Labour parliamentarian Tony Benn highlighted the mundane coercion that came with power: do what we want, and we’ll make you look good; try pursuing your own agenda, and we’ll make your life impossible.

Our immediate demands are very much achievable

Social democracy’s dilemma is impossible to resolve: even when nominally anticapitalist, it is reliant on the continued profitability of private capitalist firms. Aspirations to usher in an alternative political economy haven’t been pursued since the interwar nationalization commissions. Similarly, attempts to imagine a more gradual socialization from the starting point of an existing welfare state have been dropped since the late 1970s neutering of the Meidner Plan in Sweden.

But that’s not to say that there isn’t space for us to win reforms in the here and now. Consider the United States, a country not even close to bumping up against the limits of social democracy. Medicare for All, or the decommodification of a sixth of the most important economy in the world, does not seem beyond reach. We can also guarantee access to nutritious food, safe and secure housing, free child care, and public education at all levels. Other demands should center around allowing people to freely organize unions and collectively bargain, helping to rebuild the political agency necessary to sustain and deepen reforms.

Luckily, the United States doesn’t have to contend with antidemocratic supranational organizations like the eurozone, and it has immense resources to work with. We ultimately have larger ambitions than “socialism in one country,” but if it’s possible anywhere, it’s possible here.

Cobbling together the legislative power to achieve these reforms will not be easy. But it is possible to achieve certain socialist goals within capitalism. As we’ve seen in the history of social democracy, any achievements will be vulnerable to crises and resisted at every step, but they are morally and politically necessary nonetheless.

The working class has changed over the past hundred fifty years—but not as much as we think

Socialists won’t be effective if we exist solely on college campuses or spend our time attacking one another on social media. For the last century and a half, the working class has been at the center of socialist politics for a reason. Marxists didn’t romanticize workers because they were oppressed, ripped from their land, and suffering in crowded factories and squalid slums. They paid attention to the working class because workers were more powerful than any other dominated group: capitalists depend on their labor for profits, and, when organized, workers can withhold that labor to win reforms.

Some things have changed since Marx published Capital a hundred fifty years ago, or even since powerful parties of the Left ruled from Kingston, Jamaica, to Stockholm, Sweden, in the 1960s and 1970s. There was a time when one could immediately identify a working-class neighborhood in a place like Turin, Italy. A few industries would have been the key source of employment for the area. People lived densely packed together, forced by capitalism into, if not solidarity, then at least commonality. True to this shared condition, workers voted in the main for parties of the broad Left. The job of the revolutionary was to convince workers committed to a politics of reform to embrace a politics of rupture.

Today you might find pockets of organized, class-conscious working- class people across the advanced capitalist world, but these are the exception, not the rule. The twenty-first-century working class is fragmented. William Morris wrote in 1885 that while workers are a class, socialists must convince them “they ought to be Society.” Now we have to convince them about the class part, too.

Though the working class has changed, the shifts are overstated by those who proclaim this to be the era of the “precariat.” There’s nothing new about workers suffering through precarious, low-wage employment. After all, Karl Kautsky confronted the question of working-class heterogeneity in the 1880s, the “golden age” of the industrial proletariat, as did Engels when he studied 1840s Manchester. Whatever semblance of security existed in the past was not due to the inherent nature of “pre-neoliberal” capitalism but the result of successful class struggle and organization. Auto workers, for example, weren’t inherently militant trade unionists. Up until the 1930s Renault and Ford and other big manufacturers were just as union hostile as Walmart is today.

While the percentage of workers employed in industrial manufacturing has declined in recent decades, the trend lines go back to the late nineteenth century. The workers still left in those sectors (who, in raw numbers, are actually more numerous than ever) can still exert significant economic power. However, to build a majoritarian coalition, socialists need to think more broadly.

Our conception of a working class today goes beyond formally employed workers to the labor and political agency found in households and neighborhoods. But the traditional workplace should still be central to our vision. That means putting special emphasis on workers in growing sectors, such as education and health care, as well as those working in supply and logistics. It also means developing connections between the unemployed and the employed and pursuing a broad practice of social justice unionism—union organizing that goes beyond typical workplace demands—capable of marshaling broader popular support for strikes and left-wing policy initiatives.

How many people are we talking about in all? In most developed societies around 60 percent of the population still has to rely on wages to survive and possesses little to no net wealth. Those working people are as different and divided as ever, yet they still have the potential to rattle the system and win real gains. We simply cannot have an emancipatory politics within capitalism that doesn’t revolve around the class whose labor makes the system run. Socialists need to arise from, try to create a political culture around, and organize within this class, not find substitutes for it.

It is not enough to work with unions for progressive change. We must wage democratic battles within them

Unions are important. They might not be revolutionary organizations, but they are labor’s primary vehicle in the battle with capital over the spoils of production. Today, despite organizing just 11 percent of the US workforce, unions are still the only institutions capable of exerting political pressure at the scale required to push back against national elites. Importantly, they also look less like the industrial workforce of the nineteenth century and more like the diverse working class of the twenty-first. Though their image in the popular mind hasn’t caught up, unions today disproportionately rep- resent black, Latino, and women workers.

Unions serve a purpose beyond collective bargaining: namely, that they can prompt workers to become more class-conscious and learn political skills. A nurse active in her union can become an educator and an organizer.

But unions can only be effective at fighting for member interests and developing these capacities if the rank and file are allowed to play an active role within them. Beyond obvious cases of corruption, US unions are often extremely hierarchical and bureaucratic. They’re dominated by full- time staff and salaried officials. Members are trained to see their unions as service organizations. Workers’ interactions with their unions are of- ten limited to automatic dues deductions and brief consultations over wage bargaining or political endorsements. They have little reason to go to a union meeting.

Union staff occupy an intermediary position between company management and regular workers. The stability they offer sometimes works to everyone’s benefit, but while workers can make progress through strikes, the labor bureaucracy usually prefers stability. An analogy could be drawn to the structure of political parties, in which the leadership often prefers caution to bold action.

Some degree of specialization is no doubt necessary, and ordinary workers don’t want to be subjected to endless meetings, but without avenues to membership participation and oversight, the gap between union “professionals” and the rank and file will continue to grow, and workers will feel less and less tied to their unions.

In short: we need to do more than defend existing unions from attacks from the Right. Our goal must be to transform them into vehicles of a more expansive, democratic unionism through facilitating membership engagement and creating structures that make leaderships more accountable. Yet we can’t just be content to democratize a dwindling movement—a key task today is also finding ways to organize in the twenty-first-century economy to restore union density.

Our politics must be universalist

Racism has existed for centuries, sexual oppression for even longer. Both were present at the beginning of the modern working class, and we shouldn’t count on interpersonal bigotry simply disappearing through socialist revolution, much less through socialist reforms.

The socialist record on oppression is uneven but still better than that of any other political tradition. Most of history’s Marxists have actually been people of color: one need only recall the proliferation of Marxist-led national liberation movements in the twentieth century to appreciate this fact. Socialists have also long been at the forefront of the struggle against women’s oppression and for sexual liberation. They’ve been animated by the idea that any struggle for justice needs to address basic questions about the distribution of power and resources.

However, since the broader defeat of class-based movements in the 1970s and ’80s, narrower, identity-based struggles to address injustice have filled the void. These movements have won some significant gains in the realm of culture and representation, improving millions of lives. (I’m glad I grew up in 1990s America, not the 1950s version.) But many of those advances have succeeded mainly in diversifying our elites, not in bettering the lives of the most oppressed. A world where half the Fortune 500 CEOs are women and fewer of them are white would be better than our world today, but still doesn’t mean much if there are just as many poor kids experiencing the same oppression they are now. Without the bedrock of a class politics, identity politics has become an agenda of inclusionary neoliberalism in which individual qualms can be addressed but structural inequalities cannot.

Of course, we still have a long way to go before we even equalize opportunity within the current neoliberal system. Socialists shouldn’t reject people’s experiences, but if we want to tackle oppression at its root, we need to ask questions about the redistribution of power and wealth—that is, questions rooted in class. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it in 1967, “We aren’t merely struggling to integrate a lunch counter now. We’re struggling to get some money to be able to buy a hamburger or a steak when we get to the counter.”

Socialists also need to argue against the idea that racism and sexism are innate and that people’s consciousness won’t change through struggle. Racism has taken on an almost metaphysical role in liberal politics—it is somehow the cause of, explanation for, and consequence of most social phenomena. The reality is people can overcome their prejudices in the pro- cess of mass struggle over shared interests, but that requires getting people involved in those common struggles to begin with.

Socialists don’t reject fights against oppression but instead try to bring them into a broader workers’ movement. We should strive for the elimination of bigotry, chauvinism, and any form of prejudice within our organizations. That means taking equality seriously, not as a goal for the distant future but as a practice in the here and now. But it also entails avoiding a narrow “call-out culture” along with the kind of identity politics that, taken to its extreme, will lead us down the path to a hyper-individualized and anti-solidaristic politics. Hyperbole and the politics of personal shaming are a recipe for demoralization, paranoia, and defeat.

The socialist premise is clear: 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.

History matters

If nothing else, that’s what this book has aimed to show. While the excitement around socialism today feels new and fresh to many people outside the movement (and many within it, too), we have little hope of realizing our aims if we don’t learn from those who marched and organized and dreamed before us.

The lessons and analysis that socialists offer—along with the Marxist framework—are vital for plotting a way out of today’s extreme inequality and into a just society. It’s also vital that we have a tradition that people can refer to. In this era of atomization and alienation, that tradition can provide us with a sense of our place in history and a meaning to our work. That’s not to say that a popular class movement for redistributive policies needs to be explicitly socialist to win reforms, but socialists are needed within such a movement to provide vision and push things forward.

Naturally, there are also lessons from the Communist movements’ time in power: the difficulties of central planning, the importance of civil rights and freedoms, what happens when socialism is transformed from a democratic movement from below into an authoritarian collectivism. But pluralism and democracy are ingrained not only in civil societies in the advanced capitalist world but within the socialist movement itself. What seems most relevant are the lessons of social democracy, namely that the antidemocratic power of capital will overwhelm democratically backed pro- worker reforms.

But what about the end goal of socialism—extending democracy rad- ically into our communities and workplaces, ending the exploitation of humans by other humans? Fundamentally, political strategy for the Left has to put these more radical questions, one by one, on the table, all the while struggling to stay mobilized. And while we defend newly won gains, we must fight to avoid the crippling bureaucratization that pushed the great social-democratic movements of the early twentieth century into a self- defeating accommodation with the system. It won’t be easy, but we still have a world to win.

– the above is an edited excerpt from Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist Manifesto: 50% off until May 3 as part of our May Day sale. See all our May Day reading here.

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