A spectre is haunting literary life in Britain and the United States: the spectre of books about socialism. The Socialist Manifesto, by Bhaskar Sunkara, the American founder of the popular Left-wing magazine Jacobin, is the latest of these tomes decrying capitalism.
Buoyed by the rise of Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Sunkara argues that socialism is on the march again because the prevailing economic conditions demand it. “What I am certain about is that we live in a world marked by extreme inequality, by unnecessary pain and suffering, and that a better one can be constructed,” Sunkara writes.
And he is perhaps right to be optimistic. More than four in ten Americans now believe that socialism would be good for the United States, while a 2016 YouGov poll found that British people were more likely to view socialism favourably than capitalism.
The book argues that mainstream social democracy, in trying to tame capitalism, has failed and that more radical measures are required. Citing the example of Sweden, Sunkara argues that the victories won by reformist social democracy have nearly always been pyrrhic and short term; social democracy’s achievements have eventually been swept away by capitalist structural power.
The Socialist Manifesto is not really a manifesto at all, but rather a critique of the existing order and a potted history of the socialist movement. In this it is like many contemporary Left-wing books. However, unlike those books, this one is well-written, often intelligent as well as accessible to a wider audience that socialists ought to be speaking to.
Yet the book has its weaknesses. To start with, what does it mean to be a socialist in 2019? Even socialists themselves do not know. Instead they prefer vagaries and platitudes. “To be a socialist today is to believe that more, not less, democracy will help solve social ills – and to believe that ordinary people can shape the systems that shape their lives,” Sunkara writes.
This is fine as far as it goes, but what does it actually entail?
Sunkara implies that socialism means centralised economic planning. He proceeds to make a tentative case for planning on the basis that Asda/Walmart use something similar, which apparently shows that it can work.
Sunkara also equates socialism with workers’ democratic control. However there is a contradiction here that Sunkara spends no time fleshing out. Central planning is inimical to the lofty aim of workplace democracy and the prospect, as Sunkara puts it, of “more, not less democracy”. You cannot have a central plan unless organisations and workers adhere to it. Thus you cannot advocate central planning on the one hand and workplace democracy on the other. As soon as workers rebel against the state’s central plan their democratic rights are stripped from them. This is precisely what has happened during tentative experiments in workers’ democracy in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere.
Moreover, if we are to build a more democratic society, a goal I’m sure many have sympathy with, it is surely important to thoroughly purge the socialist movement of those who are nostalgic for the failed Stalinist experiments of the past. Sunkara lionises Corbyn and Corbynism in his book but makes no mention of the fact that many of Corbyn’s closest allies and advisors are unreconstructed nostalgists for the USSR. He similarly dismisses all criticism of antisemitism in the Corbyn movement as a smear and an attempt to “undermine his [Corbyn’s] leadership”.
Sunkara resents the fact that socialism is associated with gulags and terror by its opponents. What does he expect when so many of its adherents remain apologists for such things? Sunkara himself slips into this type of apologism at times. He ludicrously writes that Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the Cheka who presided over the arbitrary killings of tens of thousands in the USSR during the Red Terror, “anguished over every execution order he signed”.
Sunkara similarly gushes over the Cuban revolution and its “achievements”. He writes nothing of the 15,000 political prisoners Fidel Castro held at one point, nor the thousands of summary executions, the labour camps for homosexuals, nor the fact that Cuban doctors, who serve “millions abroad” as Sunkara puts it, are indentured and have their passports taken away from them.
Another elephant in the room is Venezuela. Less than a decade ago socialists were enthusiastically citing socialism in Venezuela as evidence that “another world is possible”. Today the country has been wiped from their collective memory like an out of favour Bolshevik being scrubbed from an official Soviet photograph. The resulting economic disaster has produced the largest refugee crisis in Latin American history. Yet Sunkara – who professes to care a great deal about humanity – deems the oppressed of that country unworthy of a single mention in a 243-page book about socialism.
Sunkara rightly takes aim in the book at the narcissism of identity politics, which equates victimhood with wisdom. In a neat irony, it was philosopher Bertrand Russell who coined the most fitting term for contemporary identity politics – “the fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed” – and who also wrote one of the earliest and best critiques of the Russian Revolution, which Sunkara misleadingly calls a “genuine popular revolution led by industrial workers”.
Moreover, Sunkara is right to reassert the importance of class: equality is not an ethnically diverse and gender-equal corporate boardroom where executives are paid a hundred times more than those who languish on the shop floor. Rosy corporate uplift about ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ are worthless if workers of all colours, genders and sexualities are afraid to take a toilet break.
But Marxian socialism easily slips into totalitarianism because changing the economic structure of society does not fundamentally change how people behave. Marx was wrong when he wrote in The Communist Manifesto that the “history of all hitherto existing society is a history of class conflict”. The drive for status, power and ego have provoked just as many wars as class interest. Even if one were able to abolish class categories altogether other inequalities would soon arise. When everyone has a house, the struggle begins over who has a house on the coast with a panoramic sea view.
Moreover, while citizens create vastly unequal lives for themselves in free societies, it is not merely because they possess differing amounts of wealth (though that obviously helps). Some work harder and are more ambitious than others.
Conflict and unfairness come in many guises, which is why the state never does “wither away” – as Marx claimed it would – under communism. Instead it grows ever larger while jettisoning the separation of powers which protect citizens in liberal societies from arbitrary force.
The drive to “democratise every aspect of life” – a phrase beloved by democratic socialists – is also less desirable than it sounds. A mob should not decide the flavour of opinions a person can read in a newspaper. The majority should not decide what people get up to in their private lives behind closed doors. And nor, arguably, should it decide who a person may enter into economic relations with. The free marketeer deludes himself when he says that workers freely sell their labour under no compulsion. However the socialist makes an equally ludicrous claim when he says that all wage labour is “an unacceptable form of exploitation”.
Social democracy understands this, which is why it limits itself to harnessing capitalism for the greater good rather than seeking to remake the world.
Sunkara approvingly cites Rosa Luxemburg, who likened social democratic reformism to the futility of Sisyphus attempting to roll his boulder up a mountain – only for it to roll back down again. Yet there can be no escape from this existential dilemma, as the philosopher Albert Camus recognised.
Some social democratic victories may prove short-lived. Yet this is not evidence of the futility of the project, but rather is an inherent feature of a free society: you win some battles and you lose some battles, and on the argument goes. The idea of an “end goal of socialism”, as Sunkara phrases it, is a dangerous illusion. It assumes there can be a final escape from conflict and uncertainty into a sort of beehive society where all tensions and ambiguities have been abolished. Yet a society with only a single viewpoint is implicitly totalitarian, even if the sought-after ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is that of a majority oppressing a minority.
The desire on the part of increasing numbers of young people to re-run the socialist experiment has several likely causes. One is, as Sunkara notes, economic insecurity. “Some thrive by depriving others of freedom, billions needlessly suffer amid plenty, and we move ever closer to ecological catastrophe,” he writes.
Another is lack of historical memory: many of those who today sport Che Guevara T-shirts were not even born when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Yet the re-emergence of socialism is also probably steeped in religious longing. “Christians knew that Christ would come again in his glory to judge the living and the dead. [Socialists] knew that every moment drew them closer to salvation on earth,” writes Sunkara about the early socialist movement.
Many people, it seems, cannot live without the belief that history – and by extension their own life – has some wider purpose or meaning. Oscar Wilde once complained that socialism took up too many evenings. Yet for many contemporary followers of socialism this appears to be part of the allure. Just as traditional religion provides a sense of solace and belonging for some, socialism gives others a reason to get up in the morning.
I have no problem with such delusions – provided I am left out of them. Yet when I read books such as this one, with their pious exhortations to change the world, I am reminded of the futility of such hopes. You may not be interested in the cause, but it is interested in you. This is why the return of socialism – or communism if we are to give it its proper name – does not fill me with joy as it does for Sunkara and others like him