Review: The Socialist Manifesto

I started this book with some eagerness, expecting to like it, because I’m fond of much of the analysis at Jacobin. The general flavor of the socialist model they promote fits well into the category of libertarian socialism — autonomism, postcapitalism, etc. — that I have an affinity for. And I did like a lot of it. But I plodded through a great deal of material mixed in with the good stuff that could have been safely left out, or at least abridged.  

In the first chapter Sunkara begins with fictional scenarios illustrating life for workers under three economic models:  existing capitalism, social democracy and a hypothetical future socialist society. The rest of the book is divided into a series of chapters on the history of socialist movement, followed by a section on his proposals for the contemporary socialist movement under today’s conditions.

The capitalist and social democratic scenarios in the first part are among the material that should probably have been abridged to a few paragraphs each. The historical section covers essentially the same ground as the analogous part of Michael Harrington’s Socialism: the achievements and failures of Marxism-Leninism, Social Democracy and Third World socialism, and the lessons we can learn from their examples. This history should have been summarized a lot more briefly, and Sunkara should have come down more forcefully on the lessons.

All that being said, the parts I did like were very good indeed, and well worth the price of the book. I like much, if not most, of his general approach — at least so far as it goes. Like the other strands of socialism and anarchism I find most appealing, he is fairly dismissive of the trite debate between advocates of “reform” and “revolution”; instead, he calls for “a radicalism that is aware of the difficulty of revolutionary change and, at the same time, of how profound the gains of reform can be.”

The kind of democratic socialism he advocates, exemplified by a fictional socialist society in the United States in the 2030s, is — along with the scenario by which it comes about — quite engrossing. It’s a sort of amalgam of Oskar Lange, Guy Alperovitz, Elinor Ostrom, Argentine horizontalism, and Basic Income. It is, hence, a departure both from the Stalinist model of state ownership and central planning, and from the model of Social Democratic nationalization pursued by Atlee and Morrison in which state industry continued to be managed by corporate managerial hierarchies responsible to the government as absentee owner, rather than placed under worker self-management or stakeholder cooperative governance.

Shuttered businesses, businesses employing more than fifty workers, and businesses occupied by their workers are all nationalized and placed under worker self-management; workers pay a tax on land and capital assets, “effectively renting it from society as a whole.” The capital tax goes to a national investment fund (some of which goes to national infrastructure projects and some of which is distributed to regional investment banks to back startups), and workers’ individual income taxes go to support social services (including a liveable Basic Income). The wage labor market is abolished, and worker-owners are paid out of their share of firm revenues. As labor-saving technology is introduced, firms shorten their work weeks. Firms continue to compete and go out of business, but because of Basic Income it’s no longer a terrifying prospect for workers, and because increased productivity translates into shorter hours automation is popular.

Returning to Sunkara’s complementary understanding of “reform” and “revolution,” his approach is reminiscent of the “non-reformist reforms” of Gorz. The path to postcapitalism, he argues, does not go around reform and social democracy, but through it. Social democratic “reforms” are to be embraced, not as a distraction or substitute for replacing capitalism, but rather in the spirit of taking advantage of the openings that are currently available to us — and then taking advantage of the changed balance of power as a base for launching new attacks. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Today there is much talk of “democratic socialism,” and indeed I see that term as synonymous with “socialism.” What separates social democracy from democratic socialism isn’t just whether one believes there’s a place for capitalist private property in a just society, but how one goes about fighting for reforms. The best social democrats today might want to fight for macroeconomic policies from above to help workers. But while not rejecting all forms of technocratic expertise, the democratic socialist knows that it will take mass struggle from below and messy disruptions to bring about a more durable and radical sort of change.

* * *

Michael Harrington used to say that radicals had to “walk a perilous tightrope.” We had to “be true to the socialist vision of a new society” and also “bring that vision into contact with the actual movements fighting not to transform the system, but to gain some little increment of dignity or even just a piece of bread.” At various moments, American socialists have either isolated ourselves in sectarian irrelevance or subsumed our identities within the Democratic Party and the broader nexus of liberalism in pursuit of relevance. Finally walking that tightrope would mean creating an electoral strategy that can represent the distinct interests of working people, but without demanding that voters start immediately supporting unviable third-party candidacies. Similarly, we need to grow and radically democratize the labor movement, but without asking workers to take a leap of faith and support fledgling “red unions.”

Despite the election of Trump and like-minded ethnonationalists abroad, and the empowerment of the most reactionary forces, Sunkara’s general perspective is one of optimism. Out of the 2008 crash came a revived socialist movement, as exemplified by horizontalist movements like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the 2018 mass teacher strikes, and left-ish insurgencies against existing party establishments like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

The question now is whether, with a vicious ruling class trying everything it can to widen the divide between the haves and the have nots, we can create a more durable socialist politics in America. The popularity of the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and the inspiring activism of the last several years make even this pessimist think the answer is yes.

Nevertheless, Sunkara acknowledges the practical difficulty entailed in following a trail of reformist breadcrumbs towards an ultimately revolutionary systemic transition without wandering off our path.

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.

“Winning an election,” as he puts it, “is not the same thing as winning power.” Sunkara’s proposal for achieving this resembles the division of labor Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt advocate, in Declaration, between horizontalist social movements and left-wing electoral politics. Negri and Hardt had in mind primarily the relationship between movements and parties in Latin America, but the relationship between Syntagma and Syriza in Greece could easily be read as an example of the same phenomenon. In both Greece and Venezuela this relationship went wrong. The Syriza government and the Chavez/Maduro government, respectively, both sucked energy from the grassroots efforts of the Syntagma and Bolivarian movements on the ground and coopted them to the point that the failure of one was the failure of the other.

For example in Greece, Theodoros Karyotis writes: 

Throughout the years of resistance to the neoliberal assault, two conceptions of politics played out within the social movements: on the one hand, politics as “the art of the possible,” related to the growing influence of SYRIZA in social struggles; on the other hand, politics as an exercise of radical imagination and experimentation, put forward by the commons-based alternatives.

Since 2010, the severe crisis of legitimation of the political system and its satellites — parties, trade unions, and so on — brought forward new political subjects and innovative projects that aimed to challenge the state and the capitalist market as the dominant organizing principles of social life, to propose new avenues towards social and economic wellbeing. Movements based on equality, solidarity, self-management and participation, which proposed innovative models of collective use and management of the commons.

Even when they do not explicitly state so, these movements are deeply anti-capitalist, as they aim to cut off the lifeline of European capitalism by weakening the market’s grip on society (through workplace occupations, solidarity economies, barter networks, food sovereignty, and the like) or by resisting attempts to commodify the natural commons (through movements against mining and water privatization, for instance).

Despite the admirable efforts of innumerable people across the country, these new commons-based movements failed to produce a political expression — and by political we should not necessarily understand electoral, but rather a unifying force to gather the disparate experiments in social creativity and bring them together into a coherent proposal of wholesale social change. SYRIZA took advantage of this shortcoming in the movements, allowing it to ride the wave of social mobilization in Greece and construct a solid hegemony within many social struggles in the past five years.

This hegemony, however, came at a great cost for the movements. By its nature, SYRIZA is much more understanding of the type of struggles that envision a stronger state as the mediator of social antagonisms. This has resulted in the curtailing of demands that did not fit into a coherent program of state management — including most projects that revolve around popular self-management of the commons.

In Venezuela, similarly, Steve Rushton argues that, far from the grass-roots institutions being a creature of the Bolivarian state, the truth was just the opposite. It was “bottom-up communalism” that brought Hugo Chavez to power.

The Venezuelan revolution has two poles: an authoritarian, bureaucratic cronyism fighting against a bottom-up leftism. But it was the latter that lifted Chavez into power in 1998 after years of struggles in the barrios.

“Not only did the state not create the communes,” George Ciccariello-Maher writes, “but the majority of the state apparatus is openly hostile to communal power.”

This is especially true of local elected officials — Chavistas very much included — who positively loathe these expressions of grassroots democracy that cut into their territory and resources and threaten their legitimacy as leaders. Thus while many local leaders wear Chavista red while mouthing the words of popular participation and revolution, in practice they routinely attack, undermine and obstruct the most participatory and revolutionary spaces in Venezuelan society today.

Sunkara proposes, specifically, a division of labor in which the social movements continue to pressure the radical parties in power from outside.

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.

* * *

The question is, How do we make sure that any left government can actually stick around long enough to win some victories (and not just immediately retreat like Greece’s Syriza did)? In particular, how do we win the “nonreformist reforms” that not only benefit workers in the short term but can empower them to win the battles that enacting them will provoke?

All of this I mostly agree with, so far as it goes. The problem is, it doesn’t go far enough. Beyond his proposal for maintaining the pressure on radical parties in power to deliver on their promises, I would argue, they need to maintain a sufficient distance between themselves and the parties in power such that they can 1) play “bad cop” to the leftist political regime’s “good cop” in their common dealings with capital, and 2) give the radical government plausible deniability in disavowing any control over the social movement’s actions in defiance of global capital and even in violation of the elected radical government’s agreements with global capital.

And more importantly, while I acknowledge the importance both of social movements pressuring the state from outside and of radical electoral politics to create a benign or positive environment for constructing a post-capitalist society,  I would downgrade them from the significance Sunkara attaches to them and place far greater emphasis on direct efforts at actually building the institutions of post-capitalist society “within the shell of the old” one. Political efforts of all kind must be secondary, and auxiliary, to what Erik Olin Wright called the interstitial approach (see Chapter 10). 

The primary function of the political efforts is either to run interference for building prefigurative counter-institutions, or — I repeat — to create comparatively benign background conditions for doing so. In a best case scenario, a leftish regime adopting policies like Universal Basic Income, funding approaches like those recommended by Modern Monetary Theory or public banking advocates rather than by taxation or sale of interest-bearing debt, initiating a radical rollback or repeal of copyright and patent protections, drug/sex work decriminalization, and prison abolition-reform, etc., would be a considerable improvement over the present in terms of coerciveness.

Pressure and obstruction by mass social movements can raise the operating costs of capital, exacerbate capitalism’s crisis tendencies, and hasten the shift in the correlation of forces between the corporate economy the commons-based counter-economy. Such efforts might include, among many other things, 

  • raising the costs of fossil fuel extraction by direct action against pipeline construction, sabotage, divestment campaigns, regulatory and legal obstruction, etc.; 
  • radical unions engaging in community campaigns, direct action tactics like open-mouth sabotage and slowdowns or sickouts (e.g. the threatened flight attendant union action against Trump), attacking global just-in-time supply and distribution chains’ vulnerability to disruption (the BDS movement’s attack on Israeli merchant shipping is a good example of what could be done to, say, Amazon’s distribution nodes);
  • debt strikes, including in coordination with mass defaults on national debts in the developing world;
  • a resumption of the kind of large-scale doxxing attacks that destroyed entire corporations in the heyday of LulzSec.;
  • etc. 

But all of these things are just ways of creating space for, or accelerating, the primary task of actually building the new society. The primary focus should be on things like community land trusts, cohousing projects and other social units for pooling incomes and costs, community gardens, guerrilla micromanufacturing and repair shops, DIY bio labs producing cheap pirated drugs, Internet meshworks, alternative currencies, and planting a thousand and one other seeds that will grow into the kind of commons-based counter-economy Massimo De Angelis wrote about in Omnia Sunt Communia

I should note that there’s a sort of halfway position between political efforts and institution-building efforts, occupied by things like the post-M15 municipalist movements in Barcelona and Madrid, similar efforts elsewhere in Europe and around the world at building commons-based local economies (for which LabGov is an excellent source of information), and projects like Cleveland’s Evergreen Initiative and Cooperation Jackson. To the extent that governments can be pushed to navigate the post-state and post-capitalist transition to become support platforms for civil society on the Partner State model — to “wither away,” replace legislative authority over human beings with the “administration of things,” pick your cliche — the municipal level is where such a project is most plausible.

The lack of focus at all these real efforts at direct construction of a democratic, non-capitalist society is the biggest shortcoming of The Socialist Manifesto. This is particularly disappointing, given the number of writers at Jacobin who have explicitly envisioned the post-capitalist transition as a prolonged and in large part interstitial process.

Despite all these caveats and criticisms, my take on this book is positive on the whole. In a stroke of serendipity, at about the same time I began reading it I also found an amazing article in The Guardian about a “new left economics” that was abandoning the traditional Left’s focus on bureaucratic state power for a new democratic paradigm focused, as the New Economics Foundation’s Christine Berry described it, on questions like “Who owns these resources? Who has power in this company?” The new paradigm also focuses, according to Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill of the Democracy Collaborative, on allowing communities to shape their local economies.

The Socialist Manifesto fits in well to the growing body of literature associated with this new paradigm. I recommend it!

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory