A fundamental shift in consciousness has taken place over the last three years. For many young people and workers, the question of how we can achieve socialism—rather than simply whether or not it is even viable—dominates discussions about the topic. This is reflected by the massive increase in readership of socialist publications, notably Jacobin magazine, which enjoys widespread readership in circles such as the DSA and beyond.
Jacobin founder and editor, Bhaskar Sunkara, has recently published a book, The Socialist Manifesto. In it, he traces the history of the socialist movement and offers his perspectives on the way forward for socialists today. As he does in the pages of Jacobin, Sunkara proposes an openly reformist perspective on how to achieve socialism.
While understanding that the struggle between reformist and revolutionary socialism is a matter of life and death for tens of millions of people, Marxists seek a friendly dialogue with the ideas expressed in this book. We welcome Sunkara’s contribution to this discussion, insofar as it provides an opportunity to clarify our perspectives on a number of essential topics.
Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin and John Peterson, editor of Socialist Revolution, held a panel discussion on the future of socialism in the US. Watch the video below:
The book is divided into two parts. After a preface in which he describes a hypothetical “day in the life” of a socialist citizen, Sunkara opens Part I by examining the history of socialism. In Part II, he lays out his vision for the revival of socialist politics today. While the book is peppered with inaccuracies and false conflations, we will deal here with the most important political differences, highlighting the contradiction between reformism and revolution.
Part I begins with an overview of the lives of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and the founding of what we now call Marxism. While Marxism is portrayed in the book as a purely political theory, it is, in its essence, a philosophical worldview with broad relevance to all fields of human thinking and endeavor. Building off the works of previous philosophers, and further stimulated by the sharp class conflict of his time, Marx synthesized a method of analysis known as dialectical materialism. Materialism posits that ideas do not exist independently of material reality, and dialectical logic provides a framework to understand how change incessantly occurs. The political considerations, important as they are, flow from this method. As Marx put it, if man is formed by circumstances, then we must humanize the circumstances.
Unfortunately, although the words “dialectical” and “materialism” are each mentioned a couple of times throughout the book, there is no explanation of what dialectical materialism actually is. Sunkara correctly states that “what Marx left us wasn’t scripture but a method of looking at the world.” But what exactly is the method? It is never directly explained, though it is implied throughout the book that Marxism is simply the belief in “radical democracy” and “that the majority [has] an interest in its own self-emancipation.”
In reality, Marxism, or dialectical materialism, is a method that allows us to see the contradictions and invisible processes that lead to explosive change and rupture. While Marxists certainly advocate for a radically democratic society and believe that the working-class majority has an interest in its self-emancipation, our perspectives, actions, and optimism are guided first and foremost by the method of dialectical materialism. Anyone who wishes to transform society must first understand: how is consciousness formed? How and why does it change? What is the relationship between objective, material processes, and human consciousness? With a meticulous and scientific approach to these questions, we can work out how to utilize our time and resources most effectively in order to change society.
Failing to understand that Marxism is above all a philosophical method, Sunkara writes that, upon meeting Engels, Marx “shifted his attention away from philosophy and toward political economy.” Like many academic books “about” Marxism, Sunkara divorces Marx’s economic writings from the philosophical and historical method that underpins them, which results in a one-sided, and therefore, false understanding of what Marxism is and isn’t.
The legacy of Stalinism is something Marxists must understand, both to explain the history of the 20th century and to appreciate the application of Marxism to complex and unprecedented situations. Sunkara spends a chapter on this question, and among other things he gets right, he acknowledges the vibrant internal democracy of the Bolshevik Party,
To understand the Russian Revolution, it is necessary to refer to Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution. Understanding that capitalism could not play a progressive role in Russia as it had previously in other countries, Trotsky argued that it was possible, and perhaps, under certain circumstances, necessary for the Russian working class to seize power before the European workers achieved this strategic aim. The Russian workers’ state could then consolidate itself and use the nationalized economy to develop the economy in a way that parasitic capitalism couldn’t, while actively supporting the success of socialist revolutions in Europe and internationally, without which building socialism in Russia would be impossible.
Sunkara partially explains this perspective of the Bolsheviks, but then goes on to say: “The dramas of 1917 saw Trotsky’s vision vindicated, with one key exception: the international revolution didn’t come.”
Once again, this is a one-sided presentation of the facts, and critical questions are left unanswered, starting with: what is a revolution? From a Marxist perspective, revolutions are not as uncommon as most people would think. Revolutions occur when the masses forcibly enter the scene of history to take their destiny into their own hands. From France in 1968 to Greece in 2015, and Sudan in 2019, there have been many opportunities for the working class to take power. What made the Russian Revolution successful was the presence of the Bolshevik Party, a network of disciplined Marxists that was able to guide the enormous energy of the masses to the winning of state power, rather than let it dissipate, as has been the tragic case in so many other revolutions.
Eight pages before asserting that the international revolution “didn’t come,” Sunkara writes:
When a radical surge took place—as when sailors revolted in Wilhelmshaven and Kiel in 1918 or when soviets emerged throughout Germany… [Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht] (the leading German Marxists, who unfortunately had not built an organized revolutionary tendency within German Social Democracy—B.G.) never were able to shape developments as ably as their Bolshevik counterparts in Russia.
Sunkara fails to highlight the fact that Luxemburg and Liebknecht didn’t have time to build such a leadership because they were murdered in cold blood by a government headed by none other than reformist socialists. But he does appear to recognize that “radical surges” occur organically, and that a Bolshevik-type organization is needed to “ably shape developments” in a revolutionary direction.
So did the international revolution come after 1917? From the perspective of Marxism, yes. The revolutionary situations in Germany, Italy, Finland, Hungary, and China in the period immediately following the Russian Revolution could have very well led to the creation of new workers’ states—had there been Marxist organizations along the lines of the Bolsheviks, embedded in the working class and willing to overcome all obstacles in the fight for political and economic power. The international revolution came, but the Marxists in those countries were not prepared to lead it to victory.
The consistent and logical conclusion to draw from the experience of both the Russian Revolution and the failed revolutions that followed it is the need to build a revolutionary party ahead of time. However, while in the instance of Kiel in 1918, Sunkara sees the necessity of a revolutionary party, he fails to apply that lesson consistently, leading to a misunderstanding as to why the international revolution “didn’t come.” Furthermore, false conclusions are drawn as to what socialists should be doing today.
This also leads to Sunkara’s inability to explain the reason behind the emergence of Stalinism. Marxists explain that the failure of the post-1917 revolutions—or rather, the betrayal of those revolutions by reformism and Stalinism—led to the isolation of the underdeveloped Soviet Union and its subsequent bureaucratic degeneration. The rise of Stalinism found its material basis in the scarcity and backwardness of the country. As Trotsky explained:
When there are enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there are few goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy.
Lacking a materialist analysis, Sunkara points to things such as Lenin’s alleged “failure” to see the necessity of “democratic reform”; Trotsky’s supposed overconfidence in “the dialectic of history”; and the Bolsheviks’ apparent “misplaced hopes for world revolution” as the reasons for the crystallization of the bureaucracy. He then glibly asserts that “with hindsight, we can see that both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks were wrong in 1917”—which is no explanation whatsoever.
The result is that the book offers little more in the way of explaining the events of the 20th century than a standard liberal history textbook. Throughout the rest of the book, when referring to the Soviet Union and other deformed workers’ states, Sunkara leans on abstractions about “socialism from above,” and at one point even credits Marxism’s “teleological streak” for the crimes of Stalinism and Maoism.
The history of the socialist movement is a history of the conflict between the reformists, who limit the scope of their vision to the gradual implementation of “improvements” under capitalism, and the revolutionaries, who fight for the complete socialist transformation of society. While acknowledging in words the necessity of a break with capitalism, Sunkara puts forth a gradualist, reform-oriented perspective throughout his book. This offers an opportunity to clarify the Marxist approach to reforms and reformism, which remains as relevant today as it was 100 years ago.
The fundamental lesson of reformism is that the election of reformist socialist leaders always leads to the betrayal of the working class and a capitulation to capitalism. This is not for abstract, moral, or personal reasons, but is due to the immense pressures placed on any socialist attempting to administer a capitalist state. Without clearly understanding that a total rupture with capitalism is necessary and that the working class must hold political and economic power, even the most sincere reformist leadership will capitulate.
As Sunkara correctly observes throughout his book, the experience of reformist socialists in power reveals a pattern—with no exceptions—of individuals and parties refusing to press on when the limitations of capitalism collide with the task of implementing a socialist program. This was the case with the German SPD in the 1920s, the British Labour Party in 1929, the French section of the Workers’ International in the 1930s, the Swedish Social Democracy in the 1970s, and many others.
However, instead of drawing revolutionary conclusions, Sunkara seeks a mythical “third way” and conceives of himself as being “neither a Social Democrat nor a revolutionary.” For him, we must move completely beyond capitalism, but in doing so, we must not break the sacred pillars of bourgeois legality. How one is to move beyond capitalism without eliminating its legal-property basis is anyone’s guess. Apparently, if attempts at a reformist transition to socialism failed in the past, it was only circumstantial, and there is nothing inherently preventing a nice, gradual reform of the bourgeois state into a socialist one. The opening section of the book, in which he imagines a transition to socialism in the United States through “congressional legislation,” gives us a glimpse at how he believes such a transformation could pan out.
Sunkara is still faced with the historical pattern of betrayal, which he himself acknowledges. He asks: “How do we make sure that any left governments can actually stick around long enough to win some victories (and not just immediately retreat like Greece’s Syriza did)?” He answers himself:
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 their 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.
However, history shows again and again that in all the missed revolutionary situations of the past, there has been no shortage of “mass mobilizations” aiming to “ensure confrontation over accommodation.” But this is not enough. Capitalism must be overturned altogether, not merely pressured, and a revolutionary leadership willing to do this is necessary. Evidently, Sunkara believes that the masses have historically “disappointed” their leaders by not mobilizing. In reality, history shows that the very opposite is true, that even in the most ideal revolutionary situations, it is the reformists who refuse to mobilize the masses, preferring to capitulate when the situation does not fit their idealized perspective of a gradual, legislative transition to socialism.
For Marxists, there is only one way forward. While understanding that the rise of reformist leaders is an inevitable stage of any revolutionary process, and while maintaining a skillful approach to winning over workers and youth with genuine illusions in reformism, Marxists work to build an organized revolutionary leadership that can win the confidence of the working class and put forward the perspective of decisively breaking with capitalism when the opportunity arises.
The renewed interest in socialism has led to a vigorous debate about socialist tactics and socialist history. As Sunkara writes, “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.”
We very much agree. But unfortunately, The Socialist Manifesto does not offer a chance to really learn from our traditions. In the 240 pages of the book, Sunkara touches on many periods in socialist history but ultimately does so from an eclectic, liberal point of view. Yes, we must study the events of the past—but what is most important is that we draw the correct lessons from them.
One of the primary advantages enjoyed by today’s socialists is the sheer volume of history and theory from which we can draw. In the century and a half since The Communist Manifesto was first published, the world working class has accumulated an immense amount of experience in the struggle to overthrow capitalism. The pressing task confronting socialists is to synthesize that experience, draw general conclusions, and act on them. Above all, this means building an international network of committed and disciplined Marxists who have studied and absorbed these lessons and who are ready to break with capitalism once and for all. This is something Sunkara and Jacobin fail to understand—and this is their Achilles’ heel.