Last year, a poll by the research company Gallup revealed that 51 per cent of millennials in America had a “positive” view of socialism, while less than half—45 per cent, to be exact—viewed capitalism favourably. A slew of additional data suggests that American voters at large are ready to embrace far-reaching political change.
70 per cent support universal healthcare. 60 per cent back free college tuition. 46 per cent think the government should offer a job to unemployed citizens. And a majority want the minimum wage to be raised to at least $15 per hour.
In his concise and intelligent new book, The Socialist Manifesto: The Case For Radical Politics In An Era Of Extreme Inequality, the Brooklyn-based journalist Bhaskar Sunkara explains why he believes socialism is back—on both sides of the Atlantic.
“In the United States, hourly wages have grown a paltry 0.2 per cent since 1979,” he writes. “[In Britain] wages fell by about 10 per cent between 2007 and 2014, even as economic productivity grew by the same amount … You might think a socialist movement would be inevitable in times like these. You’d be right.”
Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine—a hugely successful socialist journal that has, in the space of just nine years, amassed nearly 40,000 print subscribers, a million monthly online readers, and revenue of $1.1m.
Since its launch in the summer of 2010, when Sunkara was a 21-year old undergraduate student in Washington DC, the publication has played a major role in the ongoing revival of the American left—a process massively accelerated by Bernie Sanders’ insurgent bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
Unsurprisingly, Sunkara is a big fan of Sanders and credits his leadership with having introduced the “language of class struggle and redistribution” to a new generation of Americans. He is equally enthusiastic about Jeremy Corbyn.
“Labour is now the only traditional centre-left party in the world drafting plans to expand the co-operative sector [and] create community-owned enterprises,” he writes. “These strategies aren’t in themselves radical, but they are necessary prerequisites for any deeper socialist transformation.”
Sunkara doesn’t detail how this transformation will come about, nor precisely what society will look like once it’s complete. To that extent, The Socialist Manifesto isn’t really a manifesto—it’s a broad historical analysis framed by a clear overarching argument. But that doesn’t make it any less useful or interesting.
Sunkara’s hypothesis—that the left needs to confront its legacy of failure in the 20th century if it’s going to secure lasting advances in the 21st—is persuasive.
He tours the ruins of socialist history, examining the brutal factional disputes that developed within the German SPD in the run-up to World War One, the collapse of the Bolshevik experiment in Russia, and the emergence of various, nominally Marxist, anti-colonial movements in the global south.
Perhaps the most relevant and compelling chapter explores Sweden’s experience of social democracy under its pioneering prime minister Olaf Palme.
Between 1969 and 1976, Palme enacted a series of reforms aimed at strengthening the Swedish social security system and amplifying the power of organised labour. Drawing on the theories of influential socialist economist Rudolf Meidner, he also advocated a ground-breaking policy of profit sharing that would enable workers to take control of up to a fifth of their company’s annual earnings.
Over time, this idea would’ve fundamentally transformed the structure of Sweden’s economy by transferring huge chunks of wealth directly from bosses to employees. But it was bitterly opposed by the country’s domestic business elites, who, in an effort to block its implementation, began resisting even the most modest demands for wage increases.
In the mid-1970s, when economic growth started to stall and unemployment and inflation rise, Palme’s popularity flatlined and he was eventually defeated at the polls, marking the end of Sweden’s incremental shift towards a decentralised model of workplace socialism.
According to Sunkara, Palme’s defenestration—which would be mirrored a few years later by that of French Socialist President Francois Mitterand—illustrates a pivotal lesson for the left: namely, that gradualism doesn’t work and that capital will always put its own short-term profitability first, even (or especially) at the expense of society’s long-term interests.
“Thinking they had abolished the business cycle through state intervention, they forgot a key tenet of Marxism,” Sunkara writes of Palme and the Swedish centre-left, “that the contradictions of capitalism, and its tendency towards crisis, cannot be resolved within the system.”
Throughout The Socialist Manifesto, you get the sense that Sunkara is actively visualising a Sanders presidency or a Corbyn premiership and mapping out the practical political challenges a radical leftwing leader would face if he or she managed to win power in Washington or London.
How would America’s vast financial industry react if President Sanders began breaking up the biggest and most powerful Wall Street banks, for instance? And could Prime Minister Corbyn impose his own version of the Swedish ‘Meidner Plan’?
(It’s entirely possible that he might try: in September, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell confirmed that, under a future Labour government, any British company with more than 250 employees would have to transfer a portion of its shares into a worker-controlled ‘Inclusive Ownership Fund’.)
Sunkara doesn’t conclusively answer these questions. But he does provide a roadmap for a reanimated leftwing strategy, which includes—somewhat obviously—rebuilding the trade union movement from the bottom up and, in the US, launching a new political party capable of annulling the Democrats from the left.
Above all, though, he insists that history matters—and that socialists need to avoid repeating the mistakes of their “long, complex, variously inspiring and dismal” past. “We have little hope of realizing our aims if don’t learn from those who marched and organized and dreamed before us,” he concludes.
The Socialist Manifesto isn’t likely to appeal to readers who don’t share its author’s world view. But it doesn’t need to. Sunkara is deep in conversation with his own side. And his take is acutely—and refreshingly—realistic.
This article is a review of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case For Radical Politics In An Era Of Extreme Inequality by Bhaskar Sunkara.