Review: Bhaskar Sunkara's Socialist Manifesto

by Daniel Taylor • Published 20 July 2019

Bhaskar Sunkara, The Socialist Manifesto: A Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality, Verso, London, 2019.

The American left has entered into a period of extraordinary ferment. It is largely a new left, without strong connections to the traditions and experiences of the past. Its great icon, Bernie Sanders, is a serious contender to be the presidential candidate for one of capitalism’s oldest and most reactionary parties. Its largest organisation, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), was seen until recently as a historical curio to be archived alongside America’s Communist Party in the category of failed experiments in socialist moderation. It now claims some 60,000 members. Bhaskar Sunkara’s Socialist Manifesto is both a product of this left, and an attempt to shape it.

There is a market for this product, and an important audience for its arguments. The revival of the DSA is only part of the picture: alongside crisis and collapse in longstanding revolutionary organisations, new socialist groups outside the DSA have emerged with similar vigour. Their priorities range from tenant organising to armed self-defence. A new and relatively inexperienced generation of socialists is confronting extremely difficult matters: whether, and how, to organise in a political party; the role and definition of the working class; the centrality of race and imperialism in American politics; the interaction between elections and broader social struggle; even the relationship between reform and revolution, and the definition of socialism itself. Until recently, these questions were mostly interesting topics for consequence-free parlour debates and study groups. Now they are immediate, urgent questions of tactics and principle. There is no shortage of dynamism, but the situation requires clarity. Unfortunately, Sunkara’s Manifesto will not provide it.

Sunkara is the most prominent representative of a political current associated with Jacobin magazine, which he created and edits, and with a section of the Democratic Socialists of America. Broadly, his co-thinkers are pro-Democrat, in the sense that they think campaigning for Democratic Party candidates is a key task of the American left; pro-state, in that they think the bourgeois state cannot be overthrown and has to be turned into a vehicle for socialist transformation of society; and nationalist, in that they think socialism can be constructed here and there by national states. These positions put them on the right of the non-Stalinist socialist movement. But they also engage in a relatively lively way with recent scholarship on Marxism and the historical socialist movement, particularly emphasising its most class conscious and democratic moments. This has the effect of making them seem substantially more sophisticated and radical than might be expected. The Socialist Manifesto aims to summarise Sunkara’s interpretation of his school’s doctrine for the emerging generation of American socialists. As a whole, it promotes both conservatism and confusion at a time when a confident, clear-headed radicalism is most needed.

On the surface, the book is a mostly historical work aimed at left wing supporters of the US Democrats, intended to introduce them to some of the key figures and debates in the history of the socialist movement. The bulk of the book is a series of chapters on past socialist organisations, arranged in chronological order. Each is meant to exemplify an age. But as the opening and concluding chapters make clear, this is also a programmatic work, meant to make a quite specific set of arguments about the nature of socialism and the tasks of socialist activists today.

In this vision, socialism is something that emerges from a welfare state. The socialist movement depends on parliamentary reformists, and mainly exists to promote and defend them. Socialist activists and organisations exist to win over voters and ensure the election of “progressive”, “left-populist” politicians, “class-struggle social democrats”, who will introduce a welfare state that may later evolve into something called socialism. Anti-capitalist rhetoric plays an exciting, motivating, but essentially decorative role. Socialism is a national movement, to be introduced through acts of legislation voted on by national parliaments.

The world view is consistent, but the arguments are put rather bashfully, often by implication and always with radical-sounding qualifications intended to soften the blow. Sunkara tends to make bold statements about the self-emancipation of the working class, the need for independent organisation, the distinction between socialism and social democracy, the importance of workers’ struggle, and the radical heritage of Marxism, right in the middle of presenting a case that market-heavy welfare states ruled over by reformists are close enough – even when attached to brutal colonial empires, waging or profiting from imperialist wars. How to transform such states into Sunkara’s dreamed-of “democratic socialism” is a problem for another day. Socialism is a religion of the future that may inspire and animate electoral campaigners today, but shouldn’t trouble us too much when we think about how to organise.

History without lessons

Marx’s Communist Manifesto denounced other socialist currents insofar as they failed to recognise the working class’ capacity and duty to lead a revolution. Sunkara’s Socialist Manifesto is much more affable: it praises all former socialist currents insofar as they resemble Bernie Sanders. In this retelling, Marx and Engels were rambunctious campaigners who supported democracy and really liked the working class. The German Social Democrats were talented parliamentarians with a big support base who published a lot of interesting books and campaigned for very important reforms. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were popular, democratic and fashionable: they were very “in step with their era”, which happened to include working class revolution, so it is very appropriate that they led one. Their mistake was to expect an international revolution: contemporary socialists should drop that, as well as any expectation that working class revolution would be appropriate outside Russia. Probably best of all are the thoroughly parliamentarist Swedish Social Democrats, who governed for decades over not only “the most liveable society in history”, but also the one most closely approaching a socialist utopia.[1]

The key to these chapters lies in identifying what Sunkara doesn’t say. The book appears to present the main lessons of a century and a half of socialist organising. But it systematically buries, distorts, and inverts the conclusion of every experience it describes.

Most remarkable is his chapter on the German socialist movement. In this chapter we see most starkly Sunkara’s interest in blurring the boundaries between reformism and revolution, workers’ power and welfare states, and ultimately between capitalism and socialism.

The fiasco of German socialism ended with civil war, as the reformist and revolutionary wings of the movement split and took up arms against one another. A decade after the collapse, Hitler came to power to wipe out the movement’s remnants. It is a story from which bitter and urgent conclusions have to be clearly drawn: the extermination of German socialism was one of the costliest lessons ever taught to the workers’ movement.

The experience of the Social Democratic Party of Germany is mostly famous now as the first and best proof of the fundamental irreconcilability of parliamentary reformism with working class socialism. Revolution was proven possible in the West: broad networks of revolutionary workers’ councils and factory committees flourished through an industrially advanced society. A mass communist movement, consisting of hundreds of thousands of organised and conscious revolutionary workers, took shape. But they were defeated organisationally, and reformists (now known as “democratic socialists”) won the day. These advocates of parliamentarism, who ended up in power (and implemented many now fashionable panaceas like workers’ participation in industrial management), did not lay the groundwork for a transition to democratic socialism, notwithstanding all their promises and rhetoric.

Instead they fought to defend capitalism tooth and nail: forbidding strikes, closing radical newspapers, and ultimately organising the systematic physical extermination of the key leaders of the revolutionary movement. Those who saw socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class and those who saw it as a sometimes-oppositional form of parliamentary politics, ended up facing each other down, guns in hand, across the barricades. One fought to overthrow capitalism; the other to rebrand it. One was part of a global movement of human liberation; the other sought power in the German national state. They had different goals and wielded different methods of struggle, which required different organisations. The victory of the better organised reformists over the revolutionary workers meant that the institutions of capitalism remained intact to summon up fascism to finish the job.

Astonishingly, all of this is sidelined in Sunkara’s chapter. In 29 pages on German socialism, that movement’s final split into revolutionary and counter-revolutionary wings is covered in just about half a page, 28 lines out of around 800. No particular conclusions are drawn from this disaster. Sunkara prefers to talk about the good times: when the Social Democrats created a big, influential organisation, which had lots of newspapers and magazines in which they published very radical-sounding articles, while peacefully assuming more and more positions of authority in the state and workers’ movement. Fully 97 percent of his chapter on German socialism is devoted to admiring this period of peaceful incorporation into capitalism. It’s a little like writing a criminological case study of O. J. Simpson, but choosing to focus mostly on his football and acting career – and particularly praising his capacity to escape difficult situations and charm his way out of trouble.

For the left, the most crucial lesson of this costly experiment is that radical rhetoric can mask socialist organisations’ conversion into counter-revolutionary institutions of capitalist rule. Socialists must therefore construct separate organisations devoted to the goal of winning revolutionary power outside of, and counterposed to, the official institutions of capitalist politics. These arguments are not of much interest to Sunkara. Nor are the positive lessons: that Western workers can become revolutionary agents, and a mass revolutionary party is a real possibility. Instead, the focus is on what Sunkara considers the big achievements of German socialism: socialists can have good careers in politics and become very popular, even while continuing to utter very radical phrases, as long as none of their bluster translates into revolutionary organisation and action. Karl Kautsky, clearly a role model for Sunkara, is the focus of much attention in this chapter. This makes perfect sense: Kautsky provided some of the most sophisticated rhetorical cover for the Social Democrats’ political degeneration.[2]

Similar omissions and distortions, in the same direction and leading to identical conclusions, are to be found in the other chapters. In the section on Marx and Engels, Sunkara wilfully ignores their belief that the bourgeois state could never introduce socialism and would have to be smashed by the self-organised working class.[3] Lenin devoted much of his life to drawing clear organisational boundaries between revolutionaries and reformists, so that a global socialist movement could be built to lead workers’ councils to power through an insurrection. He pursued this task with accelerated urgency after witnessing the collapse of German socialism, and yet further after the victory of the revolutionary workers’ movement in Russia; but from Sunkara we learn that Lenin was pretty much the same as Karl Kautsky, an orthodox reforming democrat who was cursed to live in a country where parliamentarism was impossible.[4] Lenin (and Trotsky) can therefore be upheld as edgy, glamorous and exciting forerunners of Bernie Sanders, without in any way suggesting that revolutionary workers’ organisations might be necessary anywhere that isn’t the quirky tsarist empire of 1917. The fact that no international revolution came to victory is taken as a refutation of the Bolsheviks’ internationalism; the fact that this revolution did come, and was destroyed by the German Social Democrats Sunkara just spent a chapter praising, is not worthy of mention. Swedish welfare capitalism showed great entrepreneurial spirit, making tidy profits from imperialism and fascism as a major supplier of raw materials to Nazi Germany. Hitler’s tank battalions and artillery shells were made with good Swedish iron ore. But for Sunkara, social democratic Sweden wasn’t even really capitalism: it was the society where “socialists got the furthest along in undermining capital’s power”.

State socialism in an imperialist superpower

Sunkara presents the narrative. His co-thinkers and collaborators, as published in Jacobin, are more direct in presenting their conclusions. Authors such as Eric Blanc and Sunkara’s mentor Vivek Chibber – editor of Catalyst, a theoretical journal linked to Sunkara’s Jacobin—often self-identify as advocates of an uncompromising pro-worker politics. But in arguing that working class revolution is impossible in the US, they also claim that the American working class have no capacity to lead a socialist transformation. Workers, in their view, can’t generate radically democratic institutions and political organisations capable of challenging capitalism. Scepticism towards the working class leads directly to extraordinary illusions in the instruments of the capitalist class. Nobody claims that the CEO of ExxonMobil will lead a struggle for socialism, but it has become routine to suggest that the US president might. Workers can’t challenge capitalism, but the American state can: a legal “democratisation” of American state bureaucracies, on a national scale, is the path to socialism. “Because a ruptural strategy isn’t on the table, we must start down the road of social democracy and then to democratic socialism,” argues Chibber.[5] They praise Kautsky for his insight that “the 1917 model” – i.e. working-class self-emancipation—is an impossibility and parliament is the path to socialism. For Blanc, once socialists have liberated themselves from the supposedly dogmatic belief in the capacity of the working class to self-organise, they can then “abandon other political dogmas, including on pressing issues such as how to build a Marxist current and whether it’s okay to ever use the Democratic Party ballot line”.[6]

In advocating for the state over the proletariat as the leading force in the construction of socialism, such authors happily position themselves as polemical opponents of revolutionary socialists. They have spilled much ink sowing doubt in the working class’ ability to defeat the American ruling class. Sunkara is far more circumspect. He avoids arguing too sharply against revolutionary socialism. Figures like Chibber and Blanc use the pages of Jacobin to polemicise against core tenets of Marxism. Sunkara’s book downplays any differences: all the better to have fundamental disagreements submerged in organisational unity, where parliamentary socialists can attain a radical sheen from being presented as the modern inheritors of Marx and Lenin. This strategy of cooption and confusion has arguably been more effective in recruiting revolutionaries into his ranks than a strategy of open argument for reformism.

What is socialism and how do we get there?

Sunkara’s vision of the transition to socialism is outlined in the remarkable first chapter. This is divided into two parts. The first is a narrative of a socialist transformation taking place in the US in a period of great upheaval; the second is a description of what Sunkara believes a socialist society would be like. The latter is drawn largely from David Schweickart’s model of market-based national socialism.[7] This so-called socialist society, which Sunkara outlines in excruciating detail (though thankfully at less length than Schweickart himself) is a national economy of semi-statified co-ops, with highly paid managers in each workplace – elected, you’ll be pleased to hear – and a central investment fund overseen by the government. Socialism is here redefined as generalised commodity production in a national state. As Schweickart acknowledges, it is basically Chinese market capitalism with some of its negatives (like tyranny) deleted. “The empirical evidence does not suggest that China is Utopia,” Schweickart admits in his works, but “China is clearly a socialist economy”, a “strikingly successful” one at that, and one that will hopefully “democratize itself” and realise Schweickart’s and Sunkara’s shared vision.[8] We can only hope that, in Sunkara’s future socialist transformation, the American workers do not have to wait as long as their Chinese sisters and brothers for socialist democracy to arrive.

By what means will such an economy be constructed in America? How will the American bourgeoisie, the most powerful ruling class ever seen in the world, be (partially) dispossessed and have its capital transformed into co-operatives? How will the American state, an institution of extraordinary violence and power, yield to the most mighty co-op movement ever known? Here we come to the crux of the matter. Any political proposal is worthless if it isn’t attached to some idea of how to achieve it. So Sunkara begins his book with a narrative of how America might turn socialist: his theory of social change. A left resurgence takes place. Various social movements grow. Labour unrest builds up. A “left-populist movement” captures both “the presidency and a majority in Congress”. As the capitalist class resist reforms, social polarisation intensifies. Struggles break out in the streets. “Workplaces are occupied, and bosses are even kidnapped by radicalized workers.”[9]

At this point in the story, any student of socialist history will be on the edge of their seat. Stories like this have actually happened many times. The bourgeoisie do not tolerate such assaults on their property and persons, especially when combined with a political breakdown. We can hardly imagine that the CIA, the FBI, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the city police chiefs, or the many armed and organised American right wingers will remain passive in the face of this kind of resurgent left. How will this crisis be resolved? Will these radicalised workers be gunned down and scattered by the vicious American repressive apparatus, backed by its mobilised reactionary middle classes? Will they exhaust themselves in a prolonged stalemate, drift into passivity again, and allow the restoration of capitalist normality, at the cost of terrible demoralisation? This is how similar situations have mostly been resolved in the past, and hence why we still live under capitalism today. It is the life or death question for socialists: how can a social crisis become a socialist revolution, before the ruling class can organise to crush their enemies and restore order?

But at precisely this point, Sunkara waves his hand and encourages us to forget such difficult questions. “In the end, a socialist coalition has a mandate to change society”, he asserts, and immediately moves on to his plan for a nation of co-ops, complete with highly paid managing directors (he even has a little table of who should get paid what). All we need to know is that we need the “left populists” to somehow capture a majority in Congress and the presidency, and when the crisis comes, our “coalition” will get a “mandate”. Then, after the crisis, it can pass “congressional legislation” to turn businesses into co-ops, and Schweickart’s blueprint can become reality.

So the capitalist state remains intact, but for some reason its repressive apparatus will go dormant just at the bourgeoisie’s hour of greatest need. It is hard for an informed reader not to reflect on times where America’s vast global network of spies and bombers has failed to respect a “mandate” gained by radicalised workers. But this book is aimed at a new left unfamiliar with this history, so Sunkara is free to insist that marketised socialism can be achieved by parliaments and presidents. Socialism will be signed into law in the oval office. The state that has spent most of the last century physically eradicating popular movements around the world, including within its own borders, can be expected to just give up.

Such a fantasy can only be maintained by Sunkara’s erasure of the greatest lessons of the workers’ movement. Only an approach that systematically ignores the painfully gained experience of workers’ struggles, and deliberately reconstructs the history of socialism to blur the boundaries between statified welfare capitalism and anti-capitalist socialism, can allow such a bizarrely unrealistic vision to seem like it stands on some solid foundation of historical evidence. It is true, as Sunkara and others often point out, that reformist governments can be besieged by the ruling class, leading to serious struggles, and even potentially revolutionary situations. In that sense social democracy can “grow over” into socialist revolution: this has been the case in a host of cases of which the revolutionary movement is acutely conscious.[10] But without an organised current in the workers’ movement politically aware of the need for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, such struggles, and the workers who lead them, are inevitably defeated. The twentieth century is littered with examples of this, often ending in bloody counter-revolutionary massacres and dictatorships. The reformist governments that in some cases have inadvertently inspired these radical processes have always been a barrier to this more profound struggle for social transformation.

Indeed, over the last century, every single parliamentarist party of the left has been converted into a counter-revolutionary instrument of capitalist rule. Every working class revolution has created organs of its own power that must either advance to destroy the capitalist state, or be destroyed by it. Political organisations must choose: will they devote themselves to wielding executive power in the bourgeois state, or will they seek to promote the self-organisation of the working class – up to the point of successfully concluding an insurrection?

The German socialists, Sunkara’s greatest role models, thought that organisation need not reflect principle, and that the organisational split between reformists and revolutionaries could be put off to be resolved in the future. When the revolutionary crisis came, it found reformists and the bourgeoisie wielding well-established and battle-tested organisations, while the socialist left were in a state of political and organisational confusion. The result was the destruction of the working class movement and the victory of capitalism. Most revolutionary crises since have followed similar patterns. Paul Levi was one of the German socialist leaders who survived the murders of 1919. Levi was by no means an ultraleft sectarian, and for that reason has been of some interest to the figures around Jacobin. Levi recalled in 1920:

There is not a single Communist in Germany today who does not regret that the foundation of a Communist Party did not take place long ago, before the war, and that the Communists did not come together in 1903, even in the form of a small sect, and that they did not form a group, even a small one, which could at least have expressed clarity.[11]

Sunkara discourages any recollection of this lesson: his model is precisely the pre-war Social Democratic Party, an institution that buried powerless and disorganised leftists within a mighty counter-revolutionary apparatus.

Reformism without history

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there had been no real tests of reformist socialism in power. Although Marx had theorised the self-emancipation of the working class by smashing the state, nobody had yet been able to try the reformist alternative after the short-lived experiments of 1848. What would happen if a reforming socialist party tried to form government? Would the bourgeoisie themselves throw them out, or forbid them from coming to power, thereby provoking a revolutionary crisis? Would a parliamentary fight for reforms lead to some unforeseen development in the class struggle that would allow a different path to socialism? It was possible then to make a case for reformism on the limited empirical ground that it hadn’t yet been tried.

Now, a century later, we know that reformist parties are often the most effective stabilisers of capitalism. In many advanced capitalist countries, they have been in power for decades over the course of the twentieth century, and in many instances have implemented epoch-defining attacks on the working class more successfully than their openly bourgeois rivals. The recurrence of capitalist crisis doesn’t just create opportunities for revolutionaries. It also exposes reformist organisations. Because they are committed to maintaining the existing order, in a crisis they act to stabilise capitalism, and its bureaucratic institutions that they seek to manage, at the expense of their own working class supporters. Over and over again, capitalism has pulled the halo from reformist and centre-left parties, as they have wielded government power to conduct austerity and war in a century of recessions, depressions and imperialist conflict. Sunkara acknowledges this towards the end of his book. The figures he loves, like Corbyn and Sanders, define themselves largely in opposition to the decrepit recent leadership of longstanding reformist parties like Labour, or bourgeois parties with a liberal face like the Democrats. They want to turn back the clock. But parties that have tried to simply reconstruct parliamentary reformism, like Syriza in Greece, have ended up in the same trap, for the same reason. What is supposed to be different this time?

On this point, the Manifesto collapses into a remarkable form of special pleading. Corbyn and Sanders are in many ways pale imitations of earlier generations of reformists and liberal reformers. They inhabit two of the most decrepit and right wing political parties in international bourgeois democracy, in which they are firm advocates of party unity. But to suggest that no lessons should be drawn from previous failures of reformism, Sunkara creates a new category for Corbyn and Sanders: they are not reformists, but rather “class struggle social democrats”. This mysterious label is supposed to represent their unprecedented capacity to battle the bourgeoisie and mobilise the masses.

What on earth this means is entirely unclear. Far from leading class struggles, both Corbyn and Sanders have compromised endlessly with the right wing bureaucracies in their own parties while maintaining a thoroughly electoral focus. Corbyn has declared that his Labour would be a “social movement”, but he hasn’t even mobilised his support base against the right wing of the Labour party itself, let alone against the bourgeoisie. This weakness can be explained by the fact that they have emerged at a time of historically low extra-parliamentary class struggle. In such periods, the faith of workers in their own capacities is diminished, and pro-state politics in strengthened.

But the problem is not even that Corbyn has failed to build extra-parliamentary struggle since being elected leader. Insofar as mass struggle is fostered for the purpose of supporting politicians in the capitalist state, that conceives only of the working class as objects. Even when they argue that the working class are an indispensable support-base for socialist movements, Sunkara-style “democratic socialists” and “class struggle social democrats” both still accept the fundamental rule of capitalist politics: that gaining power in the bourgeois state is the path to social transformation. This is a supposedly pro-worker politics that accepts from the beginning the norms of capitalist rule. Its self-defeating nature is clearly revealed in the failures of contemporary politicians who could really be called “class struggle social democrats”: figures like Brazil’s Lula da Silva, who closely resembles Sunkara’s fantasy re-imagining of Sanders and Corbyn, and whose commitment to the methods of bourgeois politics ended with his project in ruins, even with his background as an authentic mass leader of a combative working-class movement.[12] We need to build political currents that see the self-emancipating struggle of the working class as an end in itself, not as a way to build up popular support for parliamentarians, and certainly not as a marketing gimmick to be applied to politicians who don’t deserve it.

Once created, the category of “class struggle social democrats” can be used to justify any fanciful rebranding of centre-left politicians. Although Sunkara declares he is for the creation of an American version of the German Social Democrats (or British Labour), even a rerun of those horrendous, failed parties represents a utopian horizon requiring no action or clarification now. Right now, “class struggle social democrats” can be found and endorsed anywhere, even the Democratic Party, hence Jacobin’s bizarre decision to run an article praising Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her supposed resemblance to the pre-war German SPD.[13]

Sunkara addresses these questions in a late chapter on the revival of socialism and left wing populism, as an aspect of the broader political crisis of neoliberalism following the global financial crisis. But there are multiple cross-cutting lines of political struggle in the United States that are vital for socialists, and most of which Sunkara’s socialism is helpless to address. Consider the question of imperialism. In almost every great political crisis of the last century, imperialism has emerged as an absolutely central question, and it is certain to be so in the United States, history’s strongest imperialist power. Winning American workers to anti-imperialist class struggle is a critical strategic question for American socialists. Sunkara is open to using that imperialist state as a tool of socialist transformation, and would rather not speak of how nationally-minded German and Swedish parliamentary socialists became instruments of imperialist war. So Sunkara’s socialism is disarmed on that vital question.

Likewise, Black Americans have often inspired the oppressed all around the world. Their unfinished – barely begun! – struggle for justice is one of the greatest threats to the American ruling class. Similar observations could be made of immigrants from Central and South America. But in a generally right wing country, adopting the demands of those oppressed groups can be unhelpful to a form of “socialism” that depends on electoral arithmetic, rather than wielding the power of the oppressed in the streets and at the point of production. These vital political struggles, like those relating to gender, sex and sexuality, are dramatically de-emphasised in Sunkara’s accounting of the tasks of a socialist movement. Sunkara devotes a short passage at the book’s end to a demand for a “universalist” approach that rejects identity politics in favour of a pro-worker methodology. This token reference is unconvincing given that reformists in America and elsewhere – including supporters of his own current – have been far too eager to minimise the importance of fighting oppression in the name of working class unity. Yet there is nothing “working class” about a movement that sidelines fighting oppression in order to wield bourgeois executive office. Racial oppression, imperialism, immigration and a host of other such questions will be among the most powerful driving forces of any American revolution. From the point of view of an election strategist, they might not play so well in key swing states, where the goal is to get 50 percent + 1 of votes from a disengaged population. From the point of view of revolutionary working class organisation, fighting for anti-capitalist workers’ leadership on these questions is the key to building a movement that can challenge the two American political parties, the American state, and capitalism itself.

Ultimately the Manifesto presents a simple syllogism. Lenin equals the German Social Democrats; the German Social Democrats equal the left wing of the US Democrats; therefore the US Democrats equal Lenin, and the best way to be a modern Leninist is to get lots of progressive Democrats elected into Congress and the presidency. The socialist left is thus reduced to parliamentarism’s most radical conscience, its most glamorous campaigners, and ultimately its most sophisticated apologists. This is a role happily inhabited by many Stalinist Communist Parties since the 1930s, and it was the means by which they most effectively prevented the development of a revolutionary left in many countries, including the United States.

Sunkara’s “class struggle social democrats” have already been tested and found wanting. But the re-emergence of figures like Sanders and Corbyn proves, if nothing else, the extraordinary resilience of reformism. Reformism is rooted in the deep structures of capitalism, and a thousand betrayals can just intensify the desperate hope that next time it will be different. In the socialist movement, nothing is ever disproven, no matter how many times it fails, until it is organisationally superseded. A century of reformist management of imperialist war and austerity has been accompanied by a century of Marxist-ish rationales for parliamentarism and organisational liquidation. This book is only the most recent example.

What’s the alternative? When not distorted beyond recognition, the history of the revolutionary workers’ movement is a treasury of principles, tactics and strategy. It teaches us that parliamentary socialism is a mirage, and that the self-emancipation of the working class is both a necessity and a practical possibility. It shows us the extraordinary potential of the working class to create, in the heat of struggle, revolutionary democratic institutions that exceed the imagination of the wildest professor of political science. It also proves that the ruling class will wield all their terrible capacity for violence to destroy such institutions, and that they have to be out-organised by workers who understand the stakes of their struggle.

Crucially, our history teaches us the need to organise separately, and to openly, boldly declare our politics. And it also provides us with a great store of tactics and strategies for building alliances; for convincing those struggling for their rights and livelihoods that they have the power to change the world fundamentally; for working with reformist rivals without subordinating ourselves to them, adopting their methods, or confusing their goals with ours. These lessons have been preserved through the heroic effort of generations of revolutionaries and, if they are taught patiently and clearly to the emerging generation of American leftists, they retain the power to move mountains.

None of this means cutting ourselves off from new developments. Quite the opposite: there is a huge onus on revolutionaries to relate to and maximise the potential of new generations of radicals and the movements they generate. That means translating old lessons into new language, patiently arguing for principled revolutionary politics while fighting for reforms alongside those who may not agree. But to blur the lines between parliamentary reform and workers’ revolution only makes it harder for this emerging movement to achieve its greatest potential: contributing to a movement that can end capitalism.


Schweickart, David 1998, “Market Socialism: A Defence” in Bertell Ollman (ed.), Market Socialism: The Debate Among Socialists, Routledge.

Sunkara, Bhaskar 2019, The Socialist Manifesto: A Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality, Verso.

[1] On Marx see Sunkara 2019, pp35-50; on Germany, pp51-80; on Sweden, pp105-128.

[2] Jacobin has run itself ragged rehabilitating the discredited Kautsky, who made his career developing elaborate Marxoid arguments providing cover for German reformism. See for example “Reclaiming the Best of Karl Kautsky” by James Muldoon, Jacobin, January 2019; “Why Kautsky was Right (And Why You Should Care)”, Eric Blanc, Jacobin, February 2019.

[3] Sadia Schneider, “Marx and the State: The politics of philosophy”, Marxist Left Review, 12, 2016, Winter.

[4] Sunkara draws heavily on Lars Lih’s research on the early Russian socialist movement. Lih has made significant contributions, but Sunkara’s interpretation, which is not original to him, has a fatal flaw. On some level, Lenin clearly did believe he was trying to emulate German Social Democracy in “Russian conditions”. But Lenin also was aware that there were major problems in the German socialist movement, which became more apparent even to international observers as the crisis of the Great War drew closer. In 1914, prior to the outbreak of the war, he argued that Russian socialists must avoid the mistakes of the Germans and never to allow a parliamentarist wing to gain a foothold in what should be a revolutionary party. And even this, Lenin later realised, underestimated the gravity of the problem. As Sunkara acknowledges, when the war finally broke out, Lenin refused at first to believe the German socialists had supported it. He had not fully realised the depths of the reformism that characterised “orthodox Social Democracy”, partly because it had been masked by left-talking publicists like Kautsky. Sunkara is wrong to claim that “Lenin didn’t leave social democracy. It left him.” See Lenin’s article of April 1914, “What Should Not Be Copied from the German Labour Movement”, first published in Prosveshcheniye no. 4, available online in the Marxists Internet Archive.

[5] Vivek Chibber, “Our Road to Power”, Jacobin, May 2017.

[6] Eric Blanc, “Why Kautsky Was Right”, Jacobin, April 2017.

[7] See Schweickart’s two works Against Capitalism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, and After Capitalism, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.

[8] Schweickart 1998, pp7-9.

[9] Revolution is described in all of two pages in Sunkara’s Manifesto, pp7-9.

[10] This includes Eric Blanc’s favourite example of Finland, but also much more widely studied cases, from the Spanish Popular Front government of the 1930s to the Chilean experience in the 1970s. Every case proves the necessity for a clear organisational distinction between revolutionary and parliamentary socialists.

[11] Quoted in Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917-1923, Leiden: Brill, 2005, p453. Levi made this observation in the course of advocating a complex tactical manoeuvre within a broader party, intended to split it to the advantage of revolutionaries. But even this aggressive tactic, relying on independent and open organisation of revolutionaries, Levi considered dangerously close to liquidation, wise only in “revolutionary periods”; even more separation between revolutionaries and reformists was needed in “periods in which the process of transformation is slower and is more painful”.

[12] See Mick Armstrong’s piece elsewhere in this journal.

[13] Adam J. Sacks, “Before AOC, There Was The SPD”. Jacobin, June 2019.

Kautsky: the abyss beyond parliament

Darren Roso contributes to debates about what kind of parties the revolutionary left needs and the role of Karl Kautsky, the leading theorist of the Second International before World War I.

Lenin and a theory of revolution for the West

Sandra Bloodworth argues that Lenin and the other great revolutionaries of the early twentieth century provide us with a theory of revolution for advanced democracies.

A critique of the writings of Murray Smith on broad left parties

Mick Armstrong offers a critical assessment of Murray Smith’s approach to broad left parties – one of the key debates on the socialist left internationally over the last fifteen years.

We’ve been down this road before: Jesse Jackson, the Democrats and the left

Nick Everett re-examines the Jesse Jackson experience, in the process casting light on debates regarding the candidature of Bernie Sanders.