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Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Socialist Manifesto” and Understanding Millennial Socialism

What has become ‘millennial socialism’ arguably got its start in 2011, with the founding of Jacobin, a proudly left-wing magazine that was trendy, readable, and erudite.”

Introduction 

If socialism was not completely dead, it was certain comatose and on life-support in the years following 1989. Few would have predicted that socialism would come to enjoy a phoenix-like rise from the ashes in the new millennium. The new millennium was, after all, supposed to be a time when capitalism would enjoy unprecedented legitimacy as the sole surviving great ideology at Fukuyama’s proverbial “end of history.” And yet, socialism’s discovery is precisely what has happened in the 2010’s, driven largely by the enthusiasm of the younger generations. What has become “millennial socialism” arguably got its start in 2011, with the founding of Jacobin, a proudly left-wing magazine that was trendy, readable, and erudite. Jacobin’s success laid the groundwork for the founding of similarly popular outlets such as Current Affairs, as well as academic forums like Catalyst.  

The success of millennial socialist intellectuals owes much to a marked tonal shift. As far back as George Orwell’s seminal 1937 work The Road to Wigan Pier, sympathetic commentators noticed that left-wing intellectuals did not really care much about their ideas reaching new audiences. Much of socialist writing was jargon-filled and labyrinth-like, and it practically required a graduate degree in Marxist theory to understand. And, if one did happen to work through it, he or she would notice the author spending much time targeting other left-wing theorists, rather than thinking about how to create a genuinely better world (a tendency Monty Python would later mock). By contrast, millennial socialists write for a mass audience, combining history and economic theory with Kanye West references. With the election of President Donald Trump and the breakdown of status quo politics, these millennial socialists have become even more ambitious, exemplified by the release of works such as Nathan J. Robinson’s (of Current Affairs) excellent book Why You Should be a Socialist, along with G.S Griffin’s Why America Needs Socialism, which was published in January. And, of course, Jacobin founder and editor Bhaskar Sunkara has made his own contribution with The Socialist Manifesto, which was published in April of last year. 

What Does it Mean to Be a Millennial Socialist?

Sunkara’s book is decidedly less personal than Why You Should be a Socialist by Nathan J. Robinson. Aside from a few ruminations on what inspired him to found Jacobin, Sunkara mostly leaps right into business after the first pages of the book. He begins by considering what life is like for workers in three different settings. The first is in the contemporary United States. The second is in one of the Nordic social democracies. And, finally, Sunkara hypothesizes about what it would be like for workers in a potential future, where socialism has democratically and gradually taken hold in the United States. He acknowledges—in the process—an important truth.

Yet the key question for Sunkara is not: “Are people getting by?” Instead, he suggests we need to ask: “Is this the best we can do?”

This truth is that many people living in the hyper-competitive societies of 21st century capitalism enjoy significant prosperity. This may be less true at the moment, given the ongoing Coronavirus crisis and its associated economic effects; however, Sunkara points out that even lower class workers in the modern United States enjoy comforts and have options available to them that people in earlier epochs might envy. Yet the key question for Sunkara is not: “Are people getting by?” Instead, he suggests we need to ask: “Is this the best we can do?” On that point the answer is decidedly “No.” “Good enough” has always been the siren song of complacency and even defeatism. And Sunkara takes serious issue with the common conservative claim that if the world is becoming more prosperous, we should settle—more or less—for accepting the status quo. What is relevant to Sunkara is not that many people enjoy higher standards of living than their ancestors. Rather, he focuses on his view that things could be much better and are not—because our society is dramatically inegalitarian. Economic and political elites have sufficient power to ensure most of the wealth society produces goes to them, while ensuring that just enough falls to the bottom to keep society humming along.

By contrast, Sunkara describes the life of a worker in a Nordic social democracy. These workers enjoy far greater benefits—from vacation and family time, to possibilities for upward mobility—than do their American counterparts. Citizens in social democracies are also far more insulated from the financial ups and downs that routinely thrash global markets. This is because when workers in these societies lose their jobs (or see their incomes fall), there are generous social services available to them. Finally, Sunkara asks us to contrast these social democracies with the socialist future he imagines. In this better world, there would still be disparities in how much workers earn. This is because it remains necessary to incentivize work and skill development. However, companies would largely be owned by workers, who have a vested stake in their improvement. This also helps to ensure that everyone involved receives a fair share of the value created. Additionally, in the event that workers become dissatisfied with the jobs they hold, there would be numerous opportunities to change one’s life course, and this would be provided through social spending. Things are not perfect, as life never can be, but Sunkara believes this future would be a significant improvement to the status quo, in which so many live paycheck to paycheck. 

Reading these introductory thoughts, one might expect The Socialist Manifesto to be primarily a manual on how to build such an ideal society. But, in fact, the book quickly pivots to discussing the long history of socialist and Marxist movements across the globe—from the Bolsheviks in Russia to the Democratic Socialists of America to the British Labour Party. Sunkara helpfully reminds readers of the myriad accomplishments of workers’ movements: from improving labor conditions, to agitating for the weekend and for fewer hours, to demanding social security. He also does not shy away from controversy by addressing the horrific deeds of Soviet and Maoist totalitarians, explaining in detail how they evolved through the course of civil wars, invasion, and so on: from small scale movements to governments of mass terror. While Sunkara takes care to distinguish between these totalitarian monstrosities and genuinely democratic workers agitation—not to mention the far more admirable precedents of social democracy—his willingness to engage with this controversy head on is admirable and often persuasive. 

At the close of the book, Sunkara lays out fifteen guidelines for a rejuvenated 21st century socialism. These include: starting by advocating for social democracy before examining the possibility for more radical changes, pivoting from emphasizing cultural issues towards economic issues, democratizing political institutions, and not being afraid of universalism. The last is particularly interesting, given the decidedly non-universalistic ethos of much of the modern political left, which has been dominated by what David Harvey calls “militant particularism.” Sunkara urges readers to remain committed to struggles for the equality for women, minorities, and LGBTQ individuals, while putting class struggle front and center. As such, he writes

“The socialist premise is clear: at their core people want dignity, respect, and a fair shot at a good life. A democratic class politics is the best way to unite people against our common opponent and win the type of change that will help the most marginalized, all while engaging in a far longer campaign against oppression rooted in race, gender, sexuality, and more.” 

Conclusion

Sunkara’s book is a welcome and very readable contribution to a growing genre. He makes a powerful argument for why there is no need to settle for a highly imperfect status quo, particularly when there are better real life models to emulate. After reading his book, few would come away with the conclusion that it is better to be poor or even middle class in a hyper-competitive capitalist society, rather than in a European social democracy. Whether Sunkara’s more radical socialist society would be better still remains an open question. Worker-run companies, such as Mondragon, have been very successful in combining high levels of productivity with generous compensation for all members. The German model of co-determination, where labor is often permitted a significant say in how companies are run, might also provide some guidance in the future. But the kind of workplace democracy Sunkara argues for has never been achieved in practice; ironically, totalitarian societies such as the Soviet Union or Maoist China perhaps fell further short of this mark than anyone else. If such as society is achievable, it will likely be achieved through decades of effort, though Sunkara’s fifteen guidelines offer a very helpful road map.

The one area where I feel the book could have been stronger was in addressing how and why the modern left should move away from Harvey’s militant particularism and towards the kind of “democratic class politics” Sunkara wants to see. It is one thing to argue that we can agitate for economic justice, while waging a “far longer” campaign to achieve greater equality and opportunity for women, minorities, and LGBTQ individuals. It is another entirely to discuss how much attention these overlapping struggles each warrant. Political energy is a finite resource. Thus, even if millennial socialism became broadly popular, it would still be necessary to ask hard questions about which struggles to prioritize. These would become even more pressing—and painful—when dealing with difficult ideological decisions.

To be a mass movement means building a coalition, and coalition-building is a messy and imperfect affair. 

One that immediately comes to mind is how to address the growing number of right-wing critics of capitalism. These movements desire economic and even social democratic reform yet also seek to preserve (or restore) traditional values against the destabilizing impact of the market. Should millennial socialists make peace and common cause with these movements, or should they reject them, given their conservative views on immigration, the sexual division of labour, and so on? Or, on the other hand, what about liberals who believe the best way to achieve equality for historically disadvantaged groups is through encouraging them to succeed in a market-based economy? Should a liberal feminist advocating for more female CEOs be cautiously welcomed or rejected by 21st century socialism? The real issue is that it will be necessary to make serious compromises on these fronts if 21st century socialism is to escape Mark Fisher’s puritanical “vampire castle,” where only those who hold exactly the correct views in exactly the correct manner are permitted entry. To be a mass movement means building a coalition, and coalition-building is a messy and imperfect affair. 

Despite these quibbles The Socialist Manifesto is a vital and important book by a talented young voice. Sunkara’s passion and humanity saturate every page and liberate left-wing prose from its occasionally deadening commitment to theoretical density and academese. The Socialist Manifesto should be read by anyone who wishes to understand the rejuvenation of the socialist movement, and it deserves to be taken seriously even by critics determined to offer apologias for an increasingly unviable status quo.

Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at mattmcmanus300@gmail.com or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof

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