Posts Tagged ‘Knights of Labor’

Manifesto for a Truly Democratic, Socialist America

January 23, 2020

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

Introduction

This is a superb book, though conditions have changed since the book was published last year through Labour’s election defeat and the fall of Corbyn, that the new age of socialist activism and success Sunkara looks forward to is now far more doubtful. Sunkara is an American radical journalist, and the founder and editor of the left-wing magazine, Jacobin. Originally from Trinidade, he immigrated to the USA with his family when he was young. Growing up in New York, he read extensively in the Big Apple’s public library, where he came to realise the country’s dependence on services provided by the state. He immersed himself in the history and literature of socialism, finally joining the Democratic Socialists of America. He is also a registered Democrat.

The book comes praised by Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, Naomi Klein and Owen Jones. The book was partly inspired by the success of Jeremy Corbyn over here and Bernie Sanders in America in bringing socialism back into the political arena after decades of neoliberalism. This is made clear by the blurb on the dust jacket’s inside flap. This states

Socialism was pronounced dead when the Soviet Union collapsed. But with the success of Jeremy Corbyn’s left-led Labour party and increasing economic inequality, the politics of class struggle and wealth redistribution is back on the agenda. In The Socialist Manifesto Bhaskar Sunkara offers a primer on socialism for the twenty-first century, outlining where it came from, what it is, and what a socialist political system might look like.

Tracing the history of some of socialism’s highs and lows – from the creation of Germany’s Social Democratic Party through bloody communist revolutions to the predicaments of midcentury social democracy – Sunkara contends that, in our global age, socialism is still the only way forward. Drawing on history and his own experience in left-wing activism, Sunkara explains how socialists can win better wages and housing and create democratic institutions in workplaces and communities.

In showing how and why socialism can work today, The Socialist Manifesto is for anyone seeking a real solution to the vast inequalities of our age.

The Way to Socialism in America

The book begins with a ‘Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen’, which maps out one possible path for the transformation of America into a socialist state. Sunkara asks the reader to imagine himself as a worker at Jon Bongiovi’s pasta sauce business in Texas to show that, even under a benign and paternalistic employer, the capitalist system still leaves the workers poor and powerless. In order to compete, the firm must not only make a profit, but invest in machinery while at the same time either cutting wages or laying people off. However, the workers are empowered by a new wave of strikes and left-wing activism that sees the election of President Springsteen. Springsteen establishes a welfare state, which allows the workers to devote more of their time and energy to pressing for their demands without having to fear for their livelihood. The worker’s movement continues making gains until the economy has become nationalised. Individual firms still exist, and are run by the workers themselves rather than the state. Some of them fail. But there are also government banking schemes to help workers set up their own businesses, though still state-owned and collectively managed, when they have a good idea and are fed up with their present job. Like bottling pasta sauce. America is still a vibrant democracy, and there are a number of other parties, including a capitalist party, though that is waning in popularity. It’s not utopia, but it is a system where workers are genuinely valued.

The Rise and Transformation of Socialism from Marxism to Reformism

The socialism, whose history the book tells and advocates, is that the Marxist and Marxist derived parties, Communism and social democracy, rather than the Utopian socialism of the generation before Marx and the more extreme versions of anarchist communism and syndicalism. The book naturally describes the career of Marx and Engels, and the formation of the German SDP. This moved away from revolutionary Marxism to reformism under the influences of Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, who believed that capitalism’s survival and the growing prosperity of industrial workers had disproven crucial aspects of Marxist doctrine. Initially pacifist, like the other European socialist parties, the SDP voted for war credits at the outbreak of the First World War. This caused a split, with a minority forming the Independent Socialists (USPD) and the Communist Party. When the 1919 revolution broke out, the majority SDP under President Ebert moved to crush it using right-wing Freikorps brigades. Although the SDP was one prop of the Weimar coalition, it was never able to establish socialism in Germany, and so fell with the other parties in the collapse of the Republic to the Nazis.

Russian Communism

Sunkara’s account of the rise of Russian communism is interesting for his argument that the Bolsheviks originally weren’t any more dictatorial than their rivals, the Mensheviks. Even Kautsky recognised the need for a strong, centralised party. But Lenin originally was no dictator. Pravda rejected 44 of his articles, and the were other voices as strong or stronger within the party. What pushed it towards first authoritarianism and then totalitarianism was the stubborn opposition of the rival socialist parties, the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries. They were invited to join a government coalition with the Bolsheviks, but walked out and began active opposition. The Revolution was then threatened by the revolt of the Whites, leading to the Civil War, in which Britain and other western countries sent troops in order to overthrow the Bolshevik regime. This, and the chaotic conditions created by the Revolution itself led to the Bolshevik party assuming a monopoly of state power, partly as the only means available of restoring order. This began the party’s journey towards the murderously repressive state it became, though interparty democracy was still alive in the 1920s before the rise of Stalin.

Mao and China

The emergence of communism in China, its seizure of power and the reign of Chairman Mao is also covered as an example of socialism in the Third World. The nations of the Developing World, like China, took over revolutionary socialism – communism – rather than reformism, because conditions in Russia more closely resembled those in their nations. Russian had been a largely agricultural country, in which the majority of its citizens were peasants. Industrial workers’ similarly represented only a minuscule fraction of the Chinese population, and so Mao turned to the peasants instead as a revolutionary force. This chapter concludes that Chinese communism was less about empowering and liberating the workers than as a movement for national modernisation.

Sweden and the Rise and Fall of Social Democracy

The book also examines the rise and progress of Swedish social democracy. The Swedish socialist party took power early through alliances with the Agrarians and the Liberals. This allowed them to introduce generous welfare legislation and transform the country from one of the most socially backward, feudal and patriarchal states in Europe to the progressive nation it is today. But there were also losses as well as gains. The Swedes compromised their commitment to all-out socialism by preserving private industry – only 5 per cent of the Swedish economy was nationalised – and acting to regulate the economy in alliance with the trade unions and industrialists. This corporative system collapsed during the oil crisis of the 1970s. This caused inflation. The government tried to resist wage rises, which the unions resisted. The industrialists resented the growth of working class activism and began measures to counteract them. Olof Palme, the country’s prime minister, then moved in a left-ward direction through establishing funds that would allow the trade unions gradually to buy up companies. The industrialists recognised an existential threat, and succeeded in overthrowing the government.

The Swedish model, meanwhile, had been highly influential through Labour party MP Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, which in turn led to Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ as the Labour government in Britain moved from social democracy to a more left-wing alternative to neoliberalism. Other European socialist parties followed, such as the German SDP. France’s President Mitterand in the 1980s tried to break this pattern in the 1980s, but his government was also overthrown through capital flight, the industrialists taking their money out of the French economy. Mitterand tried to hang on by promising to safeguard industry and govern responsibly, but it was no use.

Socialism and America

The chapter on socialism in America is particularly interesting, as it shows, contrary to the impression given by America’s two-party system, that the country has a very strong history and tradition of working class parties and socialism, from combative unions like the IWW to organised parties like the Knights of Labor, Democratic Socialists of America, and the Socialist Labor, Populist, Progressive and Communist Parties. However, socialism has never gained power there, as it has in Britain and Europe, because of a variety of factors. These include the extreme violence of the state and private industry, the latter hiring gunmen, to put down strikes; factional infighting between socialist groups, partly caused by the extreme range of socialist opinions and the restriction of some socialist groups to particular ethnicities, and the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War.

A strategy for Success

Thechapter ‘How We Win’ contains Sunakara’s own observations and recommendations for socialist campaigning and the construction of genuine socialism in America. These are

1. Class-struggle social democracy does not close down avenues for radicals; it opens them.

2. Class-struggle social democracy has the potential to win a major national election today.

3. Winning an election isn’t the same as winning power.

4. They’ll do everything to stop us.

5. Our immediate demands are very much achievable.

6. We must move quickly from social democracy to democratic socialism.

7. We need socialists.

8. The working class had changed over the past hundred and fifty years, but not as much we think.

9. Socialists must embed themselves in working class struggles.

10. It is not enough to work with unions for progressive change. We must wage democratic battles within them.

11. A loose network of leftists and rank-and-file activists isn’t enough. We need a political party.

12. We need to take into account American particularities.

13. We need to democratise our political institutions.

14. Our politics must be universalist.

15. History matters.

Conclusion

This is the clarion call for genuinely radical activism. It will almost certainly start right-wing alarm bells ringing, as Sunkara calls for left-wing activists to join main parties like the Democrats in the US and Labour in Britain. They are not to be infiltrators, but as people genuinely committed to these parties and working peoples’ causes and issues. The claims that the working class has somehow died out or no longer has radical potential is overstated. It has changed, but 60 per cent of the population are still employees drawing wages or a salary, and who have no money of their own. And the book shows very clearly that the transformation to a genuinely socialist economy is needed. Social democracy has won considerable gains for working people, gains that still persist despite constant right-wing attack. But these aren’t enough, and if left unchallenged, capital will always try to destroy them.

The book’s angled towards the US, but its lessons and many of its recommendations still apply of this side of the pond. The resurgence of genuine socialist activism in Britain is now far less certain in Britain. But hopefully this book will help show to more people why it’s still possible and needed.