Bhaskar Sunkara’s Socialist Manifesto: What are the tasks of revolutionaries in the United States?

Por Guillermo Kane

In April 2019, Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of “Jacobin” magazine, published a Socialist Manifesto, of his authorship. The magazine, launched in 2011, has been in the center of political debates that have been underway within the context of the re-emergence of the left in the United States in the past few years. In the Manifesto, the author, who is a militant of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), intends to set up a program and an organization for the new generation of militants that have emerged.

The idea of a Manifesto, which expressly refers to Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, is ambitious and not usual in these times. He intends to bring a foundational epic and an ideological base to the growth of his organization, which is considered by Jacobin as a “new” DSA.

The document does not respond to the requirements of a Manifesto though, to present systematically a body of ideas. The first part, one of the three in which the book is divided, outlines his vision of a socialist future, achieved by a progressive electoral triumph from the point of view of a worker in a tomato sauce factory. The section is fanciful and full of funny cultural mentions, but it has no argumentative nor theoretical base. The factory is owned by rock star Bon Jovi’s family and the progressive movement that gives way to the new society is leaded by his colleague Bruce Springsteen. The social changes in this hypothetical future in the United States are based on an idealistic version of the social-democratic government of Sweden in the 70s. Most of the book, more than half of its 230 pages, is dedicated to the history of socialist movement, starting from Marx and Engels. Finally, it develops a political program with which he pretends to build up his organization in the United States.   

The manifesto lacks a systematic exposition of the functioning of current society functioning and his proposals for change. The bulk of its effort is put into an attempt to make the reality of DSA as a part of the left wing of Democratic Party of The United States, one of the fundamental pillars of the political regime of the world’s main imperialist power, compatible to its pretention of being a revolutionary Marxist force, which stands for working class independency. This is the cause of the great effort made to make DSA into part of a trend that starts with Marx and Engels and is critical of the adaptation of social-democrats to the mandate of big capital.

The path of DSA

The growth of Democratic Socialists of America under Donald Trump’s government has become a truly significant political phenomenon. It expresses a process of radicalization and a massive phenomenon of militancy which hasn’t been seen in the United States in half century. 

The DSA organization is not a new one though. It was founded in 1982 by sectors which came from the old socialist and communist parties and from the new left movement of the seventies. The most important leader of its first years, Michael Harrington, came from the International Socialist League, which was run by Max Schachtman who had split with Leon Trotsky and the SWP of the United States at the beginning of the Second World War. The controversy in the SWP between the majority, leaded by James Cannon and the minority gathered around Schachtman and James Burnham, had several themes, which have constituted a true school for generations of revolutionaries that have read the masterful polemic put forward by Leon Trotsky in a series of letters and articles compiled in his In Defense of Marxism. In these pages the need of Marxist philosophical method, dialectic materialism, as a basis for revolutionary policy is put forward. The proletarian and militant character of the Party and its policy of democratic centralism are defended. The center of the debate is the defense of Trotsky’s characterization of the Soviet Union as a bureaucratized workers state, against Shachtman’s position that it had become a new imperialist power. This equaling of Stalinism with capitalist imperialism was the key for Schachtman’s organization passing to yellow social-democracy first, and through them, directly to the Democratic Party.

The International Socialist League was incorporated to the Socialist Party in 1957 and there it developed the position of supporting the candidates of the Democratic Party, refusing to support independent candidates. This was the policy that prevailed in the rising DSA, formed after several sectors split from old Socialist Party, where only a minority decided to keep existing as an organization outside the Democratic Party.

Since its foundation until 2017, DSA was the main section in the United States of the Socialist International that in those years featured many anti-worker governments in power, such as Tony Blair in the United Kingdom, Felipe González in Spain or François Hollande in France. In those years, the DSA has been an element absolutely integrated into the democratic establishment, supporting “responsible” figures to set imperialist state policy such as Barak Obama or John Kerry. The democratic establishment incorporated them as full members. Harrington’s funeral, in 1989, had Ted Kennedy, traditional representative of the “liberal” wing, an ally of DSA and someone no one could confuse with a subversive element, as a speaker, who remembered him by saying “Michael Harrington never believed we couldn’t be better and he never stopped pushing us to try harder”.

They have been part, although a marginal part, of the Party that governed innumerable imperialist offensives on the Balkans, the Middle East, Latin America and other parts in the word.

By 2016, DSA had been languishing as an organization for several years, with around 6 thousand members and 40 local organizations. That year, the Bernie Sanders campaign to achieve the democratic presidential candidacy had a huge impact. Sanders has defined himself as a socialist democrat, although he is not a member of the DSA. The Democratic Socialists of America were part of the coalition that supported him in the 2016 primaries which, through strong maneuvers from traditional leadership of the Democratic Party, nominated Hillary Clinton, the millionaire pro-war establishment representative that lost with Donald Trump.

That campaign was the beginning of the dizzying growth of the DSA. In their national convention of 2019, they were reaching 60 thousand members, although it has been informed that most of them only support the organization passively, and only 10 to 20% can be considered active militants. They have harvested a significant part of the activism which sparkled in the country with Occupy Wall Street, against rescuing banks at the expense of workers’ living conditions, and also -although partially- the Black Lives Matter movement, which was developed under Barack Obama’s government against the murders of black people at the hands of police forces. For most of these young people, to whom this Manifesto is aimed at, these are their first militant experiences.    

A militant resurgence in the belly of the beast

In the mid-term parliamentary elections of 2018, the DSA and other left groups that supported Sanders, such as Justice Democrats and Working Families Party, challenged democratic legislators running for re-election and had significant success. 37 of a total of 57 democrats elected to constitute the majority in the lower house were considered to be of the progressive camp.

By 2019, almost a hundred members of the DSA held elected office, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (known by her initials AOC) and Rashida Tlaib in the Congress, that with two other colored progressive congresswomen, became known by the media as “The Squad”. These congresswomen have been targeted for racist and McCarthyst attacks by Trump, republicans and even the democratic establishment. Their struggles against immigrant persecution and for environmental causes have made them very popular, especially Ocasio-Cortez. However, they never called for mobilizing nor have they gone against any essential position of the democratic leadership. We must remember that the impeachment of Trump, promoted by the democratic caucus, has only moved forward on the basis of defending the global colonialist agenda and the need of an offensive against Russia, and not for the countless number of reasons that the oppressed of the United States and the whole world have against the right-wing magnate.

In October 2019, AOC presented a group  of laws collectively called “for a Just Society”. These are timid parliamentary reforms, much more limited than Roosevelt’s New Deal which is mentioned in the presentation, and even more limited than welfare social actions of nationalist and center-left Latin-American governments. The contents of four of the laws are focused on modifying application criteria for subsidies or state benefits and the fifth law suggests that the State promote the hiring of companies which do not break existing labor laws. This group of laws, which serve as the congresswoman’s programmatic statement, is so timid that it could hardly be called reformist.

Democratic Socialists of America has become an electoral machine which can achieve a militant mobilization of volunteers willing to campaign for elections. This gives them a disruptive potential because in primaries they face traditional democratic politicians that directly depend on capitalist donations and paid collaborators to put on their campaigns. They have also achieved a significant mobilization of voters in many districts, which secured them victories in an electoral system that has a low proportion of voters in relation to the total population. Their work is focused in door to door rounds with different campaigns, mailing lists with publicity and tracking contacts on social networks. The DSA offers this electoral militant support to candidates which are willing to proclaim themselves “socialists” and support the reform programs they promote, such as the universal extension of public healthcare insurance (“Medicare for all”) or the replacement of hydrocarbon for renewable energy (“Green New Deal”).

This militant, plebeian and even working class quality of the left of the Democratic Party is a subversive element in the United States political situation. It clearly expresses deep trends of radicalization and disconformity with the existing regime, although these are canalized by one of the parties that cement it. In January, it was announced that donations for the Sanders campaign in the last quarter of 2019 broke the record for donations to presidential campaigns, at 34.5 million dollars. However, this was not achieved by the huge sums from capitalist corporations that support other democrat or republican candidates, but by almost 2 million donations, which have an average value of 18.53 dollars. Since the campaign was launched, Sanders declared to have received 5 million individual donations. Statistic data yields that the most common private employers of donors are anti-labor zealots Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Amazon. The most common occupation is teacher. Sanders has been the candidate most supported by nurses, students, truck drivers, employees, electricians, farmers, programmers and construction workers.

Although electoral work inside the Democratic Party is the main political work of DSA, unlike the other organizations dedicated to channeling activism towards the electoral apparatus, it claims to be the nucleus of a future independent party and pretends to have a more consistent scope of ideology and militant discipline.

The Convention of the Democratic Socialists of America, gathered on of August 2nd, 2019 in Atlanta, had to resolve internal fractional debates over their organization as a party.  There wasn’t a political debate over national policy, nor the relationship with other democrats or other issues. The Convention showed the leading influence of the “Bread and Roses” caucus, related to Jacobin, a supporter promoting an electoral policy backing Sanders and the democrats, as well as the formation of a centralized organization. Sectors that proposed focusing on local struggles and limiting importance of centralized campaigns were defeated. The position of a full-time focus on the democratic electoral campaign won the vote as well as the objective, in an uncertain future, to split from the Democratic Party when a dirty break could be achieved – this is to say, when a split that had mass significance could be achieved, winning over an important part of democratic bases and resources.  

At the same time they voted to devote DSA forces to develop in the workers movement and a series of very leftist positions against the colonial action of the United States and against the state of Israel.

The political action they carry out with the democrats does not reflect these positions even remotely, though. DSA congresswomen voted, with the rest of the democratic caucus, the budget sent by Trump, which included a huge increase for the Pentagon which can dispense of 1.5 billion dollars to run the yankee military complex, which is more than all funds to other sectors on the Federal Budget of the United States, added together.

Sanders, the DSA candidate, has repeatedly voted for the “security” effort on the borders against immigrants, saying their coming to the country lessens the possibility to deal with the needs of poor and unemployed Americans, a position that could be easily confused with Trump’s xenophobic discourse. In the July debate between democratic candidates he declared he was for “strong borders” – meaning to maintain these militarized and fortified.     

A report points out that a great number of speakers on international panels of the Socialism conference, traditionally called by the disappeared International Socialist Organization (ISO) and currently called by the DSA, are part of NGOs or other groups financed by the National Endowment for Democracy. This fund, promoted years ago by the right-wing former president Ronald Reagan, has a bipartisan democrat-republican composition and finances organizations that promote the agenda of US imperialism in those countries in which they promote regime change. Ocasio-Cortez has declared, when being asked about Venezuela, that “on this issue she subscribes to the position of the democratic caucus”, which is no other than recognizing the government of Juan Guaidó, named by the Pentagon to attempt a failed coup. In February, Sanders had tweeted supporting a campaign that was seeking to force an imperialist intervention under the excuse of “humanitarian assistance”.

Tailing the Democratic Party has also an impact on DSA activity in the labor movement. In the teachers strike of West Virginia in 2018, where there was a broad activity going on beyond trade unions, DSA and Jacobin defended the trade unions’ bureaucratic leadership and called to abandon the strike when the government announced a 2% raise, which was condemned by the base of the workers that sustained a wildcat strike, challenging the trade union’s orders. Jacobin’s evaluation was that the process “made the trade union’s functioning more democratic”, when in fact there was a real rebellion against their leaders, related to the Democratic Party. When the teachers strike of Los Angeles was rapidly called off by a part of the trade union influenced by ISO, in January 2019, the DSA stated that “it is too expensive to guarantee classrooms with less than 39 students”, which was what the strikers demanded the democrat governor of California Gavin Newson, who had the electoral support of the DSA. DSA militants declared themselves “organic” to the acting leadership, unlike the thousands that organized actions outside of their control. In fact, the DSA does not consider that there is a union bureaucracy to confront in order to form a new leadership in the labor movement. The declared pretense of bringing more democracy and activism to trade unions without saying that the bureaucracy should be expelled is a recipe for defeat or cooptation. The tendency to incorporate trade unions into the state, which was characterized by Trotsky as a general characteristic of imperialist era, is particularly strong in the main world power, in which the existence of an independent trend within the labor movement has been episodic and discontinuous. 

A right-wing vindication of the Second International

This contradictory nature of DSA political life explains the objectives behind Sunkara’s strange text. The “new” DSA, emerged from the channeling of radicalized youth and working class towards the progressive wing of the democrats, pretends to present its credentials as a revolutionary and Marxist organization, as well as its lineage in over a century and a half of development of the socialist movement.

Sunkara’s story intends to show the protagonists of splits over strategic differences as differing responses or experiences within the same socialist movement. Although Sunkara does not defend any of Lenin or Trotsky’s positions, he doesn’t have any problem in receiving the support of whoever reclaims their revolutionary legacy. So, he puts together a great gallery of socialist stars, which he incorporates with a greater or lesser amount of criticisms.

In his story, Marx and Engels are falsely introduced as part of a moderate and democratic wing of the socialist movement of their times. “Marx and Engels consistently advocated for a democratic politics, driven by the mass of workers themselves, to the point that the day’s insurrectionists could call them moderates”, says Sunkara.

Sunkara intends to present as moderates the two revolutionaries that proposed to rename the League of the Just to the Communist League, a name that highlighted its position at the revolutionary extreme of the existing forces. They were also the authors of the concept “Dictatorship of the proletariat” and “permanent revolution”, not the promoters of a classless and abstract democracy. True democracy, to Marx and Engels, was to be achieved with the revolutionary abolition of the so-called democratic bourgeois state.

The authors of the Communist Manifesto always defended the need for the existence of a working class party with a clearly defined program; they never had a horizontalist concept of the revolutionary organization. The very rough political struggles with anarchists within the First International, represented by Proudhon or Bakunin, led to a tough split. In order to avoid the International being captured by those that would dissolve the responsibility of revolutionary leadership, Marx promoted that the International’s headquarters be moved to New York and finally disbanded.

This doesn’t mean that Marx and Engels did not defend a full democracy inside working class organizations. In their conception the revolutionary dictatorship against the bourgeoisie has the final aim of the abolition of the State and of all social oppression. A deeply democratic ideal, of course. But this has nothing to do with the two moderate and horizonalist socialists that Sunkara tells us about.  

He reclaims the line he draws from Karl Kautsky within the German social-democracy to the Menshevik Martov among the Russians, and also the Swedish social-democrats and the majority leadership (reformist and electoralist) of the Socialist Party of the United States of the beginning of 20th Century, gathered around Eugene Debs and Morris Hilquist. This way, Sunkara pretends to set up an intermediate path between the revisionists that promoted the integration of social-democracy to bourgeois regime, supporting their corresponding bourgeoisie in World War One, the Bernsteins, Eberts and Scheidemanns, the Plejanovs and the Dans; and those who called on workers to rise against the regime that took (and still takes) millions of people to their deaths in wars, the Lenins, Trotskys, Liebknechts or Rosa Luxemburgs. 

However, history is not an a la carte menu in which one can pick the parts one prefers and arrange them on display in an appealing fashion. Martov and Kautsky turned their back on the working class when they took power. They were not the leaders who collaborated directly with the armed reaction of the bourgeoisie. But they used their pens to condemn the audacity of the working class in taking power. The Second International, which they were part of, became an organization of reaction. An essential key to the history of revolutions in the 20th century is the permanent series of treasons carried out by social-democratic and Stalinist leaderships. . 

Moreover, all these reformist social-democrat leaders, supporters of the subordination of the working class towards the liberal bourgeoisie (we could place the founder of the Argentinian Socialist Party, Juan B. Justo, among these) had, even so, a deeply progressive political characteristic, which neither Sunkara, nor his organization can take credit for. In times in which bourgeois politics still had a popular content or had had it in the near past, this generation organized thousands of workers under the flags of their own Party, national and international. This was extremely progressive. It was with the war and the cycle of revolutions and workers uprising that started with the Russian October, that these reformists showed themselves incapable of fighting to take the working class to power. Sunkara remembers Trotsky’s sentence over Martov and the Mensheviks, condemning them to “garbage heap of history” for opposing the taking of power of the working class. In effect, Sunkara has proceeded to recycling historical detritus, in order to make reformist social-democracy appealing to new generations, after long years of service to imperialism and capital has transformed it into a number of discredited apparatuses, separate from the interests of workers and youths. 

Sunkara and the DSA take credit for the continuity of the socialist tendency that contributed to the independent political organization of thousands of workers, but their political activity is opposed to that. In order to obtain the presidency, Trump was able to take advantage of a deep political crisis in the Yankee political establishment, particularly in the “liberal progressive” wing of the Democratic Party and their representatives such as Hilary Clinton. When an important part of the workers blame democrats for the deterioration of their living conditions, the DSA and other left groups and activists are calling to join their ranks because the crisis can be an opportunity to get parliamentary offices.   

This vindication of Kautsky and Martov pretends to set a socialist and Marxist theoretical basis for the political adaptation to bourgeois democracy. Following the thesis, shared by Sunkara, that socialism can only be achieved in developed countries, under penalty of failure or totalitarian deformation, Kautsky and Martov, supported capitalist oppression against proletarian revolution in the first years of imperialist era of capitalism.

Sunkara, one hundred years later, wants to revive this faith in bourgeois democracy as a route to socialism, abandoned by the old social-democratic parties that have stopped pretending for a long time they represent a social change of any sort. In this century, “democratic” bourgeois states, especially imperialist states, have become the center of the most complex systems of police persecution, physical extermination, espionage and imprisonment of human history. The crisis and breakdown of “democratic” republics and their political parties have led bourgeois governments, increasingly, to authoritarian, personalist and bonapartist forms. 

Military and commercial disputes encouraged by the capitalist crisis are leading to political regimes of exception ruling the scene, from Russia to Turkey, from Brazil to the United States. To pretend that the bourgeoisie in its decadent era can go back to the characteristics it had during the beginnings of its historical era in charge of the state is as absurd as to think that the Capital will stop its process of monopolist concentration and go back to free trade. Neither in history, nor in life can the egg be put back in its shell. Much less, if the omelette has been cooked.

Although Sunkara acknowledges Marx in his Manifesto, he uses “national peculiarities” in the United States as an excuse to ignore the main conclusion that this revolutionary at arrived after the cycle of revolutions in Europe of 1848 and 1849: the need to promote a political organization of the working class completely separate from the bourgeoisie and the petit bourgeoisie on all practical levels. Foundations for Sunkara´s pretense of compatibility between Marxism and the blandest parliamentarism are not properly established in his own text.

Imperialism and social-democratic reformism

In all Sunkara’s book there is no reflection about the phenomenon of imperialist exploitation, which characterizes our historical era and rules all political, historical and daily issues that the book pretends to talk about.

The explanation given for the claudication of social-democracy in World War One which does not explain the new capitalist era, with a deeper connection between states and monopolies nor the dispute for the world markets in which national states play a part, that Lenin and other socialists studied at the beginning of the 20th Century, is completely superficial. The author explains this turn in social-democracy because of the existence of a conservative bureaucracy of party full-timers and trade union officials, and by the accumulation of privileges among workers that they were not willing to lose.

Although these observations are true, they cannot be analyzed alone, without relation to the role of economic and colonial exploitation achieved by capitalist powers in this era, with more resources to provide better economic benefits. Lenin characterized the development of a labor aristocracy in imperialist countries and related this directly to the material benefits that social-democrats started to defend, ruled by the revisionist and reformist trends. Sunkara’s support for the evolutionist concept of yellow social-democracy takes him to consider that in the “undeveloped world a revolution cannot be carried out”. This is not only an absurd paternalism towards the countries that suffer imperial exploitation, keeping socialism restricted to the people of imperialist countries. It is, above all, an apology of imperial oppression, by considering that undeveloped countries can only aspire to improve their capitalist development. As if the permanent usurious indebtedness, the domination through international organisms, the sacking of natural resources and unequal trade were not, in fact, the tools that keep two thirds of the planet in the backwardness.

Despite revolutions in China and Cuba, Sunkara states that in the backwardness countries “encouraging capitalist growth, while mitigating its worst effects and redistributing its spoils—as the Workers’ Party in Brazil and other Latin American Pink Tide governments have recently done—is the best we can hope for from states in the developing world”. The population of the global south should resign ourselves to imperialist sacking with the possibility of some welfare to alleviate the situation.  

Although it has been over 170 years since Marx and Engels showed in the Communist Manifesto that capitalism had built up a world in its image and likeness which took the oppressed of our society to look for an international answer to our oppression, Sunkara analyzes the problems of state and revolution within narrow national borders. The supposed lack of conditions for revolution in Russia or other parts of the undeveloped world. The supposed socialist character of the welfare state in European countries in the post-war. All of this is analyzed by Sunkara without an internationalist perspective of class struggle, revolution and counter-revolution.  The development of a class-traitor bureaucracy in the Soviet Union is not a historical accident for Sunkara, produced by the isolation imposed by the circumstances of the October Revolution, but an unfailing totalitarian destiny to all those who dare skip rules of historical evolution and rush into socialism.

The truth is that in our historical era, capitalist social relations rule the whole world. Oppressed countries can only develop industry and infrastructure by breaking with imperialist domination and investing national wealth freely in their territory. Despite all bureaucratic deformations, inherited from Stalinism, the undeniable economic and social progress in China and Cuba is proof of this statement. Democratic tasks and national development in semi-colonial world depend on socialist revolution, and not on IADB credits. 

The duty of revolutionaries in imperialist countries is to revolutionary defeatism, brilliantly developed by Lenin – this is, to work for the military defeat of one’s own nation in order to help the oppressed advance against the State. This is the strategy that took the Russian Revolution to victory. Sunkara counters this with the possibility of solidarity of progressive governments of developed countries, by a sort of international charity that would cancel debts and support development. History shows that no dominant class, such as the imperialist bourgeoisie, which leads the world ruling system, has resigned its privileges without a fight. Sunkara, who is part of a socialist organization of the United States, superficially mentions the Vietnam War to refer to pacifist statements by Swedish social-democracy which didn’t play an important role. Yankee imperialism suffered a decisive defeat in Vietman because of two main factors: the revolutionary mobilization of the armed Vietnamese people and the huge defeatist mobilization of a significant part of the American youth, working class and even soldiers. This defeat sent the military draft system into a crisis, which constitutes a strong political and military limit, from which the United States still hasn’t recovered 45 years later. The defeat in the war in Vietnam made the United States depend exclusively on professional and mercenary armies for direct intervention in other countries. An American revolutionary should be able to draw valuable conclusions from this.  

Sunkara can disagree with Lenin’s concept of imperialism and the way he relates this to the failure of social-democracy as a revolutionary force. But he doesn’t even consider the problem, which is a serious defect of what defines itself as the manifesto of a revolutionary organization which militates in the main imperialist power of our era. 

In fact, Kautsky didn’t characterize imperialism as an era of capitalist development but as a policy that could or could not be adopted by different capitalist governments. This is to say that we could hope for Germany or the United States to have a more progressive government that would abandon their exploitation of other nations, as if it wasn’t a structural characteristic of their dominant classes and those nation’s development. Kautsky, on the other hand, stated that there could be the possibility of the development of “ultra-imperialism”, in which capitalist concentration would enable the overcoming of national confrontations resulting in the unification of humanity under bourgeois society.

A century later, permanent wars of imperialist looting, whether directly or by proxy; the failure of processes of capitalist integration, such as the European Union or NATO, and even the advanced tendencies towards national dissolution in the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy under the impact of the capitalist crisis, has rebuked all of Kautsky’s analysis. Sunkara defends Kautsky without drawing the basic conclusions from his main statements.

Textbook anti-communism

Sunkara’s criticisms of the trajectory of the Russian Revolution reproduces all the clichés of anti-communist yankee discourse. Over the course of two generations of intellectual figures that went over from socialism to the American political establishment, they have absorbed all the quirks of Cold War propaganda. They say that Bolsheviks were authoritarian because they maintained the “military formation” they were forced to adopt in clandestine work under czarism, equaling the characteristics of Stalinism with those of revolutionary Bolshevism, against all political evidence. Sunkara adds that they “didn’t foresee” what being in power would be like; this is to say, that they didn’t foresee the need of democratic organs, as he does indeed in his manifesto. He repeats the typical condemnation of “totalitarism” made by western academics and yellow social-democracy, without analyzing the concrete class contents of the bureaucratized workers’ state, just as Trotsky and the Left Opposition did, in real time, in the Soviet Union. The problem was not “a lack of foresight” but the development of a caste in the workers’ state because the revolution didn’t expand globally and had to survive within the borders of an undeveloped country, together with the development of specific material interests which it defended with all the resources the State. However, Sunkara’s ideological predecessors took sides with yankee imperialism, which worked for capitalist re-colonization of the workers’ state, not for a political revolution against the bureaucracy.

Sunkara doesn’t try to understand what the dynamic of capitalist restoration developed in the last decades in China and Russia is, either. He only concludes that there is no socialism, for a lack of democracy, and that in China there is a capitalist expansion with state intervention. He doesn’t connect the failure of Fukuyama’s prediction on “the end of history”, which he quotes, with the accumulated contradictions of ongoing capitalist restoration of bureaucratized workers’ states within the global capitalist system, making overproduction and capitalist rivalries worse. Marxism is not a figure to include in a gallery of party heroes, it is a key to the understanding of the world in which we must act.

Scandinavian “socialism”

The Swedish “model” of welfare State which Sunkara wants to present as an approximation to socialism deserves looking over. Sunkara makes two assertions that don’t necessarily go hand in hand. On one side, he says that in the mid 70s Sweden achieved the best statistics for social living conditions of its population. On the other side, he says at that point is when the reach of the dominion of capital over society and production was most limited.

Sweden was able to make the most of the post-war economic boom, which lasted until the beginnings of the 70s. Not having participated in either of the two great wars, it had its resources and industrial development intact, and could make the most of the huge demand encouraged by the reconstruction of the continent. 

The welfare state was an international post-war tendency in all imperialist countries. It had a main historical reason: to avoid the expansion of socialist revolution. After the Soviet Union’s survival from several invasions and attacks from the entire capitalist world, a new revolutionary cycle that took place after the Second World War was added to the picture. And in those countries in which they didn’t follow the Stalinist rulebook, such as in China and Yugoslavia. Sunkara’s strictly national method of analysis does not allow him to recognize that the policies of welfare states were, to a great extent, the product of the revolutionary struggles, which he considers doomed to failure, and the inspiration and support that was awakened for them around the whole world.

When the end of this economic cycle and the intensification of international class struggle fostered radicalization in Sweden, causing great concern to capitalists and the social-democratic government, strikes that exceeded traditional trade unions leaders succeeded to impose exceptional conditions of full employment and state benefits.

As Sunkara tells us, big business carried out a resistance which managed to archive a reformist plan made by the unions, establishing instead a profit distribution mechanism between employees and employers, which is far from a change in the control of the means of production. The “Meidner committee” (Social-democrat committee, of union extraction, that promoted this project) anticipated a strong resistance from the corporations and highlighted that they were not expropriating the employers. They weren’t losing any of their wealth, they only had to resign part of their future profits. And that part of the profit didn’t have to pay taxes, so the state itself was subsidizing the funds (of profit distribution). 

Sunkara quotes a communist congressman of that time, C.H. Hermansson, who highlighted that after almost 40 years of uninterrupted social-democratic Swedish government, fifty families dominated the majority of Swedish industry. Important industries such as automotive, pharmaceutical, arms, among other sectors, were developed in the country catering to European and international markets. To summarize, for the social-democratic government, “what was good for Volvo was good for Sweden”.

The following years gave way to a progressive dismantling of the welfare state, which had a leap with the bank crisis and national recession in the 90s, which ended up with a huge bank rescue by the State. Integration to the European Union enforced austerity policies. 1% of the population controls 40% of the wealth. Unemployment in Sweden oscillates between a 6 and a 7%, reaching 20% among youth. The economy had the arms industry as one of its engines, making a country of 10 million residents into the third weapon exporter per capita of the world, after Israel and Russia. This place has been conquered by a progressive military integration to NATO and supplying deeply anti-democratic and repressive satellite countries of the United States, like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. An academic expert on the Swedish arms industry said that “Our participation in the Libya campaign (NATO 2011) was very beneficial to the Gripen (a fighter airplane by the Saab Company). This is something that no politician would accept but it is the truth. People saw it participating in aerial campaigns. It’s good for business”. This physical participation in the world imperialist military apparatus doesn’t make up for the declarations or proposals that some of the Swedish presidents had stated regarding Apartheid in South Africa and that Sunkara quotes with such enthusiasm. A capitalist politician can take the liberty of being progressive; even get an advantage from that, as long as it doesn’t affect the business of the class that he represents. 

In short, to ignore the international role of imperialism is equivalent to breaking the compass that allows judging what role is being played by a state or a party from the point of view of the emancipation of the peoples.

Guerrilla Entryism?

On the issue of what party should be built corresponding to the “socialist” position promoted by the manifesto, Sunkara falls again into ambiguity. Although it vindicates the surge of the left wing lead by Jeremy Corbyn of the Labor Party, he says that “In general we shouldn’t try to capture discredited social-democratic parties but rather work within the left-wing ones that have appeared in recent years”, such as Podemos, Die Linke or Bloco de Esquerda.  

The manifesto abstains from taking a position on the political intervention of these organizations, indicating support for them in general and vague terms. The Bloco has governed Portugal, together with the old Socialist Party, resulting in a deterioration of workers’ living conditions, maintaining the wage reduction of between 20 and 25% that had been taken under the former government, as well as the labor reform which made working conditions more precarious. One could presume that if Sunkara had written this a few years ago, Syriza would be in the same list, although the level of misery it inflicted on its people has made him consider it in a negative light (“it started retreating as soon as it came into office”, says Sunkara).

In Sunkara’s book Corbyn is considered someone that “is generating class struggle through electoral campaigns”, on an even greater scale than Sanders. However, Sunkara doesn’t take any position on Brexit and the European Union, the main strategic problem that Corbyn had to face in Great Britain. Doing Monday morning quarterbacking, after the recent labor defeat, Jacobin discovered that the absence of a clear statement on Brexit resulted in a retreat and a division of the labor electorate. It should be stated clearly that the most leftist fraction of the Labor Party gave the right-wing demagogues the chance to channel the rejection of workers and masses to the austerity imposed by the European Union. Superficiality and indifference to strategic issues lead to this type of opportunist political relation, in which they only see defects when they come face-to-face with the problem. Jacobin’s scribes also fail to draw conclusions from the systematic sabotage of the labor right to the electoral presentations of their own Party under Corbyn’s leadership. These kinds of conclusions would allow them to anticipate what they should expect if Sanders ever achieves to get nominated by the Democratic Party.

Participation in “broad” left organizations, that would be valid as a general rule, would be contraindicated in the country in which Jacobin and DSA have significant political influence. The United States’ particularities would explain the necessity to participate, not in a social-democratic Party, but in a party of the imperialist regime with two hundred years of history at the service of capitalist oppression, with countless atrocities among its assets, from multiple military invasions abroad to the defense of slavery. 

Sunkara briefly quotes an article of his colleague in Jacobin, Seth Ackerman, in which he develops a justification to present themselves within the framework of the Democratic Party. Condemning yankee electoral democracy as an authoritarian fraud to popular will to preserve the two big parties of capital as protection for the system is used… to justify surrendering to this trap. Sunkara quotes leonine conditions to legalize third parties and present candidates. (Democrats and republicans are already registered by law). He also quotes that the legislative representation in the United States is not proportional, only the winner of each district enters (“first past the post” rule).  

It is taken for granted that the path to building an independent party leads militancy to be almost fully dedicated to maintaining electoral legality. This would automatically lead to the formation of a marginal political group. (Ackerman even explains that, for psychological reasons, those groups are only approached by people that would be pleased with marginality, while the real mass organizers and political leaders are only interested in “viable” organizations. Fortunately, socialists that developed their organizations against the Bismark regime, the Romanov dynasty or latin-american dictatorships did not ask for Ackerman or Jacobin’s advice to measure the “viability” of their efforts or if they would be approached individuals psychologically predisposed to success).

The difficulties they expose, show deep adaptation to the political regime and the logic of the lesser evil. It is said that, given the lack of proportional representation, the presentation of any third candidate spoils the possibilities of the democratic candidate against the republican and that this causes rejection. This pressure to choose the lesser evil carries weight in any bourgeois election. The political polarization that takes place in any election, under this logic, would prevent from presenting independent candidates. This shows that, despite all the manifesto says about using electoral campaigns to boost workers’ organization, it rejects an electoral intervention that would only serve as agitation and not be centered in capturing possible positions for office. 

The other condition, that they deduce from the failure of the attempt to form a Labor Party in the 90s, is that in order to build an independent party it is necessary to have the support of national unions, but bureaucratic union leadership is, in general, integrated to the Democratic Party. As Trotsky said, “he who kneels before the fait accompli is unable to face the future”. Anyone who thinks that there is nothing outside the existing party structures and union leaders, is preparing to bind himself to them. The importance of doing revolutionary work in the labor movement, among union members and non-members, is an obligation to build an independent organization. The failure of the Labor Party shows the insuperable limits of the progressive wing of the union bureaucracy that fostered it, which didn’t have separating from the American state and its parties on its agenda, drawing support from the massive organization of workers and the mobilization against capitalists and their political representatives. It was born dead because it's only objective was to wrangle some political space for leaders that were marginalized by existing bourgeois parties.       

Sunkara and Ackerman present the Democratic Party as a sort of State-Party, with no political program, without rank-and-file organisms and without members, in the sense that these could have power to decide over the activity of the organization. This, which is pretty much true, because the existence of these kind of parties is based on the relationship between individuals already occupying office in the state and the capitalist sectors whose interests they represent, and there is no structure in which they develop an organic relationship with supporters. All of this, however, disguises a fraud.

Bourgeois parties have political programs. Political struggles can occur between different factions to modify those programs. But those that occupy deciding positions in the parliament and the government mostly make the decisions and define the effective political program. Trump has imposed a protectionist program on the Republican Party, which under the Bush administration  had a different orientation, an active military intervention to foster yankee economic influence. It is undeniable that there is a continuity between the Clinton and Obama government and Nancy Pelosi’s politics in congress. This is so much the case that the political crisis that has driven the impeachment charge against Trump is closely related to the defense of colonial positions acquired by the Democratic Party during its governments in the Middle East and Ukraine, related to the program of capitalist restoration in Russia and China. 

Sunkara presents himself as a “critic” of Clinton, Obama and Biden, and shows that the statutes of the Democrat Party do not allow expulsions or restrictions to critics like him to justify his entryism strategy.  However, in this manifesto he makes no real political critique of the national and international policies of his Party.

Sunkara quotes the presumptuous definition of this policy made by Ackerman who calls it “the electoral equivalent of a guerilla insurgency”. They are awestruck because yankee electoral laws don't allow the DNC to stop left candidates from presenting challenges to the leadership. But that very “legal loophole” is a huge channel to co-opt the left, the labor movement, anti-racist movements, women and other sectors of activism, that has worked for decades to neutralize the emergence of any formation that could challenge them. Sunkara, recognizes this, and says that if DSA builds a centralized organization, with a program and a disciplined militancy, this entrysm would be qualitatively different and would avoid political domination of this encarnation of the democratic left.          

However, the political pressure for leftist legislators to fit into “realistic” political reforms agenda is huge. The possibility to find some support for any of their proposals, even the moderated ones, is subordinated to “playing on the democratic team” when making political calls. To the masses, Ocasio-Cortez, organic militant of DSA, is a figure of the Democractic Party and she is presented as such in the media and the Parliament.  Her organization doesn’t present itself to the masses under its own banners and political program.

The development of left wings within parties of the regime is supported by Sunkara with the argument that campaigns such as Sander’s or Corbyn’s foster class struggle and workers’ organization, by conducting an enormous agitation. But agitation as such can only advance under the condition of building on a trend that exists strongly in reality and in the masses. Political agitation, whether reformist or revolutionary, doesn’t create radicalization. It emerges from the masses' frustration as a result of their living conditions, generated by state policies. Mass clashes emerge as a consequence of the capitalist crisis. The generation that is taking a militant path is the one that is suffering the worsening of the living conditions and precarious labor, after watching how a “progressive” government of Democratic Party, as they expected Barack Obama’s to be, bailed out the banks with government funds and reinforced repressive forces and the prison complex, which condemn coloured youths.

Political agitation can link the rage and the actions of the masses to the development of an organization and can unfold a program. In Trotsky’s famous analogy, mass action is the steam and the organization is the boiler that can harness that energy to achieve a specific political action. The agitation doesn’t create mass action, it just leads it to a specific objective.

If a rise in the masses is channelled by “combative” agitation which reinforces its connections to parliamentarism and the parties that defend the imperialist state, instead of improving the conditions for a revolutionary development, it is doing fine work to undermine the clash against the discredited parties of the regime. Filling out this role is not contradictory with the greater verbal radicalization that the Sanders campaign, Ocasio-Cortez and the DSA are adopting as the political crisis in the United States gets bigger. Sanders talks about extending class struggle, and the necessity of a political revolution in which the workers play a crucial role. DSA says, in the presence of clashes with Iran that it wants “no war but class war”. But from words to deeds, the only steps taken against Trump are parliamentary maneuvers. The demand for impeachment will surely have no result but an early electoral campaign for 2020. The streets, meanwhile, are empty and with no calls for mobilization from these “class warriors”, dedicated to the democratic primaries.

The US left caves in

The Sanders movement, the election of progressive parliamentarians and the growth of DSA development has, in fact, acted as a signal for a large part of the left of the United States to integrate itself into the Democratic Party or to make them revolve around their campaigns. 

The International Socialist Organization was, until 2019, the largest American organization calling itself Leninist or Trotskyist. It had an important development among university students and several teacher unions. It also had sections in all fifty states. It came originally from the same tendency as the British SWP, led by Tony Cliff and Alex Callinicos. The International Socialist Organization and the British SWP shared characterizations on Soviet Unions, China and Cuba, defining them as “State capitalism”. Just like the British SWP, in recent years the ISO had a very important crisis which apparently, had at its center the cover up of sexual abuse cases and the lack of internal democracy that was demonstrated in the handling of these cases. After their March 2018 Convention, which drastically changed the composition of national leadership, the new leadership decided, a month later, to dissolve the ISO and its organs. The problem of the relationship with the Democratic Party, the Sanders campaign, the DSA and the relationship with union leaders in the ISO, for example Chicago’s teacher’s union, were present in previous debates of the national convention, apparently on a secondary level. A few months after the dissolution, part of its leadership and Haymarket Editorial became an organic part of DSA and the block led by Jacobin. Solidarity, a “broad” left organization, founded in the 80s as a result of the merger of different parties, was also integrated to DSA.  

Socialist Alternative, a trotskyist organization that comes from the same current as the English Militant group and its international group CWI, has formally kept its independence from the Democratic Party, although they have supported the Sanders campaign in 2016 and 2020. Since 2013, they have a city councilwoman in Seattle, Kashma Sawant, who was elected on their own party ballot. Socialist Alternative supported Sanders in primaries but they demand that Sanders, AOC and the DSA proclaim a new Party that they would integrate, separate from the democrats. They carried out campaigns under left democratic slogans, they are a part of a Green New Deal movement –a way to hold organic campaigns for Sanders and AOC without integrating the Democratic Party. In the 2019 elections she had the support of the local Democratic Party, which abstained from presenting candidates against Sawant. She was reelected against a republican opponent with huge economic support from the Amazon giant, which was interested in dominating city council.    

However, the progress that these tendencies have made is not helping a development towards an independent program, instead, it always leads to recreating expectations on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party separating itself. Would the answer to the problems of American workers come from the party of Sanders and AOC?    

A revolutionary program for “American exceptionalism”

The preparation of a revolutionary program for action in America is yet a pending task, after the publication of Sunkara’s “Socialist Manifesto”. This task should start by a study of the conditions of the exploitation of American workers. Of how precarious labor, migration of labor power and the impact of outsourcing on these conditions. The thesis of the CRFI, voted in 2004, begin with an analysis of the consequences of the international competition of labor, which has become more profound after the beginning of the capitalist restoration process of the USSR and its block of influence.  

Imperialist wealth and even the composition of the population of the metropolis, both in terms of labor and government administration are a global metabolism, it’s not a strictly national phenomenon. Internal racial problems, which derive from the development of slavery and subsequent waves of migration of labor, must be studied in order to develop a revolutionary policy that places the organization acting profoundly on the sie of the oppressed.   

The best traditions of activism during the uprisings that took place at the end of the sixties, with the movement against the war and the movement for black civil rights, began with resisting the oppression of the United States military state in the country and abroad. The radicalization then even took the most pacifist wing, most integrated to the regime, such as Reverend Martin Luther King, to confirm a relationship between urban black uprisings, such as Watts in 1965, and the invasion of Vietnam. The vanguard of the movement against the war sang “Ho Chi Minh is gonna win”, expressing a path of revolutionary defeatism. An American revolutionary movement must take this legacy as a starting point.  

The United States is the headquarters and the main force behind the IMF, the World Bank and the central hub of financial movements. The sacking of the world has its bases in Washington and New York. Its economic dynamic cannot be analyzed or understood separated from this role. In Trump's era, the United States is heading into complex economic, commercial and geopolitical clashes with the European Union, China and Russia. The world capitalist crisis and the fall of the rate of profit are the incentive for these clashes. The local American political reality cannot be understood without taking these elements into account. The tendency to prolonged and serious wars depend on the development of these crises, which will have deep political consequences in the country. 

Sunkara doesn’t have anything to say about this. He systematically underestimates the imperialist role of the US state. The military, political and intelligence apparatus created by the United States is the most monstrous of human history. However, Sunkara thinks that the United States has an easy path to socialism because “it doesn’t have to deal with anti-democratic supra-national organizations like the Eurozone”. As if the imposition of the domestic and international agenda of yankee bourgeoisie was less serious than that of their Franco-German counterparts!    

The possibility that the ongoing radicalization that is taking place in the United States, within this context of crisis and international clashes, leads to a decisive victory doesn’t depend on electoral results for the progressives or on unionization rates. It depends on the possibility of oppressed people striking back together with peoples who confront the empire all over the world. Then we will be able to strike blows at the center of power, affecting the imperialist state’s capacity to rule.    

The thousands and thousands of American young people and workers that want socialism deserve a real revolutionary program. 

Sobre el Autor

Guillermo Kane