The Social Democratic Road to Socialism: An Interview with Bhaskar Sunkara

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia,” Oscar Wilde once wrote, “is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.” Wilde’s utopia was socialism, a social order that he believed would overcome the misery and exploitation wrought by industrial capitalism. More than a century later, as issues like inequality and climate change swell the ranks of the left in Europe and abroad, one hears renewed calls to set sail for a society that lies beyond the capitalist horizon. One of the most important English-language fora for this resurgent socialism is Jacobin, a print-and-digital magazine founded, edited, and published by Bhaskar Sunkara. Where many other radical publications have languished in relative obscurity with small, hard-bitten, and sectarian readerships, Jacobin has flourished and become a mainstream talkshop for a broad segment of the left. With his new book, The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality, Sunkara excavates the diverse socialist tradition—of German Marxists, Bolsheviks, Swedish social democrats, and others—to chart a navigable course to a socialist future. His account is fervent, irreverent, and irrepressibly optimistic: whatever the ghost of socialism past, he seems to say, the ghosts of socialism present and future portend a lasting triumph over capitalism. Sunkara and I met in Brooklyn in April 2019 to discuss his new book. What follows is an abridged and edited transcript of our conversation.

—Kelly McKowen for EuropeNow

EuropeNow We live at a time when you have YouTube, social media, and all of these platforms for digital communication—and yet, you chose to participate in the venerable manifesto tradition of writing a book. Why make the case for a twenty-firstt century socialism with a book?

Bhaskar Sunkara I think writers, especially young writers, write too quickly. I’m a columnist for The Guardian US, so I have to file fortnightly. Often, I write those pieces very quickly. A lot of them are reactive, but I wanted to also think about ideas a step removed from politics. I am obviously a partisan of socialism, and a lot of things I write are moral denunciations of the way things are, posing that there’s an alternative. With the book, I have that sense of moral urgency, but I also wanted to take a step away from day-to-day politics and talk about the long tradition of socialist politics—what do we make of it? I wanted to talk about the failures and even the tragedies of the tradition and ask what we actually managed to accomplish, how we situate all of these different strands of socialism, particularly social democracy. And I wanted to just take a step back and sit and read books. To write a book, you need to read books. I don’t think I wrote the definitive book about socialism, but I do think that I wrote something that captures a segment of what the American left is thinking and how we’re conceptualizing our history as socialists.

EuropeNow A book does require more in terms of imagination from its readers. It’s not like film or another visual medium where you’re actually depicting things. And you ask your reader to be quite imaginative. The book begins with a fantasy of what life would be like in a twenty-first century socialist society. Why did you feel it was important to open the book by looking forward?

Bhaskar Sunkara Most books about socialism are essentially critiques of capitalism, and I wanted to start with the affirmative. So, in the first chapter, through a second-person narrative, I try to give a very sugarcoated explanation of the Marxist theory of exploitation in a capitalist workplace, explain how unions mitigate some of this exploitation, and explain how a social democracy would mitigate even more and decommodify a bunch of the economy and allow people to flourish and reach much of their potential. I also explain why social democracy is maybe not enough or not quite up to our moral and ethical standards if we’re socialists, what a political movement that might construct and then go beyond social democracy might look like, and then finally explain what I think a feasible socialism could look like. I did this in like 7,000 words, and I thought a flowy narrative would be a way to not turn off readers but draw them in, to start with this positive vision of what society could look like, instead of starting with denunciations. I think it will be polarizing. Some people won’t like the approach. Some, from scholarly backgrounds, might want to grapple with, say, the chapter on social democracy, which I think is probably my best research. They might not understand the first chapter, but there are hopefully thousands who would otherwise not delve into the history that makes up much of the book without an accessible opening.

EuropeNow So, the book is very forward-looking and global in its aspirations, but you also engage deeply with European history. You provide what are almost parables for twenty-first century socialists. The first is the parable of the German social democrats. What are the takeaways from that story?

Bhaskar Sunkara I think the main takeaway is that workers were in fact part of the initial push for democracy and suffrage, and that in fact the objective identity of being a worker in relation to capital actually turned into a subjective identity, an identity that cohered through unions, parties, and civic organizations. It is also the fact that they steadily grew and encountered the dilemma of thinking it would be easy to build something outside of capitalism, assuming that they would progress from strength to strength.

I think this is all key, as today there are a lot of questions on portions of the left about whether the working class actually exists, or whether there are other subjects that can take the place of the working-class subject. Drawing on this history of mass politics, how unlikely its creation was, we can maybe see that it’s still possible to create unions and political parties against the odds. Often, the story is told in reverse: people start at World War I and go backwards. To me, the Second International parties are tremendous successes. The failure itself was contingent and could have been avoided. And we saw after the failure the evolution of the revolutionary wing of the Bolsheviks and others and a wing—or really two wings—that that grappled with the question of how you administer and transform the capitalist state. The conclusion I come to is that a viable road to socialism is a road that runs through social democracy.

EuropeNow In the book, you excavate the successes of German social democracy from its ultimate tragedy. You also write about the Soviet Union. What does the Soviet Union teach 21st century socialists?

Bhaskar Sunkara It’s clear that transforming society is difficult and complex, and the barriers are not just political, they’re technical. Obviously, you could say that Russia didn’t have a strongly developed civil society the way we do today in the west. You could say that Russia was a ‘backward’ country in terms of its industrial development, that it had a very small working class that was devastated by an ongoing world war, that it was soon to be plunged into a civil war. The Bolsheviks thought at the very least it would be simple enough to take power and delivery on their promises of land, bread, and peace. They were wrong about this and several other things, such as whether markets could be overcome and at what stage they could be overcome.

Beyond that, the history of the Soviet Union shows that we need to think about socialism’s relationship with liberalism and the need for a bedrock of civil and political rights. Even if you did have a popular mass democratic government, there are certain spheres where we don’t want the state involved.

Other positive examples from the Soviet experience? I don’t believe in the idea that Lenin necessarily becomes Stalin. I think there was a different route, still somewhat authoritarian but with a far less brutal state. I don’t think Khrushchev was Stalin, I don’t think Bukharin, had he triumphed, would have been like Stalin. And even the fact that an element of the Soviet bureaucracy around Gorbachev at least undid or sped up the undoing of the Soviet Union or the fact there were mass democratic revolutions in the Eastern bloc should lead us to reexamine some of the literature of the 1950s and 1960s that told us that this was a monolithic, all-powerful, totalitarian state that grinds people down to the point that they can’t resist. I think it underestimates the capacities of people to fight back against intolerable conditions.

EuropeNow If there is a specter that haunts your book, it’s the ghost of Swedish social democracy. I know you’re a basketball fan, and it’s hard to read The Socialist Manifesto and not think that the Swedish social democrats had the ball on a fast break and missed the layup. What do we have to learn from the Swedish social democratic story?

Bhaskar Sunkara I actually think that in a certain way they won. It’s an incredible story. You have a party in a country that’s extremely backward and repressive. The Sweden we think of today is not the one you would have thought of at the turn of the twentieth century. This party manages to keep together leftists, some trade unions, people fighting for temperance—this broad working-class political coalition. And they also figured out how to relate to networks of farmers. The party is able to initiate a huge democratic transformation of the country to win suffrage, then after some fits and starts in its early years of government, it’s able to rule virtually uninterrupted for the next half century. In the course of that half century, it creates a massive welfare state, it creates a coherent industrial policy that turns Sweden into a wealthy, high-wage country. It did a lot of incredible things. And under Palme, it turned toward support for national liberation movements and allowed Sweden to play this hugely positive role internationally. So, I would say that maybe a better analogy would be a soccer analogy: Sweden’s social democrats dominated play but only won 1-0. It seemed liked they should have done more.

But as a socialist, as someone who thinks that, from a moral standpoint, the capitalist workplace and other things in capitalism are unacceptable and that we should try to create forms of democratic worker control and ownership, I’m also interested in what happened at the peak of Swedish social democracy in the late 1960s and 1970s. The security and comfort of the welfare state led people to demand more not less. The Leninists would have guessed that a welfare state would buy off workers, whereas in fact it caused them to ask deeper questions. It caused them to ask: why don’t we have more workplace democracy? Why does our bargaining agreement only cover this and not that? I write at length about the Meidner plan, which wasn’t just an ideological attempt to socialize production. It was an attempt to fix a growing crisis in the economics of social democracy, and, in doing so, push social democracy to its left.

The people who are the most frustrating to talk with are those who don’t acknowledge the extent and severity of the crisis in the 1970s. I think that there was no way to stand firm and keep the system going as it was. In other words, often on the left you hear denunciations of the Gerhard Schröders of the world, the Gordon Browns of the world, like this generation was any worse than previous generations. If Gordon Brown was leader of the Labour Party in the 1930s, he would have been the most left-wing leader in the party’s history, I imagine. But that right-wing of social democracy saw the extent of the crisis, a crisis rooted in the fact that capital would no longer tolerate social democracy once it had had its profitability cut and was exposed to new international competition and the OPEC shock. This led capital to rebel against the social democratic class compromise. It didn’t take Milton Friedman or the Chicago school. It just took the logic of capital itself, which said, “We know that excessive regulations and strong unions are barriers toward us restructuring and figuring out ways to restore the profitability levels we find acceptable.” The logic of third way social democracy—the right wing of social democracy—was to allow this restructuring to happen but to make sure that under conditions of restored profitability and growth, enough was taxed to preserve the welfare state. That was their logic, and they mostly succeeded. If you look, the European welfare state is largely intact.

Then you had the center of social democracy, where a lot of people just had their heads in the sand. They neither wanted to move left nor right. They thought that this was a temporary crisis, a cyclical thing that they would bump out of. I do think there was a solution on the left wing of social democracy, a solution to deepen democracy, deepen socialization, resolve the crisis. That’s my pathway to socialism. It’s through this left-wing of social democracy. It’s through expanding socialization from the highest point of social democracy.

EuropeNow So, you draw a lot on European history, but contemporary Europe is to many observers the cauldron where the new reactionary far right has come into being. Are there models in today’s Europe for a socialist way forward?

Bhaskar Sunkara I think that a lot of social democrats in Europe have completely misunderstood what the problem is. Even when they talk about populism, they often make it seem like the problem is the return of democratic participation. I think that the decline of social democracy has fueled the right and created conditions in which people feel alienated and discontented. The only way they can make their voice heard is through right-wing campaigns. So, I’m an opponent of the kind of European integration that has gone on the last 20-30 years. I don’t think Britain should be in the European Union. I wouldn’t have supported that Brexit campaign given the campaign’s nativist rhetoric, but you can imagine someone who feels like they have no control over what’s going on. They see standards of living declining around them, and they see this media narrative where life is only getting better—you can travel to Italy without a visa! Meanwhile, these people don’t have money to travel. They’ve been unemployed or dealing with whatever else. Then, after being deprived of democracy at the local level, at the state level, deprived of being part of a mass party, they’re given this one-off democratic opportunity in a referendum. The takeaway for a lot of technocrats in Europe is, “Oh! Don’t you see that democracy is a bad thing?” My view is that maybe you don’t give people the massive referendum as their only exercise of democracy, but you find ways to rejuvenate civic life. The positive alternative that I see is the Corbyn movement, which I describe as a “class-struggle social democracy.” It’s similar to how I describe Sanders.

EuropeNow Tell me about that concept.

Bhaskar Sunkara When the left thinks about social democracy in its peak period, they think about Anthony Crosland, the Wilson governments, and so on. They think about a social democracy that’s a reflection of class organization and strength, but which takes this organization and strength and brings workers to a bargaining table with capital, with the state, and facilitates some sort of compromise, which takes away rank-and-file energy and directs it in a narrow way.

I think this new social democracy represents the generation of class forces, class conflict, and polarization, rather than cooptation. It’s not tied to NATO and the imperial project. I think this new social democracy—of Corbyn, to some degree of Sanders—answers the criticisms that the far left had of social democracy in the 1960s. And it’s creating the future basis for left of center politics. It’s the start of something.

EuropeNow That’s very optimistic.

Bhaskar Sunkara Well, I think there are different ways you can justify taking power. I think that Corbyn getting into office, using the bully pulpit to encourage people to become active in local Labour Party branches, active in their unions, joining social movements, while also defending them from right-wing austerity attacks and administering mild reforms, which is probably the best we can expect of a Corbyn government, would be a triumph. It would restore the idea that government and politics can improve people’s lives, that democracy doesn’t just mean demagoguery.

In Europe, I see some hope in these left-populist formations like Podemos, but in general the far left is at an impasse. A party like Die Linke has asserted the continuity in the existence of a left, but it’s a party of 10 percent. I have to imagine that in a lot of these countries, the rejuvenation will have to come from social democratic parties.

EuropeNow There are folks associated with Die Linke that have called for a movement away from the classic leftist critique of immigration controls in favor of a more restrictive immigration regime. This is also something we’re seeing in Denmark, where the social democrats are surging, and the media is arguing that it’s a result of their stealing some of the thunder from the Danish People’s Party.

Bhaskar Sunkara I disagree with that approach, though I don’t disagree with it in the same way that certain leftist critics do. My stance is the classic social democratic stance, which would be to push against a zero-sum game understanding of the economy, or that more workers coming in means more wage competition means lower wages. That’s not how the economy works. There isn’t just one labor market, and when workers are coming here for jobs, they’re creating value. The case for refugees probably has to be made from a more moral standpoint, in which you might not be able to incorporate ten million people in one month but there’s no necessary limit, there’s more like a speed limit, which is something the European social democrats often say.

You need to get people fired up and energetic about the issues you’re strongest on. You need to convince them that you’re going to preserve the social safety net, get them jobs, address other insecurities that they have. You might not win people over on immigration, but they’re still going to vote for you anyway, and the net result of your policies is going to be an improvement of their lives. So, we’re fighting false scarcity, improving lives, and maybe downplaying immigration.

There’s a way in which the European left has a bizarre view of politics, where it now believes in all of these different social movements—a movement of movements—and electoral campaigns. They’re not going to organize the way they used to, and they’ll ignore the trade unions. We used to have the red star as a symbol of the European left, now it’s like a purple, wacky inflatable man. It’s just not rooted. And they don’t even think of immigrant workers as workers. They think of them as people of color living in a city. How are you going to build a coalition with power and strength there?

The party on the far left that I’m excited about that might surprise readers is the Worker’s Party in Belgium.  It has engaging campaigns and a far more rooted, organic way. It’s a post-Maoist party, but it’s one that has done real organizing. I think it depends on the country. Sometimes it’s going to be these far-left parties building a base and surpassing the center-left parties. I imagine in some countries, like Portugal, it will be a coalition between the left and center-left parties. But in most countries, it will either be the regeneration of center-left parties into real mass forces for social democracy or far-left parties surpassing and eating up those vote shares. We’re all grappling for answers. What I think is really important is that we don’t engage in the false scarcity of this immigration rhetoric coming from the right or in a purely moralistic rhetoric of, “We should do this because it’s the right thing to do,”  That makes it seem like workers are going to lose something. I don’t think that’s true.

The last thing I’ll say is that if you want open, vibrant politics you do need to have control over your industrial policy and that’s something a lot of the European institutions make difficult. That might seem like retreating to the nation state, but I think it’s retreating to the sphere where you have democratic say. There’s still plenty of room for open policies. Think about Sweden’s policies at the height of social democracy, these are trade-oriented policies, not hyper-protectionist policies. There are policies that are very internationalist: spending money on foreign aid, supporting the struggle against apartheid, going up against NATO at a time when it was very hard to go up against NATO. But Sweden is a nation state. For me, that’s the best model because though in the abstract we believe in a society without borders, it seems like we need a pathway there, and a social democratic nation state is a good place to start.

The underlying thing all of this is that I’m a far leftist, I’m a Marxist, I just don’t think there’s a route to skip the step of consolidating the majority and governing for a period under capitalism. And also I like to think about what works and what has worked. It seems to me that social democracy worked for a time, encountered a crisis, and that crisis can be resolved.

EuropeNow Eduard Bernstein famously declared that “the ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but movement is everything.” You quote this in the book—

Bhaskar Sunkara Not favorably!

EuropeNow Not favorably. But I’d be curious to know if the movement—the writing of the book—was an opportunity for you to learn new things or modify your thought. How did your thinking about socialism change through writing this book? Or did it?

Bhaskar Sunkara I better understand dilemmas. You see the way people encounter real dilemmas and respond to them. I think often on the left we have this almost Manichean view of the people from below versus the people from the top, but, for example, you have to understand the dilemma of the German trade union bureaucracy in the early 1900s and the way in which they responded rationally to those dilemmas. You understand some of the dilemmas of something like the Ethiopian revolution, where a group of people tried to modernize a country and it ends in one of the most bloody, actually forgotten episodes of socialist atrocity. Mostly the approach from my perch on the left would be to say “Oh this isn’t real socialism. That’s social democracy, it’s not from the socialist tradition. Mao? He had a very poor grasp of real Marxism, he was an idealist and it wasn’t socialism. The Soviet Union? That was an authoritarian bureaucracy.” It becomes a “no true Scotsman” thing. If you talk to a libertarian and you denounce capitalism to them, they say that’s “crony capitalism.” That to me is the most immature way to engage with politics. So, I wanted to bring this all back into the tradition of socialism, explain the common ancestor of all of these movements, and then address successes and failures. I don’t break with the consensus. When I look at the Nordic countries, I see the greatest triumph of the workers’ movement. I want to talk about why it unraveled and ask, is there anything about these countries we can’t reproduce elsewhere? I don’t think so. I reassert what was good in social democracy. Too much of the left has focused on learning from 1917 Russia, and they won’t pay attention to 1976 Sweden in the same way.

Writing the book made me a little less moralistic and pretty confident that people have not stopped trying to collectively organize. Socialism has been given chance after chance after chance because people don’t like being oppressed, they don’t like being bullied. They inherently believe there has to be a different way. I don’t think the movement is going anywhere, which is a good thing, and I’m pretty confident that we’re going to have egalitarian movements take power and institute something approximating social democracy in these new conditions.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founder and editor of Jacobin, as well as a columnist for The Guardian US. His new book is entitled The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality (Basic Books).

Kelly McKowen is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University. He serves on the research editorial committee at EuropeNow.

Published on June 3, 2019.


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