Can Socialism Save American Democracy?
Photo by Jeff Gauthier
It was all but a formal declaration of his re-election strategy. “Here in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” President Donald Trump bellowed during his State of the Union address in February. “Tonight, we renew our resolve that this will never be a socialist country.” (It should be noted that the line earned applause from several congressional Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.)
Since then, the Republican chorus has only grown louder, crescendoing last month with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s call to make 2020 a “referendum on socialism.” McConnell’s recent remarks beg the question: Amid a historic transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top, is this still the reliable line of attack the GOP seems to think it is?
In the preface to his new book, The Socialist Manifesto, Jacobin founder and editor Bhaskar Sunkara argues that “it’s obvious things are changing,” and data would appear to support his claim. According to the latest Gallup poll, “43 percent of Americans say socialism would be a good thing for the country”—between 1% and 2% more than approve of the president’s job performance. Among people of color, that number climbs to 57%.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a self-described democratic socialist, is a top contender for the Democratic nomination, and freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has emerged as one of the leading voices within the party (her national approval ratings have remained relatively low, thanks in no small part to Fox News’ coverage of her every utterance). Meanwhile, the Democratic Socialists of America has seen its membership soar from around 6,000 between 2011 and 2015 to 56,000—a modest number that nonetheless reflects a growing interest in its politics.
If Jacobin has sought to provide an intellectual framework for contemporary socialist thought, then Sunkara’s book offers a mission statement for the uninitiated, as well as a blueprint for “how we win.” But “The Socialist Manifesto” is much more than a “For Dummies”-style tutorial. In making his case for an “alternative politics,” Sunkara distills hundreds of years’ worth of international labor struggle into a succinct and compelling narrative, ranging from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to the Social Democratic Party in Germany, to the birth of the Second International and the October Revolution, to Eugene V. Debs and the Socialist Party of America in the U.S., and across Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. And true to his philosophical forebears, he provides a devastating indictment not just of capitalism but of liberalism’s complicity in its crimes.
“Socialism has survived a lot over the past century,” he writes. “It’s survived persecution from tyrants and the tyrants that it itself gave birth to. It survived the radical reshaping of capitalism and that of its great protagonist, the working class. But does socialism really have a future? … Technical and political barriers to progress can’t be underestimated, but if we are to make something better of our shared world, socialist politics, broadly conceived, offer us the best tools we have for getting there.”
Over the phone, Sunkara spoke with Truthdig about the major differences between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the future of Medicare-for-all and socialism’s tenuous alliance with the Democratic Party. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited and compressed for clarity.
Bhaskar Sunkara: [Chuckles] Yeah, it’s very exciting that democratic socialist groups are once again on the map in the United States. The way that I would think of it is that we are a political movement that was in a deep coma. While we’ve finally woken up from that coma, we’re still lying on our hospital beds, so we have a long way to go before democratic socialism is a mass part of American life. Right now, we have to be wary of conflating our success with the media event around it. Having a few popular politicians and lots of young enthusiastic people on social media is not the same as having deep roots in the working class, but it’s a start. When we [launched] Jacobin in late 2010, it was kind of a crazy thing to call yourself a socialist.
JS: The U.S. political establishment is obviously no stranger to redbaiting, even since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Republicans certainly did it to Obama while he was in office. But during my adult life, I can’t remember this level of panic from the right, even as it controls the White House, Senate and Supreme Court. So what do you think has changed?
BS: I think it can partly be explained by the collapse of liberal centrism, or at least the collapse of Clintonism in 2016. We’ve seen all this anti-establishment energy be monopolized by the right, and I think socialists, particularly Bernie Sanders, are viewed as a threat because they’re clearly not part of the Democratic Party establishment. They’re speaking to the same anger, but they’re doing so from the left. Why would Trump take aim at largely discredited figures like [Nancy] Pelosi and [Chuck] Schumer when he can attack this new insurgent force?
What we’re seeing, I think, is the growth of an opposition movement that’s clearly defined to the left of liberalism, that actually stands for something. The anger isn’t just posturing—it’s connected now with real policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all. And I think our message is frightening because we’re telling people that they deserve more and better, and that by joining with their neighbors in solidarity, they can lift themselves up. It’s a much more compelling narrative than that of fear-mongering about immigrants taking our jobs.
JS: In your book, you note that the Sanders/Warren wing of the Democratic Party, as it has been dubbed by the political press, is something of a misnomer. Can you explain why you believe Bernie to be a superior vehicle, not just for democratic socialism but social democracy as well?
BS: Right, so I should add the caveat that I really do appreciate Sen. Warren and her contributions to the Democratic primary. She’s pushing forward a lot of ideas in these policy papers, and I think she’s going to be a very positive force during the debates. Also, she and Sanders have a rapport; they’re not attacking each other. But when choosing between the two, I can’t help but look at their backgrounds and, ultimately, their worldviews. Bernie Sanders was a part of the Young People’s Socialist League in the early 1950s and has identified as a socialist in the years since. He participated in civil rights and trade union organizations in the ’60s and ’70s.
In the ’70s and ’80s, he engaged in independent electoral runs, including as the mayor of Burlington. During that period, he also took part in some really incredible anti-imperialist and solidarity efforts in Central America and South Africa. He was a part of the American left, and what I think this has imparted to him is the importance of taking on entrenched interests, which we can only do if we organize together against our common enemy. You can hear it in his rhetoric and the way that he directs the public’s anger at millionaires and billionaires.
When it comes to Warren, I’m not one of those people who really harps on the fact that she was a Republican up until the mid- to late ’90s. But when she talks about the political revolution, she’s less inclined to question the political system itself. She’s more interested in unrigging the game so that working people can participate in it as equals. So that suggests to me [that] her approach is that of a regulator rather than a class warrior. She can summon populist rhetoric, and does so quite effectively on occasion, but I think Sanders has already proven himself as someone who can galvanize a base of millions of people. He can build a network of volunteers who have the fundraising capabilities to compete with some of these really big establishment candidates. I believe his coalition could change the next 10 to 15 years of American policy.
JS: You make the case that Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. pose a radical break with the Third Way-ism of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair but also social democrats like Olof Palme in Sweden. What separates their political projects from those of their predecessors?
BS: If you’re on the left, I think the criticism of social democrats since the 1960s has been that they channel popular anger, activism and organization into [electoralism]. This can ultimately be depoliticizing, because you’re taking all this energy to get people elected. But once these people are elected, in order to legislate, you need social peace. So you’re sitting down labor and capital at the table with the state to figure out what ultimately works for capital.
The other criticism that applies to many of the center-left parties like the U.K. Labour Party is that they’re extremely wedded to the U.S.-backed imperial project. Look at the Harold Wilson government [in Britain] when it came to things like Vietnam. Today, if you look at Sanders, if you look at Corbyn, these are people that aren’t funneling existing working class struggles into elections but using electoral campaigns to regalvanize long-dormant working class [organization]. They’re trying to figure out how we can build trade-union and other social movements from below.
When it comes to imperial projects, Sanders has stood against U.S. policies within the Middle East and elsewhere. He might not go far enough for [some] of us on the left, but it’s still a radical departure from what other Democratic candidates are putting forward. Corbyn’s politics are even more resolutely anti-imperialist. He’s so hated by the British military that paratroopers were caught on video using his photograph for target practice. So to me, the difference is obvious. We’ve been in a period of deep defeat, and these campaigns are sparks attracting people to the ideas of the left, but also encouraging us to go out there and take the movement into our own hands. It’s very hard to overstate, the level of deep depoliticization and the weakness of [unions] over the past 20 to 30 years. It’s unprecedented in the history of capitalism.
JS: If we can return to Sanders for a moment, you argue that Medicare-for-all is indeed achievable, and I’m curious to know how you reconcile this idea with Sanders’ own stated aversion to constitutional hardball. Even if he were to get rid of the filibuster, which he claims he’s reluctant to do, it seems very possible to me that most, if not all, of his legislative agenda would be dead on arrival were he to win in 2020.
BS: I think his [argument] is that “If you elect me president, the environment will be different, and I’ll be able to corral the court and the democratic majority to move forward with my legislative priorities.” If there’s enough mobilization from the outside, Sanders could use his bully pulpit, and I think that has to be our approach. We obviously want to use the upcoming election to say, “These are the priorities, this system needs to provide Medicare-for-all, these people in Congress need to vote for this mandate, otherwise we need a primary vote.” I don’t believe in the politics of wishful thinking, but it seems to me a good-enough starting point, especially since there’s so much popular support for his legislative [agenda].
JS: I guess my concern is that it’s not clear to me that Democrats can reclaim the Senate, even if they were to win the presidential election in convincing fashion.
BS: Historically, Sanders has been a proponent of lots of political reform, including the abolition of filibusters. I don’t support his decision to [back away from that now], but it seems to me that he’s saying, “In the abstract, I’m for getting rid of the filibuster. But now [that] there’s a Republican majority in the Senate, God knows what Trump could do if there was no filibuster. This is an important tool used against a rival.” [I understand his thinking], but I think that’s a very dangerous and unprincipled way to think about things.
We are a part of a democracy, and I [believe] we should ultimately be calling for an abolition of the Senate and the creation of unicameral government that’s proportionally elected. We should get rid of gerrymandering in the House and make the House elections even more democratic. But yeah, I think that’s his logic, which is a very mainstream Democratic argument from a really firebrand figure. It doesn’t seem to jibe with what he is about or his previous statements over the decade, and I hope it’s just an aberration. [It’s also possible] that Sanders wants to start with Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal, issues where we’re strong, and then, in the process of fighting for those things, we can better galvanize support for the political reforms necessary to get them passed.
JS: I’m glad you brought up the Green New Deal, because Nancy Pelosi has been openly contemptuous of the proposal. What kind of place does a socialist movement ultimately have within the Democratic Party, if any?
BS: I think our stance has to be that we will run in a Democratic primary more often than not. This is not because we’re committed to the Democratic Party, but because we know that the social base for our policies are made with committed Democratic voters. These people are not Democrats because they’re dumb; they’re Democrats because they’re smart. They proudly believe in redistribution, they proudly believe in fighting racism, they proudly believe in defending Social Security and Medicare, and it makes sense to make sure Republicans are not in office.
In the long term, I do believe we need an independent party of the left, because we need a party rooted in the working class the way the Democrats are not. But in the short term, we have to run Democrats who are open Bernie-crats or open democratic socialists. I think that’s a starting point and something we would consider a breakthrough. And for readers who think that Bernie and AOC are sheepdogs, I would urge them to speak to people in Nancy Pelosi’s office to see what they think of this new crop of insurgents, because they’re giving them lots of headaches. They certainly don’t think that they’re regular Democrats there to help [the party].
There are dangers in this strategy, but we can’t be stuck in the mentality that “if we build it, they will come.” We [just] can’t spend all of our energy and resources constructing an independent third-party ballot line. In this country, there have been so many barriers thrown up against us that we need to find a different way.
JS: How can democratic socialism neutralize the surge in right-wing nationalism across the U.S. and Western Europe?
BS: I think that a lot of this surge has followed the collapse of social democracy. It’s easy to correlate these things. If you’re seeing your welfare benefits rolled back in the 1990s and the 2000s, and you’re also seeing your country have a higher proportion of immigrants, you might not recognize that these immigrants are creating value with their jobs and their efforts, [or] that the welfare state would be even more strained if they weren’t there. Instead, you’re saying, “My pie was getting bigger, and it’s no longer getting bigger. Now it’s getting smaller, and it’s being divvied up into more pieces.” It’s a false-scarcity mentality, and I think people have [confused] the retreat of the welfare state with the diversification of some of these societies. [We also don’t have] mass parties that incorporate immigrant workers with native-born workers to unite around a positive program.
The key is to recreate a politics of solidarity that fights against this narrative of false scarcity, that says that when working people band together, they can, in fact, get higher wages, they can get better benefits, they can win a welfare state—and that your enemy isn’t your neighbor next door willing to work for a buck or two an hour less than you, but the people [imposing this austerity].
JS: Fairly or not, organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America have come under scrutiny for their failure to appeal to people of color. How is this remedied, and what kind of place do identity politics ultimately have in the movement?
BS: [I’m glad] you asked that question, because I happen to think the problem is actually overstated. My favorite genre of mainstream coverage of DSA are articles where a white journalist asks brown or black members, “Where are the people of color?” I think the real issue is that the DSA is not yet firmly rooted in the working class, and if the working class is disproportionately people of color, that also means the DSA is going to be disproportionally white.
If DSA’s starting point is the white middle class, then we have two alternatives. We can either get all these members together in central Brooklyn and chat about how it’s a shame that we’re so white, or we can take our existing base and implant ourselves in working-class movements and struggles. We can take those people, which we’re doing now, and we can get them to help the Crown Heights tenants union. We can have them canvassing for Medicare-for-all, and we can have them volunteering for the Bernie Sanders campaign, which involves a hell of a lot of door-knocking in brown and black communities. Once you’re implanted, you become more diverse.
I think we in the media class have a tendency to make it seem like we can’t comprehend what black or brown working people want. But it’s pretty easy to understand the basic desire for security and prosperity, and I think we can forge a common movement fighting for these things. The most marginalized groups have the most to gain, but there’s no doubt in my mind that white Americans in general would greatly benefit as well. And I don’t think [invoking] some grad school critical race theory does us any good. If anything, it only reinforces the idea that the DSA is some kind of rarefied terrain, where you need to know a fancy language to participate. We need to become more accessible, more rooted in the working class, and more small-D democratic.
JS: I’m almost reluctant to cite them as examples because technologies have evolved so much in the decades since, but you yourself acknowledge that both the Soviet Union and Maoist China had abysmal environmental records. Why do you think that democratic socialism is better positioned to address our ever-worsening climate crisis?
BS: I think both countries were trying to catch up with their capitalist rivals, [and in doing so] China and the Soviet Union poisoned their landscapes. What I would say is that if we think democratic socialism can expand the scope of conscious democratic planning, then we can be more rational about medium- to long-term outcomes, rather than [simply pursuing] short-term profitability. So the state can say, “We can get a coal power plant online faster, and we need energy right now. But we’ll be paying for the extra fossil fuel consumption over the next 10, 15, 20 years, so it [makes more sense] to pursue renewable energy resources.” And even if these firms are competing in the market, they can be subjected to greater democratic legislation.
Right now, we need to remind people that climate change is a problem affecting the world and all of humanity, but we’re not all equally responsible for it. You, me, the people reading this—none of us are directly profiting from coal and fossil fuels, and the marginal cost for us to switch over to a different form of energy in our homes and businesses is going to be a lot less than if we derived our money from owning these dirty plants. Almost overnight, the Green New Deal has [helped transform] environmentalism from a middle-class to a working-class concern by connecting it with jobs. I think that’s what we need, a working-class environmentalism. I believe if you give people enough democracy, they will make rational decisions for themselves. And the society with the greater skill for planning and regulation will bring about change better than one that relies on an anarchic market.
JS: Global warming and automation appear to threaten our very notion of a livable future. After the failures of the 20th century, why do you believe socialism is worth fighting for?
BS: We don’t live in the worst of all possible worlds, but everything good [about it], as far I can tell, has been achieved through the conscious efforts of the organized workers movement. I’m not especially religious, but in Christian scripture, God rested on the seventh day. We have the sixth day off—most of us, anyway—and that’s because of the workers movement. There have been real limits placed on the ability of people to extort [one another] that have been democratically forced upon us by organized workers.
Faced with extinction or, at least, a descent into a new form of scarcity and barbarism and a [restructuring of] society, I think people will choose the latter. [If the alternatives] are a group of enlightened liberal technocrats who lack mass support and right-wing populists who divide us from each other, I have to think that democratic socialism is, if not the inevitable choice, the most viable or the most agreeable for the future of humanity. And we’ve confronted a lot of problems before. The end of slavery, the victory over fascism and the civil rights movement were not inevitable. These were battles in which we fought a real opposition, in which it wasn’t clear that the forces of progress would prevail. So I think we need to look back at the 150-plus years [of] movement of the left and acknowledge the real victories, not just the defeats, and that we can do it again.
Jacob Sugarman is the managing editor at Truthdig. He is a graduate of the Arthur L. Carter Institute of Journalism whose writing has appeared in Salon, AlterNet and Tablet, among others.
This article originally appeared on Truthdig.org.