The Radical Challenge to Capitalism

What is the contemporary relevance of socialism to capitalist societies like Australia and the US? What are the origins
of socialist ideas? What can we learn from the 150- year history of the struggles for socialism? These are some of the question that are addressed in the recent book The Socialist Manifesto: the Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality
(Basic Books, 2019).

The book is important because it represents part of the revival of the US Left after the global financial crisis of
2008-2009 and the rise of movements like Occupy Wall Street as well as the wide public support for figures such
as Bernie Sanders. The author, Bhaskar Sunkara, is the editor and founder of the socialist magazine Jacobin, a recent success story in the world of publishing by the American Left. The 29-year-old Sunkara, whose family migrated from Trinidad and Tobago to New York shortly before he was born, became a socialist as a teenager in high school. His diet was eclectic: the American social democrat Michael Harrington, the British academic Ralph Miliband as well as the better known Leon Trotsky and Karl Marx.
He describes his politics today as ‘a radicalism that is aware of the difficulty of revolutionary change and, at the
same time, of how powerful the gains of reform can be.’ Like others involved in Jacobin he is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) an organisation which has grown rapidly in recent years. He describes the choice in mainstream US politics today as “between, on the one hand, a technocratic neoliberalism that embraces the rhetoric of social inclusion but not equality and, on the other, a right-wing populism channelling anger into the worst directions.’ Socialist ideas and organising in workplaces and on the streets can offer a way out of this apparent choice, he argues.

The book is divided into several topics. The first chapter describes what life would be like for a factory worker in a future socialist United States. This is an unusual way to begin, he admits, since most similar Left books begin by outlining the case against capitalism. To my mind Sunkara’s approach smacks of a kind of utopianism. The chapter ends by supporting the idea that the ‘road to a socialism beyond capitalism goes through the struggle for reforms and social democracy’. That is, Sunkara believes in fighting for both practical reforms today as well as for a future revolution to abolish capitalism altogether. The book goes on to describe the rise of capitalism and the argument of Marx and Engels that capitalism would produce its own gravediggers in the shape of the working class. 

The book covers the 19th century rise of socialism in Germany where it achieved initial success but where socialists also began debating whether capitalism could be radically reformed or whether it needed to be totally overthrown. Two more chapters describe examples of each of these approaches: social democratic Sweden, on the one hand, and the 1917 socialist revolution in Russia, on the other. Later chapters look at socialism in China and its absence in the United States as well as the recent
revival of socialist ideas in the US over the past decade. The book ends with a manifesto calling for the revival of a US-based Left, including the need for a new radical socialist party. Overall, the book is a valuable introduction to the history of the socialist movement, especially key debates that are still relevant: reform versus revolution; the limitations of parliament; the role of conscious socialists in building a radical movement outside parliament and related issues.
The book implicitly poses other, more fundamental, questions. After 150 years what do we actually mean by ‘socialism’? There are widely different responses to this question. They range from societies in which all private
property and economic markets are abolished to other societies which comprise a mixed economy involving both private and public ownership and wide use of economic markets. My own view is that the first kind of socialism has failed and the second has been more successful but whatever the truth, there are significant problems in the intellectual framework of socialism and Marxism when such a key term is so loose and ill-defined. In a similar fashion the book uses terms like ‘capitalism’
– as we all do – but this too needs more clarity. Capitalism has proved to be very changeable and adaptive system, not least because of the struggles of working people. The capitalism that created the slums of Manchester which Engels graphically described in The Condition of the Working Class in England is vastly different from the affluent capitalism that the Swedish Social Democrats created and that provided things like free education and health care, parental leave and workers’ participation in companies that employed them. In different way, capitalism is countries like Australia is vastly different to German capitalism under Nazi-rule in the 1930s and 1940s. With so many different varieties of capitalism, perhaps we should talk more about the specific aspects of the economy that we are challenging rather than glibly lumping quite different societies under the single term ‘capitalism’. The main limitation of The Socialist Manifesto is the absence of several key questions. For example, climate change is one of the greatest challenges that humanity faces. Yet the topic and its implications for traditional socialist thought is barely mentioned. This is surprising for a book which is about radical challenges to advanced capitalist societies. Nor does the book say much about the relationship between capitalism and issues around feminism, race or cultural diversity. I also found its discussion of the failure of previous socialist experiments disappointing. Since the Russian
Revolution, every seizure of power by socialist revolutionaries has resulted in some form of one-party dictatorship. This suggests there is something systematically wrong with certain concepts of radical socialism, but this is not adequately considered. We can hardly put together a modern, revived Left unless we probe deeper on all these questions. While The Socialist Manifesto is a useful introduction to the socialist and Marxist traditions, this book is not really a manifesto. That is, it is not a detailed call to arms such as Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto of 1848. More importantly, it lacks a new analysis of the radically new circumstances in which humanity finds itself after the Cold War and in the face of a rapidly warming world.

Dr David McKnight is an Associate Professor at the
University of New South Wales and the author of
several books, most recently Populism Now! (NewSouth Books, 2018)

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