Why Socialism? With Bhaskar Sunkara

May 16, 2019

Most people know capitalism is unjust. Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara says he wrote The Socialist Manifesto to lay out an alternative

Most people know capitalism is unjust. Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara says he wrote The Socialist Manifesto to lay out an alternative

Why Socialism? With Bhaskar Sunkara

Story Transcript

DHARA NOOR It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor. I can’t imagine that even ten years ago or five years ago, The Wall Street Journal would have run an op-ed imploring people to take socialism seriously; or that polls would show that young people apparently prefer socialism to capitalism; or that those polls would get coverage in Fast Co. in The New York Times; or that Representatives like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez who self-identify as socialists, would get elected and star in Netflix documentaries. But here we are, and that’s the context in which our next guest wrote his new book The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality. Joining me in the studio today is Bhaskar Sunkara. Bhasker is the founding Editor of Jacobin Magazine and the author of the new book The Socialist Manifesto. Thanks for being here.

BHASKAR SUNKARA Thanks for having me.

DHARA NOOR So before we get into the book, you started Jacobin, what, nine years ago now, an explicitly socialist publication. What has changed since then to show this political shift in attitudes toward socialism?

BHASKAR SUNKARA Yeah. I think that the left was in a really deep period of defeat and retreat when Jacobin was founded. It was founded in September 2010 and back then, it seemed like the furthest left we could go, let’s say in the media sphere, was like ThinkProgress then. Politically, our main traditions in parts of the left, both social democracy and the old state socialist traditions, had seemed like they imploded and didn’t really have a future. And when Jacobin was founded, it was founded on the idea that the ideas were still relevant because the injustice is still there. So I think as long as there is capitalism, there’s gonna be a resistance to it, and there’s gonna be people opposing that there’s a better way than building your society around false scarcity, exploitation, hierarchy, and oppression. But just because there is a small resistance, doesn’t mean it’s actually going to translate into mass movements and I think what we’re seeing now is really inspiring. It’s a return of politics and a return of left-wing egalitarian movements in the US.

DHARA NOOR Sure. And you start with this case for socialism in the book. You write that a lot of books about socialism, or that make a case for socialism, are really starting with a case against capitalism. They’re showing what’s wrong, but you instead begin with a story of what could happen to a subject who works in a curry pasta sauce factory in New Jersey and what that subject’s life would look like under a social democracy, and then democratic socialism. Why do you start there instead of by making a case for what’s wrong?

BHASKAR SUNKARA Well I think that for a lot of people, capitalism is not a good system. They don’t like it but they just shrug their shoulders and say, it’s the way things are. And they figure out a way to get by and to survive within the constraints of the system. So in other words, it’s not just that socialism is politically impossible. Many people really do believe that it’s technically not possible. So I wanted to lay out in an engaging way what a feasible socialism could look like. And in fact, there is an alternative to having a society run by big corporations, run by bosses, run by the power of capital and the power of the market. I wanted to, in other words, make the case for socialism, not the case against capitalism, because many of the outrages of capitalism are really evident to most people and they feel it in their lives. Maybe we have to convince Bloomberg analysts that the system isn’t good, but most people would be like, yeah the system is unjust but that’s life. We need to cut through that defeatism, and really say there is an alternative and we need to fight for it.

DHARA NOOR But you in the introduction at least, lay out two different alternatives. You’re calling one social democracy and the other one democratic socialism. What’s the difference between those two things and where did that split come from?

BHASKAR SUNKARA Yeah. So in the book basically, I open by trying to explain the Marxist theory of exploitation in an engaging way, and then talk about how unions for example can diminish exploitation and give more rights and power to workers in the workplace, and how social democracy can do the same in a wider setting in a country as a whole, but that ultimately there are certain constraints to these things and they fall short both practically and at a normative level of our goal of a just, egalitarian society. Then I try to lay out what a day in the life of a socialist citizen could look like, what a feasible socialism could look like. So for me, it’s important to remember that social democracy and socialism have common ancestors. These movements were together as one in the big worker movements of the 19th century and these big parties of the Second International. Karl Marx and Engels both called themselves “social democrats.” Over time, the movements evolved. A revolutionary left of social democracy, the ones that resisted World War I, that pursued a path of insurrection particularly in countries that didn’t have a history of democracy, like overcoming czarist autocracy in Russia and so on, called themselves “communists.” And then, the center and right of the existing social democratic movement eventually many of them dropped the horizon of socialism, the goal of socialism. Instead, what they sought was a functional socialism. In other words, they were going try to achieve many of the goals that socialists have long-wanted, but within the constraints of capitalism. So they would provide housing rights and education, and create this really robust welfare state we didn’t even think or even imagine that capitalism could accommodate. They would do that, but they would also respect in a way, management’s right to manage. They would respect that ultimately, society is still driven by private capitalist ownership. So these are the routes of what we describe as socialism and social democracy, and there were other forms of socialism that were still revolutionary but also anti-Stalinist like Trotskyism or even more radical variants of democratic socialism. What I try to get at in the book is the idea that the left-wing of social democracy in fact also had anti-capitalist strains that have persisted well into the 70s and 80s. It was through some of these strains that they were starting to question capital ownership and control. So the welfare state in other words, doesn’t really buy off workers. It often makes some more bold and more willing to fight for more radical demands.

DHARA NOOR And so, why is it important then to stress that it’s democratic socialism that you’re advocating for? We’ve seen, I think so often when you try to talk to people about socialism they say, in actually existing forms of socialism, we got— and you addressed this as well— things like Stalinism which was, we can all agree, not a democratic form of rule. So how do we ensure that we actually foster more democracy in this process as we change?

BHASKAR SUNKARA Yeah. Well I use democratic socialism and socialism pretty interchangeably. I think we need to obviously be serious about the things that went wrong in past socialist experiments, so we should avoid in other words the No True Scotsman approach that basically says, that wasn’t real socialism. Real socialism would be good. Why? Because it’ll be socialism. Therefore, it will be democratic.

DHARA NOOR [laughs] Yeah.

BHASKAR SUNKARA Otherwise it won’t be socialism. It’s like this constant thing and libertarians do it all the time when it comes to— you could be talking to a libertarian about injustice and they’re like, well I agree with you about that, but that’s not real capitalism; that’s crony capitalism or whatever. So we need to avoid that, but the key is maintaining a respect for democracy, for civil society, for the rights of minorities, for a certain bedrock of civil rights. It can’t be alienated of people’s rights to free expression and speech, and so on. There shouldn’t be a dichotomy between counter-revolutionary and revolutionary thought. It should just— we have to allow that freedom. But in the West, we’re in societies where a very long tradition of stable, democratic societies and where these rights and norms are in stride. It seems to me really impractical to just say, well there’s something at the core of socialism that will always lead to repression, when that repression happened in societies that were devastated by war, by civil war, were largely peasant societies trying to quickly develop themselves and advance. Again, in Russia and in China and these other societies, they are just very different places than the US and their road to socialism, the type of socialism to develop there will be different than what happens in the US. But we just need to be clear to people that we are not authoritarians. We don’t believe that the state has dominion over every aspect of our lives. We do believe there are certain rights and there are certain guarantees that belong to people and need to be guaranteed by the state. And more importantly, we believe that society today is run by an undemocratic, unaccountable bureaucracy of big corporations and CEOs and these people have tremendous power. We don’t think of it as authoritarianism, but it completely is.

DHARA NOOR Sure. On the other side of that though-—and you contend with this as well— there have been so many instances of fostered social democracy that have never led to democratic socialism. Instead, in many cases we’ve seen after we get to a more social democratic state, the welfare state will start to erode, and compromises will start to be made. How do we on the flip side then, avoid that happening in a place like the US?

BHASKAR SUNKARA I think there is an inherent contradiction in social democracy, which is that it empowers workers and workers start demanding more and they have more rights and guarantees. That they demand higher wages, they have more bargaining position in the workplace, but also at the same time it empowers capital. It really doesn’t question capital’s ownership or control, or more importantly, its power to withhold investment. So eventually, workers will start making demands that capital can’t stomach and capital will say, listen we just won’t invest. We won’t. We don’t accept this compromise anymore. They’re not playing along with the terms of the deal. They’re making demands about industrial democracy now. They’re not respecting our right to manage. They’re making excessive wage demands or cutting into our profits. They’re going to just say, you need to resolve this dilemma and even a social democratic state or a state run by a social democratic party will then say, the only reason why we can afford to sustain our social welfare programs is because there’s profitable private firms. And it’s this structural dilemma that leads parties to the center-left to retreat on their promises, and to push austerity and neoliberalism and things like this. It isn’t personal corruption or a lack of fortitude, or whatnot. So we need to figure out a way to take that power to withhold investment away from capitalists. And to me, that has to be done through figuring out a way to socialize firms, to socialize finance. We could fund new enterprises to foster cooperative sectors to do other things to really challenge the power of capital.

DHARA NOOR And you argue that that has to be done in the public sector. But what does it mean to undertake a project like that in the heart of the empire? In the US where we have the most money and power and the biggest military in the world, how does that impact what it will look like to undertake a socialist project here?

BHASKAR SUNKARA Well we certainly have more powerful elites. We will have to contend with all sorts of resistance, but there’s also a huge population of working-class people that would benefit from our reforms and our programs. So we could think about how ugly the resistance of the 20 percent that stand to lose a lot in a different society, their wealth and power. But we have to also remember the latent power and potential of that 80 percent. US workers are not bound up in the exploitation of other people. They don’t benefit. In fact, they’re the ones suffering also when the US is bombing and invading other countries, when they’re pursuing unjust trade regimes that hurt both developing countries and workers here. So I think we need a push against the idea of scarcity and push against also the idea that we’re all complicit in imperialism, because we’re not. Imperialism is a ruling class project and it’s our rulers that are working with the rulers of these other countries and they’re all benefiting from it. And I think that’s the form of working class internationalism that we need.

DHARA NOOR Alright. Bhaskar Sunkara is the author of the new book The Socialist Manifesto and the founding Editor of Jacobin Magazine. We’re going to pick this up in part two, but thanks for being here.

BHASKAR SUNKARA Thanks. I appreciate it.

DHARA NOOR And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.