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The Socialist Revival

How to Be an Anti-Capitalist in the Twenty-First Century
by Erik Olin Wright
Verso, 2019, 176 pages

The Socialist Manifesto
by Bhaskar Sunkara
Basic Books, 2019, 256 pages

As the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, so too, it seemed, did the dream of socialism. The German sociologist Rolf Dahrendorf declared, “The point has to be made unequivocally that socialism is dead and that none of its variants can be revived for a world awakening from the double nightmare of Stalinism and Brezhnevism.” In the New Yorker, Robert Heilbroner wrote, “Less than seventy-five years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won.” Of course, there was still Communist Cuba as well as some holdouts in Asia and Africa, but as far as the advanced capitalist countries of the West were concerned, socialism seemed to be dead and gone as a popular politics.

Three decades later, socialist politics has risen from the grave. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and a self-described democratic socialist, almost won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and is a top contender for the 2020 nomination. Two members of Congress belong to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). An organization that once numbered in the mere hundreds, the DSA now has about fifty-six thousand members, including more than ninety city and state legislators. Opinion polls register surprising support for socialism. A Gallup poll last May found that 43 percent of respondents said socialism was a “good thing.” According to a Harris Poll last March, 61 percent of Generation Z (ages 18–24) have a “positive reac­tion” to the idea of socialism.

Socialism is making a comeback in Europe as well. In the United Kingdom, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his second in command, John McDonnell, were long-standing members of the So­cialist Campaign Group, which dissented from former prime minister Tony Blair’s attempt to move the party away from the Left. Within Labour, Corbyn is backed by Momentum, a group established in 2015 by younger party militants. In Germany, Kevin Kuhnert, the leader of the Young Socialists (Jusos), the youth wing of the Social Democratic Party, wants the ailing SPD to re-embrace its Marxist socialist roots, which it formally repudiated after World War II.

Today’s young socialists, many of whom were born after 1989, no longer think of Soviet Communism as socialism. But at the same time, many don’t share a clear alternative conception of what a socialist politics should consist in, or what socialism itself might look like. In explaining his democratic socialism, Sanders invokes Franklin Roose­velt’s New Deal and Scandinavian social democracy. Kuhnert and the DSA socialists embrace a neo-Marxist socialism that would abolish the capitalist class. That raises the question: is socialism, as currently conceived, a stark alternative to capitalism or merely a symbolic rebuke to the prevailing values and practices of capitalism—or is it something in between?

There is at present no correct answer to this question. The answer will have to come out of movements, campaigns, and candidates. It will also come from attempts by theorists to articulate and propose what a socialist politics and socialism itself should look like in the twenty-first century. Here I want to look at two recent efforts to imagine a twenty-first-century socialism: a sophisticated analytical ac­count from the late American political sociologist Erik Olin Wright, and a more engaged offering from Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder of Jacobin and a leading light in the DSA.

Socialism after Marx

Socialism did not begin with Marx and Engels. Before Marx, there was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon, and Joseph Fourier. In the United States and Great Britain, Marxist socialism coexisted in the nineteenth century with Christian socialism and left-wing populism. But many socialists—and the theorists of the leading pre–World War I party, the German Social Democratic Par­ty—based their ideas on the writings of Marx and Engels.

In the view of Marx and Engels, socialism is a stage in political economic development that will succeed capitalism through revolutions in the same way that capitalism succeeded feudalism. Through the capitalist revolutions in France and Britain, a new bourgeoisie supplanted the older feudal aristocracy; through socialist revolutions, the working class will supplant the capitalist class by expropriating it. It will own and control the means of production. The working class, which will come to encompass the great majority of the labor force, will be driven to revolution by immiseration, made even worse by periodic and deepening economic crises. Capitalism, centered around a handful of huge firms, will be ripe for takeover. As Marx wrote in volume 1 of Capital: “Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incom­patible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”

Marx’s theory had its advantages over his predecessors, as Engels argued later in “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.” It was rooted in a concrete—and at the time credible—assessment of contemporary his­tory. Marx developed his theories at a time when employers were holding workers’ wages at a bare minimum, during what economic historians now call the “Engels Pause.” Factory industrialization seemed to be leading toward a massive, homogeneous blue-collar working class that, organized through unions and parties, could seize power. But history didn’t follow Marx and Engels’s script. Capitalism survived its crises and accommodated a rising standard of living for the working class. With the growth of services and white-collar em­ployment, and with the influx of immigrants, the working class itself has become highly differentiated economically and socially.

After World War II, most Western socialist parties abandoned the Marxist objective of ownership and control of the means of production, opting instead, in the name of a new social democracy, to sand off the rough edges of capitalism through advanced social welfare programs. Some of the older socialist parties in Europe formally renounced Marx’s socialism, as the West German Social Democrats did in 1959, in favor of a reformed capitalism. The British Labour Party abandoned socialism in 1995 under Tony Blair, and the French abandoned it in practice in 1982 after the failure of François Mitterrand’s Common Program.

The United States has not had a mass socialist party since the end of World War I; and after World War II, with the onset of the Cold War, the Democratic Party repudiated any hint of socialism. During the New Left upsurge in the 1960s and ’70s, a new generation of socialist theorists did emerge. But after the collapse of the New Left, their work was largely confined to the academy. It is now, however, becoming relevant again. Erik Olin Wright was part of that generation.

Capitalism and Socialism

Unlike other survivors of the New Left, Wright never abandoned his commitment to socialism, but instead spent his career as a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin attempting to develop a theory of class, capitalism, and socialism that made sense in postindustrial America—and in the wake of the obvious failure of the old socialist parties. Wright drafted How to Be an Anti-Capitalist in the Twenty-First Century as he was dying of cancer. It represents his mature reflections on what a viable socialism and socialist politics would look like.

Wright contends that instead of capitalism and socialism being distinct stages of history, punctuated by revolutions, socialism has come to coexist within capitalism. Just as capitalism developed within the bowels of feudalism, socialism is developing inside capitalism. (Historian Martin J. Sklar, whose work Wright has praised, termed a similar combination of socialism and capitalism “the mix” in essays he published in the 1990s.) Socialism manifests itself in public sector programs meant to “tame” capitalism, such as national health insur­ance, public education, and regulations governing workplace safety and pollution; it appears in cooperatives, worker-owned businesses, and nonprofit institutions that differ from conventional capitalist enterprises; and in provisions such as Germany’s codetermination system, which puts worker representatives on corporate boards and gives workers a voice in investment decisions.

Wright foresees a transition to an economy that could be called more socialist than capitalist:

Alternative, noncapitalist economic activities, embodying dem­ocratic and egalitarian relations, emerge in the niches where possible within an economy dominated by capitalism. . . . Struggles involving the state take place, sometimes to protect these spaces, other times to facilitate new possibilities. . . . Eventually, the cumulative effect of this interplay between changes from above and initiatives from below may reach a point where the socialist relations created within the economic ecosystem become sufficiently prominent in the lives of indi­viduals and communities that capitalism can no longer be said to be dominant.

Wright envisages “struggles” from below led by unions, parties, and other political groups, but he does not foresee or advocate the kind of violent rupture that Marxists once saw as necessary and inevitable. His scenario is similar in this respect to German revisionist Eduard Bernstein, who advocated an “evolutionary socialism” that would win power through elections. But unlike Bernstein, Wright does not fore­see socialism itself as the abolition of capitalism and capitalists, but as a mixed economy—a hodgepodge—that still includes private firms and a market to help set prices and allocate resources. Wright is understandably vague about what this socialism would look like, and even suggests that anti-capitalist movements might forgo the term “socialism” until a clearer vision of a “desirable, viable and achievable alternative” to capitalism emerges.

According to Wright, what will propel a change from a capitalist-dominated to a socialist-dominated economy and society are four fac­tors: first, capitalism’s tendency to foster growing inequality, which leads to needless suffering and to glaring disparities in wealth and power; secondly, climate change, which will require “a massive expansion of state-provided public goods” to address; third, automation, which will lead to “the precariousness and marginalization of a significant portion of the population”; and fourth, short-term eco­nomic crises that will force concessions that “sow the seeds of social­ism.”

Wright doesn’t describe how these factors would affect particular countries. He writes in very general terms about what might happen in advanced capitalist countries like the United States. To the extent that he advances particular “socialist” proposals, they reflect those of a typically liberal campus Democrat who has not ventured far into the America that elected Donald Trump in 2016.

He wants a “universal basic income”—a proposal that would run afoul of Americans’ commitment to the Protestant ethic. He bemoans “privatized consumerism” (e.g., owning your own cars) in favor of collective goods. And he calls for people to be able “to move wherever they like,” bemoaning “the injustice created by national boundaries of citizenship.” Wright’s political specifics reflect the lim­ited vision of today’s metropolitan and college-town American Left. But in his broader, more abstract view of capitalism and socialism, he provides an important corrective to orthodox Marxist socialism.

“Class Struggle Social Democracy”

Last May, I went to a bookstore near Catholic University in Washington, D.C., to hear Bhaskar Sunkara talk about The Socialist Mani­festo. From my own experience with such talks, I expected about twenty people scattered on folding chairs. To my astonishment, the room was packed to the rafters. There were nearly two hundred people sitting on chairs and another hundred standing along the walls and crowding the doorway. The great majority of the audience was in their twenties or early thirties, and many were sporting Bernie Sand­ers and DSA paraphernalia. Sunkara, now thirty, has turned Jacobin, which he started out of his dorm room at George Washington University, into the principal voice of the new socialist Left, and has become a kind of left-wing celebrity.

Unlike Wright, Sunkara doesn’t reject or try to revise Marx’s theory of history. His book is meant as a twenty-first-century update of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto. He repudiates the Com­munist regimes of the last century, but in the name of Marx’s socialism, which he insists was based on democracy. He views social­ism in Marxist terms as worker ownership and control of the means of production. In Sunkara’s vision, socialism will do away with capi­tal and labor markets. Banks will be nationalized. Investment and labor decisions will come from a democratically elected national planning board, neighborhood councils, and worker councils. The capitalist class will disappear.

Sunkara charts an historical progression from the original Marxist-influenced socialist parties, to post–World War II social democratic parties, to neoliberalism—“a set of policies to use state power to restore employer profits by rolling back regulations and challenging unions.” Sunkara attributes the rise of neoliberalism to the economic slowdown of the 1970s, which threatened corporate profits. And he argues that if the Left successfully gains support for restoring social democracy, it will run into the same kind of opposition it faced in the seventies, as workers’ wages rise and threaten corporate profits. It will then have a choice: whether to capitulate, as under Clinton, Blair, and Obama, or to take the struggle for economic democracy to a new level, at which point it would actively promote socialism rather than social democracy.

Sunkara cites two places where social democrats tried to explicitly advance socialism but eventually pulled back. In Sweden during the 1970s, as business slumped, the main blue-collar labor organization backed a plan that would have put 20 percent of future corporate profits into a worker-controlled fund that, over time, would have made workers the controlling shareholders of their companies. But in the face of opposition from business and from white-collar unions, the Social Democrats abandoned the plan. In France, the Mitterrand government undertook an ambitious plan of nationalization in 1981, but abandoned it as the French trade deficit mounted and capital fled. Sunkara’s scenario for socialism envisages a socialist movement pro­moting and then, in the face of opposition, successfully fighting for measures like these.

Sunkara advocates what he calls “class struggle social democracy” as a stepping-stone to a socialist politics. Conventional post–World War II social democrats wanted to “suppress class conflict in favor of tripartite arrangements among business, labor, and the state.” By contrast, class-struggle social democrats like Sanders and Corbyn po­larize politics along “class lines” by organizing pressure from below. They want to confront rather than negotiate with elites. “Sanders and Corbyn don’t represent a social-democratic politics that will serve as a moderate alternative to more militant socialist demands,” Sunkara writes. “Rather, they offer a radical alternative to a decrepit center-left.”

In calling for a politics that challenges neoliberalism, Sunkara has gotten some things right. While he calls for socialist political campaigns, he stresses the importance of labor organizing and worker movements that can threaten capital’s core power. He rejects an ap­proach that “doesn’t foreground the disruptive capacity of labor but instead tries to haphazardly build a defensive electoral coalition, while rallying people into the streets for what amounts to a little more than political theater.”

Sunkara also rejects identity politics—progressive neoliberalism, as Nancy Fraser has called it—which has consumed liberals on campuses and in wealthy metropolitan areas. “A world where half the Fortune 500 CEOs were women and fewer of them are white would be better than our world today,” he says, “but still doesn’t mean much if there are just as many poor kids experiencing the same oppression they are now.”

But there is a utopian cast to Sunkara’s politics. While he urges the creation of a socialist workers’ movement that could take control of America’s industry, there is actually very little in his analysis of how our history is leading in that direction—of how to go from an embattled labor movement that only represents 10 percent of non­farm labor to workers controlling their own business and the dis­appearance of capitalist enterprises. It’s not a matter of determinism, but of situating a politics within a historical context. Sunkara’s model of a pizza sauce company becoming worker owned and controlled has the ring of Robert Owen’s New Harmony or one of Fourier’s phalansteries.

The Future of Socialism

I prefer here the more modest scenario that Wright offers: the future shape of socialism remains foggy. The campaigns of candidates like Elizabeth Warren (whom Sunkara criticizes for saying she supports “capitalism”) may move the country in that direction just as much as a candidate who reluctantly declares he is a “democratic socialist” but defines socialism as an extension of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Even the recent enthusiasm for industrial policy from some intellectuals on the right may be promoting what Wright sees as so­cialist elements within capitalism.

Probably the most viable socialist politics today is that of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s Labour Party. That form of socialism within capitalism empowers labor unions via sectoral bargaining and gives workers stock in companies and membership on boards of directors. It nationalizes utilities and rail, while seeking to shift the balance of power between labor and capital without abolishing capi­tal. With a quarter of the national workforce still in unions, British socialists can at least envisage a politics that would shift power significantly from capital to labor—even if, with Brexit consuming UK politics, the prospects for such a shift still remain remote.

In the United States, the prospect for a significant shift in power remains even more remote, and might have to await a revival, in some form, of the labor movement. The current discussion of socialism in the United States most resembles the debates about a “cooperative commonwealth” waged among Henry Demarest Lloyd, Edward Bel­lamy, Laurence Gronlund, and other nineteenth-century intellectuals prior to the founding of Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party and the rise of industrial unionism.

Today American socialism is not a fixed idea but an expression of deep dissatisfaction with what are seen as capitalism’s values and practices. It is hard to imagine, as Marx and Engels did in the Com­munist Manifesto, a clear path from capitalism today to a socialist future. But it is helpful to understand, as Wright has contended, that the seeds of an alternative America can be—and, to some extent, may already have been—sown within American capi­talism.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume III, Number 4 (Winter 2019): 117–25.

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