The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality

By Bhaskar Sunkara

Basic Books. Hachette Book Group. April 2019. 276 pp. ISBN 978-1-5416-1739-1 hardcover


August 31, 2019


Reviewed by Joseph  Jamison


Is 2019-2020 “the socialist moment”? It may be, according to Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer. “Future historians may well portray the second decade of the twenty-first century as the moment when American socialism rose from the dead,” Henwood gushed in The New Republic.[1]

I expected to find much to disagree with in The Socialist Manifesto by Bhaskar Sunkara, founder and editor of Jacobin magazine, a publication that is part of the social democratic revival.  My expectations were fulfilled. Yet, his book has certain strengths.

One of them is that it tries to use the actual historical record –  “a history of socialism from Marx to the present day,” almost 200 pages of  it — as a test of 19th and 20th century social democratic theory and practice.

The trouble with the selective history Sunkara offers is not that it is selective. Selectivity is unavoidable. And  he is, of course, entitled to argue for his ideological convictions. The trouble is his account mangles the actual history with more than a few grievous distortions and untruths.

This reviewer found this sentence especially galling:

“…His [Stalin’s] Soviet Union did help win the war against Nazism, but for every action Stalin took to defeat fascism, he took another to undermine the antifascist struggle…”  Help? Help?  The loss of 27 million Soviet lives in the war against Nazi invasion was mere “help”?[2]

The author’s blithe dismissal of Cuban democracy, another example, illustrates the deeper problem with his concept of democracy. He claims, “at the same time Cuba falls short of any standard of socialist democracy. Cuba’s workers don’t have even basic rights to collectively bargain or protest government policies.”[3]

A confusion in the book – nearly all social democratic writing has it — is around the notion of democracy. Everywhere Sunkara proclaims a fervent commitment to democracy, but it is a democracy narrowed down to the formal processes of bourgeois elections and parliamentarism. That democracy is a class concept, that there is a working-class democracy or socialist democracy, far richer and more participatory than a restricted bourgeois democracy that fails to extend beyond formal political rights and fails to include social, economic, and cultural rights, largely escapes him.[4]

The author of The Socialist Manifesto is a young man, on the sunny side of 30. He is the founder and editor of Jacobin, a magazine which he launched in 2010 as an undergraduate at George Washington University. He now publishes Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy. He has written for the New York Times, The Guardian (UK),  VICE, and the Washington Post. Sunkara has also recently become the publisher of the UK-based Tribune, in its heyday a well-known organ of the British Labour Party left.

The author declares, “I have tried to do something different by presenting what a different social system could look like and how we could get there.”[5]  What democratic socialism might look like is suggested by Chapter #1,  A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen.  How we could get there is outlined in Chapter #9,  How We Could Win.

A word about terminology:  readers of this Marxist website are accustomed to understanding “socialism” as the next historical stage — after the transfer of class power in a socialist revolution – i.e., a qualitatively new, post-capitalist socioeconomic formation.

By contrast, social democratic definitions of “socialism” are elastic and subjective. Sunkara’s definitions, too, take some getting used to. He begins with this startling claim: “We have social democracy in the United States, but it’s exclusionary and funded by regressive property taxes…” [6] Presumably he means the now-tattered remnants of the mid- and late-20th century New Deal and Great Society programs and the resulting “welfare state.” Further on, he contradicts this claim when he states… “of course we should be so lucky as to find ourselves living under social democracy today.” [7]

The author calls himself a democratic socialist, not a social democrat. One of the clearer indications of what he means by “democratic socialism” is:

“Today there is much talk of democratic socialism… and indeed I see that term as synonymous with socialism. What separates social democracy from democratic socialism isn’t just whether one believes there’s a place for capitalist private property in a just society but how one goes about fighting for reforms. The best social democrats today might want to fight for macroeconomic policies from above to help workers. But while not rejecting all forms of technocratic expertise, the democratic socialist knows that it will take mass struggle from below and messy disruption to bring about a more durable and radical sort of change. In the second part of this book I discuss the world today and why there are new opportunities for a better sort of socialism to take root, as we’ll see. Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn and US Senator Bernie Sanders have pursued a “class struggle” social democracy, unleashing popular energy that has revitalized the left as a whole. I offer a tentative strategy for taking advantage of this unexpected second chance and explain why the working class can still be an agent of social transformation.”[8]

The ‘class struggle social democracy’ oxymoron is important in Sunkara’s thinking.

The author is candid about social democracy’s failures as well as its successes. A self-described “pessimist,” Sunkara concedes he was surprised by the recent rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, giving social democracy an “unexpected second chance.”

Sunkara is conscious that even in its Scandinavian strongholds, where it held out for decades, social democratic reforms are in retreat or under withering attack. Social democracy depended on capitalist growth and capitalist consent. In the chapter on Sweden he writes “no matter how creatively implemented, it [social democracy] was still dependent on private sector profits and the calculation by business that maintaining the peace with a powerful labor movement was worth the costs.” Later on, he states … “social democracy was always predicated on economic expansion. Expansion gave succor to both the working class and capital. When growth slowed and the demands of workers made deeper inroads into firm profits, business owners rebelled against the class compromise.”[9]

His solution is what he calls the “class struggle social democracy” of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, which he contends can lead to democratic socialism.  These two leaders have “unleashed popular energy” and “revitalized the left as a whole.”

This self-contradictory phrase “class struggle social democracy” does not reflect well on Sunkara’s understanding of class struggle. He conflates the rhetoric of class with the harsh reality of actual class struggle. Admittedly, Jeremy Corbyn has made alliances with forces to his left that know a great deal about class struggle, but it’s hard to believe that Bernie Sanders who uses the rhetoric of class and calls for “political revolution” and opposition to “the billionaire class” is waging class struggle. In 2016, after shabby treatment by the corporate Democrats of the Hillary Clinton camp, Sanders made his peace with them. In 2020, if denied the nomination again, there is scant reason to suppose he will take a different course.

The Socialist Manifesto offers a lengthy social reformist account of the 20th century, but of course it leaves out Marxism’s account of social democracy, necessary to evaluate this book.  To refresh memories, the Marxist account in brief is this:

Like all political ideologies, social democracy (or social reformism, or for short, reformism) has class roots. Social democracy is an ideology intermediate between Marxism, the revolutionary ideology of the working class, and the ideology of the monopoly-capitalist ruling class. Social democracy expresses the class interests and the class outlook of the middle layers of monopoly-capitalist society. These layers include the “classical” petty bourgeoisie (peasants and shopkeepers, etc.) and the newer intermediate strata of monopoly capitalist society (independent urban professionals, unorganized white-collar workers, lower management, and the like). These layers are unstable and diverse.

Social democracy desires to replace class struggle with class collaboration. It accepts exclusively peaceful and gradual methods of political action. It adheres to the notion that the state stands above classes. When in office, social democrats strive to achieve some reforms, but the main levers of class power remain in the hands of big capital. It seeks a society of general prosperity within the bounds of bourgeois legality and bourgeois democracy.

This intermediate position of social democracy gives it a duality. Social democracy has a fundamental allegiance to the maintenance of capitalism—albeit a “reformed” capitalism made more humane. And it has a need to hold the allegiance of working people. This duality makes it vacillate in political practice.

For example, in union work social democracy — up to a point — will fight the boss, but it prefers class partnership. In electoral politics it wants to elect “progressive” candidates but it eschews political independence and a clean break with the Democrats, one of the two parties of Big Business. Social democrats generally tail behind what the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie wants (in the US, the Democratic Party). Social democracy in government all too often caves in and betrays its mass base. Today, it is reaping the dire consequences. In much of Europe social democratic parties are in profound crisis (some near extinction) because, after the financial crash of 2008, when European finance capital demanded that the burden of the crisis be borne by working people and by the weaker, peripheral European states, social democratic parties went along with the austerity. Since 2008, working class voters have been abandoning social democratic parties (and in some cases revisionist CPs such as the French, not so different from social democratic parties) and voting for right-wing populist parties.

The long-term prospects for social democracy may be even gloomier than pessimist Sunkara thinks. One Marxist writer [10] has noted that the exhaustive research of French economic historian Thomas Piketty about the long-term trend to inequality in capitalism puts a question mark over any resumption of an era of social democratic reform such as the 20th century saw in parts of Europe and North America (the New Deal, the Great Society). In the mid-20th century historically unique factors, above all the existence of a strong socialist camp and a revolutionary movement competing for the loyalty of the working class, encouraged the Western capitalist class to pursue a policy of concessions. Now, under different conditions, capitalism is back to its classic, savage ways.

Social reformism depicts itself as a radical creed for working people. It is demonstrably not, but to make its case, reformism dons a left mask. It appropriates revolutionary symbols, icons and terms. Many social democrats call themselves “Marxists” when they reject much — in some cases most — of Marxism’s basic theory, as if they were free to define it in any way they please. Sunkara belongs to this cafeteria Marxism school of thought. He writes, Marx was “more an improviser than a prophet. What Marx left us wasn’t scripture but a method of looking at the world and set of concerns that animate us.”[11]

The Socialist Manifesto represents another effort to reinvent social democracy often in need of polishing its left credentials when its support has waned. Accordingly, in a riff on The Communist Manifesto the title of the book under review is The Socialist Manifesto. There are many examples. We have the ubiquitous Rosa Luxemburg Institute, spreading around the globe German Bundesrepublik treasury funds via a political party institute named for that genuine revolutionary heroine and martyr. Social democrats invariably call themselves the “left” though they are obviously in the center of the political spectrum. Indeed, we have Jacobin magazine — named after those French bourgeois revolutionaries whose Robespierrist left wing resorted to mass revolutionary terror to crush the aristocratic counterrevolution in 1793-94.

There has been a recurrent tendency for a “left” social democracy to emerge, willing to work with forces to its left. In contrast “right” social democracy prioritizes anti-communism and treats the communists as the main enemy. To be sure, this differentiation can be overstated. There are not two kinds of social democracy, there is only one, but social democracy’s attitude to forces on its left can vary greatly depending on concrete circumstances.

Which variant is on offer in The Socialist Manifesto, right or left? Alas, more the former than the latter, though it takes some teasing out to answer the question properly. On the one hand, Sunkara ostensibly wants to transcend the old forms of failed social democracy by calling for a leftward move, to a Sanders-Corbyn ‘class struggle social democracy’, but on the other hand in so many places he repeats the standard clichés of anti-communism.

Sunkara tosses off anti-communist barbs with no evidence, with complete self-assurance, as if they were unassailable common sense. This is one of the maddening features of social reformism. Its ideological opportunism consists in its refusal to struggle with – no, more accurately, its reliance on — the surrounding, dominant conservative public discourse.

A few examples (there are many) of his anti-communism:

  • “you bring up the failure of that system in the USSR … unlike in the old USSR, civil society would be free and the plan could be formed democratically.” [12]
  • “…then there’s the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia. The authoritarian collectivism their experiment produced not only claimed millions of lives but claimed to be associated with any challenge to capitalism. I do not shy away from condemning what went wrong in the Soviet experience, which jettisoned the democracy and civil liberties at the core of the socialist dream.”[13]
  • “…naturally there are lessons to be learned for the Communist movement: the difficulties of central planning, the importance of civil rights and freedoms, what happens when socialism is transformed from a democratic movement from below into an authoritarian collectivism.” [14]

Sunkara’s anti-communism is not entirely consistent, because elsewhere he heaps praise on the left stance of one of his two heroes Jeremy Corbyn. “The most striking thing about Corbynism is that its protagonists see the inherent limits of reforms under capitalism and aim to expand the scope of democracy and challenge capitalist ownership and control, not just its wealth”.[15]

It is noteworthy that Corbyn reaches out to forces on his left — the British Communists and other British Marxists. Jeremy Corbyn is in the Morning Star every day it seems. Curiously, Sunkara  despite attributing his “class struggle social democracy” to both leaders does not propose any similar outreach by Sanders or any US social democrat to the Marxist left in this country.

In a quirky and fanciful first chapter A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen, in which he imagines working at low pay in an imaginary Jon Bon Jovi Pasta Factory in Edison, New Jersey, the author tries to describe to a reader who knows little about socialism what his ideal “democratic socialist” society would look like.

The book is organized into two main parts, the first part — the longest part, six chapters — charts the history of socialism. The second, shorter part of the book, some 50 pages, is devoted to a tentative socialist strategy. It restates earlier themes and sums up his personal credo of “democratic socialism.” The book is written in accessible language. His references to pop culture, however, more than once eluded this reviewer.[16] His programmatic ideas for progressives in the How We Win chapter often display common sense. Moreover, Sunkara understands the anti-democratic nature of the European Union. “Luckily the United States does not have to contend with anti-democratic supranational organizations…”[17] He also takes a well-deserved swipe at identity politics, and says wisely, “without the bedrock of a class politics, identity politics has become an agenda of inclusionary neoliberalism…”[18]

A reason to read this book is to acquaint oneself with the views of an author whose successful magazine is a significant player in the social democratic movement in the US. Nevertheless, the history that The Socialist Manifesto offers is often faulty. The theory it offers is often muddled. Is his “democratic socialism” a new system, as he appears to believe? Not at all. It is redistribution. He wants to “plot a way out of today’s extreme inequality.” He wants “a popular class movement for redistributive policies. “[19] Like Sweden, the exemplar of a more or less successful social democracy, capitalist ownership will remain mostly untouched. “Democratic socialism” will be a politics in the sphere of expanded public expenditure. He is aware of and decries but never fully confronts the impermanence of social democratic reform. So long as such reforms remain confined to the sphere of public expenditure and do not reach down into the economic base, to change the ownership of most of the economy, to change the class character of the state, to oust the financial oligarchy from its ruling positions, they can be swept away by the next right-wing government.

Whether social democratic theorists wish to acknowledge it or not, the state is not neutral.  The vicious corporate state will resist reformist programs, be they mild or radical. One is reminded of the 1982 novel A Very British Coup  by British Labour MP Chris Mullins written in the bleak Thatcher years. The novelist imagines that a Thatcher-weary Britain lurches left and finally elects a left-wing Labour Party government led by Harry Perkins, an ex-steelworker from Sheffield. Perkins, a radical, wants to withdraw from NATO, begin nuclear disarmament, and remove US bases from Britain. The panicky British state mobilizes — the press barons, the senior civil servants, the City of London, a right-wing electric power workers union — and Perkins is overthrown in a bloodless coup.

As Sunkara correctly observes, Bernie Sanders has given a morale boost to the whole left in the US where the words “socialist” and “communist” were taboo for several generations. It is refreshing to hear Sanders use the language of class. The 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign – with Sanders espousing a mild version of Scandinavian social democracy — revived the legitimacy of the use of the “s” word especially among a younger generation not indoctrinated by anti-communism. Let us hope the young people joining the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) – now with a reported membership of more than 50,000  — will continue moving leftward toward genuine Marxism.

Winning social change requires political strength. To defeat the foe will require the unity of all progressive forces, in other words, center-left unity. Sunkara might consider the implacable opposition that one of his two heroes Bernie Sanders is receiving from a powerful private health insurance industry determined to torpedo Sanders’ (or anyone else’s) Medicare for All proposal. The Socialist Manifesto would have been a more consistent and more useful book for candidate Bernie Sanders and the rest of us who want real health care reform if, instead of reaffirming the divisive anti-communist shibboleths of right social democracy, Sunkara had put the accent on unity and advised social democrat Bernie Sanders to build up the strength of a people’s movements for a vital reform by finding allies on his left, like the author’s other hero, social democrat Jeremy Corbyn.


[1] Doug Henwood,   “The Socialist Network: Inside DSA’s Struggle to Move into the Political Mainstream”  The New Republic. May 16, 2019.
[2] The Socialist Manifesto, 102.
[3] Ibid., 155.
[4] In his chapter A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen (ibid., 26) where he constructs his ideal model of “democratic socialism”, he admits the possibility of a more advanced form of democracy: ‘democracy has been carried into social and economic realms.” But it is not an insight he consistently develops.
[5] Ibid., 29.
[6] Ibid., 1.
[7] Ibid., 28.
[8] Ibid., 30-31.
[9] Ibid., 122.
[10] Greg Godels, “Does Social Democracy Have a Future?”, May 13, 2018.
[11] The Socialist Manifesto, 49.
[12] Ibid., 17.
[13] Ibid., 30.
[14] Ibid., 236.
[15] Ibid., 212.
[16] For example, “Stay Fly.” He defines the meaning of socialism by citing a lyric from a song by the Back Street Boys (ibid., 26.)
[17]  Ibid., 221.  The book confuses 19-country currency area, the eurozone, with the larger 28-country European Union itself.
[18]  Ibid., 235.
[19] Ibid., 236.