In many ways, America is an exciting place to be a socialist at the moment. This is not just due to the fact that Bernie Sanders has announced his candidacy for president in 2020, and will enter the race as one of the most popular politicians in the US. Nor is it just down to the huge popularity of other socialist politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar. As welcome as these developments are, it is on the ground where the most exciting openings are taking place.
We have seen an explosion of interest in socialist ideas on a scale not seen for decades in the US. Fox News reported with horror in January that a majority of young age groups — including high school pupils, university students and graduates — favoured socialism to capitalism. As a result there has been a reinvigoration of socialist organisation, much of which has centred on the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which has seen its membership shoot up from around 6,000 in 2016 to 60,000 this year.
The last year also featured the highest number of strikes in terms of workers taking part in 32 years, with teachers leading the way, from West Virginia to California. Add to this the burgeoning movements against racism, deportations and the general bigotry Donald Trump inspires, and you can see why there are exciting openings for the left.
It is in this context that Bhaskar Sunkara has written The Socialist Manifesto to give a steer to this movement. Sunkara himself is founder of Jacobin magazine, a journal with growing prominence on the left internationally.
Much of the book is dedicated to an explanation of how socialism would work, and Sunkara does a good job in arguing why it is relevant in 21st century America. This is an important task given the way in which socialism has been considered such a dirty word in mainstream politics in the US, and the small circles socialist ideas have been confined to for decades.
Most interesting is the end of the book where Sunkara lays out a strategy for how the socialist left can win in America. He starts this by retracing the experience of the socialist parties in the US and internationally. This history is told in an engaging and interesting way, although it focuses almost exclusively on the experience of the reformist left and the lessons for the Sanders and DSA project.
The key thing to recognise, he argues, is that the advances of Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn here are not just a break from the social democracy of the recent past that wholeheartedly embraced neoliberalism. For Sunkara, Sanders and Corbyn represent “class struggle social democracy” that is about “generating working class strength through electoral campaigns.”
This poses the question of what happens when such movements get elected, something the author does not shy away from as he acknowledges the downfall of Syriza in Greece. He points to the crucial issue in such a situation as being whether the movement of street protests and strikes are strong enough to discipline wayward candidates or see off attacks by business.
Were a prime minister Corbyn or president Sanders to come under such attacks, this is of course true. The strength and tactics of the extra-parliamentary movements will be crucial in whether the movement can go forward. The question is how best can we organise and build our side for those struggles now.
For Sunkara the answer lies in building up social democratic organisations, while knowing that at some point you may have to go beyond them. So the DSA work both in and outside of the Democrats, while also making vague noises that a new mass democratic socialist party may be needed at some point in the future.
In practice this means encouraging people to join the Democrats and take part in Democrat campaigns like Sanders’.
Socialists must relate to and be part of the hype, excitement and movement generated by Sanders. But is operating within the Democrats the best way to do this? Sanders himself has said if he loses the party’s presidential nomination he will fall behind whoever the Democrat nominee is (and the rest of the field are a very uninspiring bunch). In 2016 this meant much of the energy generated by Sanders was directed toward Hilary Clinton.
If Sanders were to beat Trump in 2020, would having the new socialist left inside the Democrats, and therefore under their discipline, be the most effective way to build the street movements and strikes that Sunkara rightly locates as being crucial?
Another US socialist, Hal Draper, once pointed out that those who try to help workers by winning office or carrying out individual direct actions can be important allies. But they are up against a system they can’t break. Draper called this “socialism from above”. It seems that sometimes the DSA are not sure whether they stand for socialism from above or below.
Sunkara’s book is an interesting look at the strategies and insights held by one of the leading figures on the new US left. He is a key voice in a socialist organisation in America, whose average age is 33, and who may well help get a self-described democratic socialist elected as president. Something big is happening in America. This book is an important one for anyone who wants to understand and relate to it.