The Socialist Manifesto, by Bhaskar Sunkara

Sunkara is the founder of Jacobin magazine, which has been around since 2010, and his new book is an accessible history of socialism aimed at a general audience. It starts off with a vision of what democratic socialism in the United States would look like before going into a detail history of the movement from Marx up to the resurgence of the modern left through politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. It ends with a chapter of action items that Sunkara believes are necessary for Democratic Socialists to win in the future.

My involvement in the movement is fairly recent, I’ve only been truly involved in it since the 2016 Democratic primary, where I was a Democratic party caucus chair for the Sanders campaign in my congressional district. I don’t have a strong history in Marxism or socialist history. I’ve been reading Dissent, Nation and Jacobin for about two years now, and have been reading and listening to leftist media on a regular basis during that time. Sunkara has done a service to people like me, to help fill some gaps in history and give me some much needed response to critics on issues surrounding socialism’s failures in the past.

There were several times during this book that I was having deja vu, when I realized that certain sections had pulled from Jacobin’s pages. Certain turns of phrase around Khruschev’s “secret speech”, for example, I’m pretty sure were lifted straight off of a recent issue (or reprinted.) Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Sunkara’s work with Jacobin has been instrumental to the movement, and my education, and the publication is probably one of the most coherent and influential sources of political thought for the latest generation of Democratic Socialists. At least that’s how I see it from here — it’s been months since I attended my local DSA chapter’s meetings.

Sunkara — and Jacobin — does not shy away from the failures of twentieth century socialism, and does not sugar coat the crimes that Stalin, Mao, and others have done in the name of communism and Marxism. He’s able to acknowledge it without excusing it or justifying it. At the same time, there is emphasis of the democratic part of democratic socialism, and the lesson to readers here is to find ways to increase democratic involvement in the movement.

The history is broad here, and it was easy for me to get lost amongst the party organizations, figures and coalitions that are part of the century and a half of the movement. There’s a lot to cover here, and the socialist movement spans the entire globe, and I’ll admit that another reading is warranted before I can even begin to understand all of the schisms in the various european movements contained within this short volume.

The history of socialism in the United States is one that obviously doesn’t get told these days, and reading the history of American unions and the left this right before Labor Day is good timing for the Party breakfast that I’ll be attending tomorrow. And this intersection of labor, Democratic party politics and Democratic Socialism is obviously one that I’m most interested in, and where I plan on focusing most closely in the future.

Beyond the history lesson and rationale behind democratic socialism’s resurgence, the part of the book that will likely get the most discussion amongst leftists will be the penultimate chapter, “How We Win”, with 15 points that Sunkara lists for success moving forward. Many of them boil down to the advice that socialists shouldn’t shy away from class struggle, and need to embed in working class issues to get our agenda pushed through. He worries that success may ultimately be the movement’s undoing as it has in the past, and urges readers to move forward, not backward, when the inevitable challenge rises. Two points that I’ll be studying: “It is not enought to work with unions for progressive change. We must wage democratic battles within them.” And: “We need to take into account American particularities.” This latter one has some broad outlines for possible avenues of attack within the Democratic party.

I’m not sure I share his optimism that our two party political system can be undone as swiftly as he believes, but I’ll take his idea of an actual mass-membership political party seriously for the time being. The idea of activating rank and file members, whether within a labor union or a political party, is probably the most important takeaway from this book. The main way to accomplish socialism in America will be through more Democracy. That is the biggest threat that we face from the populist right these days, and is also the main argument against authoritarian-style Communism. Focusing on democracy, within our organizations, workplace and political system should be the number one goal of progressive and leftist organizations moving forward.

Dissent: Summer 2019

This summer’s issue of Dissent focuses around the concept of the nation, with discussions about nationalism, open borders, colonialism and immigration. It’s an interesting edition and has some good articles and reviews as well. There’s an interview with former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, the history of Ghanan independence, and the recent political history of Turkey.

The Frontier Closes In: Perhaps the one article that I’ve found myself thinking about the most is this review of Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. Given the spate of mass shootings that plagued El Paso and Dayton this past week, people are searching for answers to the question why these young white men are committing these atrocities, and how the President’s rhetoric is spurring on this racism and white nationalism. Grandin’s theory is that as American expansionism ran out of room as the frontier was closed, American interests took a colonialist turn toward the Pacific and Caribbean. Following the invasion of Iraq it’s had nowhere to turn, and has since focused on the southern border with Mexico. This historical expansionism has long been used to distract or delay the reckoning of America’s social ills, and now that it is no longer available, we find ourselves having to deal with these problems.

Two Paths for Millenial Politics: Timothy Shenk asks what millenials are going to do next, and who they’re going to look to for political leadership moving forward. As the first millennial candidate for president, Buttigieg gets a thorough critique here, and is contrasted with Bernie Sanders, millenial’s seemingly current favorite. The author is not kind to Mayor Pete, and catalogs Mayor Pete’s political shrewdness and the difference between the presentation of his memoir and his stump speech.

Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist Manifesto (on my to-read list) gets a good bit of mention in this article, mainly as a riposte to Buttigieg’s liberal posturing. There’s a lot of talk about the ongoing war within the Democratic party and the future of political organizing around climate change.

Share this one with Pete Buttigieg fans.

Ursula K Le Guin’s Revolutions: I’ll admit that even though I’ve been a huge sci-fi fan over the years, I’ve never read any of Le Guin’s work. I may have picked one of the Earthsea novels when I was a pre-teen, but I don’t think I made it very far into it before abandoning it. Sarah Jones’s short piece is a nice homage to Le Guin and the unique voice and politics that she brought to the genre over her decades-long career.

There’s a good portion about The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (pdf), which is a short four page story that is one of Le Guin’s best known works. While Jone’s description of it didn’t make me give it another thought, it did coincidentally turn up in my attention a day or two later when I turned on one of Sam Harris’s lessons in the Waking Up app where he read the entire thing. I clearly recall having a visceral reaction to it. Harris’s piece doesn’t seem to be available outside of the app, but he specifically mentions this episode of the Very Bad Wizards podcast, where they discuss the story at length.