What Is Socialism?
Socialism, famously, is no longer a dirty word: with Corbyn, Ocasio-Cortez, and Sanders, and popular podcasts, magazines, and red-rose-garnished Twitter feeds, it is a feature of our political culture.
And this is understandable: that both i) the neoliberal policies of the last forty years haven’t done much to help us and that ii) nevertheless the main political parties, at least in the Anglophone world, offer no alternatives to them, are two widely held views, in light of which the search for and interest in a new politics for the future are needed.
But if it’s not a dirty word anymore, it is an obscure one. What is socialism? There are, as I see it, two immediate problems answering this question. Firstly, if one looks at the policies of people like those mentioned above— climate, healthcare, workers’ rights, etc. — it can be hard to pull them apart from their progressivist rivals to the right of their respective parties. Sanders wants medicare for all and to tame big business, but Elizabeth Warren, former Republican and avowed friend of capitalism, wants that too. What’s the difference?
Given this, to find what’s distinctive of socialism we might look to its past: if asking what socialists currently believe and want isn’t the most helpful, we can ask what they did believe and want.
But that’s none too helpful either. With a cursory knowledge of twentieth century history, and even ignoring as aberrations the monstrosities under its name, one might associate socialism with centrally planned economies, think that such economies aren’t serious live options, and accordingly side with the supposedly mature attitude of thinking that socialism is unrealistic optimism, for freshmen who don’t know how the world works. And indeed, if socialism is just a list of some nice things, in absence of an account of how we’re to get them, then it’s not going to be much use.
In light of these definitional difficulties, a book telling us what socialism is is timely. And Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist Manifesto does that — kind of. Sunkara is the editor of Jacobin magazine, a central voice of the contemporary US left, and so his book and perspective is likely to be influential in shaping opinions on the socialism question. The aim of this article is to review the book.
I will do so by considering the answers it has to six questions I had going in, most of which are widely asked.
- 1. The definitional question. What is socialism?
- 2. The history question. Isn’t socialism just gulags and great leaps forward, a procession of horrors?
- 3. The future question. Isn’t socialism mired in the past? Marx’s Capital is 150 years old — why should I expect it to be of any use to me today?
- 4. The distinctiveness question. The one from above — what is the difference between socialists and progressives?
- 5. The economic question. Again, the one from above — what, in detail, should I expect a socialist economy to look like?
- 6. The practical question. How are we to move to a more equal society, given those who benefit from the inequality both won’t want to move and have disproportionate power to prevent such moves?
Sunkara’s book provides answers to some of these questions, enough, certainly to warrant reading and learning from the book. It is especially good on 2 and 4, and good on 3. It has less to say about the others, but having read it I had a much better sense of both the socialist tradition, how the contemporary figures mentioned above fit in it, and how they differ from their progressive peers.
The book is structured as so. It begins with a neat vision about what a socialist state would look like, which helpfully both elucidates the socialist end goal (per Sunkara; I’ll omit this qualification from now on, but given how ridiculously contentious leftist circles are you should keep in mind that this is just one person’s take) and how it differs from the progressivist end goal.
We begin, more or less, with that latter: a society with a mixed economy in which private ownership is still the norm but in which the unfairnesses of fortune are palliated by a generous welfare state. Although you work for a boss for a living who makes much more than you, maybe that’s not so bad since the boss put up his capital, and anyway you’re well provided for: you get free healthcare and education, plenty of parental leave, holidays, and support if you become unemployed and when you become elderly.
But some people want more. They work really hard, they notice, but their hard work doesn’t, or does just barely, result in greater wages for them. Instead, the beneficiaries of their hard work are those lucky enough to own the company they work for, and those who own the company are, almost certainly, people born into wealth. That’s unfair — it is lucky, and that luck shouldn’t figure in outcomes (“with any luck, future generations will look back at the time when life outcomes were accidents of birth with shock and disgust”, as Sunkara puts it nicely).
So what to do? We umm and ahh, as a society, about what the alternatives to private property are, before deciding that workers should control the companies they work for and receive, instead of wages, their fair share of its profits. Our decisions are somehow — and it’s a very big somehow! — made real. Company owners are expropriated and compensated for their expropriation.
(Where would the money come for this compensation? Taxation, surely, but if taxation is progressive, then most of it will come from company owners, and so I’m not sure how this isn’t just giving with one hand what was taken with the other. I’m sure the people who have thought about this have answers, but I would have liked to see them here.)
Here are some notable features of the imagined socialist new world order. Although everyone part-owns the company they work for, they get different compensation depending on the skill or difficulty or unpleasantness of the job, compensation determined by consensus with an eye to fairness. And companies pay taxes that go in a pot that gets allocated to people who want to start new businesses. In this way, more fair proxies of a labour market and a way of launching businesses without private capital are developed. In this new world, if a company does better and meets its quotas early, rather than just soak up the excess profit, we all just work less. If the company does worse and we need to let someone go, a universal basic income will cushion the blow.
Why, Sunkara asks, should we fight for this? One of the great strengths of the book is its complete honesty and fairness, and he notes that the progressivist world looks pretty decent. And so the reader then wonders — why not stick with capitalism-cum-good-welfare-state? That is to say, what is the answer to our distinctiveness question?
The socialist’s answer is that the progressivist balancing act — satisfying both labour’s demand for a decent life and the capitalist imperative for profits above all — is fundamentally troubled, unstable and always vulnerable. The capitalist is ‘structurally dominant’, always able to withhold investment and to make the progressivist cede ground because of this dominant position. We can only make genuine and secure progress when this structural dominance is overcome. The progressivist doesn’t see, or doesn’t admit to, this, and so even if Sanders and Warren campaign for the same thing, their respective theories of what they’re doing are notably different. For the latter, compromise is possible, while for the former it is not.
Added 23 June 2020: From summer 2020 I’m going to move my occasional writing from medium to tinyletter. If you want to read more from me in your inbox, please consider signing up: https://tinyletter.com/mittmattmutt. I’ll post relatively infrequently, and hopefully interestingly, on the same sort of themes as the blog, so: popular philosophy/explainers, culture, literature, politics/economics, etc. I might also do things like brief reviews of books I read and so on.
Why History, of What Of The Future?
Who is right? Much of the rest of the book speaks to the question by telling a history of the development of socialism in Germany, Russia, Sweden and the UK, China, and the US.
I was ignorant of a lot of it, and learned much. At times it’s a bit of a slog — there’s a lot of ‘And then X-mann split from the SPD and allied with Y-er of the SPD to form the new alliance of the DPS’, a lot of names, dates, and acronyms, with too infrequent summaries of what all this actually means for us in 2018. But it contains important information that one ought to know.
As for the big picture, I think it i) successfully answers our historical question, by showing that the history of socialism, in addition to all the bad stuff, also has much to recommend it and contains a tradition one can look back on for inspiration. And it ii) successfully shows that socialism and progressivism have very often been opposing forces, showing us that today’s situation isn’t unique. I’m not 100% sure that it comes through with iii) the important claim that political instability between capitalists and workers is always owing to the structural advantages of the former. I’ll discuss these points, briefly, in turn.
The first speaks to our questions of gulags and great leaps forward. Sunkara, it is clear, doesn’t view the history of socialism as a nightmare from which he’s trying to escape, but rather finds lessons and inspiration in it (indeed, in a chapter entitled ‘How We Win’, a bullet point list, the 15th and final is simply ‘History Matters’). Socialism isn’t just Stalin and Mao, and he thinks it’s crucial that we learn from both its successes and failures to develop a new politics. Today’s DSA and Corbynite labour voters should realize there is a tradition behind them.
I won’t go into too much detail here (read the book), but, for example, he notes that in 1912, Eugene Debs of the Socialist Party of America got near 1 million votes in the presidential election, about 6% of the population. That chapter, on socialism in America, I found very useful (mainly because I was ignorant beforehand) — it gives you a sense that there is indeed a tradition here, and that when Sanders got 13 million votes in the 2016 primaries, a roughly similar percentage, his support was indicative of currents which run deep in the American political outlook.
Since capitalism arose, pretty much, there have been people out there pushing back against capitalism, often with some success, and so we today shouldn’t be too pessimistic about our chances of doing the same. If you think (as the variously attributed quotation goes) that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than that of capitalism, reading some of these chapters can help.
As to the second point, in the book one sees again and again that leftist politics has been divided between those who favour reforming the institutions of capitalism from within, and those who think the whole thing needs to be torn down. Socialist history is studded with opposing factions who, like (perhaps) our Sanders and Warren, want the same things proximally but whose distal goals are very different.
And this is again useful. Because a reaction one might reasonably have had to the current political situation is that there really are no alternatives. All we have is capitalist, and mildly less capitalist (this might be a way of understanding, for example, Chomsky’s claim that Sanders is a New Deal democrat).
By zooming out, though, we see that this is just how leftist thinkers arrange themselves. We are not living in an era of etiolated socialism that isn’t worthy of its name. Sanders/Corbyn socialism is proper socialism, even if it seems similar to social democracy, because — and again Sankara is explicit about this, and it’s an important takeaway point — proper socialism must go through social democracy on the way to its end goals of owning the means of production, and because Corbyn/Sanders think like socialists, viewing the world as a battle between capital and labour, a battle forced upon us by structural instability of trying to win progressive reform in a capitalist society.
This matters, possibly. It does so because it means that when you go to vote, and see similar policies from Warren and Sanders, you shouldn’t thereby conclude they’re the same. For Sanders these policies are means to a further end, and undergirded by a different understanding of politics.
Then our question becomes: which side is right? The socialist thinks that any worker/capital alliance will be unstable and upset by the capitalist. Does Sunkara’s history bear this out? Ironically, I perhaps came to believe this less having read Sunkara’s book. Maybe I overlooked something, but it seems that at least one crucial moment — during the 60s — it was the Swedish socialists, already enjoying what seemed like a pretty sweet deal, who tried to go further with a ‘new Meidner plan’ (which you can read about here) which upset the delicate capital/labour relationship. While I’m willing to agree that pretty much always it’s the capitalists abusing their power, I would need more convincing that in each and every capitalist/labour fight the former was in the wrong. I doubt reality is that straightforward, and it seems something of an article of faith to maintain that it is.
Tabling that, at times I found the view inspiring — that there was, across time, people working for good of the many, a venerable tradition to which I could belong.
But at other times, I worried about this reliance on history, and in particular worried that by concentrating so much on the past you lose sight of the future (our question 3). For example, I really wanted a discussion of, say, Uber and other platform-services of its kind. Uber is weird because when squinted at, it looks like the workers own the means of production — the cars they drive. It looks like Airbnb renters owns the means of production — the houses they rent.
Of course, there’s a response: the means of production these days are vastly different — they are communications infrastructures, ways of matching rider with ride needer, place-needer with place owner. But that just puts things off: why should I think that the lessons of the past are going shed light on the new way Uber exploits its drivers? At the risk of sounding glib, would I not be better off ‘learning to code’ to build a fairer version of these ride-sharing sites or, more abstractly, attending the branding department of a business school to learn how to get customers to prefer your product (SociaLyft, let’s call it) over more or less identical ones? What can the past teach us about Uber?
The response might come back: we still have the same underlying capitalist vs worker structure, it’s just changed forms or metastasized. And indeed maybe we have. But I need convinced — I need an argument that learning about party political back-and-forth in Bizmarckian Germany will help me fight against Uber. In this respect, I found the book lacking when compared with others in a similar space, such as Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, or Eric Posner and Glen Weyl’s Radical Markets. Both of these books address inequality (from notably differing perspectives, Marxist vs mainstream(ish) economics), both of these look askance at private property, but both also attend to, for example, the information economy and the relationship between data and labour.
Maybe I’m asking too much from one book. And I don’t doubt there are socialist analyses of Uber and such out there. But they’re not in this book, and if this book is to introduce people to the socialist movement, I think they ought to have been.
Having left history behind, we go on to the ‘How We Win’ chapter. It was here that I hoped we’d see discussion of what a socialism for the internet era will look like, or of wonky questions about how the economics will work, or of deeply practical questions about how we’ll expropriate property owners.
It doesn’t do that. It tells us not to despair — that socialists can win (for example, in the UK) and that its goals are within reach. More substantively, it tells us to get involved in working-class struggles — socialism is more than podcasting (/magazine editing) from Brooklyn, we should support unions, and a dedicated socialist party should be formed as soon as possible. While fair enough and unobjectionable, I wanted more.
So, then, what should we make of the book? It answered some of my questions. Socialists have similar aims as progressives but with different underlying reasons for wanting to accomplish those aims, and it has a venerable tradition to look back on. Its current popularity is not some fluke but representative of deep and respectable trends in political opinion. Its prospects of success are not at all unreasonable.
How success will come, and how, under the economic bonnet, all the good things we want will be provided remains obscure, as does exactly how Marx’s vision will get realized in a world of data. But there is much to learn from The Socialist Manifesto.