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Book review: 'The Socialist Manifesto' by Bhaskar Sunkara

If you are a socialist, and you are toying with the idea of writing a book – now is the time to do so. The “Millennial Socialism” craze has led to a proliferation of publications which, in one way or another, make the case that socialism has never been properly tried, and that we should give it another go. And yet, the market still shows no signs of saturation. There seems to be an infinite demand for this message right now.

'The Socialist Manifesto' by Bhaskar SunkaraOne of the more recent additions to this genre is the book The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality by Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder and editor of Jacobin magazine. The title is a misnomer, because The Socialist Manifesto is not much of a manifesto. It is mostly a history of socialist movements around the world. The “manifesto,” such as it is, is in the opening chapter, where Sunkara briefly describes a fictitious near-future socialist America, and in the final chapter, where he describes a political strategy for socialists to grow their movement and win influence.

Although I disagree with almost every word of it, in a way, I enjoyed reading it, not least because in terms of the ground it covers, it overlaps quite a bit with my own book on socialism (although it is fair to say that Sunkara and I come to rather different conclusions).

Let’s start with the good bits.

What is “socialism”?

A lot of socialists use a motte-and-bailey strategy, that is, a rhetorical strategy of oscillating between a moderate position that is easy to defend, and a much more radical position that is considerably harder to defend. Their motte is: “We just want to be a bit more like Sweden or Denmark; that’s not exactly Leninism, is it?” Their Bailey is: “Capitalism is fundamentally and irredeemably broken. We need to completely transform our economic system. In particular, we need to democratise ownership structures and overcome the class power of capital.”

Sunkara does no such thing. He is not a motte-and-bailey man. It is perfectly clear what he means by “socialism”: it is an economy in which the means of production are collectively owned, and in which wage labour has been eliminated.

More, he defines socialism specifically in contrast to Nordic-style social democracy, which is just capitalism with a generous welfare state. Sunkara is not opposed to social democracy; he believes that it can bring the working class some temporary gains. But he does not believe that gains achieved under capitalism can be sustained. He believes that as long as there is a capitalist class, that class will always seek to reverse any gains enjoyed by the working class. This, in his account, is what happened in Sweden in the 1990s (a period of economic liberalisation), and in France in the early 1980s (when Francois Mitterand’s government U-turned on its socialist policies).

Socialism has been tried

Most socialists act as if what happened in the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and other socialist countries has nothing to do with them, and treat any mention of any such example as a cheap shot. Sunkara is much more honest than that. His book contains an entire chapter on the Soviet Union, and another one on Maoist China, with cameos for socialist experiments in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Yemen, Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and Tanzanzia. He sees all of these examples as the wrong kind of socialism, built under the wrong conditions, and by the wrong people – but as socialism nonetheless.

So all in all, The Socialist Manifesto is a cut above your average socialist pamphlet (and certainly several cuts above Fully Automated Luxury Communism). It is a shame that Sunkara is still so wrong about everything.

Excuses, excuses

His account of what went wrong with previous socialist experiments is a frantic search for excuses. He always finds something other than socialism to blame: economic underdevelopment, international isolation, a war, a civil war, a party elite that is out of touch with the working class, state bureaucrats who have no interest in sharing power with ordinary people, a working class movement that is not sufficiently prepared – anything and everything, except socialism. It is astonishing how he never seems to stop for a second, and ask himself: “Am I being honest with myself here? Or am I just desperately looking for way to protect my worldview?”

Classical liberal critics of socialism have long argued that there are systematic reasons why socialism leads, and must always lead, to both economic failure and political tyranny. Eugen Richter, a German liberal, was probably the first to make that case, in his prophetic book Pictures of the Socialistic Future (1891). Richter died in 1906, so he never got a chance to witness socialism in action. But if he had, he would not at all have been surprised by how it turned out. Just over half a century later, Friedrich Hayek made that case more systematically in The Road to Serfdom (1944).

The problem is that socialists usually only read other socialists. Sunkara does not cite any critics of socialism, or engage with their ideas. The idea that there might be deeper reasons why so many socialist projects turned out the way they did does not even occur to him.

If all you have is a hammer (and a sickle) .…

In Sunkara’s world, there are no competing ideas, just class interests and class struggle. If a country enacts left-wing policies (such as Sweden in the 1970s and 1980s, or France during the first two years of Francois Mitterand’s government), it is because “labour” is challenging the power of “capital.” If a country reverses left-wing policies (such as Sweden in the 1990s and 2000s, or France after Mitterand’s U-turn), it is because “capital” is reasserting its power again.

The more mundane explanation - that sometimes, policies are reversed because they are simply no good - does not occur to him. But it sometimes fits the facts a lot better.

For Sweden, the 1970s and 1980s were a period of relative decline. In the 1960s, Sweden was still substantially richer than, for example, Italy. By the 1980s, that gap had almost closed, and around 1990, Italy overtook Sweden. Today, Sweden is, once again substantially richer than Italy.

It is true that 1980s-Sweden was an extremely egalitarian society. But this was not the result of a redistribution from “the capitalists” to “the workers.” It was simply the result of redistribution from high-earners to low-earners. The share of GDP that is paid out to workers, in the form of wages and employer-sponsored benefits, did not rise during that period. It fell, namely from about 68% of GDP in the mid-to-late 1960s to about 56% in the mid-to-late 1980s. (It stands at 55% today.)

This is also the reason why Sweden remains a more egalitarian society than the U.S. to this day. The distribution of pre-tax wages is more equal to begin with (because Sweden is a more homogenous society than the U.S.), and then on top of this, the Swedish state redistributes more from high-earners to low-earners than the American state. This is not about a “class struggle” between “labour” and “capital.” In the U.S., the labour share of GDP is several percentage points higher than in Sweden, and has been for almost 40 years.

But if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and if all you have is Marxism, everything looks like class struggle.

A new version of socialism?

Sunkara claims that “his” version of socialism would avoid the problems of central planning, because it would still leave some room for market mechanisms. Although all companies would be owned by the state, they would not be run by the state. They would be run by their own workforce, on a democratic basis, like worker cooperatives. There would be no labour markets as such anymore, but there would still be product markets, thus obviating the need for a Five-Year-Plan.

But this is not a new version of socialism. It sounds like Sunkara has just reinvented “market socialism,” the economic system of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). Of all the variants of socialism that have so far been tried, market socialism was probably the least bad one. If I had to pick a socialist country to live in, it would probably be the SFRY. And yet, despite some initial success, that model ultimately also led to stagnation, and decline. Even at the best of times, though, market socialism was an unstable system, characterised by permanent tensions between its market components and its socialist components.

In any case, Sunkara’s version is worse, because it is not really market socialism, either. Sunkara wants to abolish capital markets and replace them with a system of state banking:

Two key markets under capitalism are […] done away with: the traditional labour market and capital markets. But markets for goods and services remain […]

 

The funds are channeled by regional investment banks (public, of course)” (pp. 19-25)

But if capital is allocated by the state (via its regional state banks), this means that the state gets to decide which sectors will grow and which sectors will shrink. This is just central planning again.

And this is the problem with “Millennial Socialism” in general. Millennial Socialists are most comfortable talking about socialism in terms of vague, abstract aspirations, rather than tangible policy proposals. But as soon as they move out of that comfort zone and get a little more specific, they usually just end up reinventing the tried-and-failed, old-fashioned socialism of yesteryear again.

Suggestions for further reading/listening:

Fully Automated Luxury Communism – A Review” by Dr Kristian Niemietz

Fully Automated Luxury… Communism?!” – Darren Grimes and Dr Kristian Niemietz discuss the books “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” and “The Socialist Manifesto”

Why Socialism is the Failed Idea That Never Dies” – review of Dr Kristian Niemietz’s book by Dr Rainer Zitelmann

Reprinted with permission from the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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Kristian Niemietz, Ph.D., joined the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in 2008 as Poverty Research Fellow, becoming its Senior Research Fellow in 2013 and Head of Health and Welfare in 2015. Kristian is also a Fellow of the Age Endeavour Fellowship. He studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). In 2013, he completed a Ph.D. in Political Economy at King’s College London. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and at King's College London, where he taught economics throughout his postgraduate studies. He is a regular contributor to various journals in the UK, Germany, and Switzerland.