Reflections on Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist Manifesto

Bhaskar Sunkara, the founding editor and publisher of Jacobin Magazine, did a Q&A last night in Philadelphia’s Westside to promote his new book, The Socialist Manifesto. It was hosted by the Philly chapter of the DSA. I was in attendance with about a hundred other, mostly young, mostly hopeful, progressives and socialists and at least one stodgy old Marxist. The “action” came at the very beginning when Sunkara was attacked, (had a yogurt-like substance thrown on him and was briefly accosted) by one of two black bloc anarchists, apparently over a beef they had with one of his tweets. Personally, the emphasis on anonymity and malicious behavior that characterizes black bloc tactics betrays a kind of conservatism more often found among internet trolls than radical activists, but I digress.

Bhaskar Sunkara

After a quick change, Sunkara masterfully presented his work. The book, which I was fortunate enough to read in the twenty-four hours before his talk, is somewhat mislabelled. Sunkara explained his original title, “Socialism in Our Times” was rejected by the publisher’s marketers, who retitled it, with his permission, “The Socialist Manifesto”. The book, however, is not really a manifesto. Most of its 288 pages are devoted to a quasi-scholarly history of socialism from the era of Karl Marx to the 2018 American midterm election. In its selections and interpretation, Sunkara quietly gestures to his larger objective, invigorating a long-dormant socialist organization that is capable of challenging capitalism’s domination of the political-economic world.  

By his own admission, of which I am in complete agreement, the best part of Sunkara’s book is its first chapter, where he jovially lays out a vision of a socialist world not too different from ours. What is different is important, making small changes with big implications. It is the most theoretical part of his book. The vision he lays out is ideologically socialist and ruptures from capitalism, but it also deviates from the traditional socialist programs. It is more libertarian, less communist, emphasizing bottom-up socialism over top-down. I have very few quarrels with it and in general, find it a hopeful take on the modern socialist theory.

The main issue I had with the book is that there is no defense of the vision. It is presented and then merely assumed. From the second chapter onward, the book embarks on a long narrative history, not so much of socialism’s varied theoretical debates but on its practical efforts to build, organize, and maintain itself as well as challenge capitalist forces and survive antagonist forces allied against it from both within and without. The book’s final chapter provides a list of socialist commandments, drawn from the lessons of the history Sunkara elaborates.

I am not averse to books of practical socialist politics, but the title of Sunkara’s book had me excited that we were finally going to be moving towards a new kind of socialist theory. One that takes a decisive step away from Marx. I understand that it was not Sunkara’s choice for the title, so I don’t blame him for baiting and switching. I fear that without a new theory of socialism, the best socialist can hope to do is “occupy the state” as Sunkara said of Léon Blum. We are still waiting on a vision.