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Review: Bhaskar Sunkara (ed.), The ABC’s of Socialism

Bhaskar Sunkara (ed.), The ABC’s of Socialism. Brooklyn: Verso, 2016.

It can be difficult to remember amidst the daily news onslaught that there was not so long ago a real chance that America would elect a real progressive to the White House, one who openly though sometimes confusingly spoke about the value of socialism. The majority of anti-Trump groups are focused on mobilizing a resounding “No!” to the regressive policies of the new administration, and rightly so: Trumpism promises not only to sink America into a paranoid-schizoid sea of xenophobia but also to help the super-rich profit while doing so. Indivisible, the locally-focused movement that has blossomed around a guide created by former congressional staffers on how to resist the Trump agenda, is exemplary in this regard. Indivisible aims explicitly to be to Trump what the Tea Party was to Obama: a visible, disruptive, and strategic obstacle. While rejecting their views, Indivisible lauds the Tea Party for having “thought thoroughly about advocacy tactics,” and their guide is in many ways a repurposed Tea Party action memo.

As important as this work is, it does not address the underlying structural causes behind Trump’s election nor does it offer much in the way of an alternative vision for America. “No!” is needed at the present moment, but so too is a recognition of the increasing income and wealth inequality over the past 40 years, which has left many Americans desperate, anxious, vulnerable, and grasping at whatever change they can get. Trump’s election wasn’t just the result of a rising tide of vitriol stirred up by a ham-actor fascist agitator. It was also a sign of the deep frustration with and distrust of a neo-liberal establishment that has done very little to stem growing alienation and immiseration.

Thankfully there are groups out there like Our Revolution and the Justice Democrats, who offer very specific progressive platforms in recognition of the fact that impoverishment and instability were at the root of Trump’s victory. The Justice Democrats call out the “corporate wing of the party” and are aiming at nothing less than replacing every establishment politician in congress, both Republican and Democrat, in 2018. Our Revolution, the organizational heir to the Sanders campaign, is also working at the local level to support new progressive leaders. Both groups are doing important and necessary work in the effort of revitalizing American democracy, but there is a particular itch that neither are scratching. Both organizations, and indeed most leftist organizations that have grown substantially in the wake of Trump, give people something to do, but neither are doing a great deal to help them understand how we arrived at this particular predicament. The explanation always seems either to be bad people, or bad, rich people, and neither explanation is particularly convincing. The present is undoubtedly a time for action, but it should also, even more importantly, be a time for searching and uncomfortable self-reflection. The Trump era is and will continue to be a disaster, but an even greater disaster would be a failure to really question what it means to be on the “left” in an increasingly frightening period of human history.

In the effort to aid this process of reflection, the socialist magazine Jacobin has released a short pamphlet on The ABC’s of Socialism, available on their website for free in digital form and for $5 in print form. Jacobin has a monthly print circulation of 25,000 and a monthly web circulation of 1,000,000, and with chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America sprouting up around the country (their membership has tripled since Trump’s election), the ABC’s is going to have a very large audience. Jacobin has become, for better or worse, the preeminent voice of socialism in America.

The ABC’s of Socialism is designed like a board game: the reader begins at square one with “I might be a socialist but…” and then advances through a set of common objections, including “Isn’t America already kind of socialist?”, “But at least capitalism is free and democratic, right?”, and so forth. Each objection (thirteen in all) receives a response in a short chapter, some of which are truly remarkable for their clarity and brevity. Nivedita Majumdar swiftly demonstrates the absurdity of labeling socialism “Eurocentric” – “Is it Eurocentric to argue that Bangladeshi garment workers have as much at stake in fighting for their economic rights… as workers laid off at American Walmart stores?” (65) – and Vivek Chibber justifies the socialist focus on the working class. For Chibber, it is not simply that “workers face all sorts of indignities and material deprivation,” for “after all, there are lots of groups who suffer indignities and injustices – racial minorities, women, the disabled. Why single out workers?” (121). The answer refers us to the critique of capitalism: as the source of surplus-value, workers are in the best position of any group to enact structural change in capitalist society. And Chibber stresses that “this isn’t just a theory. If we look back at the conditions in which far-reaching reforms have been passed over the past hundred years, reforms which improved the material conditions of the poor, or which gave them more rights against the market – they were invariably based on working-class mobilization” (126).

Other essays, sometimes on account of the immensity of their topics, sometimes on account of the narrowness of their approaches, are missed opportunities. Erik Olin Wright’s challenge to the idea that capitalism is free and democratic reads like it is from a different era. When, for instance, Wright tells us that it is not free and democratic for corporations to decide to relocate a factory or that “9-5 is tyranny,” it feels as if he has walked right into the standard retorts: “Of course capitalists can move the businesses. They’re their businesses! Of course socialists think the 9-5 is tyranny. They’re lazy!” Rather than recite complaints against the elites, Wright’s essay could have pointed out that capitalists, when they move those factories to places where wage-labor is cheap, are themselves not acting “freely” according to their own “private interests.” They are merely obeying the bottom line, being “capital personified,” and may be quite personally troubled by the relocation. The idea that capitalists themselves are “free,” in other words, needed to come in for inspection. Furthermore, the essay was a chance to raise the contradiction between the productive capacities of capitalism and the social constraints on realizing the goods enabled by those capacities. 9-5 might not be tyranny in a vacuum, but it sure looks like it if the majority of the workday is demonstrated to be surplus labor time.

Joseph Schwartz tackles the objection that socialism typically ends in dictatorship and while he admirably shows that historically, it is the socialists who have fought, and the capitalists who have supported, the authoritarian regimes that claim to be “socialist,” once again a crucial piece is missing. Schwartz points to the myriad ways in which capitalists have propped up dictators throughout the twentieth century, but he does not delve into the ways in which capitalism creates the kind of social discontent that is manipulated by fascist agitators to scapegoat already marginalized subgroups. Not just individual capitalists but the system itself is the issue. Especially after the 2016 election, Max Horkheimer’s well-known dictum must be reasserted: those who are unwilling to talk about capitalism should stay silent about fascism.

Recognizing that socialism often gets pinned for emphasizing class and anti-capitalism to the neglect of other concerns, the new socialists stress intersectionality, or the ways in which varying forms of institutional oppression are related. The ABC’s is exemplary in this regard, its middle chapters devoted to the relationships of anti-racism, feminism, environmentalism, and pacifism to socialism. The last of these, which reads at moments like a history of American imperialist wars since the Spanish-American war, is a somewhat confusing addition to the ABC’s, and a lengthy one at that. It raises the argument that the money spent on war abroad could be used for social welfare programs at home, but this point, as well as the general conclusion that “one has to differentiate between the violence of those fighting to maintain injustice, and those fighting against injustice” (117), does not seem particular to socialists, nor does it seem like a particularly urgent objection to socialism.

The essays pertaining to the first three, by contrast, are among the strongest in the book, demonstrating as they do the insufficiency of these struggles without a fight against capitalism while also admitting a tendency of socialists to be blindered by class. Despite an initially confusing discussion of slavery as fulfilling the “labor needs of capital” (74), which employs Marx’s thoughts on what he calls “primitive accumulation” without addressing them as such, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor manages cogently to articulate the “divide and rule” strategy wherein working class groups are pitted against each other along racial lines, the need to win “ordinary whites to an antiracist program” in order to build “a genuine, unified mass movement capable of challenging capital” (78), and the historical links between anti-capitalism and anti-racism. Nicole Aschoff similarly covers a great deal of ground in a small amount of space, explaining how capitalism both assumes and reinforces a gendered division of labor and critiquing the “‘take-power’ feminist strategy” of women like Sheryl Sandberg, Hillary Clinton, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, who offer “a feminism that doesn’t challenge capitalism” (89).

Special mention should be made of Alyssa Battistoni’s contribution, which is also wide-ranging in its pithiness but works to bring the reader in to the socialist imaginary as well. Battistoni emphasizes that eco-socialism is not about “preserving an idealized concept of pristine, untouched nature. It’s about choosing the world we make and live in” (102). Simultaneously fending off the ideas that socialism involves either “clamp[ing] down on popular consumption” (98) or keeping “the capitalist engines… roaring” (96) in the hands of workers, she holds up conscious decision-making as the real good of a socialist society, which would “make decisions about producing and implementing new technologies based on democratically chosen aims, rather than producing and consuming wastefully in order to keep various industries profitable” (100-1). The vision articulated here is remarkably disarming, tidily dismissive as it is of misleading stereotypes, and also quite concrete: “Instead of an endless cycle of working and shopping, life in a low-carbon socialist future would be oriented around activities that make life beautiful and fulfilling but require less intensive resource consumption: reading books, teaching, learning, making music, seeing shows, dancing, playing sports, going to the park, hiking, spending time with one another” (98).

The one fault of the essay lies in a criticism of traditional Marxists, who “held that communism would arise amid post-capitalist conditions of superabundance” (96). Battistoni is certainly right to take issue with a particular version of Marxism, but the critique does not salvage the key of insight of Marx’s that capitalism is driving revolutions in the means of production that have made possible a new kind of society. Marx, I think, would agree with Battistoni that “we need not only to seize the means of production, but to transform them” (97) but would add that it is only thanks to capitalism’s development of these means that the possibility of transforming them is on the table. At stake here is a problem – that of taking the dialectical sting out of socialist thinking – that unfortunately runs throughout the ABC’s.

The weakest sections of the book are those that deal with the most general and abstract concerns, such as the chapters on the compatibility of socialism with human nature and whether or not life will be fun and exciting in a socialist society. Not surprisingly these are also the chapters where the particularity of the authors’ standpoints shines through the argument. Grappling with the objection that capitalism is “much more suited to human nature – a nature dominated by competitiveness and venality,” Adaner Usmani and Bhaskar Sunkara reply simply that people are more complex than that: sure, they’re greedy and competitive sometimes, but “they also engage in remarkable acts of kindness and, even in difficult situations, show deep regard for others” (31). “People are complex” is clearly an inadequate response, and one wonders immediately why the authors do not mention the ways in which capitalist social relations are structured in such a way as to compel us to be selfish, cold, worried about our relative statuses, feeling out of control, etc., and thus that what is often taken to be natural in human beings is in fact social in origin. This line of critique, dating back to Rousseau’s distinction between natural and moral inequalities in the Second Discourse, has been a mainstay of socialist thought, so why fall back on “people are complex”?

This is where the particularity comes in: Usmani and Sunkara disagree with the idea that “we’re plastic – that there is no such thing as human nature. Progressives do sometimes make this claim, often arguing with those who see people as walking, talking utility-maximizers. Despite its good intentions, this reproach goes too far” (31-2). It’s difficult to know who precisely the authors have in mind when they speak of a human nature-denying progressive, but my hunch is that it is the postmodern academic who touts the constructedness of all identity and who has done so much to undermine the reason that Jacobin champions (their motto is “Reason in revolt”). Usmani and Sunkara might be correct that a certain kind of purportedly critical discourse has been extremely damaging to leftist politics, but they throw the baby out with the bathwater when they conclude, “of course there’s a human nature!” An essential ingredient of the socialist theoretical lens is a recognition that we are compelled by capitalism to be in an historically-specific way.

Danny Katch’s concluding chapter, which holds up socialism as exciting and vibrant in a way that capitalism is only for a select few, raises a similar objection. Katch points to Russia in the 20s as “a messy and thrilling creation of tens of millions of people groping toward a different way of running society and treating each other” (136) and argues that, so long as we like dealing with the conflict and arguments of a democratic society, socialism could never be the grim and dreary dystopian future it is so often portrayed to be. “To be an effective socialist,” he concludes, “it is extremely helpful to like human beings. Not humanity as a concept but real, sweaty people” (138). Once again, the historical specificity of the issue is not addressed: it is a real question, for one, why the kind of excitement that Katch associates with capitalism – “new gadgets for the rich people, wild parties for celebrities, amazing performances to watch from your couch” (133) – is excitement at all, and thus why Jacobin would even choose to address the problem of whether or not socialism will be “fun,” let alone conclude the book with it. Given also the point raised above – that capitalism compels a certain kind of behavior that is selfish, cold, and inconsiderate – it is misleading and moralizing to hold up “liking real people” as a precondition of being an effective socialist. Not liking people on account of their brutal instrumentality and unthinking adherence to the increasingly inane products of the culture industry is just as good a reason to be a socialist as any.

The weakness of these chapters exemplifies the crux of the problem with the ABC’s: the message seems to be that if you are a reasonably complex, aesthetically sensible people-person, then socialism looks like a pretty good option, once the historical muck is washed off and it’s brought up to speed with the times. I am immediately reminded of a Portlandia sketch where Father Timothy (played by Ed Begley, Jr.) implores his audience in an advertisement to “consider church an option.” What is missing here is the dialectical force of the original vision: Marx did not envision one way of addressing many of the world’s problems. He rather laid out what the contradictions of capitalism have made necessary. To fail to achieve the historically novel form of rational society that the capitalist mode of production has made possible is, for Marx, to condemn capitalist society to an accelerating and destructive irrationality.

One might object that the purpose of the ABC’s is to be an introduction and that the intricacies of the dialectic needn’t be covered in a primer, but this concern is neither academic nor very difficult to put in simple terms. We imagine post-scarcity, leisure-filled futures – everything from Battistoni’s hipster paradise to Star Trek: The Next Generation – for the same reason that we imagine post-disaster, Mad Max futures: because capitalism has made them possible. Both were quite literally unthinkable before capitalism, as both are very much in play today, but the longer we wait to achieve the former, the closer we get to putting ourselves definitively on the path to the latter.

When Rosa Luxemburg famously claimed that the options for a capitalist society are socialism or barbarism, she meant that socialism is not just about making the world fairer, about choosing to side with the workers and against the capitalists for a more rational society. It’s about stemming the tide of irrationality that threatens to engulf capitalists and workers alike. Trump should be a sign to us all, no matter your identity, no matter your lot in our eco-apartheid, no matter who you think deserves what, that socialism is not an “option.” It is an opportunity, and one whose window is rapidly closing.