Recently, Jacobin has published Bhaskar Sunkara‘s recent words at the Young Democratic Socialists conference. While I am thankful to Sunkara’s coining of the phrase and clarification of the concept “anarcho-liberal,” I have watched both Jacobin under Sunkara develop positions on market socialism or a refusal to denounce the Democratic Party which could be best be called “Marxo-liberal.” By which I mean not the acknowledge that Marxian politics takes the classical liberal project of 17th and 18th century outside of its own regression, but a failure to recognize the difference between the two tendencies entirely. While I admire Jacobin for putting Marxian ideas back into wider circulation, it cannot be ignored that its flirtations with Neo-Keynesian-ism and other “feasible socialist” answers which aren’t actually all that feasible, nor its willingness to publish strawmen characterizations of Marxist economics which use basically liberal arguments, in, irony of irony, an issue called: Liberalism is dead.
This said, Sunkara’s recent talk at YDS was interesting:
Socialists don’t believe people should be held hostage to accidents of birth. We believe in a society with equal respect for all, one that will bring to fruition frustrated Enlightenment values of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
Perhaps, socialists do just hold these principles: after all, the Sunkara’s publication is called Jacobin and not anything related to the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd internationals. But whatever socialist vision Sunkara is pushing, it is a fundamentally liberal one. It is actually the motto of the bourgeois revolutions that brought us the current systems of production. For focus on equal respect for all, however, is telling. Perhaps quoting Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program will illustrate exactly the point that Sunkara is missing:
Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labor, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption. But as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form.
Hence, equal right here is still in principle — bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case.
In spite of this advance, this equal right is still constantly stigmatized by a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.
But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.
But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!
Sunkara’s focus, like that of the Social Democrats which refuse to truly oppose the Democratic party, is essentially in this mode even as he critiques (obliquely) the traps of social democracy. Equal respect in every sense is even weaker than equal right. We can end with another section of the Critique of the Gotha Program:
Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?
Indeed, why? We have been through the principles of the Jacobin’s before. They were good, but necessarily unfinished and continue to regress to points resembling prior social structures. But let’s go back to Sunkara, who does seem to feel a tension in his own words and goes back to something like a classical Marxist form:
But importantly, I think these “warm-and-fuzzy” goals have to be rooted in class antagonism.
Creating a society built around different values requires a revolutionary transformation of our socioeconomic order. These shifts, a radical extension of democracy into the social and economic realms, are not only desirable, but possible. The roadblocks to their implementation aren’t technical ones, like they’re often portrayed to be, but rather rooted in the political resistance of those who benefit from the exploitation and hierarchy inherent in class society.
It’s important that the socialist message be wedded to moral and ethical appeals, but it can’t lose track of this antagonism against the class that makes even tepid social democratic reforms hard to envision in the 21st century. Yet there’s also the second half of that antagonism, the identification of the class and social forces capable of challenging capitalism and pushing us towards a better social order.
Any future society would build off the wealth and social advances of capitalism itself, but to accomplish this mission we need structures different than the ones capital can create. We need political parties, cultural organizations, a radical labor movement, and other currents of the exploited and oppressed.
Sunkara then calls the basic principles of the Enlightenment project “warm and fuzzy.” I would note the blood on the guillotines of his magazine’s namesake revolution. His call here is classic Marxism, and something that the feel good notions in Social Democrats in the America tend to do: ignore class conflict for the sake of social order. Sunkara’s reminding them of the stakes, and this is a smart thing to do. That’s an uphill battle, and even within his own publication he sometimes loses that fundamental insight. That said, it’s nice to see him remind the YDS of it.
This is sentiment; however, is just a sentiment. In a public conversation with Ben Campbell, he pointed me to some other problems when he stated:
General sentiment seems nice, but it is quite short on detail. So when Bhaskar [Sunkara] says: “Participate in the slow and patient construction of class power through organizations capable of challenging that system.”What organizations is he actually talking about? The DSA? Jacobin magazine? He has certainly been quite explicit about the fact that he opposes the “slow and patient construction” of a political party that would challenge the capitalist party that he currently supports (The Democrats). So what is he even talking about here? Who knows.
Second, we would need to hear more from Bhaskar [Sunkara] about why social democracy “fell into a trap” and “lost track of a structural critique of capitalism”. What were the structural and institutional factors that caused this to happen, and how will Jacobin avoid them? Because this general “trap”, of attempting to increase influence by progressively watering down program, seems to nicely fit to Jacobin’s current trajectory.
The lack of details is vital, and not just for such a short speech. What class organs exist? With the majority of the working population not attached to liberal trade Unions (and the leadership of those unions often suspect themselves and stuck in a “at the moment” mentality and fear of competing organizations), with the Democratic party reflecting the more amiable face of a capitalist managerial class, with most Marxist organizations in the US consisting mostly of either students or academics, and with no attempt to party a multiple tendency party or even some alternative organizations to either the NGO or the majority party caucus or Taft-Hartly limited Union emerging themselves, what exactly does this mean?
Finally, Sunkara ends with this sentiment:
In the development of such a strategy in the 20th century, radicals fell into two traps that seem different, but are actually related.
- The pursuit of short-cuts: from syndicalist fantasies about general strikes ending capitalism overnight to more brutal attempts to stimulate change by imposing socialism-from-above.
- But also the other extreme. A gradualism that yielded useful reforms, but lost track of a structural critique of capitalism and the role of socialists as not the administrators of the capitalist state, but rather the identifiers and heighteners of class antagonisms.
We must find an alternative — both patient and visionary, pragmatic and utopian — and fight against austerity, pushing this world to and ultimately beyond social democracy.
This stuff about socialism from above is strange to me as well, but I suppose it’s crypto-anti-vanguardism and placating the audience. Very few Leninist believe that it would be easily possible to impose socialism via coup without support of the working class and probably the other non-capital owning classes as well. It would also be very hard to do in a multi-ethnic country without involvement of most so-called “minority groups,” and it would definitely not be possible without women. No one thinks that it can be imposed by conspiratorial organization alone unless they have delusions of grandeur and a massive misunderstanding of modern military power. So we are left with a paper Lenin.
The road out here must be based on more than sentiment pointing to a new paradigm. It must even be more than just a critique of currently existing bad ideas and weak politics. This vague notion of returning to an alternative organization that is beyond social Democracy, and, by implication, beyond other currently existing Marxist formulations, and yet also completely consistent with the aims of bourgeois revolution seem, at best, trying to have it both ways, and at a worse, sound and fury signifying a hazy that is so vague it does not yet even have the power to haunt.
Why retrogress again, indeed.