Millennial Socialism and Its Limits

By Jeffrey C. IsaacJuly 30, 2019

Millennial Socialism and Its Limits

The Socialist Manifesto by Bhaskar Sunkara

BHASKAR SUNKARA’S The Socialist Manifesto is a smart book whose author, the founder and editor of Jacobin magazine, plays an important role in shaping the way many millennials on the left think about capitalism, socialism, and democracy. While it opens and closes with policy discussion, the book centers on a historical narrative designed to make plausible a broadly Marxist tradition of socialist politics committed to “class struggle social democracy” and “a radical alternative to a decrepit center-left.”

Sunkara describes the project as “a book I wanted to write when I was 68. I’m writing it forty years too soon, and I may one day want to revise much of it.” A bright, energetic, and politically sophisticated millennial, Sunkara clearly believes that now is the time for such a book. And he has every reason to think this. For the United States is experiencing a rather extraordinary surge of interest in socialism among young people, who have played a central role in fueling the Bernie Sanders “political revolution” and in transforming the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) into an important political force whose membership, now at over 50,000, has increased sevenfold in recent years.

The book has a hipster feel. It begins with a joke about Jon Bon Jovi; cleverly describes Marx and Engels as the “Jordan and Pippen” of socialism; recommends union organizer jobs for “young socialists” as “good career advice”; and concludes with chapters entitled “Return of the Mack” and “Stay Fly.” At the same time, the book is politically serious and even earnest about the importance of reviving the tradition of Marxian socialism, and it demands much of its readers by way of historical understanding and political conviction.

I admire Sunkara’s effort to promote his vision of socialism through serious long-form writing. Like the famous 1848 Manifesto that his title deliberately invokes, his account enfolds current political arguments in an epochal meta-narrative. There is drama to his story, and a sense of direction. But at the same time, the drama is too simplistic, too buoyant, and too self-assured — as any text claiming to be The Manifesto must be. It fails to take account of the deeper failings of Marxism and the lessons learned about these failings by generations of former Marxists who chose not to abandon their egalitarian commitments but to abandon a metanarrative of “class struggle” in the name of these very commitments. It also fails to reckon with the political limits of socialist politics, which has an important role to play if socialists abandon hegemonic aspirations and world historical pretensions, and see themselves as simply one part of a broader democratic left.


The book opens with a “thought experiment” involving a hypothetical “pasta sauce proletarian” who works in a bottling factory and experiences the inequalities and insecurities associated with capitalism. Sunkara invites this worker to imagine how much better his plight would be under an idealized version of Swedish social democracy, but then to consider the possibility that such a social democracy has its own contradictions, and that there is an even “superior” alternative — socialism. He proceeds to envision a scenario whereby a new working-class coalition builds power, faces contradictions and class conflicts, develops “a mandate to change society,” and begins to institute a set of reforms that includes worker control of factories, the transformation of wages into profit-shares, local and regional planning boards and investment banks, and the public funding of “expansive social services and public guarantees.”

Such a socialism would eliminate the category of wage labor, and institute much greater social and economic equality. But it would hardly be perfect. Sunkara’s thought experiment suggests not that such a transformation would be politically easy, but merely that it is possible, and a feasible road map to it can be envisioned.

The core of the book is Part I, which, in Sunkara’s words, “charts the history of socialism from Marx to the present day.” Sunkara insists that it is mandatory that socialists “engage with the many threads of this story.” His history, centered on Marxism, is admittedly selective, seeking to draw lessons from the historical achievements but also the failures of socialism.

He first centers on Marx and Engels, and combines exegesis of the Communist Manifesto and Capital with a brief discussion of Marx’s thinking about “the dictatorship of the proletariat” in the wake of the defeats of 1848 and 1871. Then the story shifts to the Russian Revolution, and the ways that Bolshevism, as developed especially by Lenin and Trotsky, represented a serious and justifiable response to the challenges faced by the new revolutionary regime in a world at war, even as it laid the foundation for the rise of Stalinist dictatorship and then “authoritarian collectivism.” After detours to China, Tanzania, Grenada, Nicaragua, Chile, and Cuba, Sunkara’s narrative departs entirely from chronology, and in 27 pages traverses the entire history of “Socialism and America,” from the early 19th century to today.

The Socialist Party under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs and then Norman Thomas and the Communist Party’s labor activism of the 1930s and 1940s loom large. The chapter culminates in the 1982 formation of Democratic Socialists of America under the leadership of Michael Harrington, and concludes by looking ahead to the promise of Bernie Sanders.

Sunkara returns to questions of political practicality in Part II, which can be read as an extended critique of the social democratic tendencies of the early DSA by one of the chief ideologues of today’s younger, and more radical, DSA. He outlines how the mid-1970s crisis of the post–World War II “social contract” led to the rise of neoliberalism; how the 2008 financial crisis led to the political weakening of neoliberalism and the rise of right-wing populist movements; and how a distinctly socialist form of left populism, represented in different ways by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, demonstrates “that socialists can garner popular support by building a credible opposition rooted in an unapologetically left vision.”

Class struggle is at the heart of Sunkara’s vision. He supports a politics of radical reformism, based on “a renewal of class antagonism and movements from below” and the generation of a working-class “hegemony” over a range of other subaltern struggles. He argues that socialist militants need to be savvy in their political work within the labor movement, in their leadership of strikes and street protests, and in finding the right balance between working within existing if “discredited” social democratic parties and creating the new socialist parties that are necessary. His core strategic argument:

Democratic socialists must secure decisive majorities in legislatures while winning hegemony in the unions. Then our organizations must be willing to flex their social power in the form of mass mobilizations and political strikes to counter the structural power of capital and ensure that our leaders choose confrontation over accommodation with elites.

And so Sunkara identifies with Sanders and Corbyn, not because he regards them as “pure” or imagines that their platforms promise anything more than a step on the road to “socialism,” but because they “don’t represent a social-democratic politics that will serve as a moderate alternative to more militant socialist demands. Rather, they offer a radical alternative to a decrepit center-left.” By embracing a politics of “working-class demands” and promoting “polarization along class lines,” they represent the possibility of an “alternative politics” that breaks with capitalism in the name of socialism.

Readers of this book will learn much about Marxist socialism, its history, and the many sources of its appeal. While Sunkara does not offer millennial socialists a coherent policy agenda or carefully developed political strategy, he does offer the kind of broad framework and sense of historical meaning that any vital social movement needs. Because today’s socialist movement plays an important role in mobilizing activists and promoting important ideas like the Green New Deal, what Sunkara offers is laudable. At the same time, historical myths have their downsides, encouraging movement activists to exaggerate their own popularity, righteousness, or importance, as the history of Marxism surely demonstrates. And Sunkara’s “manifesto” encourages a kind of historical comfort and political rigidity that ill serves his readers if they are going to participate, in a way that is agonistic but also respectful, in the development of a broader democratic left in which they will merely be a part.


Sunkara hinges his argument on his reading of history. As he acknowledges, all histories are in some sense “selective.” The problem with Sunkara’s account is how selective it is, and how much of importance it either leaves out or considers only as a footnote to Sunkara’s Marx-centered history of socialism.

While he discusses a small number of social democratic thinkers — Eduard Bernstein, Rudolf Meidner — he does not seriously incorporate the full range of non-Marxist approaches to socialism and left radicalism that have played an important role in the broader history he tells (here I strongly recommend Sheri Berman’s The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century). In his discussion of Debsian socialism, for example, he states: “Debs remained the heart of the party. In his speeches, he somehow managed to synthesize populism, the messianic rhetoric of Christianity, Western syndicalism, and Marxist socialism into a coherent whole.” But his narrative has no real place for a consideration of American populism, or the tradition of Social Gospel out of which Debs (and even more so Norman Thomas) emerged, or forms of syndicalism, pacifism, feminism, and liberal progressivism that all played important roles in the history of Debsian socialism. Sunkara knows this; his endnotes indicate that he has read many of the primary and secondary sources that would make it possible to tell a broader, more eclectic, and pluralistic, story. But whether it is Debs or Léon Blum or Anthony Crosland, Sunkara is not really interested in much beyond whether and how such leaders figure in his story of the class struggle between capital and labor. His readers thus receive a very potted version of the modern history of socialism, in which non-Marxist forms of dissent, radicalism, and even socialism are marginalized, and the importance and promise of Marxism are exaggerated.

The same problem arises in Sunkara’s history of Marxism itself, a distinctively historical and intellectual tradition linking theory and practice. Sunkara’s Marxism is surprisingly centered on party. Few of the theoretical arguments that have played such an important role in the history of Marxism receive much attention in his account, though these arguments — about the nature of class, the role of ideology, the challenges associated with hegemony, and the ethics of political engagement — have been crucial to Marxist politics and to the broader intellectual culture of Marxism that is not reducible to party politics. In 1985, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe published their important book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Here is how they begin:

Left-wing thought today stands at a crossroads. The “evident truths” of the past […] have been seriously challenged by an avalanche of historical mutations which have riven the ground on which those truths were constituted. […] [F]rom Budapest to Prague and the Polish coup d’etat, from Kabul to the sequels of Communist victory in Vietnam and Cambodia, a question-mark has fallen more and more heavily over a whole way of conceiving both socialism and the roads that should lead to it. […] But there is more to it than this. A whole series of positive new phenomena […] have made so urgent the task of theoretical reconsideration: the rise of the new feminism, the protest movements of ethnic, national and sexual minorities, the anti-institutional ecology struggles […] all these imply an extension of social conflictuality to a wide range of areas …

What followed was an elaborate, 200-plus-page effort to both reconstruct and pluralize Marxism via a reading of the Gramscian concept of hegemony. Laclau and Mouffe’s self-styled “post-Marxism without apologies” continues to generate much debate on the left, about the historical situation, the fundamental concepts of historical materialism, and the centrality of class struggle. They were not the only important Marxists to challenge the totalizing aspirations of Marxism: Jürgen Habermas, Étienne Balibar, E. P. Thompson, and Hilary Wainwright were others. Sunkara’s account does not consider any of these discussions.

Indeed, the one place that he registers them is a dismissive in-passing reference to Stuart Hall, the Jamaican-British Marxist activist and theorist of “cultural studies” who argued that the success of Thatcherism required new and less reductionist approaches to what he called “authoritarian populism.” Sunkara disparages Hall for his tendency “to overstate neoliberalism’s popular appeal and the extent of working-class conservatism. What should have been cause to reexamine Left’s strategy in a changing era became an excuse to jettison Marxist theory and socialist politics.” The essay that Sunkara cites, “Faith, Hope or Clarity,” was Hall’s 1985 contribution to a symposium in the journal Marxism Today. This is what Hall wrote there:

Does the Left look like the kind of alliance capable of putting socialism as a political project back on the agenda — and doing so in a way which is capable of winning mass majority popular support in the country? I do not believe that any serious analyst of politics can answer these strategic questions in the affirmative. […] I think the only way in which Labour, or any other political party on the Left for that matter, should function is by recognising the fundamentally diverse character of this thing which is called “the Left”. It is impossible to foresee a point when all those struggles and movements come into line inside the already established hierarchy of social forces that constitute the existing labour movement, settle their differences and resolve in the great scheme of things to take their appointed place in the line and wait in turn, women behind men, blacks behind women, gays behind everybody. Waiting their turn. As a political project that seems to be absolutely dead …

It is hard to see how Hall is refusing to reexamine left strategy, or how he is rejecting socialism. But it seems obvious why Sunkara objects: because he wishes to reinstate the “established hierarchy of social forces” that has been placed in question by some of the smartest people on the left, including Hall, for over 40 years.

Equally disturbing, Sunkara fails to register earlier debates about the culpability of tendencies within Marxism for the crimes committed by Marxist regimes in power. Sunkara frankly acknowledges and criticizes the coercion, ruthlessness, and authoritarianism practiced by both Soviet and Chinese communist regimes, and repeatedly emphasizes the importance of democracy. But I think it is fair to say that he also presents a rather romantic picture of the Bolsheviks as committed democratic socialists doing their best under “merciless” conditions. While Stalinism is denounced, Lenin and Trostky are presented heroically, and the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 is celebrated: “Though certainly not as spontaneous as the February Revolution, October represented a genuine popular revolution led by industrial workers, allied with elements of the peasantry. […] [T]he Bolsheviks were the force most militantly trying to fulfill the February Revolution’s frustrated goals.”

Sunkara is sincere in his condemnation of the oppressiveness of Soviet-style communism. At the same time, his overall judgment is astonishingly blithe: “Having seen over ten million killed in a capitalist war, and living in an era of upheaval, the Bolsheviks can be forgiven for trying to chart a course to a better world.”

Really? Just like that? Doesn’t “forgiveness” come from the victims? Sunkara’s chapter contains not a single reference to the substantial documentary literature or historical scholarship on the experience of terror and deprivation by Russians living under communism before, during, and after Stalin’s rule.

Sunkara also ignores the critiques of communism developed on the left, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Adventures of the Dialectic (1955), or Leszek Kołakowski’s magisterial three-volume Main Currents of Marxism (1976), or the trajectory that led many brilliant Eastern European Marxists like Kołakowski away from Marxism and toward liberalism. Sunkara’s very first note is to a 1968 Dissent essay by Michael Walzer. But nowhere does Sunkara engage that essay, or wrestle with the debates about Marxism, socialism, identity, ethics, literature, and culture that have preoccupied Dissent since its co-founding over 60 years ago by renegade ex-Trotskyist and Yiddishist Irving Howe.

In 1988, Walzer, longtime co-editor of Dissent, published a book of essays, The Company of Critics, that engaged some of the most important 20th-century political intellectuals of the left, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Ignazio Silone, George Orwell, Simone de Beauvoir, and Martin Buber. There is no place for any of these thinkers, or the historical experiences from which they took their bearings, in Sunkara’s narrative, and I find it troubling that some readers of this book might even imagine that such figures never existed. Sunkara indeed provocatively entitles one of his chapters “The God That Failed.” But this chapter is about post–World War II social democracy; nowhere does Sunkara consider the 1949 book with that title, which included essays by Silone, Arthur Koestler, André Gide, Louis Fischer, Stephen Spender, and Richard Wright on how their respective commitments to the “God” of revolutionary Marxism gave way to experiences of disenchantment and resistance.

No book can discuss everything, and Sunkara makes no pretenses to having produced an exhaustive scholarly work of intellectual history. But by essentially ignoring the writers and arguments noted above, he removes from the story of socialism the anomalies, reversals, and apostasies endemic to any political movement. In 1947, Simone de Beauvoir published one of her most important works, The Ethics of Ambiguity, on the challenges of radical political commitment. There is little consideration in Sunkara’s book of either ethics or ambiguity.

The most serious limit of Sunkara’s history is the offhand way he treats American history. He moves quickly through most episodes and, as noted above regarding Debs, he tends to reduce a great variety of experiences, ideas, and movements to the simple terms of the class struggle.

The limits of this approach are best revealed in his treatment of the very distinctive American history of racism. In his discussion of early 20th-century radicalism, Sunkara briefly references efforts to organize Southern sharecroppers, but says little about the racism that has played such an important role, not reducible to class, in American political development. He notes, for example, that in the 1890s populist “Tom Watson challenged white and black farmers to organize across racial lines,” but fails to mention that within a few years Watson’s agrarian radicalism led him to become a virulent segregationist, anti-Catholic, antisemite, and supporter of immigration restriction. He mentions Debs’s commitment to racial equality, but he furnishes no mention of African Americans such as W. E. B. Du Bois or Ida B. Wells who played such an important role in the early 20th-century struggle against racism, nor does he mention the important role of socialists such as William English Walling, Charles E. Russell, and Mary White Ovington in joining with Du Bois and Wells to form the NAACP.

Sunkara’s most egregious failure to seriously engage racism occurs in the single page in which he discusses the Civil Rights movement. This is what he writes:

In the 1960s, labor and other progressive movements were able to push important legislation through Democratic-controlled Congresses. The most significant concerned civil rights. Radicals played vital roles in the Second Reconstruction of mid-decade, which married demands for political equality for Black Americans with calls for economic justice. Socialists, including Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph joined Martin Luther King Jr. in trying to replace Jim Crow with an egalitarian social democracy. […] But none of them marched for change under the socialist banner or worked through socialist organizations that sustained previous generations of left activism.

The entire paragraph is framed not around racism, civil rights, or the Black freedom struggle, but around the 1960s role of “labor and other progressive movements” in continuing the story of socialism. While Sunkara notes that Baker, Rustin, and Randolph were people with socialist histories who were not acting primarily as socialists, he devotes no attention to the banners under which they did march and the organizations in which they did participate. And so there is no mention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or Congress of Racial Equality. And King is discussed primarily in connection with socialism.

Given all that Sunkara omits from this discussion, its conclusion is even more striking: “The Democratic Party was never realigned into a force that would deliver social democracy. Nevertheless, the end of Jim Crow transformed the United States and may be the most important and enduring legacy of the American left.” Sunkara never stops to consider that perhaps, for ill and good, “social democracy” was simply not a core concern of the Civil Rights movement at all. Nor does he consider that if the end of Jim Crow was the most important achievement of the American left, then this would seem to undermine the narrative of the left on which his entire chapter on the United States centers, which hardly mentions Jim Crow, and focuses on forces inessential to its defeat.

Sunkara’s account compares unfavorably to a 2011 book published by Verso — with which he is associated — that he does not even mention: John Nichols’s The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition … Socialism, which devotes over 300 hundred pages to the topic to which Sunkara devotes a mere 27.

Nichols tells a very complicated story, in all of its richness, devoting extensive discussion to the ways that socialist ideas have intersected with, drawn from, and helped to invigorate a range of left discourses: the links between the “Red Republicanism” of Tom Paine and early 19th-century workingmen’s parties; the synergies between émigré German communists and French utopian socialists on the eve of the Civil War, and the links between Marx and Lincoln; the productive synergies between early 20th-century socialists like Milwaukee’s Victor Berger, and radical progressives like Robert M. La Follette, one of the most important left politicians in the history of the United States, who served for decades as governor, US representative, and senator from Wisconsin, and whose presidential run in 1924 galvanized the support of socialists; and “how the socialists saved the First Amendment,” an account of the role of Berger, Debs, and other socialists played in dissenting from World War I, contesting the suppression of their civil liberties, and defending constitutional democracy (socialists such as Seymour Stedman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Helen Keller, and Norman Thomas played a crucial role, in alliance with liberals like Roger Baldwin, John Dewey, and Felix Frankfurter, in the 1920 establishment of the ACLU; Sunkara does not mention this).

Nichols’s central theme is that “we must recognize the socialist threads that have been woven into our national tapestry,” and that “one need not be a Socialist, nor the follower of any tendency or party of the left, to recognize the contribution made by socialists to America.”

Now Sunkara, to be sure, is attempting something very different from Nichols. The former speaks primarily to millennial socialists, and seeks to furnish them with an ideologically well-defined credo. The latter seeks a much broader audience, reminding readers of the importance of socialism to the development of American democracy, thereby helping to expand the contemporary reach of socialist ideas. But in doing so, Nichols also works to expand the historical perspectives and intellectual and political horizons of contemporary socialists, and to furnish them with motivations to work with others on the broad democratic left to contest inequality.

Sunkara’s Manifesto is not a brief for sectarianism or doctrinal rigidity. It furnishes a historically sweeping rationale for the kind of democratic socialism currently being pursued by the Democratic Socialists of America. While enthusiastic about the 2016 Sanders campaign, and about the promise of a 2020 Sanders campaign, Sunkara makes clear that socialists face real challenges, and must work together with others on the left to meet those challenges. As he writes: “It’s […] vital that we have a tradition that […] can provide us with a sense of our place in history and a meaning to our work. That’s not to say that a popular class movement for redistributive policies needs to be explicitly socialist to win reforms, but socialists are needed within such a movement to provide vision and to push things forward.” These words sincerely express a certain commitment to pluralism and experimentalism. But they also articulate a kind of Marxist orthodoxy, identifying the left with a “class movement” centered on “redistributive policies,” and implying that while others can do important work in such a “class movement,” it is (only?) socialists who can provide “vision” and forward movement.

There are two problems with this way of thinking.

The first is that it is simply empirically, normatively, and even epistemically wrong to imagine that class struggle is the fundamental antagonism in terms of which all other conflicts must be explained and engaged. The story of racism in the United States, for example, is not reducible to the story of class, as I’ve indicated above. Ditto the story of sex and gender oppression, or immigrant exclusion, or environmental degradation, or democracy. Class intersects with all of these things, to be sure. But the converse is also true: all of these things intersect with class. Sunkara devotes two pages toward insisting that “[o]ur politics must be universalist,” explaining that “[s]ocialists don’t reject fights against oppression but instead try to bring them into a broader workers’ movement.” But those engaged in non-class struggles often do not wish to be incorporated into “a broader workers’ movement,” and there is no reason why they should. And to imagine otherwise seems both foolish and counter-productive. These very real issues are currently playing out in the Sanders campaign, which has faced legitimate criticisms for its failure to reckon with the independent importance of race politics and gender politics. (Sunkara’s Jacobin strongly supports Sanders.)

The second problem with this way of thinking is related: it greatly exaggerates the actual power of socialists to project their vision and “push things forward.” The marked increase of DSA, to over 50,000 members, for example, is impressive. But it is much less impressive when one considers that the Sierra Club claims 3.5 million members; the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) 2.3 million; the National Organization for Women 500,000, and the NAACP 400,000 members. (By comparison, the NRA has at least four million members.) And “the working class” to which Sunkara continually appeals is extraordinarily weak by historical standards — only 10.5 percent of the workforce is unionized.

Sunkara indeed acknowledges this: “[T]hough socialism has been resuscitated, its pulse is weak. The populist right still appears better suited than the socialist left to speak to the inequality, anger, and resentment that neoliberal policies inevitably produce.” This is a major concession, but Sunkara notes it only in passing, before proceeding to a chapter on “How We Win” that completely ignores it.

Socialism is again an important part of American political debate. This is due to the salience of the class issues that socialists rightly target, and also to the very real political accomplishments of socialists such as Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib, the many effective chapters of DSA, and the success of journals such as Jacobin. Socialists have an important role to play moving forward, in the resistance to Trumpism, the revitalization of the Democratic Party, and the reform of American institutions. The Socialist Manifesto helps to explain and to justify this resurgent socialism, and this is a good thing. But it also encourages an approach to movement building and political action that is reductive, arrogant, and unjustifiably buoyant, and this is not so good.

Many young socialists will read the book. I hope they will learn from it. But I also hope they will interrogate it, and treat it as a spur to learn more about the things it fails adequately to discuss, so that they can better engage the others with whom they must work to defend democracy and extend the politics of social and economic justice.


Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He served as editor-in-chief of Perspectives on Politics, a flagship journal of the American Political Science Association, from 2009–2017, and in 2017 was awarded APSA’s Frank J. Goodnow Award for Distinguished Public Service to the profession for his work. His book #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, was published in late 2018 by Public Seminar Books/OR Books.

LARB Contributor

Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, where he has taught for the past 36 years. In 2017, he received the American Political Science Association’s Frank Goodnow Award for public service for his long tenure as editor in chief of Perspectives on Politics: A Political Science Public Sphere. He has published five books, edited or co-edited two anthologies, and published over 100 articles and essays. His political writing often appears at Common Dreams and on his personal blog, Democracy in Dark Times.


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