Red Flag Over the White House?
In this extract from his review of Bhaskar Sunkara's The Socialist Manifesto, taken from the forthcoming issue of New Left Review, Benjamin Kunkel traces Sunkara's political formation and assesses his place in the new American left.
A longer version of this review appears in the next issue of New Left Review, out next week.
Bhaskar Sunkara—editor and, in 2010, while he was still an undergraduate, founder of Jacobin, a socialist quarterly which today boasts more than 35,000 subscribers and attracts many more readers to an indispensable website that posts near daily commentary on American and international politics from an ecumenical crew of left authors; former vice-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization he joined on his eighteenth birthday, the ranks of which have in recent years, as Sunkara notes, multiplied tenfold, to surpass 50,000; occasional columnist for The New York Times and Guardian, and talking head on the cable news channel MSNBC: in short, the public face, if there be one, of the much-discussed phenomenon of millennial socialism in the US, with a broad friendly smile in his author’s photo, and an easygoing and generous or, in other words, nonsectarian manner in his many public appearances—was born in New York in 1989, at perhaps the nadir of the left’s historical fortunes. His parents had migrated from Trinidad and Tobago, and in his first book, The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality, Sunkara is quick to establish his family’s modest class situation: ‘My mother worked nights as a telemarketer, my father, a declassed professional, eventually as a civil servant in New York City.’
Socialism was hardly in the air in the suburban US of the late 90s and early 2000s. In Sunkara’s characteristically breezy telling, it took a lingering oasis of American social democracy, the local public library, to acquaint him with socialist literature: ‘By chance, I picked up Leon Trotsky’s My Life the summer after seventh grade, didn’t particularly like it (still don’t), but was sufficiently intrigued to read the Isaac Deutscher biographies of Trotsky.’ In a readerly itinerary that tacked between the headings of social democracy and social revolution—a pair of stars that still forms the constellation over Sunkara’s adult career—he soon steered forward in time to Michael Harrington and Ralph Miliband, and backward to ‘the mysterious Karl Marx himself’. The phrase signals friendliness to the neophyte reader to whom The Socialist Manifesto is obviously, but not exclusively, addressed.
Sunkara’s foraging for intellectual nourishment in the municipal stacks took place at a time when there was not to be found on the periodicals shelves any publication resembling Jacobin or, for that matter, the other little magazines of the left that have sprung up on the American scene over the past fifteen years: journals firm in their radical commitments but addressed to the general reader as opposed to historical-materialist cognoscenti. Back then, the choice was between genuinely radical journals like Monthly Review or NLR itself that in their different ways took for granted their readers’ prior theoretical formation or political orientation, and social-democratic outlets such as The Nation or Dissent that offered meekly progressive takes on current events, with little evident hope and less concept of any ultimate socialist overhaul of us society. It testifies in no small part to Sunkara’s achievement in Jacobin that left-curious American teenagers today would no longer find themselves as intellectually lonely as he (and, for what it’s worth, I) once did, and that the broad Marxist tradition no longer looks like such an antiquarian or specialist concern.
Public intellectual, radical editor, socialist politician—at just thirty years old, Sunkara is already the most prominent such figure in American life since Harrington himself, who died the year that Sunkara was born. More than this, the democratic-socialist current which, in the first decades after Harrington and others founded the DSA in 1982, represented no more than a shivering trickle across the desert of the American ideological landscape is, today, a stream that Sunkara can reasonably hope to see swell into one of the main channels of American politics. Democratic socialism in the US, as incarnate in the burgeoning DSA, already threatens the social neoliberalism of the Democratic Party to its right, and, at the same time, to its left, has sped the demise of the country’s most respectable revolutionary socialist outfit, the International Socialist Organization, which dissolved itself in March.
These circumstances alone would confer a certain importance on any book Sunkara might write. And then, too, the printed (or posted) word matters peculiarly for American socialism, as it can’t for as-yet more effective political tendencies: until the advent of socialism in the US is an institutional reality, the phenomenon must exist largely on the page; and, as Sunkara’s own case illustrates, it’s in libraries or bookstores, as much as in workplaces or at demonstrations and meetings, that converts are to be won. What kind of addition, then, to the bookshelves of socialism has this good-natured eminence of the new American left attempted, and what contribution has he made to current left debates?
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To read the rest of this review and more, get the next issue of New Left Review online or in print next week.