Anyone doubting the arguments for socialism, should read Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Socialist Manifesto.” It presents old rationales in new clothes; the clothes are simple and attractive, while the rationales are sound. They come, however, with a big warning. “We certainly don’t want to repeat the last century’s attempts, whether in Russia or China, to impose ‘socialism from above.'” The twentieth century was an era of “false starts” for socialism, or perhaps more accurately of real starts that quickly went awry. Trotsky and Lenin helped make the first successful worker’s revolution in history, but lost control and the reins fell into Stalin’s murderous hands. Later, Mao’s earliest political activities were revolutionary, but his deification led to famines and mass death. So no, we do not want to repeat the past. We want to learn from it.
Sunkara argues for gradualism, for starting with social democracy. This is reasonable, in an era so reactionary that FDR would doubtless be called a communist by today’s Lindsey Grahams. The U.S. still has a tattered social safety net, thanks to FDR and LBJ, but if Republicans could, they would shred even those remnants – although all polls show wide public support for those social programs. So yes, a goal more modest than socialist revolution, something like the Green New Deal and Medicare For All would be a place to start. Of course even those modest social democratic proposals elicit shrieks and howls of “communism!”
How such hysteria snowballs deserves consideration. After all, any effort to relieve the poverty of over 100 million Americans, any redistributive program, prompts the modern version of a red scare and not just from Fox News and Republican senators. Recent television coverage of the first Democratic debate phrased the Medicare For All issue most tellingly, by asserting that certain (very moderate) candidates wanted to abolish private health insurance. Phrased thus, to your average ignoramus, it sounds alarming. The network never headlined that free, comprehensive public health insurance would replace the private, expensive, incomplete variety that spawns so many American bankruptcies. That’s a level of journalistic responsibility television commentators saw no need to rise to. Such lies of omission are commonplace. They popped up during the second Democratic debate also. As more social democratic programs gain popularity, expect this mendacity to become ubiquitous.
So while it’s a given that socialists will receive a negative publicity Blitzkrieg, social democrats should ready for it too. If any dem attempts to undo Trump’s tax “reform” gift to billionaire donors by reinstituting progressive taxation, the media will distort it. Likewise with the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. As for reducing military spending and removing troops from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, the Persian gulf and no longer assisting the Saudi slaughter in Yemen – these actions will be proclaimed “unpresidential.” Trump only became “presidential” in the centrist press, when he fired missiles at Syria.
The only socialist peace and environmental policies the media might not attack are returns to the INF and Iran nuclear deals and to the Paris climate accords. Otherwise U.S. media are profoundly reactionary and even more profoundly stupid. Perhaps Sunkara’s book ignores this out of politeness, but a little rudeness here wouldn’t hurt. U.S. media are a huge obstacle to social democratic reforms and to peace, and such reforms are, as Sunkara argues, necessary steps to a more just, socialistic society. “The road to socialism beyond capitalism goes through the struggle for reforms and social democracy…” Sunkara writes. “We can’t rely on the professed good intentions of socialist leaders: the way to prevent abuses of power is to have a free civil society and robust democratic institutions. This is the only ‘socialism’ worthy of the name.”
Unfortunately, we do not now have robust democratic institutions. Oligarchs control congress, the president is a wannabe autocrat, the media exclude dissent, independent press is smeared, the security/police apparatus has wrapped its tentacles around the entire body politic, the bipartisan war party clutches electoral politics in its death grip and populates all political offices, public money sinks into a bottomless military pit, swallowing $750 billion per year and so on. It’s not just socialist policies we need – we need true democracy, too. And both will only come with a fight.