Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of the US socialist magazine Jacobin, spoke to Solidarity. (For an interview with another Jacobin editor, Peter Frase, when he took part in a tour of Momentum groups last autumn, see here.)
What’s your assessment of the current political situation in the US, and how is the left responding and developing in that context?
As counterintuitive as it may seem, especially after a wave of terrible activity from the far right and given who’s in the White House, many of the trends are positive. There’s a growing trend among young people towards broadly social-democratic politics. More and more people are willing to take part in activism, with a real movement against Trump, albeit a diffuse one. On the far left we’re seeing new growth – DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] just hit 26,000 members, up from a historic norm of around 5-6,000. Those 20,000 new members have joined in the past year and a half, and mostly since Trump’s election. We have the populist right in power, and there’s a tendency to make politics just about resistance to those forces, for the left to focus our fire against only the right and not the centre. One of the successes of the Bernie Sanders campaign was that it separated a section of liberalism from the Clintonite centre with a positive vision of change. I always say that the good news is that it’s perhaps the best time to be a socialist in the US since the early 1970s. The bad news is that it’s still a pretty bad time to be a socialist in the US.
There have been some reports of small left-wing groupings in heavily Trump/Republican territory, for example in the south, who are pro-gun-ownership but also radically progressive?
I wouldn’t say it’s widespread, and it’s still developing a social base. I do think it’s the case that many of these traditionally conservative areas are open, perhaps not quite to our politics, but certainly to the politics of Bernie Sanders. These groups are in no sense defining the resistance to Trump, though. The face of that resistance at the moment is typified by something like the Women’s March; that should give us hope, because it was big and filled with people who have engaged in mass politics before, but there were limits to its level of organisation and politicisation, which is partially why it faded away. The key for the left is to continue to put forward an affirmative agenda around things like the struggle for universal healthcare, and not just fall into a purely reactive anti-Trumpism. We need a sword and a shield at the same time. A lot of the left wants to just have the shield.
Many of DSA’s 20,000 new members are presumably new to left-wing politics and perhaps quite raw. What’s being done to politically educate these people, and what should be done?
I think Jacobin and our reading groups plays a big role in political education, alongside DSA branches developing their own syllabuses. When we integrate new people in the movement, we have to be careful not to inculcate them with the negative aspects of the movement’s culture, which has to a large extent been characterised by our defeats and disconnection from any kind of social base. New members need to know the history of our ideas, and be non-sectarian from a position of knowledge about and engagement with ideas, rather than simply by default. A lot of people on the US left will present themselves as “non-sectarian”, but what that often means is that they’re simply ignorant about certain political and historical questions.
Are writers like Hal Draper widely read amongst DSA activists today?
Among many of us, particularly the “Jacobin” generation of DSA recruits (pre-Bernie, but in our 20s) he is. He will hopefully be read more among others; The Two Souls of Socialism does appear on reading lists. We also have our political tradition and experience, and view of social democracy that differs somewhat from Draper. Unfortunately there is something of a lack of knowledge about the historical orientations of DSA and where it came from, so not many members would necessarily recognise Draper, Shachtman, or other figures of that type. But longer-standing members of DSA, and particularly amongst the leadership, do have that background, so the question is how can we incorporate this into political education without it seemingly like we’re just giving abstract history lessons. How do we make it relevant day-to-day? Broadly speaking the orientation of DSA is towards a socialism that is from below, so in a broad sense we embody that tradition, as opposed to a technocratic vision of either social democracy or Stalinism. So it’s in the organisation’s bones, if not on people’s lips.
Alongside, and partially within, the DSA’s explosion of membership, there seems to have been a revival of Stalinism, partially online, but also in the real world. What do you think anti-Stalinists need to do to educate new members about Stalinism, and win the political arguments within DSA?
It’s in the nature of being an open organisation that people from different backgrounds are joining. We have a particular politics and tradition, so I would hope that the people joining identify with that. There is a small fringe of people who ironically use Stalinist and Maoist imagery; I don’t think it’s a big tendency, even among YDSA branches, but the way we deal with it is by not shying away from talking about history. We win by organising. There is already a social-democratic majority in the United States that we need to tap into and organise. There’s plenty of room to the left of that in which we can organise, and as democratic socialism develops deeper social bases, small tendencies like this will become irrelevant. They’re not large enough to be a barrier, but just from the point of view of decency and basic historical understanding, we should explain why we’re anti-Stalinists.
What about industrial struggle? Is DSA giving its new members an orientation to workplace organising and the trade union movement?
The three main industries our strategy should be focused on, in my view, are supply and logistics; healthcare; and education, particularly schools. There are certainly segments within the DSA who identify these sectors as key. That’s important in terms of having an orientation, because many people coming into the left have very vague ideas about organisation. We’re a small organisation with finite resources. Especially in the platform put forward by the DSA Momentum grouping at our recent convention, there was a strong emphasis on rank-and-file organising, as opposed to DSA’s traditional approach, which was more to do with just seeking left partners within the trade union bureaucracy. Any resurgent labour movement will have to come through rank-and-file democracy and control. Especially with the coming of “Right to Work” nationally, and other measures that will further undermine the traditional trade union leadership, we need rank-and-file currents to pose a political alternative, through struggle, in the form of a class-wide unionism that isn’t limited to the shop floor. A lot of young DSAers are looking to get jobs in strategic industries and sectors where they can be rank-and-file union activists. That’s definitely encouraged by groups within DSA. Our approach is oriented more and more towards rank-and-file work, driven by unionized workers as opposed to union staff. I don’t want to overstate the social base of DSA, so it should be said that a lot of these workers are recently de-classed graduates, often from professional backgrounds, and many are getting jobs in “white collar” sectors, but it’s still a good start.
McDonald’s workers in the UK are currently balloting for strikes. What’s your assessment of the fast food workers’ movement in the US? Is that opening up routes for the labour movement into other sectors of the low-paid economies?
It’s a great thing. But let’s admit that one of the reasons it’s been palatable to a section of the union bureaucracy in the United States is that “Fight for $15” events are often framed not to disrupt capital, but for the media buzz they can generate. We should be aware of the limits of that kind of approach. We should talk in terms of strategic sectors and ability to create disruption at the point of production. Sometimes these terms are seen, at least on the US left, in a very moralistic way. If use terms like “point of production” or “social weight”, it’s alleged that you’re saying workers in different industries aren’t equal. Of course that’s not true; at a moral and ethical level, all workers’ struggles matter equally. But with finite resources, we need to think about what are the key sectors to engage with. “Fight for $15” is an important campaign, that has gained a lot of resonance and changed political discourse, but beyond that, we need to think about key industrial sectors like logistics, healthcare, and education, where the left can conceivably build something of a base. We should encourage young people joining socialist groups at university to get jobs in these industries where they can do union work.
Where’s the debate at, in DSA and more generally on the left, on the question of political representation? If the DSA isn’t pursuing a traditionally “realignment” strategy, what political strategy should it pursue?
We should organise as much as we can outside of the Democratic Party. A combination of the building of the social forces of the left, and objective social conditions, will at some point lead to a fracturing of the two-party system, but then a recomposition of it. So for a year or two you might see four parties in US politics, but because we have a first-past-the-post electoral system things will narrow down to a two-party system again. I would hope that one of the parties left standing will be a labour-backed, broad-left party with anticapitalist currents. That’s a vision that isn’t based in the classic “realignment” strategy; we’re not going into the Democratic Party and trying to push it leftwards. On the other hand, I have no hesitation in saying that I would have voted for Hilary Clinton in a swing state. There’s a certain vision of independent political action on the left that can constrain our tactical flexibility. In a social struggle, if a centrist trade union leader wants to get involved, you’d take the help while making the critique; in the same way, in the Democratic Party there are certain races where I’d vote for a progressive Democrat – or even, in the case of a national election, in a swing state, for a Clinton-type Democrat. There’s a difference between casting a critical vote and campaigning for someone. With our finite resources, the socialist left should not be campaigning for even the Elizabeth Warrens of the world. This is my opinion I’m giving, but I do think there’s a broad and growing consensus within DSA around something like this – shifting away from “realignment”, talking more openly about the need for independent political action, and that’s willing to run in local races as independents, for example in a city like New York. We could potentially become the second party in New York. We have over 2,000 members in New York City alone. The political machine is weak, it’s a one-party Democratic town, and I see no reason why we can’t compete. But at the national level, that’s not something you can just will into being. How do we build our forces to the point where it’s viable to have real independent political action, as opposed to a small grouplet claiming to speak for the working class? That’s been the approach of a lot of left-wing third-partyism in the US.
We may well soon have a Corbyn government in Britain. You have various examples – Syriza, Mitterand in the early 1980s – of governments being elected with leftist reform programmes, which haven’t ended well. How can the left in Britain start to raise those issues, and work to ensure that a Corbyn government turns out differently?
Mitterand failed because his government was trying to make a radical reform of capitalism in an era in which that was essentially impossible, due to the constraints of European integration and the broader crisis of capitalism. Capital flight and the ability of capital to withhold investment killed his project. What Corbynism is trying to achieve is far more modest than what the French Socialists were trying to achieve. Can the NHS be restored? Yes, of course. Can certain key services and infrastructure be renationalised? Of course. Can basic investments be made into public housing and education? Of course. Those are not particularly radical demands. There’ll be resistance, but Corbyn’s basic programme is perfectly achievable.
Capital has had thirty years of having everything its own way; the hysteria around Labour’s limited programme does not suggest a great degree of willingness to concede. We’re not of the school that says reforms are impossible, but in a sense, isn’t the balance of forces – in terms of the ideological strength of the left, the level of organisation and combativeness of the workers’ movement, and the aggressiveness of capital – in many ways less favourable?
Yes, the terrain is less favourable. But I do think the fact that the demands are in themselves less radical does change things. It also matters that the UK is a massive economy, with more flexibility than Greece or others have to carry out these basic programmes. Of course, it’s heavily financialized The successes, or the productive failures, of trying to push these reforms through, against resistance, will shape what will happen after Corbynism. Right now, the struggles within the Labour left are the vehicles to win immediate reforms and re-cohere the workers’ movement to the point where we could imagine pushing for more radical things down the road. It’s key that we win something. People won’t just keep mobilising unless they see some results.
You talk about raising more radical things “down the road”, but don’t you have the start raising things in the here-and-now, even to make them winnable “down the road”? We've been pushing the policy of public ownership of the banks. At the moment that’s quite a marginal policy, but don’t you have to start raising things like that now to win them in the future? We shouldn’t be sectarian: it’s not about denouncing the existing programme, but about finding ways to start pushing its limits.
We need to maintain the horizon of socialism. We can’t just say this programme of immediate reforms is our whole programme. We should support those reforms, earnestly, but we need to have horizons beyond them. Michael Harrington, DSA’s founder, used to talk about the “tightrope”. He said that on the one hand, you could be a small group with its own ideological vision and just talks about that; on the other, you could dissolve into the movement, and just go where the movement is. The “tightrope” between those two is to engage in the broader movement, but have your vision, and work out how the two relate to each other. You seek to win people to your vision, but your vision should also be shaped by changes and developments in the movement.
We need to maintain fundamental criticisms about the limits of parliamentary socialism, and be clear about the level of mobilisation needed to accomplish things. The need for rupture. We need to talk about these things, but we also need to be humble about the fact that the far left, in the US or the UK, doesn’t have a deep social base. The way to rebuilding one is via struggles in the Labour Party in the UK, and in the US via engagement with the “Berniecrats”. I fully support Bernie Sanders. I have criticisms of him, but when I campaign for him, I am fully and earnestly campaigning for him.
But we do have to maintain our critical faculties about everything, including within the left.