Can America go socialist?

March 8, 2016

Where did all the socialists come from? Opinion polls show a surge in the number of people who identify with socialism, or who at least have a more positive view of socialism than capitalism. The primary reason, of course, is the Bernie Sanders campaign, but there are other factors to explain why socialism is in the air. Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of Jacobin magazine, and Alan Maass, the editor of, discussed what it all means for the left and the struggle ahead.


In our last print edition, we put the headline "Socialism in the air" on the cover of Socialist Worker, and it's remarkable how apt that phrase was for describing the past few months--the opinion polls showing a further shift, especially among young people, in those who say they look more favorably on socialism than capitalism; Merriam-Webster announcing that "socialism" was the most frequently looked-up word last year.

And this is taking place in the most violently anti-communist of industrialized societies, so this phenomenon must have deep roots--in the growing inequality and deteriorating living conditions for the majority during the era of neoliberalism, the economic and political instability in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

We've seen expressions of the same kind of sentiment before--for example, Occupy Wall Street's popularization of the reality of class struggle with the 1 Percent versus 99 Percent slogan. But the Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has done more than anything else to bring the discussion of socialism into the mainstream.

Clockwise from top left: Bernie Sanders rally; the Minneapolis Teamsters strike; a Black Lives Matter protest

Both our publications have their criticisms of Sanders and his political positions and strategies, but you have to hand it to the guy for continuing to embrace the socialist label even after his popularity started to grow and he started to threaten the frontrunner status of Hillary Clinton.

As the primaries go on, it's going to become more clear to the people energized by Sanders' message that the odds are overwhelmingly against him winning the nomination of the Democratic Party. But even so, I don't think the interest in socialist ideas is going away. So what do socialists have to say to this new generation of people identifying with socialism, however it's defined, as an alternative to injustice and poverty?


I think we need to make sure that people know we are supportive of the things that they want. So even though we have our criticisms of Sanders' program and we think it doesn't go far enough--and without a doubt, most socialists in this country also recognize that Sanders' stances on foreign policy and other issues leave something to be desired--the core of his program is a broad social-democratic one that we support as immediate demands.

I think that it's important when we are engaging with this set of Sanders supporters to make sure that people don't see us as outsiders secretly pursuing our own agenda--that people understand the things we are for in the short term are the same things that Sanders is for: reinvigorating the power of American workers and pushing for broad demands that will strengthen the power of labor relative to the power of capital.

We go further in believing that such reforms would create the conditions not only to sustain them, but to lead to greater transformations in the future-- whereas Sanders' vision, though it's hard to say exactly what it is, might end with a kind of Scandinavian-style welfare state.

So I think we start there, and through engagement with new struggles for these immediate demands, we can build organic connections with these people, and not only articulate a vision of a greater transformation to fight for in the future, but create something sustainable that fulfills the democratic aspirations of these people.

But in fact, the way forward involves fighting a dual battle--not only against what Sanders likes to call the billionaire class, but against a lot of the agents of the Democratic Party. And those agents will include not only the most conservative elements of the party, but some of the forces of official reformism among the Democrats, including sections of the trade union bureaucracy, segments of the left groupings in Congress, and so on.

That struggles and demands for even limited reforms will come into conflict with these forces is something that a lot of Sanders supporters don't understand. One of the advantages of the Sanders campaign is that there has been a polarization against Hillary Clinton and the wing of the party she represents. But I don't think that many Sanders supporters understand this goes beyond the Clinton dynasty--it goes to the very root and structure of the Democratic Party.


I think that process of education is going to have to take place on many levels. For example, the opinion polls tell us that more and more people are identifying with socialism, or at least preferring socialism over capitalism, at a point when the meaning of the term is more distant than ever from any living reality.

When I was becoming a radical and first learning about socialism, it was the 1980s, and the Stalinist regimes still existed in Russia and Eastern Europe, not to mention China. There was always a tradition of socialists that rejected these top-down, undemocratic societies, but when we were asked about our vision of socialism, we were immediately confronted with explaining why it had nothing to do with what existed in the USSR or China.

It's enormously positive that socialists don't have that albatross hanging around our necks. It was one of the most powerful ideological weapons for the ruling class of this society--to point at Russia and say: Look, if you try to change things, if you have a revolution, that's what happens. The downfall of Stalinism made it easier to champion a genuine socialist vision of a society based on democracy and solidarity.

But it's also true that for most people--including those excited by Sanders who are saying that if he's a socialist, then they are, too--the understanding of what the socialist tradition stands for has become more vague.

I was thinking that one place to start defining socialism for this new generation is an essay that was first published 50 years old this year: Hal Draper's The Two Souls of Socialism. Draper goes back to the time of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels to show that there has always been a divide between what he calls "socialism from above" and "socialism from below."

At that time, the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and USSR, "socialism from above" was represented very immediately by the Stalinism of Russia and its satellites. But Draper was also challenging the identification of socialism with the countries of Europe where social-democratic governments had come to power based on a program of social reforms that seem extraordinary now from the vantage point of neoliberalism, but clearly had their limitations.

Draper's theme in Two Souls was to contrast these different societies with how Marx and the Marxist tradition talked about socialism--most importantly, with the idea that socialism had to be the self-emancipation of the working class. In that vision, socialism from below is about mass democracy and mass participation of the majority of people in making a new society.

This is something that can be lost if the idea of socialism is reduced to the question of Bernie Sanders running for president. I think one of the things socialists can do to engage with the people who are gravitating toward the idea of socialism is to point back to a tradition that has always embraced the ideas of democracy, of freedom and of solidarity as the most basic principles of socialism.


I largely agree with you. From the time I was 19 years old, I wrote for New Politics, and I joined its board soon after. That's one of the very few publications in the world--Socialist Worker is another--that defines itself explicitly in that tradition of socialism from below. Actually, Draper's essay was published in New Politics in 1966.

I do think it's important for us to use the language of democracy to talk about socialism, and use this to differentiate it for people who still have questions because of the Stalinist tradition, for example. And Stalinism and reformism were, of course, interlinked in many ways.

On the other hand, I think that when we engage with what Sanders is putting forward and with the very best traditions of European social democracy, it doesn't do us any favors to say that these left-social democratic currents weren't socialist movements. I think it makes more sense to say that these were movements constrained by the fact that they had to govern in a capitalist society, and so they were constrained by the interests of private capitalists. But fundamentally, they were able to deliver small doses of socialism under capitalism, and what we want as socialists is socialism after capitalism.

We need to be wary of counterposing the immediate vision that Sanders is putting forward with our more far-reaching vision of socialism. I think we can find different ways to phrase it--that we want, like Sanders, to see health care and higher education, for example, taken out of the sphere of the market, only we want to see many, many more things taken out of that sphere and enjoyed as social rights.

That means saying that Sanders wants part of what we want, and we want something far more extensive. We also have to remember that if we can't rally a majority of people around the social-democratic reforms that Sanders puts forward, we won't have any chance of rallying a majority or even a strong opposition around the revolutionary socialist vision that we might share.


I think one of the most common myths about socialists is that we counterpose reforms to revolution. We do disagree with the idea that change only comes in small doses and that revolutionary social transformations are impossible, and I think we should challenge strategies of trying to win social change by "working on the inside."

But that doesn't mean we ignore the importance of social reforms--first of all, in making working people's lives better right now, and second, in giving people confidence to fight for more. Socialists will spend much of our time before the revolution trying to win reforms. It's a question of what reforms we fight for and how.

Again, this goes back to Marx and Engels. One of the most important sources for their understanding of socialism was the struggle for democracy against the old order that dominated in Europe at the time. Those struggles are important in their own right, but they also lay the basis for further struggles--to extend democracy beyond the political sphere and into all of society, as you said.

And they also bring the struggle and the movement into conflict with forces that, while they may call themselves democratic, are actually for limits on genuine democracy. In addition to the importance of the reforms Sanders is promoting, his campaign, especially in the coming months, is going to illuminate for a lot of people the boundaries of the two-party system and the real mechanisms by which the Democratic Party operates.


Right. I think it's important to not fall into the trap of glibly saying that Sanders' program isn't much to the left of where mainstream American liberalism was in the 1960s or even some elements of European social democracy are today. Because today, the context of the Sanders campaign is that capitalists aren't willing to accept an expansion of the welfare state. So Sanders' demands take on a much more radical character in this era.

This should remind us that if the movement around Sanders grows, then it will encounter real limits to what it can accomplish through the means Sanders is using to try to bring about change. That will either lead to some degree of disillusionment and a rejection of politics for a lot of people who were engaged by Sanders--or it could lead to further radicalization.

That is where, as small as we are, I think the radical left can make our presence felt--to be able to make an intervention at that point by having political organization and set of ideas that people can turn to, harness and shape.


That brings up something else I wanted to talk about: the other arenas of struggles and political engagement that we need to focus on as part of rebuilding a socialist movement in this country.

Since Sanders' campaign, Eugene Debs is now the second best-known socialist to run for president. At the turn of the 20th century, he ran as the Socialist Party's candidate five times. He won a million voters as the representative of a thriving socialist movement. But this was also a time that socialism was understood to be about more than elections--above all, it was a force in the working-class movement.

Debs was famous for being on one side of a political debate with revolutionaries who rejected participation in electoral politics--the anarchists and socialists who formed the Industrial Workers of the World, for example. But Debs' own political life was grounded in labor struggles from the time he became a socialist. It shows that elections are just one aspect--and not even the most important one--of a socialist movement.

Now, at the start of the 21st century, we obviously have nothing like the kind of socialist movement that existed in Debs' time--it was much broader and bigger and politically diverse. But I do think it's important to recognize that the Sanders phenomenon, including the way it has re-introduced socialism into everyday discussions, is one face of an ongoing radicalization.

When we talk about what we mean by socialism, Sanders has focused attention on social and political issues where we have an alternative to the status quo--single-payer health care or the corruption of the Washington system, for example. But I think it's also important to talk about what the other faces of the radicalization can tell us about socialism.

I live in Chicago, and I wish everyone could have experienced the electrifying effect of the teachers' strike in 2012. Yes, it was a pitched battle of a union against one of the most powerful political figures in the country, Rahm Emanuel, representing austerity and neoliberalism.

But what I remember most is how working-class Chicago came alive. Anyone going to work in the morning would run into a picket line in front of the schools in every part of the city. Then in the afternoon, the streets of downtown were clogged by demonstrations of teachers and parents and students and community members.

And everywhere you went and with everyone you talked to, there were discussions that just didn't come up before: about what the teachers were fighting for, what the community needed, how Emanuel and the city were ready to wreck the schools and everything else. The sense of solidarity and confidence was incredible.

That's just nine days in one city, but it gives you a different sense of what socialism is about: the mass mobilizations and mass actions you read about in history.


I think you can find those little incubators of, if not what socialism looks like, then the power of collective action. And I think the memory of those moments--of strikes and other extra-parliamentary activity--is more durable and longer lasting than something like a presidential campaign.

There's a lot to be said about that and what it would take to transform society. It's not just a battle of ideas and convincing people that we need more social democracy, but figuring out how to organize people to exert disruptive power, be it through a strike, or disrupting the day-to-day functioning of political parties like the Democratic Party, or shaking up the regular functioning of the trade union movement by sparking rank-and-file activity and militancy.

There's a lot that needs to be said about that vision. Just because I focus at this moment heavily on the Sanders campaign doesn't mean that I think that's the only arena of struggle.

What I do think is that this is a tremendous opportunity, one that won't last forever, for us to reach a whole new segment of people. The problems they face day to day, which they used to understand as their own individual problems of personal pathologies--like its their fault that they're unemployed or facing other hardships--are being explained by Sanders as social problems, and the solution he's proposing is collective action.

This is why I think Sanders isn't just a mere social democrat--he is, if anything, what I like to call a "class-struggle social democrat". He says there is a group of people who benefit from the status quo, and we need to take them on if we are going to achieve any of the collective solutions that he is putting forward.

I think that antagonism is the most promising part of the Sanders campaign, and it points to a level of class consciousness and class organization that we haven't seen expressed in any recent electoral effort in the United States before. It also points to the similarities with the kind of spirit that animates strikes and other extra-parliamentary actions.


I think we agree on the importance for the left to recognize the opportunities presented by the Sanders phenomenon and engage with them. As you say, that window won't be open forever, and we have a lot to say and do about it right now.

In doing so, we have a lot to say that isn't confined to the presidential election. For people who are becoming politicized by the message they're hearing from Sanders--and by the resistance he is facing from the political system in general, and the Democratic Party in particular--I think we can make connections with the experiences of other mobilizations right now.

The Black Lives Matter upsurge is one example. The protests against racist police violence have had a big impact on political attitudes, they've energized a new generation of anti-racist activists, and they've even shaken the grip of a few politically powerful people, like Rahm Emanuel here in Chicago. But the backlash against the struggle and the entrenched opposition of the state to anything other than surface changes in the justice system is forcing that generation to confront the bigger challenges that all political movements of the past have, too.

There's a lot to be learned from comparing and sharing those political experiences, which is another thing the left has to offer right now to people who are starting to think through questions about socialism. And we also have the opportunity to popularize and generalize the basic ideas of socialism, passed down to us from the past. I know, for example, that Jacobin is working on a small book about the ABCs of Socialism.


It's actually a longer book now. We're in the process of finalizing it in the next couple weeks, and it will be out soon.

So what is important for us right now? I think the key, especially for people like myself who are on the socialist left but support Sanders, is walking a middle ground by supporting Sanders earnestly and engaging his supports earnestly, while at the same time not subsuming our identity as socialists into the Sanders campaign and not dissolving our vision of independent political action.

At this particular moment, I don't think there is going to be a wide reception for the idea that political action independent of the two main parties should be the first and immediate priority. Because the priority of the people involved in the Sanders campaign is to defeat Hillary Clinton and win the presidential nomination.

In the future, there is going to be a real opening along these lines. But for now, I think we should be pleased about what we have managed to accomplish over the past just few months.

For one, we have managed to inject socialism back into the public discourse. We have managed to gain a great degree of mass public support for social-democratic ideas and reforms. And a layer of people who would have not supported an establishment candidate have been energized by Bernie Sanders and the ideas his campaign represents.

This is in opposition to Donald Trump and his campaign. If you look at it demographically, I honestly think that the people mobilized around the Sanders campaign are in a better position to shape American politics in the next couple decades than the people energized by Trump's scapegoating.

What is really key is that socialists have an awareness that, as flawed as Sanders is, he is better in some ways than we deserve. We haven't had the kind of social mobilizations and social movements that are large enough to typically lead to the emergence of a candidate like Sanders. He is a sort of nice historical accident that we need to make the best out of.

That isn't to say that the last few years haven't been promising, with movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy and the uprising in Wisconsin. But it is a call to recognize that just because we have some social movement activity doesn't mean that we're at where we need to be in that respect.

But I do think that we are going to have a window after this campaign where there will be a whole new base of people--whether they call themselves Sanders Democrats or something else--that we can reach and engage with and hopefully radicalize.

Further Reading

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