Reading two recent essays, I was struck by how they put forth contesting views of the ideological struggle that lies before us. To put it plainly, the way forward is either that of a new conservative reformism, or the growth of a new American path to socialism.
The first is presented in journals like National Affairs and The New Atlantis, both affiliated with the Ethics and Public Policy Center. In thoughtful and penetrating articles, the writers in these journals address the kind of serious alternatives to liberalism and social-democracy that go beyond attacks on the current policies of the Obama administration. The case for moving our country to socialism is one presented in scores of upcoming conferences, including this one that brings together the supposedly democratic Democratic Socialists of America and the totalitarian Communist Party USA. The case is also made in many left publications, including, of course, The Nation magazine in particular, as well as in many other lesser-known vehicles.
The first article I read is by historian Robert W. Merry, editor of The National Interest, in which he has written “The Myth of a Moderate Obama.” Merry’s article is not just a case for explicating the nature of Obama’s real agenda, it is a stark juxtaposition of the differences between a socialist or social-democratic future and one that accepts the limits of a growing entitlement state. Merry begins by stating what Obama hopes to achieve before he leaves the White House, and his statement brings to mind the president’s 2008 campaign promise that we were minutes away from attaining “the fundamental transformation” of America:
The greatest myth in American politics today is the view, perpetrated by the Democratic Left and elements of the news media, that Barack Obama is a political moderate. In truth he represents an ideology that is barely within the American mainstream as understood over two and a quarter centuries of political experience. … [His] agenda turns on a number of pivots related mostly to the size and role of government and its level of intrusiveness into the lives of Americans. If Obama has his way through the remainder of his presidency, and he thoroughly intends to, he will leave behind an American polity very different from the one he inherited.
As Merry continues, he writes of the fault line that exists:
[It] has divided those who wish to enhance and aggrandize the power of government and those who fear the abuse of unchecked governmental prerogative. Every citizen with a political consciousness stands on one side or the other of that divide. Those who want more power invested in government are liberals; those who don’t are conservatives. Thus can one determine the fundamental political outlook of his fellow citizens though this one litmus test.
Merry uses the term “liberal”; I think it more accurate to say “social-democratic” or “socialist,” since in reality, most self-proclaimed “liberals” are in fact, even if they do not realize it, already in the socialist camp. They have moved far from the old liberalism to where European leftists were decades earlier.
Merry moves through a brief history of where different administrations lay in this division, from the earliest days of our republic up to the present. As he puts it, one group shared a commitment to lower taxes, small government, and respect for the Constitution; the other favored “governmental aggrandizement,” a vast expansion of the powers of the federal government, and a larger government bureaucracy to enforce the new measures.
FDR may have been both popular and successful, but Merry singles him out for waging an “economic assault on the nation’s wealthy” and of starting the tradition of waging class warfare and encouraging populist upheaval by irresponsible rhetoric. The result, he writes, was “a new America with a much larger and more intrusive government.”
Merry argues that at present, Barack Obama seeks to build upon what FDR and Lyndon Johnson began by creating a “new era of big government,” using a new tax code as his ideological weapon and class-baiting as the tactic for gathering support. Obama Care, Dodd-Frank, and other measures vastly increase government’s reach and power, and his desire for power has bred “contempt for the legislative and judicial branches of government.” Rather than accept reality and acknowledge that our entitlement system is out of control and responsible for our plight, Obama seeks a “class-driven assault” on House Republicans which he hopes will divert the public’s attention away from any serious proposals to put a stop to growing entitlements.
The second article is a stark contrast to that by Merry. It appears in the latest issue of The Nation, but is written by the editor of the new preeminent journal of what its editor calls the Next Left. That journal is Jacobin, which describes itself as a journal of “culture and polemic.” The print edition does not look like the other old dreary publications one is familiar with; rather, it is snazzy, hip, and modern. Already, months ago, the New York Times ran a big feature on the editor and the arrival of the new journal. By “creating a magazine dedicated to bringing jargon-free neo-Marxist thinking to the masses,” the Times’ reporter proclaimed it an “improbable hit, buoyed by the radical stirrings of the Occupy movement and a bitingly satirical but serious-minded style.”
Editor Bhaskar Sunkara’s cover article, “Letter to The Nation from a Young Radical,” subtitled “Has Liberalism Failed?”, can be construed as a proposal for the future diametrically opposite to that advocated by Robert Merry. Unlike those Alinskyite radicals who call themselves liberals and try to advance socialism through a stealth tactic, Sunkara is honest and upfront. He favors something like “the Russian Revolution before its degeneration into Stalinism,” a belief that reveals his ignorance that the betrayal of the Revolution was inherent in its very formation. As Richard Pipes and many others have shown, Stalinism was the direct and logical descendant of Leninism.
What irks young Mr. Sunkara is that he finds liberalism deficient and not serious; a movement “without teeth” that ignores what he thinks the time demands: structural reforms leading to real socialism. Liberalism, unlike socialism, he says, has failure “embedded deeply in its roots,” and has “no dynamic theory of power.” As for Obama, not only does Sunkara think — and would undoubtedly respond once he reads Merry’s piece — that the president’s failure is one of the liberalism he believes in, but he has forgotten all the lessons its leaders once learned “from radicals in the past.”
In the fight between those he calls “welfare liberals” and “technocratic liberals,” Sunkara says both disconnect policy from politics and have not moored their programs to “the working class,” the old agent of change of classic Marxism. The welfare liberals are well-meaning but, he argues, do not take account of the crisis of the welfare state that began in the 1970s, thus helping to undermine “the social basis for progressive politics in America.”
The Democratic Party, which many conservatives including myself see as the equivalent of Europe’s social-democratic parties, is to Sunkara only a “social liberal” party, and definitely not “a social democratic formation.” And without such a party, tied to the workers, he believes there cannot be a “more expansive welfare state.”
Mr. Sunkara might be presenting his ideas in a vividly new graphic form, but reading them, anyone familiar with socialist doctrine and the ideas of the early and later New Left can see immediately how retrogressive and old they are.
Indeed, everything he says is packaging old ideas in a new lively looking vehicle. Like older radicals, he sees Democrats as anything but “good-faith partners with progressives.” In his eyes, they are backsliding wishy-washy politicians, geared to satisfying the middle class and the center rather than the workers who alone can guarantee social revolution.
As for the so-called technocratic liberals — he calls journalist Ezra Klein symptomatic of this group — he writes that they are “less nostalgic for the post-war Fordist compromise between a strong labor movement and growing corporations.” Thus they too favor reduced government spending and introduction of markets in place of regulation. They in his eyes have acquiesced “in the conservative consensus on welfare entitlements.” It is clear that Mr. Sunkara thinks entitlements are not only endless, but should be increased ad infinitum. What he wants is pure “working-class power and long-term progressive advance.”
What is admirable is that he believes that “Socialists would not make this mistake,” and “neither would conservatives.” He sees conservatives as ideological and organized, and praises Grover Norquist for wielding a whip that keeps his cadre in line, much like the European socialist parties do with its members. The political right, he thinks, “is generally more confident, more ideologically consistent and better organized than those who oppose it.” (Would that were so.)
So Mr. Sunkara believes it is his and his journal’s task to align the technocratic liberals with the welfare-state liberals, promoting a broad “anti-austerity coalition” forged “through actual struggle.” The left and liberals, he argues, have to unite to defend social goods, and have to stand up against “pro-corporate members of the Democratic Party like Rahm Emanuel.” That means new tactics by public sector unions, creation of a broad movement to end restrictive labor laws, and organization of the unorganized.
In many ways, he is not aware how much he sounds like a Communist organizer in the late 1930s, demanding that same task and proposing a new campaign to organize the South in the post-World War II era.
Finally, Mr. Sunkara calls for creation of a “class politics” of “the Next Left,” based on an anti-austerity coalition. To prepare for that, he argues that his journal is going back to the 1960s, when “journals like Studies on the Left anticipated the upsurges that were soon to come,” while old-line groups like the Socialist Party “were in terminal decline.”
At this point, I cannot help smiling. The journal he mentions, Studies on the Left, was the intellectual organ of a group of Madison, Wisconsin radicals — of which I was a part.
But that journal was anything but similar to Jacobin. It carried serious analytical articles, debates on scores of issues, historical documents, and regularly questioned old shibboleths of the Left.
Most striking is that its major editor and one of its key founders, Martin J. Sklar, along with this author, have long since reevaluated the failures of American liberalism and the forces of those who today call themselves the Left. Here, I refer readers to the latest ebook by Sklar, Letters on Obama (from the Left). This historian — the man who first used the term “corporate liberalism” — concludes, as per reviewer Norton Wheeler:
[T]he wing of the Democratic Party that has been ascendant since, roughly, the beginning of the 21st Century has become a fetter on the forces of production, adopting state-centric, low-growth policies (“capitolism”) that inhibit both general prosperity and vibrant democracy. Relatedly, he argues that the same tendency has constrained the historical role of the United States as promoter of free societies on a global scale.
Sunkara would be wise, since he thinks he is carrying on in the tradition of SOL, to read how Sklar, like Robert Merry, concludes that Obama’s agenda harms the United States both home and abroad.
Rather than developing genuinely new ideas, Bhaskar Sunkara is trying to revive old and discredited bromides in a new veneer. He calls for “a society free from class exploitation,” a true social and democratic future, “a world dramatically transformed.” Isn’t this precisely what Barack Obama hoped for publicly in 2008?
At least Sunkara is honest. He favors “a pitched battle for supremacy within the broader progressive movement.”
So let us take him up on our own terms. Conservatives and centrists must do nothing less than work to defeat the ideological agenda so fervently put forward by Mr. Sunkara. Indeed, we too have our work cut out for us.