Book Review: The Socialist Manifesto

By Bhaskar Sunkara 

Published by Verso, May 2019

As a keen reader of US based Jacobin magazine and its cousin across the pond, the recently relaunched Tribute magazine, I looked forward to reading a socialist manifesto by their chief Bhaskar Sunkara. It wasn’t what I was expecting, worth buying nonetheless.

Not many people in America write about socialism today, unless it is from the halls of Breitbart claiming that socialism is the core of all evil, along with homosexuals and abortions. Least to say, I was sceptical about how this book might come out. Whilst Jacobin does conduct in-depth analysis regarding certain topics, it also struggles to be clear at times in a world of short blog reads and direct information.  They have a reputation for producing long form analysis which is lacking in the world of journalism, yet for anyone new to politics, more than several screen swipes worth of information on your phone may be too much. 

However, this book is a far cry from in-depth leftist analysis of Jacobin. It’s written for the new socialist and those that may like a more modern view of socialism. Having said that, many versed and war-torn lefties may find this book a little simplistic, however overall it is a good read. Whilst it’s called a socialist manifesto it is actually more of a history of socialism with a few examples of how socialism could be, and should be in the future. The introduction to the book is delightful.

Following this, Sunkara takes us on a whirlwind tour of socialist history throughout the world. The chapters focus on different areas where the leftist ideology had the chance to overtake or combine with capitalism. It allows the reader to get an understanding, not only for the historical aspects of the ideology but also where it went wrong. And, something often overlooked by today’s advocates of the free market, where it went right. Whilst this is good for the spring chicken socialist it might be a little dry for the more experienced revolutionaries. Then again who doesn’t love a good retelling.

Many myths and lies are ironed out, but also many historical cliches and tales we take for granted are exploredfurther to show their real colours and causes. Socialist history is explaineddifferently to how history classes in secondary school taught it. Obviously, this really doesn’t play well both Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia.  This was both eye-opening and informative with a fairly balanced approach for a socialist writer. One thing that a good deal of historical political books seem to suffer from, including this one, is the overuse of anagrams and names that fail to hold any meaning to the reader, often leading to you having to read back to find your way forward.

Whilst the chapter on Sweden follows a similar formula to the ones on China and Russia, it somehow managed to make me fall asleep on several occasions.  I think there is only so much political history one can take before you start to get a little tired and want something with a bit more substance than just mere storytelling. That said, the very start of the book lives up to this expectation with the explanation and application of Marx’s theories from a historical perspective. On from this thought the book gets a little dry as many history books do

The majority of this book will help the average socialist increase their understanding of the horrors of totalitarianism, the relevance of Marx today, and how we managed to form the world today partly with socialism. The author explains why America lacks socialism despite having a historical labour movement, this then leads to an explanation of where we are today with socialism. Enter Corbyn and Saunders. This part is optimistic not fully developing the possible downfall of both regarding the machine of the Democratic party and the riddle of Brexit.

By the end of the book, having drudged through all the history, you are leftexpecting critiques and ideas on modern socialist theory. Yet, this was the weakest point for me, a 15 point chapter on how we can move forward, and a brief four-page conclusion, this really didn’t explain the beliefs of socialists or their ideology. 

As I previously mentioned, at the beginning of the book Sunkara explains socialism with a clever analogy regarding how the USA could transform from a capitalist country to a socialist semi-utopia. For me the analogy doesn’t give show the full reach and change that socialism can achieve. It does not explore the ethical points of socialism like things such as equality things that it should explain to its target readers: socialists newbies (socialbies?). This should have been explored further in the middle of the book to give a break from the historical names and dates.Bhaskar Sunkara Credit Verso Books

If you’re looking for a historical review of the historical role socialism has played shaping the world, then this is definitely the place for you. If you are looking for a basic guide to socialism to convert you nephew at Christmas, then this is a present for the year after when he actually knows what socialism is as it is not painted out clearly here.

I think it essential that we learn from history and how socialist opinions and theories are formed and applied today but having a basic understanding of the ethics of socialism is key before diving into the Russian revolution and Swedish society. I’m not saying you have to believe those ethics but at least be aware of what they mean, then when reading the history, you can be more critical and identify where things formed in the past. The book really should be called a History of Socialism not a manifesto. The title aside, it is a good historical introduction for anyone who has already stared their socialist journey.

Buy it here from Verso Books

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