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Interview: Bhaskar Sunkara on American socialism

July 9, 2017

The following interview with Jacobin founder and editor Bhaskar Sunkara was conducted at the second annual People’s Summit in Chicago, organized by National Nurses United and other American left wing organizations.

Kevin Taghabon: One of the things that came up in the earlier DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) panel was the erasure of radical history, of socialism and how that shaped 20th century history in the United States. What is your take on this?

Bhaskar Sunkara: I think it’s as simple as: we were politically defeated, therefore a lot of our memory has been lost. I don’t think there’s anything we can do in the culture of despair to resurrect these ideas. I think it just has to do with the organizing, and being politically defeated. Now, trying to organize and engage in real politics, that’ll bring back that history and everything else. But if you don’t have a mass, militant workers’ movement then you can’t have workers’ history from below.

One of the things that struck me about Bernie Sanders during his campaign was that he had a placard of [Socialist Party leader] Eugene V. Debbs in his office. Most people aren’t familiar with that figure, but they’re familiar with Martin Luther King and that history. Considering you work in the media, I wanted to ask you what you think of the CNNs, Jim Acostas, and Keith Olbermanns of the world rebranding themselves as “The Resistance”, the protectors of a vulnerable democracy. Why is that narrative inaccurate?

Part of it is obviously a reactive position to be in. We’re just resisting this great evil or whatever, whereas I think the lesson from the last election is that people don’t just want to vote against an evil. They want something positive to aspire to, to believe in. I think liberalism can’t actually concretely offer people things, so instead they have to use a lot of this backwards posturing and this “resistance” rhetoric.

Working groups of the DSA said that there is some difficulty reaching out to rural communities where membership penetration isn’t that high. How do you think progressives or socialists can connect there?

It’s as simple as, we create chapters there with a militant minority and they build and adapt [to] working interests and local issues and circumstances. I feel that every model that works in cities can work in rural areas. The tactics might slightly need to change, but the basics of it is the same. And actually DSA disproportionately I think does well in rural areas. In a way we do well partially because we’re the only game in town left of the Democrats in a lot of cities. Even groups like the Communist Party. The Communist Party actually has a big presence in St. Louis for example. They have a couple hundred members in St. Louis, it’s their most impressive chapter. I think we have a lot of potential, not necessarily in rural areas, but in these post-industrial cities, St. Louis, Buffalo, wherever. I think there’s a lot of potential in groups like DSA.

The last administration was pretty ruthless in their targeting of whistleblowers, anybody that would go to the press, prosecuting more whistleblowers than all other American presidents put together. Things weren’t good for activists and many others under Obama. What can we expect now that [Trump] is running out even reactionaries like James Comey, who a year ago was lobbying Apple to break encryption. [Comey is] now seen as this liberal hero. What can we expect from this administration for activists and those working with the press to make positive change?

I think it’ll be similar to Obama. Everything may get a little bit worse, but I think concretely it’s hard to say, will it be similar, will it be different? I will say that there are certain protections and guarantees that the press has in this country that you don’t even have in other advanced Western capitalist countries. We have a written constitution.

Including Canada. We don’t have a press shield law.

Exactly. So some things protect from liability, and other stuff. In many ways I think there’s many reasons to be worried about Trump around immigration, militarism, all sorts of other stuff. On this I think it’s more of the same, which is bad, but maybe not a radical break.

Trump removed a lot of white supremacist groups from terror watch lists a couple of months ago, and that his administration is clearly trying to demonize, and even label movements like Black Lives Matter “terrorists”. [The Trump administration] now has the surveillance apparatus that Bush and Obama perfected. Is it not reasonable for activists on the ground to believe they will be more targeted and to undertake better operational security?

Yeah, I think those questions are always important. People need to be careful with lists, names, things like that. So I do think they should take more security measures. It is something to be worried about, but so far it just seems like it’s more of the same.

One of the things that came up in the DSA panel was that you guys are involved in a lot of lateral movements. Things like Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, single payer healthcare etc.

I think there’s a way in which DSA and other groups occasionally just do important solidarity work, but they just conceive of themselves as solidarity groups. We’re just going to add numbers to all of these existing things. That means that the group can never take the initiative and create its own movement and dynamics of its own.

Does that kind of thinking not remove you from where the struggle is, where people are radicalizing, where working class people are?

No. I think some of these movements are in fact working class uprisings. Some of that is organic movements that you obviously need to immediately support. But a lot of other demonstrations, depending on the cities, or if it’s on campus or whatnot, is representative of different middle class currents. Socialists should be clear that if we’re going to interact with movements and struggles we need to be there with an agenda. Not a sectarian agenda like “we’re going to recruit members.” An agenda of: we want to identify what are the most class conscious elements of the movements, we want to bring those voices to the floor, we want to be as useful as we can. What we’re going to do is open socialism. And there’s obviously a balance between being sectarian and being disconnected and just subsuming yourself in [to movements]. I think DSA traditionally has veered on the subsuming [end], whereas other groups have veered on the sectarian [end]. 

Something [Nation editor] Sarah Leonard mentioned to me was there’s some kind of gentrification dispute happening in New York City. We have something similar in Toronto, but can you enlighten me as to what is happening?

New York is undergoing pretty massive continued gentrification in a lot of areas. One thing that makes it a little better in New York is that we still have pretty good public housing, pretty well maintained, pretty extensive, which means there’s a limit to gentrification.

Is there a rent strike happening or a specific tenant’s organization? I got that impression.

Crown Heights. DSA is really involved with the Crown Heights Tenants Union. I don’t know anything from the last two, three weeks. There’s some debates about approaches, whether or not to support a rent strike. I think that’s more coming out of the actual tenant’s union that socialists are involved in rather than DSA level discussions.

There’s a very similar dynamic right now in Toronto, and the Parkdale residents are on their own calling for a rent strike. They did it, they’re organizing themselves. It sounds like that’s what’s happening in New York right?

Yeah, I think a lot of DSA members are as individuals playing a leading role. The main thing is just to interact and embed yourself the struggle, partially to develop that kind of working class base I was talking about at the panel. But the actual details of whether this should be an immediate priority or not should be decided by the locals. I would say in general I’d rather [have] us doing that than just campus based work or other stuff. But it has to be connected to political education. You can’t just throw people at things and not give them any context or training.

Jacobin has a reasonably high profile now among the left, the socialist left especially. How do you see the role of Jacobin changing considering your increasing readership, the politics of the moment, and the renewed enthusiasm, especially among young people, for socialist ideas?

I think we have two goals. One is an intra-left goal which relates to socialism. In many ways it’s about bringing back a certain type of orthodoxy on certain things. We also have the other role which we’re succeeding in in being ambassadors for socialist ideas. We reach a million plus people online every month, we have forty thousand subscribers. There’s not forty thousand socialists.

Well, there’s probably more, but not with a badge and a number.  

Yeah, not with a badge and a number. Well within the US is only thirty [thousand]. But still, it’s a whole lot. So I think that’s what we do well, it’s what we’re going to double down on doing. I want to reach hundreds of thousands of people, not tens of thousands of people. A lot of people on the left think you need to capitulate or change your ideas or tweak it. But I think you can do it by just writing better, making the visuals better, use other tactics to do it. Instead of chasing an audience you can bring an audience to you, and be calm and confident in your politics.

I have to ask you about what you feel about the UK election.

I think it was best case scenario. It was a really good result.

Why was it successful?

I mean [Corbyn] came up from 24 points down, he closed the gap to within two points. If Corbyn was forming a minority government he would have had very little room to manoeuver. He would have been at the mercy of somewhat hostile parties like the LibDems or others. I actually think what he did is the best we could have expected.

I mean more about the messaging, or the platform, or the politics. Why is [Corbyn] good where Tony Blair or Ed Milliband weren’t?

I think he proved that you don’t need to move to the right to win over voters. The common sense [block of] voters is this kind of left-social-democratic common sense on economic issues. We can be confident about that. And on security, we also don’t need to be afraid of saying: hey listen, if we want secure, prosperous societies that aren’t racked by terror and whatnot, there’s a lot of things we need to do. There’s social causes. There’s also ending foreign wars. Things like that. Ten years ago no centre-left politician would be brave enough to say that. Corbyn stuck to his guns and was rewarded for it. 

That’s the main lesson in a certain way. For those of us on the radical left I think the lesson is that we shouldn’t do these small sectarian efforts like Left Unity. We should think about where people are at and how to reach them. Within a party like [UK] Labour, the Labour left accomplished more than the British far-left has in a hundred years, in a couple of years.

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