What is Socialism Today?

A Reflection on Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist Manifesto (Basic Books, 2019 or Verso)

The aging new leftists among us have a right to celeBrate: socialism has become mainstream. After a lifetime of saying the word softly, sometimes apologetically, while immersing ourselves in the other movements of our times—for peace, Civil Rights, feminism, labor, gays and lesbians, and now the environment—for the first time in almost 100 years it is possible to be an American activist and comfortably talk about something called socialism. We have many to thank for this change—Bernie Sanders, of course, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, those who have kept Democratic Social-ists of America alive or recently joined it, and those around Jacobin—but above all the millions of mostly young Americans who have decided to disregard upbringing, self-interest, ideology, and common sense, and instead dare to think that living under a different system might be better.

Why is this happening? It is an astonishing reversal. As the “end of history” was proclaimed in the early 1990s (meaning the closing of alternatives to capitalism), the British Labour Party renounced its totemic Clause IV call-ing for the “common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.” Europe’s political parties with “socialist” and “social democratic” in their name embraced free-market capitalism, giving up altogether the project of changing the world.

But now, miraculously, at the cashier’s line in the supermarket, or the barbershop or hairdresser, or wherever people might casually talk politics, we can say “I’m a socialist” and find that we’re not only listened to but may even evoke agreement. There is no need to hide any-more. Because they are busy making it happen, the mostly young people at the center of this wave may not be aware of just how remarkable is this new normal.

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THE SOCIAL-HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Consider the forbidding context out of which socialism’s resurgence emerges. First, over the past generation, the world’s great individualistic society has if anything become more individualistic. The political, economic, and ideological cultures have been pointed sharply away from solving collective problems collectively. We are deeply immersed in what Zygmunt Bauman called the “individualized society,”[1] what Ulrich Beck called the “risk society,”[2] and which I have described as characterized by the “privatization of hope.”[3] We live our lives, and America’s children are being raised, with-out developing a sense of solidarity with other people or the wider world. We learn to shift for ourselves at work and as consumers. Young people grow up in a culture of single-minded entrepreneurship, are uneducated about belonging to a wider community, and highly literate about making their way on their own.

Second, the working class has been transformed. From its beginning in the nineteenth century, socialism centered on the industrial working class being brought into being by capitalism. For Marx, the proletariat held the key to the future in its struggle for survival against the bourgeoisie. But Marx’s proletariat has been subjectively and objectively changed, reduced numerically, and in fact never became the vast majority Marxists expected. In the United States it became America’s great middle class, then in the last generation lost ground, was defeated and fragmented, became part-time, ostensibly self-employed, and subjected to the humiliations of contractual labor. In the United States labor unions now only represent a little over ten percent in the private sector and well under a quarter of the working population. The “gig” economy, characterized by the “precariat”, a class insecure in its employment and income, and the proliferation of entrepreneurship, takes us even further from Marx’s working class.

Third, socialism today has almost no connection with its historical roots. Younger socialists have no direct link with any previous socialist movement. During the 1960s many of us spoke about the New Left inventing itself without the benefit of earlier models or ties to the previous generation of socialists and communists due to the rupture effected by the Cold War and McCarthyism. The European social-democratic welfare states tried to create a responsible and restrained capitalism blessed with high standards of living and social security. They provide a number of ideas for our own movement, but they never sought radical change and today virtually all of them are on the defensive or in retreat. As is obvious in Bhaskar Sunkara and Sara Leonard’s exciting collection of essays, The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century, our new generation of socialists is imagining a postindustrial socialist society with little linkage with previous socialisms.[4] 

America’s hypertrophied individualism, the shrinking of the traditional working class, and the absence of socialist roots: these are some of the reasons why the bubbling up of socialism has been so thoroughly unexpected. In such unwelcoming terrain, why then is it happening? Despite Bernie Sander’s indefatigable efforts, why did it take until 2015 for him to find a significant national audience? And what has made it possible for the word “social-ism” to find a hearing in the second decade of 21st century America? For Sunkara, editor of Jacobin as well as author of The Socialist Manifesto, there is nothing surprising or puzzling about this because “as long as we live in a society divided into classes, there will be natural opposition to inequality and exploitation” (262, all page references correspond to the Basic Books kindle version). He sees social-ism as being about working class resistance to class society, and there is no question that “we live in a world marked by extreme inequality, by unnecessary pain and suffering, and that a better one can be constructed” (10). For him this seems the obvious explanation for today’s reappearance of socialism.

For Sunkara, this is a simultaneously moral and material response to living under capital-ism. Similarly, in the conclusion to the collection of essays, The Future We Want, Sunkara and Peter Frase spoke more pointedly of this historical moment and the current generation “facing rising inequality and diminishing economic prospects. . . Those who have entered the job market in recent years face lower employment rates, worse wages, and higher debts than those who preceded them.”[5] This moral and material critique echoes what young activists are saying today. Today’s rise of socialism is commonly accounted for by out-rage at their objective material situation. And we know that there are plenty of reasons for discontent: the end of the post-World War II economic expansion, the financial meltdown of 2008, the wave of mortgage foreclosures, the decline in wages, the financialization of the economy, the offshoring of industrial production, the automation of production, growing poverty and inequality. Many current issues are specific to young people, including the expansion of student debt and the lack of opportunities for college graduates. Furthermore, young people seem especially attuned to the climate crisis and the role corporate capitalism plays in it. And there is no doubt that one of the attractions of socialism is that most Americans now see capitalism as a corrupt and unethical system, one that favors the 1% at the expense of everyone else, especially the have-nots. Between the financial manipulations that lead to the Great Recession, the absence of punishment for the perpetrators, the bail-out of the banks and the auto corporations, the wave of mortgage foreclosures, the Citizens United decision allowing corporate money to flood the political process, the galloping inequality ever since, and the tax cuts for the rich, it is easier today than at any time since the Gilded Age to see capitalism as morally bankrupt. However, there is a further and important element in the younger generation’s attraction to socialism, as I’ve argued in The Nation and Salon,[6] and that is a rejection of the self-centered cynicism of their upbringing. It is not as if they grew up in a culture of citizenship and then veered to the Left as they came of age. Rather, their social-ist identity is being generated seemingly out of thin air. This is happening not only for all the obvious economic reasons, but also because they are rejecting the prevailing individual-ist neoliberal culture. The striking fact is that many young people raised to compete in today’s environment and brought up explicitly to see themselves entrepreneurially are rejecting this upbringing. They are going against their training and learning to see themselves collectively.

I am suggesting that today’s socialism is not only about economics or the lack of future prospects, but a stance, an orientation, a change in consciousness, an identity formed against the prevailing individualism. It is first of all a statement that we belong to a larger world than ourselves. The individualism being rejected is increasingly experienced as being a caricature of reality. Neoliberal ideology and the demands it makes on us has grown so extreme that it no longer fits the humans it is being applied to or the reality they are living. It is falsified by experience—despite the social energy invested in it, and despite the assiduous remaking of economic, educational, cultural, and psychological realities to bend people towards it. The question about how an interest in socialism can develop among young people raised in this individualist culture is a bit like looking at the telescope through the wrong end. If so much in our political and ideological landscape is designed to minimize one’s lived sense of belonging to a wider world, seeing the world and themselves socially is the defiantly healthy response of people who cannot continue living any longer in the unsustainable fantasy that we are all separate and on our own. In the age of total connectivity and environmental crisis it makes utterly no sense to reassert the patently ideological claim that individual atoms each pursuing their own self-interest somehow magically add up to a coherent social life, that the fate of each of us is up to each of us alone. We recognize ourselves as being too interconnected for that, and young people especially know this. Neoliberalism has had its own agenda over the past generation—serving those at the top of the economic and political system—but the lies justifying their wealth and power bear no resemblance to the experience of living, breathing humans and their lifeworld.

The white-haired old man Bernie Sanders is for many young people a grandfather figure rooted in a deeper and more collective place than most of the current generation’s parents. Belonging to a different history, he lives and speaks a truth many of them have been trying to forget. He connects young people with their own unlearned past, reminding them of the political demands entailed by their present electronic interdependence, and helping them draw some of the obvious conclusions from their instant and constant participation in a global society whose environment is seriously at risk. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib are wholly contemporary incarnations of this reality. They remind us that even if young people today have not inherited a socialist tradition, they have inherited identities and traditions of constant contestation dating back to the 1960s by women, African Ameri-cans, Native Americans, minorities, antiwar activists, and gays and lesbians. All of these movements remain unsatisfied and, along with climate activists, are an almost-daily presence among us.

In an ecologically threatened world shrunken by travel and even more by instant and constant communications, we are together as never before and public to each other in ways impossible to avoid. Increasingly for every-one, and especially for young people, despite individualist upbringing we are together as humans have never before been together, making a mockery of the “individual society.” Despite the demand that it is up to each of us to solve the society’s contradictions personally, the need for social solutions for social problems becomes obvious. The sense of belonging together becomes obvious. The demand for fairness becomes obvious. For whoever cares to see, there is no alternative to seeing ourselves together and living in a fragile world.

“SOCIALISM” TODAY

Thus “socialism” has been placed on the agenda today. If opioids are a socialist issue, if climate change is a socialist issue, if inequality is a socialist issue, what do people think when they hear the word? According to a Harris poll for “Axios on HBO” “socialism” registers approval by 40% of all Americans and a ma-jority of women ages 18 to 54. The pollsters were aware of the problem of definition, so they offered a few to their respondents, asking whether any of the following were “considered a part of a socialist political system”.[7]

  • Universal healthcare: 76%
  • Tuition free education: 72%
  • Living wage: 68%
  • State-controlled economy: 66%
  • State control and regulation of private property: 61%
  • High taxes for the rich: 60%
  • State-controlled media and communication: 57%
  • Strong environmental regulations: 56%
  • High public spending: 55%
  • Government “democratizes” private businesses (that is, gives workers control over them to the greatest extent possible): 52%
  • Democratically-elected government: 46%
  • System dependent on dictatorship: 49%
  • Workers own and control their places of employment: 48%

Among these definitions some are viewed descriptively, some positively and some negatively, and some are seen at the same time from opposing perspectives. But what the largest percentage of respondents identify as “part of a socialist political system,” and probably mostly positively, are essential features of welfare-state capitalism: health care, free education, and a living wage. Among the more contested features, describing socialism as entailing democracy is opposed by those connecting it with dictatorship. State control and regulation figures highly, whether viewed positively or negatively (over the media and communication, private property, the economy, or the environment).”

A Gallup poll carried out in September 2018 adds an interesting note about the public’s current conception of socialism compared with during the high tide of McCarthyism and the Cold War in September, 1949.[8] Today 23% of those polled thought of socialism in terms of “Equality—equal standing for everybody, all equal in rights, equal in distribution” com-pared with 12% in 1949. In 2018, 17% saw it meaning “Government ownership or control, government ownership of utilities, everything controlled by the government, state control of business” compared with 34% in 1949. In 2018, 10% saw it in terms of “Benefits and services—social services free, medicine for all” compared with 2% in 1949.

Two things are apparent from both of these surveys. First, the common sense of social-ism today does not focus on abolishing the capitalist system. It does not entail social or government control/ownership of the means of production. Of twelve supposed “features of a socialist political system,” aside from the call for a living wage only two (of the bottom three) have to do with the original conception of socialism centering on the working class demand for control over the means of production: workers’ ownership and control of private businesses. Similarly, compared with 1949, people today tend to think of socialism in terms of greater equality, expanded rights and liberties, and the provision of certain universal social goods. Second, despite Bernie Sanders’ frequent reference to the working class, “social-ism” today does not necessarily evoke either a movement of, or one primarily oriented to-wards, workers as workers.

THE SOCIALIST MANIFESTO AND MARXISM

And yet this is precisely the project of Sunkara’s Socialist Manifesto. His Marxism aims at a workers’ party and a workers’ movement. It does, however, kick off on a remarkably un-Marxist note. He begins in a light, frequently jokey vein, as if to say that thinking about socialism can be fun, and even include imagining. The first chapter is one fantasy atop an-other in which he goes to work for the family of singer Jon Bon Jovi, the Bongiovi pasta sauce company in New Jersey, then leaves to enjoy a worker’s life in Sweden, “the most humane social system ever constructed” (23), then returns to New Jersey to witness and participate in major historical changes over the next twenty years—first to a social-democratic and then a democratic socialist America. He imagines himself as a worker going back to a democratized and socialized Bongiovi plant and eventually an entrepreneur pursuing a more personal path. Besides giving us the sheer pleasure of fantasizing a Left-wing government with Bruce Springsteen as president and imagining work in a better and then much better America, this chapter leads us to think about what life might be like under socialism, and to think about the difference between social democracy—a much reformed capitalism—and democratic social-ism—a genuinely democratic society no longer dominated by capitalism.

This is obviously not at all the grim Marxism of “revolutionary” leftist sects. Moreover, it is energizing and enlivening in a more theoretical way: its wholehearted embrace of day-to-day struggles concerning limited issues. The heart of the book (160 of 265 pages) focuses on specific histories of socialist and communist movements, parties, and states in order to draw lessons for today’s socialist activists. While Sunkara’s study of revolutions concludes in a wholly negative way (“The system that emerged out of the October Revolution was a moral catastrophe” (183)), the main point of the entire story is about the “structural dilemma of social democracy”(137). It was “always predicated on economic expansion” (138) and thus developed a stake in capitalism’s profit-ability. The Swedish Social Democrats, among others, “forgot a core tenet of Marxism: that the contradictions of capitalism, and its tendency toward crisis, cannot be resolved within the system” (138-9).

Sunkara is determined—and this is one of the book’s important strengths—to hold on to both horns of the dilemma of social democracy: to struggle for improvements within the capitalist system while understanding that real change means going beyond the system to democratic socialism. He stresses that socialists will have to fight for, and celebrate, improvements within the system, without pretending that these are economically or morally sufficient. Both Marxism and history teach that “even if we’re content to simply reform capitalism, those reforms will be continually undermined by capital’s structural power. Addressing that dilemma will mean pressing on to democratic socialism” (260). Although he is not clear about what it means to “press on,” Sunkara re-fuses to be either a Pollyanna or a cynic about the moderate path reality usually imposes.

In particular, he cheers the kind of “class-struggle social democracy” practiced in the mainstream by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn: sharply identifying the social class controlling the society, engaging in electoral politics within the system, and fighting for “nonreformist reforms.” Hopefully these will “not only benefit workers in the short term but can empower them to win the battles that en-acting them will provide” (242). He also cheers the important role played during the 2018 West Virginia teachers strike by socialist organizers, many of them members of DSA.

Despite the many light touches of The Socialist Manifesto, and its’ clear endorsement of struggling for limited welfare-state reforms, at its core is one of Marxism’s essential themes: “We simply cannot have an emancipatory politics within capitalism that doesn’t revolve around the class whose labor makes the system run” (246). Yet for all its clarity and focus, how can many of us avoid feeling left out by Sunkara’s particular take on Marxism. Why, we might ask, can’t Sunkara say “include” rather than “revolve around”? Obviously, this hegemonizing of the working class seems an essential part of Sunkara calling himself a Marxist, but it will have a familiar troubling ring to many of us.

This is because first of all, for over a generation the political passivity and fragmentation of the American working class has been much discussed, studied, traced, analyzed, and theorized by Marxists and non-Marxists, sociologists and political scientists. Summing up much of this literature over twenty years ago in After Marxism, I presented its cumulative argument: “capitalism and its working class have changed in ways that make key premises of Marxism obsolete.”[9] Specific points I mentioned were that the anticipated immiseration of the working class has not taken place, class structure has not simplified, workers have become fragmented rather than unified, the industrial working class has shrunk, not grown, and workers’ experience has changed to the point where identification as worker has become less and less important. In the contemporary world it had become impossible any longer to make a case for the revolutionary potential of the working class. Sunkara certainly knows of these analyses and the many others that have been produced more recently, so in light of the careful attention he gives to other issues it is shocking to read his offhand dismissal: “The working class has changed over the past hundred fifty years—but not as much as we think” (244).

This statement plays a crucial role in The Socialist Manifesto, because it allows Sunkara to reassert the old Marxist hegemony of the working class. And that enables him to reject “the shaky ground of social movements, [based] on the premise that we can build a ‘movement of movements’ in which the workers’ movement is one element but not necessarily the decisive one” (250). And of course this means the primacy of self-consciously socialist organizers: “Better than others, we can perceive class relations and how they offer common avenues of struggle.” (243).

But to many of us, a “post-Marxist” perspective might seem to work just as well, and in fact be more inclusive. After all, it is 2020, and the onetime workers’ movements, mass parties, and socialist states that made Marxism a historical presence for a hundred years are now nowhere to be found even if an exciting teach-ers’ movement did surface last year. We know that Marxism’s ideas and analyses are still relevant, including some of its understandings of capitalism and historical materialism. But it no longer retains its essential trait as a union of theory and practice that once made it a histori-cal force and by which its relevance has always been judged.[10] In order to call himself a Marxist, Sunkara has selected certain elements of Marxism, raised them to the status of a credo, and softened or ignored others. In the process of trying to create a coherent mobilizing working-class vision for today, he subsumes all oppressions as secondary to class oppression, and insists that they can only be truly fought against within a socialist movement. In fact, to make his argument he must distort the history of the last fifty years, claiming that because class-based movements were defeated, since the 1970s and 1980s “narrower, identity-based struggles to address injustice have filled the void” (255). Is this an appropriate way to characterize the women’s movement, or the Civil Rights movement? Insisting on the hegemony of working class-centered politics distorts his perspective. “Without the bedrock of a class politics, identity politics has become an agenda of inclusionary neoliberalism in which individual qualms can be addressed but structural inequalities remain” (256).

However universal and generous the ultimate intentions of this kind of Marxism, its effect is to belittle other movements and their issues. Yet, as I argued in After Marxism, a “post-Marxism” is possible that accepts that class and capital must be vital elements of an eventual radical coalition without necessarily being the essential one, and those of us who believe this are able to function among other activists with-out succumbing to claims of working-class hegemony. Indeed, despite making such claims, Sunkara himself betrays an awareness of the limitations of working-class capacity today. He seems to acknowledge that the working class can no longer be claimed to be the agency of transformation possessing the power, courage, creativity, and wisdom to bring about a transformation from capitalism to socialism; rather, he refers only in one place to “the disruptive capacity of labor” (251), and in another says that today’s “different and divided” working people “still have the power to rattle the system and win real gains.”[11] Precisely: workers can
“rattle the system,” but can they overthrow it and create a new one? Sunkara reflects today’s diminished expectations. But if so, why claim working-class hegemony over all other movements, rather than frankly calling for collaboration and unity with other forces? And speaking of the other oppressions that have been occupying American movements, why insist on trying “to bring them into a broader workers movement” (256)?

In fact, the crucial unasked question of The Socialist Manifesto is about the actual historical relationship between the various “identity politics” movements and today’s revival of social-ism. Obviously much research needs to be done about this, but just as obviously fifty years of struggles for equality and self-determination—by African Americans, women, gays and lesbians—had to enter deeply into the unconscious and conscious mindset of young people who would discover socialism over the past decades. Giving workers priority over themselves turns things topsy-turvy because their identities and demands are at the core of today’s socialism. Certainly organizing workers as workers will be a vital part of any future movement of transformation, but so will all the others.

I’ve also mentioned other sources of opposition today. Sunkara focuses on capitalism’s intrinsic instability and inequality, but not other contemporary dynamics generating op-position. One of these is climate change, which is rendering ever larger places uninhabitable. Another is its runaway consumerism, choking us with unnecessary goods and imprisoning us in debt to pay for them. Another is its relent-less commodification of every inch of physical and increasingly mental and spiritual space. And I’ve written about the “privatization of hope,” resulting from artificially elevating the individual and undermining the social. Each of these increasingly powerful capitalist dynamics brings both dreadful consequences and movements in response, and none of them can or should be classified as primarily affecting the working class. They are not specific working-class issues, but everyone’s issues.

And yet they are socialist issues. While continuing to exploit workers, capitalism’s arena of depredation and conflict has been irresistibly spreading and deepening. Any adequate analysis of capitalism today, whether we call it Marxist or not, must take account of all this, and must help equip us for struggles against it.

Which means letting go of the working class as the talisman of a socialist movement while understanding non-class and more general problems and possibilities of action. Sunkara gives little attention to these concerns, and little respect to the political movements of the last half-century. It is as if these generations barely existed, both their struggles and victories. In short, even while shaping an admirable understanding of the limits of some of the terrain in which we’re fated to operate, and stressing the importance of small gains, Sunkara squeezes the issues of our time into a narrow box. Most of us will have no choice but to ignore this kind of Marxism unless it decides to stop “revolving around” the working class but rather “includes” it along with the rest of us oppressed by capitalism. After all, overlooking key areas of our collective life and assuming that workers’ struggles must have hegemony over them can only undermine the socialist identity young people are developing. It is a recipe for failure, bad blood—or worse, irrelevance.

WHAT IS SOCIALISM?

To carry my argument a step further, I want to re-emphasize the earlier point that Bernie’s movement, the presence of Rashida Tlaib and AOC in Congress, the rise of DSA, and the growth of Jacobin are not primarily about, or even precursors of, a Marxist understanding of socialism but are rather something different, if related: the recognition that we are all social beings and an immense variety and range of resources and facilities already belong or should belong to us in common as members of the society: air, water, all land that is not privatized (and potentially all by eminent domain), the spaces in which the media operate, as well as parks, public spaces, schools, universities, libraries, hospitals, and other public facilities. It is no small thing, especially when much of this is in danger of privatization today, to lay claim to this living heritage as we defend its social character. Nor is this some lesser concern, not truly “socialist.” We also need to expand this socialized sector—by enacting Medicare for all, for example, or winning free higher education. Further, and this is one of Sunkara’s important insights, as long as the economy is owned and controlled privately, the society’s socialized sectors are constantly under threat, as for example allowing prisons and schools to be run privately and for profit. Accordingly, before we seek to map out what a socialist economic system might look like, we are required to constantly defend the already socialized sec-tor of society. Thus calling ourselves socialists is less a statement about our ultimate goals or a set of structures we wish to create—who can say confidently what they look like?—and more about our identity and commitment to values and politics that take the social seriously.

This entails connecting the dots between all of the areas and people under siege today, and developing a holistic vision of who we are—in fact, of the many groups of “we” that we are. This entails compassion as well as a deep sense of solidarity with humans and with nature. There is no compelling reason, out of obeisance to some past vision, to center this on the working class, except when and where this is specifically relevant. Yes, workers will be a necessary part of a future socialist movement, as workers and as citizens. Even Sunkara places the socialization of the means of production a million miles from any socialist struggle we can meaningfully project—perhaps in his fantasy of the future, but nowhere else.

Which means that our movement will have to free itself from The Communist Manifesto’s anticipation of working-class victory and vision of the classless society. This has no realistic possibility of being achieved and in any case is too narrow a vision given how the world and its oppositional movements have evolved. Yes, Marxism helps us in thinking critically about the capitalist system, especially its inequalities and its crises, and encourages us to see our-selves socially and historically. It helps us to look at the system and the society holistically and structurally. Consciousness is growing about the society’s specific evils and the need for an alternative to capitalism, whatever its specifics. This alternative goes by the name of socialism. But in this revival, whether or not a Marxist movement of the working class exists is less important than the fact that the working class and everyone else, as well as the environment, are in deep trouble under capitalism.

Along with this is a growing appreciation of the ideas of historical materialism: that economic structures and priorities decisively influence the shape of other institutions, of politics, of culture, and of people’s values. Underlying this is the fact that we are seeing ourselves socially and historically, not individually. This is why Jean-Paul Sartre once said, speaking of Marx-ism, “We cannot go beyond it because we have not gone beyond the circumstances which engendered it.”[12]  So, recalling another of his fa-mous statements, even if Marxism is no longer “the philosophy of our time,” we can say with confidence that it is destined to continue as a philosophy of our time.[13] 

But there is another reason why many on the Left still center themselves on Marxism – it’s a reassuring conviction that the good society is coming into being. Yet this is, and always was, an illusion. In hard fact, Marxist movements never pointed to a classless society. The power and security of their vision turned out to be an illusion. Our new socialist movement’s hope will not be based on “iron tendencies bringing about inevitable results,”[14] as Marx once said, but rather on possibilities and contingencies. Rather than claiming predictive power it will at most talk about what may happen and what can happen. But neither will it rest covertly on a quasi-religious faith which refuses to identify itself and can nowhere be argued.

Where then can we find our bearings? As Sartre understood near the end of his life when he abandoned the Communist party Marx-ism he had spent thirty years interacting with, Marxism’s eclipse has made it necessary to look elsewhere for political encouragement, to an outlook that “possesses no Marxist element. I mean, it is not an end that is defined in terms of the present situation and then projected into the future, one that will be attained by stages through the development of certain facts today.”[15]  He was asking where radicals can look for encouragement if the present is not unfold-ing towards the good society. This, after all, was the prophetic dimension of Marxism that usually went unspoken but was indeed the glue that held it together.
In his last days Sartre sought instead a moral rather than historical grounding for hope in the future, and in the process entered into a dialogue with former Maoist leader Benny Lévy, then en route to becoming an orthodox Jewish rabbi. Sartre became convinced that if a better world is not coming into being, radicals will have to find hope in our goals and our values. This means grounding ourselves in a sense of justice and righteous anger, a profound conviction about right and wrong, and experiencing our connection with the struggles and victories of previous generations. However we come to define it, socialism will have to base itself on our core value: our sense of human solidarity.

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Footnotes:

[1] Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society (London, 2001).
[2] Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (Thousand Oaks, CA, 1992).
[3] Ronald Aronson, We: Reviving Social Hope (Chicago, 2017).
[4] Sarah Leonard and Bhaskar Sunkara, The Future we Want (New York, 2016).
[5] Ibid., 173.
[6] Ronald Aronson, “Corbyn and Sanders Show That Neoliberalism Has Failed to Privatize Hope,” The Nation, July 26, 2017. “Why are Two Old Socialists like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn leading the 21st Century Left?” Salon, August 1, 2017.
[7] Harris poll done for “Axios on HBO”.
[8] Frank Newport, “The Meaning of “Socialism” to Americans To-day” The Gallup Poll October, 2018.
[9] Ronald Aronson, After Marxism (New York, 1995), 57.
[10] Ibid., 41-67.
[11] Or the ability to engage in “a mass struggle from below and messy disruptions to bring about a more durable and radical sort of change” (Socialist Manifesto, 39).[12] Ibid., 41-67.
[12] Jean-Paul Sartre, Search for a Method (New York, 1963), 30.
[13] See my discussion of this in “The Philosophy of Our Time,” Boston Review, November 2018.
[14] Karl Marx, Capital, Preface to the First German Edition (Mos-cow, 1961).
[15] Jean-Paul Sartre and Benny Levy, Hope Now: The 1980 Inter-views (Chicago, 1996) 106.

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