Okay, But What’s Wrong With Liberalism? A Chat With Jonathan Chait and Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara

Bhaskar Sunkara and Jonathan Chait. Illustration: Zohar Lazar

The National Interest columnist Jonathan Chait’s defense of liberalism in general, and Barack Obama’s legacy in particular, are well known to readers of this publication. But in recent years he’s found a sparring partner in Jacobin founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara, an avowed Marxist whose journal has become the flagship publication for democratic socialism in the United States. We recently brought them together for a Gchat discussion on whether socialism’s growing popularity reflects liberalism’s failures — or merely leftists’ inveterate inability to recognize progress when they see it.

Bhaskar Sunkara: Nice to (sort of) meet you, Jon!

Jonathan Chait: You look very sharp, Bhaskar [Sunkara’s Gchat avatar is a picture of him as a child in a suit].

Sunkara: Actually, we wear business casual at the Jacobin office.

Chait: I am at home in a sweatshirt if you want a visual.

Sunkara: I think it’s better if we change this line of inquiry.

Eric Levitz: Agreed. So, Jon, two years ago you wrote an article titled “Reminder: Liberalism Is Working and Marxism Has Always Failed.” Bhaskar, you’ve spent your entire adult life arguing something close to the opposite. So I thought we could start by discussing whether liberalism — as embodied, most recently, by Barack Obama — has proved itself adequate to our nation’s current challenges.

Chait: Liberalism is a somewhat unique American term to describe a center-left that sees itself between socialism and laissez-faire. It’s a term that has run from the Progressive Era (Herbert Croly) or arguably the New Deal to the present day and that advocates social and economic pluralism through a mixed economy. Over time, American politics has swung between that vision and an anti-government politics that defends existing social hierarchies. The country has moved closer to the former view. But it is a story of progress and reaction. I’d argue Obama’s presidency is one of the more successful historical periods of progress. Adding up the successes and subtracting the failures yields a positive picture. The positives are less than either LBJ or FDR, but so too are the negatives. I also argue that progressive critics systematically underrate progress in its time and only appreciate it in retrospect.

Sunkara: Obama was a president operating under great constraints — there was a mobilized right trying to undermine all of his progressive measures, and though there was plenty of energy around his campaign, there wasn’t a groundswell of activism pushing him to the left once he was in office. I didn’t love him, but I understand why people voted for him. And he ranks fine, as far as U.S. presidents go. What I’m more interested in is the conditions in which these presidents are governing, how much space they’re given to operate, how many concessions big companies are forced to make.

Today, thanks to the Bernie Sanders campaign, thanks to the Democratic Socialists of America, thanks to unions like National Nurses United, there’s more support than ever for Medicare for All. Now, Obama wasn’t ever going to push for single-payer. But an Obama-like president would have been able to (or forced to) negotiate a better deal for working Americans. That’s why I’m excited about the new left in the United States.

Levitz: But you’re not just a single-payer-loving Justice Democrat, Bhaskar — you’re a card-carrying pinko. For the sake of argument, let’s say the events of the 21st century have proved Obamaism inadequate. Didn’t the 20th century prove that socialism is even worse (as Jon has argued)? After all, socialists are supposed to be radical (small-d) democrats — yet, in country after country, didn’t they transform into authoritarians upon their first taste of power?

Sunkara: I deny being a “card-carrying pinko” — I’m completely red. And I think that the history of the socialist movement has in fact been much more of a success than you’ve let on. If you get weekends off, you have a workers’ movement — that by the 1880s and ’90s was largely inspired by socialism of the Marxist variety — to thank. Obviously those great movements of the late-19th and early-20th century didn’t end up inheriting the world. They split into social-democratic and revolutionary socialist wings.  Both aspired to go beyond capitalism. The former never did break with capitalism, but in countries like Sweden, its parties administered the creation of welfare states, taking huge swaths of life outside the market and using the collective-bargaining power of workers to shape the outcomes of competition in a way that benefited ordinary people. It might not have been perfect, but Sweden in the 1970s was the best society we’ve ever seen. And it was governed by a socialist party that fought for democracy through the 1920s and ruled virtually uninterrupted for a half-century through democratic elections (and when it lost in 1976, it oversaw a peaceful transition of power).

We know the tragic legacy of the latter tradition. But socialism in the West has largely been dominated by anti-Stalinists, by people who believe in freedom. At our best, we don’t oppose liberalism so much as force liberalism to live up to its ideals.

Levitz: So Jon, what’s your problem with 1970s Sweden? Not a fan of Abba? Or do you deny that the self-avowed socialists who built Swedish social democracy knew what they were?

Chait: From my perspective, political and economic models are distinct. You can be, like Bernie Sanders, an economic socialist (of sorts) and still be a political liberal, who believes above all in individual rights. But there is an alternative political model that places class justice over individual rights. And those movements always descend into tyranny. What’s more, by suppressing any channels for correction, they tend to descend into economic failure as well.

Sunkara: Well, we believe in both: There’s an unalienable bedrock of individual rights, things that no state or movement or collective can intrude upon. But believing in “freedom” isn’t a simple matter. If we all have the same inherent worth, then we have to be free to fulfill our potentials, to discover and flourish in our individuality. Freedom of speech is a good thing, for instance, but is it a tangible right if we don’t also guarantee a right to literacy and a quality public education? I think almost everyone can get behind those other rights. But things get trickier when it comes to certain property rights.

I think freedom for working people today means limiting the freedom of those who benefit from the inequities inherent in class society. So if you’re an employer and you risked everything to set up a business — and you own machinery that you want operated or a storefront you pay a mortgage on — a socialist wants to intrude on your freedom by dictating that you can only employ your workers for 35 hours a week. And that if you need more labor than that, you’ll have to hire a different shift of full-time workers or pay time and a half to your existing workforce. Or, more fundamentally, in fact, that your business should be run as a cooperative and that shares should be given to your employees.

Now, someone loses something here. But something is gained for the people who used to work 12 hours a day but now work seven hours a day. That five hours is their personal time, time to reach their potentials, time to watch the NBA, time for whatever. Socialism is not so much about trading in freedom for equality but rather posing the question, “Freedom for whom?”

Chait: I’m talking about political rights, not economic ones. Of course this might be a distinction you don’t observe at all. But the liberal perspective says there must be guaranteed political rights for all irrespective of what economic system is in place.

Sunkara: Of course I agree with that.

Chait: To give this a more concrete flavor, why don’t we address something I’ve brought up before: Jacobin’s coverage of Venezuela. My review of the coverage found the tone to be heavily favorable and defensive of the regime, and even after conclusive evidence of massive political repression was public, Jacobin continued to defend the revolution along the lines I am describing: What mattered was simply who was exercising power, not whether they followed any abstract rules of justice. “Freedom for whom?” meant freedom for the oppressed people, which meant supporting the party that represented them, the party of Chavez and Maduro.

Sunkara: I think you’re mischaracterizing the coverage. But I’ll concede that socialists in the United States have tended to be permissive, at times overly so, of foreign governments that draw the ire of Washington. In some cases, such as in Cuba, these are authoritarian socialist states, but in others, like Venezuela, they aren’t even socialist states. I wouldn’t characterize Maduro as coming from the socialist tradition but rather as a left-wing populist.

Levitz: So here’s what I’m hearing: Jon defines Marxism (and/or socialism) as the prioritization of class justice over individual liberties (and not merely economic liberties but political freedom and equality before the law). Bhaskar says that that isn’t democratic socialism, by definition, and that political rights and legal equality are nonnegotiable. Perhaps they’ve been compromised in some places where socialists have taken power (the USSR), but they haven’t been in others (Sweden). Self-identified liberal democracies have featured de jure racial caste systems and the suppression of dissent. But few would say that Jim Crow rule and the Red Scares permanently discredited the liberal-democratic model. So why should Stalin’s crimes (or Maduro’s) forever discredit the socialist one?

Chait: I think the kinds of repression created by Marxist/authoritarian-left regimes close off any possibility of reform and improvement, very much unlike the failures of American democracy.

Levitz: But Bhaskar is not advocating for left authoritarianism (tabling the debate over whether his magazine has ever apologized for it in Venezuela). So I want to figure out where you two actually disagree. The subordination of individual liberties may not be inherent to Bhaskar’s vision of socialism. But concentrating capital under the management of a democratic state is. Jon, do you believe that such socialization of finance is undesirable and that there is value in decentralizing economic power by maintaining a class of private investors?

Chait: I can’t say I’ve spent much time studying the practicality of proposals to turn the means of production over to workers. I did read up a bit on codetermination (worker representation on corporate boards) and came away optimistic.

Levitz: All right, then. I’ll play social-democrat’s advocate. Bhaskar, in your upcoming book, The Socialist Manifesto, you argue for the necessity of democratic socialism by insisting that the Nordic model — of a mixed economy with a cradle-to-grave welfare state, strong trade unions, full employment, and inclusive growth — is inherently unsustainable. Eventually, growth will slow and the objectives of maintaining capitalists’ profits and workers’ living standards will cease to be compatible. And so long as your economy depends on the willingness of individual rich people to invest their wealth, governments will inevitably prioritize capitalists’ profitability over preserving social-democratic gains.

And yet, if the Scandinavian social democracies have become more “neoliberal” in recent decades, they still have more ambitious welfare states than anything Bernie Sanders has dared to propose. Universal health care, child care, and free higher education remain lived realities in these countries. Meanwhile, even in the United States, ground zero for the neoliberal counterrevolution, the capitalist class has proved incapable of rolling back our nation’s most social-democratic programs — Social Security and Medicare. Given all this, on what basis do you declare the Nordic model unsustainable? And if some kind of mixed economy with strong redistributive institutions is viable under capitalism, why shouldn’t we prefer the proven success of welfare liberalism to the purely theoretical promise of democratic socialism?

Sunkara: I think that social democracy is proven — it works. But there are still a few reasons why I think we need to look beyond it. One is completely ideological: I think that exploitation and hierarchy should be limited to the greatest extent possible. If worker-controlled firms, even in a competitive market, can function, we should prefer that alternative since it’s more democratic.

The second is practical: The history of social democracy is that capital will withhold investment if it doesn’t like the prevailing political mood or constraints on its freedom. In the modern, internationalized economy, this means that social democracy is harder to achieve than it was in the 20th century.

But let’s march together toward this social democracy, though, and see these dilemmas play out.

Levitz: Do you see any tensions between the immediate goal of bringing social democracy to the U.S. and that of popularizing democratic socialism? Personally, I’m uncertain of the utility of branding politicians like Bernie Sanders — and policies like single-payer health care — as socialist, given that Sanders’s actual policy agenda is both objectively social democratic and much more popular among U.S. voters than the word socialism is.

Sunkara: Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist. It’s his background. It informs the way he views the world and the way he thinks change is made (by taking wealth and privilege away from economic elites and expanding social rights for the vast majority). And the right would call him a socialist anyway, whether he used the term or not.

I also think we need activists trained in the socialist tradition who look seriously at the good and ill of its history, and rank-and-file militants who do the same with labor history, to make progress. That doesn’t mean that all center-left progressives need to call themselves socialist to make change. But the creation of democratic socialism in its new form as an identity has been about tapping into disenchantment with liberalism and what it has (and hasn’t) been able to accomplish lately and speaking to that frustration from the left (as opposed to the right).

Chait: It’s hard for me to engage with this strand of the conversation, because it doesn’t connect to any premises I share. I think the long record of American liberalism is one to be proud of, and points the way toward continued success in the future, despite all the frustration it creates when in power and the periods of reactionary backlash it engenders.

Sunkara: The terms are very slippery in the U.S. context. Who were the liberals in the 1960s, and who were the social democrats? When Walter Reuther and left Democrats were calling for full employment and national health insurance — was that liberalism? Or since socialists like Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington were involved, do we get credit?

Chait: Full employment and national health insurance have been liberal goals since the New Deal, at least.

Sunkara: And much of the New Deal was cribbed from Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas’s platform.

Chait: These goals have been shared by the left, but the left’s role has always been more minor. And, in practice, the left’s chosen role has often been to stand on the sidelines pissing on whatever the liberals were able to actually achieve (with regard to health care, anyway).

Levitz: Now we’ve come to the heart of it: Is progress possible without piss play? Anything in the way of closing thoughts, Jon?

Chait: I feel my chances of dying in the Gulag have diminished as a result of this chat, so I deem it a success on those grounds alone.

Sunkara: Well, I’m not sure. The Mensheviks didn’t fare so well after the revolution, either [smiling emoji]. Nice chatting with you.

*A version of this article appears in the March 4, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

A Chat With Jonathan Chait and Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara