Stephen Eric Bronner, Socialism Unbound: Principles, Practices, and Prospects, 3rd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

The first edition of Socialism Unbound, published in 1990, was a call for a critical theory of socialism. Using historical analysis, it argued that socialism should be “unbound” from teleology, which, it contended, leads to rigid dogma or uncritical reformism. As the preface to this new edition suggests, the early nineties were not ripe for radical theory or praxis, and when the second edition appeared in 2001, the events in September marginalized leftist thought even further. This third edition seems to come at a more propitious time. The institutions of capitalism are once again in a crisis of their own making, and people all over the world are rising up in revolt and beginning to discuss the structural problems they face as well as possible alternatives. However, in today’s context this book feels both timely and outdated. The history that it narrates has many important lessons for our time, but the program Bronner derives from them risks being left behind by events.

The historical section of this book is divided into five chapters, each focusing on one strain of socialist theory as exemplified by a prominent thinker: Marx, Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, Lenin and the various Russian leaders who fought to succeed him, and Rosa Luxemburg. Bronner’s section on Marx focuses less on his fundamental theory than on how his ideas (especially his teleology) led to his vision of what was to be done to achieve socialism. This concentration on organization, tactics, and strategy as coming out of a thinker’s view of the inevitability of socialism is repeated in the other sections.

Bronner seems fairly sympathetic to Kautsky and presents him as someone who has been unfairly overlooked by history. While critical of Kautsky’s orthodox Marxism, especially his scientism, Bronner does view some of the moves Kautsky made with the SPD (Social-democratic Party of Germany) as a governing party to be worth closer examination. Certainly he is much kinder to Kautsky than to Bernstein. While Bronner salutes the gains made by reformism, he is highly critical of what he sees as the essential error in Bernstein’s thought: that a capitalist, bourgeois society must naturally “evolve” through reforms into a socialist one. Bronner seems to be arguing that Kautsky’s and Bernstein’s Marxist teleology led them both into error, though in different ways. He makes a similar argument about Lenin.

In his discussion of Leninism, Bronner argues for the usefulness of a central authority in Lenin’s revolutionary plans, but says that Lenin neglected the simultaneous importance of independence for local groups on the ground. For Bronner, Lenin’s error of authoritarianism here, like many of the problems he has with other thinkers in the book, is due to the belief in a single, teleologically necessary future. Bronner tries to show in the later part of the chapter that although any of the potential successors to Lenin would have been authoritarian, Stalinism was only a contingent outcome, and the policies of Stalin’s rivals might have been quite different. He spends a considerable amount of time on Soviet politics, but the earlier part of this chapter, with its focus on the brilliance and errors in Lenin’s organizing and theory is the more interesting.

After critiquing orthodox Marxism, reformism, and Leninist vanguardism as all failing due in part to their teleology, Bronner turns to Luxemburg, whom he sees as having the most to teach a modern movement. Luxemburg had little patience for Bernstein’s reformism or Kautsky’s “restrictive” rules, and was leery of Lenin’s vanguards and authoritarianism. She argued for a kind of spontaneity from below in dialectical relationship with a party and its authority structure above. Bronner argues that her support for general strikes was more than mere strategy, but rather an outgrowth of philosophical commitments quite different from those of her contemporaries – in particular, her rejection of the idea of teleologically inevitable success.

Bronner also shows that Luxemburg had a much more nuanced understanding of internationalism and imperialism. He argues that Luxemburg used Marxism to critique Marxism and its teleologically driven view of colonization as a positive force that could “break down the Chinese walls around prefeudal forms” to advance socialism. She also avoided Lenin’s ambivalence as he argued for a language group’s right to national self-determination but in practice crushed any such attempts in the Soviet Union. Luxemburg always saw nationalism as a trap for an international movement, but understood the role of imperialism in capitalism to be an inherent part of an economic system that requires ever-expanding markets and a surplus of labor. Again, Bronner wants us to see Luxemburg as a teacher for today.

As indeed she can be. With general strikes breaking out around the world, Luxemburg’s insight that strikes spread “underground” before reaching full fruition is valuable, as is her analysis of general strikes as both effective weapons in themselves and means for raising class consciousness. Her discussions of imperialism as an element of capital are likewise pertinent, as calls for austerity, formerly targeted at developing nations, are now turning inward against workers in the advanced countries.

In fact, there are many useful lessons to be drawn from each of the historical examples in these chapters, even if the theorists were ultimately wrong, as was Bernstein in his analysis of capital’s use of credit to mitigate its crises. The analysis is not without some merit, as it helps explain people’s desperation to have credit re-started, even if he missed the fact that credit postpones (and arguably builds up) crises rather than preventing them.

However, although the historical chapters and the lessons we can draw from them make this book worth reading, the lessons Bronner himself draws are less helpful. Bronner argues that rejecting teleology implies the need for a new and more modest “critical theory of socialism” – rather similar to cosmopolitan liberalism, but with an ethical concern for class (rather than the previous teleological commitment to the proletariat). As he says, “A critical theory of socialism is … intent upon fusing the general liberal concerns of political life with the specific interests of working people or refashioning the dual burden of the labor movement in a modern form” (153). Bronner does not rule out revolutionary activity (especially in countries without formal democracy), but it is clear that he sees much of our current system as a fait accompli in which socialism must become a (critical) participant. He rejects the efficacy of decentralized workers’ councils, extols the virtues of modern government, states that it is appropriate in the US for socialists to be the “gadflies” within the Democratic Party, argues that the US has the right to intervene in other countries to protect human rights (as he says it has done), and states that “Revolution has become a dream, and a sorry one at that.” (176)

This pessimistic view may have made sense when the first edition was published, but it is less useful today. It would have been helpful for Bronner to reassess some of his claims, including the “sorry dream” of revolution, in light of recent events. He claims that the “class ideal” of all non-capitalists opposed to the tiny class of actual owners in our society is useful for socialists to keep in mind, but is highly unlikely to be accepted by any popular movement. This was clearly a mistaken analysis (as shown by the spread of the “99% vs 1%” slogan), but more problematic is the feeling one gets in the last two chapters that socialists ought to be passive followers of events, able to comment critically on what is happening and join movements to pressure governments, but not be revolutionary leaders.

Admittedly, the 3rd edition was being written just as these global events were beginning, but Bronner does not seem to realize the possibilities. He does not feel the need to extensively rewrite the book, and instead reproduces it with few changes. The new preface does briefly mention the 2011 protests in Wisconsin and the Arab Spring, but Bronner does not seem to think that these and similar events warrant a critical reevaluation of his thesis. One possible explanation for this mistake is the favoring of reform over revolution in his analysis. Another is that despite some nods toward bottom-up actions, he still seems quite leery of small-scale groups and their ability to maintain momentum. A final possibility is that although he makes reference to including insights from feminist, anti-racist, and environmental movements, his work does not seem very strongly influenced by them. It is a common problem among people with good class analyses to incorrectly see the arguments made by “women, gays, or other minorities” as mere “politics of identity” (164). In reality, critical race theory, feminist theory, recognition justice, environmental justice, and a host of other movements and theories have provided simultaneously the most radical and most publicly influential critiques of domination and injustice in the last fifty years. Not deeply internalizing these insights and their importance can lead to error.

Overall, this book has valuable historical examples for people unfamiliar with the earlier eras of anti-capitalist protest, which do indeed have lessons for today. These lessons, however, are perhaps more radical than the ones suggested by the author himself.

Reviewed by Ian Werkheiser
Michigan State University

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