Throughout most of American history, the idea of socialism has been a hopeless, often vaguely defined dream. So distant were its prospects at midcentury that the best definition Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, editors of the socialist periodical Dissent, could come up with in 1954 was this: “Socialism is the name of our desire.”
That may be changing. Public support for socialism is growing. Self-identified socialists like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib are making inroads into the Democratic Party, which the political analyst Kevin Phillips once called the “second-most enthusiastic capitalist party” in the world. Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the country, is skyrocketing, especially among young people.
What explains this irruption? And what do we mean, in 2018, when we talk about “socialism”? Some part of the story is pure accident. Corey Robin, Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center stated that in 2016, Mr. Sanders made a strong bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Far from hurting his candidacy, the “socialism” label helped it. Mr. Sanders wasn’t a liberal, a progressive or even a Democrat. He was untainted by all the words and ways of politics as usual. Ironically, the fact that socialism was so long in exile now shields it from the toxic familiarities of American politics.
Another part of the story is less accidental. Corey Robin noted that since the 1970s, American liberals have taken a right turn on the economy. They used to champion workers and unions, high taxes, redistribution, regulation and public services. Now they lionize billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, deregulate wherever possible, steer clear of unions except at election time and at least until recently, fight over how much to cut most people’s taxes.
Liberals, of course, argue that they are merely using market-friendly tools like tax cuts and deregulation to achieve things like equitable growth, expanded health care and social justice which are the same ends they always have pursued. Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine explained that for decades, left-leaning voters have gone along with that answer, even if they didn’t like the results, for lack of an alternative.
Socialism means different things to different people. For some, it conjures the Soviet Union and the gulag. For others, Scandinavia and guaranteed income. But neither is the true vision of socialism. What the socialist seeks is freedom.
John Altman, an American analyst argued that of under capitalism, people are forced to enter the market just to live. The libertarian sees the market as synonymous with freedom. But socialists hear “the market” and think of the anxious parent, desperate not to offend the insurance representative on the phone, lest he decree that the policy she paid for doesn’t cover her child’s appendectomy. According to Kevin Kelly, under capitalism, people are forced to submit to the boss. Terrified of getting on his bad side, people bow and scrape, flatter and flirt, or worse just to get that raise or make sure they don’t get fired.
John Altman further noted that the socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes people poor. It’s that it makes people unfree. When our well-being depends upon their whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.
Listen to today’s socialists, and we will hear less the language of poverty than of power. They invokes the 1 percent and speaks to and for the “working class”, not “working people” or “working families,” homey phrases meant to soften and soothe. The 1 percent and the working class are not economic descriptors. They’re political accusations. They split society in two, declaring one side the illegitimate ruler of the other; one side the taker of the other’s freedom, power and promise.
Kenny Malone, economic analyst of Planet Money stated that like the great transformative presidents, today’s socialist candidates reach beyond the parties to target a malignant social form: for Abraham Lincoln, it was the slavocracy; for Franklin Roosevelt, it was the economic royalists. According to Kenny Malone, the great realigners understood that any transformation of society requires a confrontation not just with the opposition but also with the political economy that underpins both parties. For Lincoln in the 1850s confronting the Whigs and the Democrats, that language was free labor. For leftists in the 2010s, confronting the Republicans and the Democrats, it’s socialism.
To critics in the mainstream and further to the left, that language can seem slippery. With their talk of Medicare for All or increasing the minimum wage, these socialist candidates sound like New Deal or Great Society liberals. There’s not much discussion, yet, of classic socialist tenets like worker control or collective ownership of the means of production.
And of course, there’s overlap between what liberals and socialists call for. But even if liberals come to support single-payer health care, free college, more unions and higher wages, the divide between the two will remain. Danielle Kurtzleben, another economic analyst of Planet Money explained that for liberals, these are policies to alleviate economic misery. For socialists, these are measures of emancipation, liberating men and women from the tyranny of the market and autocracy at work. Back in the 1930s, it was said that liberalism was freedom plus groceries. The socialist, by contrast, believes that making things free makes people free.
According to Danielle Kurtzleben, it’s also important to remember that the traffic between socialism and liberalism has always been wide. The 10-point program of Marx and Engels’s “Communist Manifesto” included demands that are now boilerplate: universal public education, abolition of child labor and a progressive income tax. It can take a lot of socialists to get a little liberalism: It was socialists in Europe, after all, who won the right to vote, freedom of speech and parliamentary democracy. Given how timid and tepid American liberalism has become, it’s not surprising that a more arresting term helps get the conversation going. Sometimes nudges need a nudge.
Still, today’s socialism is just getting started. It took Lincoln a decade plus a civil war, and the decision of black slaves to defy their masters, rushing to join advancing Union troops to come to the position that free labor meant immediate abolition.
In magazines and on websites, in reading groups and party chapters, socialists are debating the next steps: state ownership of certain industries, worker councils and economic cooperatives, sovereign wealth funds. Once upon a time, such conversations were the subject of academic satire and science fiction. Now they’re getting out the vote and driving campaigns. It’s too soon to tell whether they’ll spill over into Congress, but events have a way of converting barroom chatter into legislative debate.
As Corey Robin noted, socialism is not journalists, intellectuals or politicians armed with a policy agenda. As Marx and Engels understood, this was one of their core insights, what distinguished them from other socialist thinkers, ever ready with their blueprints, it is workers who get us there, who decide what and where “there” is. That, too, is a kind of freedom. Socialist freedom.