‘Democratic Socialism’: still a mirage
“[T]he 20th century’s ideological contest seemed over. Capitalism had won and socialism became a byword for economic failure and political oppression. […] Today, 30 years on, socialism is back in fashion. […] Socialism is storming back.”
A few months later, the New Statesman magazine ran a story with an identical title – The Rise of Millennial Socialism – in which they argued that:
“[O]ne consequence of the financial crash of 2008 has been the intellectual rehabilitation of Marx. Outside academic precincts, his ideas have been […] exfoliated of their association with dictatorship and state-sponsored terror.”
The New York Times had already declared that The Millennial Socialists Are Coming, and the Financial Times also saw a new generation of socialists emerging.
Unsurprisingly, these publications differed in their assessment of the phenomenon. But on one thing, they were all in complete agreement: that ‘Millennial Socialism’ is indeed a real thing. It is not just a social media frenzy, or a semantic confusion about what ‘socialism’ means.
They are right. Socialism is back. In Britain, this is borne out by plenty of surveys. For example, 38 per cent of people under the age of 35 agree with the statement that “Communism could have worked if it had been better executed”. 40 per cent of people under the age of 50 have a favourable view of socialism. Some of the most common associations with the term ‘socialism’ are “Delivers most for most people”, “Fair” and “For the greater good”. There is also widespread support for a wide range of individual policies one could reasonably describe as ‘socialist’, such as industry nationalisations, price controls, state-directed investment, and a larger state in general. Perhaps more importantly, most of the people who do not subscribe to pro-socialist views do not actively disagree with them either. They just choose not-committal answers, such as “Don’t know”, or “Neither agree nor disagree”.
We can see the same phenomenon play out by simply setting foot into a high street bookstore. Over the past two years or so, there has also been a flurry of books which, in one way or another, make the case that socialism has never been properly tried, and that it deserves another chance. This market still shows no signs of saturation. Fully Automated Luxury Communism, The Socialist Manifesto, The People’s Republic of Walmart, Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism, The Fall and Rise of the British Left, Why Marx Was Right, Four Futures: Life after Capitalism etc. are all bestsellers within their genre.
And we can also see the phenomenon play out in our media landscape. In 2018, the journalist Ash Sarkar became a media celebrity overnight, simply for yelling “I’m a communist, you idiot! […] I’m literally a communist!” at a TV presenter. Fawning coverage in Teen Vogue, Elle magazine and the Guardian followed, and Sarkar has been regularly featured on prime-time political TV programmes ever since. When Guardian columnist Owen Jones declared triumphantly that “communism is now all the rage“, he was not exaggerating. As GQ Magazine journalist Andrew Anthony explains: “Sarkar’s profession of communist beliefs […] made her seem cooler, more edgy, more worthy of notice. […] [S]assiness is a clue to the appeal of this new communism.”
The fact that the climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion immediately got absorbed into the Millennial Socialism tent is another sign of our times. Given the terrible environmental legacy of former socialist states, environmentalism and socialism should not make natural bedfellows. And yet, in practice, they usually do. Against the backdrop of a socialist zeitgeist, climate change was quickly recast as a ‘crisis of capitalism’.
In the early days of the Millennial Socialism craze, it was still just about possible to dismiss it all as a semantic confusion. Strictly speaking, “socialism” means “collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods” (according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary). But in practice, not everybody uses the term in that sense. At least in the UK and the US, some people use the term ‘socialism’ in a much looser, broader, and generally, less radical sense; for example, many confuse ‘socialism’ with social democracy.
On the whole, though, this is emphatically not what the Millennial Socialist movement (for lack of a better word) is about. It is about socialism in the proper and conventional sense of the word, and the movement’s figureheads are completely upfront about this: they have never claimed to be Nordic-type social democrats.
In his book The Socialist Manifesto, Bhaskar Sunkara, the founding editor of Jacobin magazine and former vice-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), defines socialism specifically in contrast to Nordic social democracy. Sunkara’s main argument is that while social democratic reforms can bring some temporary gains for the ‘working class’, under capitalism, such gains will always be unstable. He believes that as long as there is a ‘capitalist class’, they will always seek to reverse any gains enjoyed by the working class, and that in the long run they will always get their way. Thus, the only way in which the working class can attain lasting gains is by overcoming capitalism altogether (rather than trying to ‘reform’ it) and replacing it with an economic system in which there is no capitalist class anymore.
This emphasis on collective ownership, and on the rolling back of markets, is not an optional part of this worldview, which one could discard or ignore, while agreeing with the rest. It follows logically from the fact that Sunkara sees politics in Marxist terms, that is, as a class struggle, rather than a battle of ideas. Sunkara does not advocate collectivisation of private companies because he believes that it will lead to superior efficiency, or to lower consumer prices. He advocates collectivisation, because he believes that this is the only way to undermine the ‘structural power’ of ‘the capitalist class’.
In the UK, the Marxist economist Grace Blakeley, who is the New Statesman’s economics commentator and a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy research (IPPR), makes a similar argument:
“Today, the radical left in the UK, the US and France is calling not for social democracy but for democratic socialism. For me, the former means the taxation and regulation of private enterprise, while the latter means the democratic ownership of most large corporations and financial institutions.”
As in Sunkara’s case, this is not optional. Blakeley sees the world through a conventional Marxist-Leninist lens, which means that for her, everything revolves around notions of ‘class power’ and ‘class struggle’:
“Those of us on the left who remain materialists know that liberal institutions operate as a veil over underlying power relations. Liberalism survives by presenting the state as a neutral enforcer of a legal code […] rather than what it is: a committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie.”
If we start from this premise, we cannot logically end up supporting Danish social democracy. If we start from Marxist assumptions, we can only reach Marxist conclusions.
The new left-wing think tank Common Wealth, which is, according to its self-description, “a think tank dedicated to democratising ownership”, fits into the same mould.
Guardian columnist Owen Jones also regularly calls for the wholesale nationalisation of entire industries. He wants a state-run banking industry, a state-run mobile phone industry, a state-run oil industry, state-run railways, a state-run energy industry, and a largely state-owned housing sector, among others. He also wants the state to abolish private schools, to set up a national estate agency, and to impose a moratorium on private dentistry. What little remains of a private sector would be indirectly directed by the state, under an extensive ‘industrial strategy’. Whatever this is – it is not Nordic-style social democracy.
To cut a long story short, Millennial Socialism really is what it says on the tin. It is about socialism in the way the dictionary defines it.
This raises an obvious question: how can an idea which has been tried so many times – from the Soviet Union to Venezuela – and which has ended in failure every single time, still be so popular? To a Millennial Socialist, this would already be the wrong question – the kind of question that only somebody does not understand socialism would ask. A Millennial Socialist would just not accept that any of the historical examples represented a genuine attempt to build a socialist society. They see them as totalitarian distortions of the original socialist ideas, which can tell us no more about those ideas than the Holy Inquisition can tell us about Christianity, or that Islamist terrorism can tell us about Islam.
Millennial Socialists often treat attitudes to socialism as an IQ test of sorts – a test of whether somebody is able to distinguish between the essence of an idea and a distorted application. Judging socialism by its real-world outcomes is seen as low-brow and unsophisticated. A more refined thinker would be able to see beyond those botched attempts; and focus on the original vision behind them. In short, the assumption is that shallow people judge socialism by its outcomes, while smart people judge it by its original intentions.
It is, of course, true that actually existing socialism never had much in common with the original vision. As Bhaskar Sunkara explains in The Socialist Manifesto:
“[S]ocialism essentially meant radical democracy. […]
It was not […] an authoritarian dictatorship; Marx described an egalitarian, participatory democracy. […]
Marx presented an immediate set of demands for the socialist movement. If successful, they would have resulted in a society where a radically transformed, democratic state held formerly private property and used it rationally under the direction and to the benefit of the people” (pp. 47-48).
In his book Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC), Aaron Bastani also argues:
“While it is true that a number of political projects have labelled themselves communist […] the aspiration was neither accurate nor […] technologically possible. (p. 50) […]
[T]op-down, nationally controlled industries […] came to dominate the economic landscape not only of the USSR but other countries such as Cuba and North Korea (p. 231).“
Vice magazine journalist Tom Whyman asks:
“But has communism actually been tried? Granted, there have been regimes that call themselves ‘communist’. But just look at [Ash] Sarkar’s definition: ‘A belief in the power of people to organise their lives as individuals… without being managed by a state.’ Does that sound much like the Soviet Union to you?”
Grace Blakeley claims:
“We have had examples of state socialism, obviously, throughout the years, whether you look at […] the USSR, or […] Venezuela is an arguable case […]
I would argue that […] we have never had democratic socialism.”
And according to Ash Sarkar, socialist regimes like the Bolsheviks “remembered everything that Marx had to say about the need for dictatorship to fast-track collectivisation and forgot everything that Marx had to say about freedom and human flourishing.”
These are all longwinded ways of saying that socialism has not ‘failed’ – it has just never ‘really’ been tried. This has become the conventional wisdom of our time. It is the central assumption which underpins Millennial Socialism.
It is also fundamentally wrong. There have been many sincere attempts to build socialist societies. Socialism never turned out the way its supporters imagined, but this is not for a lack of trying. The gap between the original vision, and the way it turned out in practice, was not simply the result of deliberate political choices; it was not the result of distortions, misunderstandings or misinterpretations. It was the only way socialism could have turned out, irrespective of how good the intentions of its proponents may be.
Classical liberal critics of socialism have been making this point for over a hundred years. But it is a point which, although ultimately fairly straightforward, is also surprisingly hard to explain, especially in a heated discussion. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is not easily condensable in an argument at the pub.
My paper The Mirage of Democratic Socialism, originally published in August 2018, and recently republished to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, is an attempt to make the classical liberal critique of socialism as intuitively clear as possible. It does so in the form of an ‘Alternative History’, because this format, much like the ‘Robinson Crusoe economy’ of the Econ 101 textbook, allows us to strip out unnecessary distractions, and get down to the basics.
It describes a fictitious socialist society, governed by people who (not coincidentally) very much share the mindset of today’s Millennial Socialists. It is set in a universe where the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the ousting of the East German ruling elites, does not lead to the end of socialism, but to its democratic renewal. Our fictitious post-1990s GDR turns itself into a role model of democratic socialism.
It is the sort of paper you might want to recommend to a socialist friend, because, while ultimately rejecting them, the paper neither dismisses nor misrepresents socialist ideas. It engages with them as honestly and fairly as it is possible for an author who profoundly disagrees with them.
Read ‘The Mirage or Democratic Socialism’ here.