The rise and mutation of Millennial Socialism
The author, Kristian Niemietz, was invited to deliver an opening statement, of which the article below is a rough transcript.
Introduction: an age-old debate
This book is about the age-old argument about whether socialism has truly “failed”, or whether it was a noble idea that just got tragically perverted in practice.
I’m sure you have all had arguments of that kind. I must have had that argument literally hundreds of times, especially as an undergraduate student in the early-to-mid 2000s. For obvious reasons: my university department was in East Berlin, where, at the time, the history of socialism was not really considered “history” at all, but still very much part of the present.
The legacy of socialism was still all around us. If you asked someone where they were from (which, back then, was not yet considered a “microaggression”), students from Berlin would never just say “I’m from around here”; rather, they would always tell you whether they were from the old East, or from the old West. Those who were from the East would tell you about how they remembered the fall of the Wall, their first visit to West Berlin, the first thing they bought in a Western supermarket, and also their memories of the old GDR, even if those were only hazy childhood memories.
Socialism was still very much in the urban fabric of the area. There was Rosa Luxemburg Square, Karl Liebknecht Street, and Karl Marx Boulevard. There were massive bronze statues of Marx and Engels next to the department building, stained-glass windows of Lenin, and plenty of murals in the famous “Socialist Realism” style. Apart from a few logos of Western companies, the area still looked bizarrely socialist.
There was an interesting discrepancy: nobody I met was nostalgic about the GDR – but virtually everyone I met had a positive view of socialism. You were not supposed to judge socialism by what had happened in the GDR: to do so was considered a terribly déclassé, unsophisticated opinion. Attitudes to socialism were treated as an implicit IQ test. The unstated assumption was: stupid people judge socialism by its outcomes, smart people judge it by its original intentions. If you had a negative view of socialism, that just showed that you were not clever enough to understand the distinction between a general ideal, and a distorted application. You were just not clever enough to understand that what had happened in the GDR was not what Marx and Engels had in mind. Where does Marx say anything about building a wall through a city?
But I held the obviously stupid, ridiculous and cringeworthy opinion that socialism had failed for a reason, and that what we had seen in the GDR was probably as good as it was ever going to get. I thought that even in the mixed economy we had, state-run industries tended not to perform terribly well, so it did not strike me as a brilliant idea to create many more of them. I also thought it contradictory that socialists were constantly complaining about the state, whilst advocating policies that would inevitably make the state vastly more powerful and all-encompassing.
The Berlinification of Britain
Then when I moved to London in 2007, I quickly lost interest in those kinds of arguments. I realised that this was not really a thing here. Britain does not have that historic legacy. Here, “socialism” was associated with fringe groups such as the Socialist Workers Party, and the occasional political maverick figure such as George Galloway. But for the most part, it was possible to ignore it.
Until it all suddenly kicked off here, in the middle of the last decade. It didn’t even start with “Corbynmania”. There was a precursor to that, which, oddly enough, was Russell Brand’s brief stint as a public intellectual. In 2014, Russell Brand’s book Revolution became a massive bestseller. In that book, Brand only uses the words “socialism”, “Marxism” and “communism” about two dozen times, taken together. But that was essentially what it was about. The book is an extremely crude and infantilised version of the standard Berlin opinion.
And then, of course, Corbynmania broke out a year later. Suddenly, it was hip and cool to be a socialist. People from Marxist hipster outlets like Novara Media were now constantly on TV, and even Teen Vogue, which used to be a magazine about celebrity gossip and makeup tips, was suddenly running articles about Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, “socialist feminism” and “anarcho-communism”. “Millennial Socialism” had been born.
For me, it all felt like an endless déjà vu. It was like being back in Berlin – but in the worst possible way. There are things that I do miss about Berlin: affordable rents, spacious housing, beer for less than £4, being able to get a doctor’s appointment… But the political culture was what I had actually hoped to get away from. Now it had caught up with me.
Yet those on the pro-market side – by which I mean conservatives and classical liberals, but also market-friendly social democrats – did not rise to the challenge posed by Millennial Socialism. Most of them still clung to the illusion that Britain was essentially a centre-right country, where socialism would never go down well. Corbyn’s quasi-victory of 2017 served as a much-needed wake-up call for them. It shook them out of their complacency.
Unfortunately, the 2019 general election had the opposite effect: it lulled them back into that false sense of complacency.
Coping mechanisms and their inadequacy
That complacency is entirely unwarranted. The fact that you cannot (yet) win a general election on the basis of socialism alone does not mean that the Millennial Socialism phenomenon is not real, or that it doesn’t matter.
There are a number of coping mechanisms that people on the pro-market side use to kid themselves into thinking that the issue isn’t real. I’ll go through four of them.
- “People only voted for Corbyn in 2017, because they thought he was not going to win anyway. They didn’t mean it. It just seemed like a risk-free protest vote.”
This is wrong. The British Election Study has looked at the relationship between how likely someone thought a Corbyn victory was in 2017, and how likely they were to vote for Corbyn’s Labour themselves. They found a very strong positive correlation. Yes, many people thought a Corbyn victory was highly unlikely. But those were not the ones who voted for him. The ones who did vote for him are the ones who thought he had a decent chance of winning.
Also, if there were any truth in this idea, you would expect to see some “buyers’ remorse” after the 2017 election. You would expect to see a drop in Labour’s polling afterwards, when it had become clear that a Corbyn victory was not an unrealistic prospect at all. But we see the precise opposite: we see a big surge immediately after the election, followed by two years of a comfortable poll lead.
This is all hard to reconcile with the idea that voters were playing 4-dimensional chess in 2017, voting for a party which they secretly wanted to lose. It is much more easily reconcilable with the “Occam’s Razor” explanation: that people voted Labour because they wanted to see a Corbyn-led government.
- “The 2019 general election was a devastating rejection of socialism.”
It was no such thing. Among those who defected from Labour between 2017 and 2019, only one in six mention “policy” or “economic competence” as a reason for doing so. The most important reason was simply Corbyn’s low personal approval ratings, followed by Brexit. It was, in other words, a defeat of Corbyn, but not of Corbynomics.
Even then, he still won a third of the vote, which means that he did better than Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown. His vote was just inefficiently distributed, geographically, which meant that it did not translate into seats.
- “Young people have always gone through a socialist phase. But then they grow up. It will be the same with the current lot.”
Of all the coping mechanisms, this has to be the most delusional one. We are not talking about teenagers here. Socialist attitudes are the mainstream opinion among people aged up to their early or mid-40s. These people are not just “going through a phase”, and they are not going to “grow out of it”.
- “Whatever you make of Keir Starmer’s policies, has done a good job in demoting the far-left within his party. The Corbyn project has not produced a lasting legacy.”
Millennial Socialism has indeed lost ground within the Labour Party. It is now no longer an electoral project. It is not about whether you vote for this party of that party, this candidate or that candidate.
But ideologies can be extremely influential even when they are not, in an obvious way, linked to a political party, or an electoral project. Think of woke progressivism, or doomsday environmentalism today. These are not political parties. You cannot vote for or against them at the ballot box. They cannot form a government, or pass legislation. And yet, nobody in their right mind would dispute the relevance of these extremely fashionable ideologies. They are clearly agenda-setting – one could even say hegemonic.
The future of Millennial Socialism
Could the same be said of Millennial Socialism in the post-Corbyn era? Has it become another one of those fashionable, culturally influential, agenda-setting ideologies that are a step removed from day-to-day politics?
Yes – but there is more to it.
Millennial Socialism has become a mothership ideology, which quickly absorbs every other social movement into its fold. There is no logical reason why a woke progressive must also be an anti-capitalist. You could be a woke progressive who is agnostic about economic issues, or even, dare I say, pro-market. There is no logical reason why an environmentalist must also be an anti-capitalist. You could be an environmentalist who is agnostic about economic issues, or even, dare I say, pro-market.
But in practice, this just does not happen. In practice, virtually every woke progressive, and virtually every environmentalist, is also a dyed-in-the-wool anti-capitalist. They would say that even though their main day-to-day concern is racism, or environmental destruction, the “root cause” of these problems – and therefore the final enemy – is really capitalism.
In this sense, Millennial Socialism is very much here to stay. And those of us who hold the cringeworthy opinion that capitalism is a lot better than its reputation need to step up to the plate.