Socialism for Beginners
The radical Left is becoming more mainstream—and conservatives are taking note.
AUGUST 2016 ISSUE | JULY 7, 2016
Is it possible to build socialism in one country? Setting aside this old doctrinal debate, most Marxists would have answered “no” without hesitation if that country were the United States. Yet here socialism is, rearing its head, fist aloft, in a country that was, for most of the 20th century, violently anti-socialist.
It is not that the Left is particularly strong anywhere in Europe or North America. Rather, the chronic dysfunctions of the neoliberal order have become acute. Suddenly, parties and leaders from previously marginal positions can experience tremendous surges simply by articulating popular discontent. So it is with Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and to an extent, Syriza and Podemos. The name of socialism is far less tainted than that of capitalism: 58 percent of young people in the United States see the former as the more humane system, according to a February poll. And “full communism” has even become a half-ironic refrain among the political youth, whose diligent meme-making helped turn a rumpled 74-year-old into an internet celebrity.
This is an exuberant state of affairs for a listless Left and a source of gnawing anxiety for the Right. Both camps hope to win the hearts and minds of an audience that may be newly receptive to socialism but has little practical knowledge of it. Two books out this summer suggest how each side may attempt to sway the red-curious millennial.
The Right insists that if today’s youth are skeptical of capitalism, it’s because they are simply unfamiliar with the horrors of its alternatives. Drawing on Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Problem with Socialism rehashes the neoliberal critique of socialism as a necessarily statist, tyrannical, inefficient system. His arguments are wearisomely familiar, his observations trite. DiLorenzo relies primarily on sweeping generalizations about what “all worldly experience” tells us. Were you aware, for example, that socialization always increases the costs of healthcare? Never mind that the United States spends 17.1 percent of its GDP on healthcare, compared to 10.4 percent in Canada and 9.1 percent in the U.K.
The claims grow stranger from there. One chapter tells the story of how America was nearly destroyed when the early colonists (“settlers”) “adopted communal or socialized ownership of land and property.” By eschewing Lockean property rights—thereby removing any relationship between effort and reward—they ensured colonial Jamestown would meet the sad fate that later befell the USSR.
This hardly qualifies as history, but it’s a convenient parable about the chaos that occurs when you try to change the natural state of affairs. Ultimately, DiLorenzo relies on the old chestnut that inequality is a benign outgrowth of human difference. Eliminating it, meanwhile, necessitates turning “unique human beings” into “identical socialist bricks,” and can only be accomplished under the boot of the state. Part of the work of socialists has always been to unmask the Panglossian notion that market-based rewards are deserved and to insist that those who happen to own the means of production are not, in fact, inherently better than the rest of us.
The book won’t arm novices with the means to mount a knowledgeable attack on socialism, but it might leave them satisfied in their prejudices. As such, it is a reasonably effective ideological weapon for right-wingers taking up the battle against the approaching red menace. Still, the best arguments that DiLorenzo can muster are some warmed-over scare tactics about Stalinism and a bizarre retelling of the story of Pocahontas.
By contrast, The ABCs of Socialism, an essay collection from Jacobin magazine, aims to spur on those who are inching toward socialism. In a way, the Jacobin volume inverts DiLorenzo on every point. Where one is the effort of a right-wing bourgeois white man, the other is a collective, multiracial effort of socialist men and women. And while DiLorenzo’s mission is sputteringly defensive, Jacobin’s is a cavalry charge.
For a volume that aims to cover all bases, the collection succeeds to an impressive extent. There is a spritely tone to a lot of the argument, and a precise calibration of piss and vinegar that works particularly well when puncturing pieties. The ABCs offers answers to a range of questions, from “Isn’t America already kind of socialist?” to “Will socialists take my Kenny Loggins records?” (The answer to both is “no.”)
Much of the text is dedicated to working out why the liberal slogans of freedom and democracy haven’t been realized, and how they might be. The kind of “freedom” offered by capitalism, explains sociologist Erik Olin Wright, preserves the “tyranny” of the nine-to-five workday, hoards control over the major investment decisions that affect our lives and compromises even the limited political institutions that we are left with. A volume of essays addressing thematically related problems is necessarily a bit ambiguous in its aims. Is it primarily a critique of capitalism, or an attempt to whet the potential convert’s palate? The ABCs aims to popularize unfamiliar ideas, but as an offensive against the consensus, it perhaps needs heavier ordnance.
The obvious question that many young activists have about socialism is, “What happened to Russia?” Joseph M. Schwartz takes on the task of defending socialism against the association with dictatorship. He does an excellent job of rehearsing the socialist role in winning democracy, but is less convincing when it comes to explaining uncomfortable facts such as the outcome of the Russian Revolution. It’s plausible, as Schwartz says, that “trying to force peasants who had just been given private land by Communist revolutionaries back onto collective state farms results in brutal civil wars that sets back economic development for decades.” But Russia’s civil war, famine, and the effective destruction of soviet democracy took place well before the liquidation of the kulaks. This highlights a deeper problem. How, given its historic failures, could we begin to envision what a successful socialism could look like? How might a socialist economy work, and what might be its metrics of success and reward? Would it need markets? Would it need a state? And if, as Danny Katch argues in a wry chapter, socialism need not be “boring,” how might it enable celerity, excitement, adrenaline highs?
All of these questions still loom. But if the Jacobin collection succeeds in winning over a new generation of socialists, they may yet work out the answers. One almost pities the young conservative, strolling across campus with DiLorenzo tucked under his arm, who encounters an eager mob of Jacobinites and must test his old chestnuts against their quivers of sharp new arrows.
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Richard Seymour is the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder, American Insurgents and the upcoming Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens. He is researching a PhD at the London School of Economics.