Socialism for Beginners

The radical Left is becoming more mainstream—and conservatives are taking note.

Richard Seymour

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 Jacobinvol­ume 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. 

Richard Sey­mour is a North­ern Irish writer and own­er of the pop­u­lar blog Lenin’s Tomb. He has writ­ten for The Guardian, Lon­don Review of Books, and Al Jazeera and is the author of sev­er­al books, most recent­ly Cor­byn: The Strange Rebirth of Rad­i­cal Pol­i­tics (Ver­so).
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