Our Socialist Future?

Tuesday, October 6, 2020
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Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a fuller essay, “Our Socialist Future?” by Victor Davis Hanson published by the Hoover Institution as part of a new initiative, Socialism and Free-Market Capitalism: The Human Prosperity Project.

After the death of George Floyd last spring while in police custody, protesters demanded the prosecution of those responsible. Quickly, however, the demonstrations devolved into a veritable cultural revolution spearheaded by two groups: Antifa and Black Lives Matter, both with strong socialist origins and agendas. Within weeks, there were widespread protests centered on various demands, including the abolition of urban police forces, multitrillion-dollar reparations, relaxed grading for African-American students, and an end to incarceration for most crimes. A common denominator in these demands was a socialist theme: those who had more should not have had more, and were obligated to give much of it back to those from whom it was taken.1

In the current affluent age of globalization, such popular socialism would seem to have little future, given its long, dismal past and history of failure in governance. Early Greek Pythagorean cult communities, for instance, were based on shared property and resources, but they never became the political basis for city-states. Such philosophical and religious communes were instead often persecuted and driven out of their Italian and Greek enclaves. The Greek colonizing era of the eighth to the fifth centuries BC sought to divide up new lands along a grid system, allotting equal parcels to colonist farmers. But political philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato assumed that given differences in innate talent, luck, and happenstance, such farms could never stay equal for long. Thus they conceded that some unpleasant means of coercion would be necessary if such egalitarian projects were to last.

Even ancient socialist regimens such as the collective barracks, dining halls, and shunning of coinage at Sparta, or the efforts to limit property aggrandizement and the pushing of massive redistributive entitlements at Athens, never quite did away with private property or, in the classical age, consensual government. And few of the redistributive premises of either Sparta or Athens survived into the Hellenistic and Roman age—other than the cynical “bread and circuses” distributions to the urban poor of free food and entertainment among the major cities of the Roman empire.2

The French Revolution, and especially the stirrings of industrial mass production, revived formally the idea of socialism, now a definable political concept, most prominently articulated by the French aristocrat and revolutionary Henri de Saint-Simon. Yet Jacobin socialism in France earned a warranted violent reaction, and Napoleon squared the French revolutionary circle by claiming his self-serving and bloody autocracy was the only way to preserve the ideals of the revolution.

As we saw in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution and civil war (1917–23) and in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), today’s revolutionary is tomorrow’s sellout. Socialism seems to be a starting point that is quickly overtaken by its cousins communism, anarchy, and nihilism.

Not So Benign

Europe today claims it is a democratic socialist continent, in the sense that voters, not dictators, have imposed redistributive policies on themselves. Indeed, if defined by its high taxes, generous entitlements, and loud egalitarian rhetoric, the European Union is socialist. At the same time the EU must remain nondemocratic, given that any nation that dares to express a desire to leave its utopia will find such an exit difficult.

But more important, aside from proclamations of brotherhood, European nations in extremis have acted in expectedly self-interested fashion. Germany certainly did not wish to share much of its wealth after the 2008 financial meltdown with poorer Mediterranean nations. Eastern Europe did not assume open borders were wise. Indeed, these nations considered suicidal the idea of welcoming impoverished illegal aliens from the Middle East and North Africa and bestowing upon them de facto legal residence and citizenship.

The United Kingdom grew fearful of the idea that the socialism of Brussels would soon trump the hallowed laws of England. Germany does not appear to its ideologically kindred satellites in the European Union to be very socialist but, rather, self-centered in recalibrating the EU to allow Germany pan-European power to implement its continental ambitions in a way that proved impossible after 1870, 1914, and 1939. During the coronavirus pandemic, it has been every European nation for itself rather than a shared European brotherhood.3

Such are the supposed benign manifestations of radical socialism. But most socialist regimes are not so benign, at least if we review the litany of the twentieth-century dead. Josef Stalin liquidated twenty million people to create the collective basis for the Soviet Union. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward cost China forty-five million dead. Pol Pot’s back-to-the-land experiment murdered well over one million in Cambodia. Various disasters in Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe turned once-prosperous states into murderous, impoverished socialist dictatorships.4

It Didn’t Happen Here—Yet

Other than a few failed, small-scale flirtations with socialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, America never seriously embraced collectivism, despite an array of New Deal resuscitative policies (which mostly prolonged the Great Depression) aimed at diluting more radical competing socialist agendas, popular during the Industrial Revolution and Depression and mostly advanced by Samuel Gompers, Huey Long, and Eugene Debs.5

Antiwar socialists in the 1960s and “green” socialists in the twenty-first century have all failed to assume power. So, given long-held and traditional American suspicions of an all-powerful, redistributive state, what then explains the flirtation with socialism by the current generation of American youth?

Apparently, the implied preferred model for millions of Americans has become the all-encompassing French Revolution, which sought to implement egalitarianism of result and fraternity at any cost, rather than the American Revolution’s emphases on individual freedom, personal liberty, and protections of private property. For example, in 2016 socialist Bernie Sanders almost won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination—a milestone that no prior socialist presidential candidate had come close to reaching. And Sanders, for a while, led the primary candidates again in 2020. Senator Sanders often talked of “revolution,” and his supporters sometimes fancied themselves French-style Jacobins.

In 2011, the journal Jacobin had introduced itself with the stated common values and sentiments of its contributors—“proponents of modernity and the unfulfilled project of the Enlightenment” and “asserters of the libertarian quality of the Socialist ideal.” Its motto, “Reason in Revolt,” deliberately sought to echo the supposedly rational role of Maximilien Robespierre, the catalyst for the so-called Reign of Terror during the cycles of French revolutionary violence, and the influence of his Jacobins on movements such as the Haitian revolution of 1791–1804, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.6

Almost all the candidates of the Democratic Party during the 2020 primaries at times embraced an array of issues that could only be called socialist. The agendas variously included a 70 to 80 percent income tax rate, a wealth tax on previously taxed capital, reparation payments to African-Americans, open borders, Medicare for all, free health care for illegal aliens, and radical changes in the US legal system, such as abolishing the Electoral College, packing the Supreme Court, allowing sixteen-year-olds and ex-felons to vote, and transitioning to mail balloting in place of Election Day polling booths. The common denominator of all of these diverse polices was either government-mandated radical redistribution or the weakening of constitutional or long-held American customs and traditions. Candidates felt there were new socialist constituencies for such issues.

Indeed, a 2019 Gallup Poll suggested that about half of American youths now view socialism as positively as capitalism. And in another poll, seven of ten millennials surveyed said they would like to vote for a socialist. Perhaps given current economic realities, poor education, and the propaganda of the administrative state, it is not hard to see why so many young Americans flirt with socialism.7

One force multiplier of socialist unrest has been an absence of upward mobility, coupled with a superficial sense of being educated. Today’s college graduate may feel that while his education has led to few marketable skills, it has at least taught him the innate inequalities of American capitalism which, in his eyes, explain better than his poor choices why he is degreed but otherwise poor and in debt. College-educated Americans collectively owe an estimated $1.5 trillion in unpaid student loans, and many despair of ever repaying the huge sums spent to collect noncompetitive degrees.

Globalization is another force multiplier of socialism’s attractions. Over the past thirty years a vast market has created wealth never envisioned in the history of civilization—at least for many in professions like finance, stocks, high-tech, media, law, and insurance. At the same time, “free” but unfair trade, especially with China, hollowed out assembly and manufacturing plants in the United States, impoverishing many in the once-solid middle class. As factory and assembly jobs dried up, the unemployed saw an ostentatious elite created by the outsourcing and offshoring that had ended their own prosperity.

Many young people claim to be socialists but are instead simply angry that they were unable to afford a home, a new car, or other nice things, or start a family in their “woke” urban neighborhoods during a decade of muted economic growth (2008–17) and high unemployment. In college, they were not warned about the dangers of statism and collectivism, nor given the skills to look at the world empirically. The combination of nonmarketable degrees and skills with burdensome debt helped alter an entire generation’s customs, habits, and thinking.

The New American Socialist

Popular culture and contemporary politics have more or less institutionalized a model of citizenship quite unlike previous visions that were based on the autonomous family. The new American archetype apparently is a single, urban youth, presumably well-educated and glib but dependent on government subsidies and suffering from arrested development. His environment stresses the attractions of government dependency and the alleged lack of upward mobility through the private sector. This view is expansively depicted as the liberation of an everywoman or everyman through cradle-to-grave government reliance—a person thus in little need of marriage, religion, or community and family support.

The modern American citizen is proudly and perennially a ward of the state. She lives in a society that is strangely medieval: a serf, she looks to the lord of the manor in Washington to sustain her. 

Americans usually become more traditional, self-reliant, and suspicious of big government as they age. The reasons for such conservatism have included early marriage, child raising, buying a home, and residence outside a big city. Yet today’s youth are generally marrying later and most have few if any children. And these debt-burdened twenty- and thirty-somethings are not buying homes as quickly or easily as in the past.

All of these national and international trends are the ingredients for a new socialist paradigm that emphasizes the self, blames others for a sense of personal failure, wants instant social justice—and expects the government to borrow or seize the money from others to grant it.

Socialist revolutions do not sprout organically in so-called good times. Instead they are the children of wars, depressions, and natural and manmade upheavals. They are facilitated by “never let a crisis go to waste” opportunism—turmoil during which socialist activists emerge as prophets to condemn systems of free enterprise and constitutional government. Leaders like Fidel Castro, Vladimir Lenin, or Leon Trotsky rarely rise from among the poor. They often have just enough education to connect their own unhappiness with cosmic forces but not enough to explain their own unhappiness in ways that transcend their own self-obsessions.

In the coronavirus crisis and the protests and riots over the death of George Floyd, we witnessed an ideal incubator of socialist ideas which in calmer times would have had little resonance. Elected officials such as California Governor Gavin Newsom saw that the chaos and crisis of the epidemic opened the door for left-wing agendas unimaginable just months earlier. Newsom was particularly candid: “There is opportunity for reimagining a progressive era as it pertains to capitalism. So yes, absolutely we see this [the government response to the virus] as an opportunity to reshape the way we do business and how we govern.”8

Midsummer saw the protests take on an expected Jacobin flavor of increasing radicalization. Progressive mayors who had condoned violence often found themselves the targets of protesters who were furious that their elected officials were proving mere radicals rather than revolutionaries. It was not enough to express understandable outrage. Instead, protesters and rioters were soon calling for the banning of particular movies, TV shows, and books, and a complete recalibration of American life. They characterized their movement as “holistic” and “systemic.” The key catalyst for re-emerging socialism was the substitution of race for class struggle. Income and capital are fluid, but the new socialism sees race as the sole determinant of class, and race is fixed. Thus the struggle against “white privilege” is endless.9

A socialist paradigm that had been considered eccentric as recently as last year has now gone mainstream. Such is the way socialism always creeps in—more with a parasitic whimper than with a confrontational bang.

[1] Peter Beinart, “The Rise of the Violent Left,” The Atlantic, September 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/the-rise-of-the-violent-left/534192; Emily Woo Yamasaki and Andrea Bauer, “Black Lives Matter: A ‘Pop-Up Movement’ or One with Lasting Impact?,” Freedom Socialist Party, February 2016, https://socialism.com/fs-article/black-lives-matter-a-pop-up-movement-or-one-with-lasting-impact; Khury Petersen-Smith, “Black Lives Matter,” International Socialist Review 96 (Spring 2015), https://isreview.org/issue/96/black-lives-matter; “Black Lives Matter and Marxism,” in Marxism and the Fight for Black Freedom: From the Civil War to Black Lives Matter (Socialist Alternative, 2018), https://www.socialistalternative.org/marxism-fight-black-freedom/black-lives-matter-marxism.

Doyne Dawson, Cities of the Gods: Communist Utopias in Greek Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 14–39.

Andreas Kluth, “Why Germany Will Never Be Europe’s Leader,” Bloomberg Opinion, April 29, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-04-30/coronavirus-crisis-why-germany-will-never-be-europe-s-leader; Jennifer Rankin and Daniel Boffey, “Tensions Mount between EU Members Ahead of Budget Talks,” The Guardian, February 19, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/19/tensions-mount-between-eu-members-ahead-of-budget-talks; Alberto Alesina and Francesco Giavazzi, “Will Coronavirus Kill the European Union?,” City Journal, March 27, 2020, https://www.city-journal.org/covid-19-european-union

Norman M. Naimark, Genocide: A World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); Norman M. Naimark, Stalin’s Genocide: A World History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010); Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010); Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–79, 3rd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

In general, see Kate Aronoff, Peter Dreier, and Michael Kazin, eds., We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style (New York: The New Press, 2020); Michael Harrington, Socialism: Past and Future (New York: Arcade, 1989).

Matt Ford, “A Thermidorian Reaction,” The Atlantic (July 26, 2016), https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/07/sanders-trump-french-revolution/493349; David A. Bell, “Why Sanders Should Stop Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution,” Politico Magazine, February 29, 2016, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/02/bernie-sanders-revolution-donald-trump-2016-213684; Bhaskar Sunkara, “Introducing Jacobin,” Jacobin 1 (January 1, 2011), https://jacobinmag.com/2011/01/introducing-jacobin.

Lydia Saad, “Socialism As Popular as Capitalism Among Young Adults in U.S.,” Gallup, November 25, 2019, https://news.gallup.com/poll/268766/socialism-popular-capitalism-among-young-adults.aspx; Morgan Gstalter, “7 in 10 Millennials Say They Would Vote for a Socialist: Poll,” Hill, October 28, 2019, https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/467684-70-percent-of-millennials-say-theyd-vote-for-a-socialist-poll

Katy Grimes, “Gov. Newsom: Coronavirus Is ‘Opportunity for Reimagining a More Progressive Era,’” California Globe, April 1, 2020, https://californiaglobe.com/section-2/gov-newsom-coronavirus-is-opportunity-for-reimagining-a-more-progressive-era; Ryan Bourne, “Coronavirus: Beware It Being Used as a Cover for Promoting Socialism and Protectionism,” Cato Institute, March 4, 2020, https://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/coronavirus-beware-it-being-used-cover-promoting-socialism-protectionism.

Paul Heideman, “Socialism and Black Oppression,” Jacobin 29 (April 30, 2018) https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/04/socialism-marx-race-class-struggle-color-line.

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