If you’re plugged into the narrow world of online political debate, particularly in left-leaning circles, you may have heard about a war between leftists and liberals. Epitomized by the bruising primary fight between supporters of Bernie Sanders and those of Hillary Clinton, this divide has been endlessly debated, pulling in disagreements about policy, tactics, messaging, and the future of the Democratic party. That debate has been discussed, among other places, in this very publication.
I think this argument is an essential political battle, and I find it encouraging that we are having it, after so many years of “serious” people endorsing the center-left consensus. But I feel compelled to point out that in a basic sense, the terms of the debate are misunderstood. Often, this fight is labeled as a battle between liberals and socialists, and this is simply not the case. Instead, it is a fight between two competing visions of welfare state liberalism, with genuinely socialist ideas almost entirely unspoken in the debate. The idea that these groups come from fundamentally different political ideologies is a misconception.
Leftist is, by nature, a very loose designator, and I have little interest in policing its boundaries. But socialism is a term that, for all of the variety and inconsistency in its use, has a certain bedrock definition that we should protect, in order to make clear what the range of possible futures ahead of us are. Socialism refers to a system where sectors of the economy and basic aspects of human society are moved outside of a market system and into communal ownership. This process of the people taking ownership of basic human needs like housing, health care, education, and food is precisely what we call socializing a public good. This is, in my opinion, a non-negotiable minimal condition of socialist belief. Socialism, at bottom, must entail an alternative to capitalism, not a series of systems to ameliorate capitalism’s deprivations. It must do away with the profit motive and markets, or else it is bound to fail.
Why? Because one of the basic contentions of socialist thought has long been that the welfare state and worker’s movements are indefensible within capitalism. The demand for endless growth and ever-increasing profits, coupled with the power that corporations and the rich have within capitalism, makes even the most robust safety net and the most empowered labor movement vulnerable. Indeed, this is the history of the past 40 years of American and British politics – the gradual erosion of redistributive programs and a sustained assault on labor unions. As the leftist writer Peter Frase wrote recently,
The historical reality of welfare capitalism’s postwar high tide, though, is that everyone wanted more. Capitalists, as they always do, wanted more profits, and they felt the squeeze from powerful unions and social democratic parties that were impinging on this prerogative. More than that, they faced the problem of a working class that was becoming too politically powerful. This is what Michal Kalecki called the “political aspects of full employment,” the danger that a sufficiently empowered working class might call into question the basic structure of an economy based on concentrated property rights and capital accumulation.
This is why calls for a “Nordic model” in the United States are misguided. The idea that we can port a Scandinavian-style social democratic state into a country of the size and complexity of the United States has always been questionable, especially given how countries like Norway have relied on vast mineral and energy wealth to provide benefits to small populations. But even if we could create such a social democratic state here – and for the record I’m all for trying – the reality of those states, as opposed to their reputation, should give us pause.
As the recent edited collection The Three Worlds of Social Democracy shows, the Nordic model is not only unlikely to occur in the United States, it is currently failing in the Nordic countries themselves. The level of social spending that Nordic countries have traditionally enjoyed has been politically protected by the labor movement. That defense has required extremely high union density. But that figure has trended in the wrong direction for years in the Scandinavian countries, particularly among young workers. Labor force participation rates have also declined since the 1990s, further weakening the workers movement. And conservative and far-right parties have made electoral gains in several of these countries. There has not been widespread dismantling of the Scandinavian social state. But key industries, once nationalized, have been privatized, such as in the airlines and energy sector. Many of the trends that we might be interested in leftists are pointing in the wrong direction, in Scandinavia. A vision that is frequently cited as a model for other countries is in the process of dying in its own.
Viewed through this lens, what in the platform of Bernie Sanders is properly socialist? Take single payer health insurance, where the government serves the role typically held by insurance companies, and where progressive taxes help alleviate the burden of paying for care faced by the poor. I support this policy wholeheartedly. But it is not a socialist alternative to health care. “The government pays money for what the people need” is not socialist in general, but rather simply welfare liberalism, as it preserves the role of currency exchange and profit in the first place. A real socialist alternative would be to socialize the health care industry entirely, and have doctors and hospitals provide services based on human need rather than the dictates of the profit model. I don’t think socialized health care is plausible in the short term, and I will take a single-payer system over our current one in a heartbeat. But we should not confuse a single-payer system for a true socialist alternative, just as we should not confuse government-funded college education for a socialized system where education is provided based on need and not on a market mechanism.
If socialism has now been rendered into a vague sense of “lefter than the average Democrat,” then communism and Marxism have been reduced to empty iconography. The philosophical literature of Marxism is vast; indeed, arguably no political tendency has ever produced a denser body of philosophy. The essential elements of Marx’s system are encapsulated in the Communist Manifesto: a revolutionary socialism that wins power through the struggle of the working class against the rentier class, which results in a post-capitalist, post-state society defined by mutual need and organized into decentralized democratic bodies that act according to the needs of the proletariat. The philosophy is materialist, atheist, anti-capitalist, and in fact anti-statist, though communism is often associated with a vast state apparatus, thanks to the shadow of the Soviet Union. But the word “commune” appears in “communism” for a reason, and it does not do leftists any favors to equate communism with the failed, false version that was advanced in the Soviet state. We should expect leftists to do a better job of representing the most influential school of left-wing politics of all.
Yet today basic tenets of the philosophy seem almost entirely disconnected from the public understanding of Marxism, which often includes little more than Cold War iconography and vague notions of radical leftism, unmoored from an explicit political theory. Marxism is a philosophical and historical project, and one can be a Marxist without advancing revolutionary approaches to economic change. There are, after all, many reformist Marxist schools, and I am not convinced by traditional Marxist teleology that the dictatorship of the proletariat is inevitable. Big-tent Marxism is fine. But communism is a very specific political project, and its symbol is the hammer and sickle, and I see no reason why those who do not advocate for revolutionary socialism according to a strict interpretation of that philosophy are so casual in its use. What is the value of debasing that symbol by treating it as a vague signifier of “left of Democrat”?
What are we to make, for example, of this New York Times editorial by the founder of the socialist journal Jacobin, Bhaskar Sunkara? The essay discusses the Bolshevik revolution of a hundred years ago, describes some possible futures, and advances a vision of progress that is little more than the kind of social democrat capitalist state that has existed for decades in the Scandinavian countries. Sunkara is convincing in articulating the dreadful potential futures of right-wing ethnonationalism and Singapore-style “managed democracy,” where an unaccountable elite rules by expertise and acts in the favor of the wealthy. But his alternative does not look very different from a more humane, more nurturing liberal capitalist state. That he makes this argument under a graphic of the hammer and sickle and with an image of Bolshevik soldiers attached makes the loss of meaning of Marxism even clearer. This slippage can be seen not just in Sunkara’s essay but in the journal he founded as well, which is often discussed as the most prominent Marxist publication in print, but which publishes mostly essays calling for social democratic capitalist reforms.
If left-aligned people have abandoned our greater ambitions out of a sense that asking for more is just not realistic under current conditions, I’d understand that. And if they have abandoned those greater ambitions because they genuinely believe a more muscular welfare state is sufficient to mitigate the problems of capitalism, I’d understand that too, though I disagree. But it’s not clear to me at all that this massive shift in the basic definition of socialism, or in the ambitions of the left, is actually the product of an intentional, theory-laden set of choices. We instead seem to be falling into the models of the welfare state without really knowing we’re doing it, sliding rightward as we talk about a reinvigorated left, slouching towards liberalism. The social antipathy that exists between self-identified leftists and self-identified liberals, particularly on social media, has obscured the remarkable symmetry between both groups in terms of fundamental structural approaches to economics. The great left-liberal war is mostly waged, on both sides, by… liberals.
I fear this loss of meaning in terms is a product of a lowering of expectations that’s become common in the radical left in recent years. There’s been a great deal of enthusiasm for new, more radical possibilities, since at least the Occupy Wall Street movement, which saw its fullest flower in the Sanders movement and the grassroots organizations that sprang up around it. I find this new, combative leftist spirit energizing. But along with that spirit has come a pervasive sense that no one wants to spoil the party, that to ask hard questions about values and tactics is somehow to stand against progress. I understand the desire to shelter and protect a young movement. But there is no value in acting like the radical left is made of glass. Our enemies will surely not spare us from vicious assaults on our values and goals. So we must communally develop a shared sense of what it means to be part of this movement, of what we’re really after. The only way to do that is to embrace the necessity of theory and the need to engage in the deep, substantive work of reading, writing, and arguing about politics and policy.
You will frequently hear that we must give new adherents time to develop and learn, and of course I agree. I am not advocating a return to socialism as a kind of leftist religion where only the priests who have studied the secret texts are allowed to participate. But it’s only through a direct and open exchange of ideas that we can foster the education that needs to happen. We can’t build an enduring alternative to capitalism if we are afraid that our movement is too fragile to withstand real internal debate, nor should we feel proud of our recruitment efforts if we feel that new adherents must not be asked to do intellectual work. The union halls and factory floors of the labor movement have traditionally been sites of deeply-informed left-wing debates. We don’t need to act as though our new converts are not equally capable of participating.
I’ve often been reminded, in recent months, that the anarchist Emma Goldman said if there was no dancing, it wasn’t her revolution. And it’s true that we need dancing in the revolution. But it’s also true that, when she wasn’t dancing, Goldman wrote six books. We cannot confuse her endorsement of joy as part of left-wing practice with an abdication of the necessity of doing the hard intellectual work of reading, learning, debating, and crafting a shared vision of the future.
To be clear: I am as enthusiastic and optimistic about left politics as I have been in my adult life. The recent shift in the range of the acceptable opinions, in polite political conversation, has been massive, and it has real-world consequences for policy. The possibilities are remarkable. But that’s all they are, right now – possibilities. We haven’t accomplished anything yet, and to turn potential into power we need to have the tough conversations about what we stand for and don’t. We are getting ahead of ourselves, and we shouldn’t.
The “good” news, so to speak, is that we will have a great deal of time to work these issues out. Even if Bernie Sanders wins the presidency in 2020, even if we see a new generation of explicitly socialist leaders rising, even if we make real headway in building the kinds of durable organizations we’ll need, we have a very long road ahead of us. Capitalism will not fall anytime soon, and even our more modest desires like single-payer health care or free college will require immense effort. We can build a better future; the instability and misery of capitalism make our message attractive. But first we must decide, as a community, what we’re really fighting for.