Nearly half of millennials describe themselves as sympathetic to “socialism” and not terribly fond of “capitalism.” Yet if you asked each of them to explain the mechanics of how a socialist economy would function, I doubt many would have especially detailed answers. Jacobin magazine’s ABCs of Socialism consists of answers to skeptical questions about socialism (e.g. “Don’t the rich deserve their money?” “Is socialism pacifist?” “Will socialism be boring?”) but notably “How will socialism actually work?” is not among them. With twelve million Democratic primary voters having cast ballots for a self-described “socialist,” isn’t it concerning that nobody has explained in detail how socialism will “work”? Embracing a new economic system without having a blueprint seems like it could only ever lead to something like Venezuela’s collapse.

I think this criticism seems very powerful, and comes from an understandable instinct. But it has a mistaken view of what socialism actually means to the people who use the label. In the 21st century, for many of its adherents socialism is not describing a particular set of economic rules and government policies, some clearly-defined “system” that must be implemented according to a plan. Instead, it describes a set of principles that we want the economic and political system to conform to. Bringing the world into harmony with these principles will require experimentation, but that lack of rigidity is an asset. Because 20th century “socialist” states attempted vast social engineering projects, there is a tendency to think of “a socialist economy” in engineering terms. Capitalism is an engine, with its parts all working together to produce an effect. Socialists come along and say that the engine should be designed entirely differently, with a totally different set of rules in order to produce better effects. If this is what we’re talking about when we’re talking about “capitalism versus socialism,” then it’s completely right to ask for an explanation of how the proposed alternative works. We’d be very suspicious of someone who said they had reinvented the combustion engine but refused to tell us how the alternative would work and insisted that before trying it we destroy all of our combustion engines.

But this is a poor way of thinking about what is being advocated by socialists. Books are a better analogy. We have, in our hands, a badly-written manuscript and are trying to edit it into a well-written manuscript. But there’s no blueprint for the well-written manuscript. We create it through a process. Delete a passage here, insert one there, move this around, move that around. And in doing this, we follow a set of principles: we want it to flow well, we want the reader not to get confused, we want all our sentences to be forceful and precise. Those principles aren’t handed down from on high, and there are lots of different ways we could write the book that would produce something satisfactory. But asking at the beginning of the process “Well, what will the finished product look like?” makes no sense. If we could present a blueprint for the finished book, we wouldn’t need a blueprint because we would already have finished the book.

Socialism can be conceived of similarly: socialists are trying to make society better, so that its operations meet a particular set of ideal criteria. Here, I want to quote Leszek Kołakowski, the Polish scholar of Marxism, who was a vicious opponent of communist governments but drew an important distinction between socialism as a system and an ideal:

[It would be] a pity if the collapse of communist socialism resulted in the demise of the socialist tradition as a whole and the triumph of Social Darwinism as the dominant ideology….Fraternity under compulsion is the most malignant idea devised in modern times… This is no reason, however, to scrap the idea of human fraternity. If it is not something that can be effectively achieved by means of social engineering, it is useful as a statement of goals. The socialist idea is dead as a project for an ‘alternative society.’ But as a statement of solidarity with the underdog and the oppressed, as a motivation to oppose Social Darwinism, as a light that keeps before our eyes something higher than competition and greed—for all these reasons, socialism—the ideal, not the system—still has its uses.

By his last years, Kołakowski was bitterly disenchanted by the left to an extreme I find off-putting. But even he offered high praise for the great socialists of early 20th century Europe, and the ideals they embodied. They “wanted not only equal, universal and obligatory education, a social health service, progressive taxation and religious tolerance, but also secular education, the abolition of national and racial discrimination, the equality of women, freedom of the press and of assembly, the legal regulation of labour conditions, and a social security system. They fought against militarism and chauvinism [and] embodied what was best in European political life.”

Here we begin to see what socialist principles actually involve. How can they best be summarized? Kołakowski suggests it’s “fraternity,” but that seems too limited and too squishy. It does start there, though: with a feeling of connectedness and compassion for other human beings. “We are here to help each other through this thing, whatever it is,” as Kurt Vonnegut said. Many socialists begin with that feeling of “solidarity” with people whose lives are needlessly hard and painful, and a sense that we are all in this together.

Socialism also has a firm idea of the kinds of deprivation that this “fellow-feeling” leads us to care about. Everyone should be meaningfully free to have the most fulfilling life possible. “Meaningfully” free means that they need to be able to have that life in reality rather than just in theory: if every child who can afford it can take a trip to Disney World, but some children cannot afford it, then not everyone is free to go to Disney World and it would be cruel and false to tell a poor child that they were free to go if they wanted to. We can debate the ingredients of a fulfilling life, but for libertarian socialists like myself they include a high degree of personal autonomy and the ability to shape your own destiny.

This is what leads socialists toward the idea about “collective ownership of the means of production,” which is often cited as the core tenet of socialism. The reason socialists talk about “ownership” so much is that “ownership” refers to decision-making power. If I own a book, it means I am the one who gets to decide what happens to it. I can write in it, sell it, or throw it away. The instinct that “people should be able to shape their own destinies” leads socialists to endorse what I think is the core meaning of “democracy,” namely the idea that people should have decision-making power over those things that affect them. If we think people’s choices should be valued, then they should be included in decision-making that affects them.

Hence all this business about the “means of production.” The workers in an auto plant are strongly affected by the decision as to whether or not it should close and move production elsewhere. Yet because they do not “own” it (i.e. have any decision-making power), the choice will be made without the participation of those it will impact most. This violates the core principle of democracy. The whole reason socialists are critical of the concentration of private property in few hands is that it constitutes a concentration of socially consequential decision-making power. Say I have been renting my apartment for 30 years. I have made it my home, I have loved it and improved it. Yet I don’t have decision-making power over what happens to it, because I am not the owner. The building can be sold and I can be evicted, without having any right to participate in the decision. It’s not that I am necessarily entitled to get my way. But democracy does entitle me to have a share in the decision-making proportional to my stake in the outcome. Free market capitalism ensures no such participation; the ones who decide what happens are the ones who own the most resources. 

This is also why authoritarian “socialist” regimes don’t deserve the name. The whole purpose here is to increase people’s control over their circumstances. If you’re simply vesting that control in a government, and people have no say in that government, then there’s nothing socialistic about what is going on, unless the term is meaningless. Collective ownership means collective decision-making power. Without democratic decision-making, then there’s no collective ownership. There’s just government ownership, and governments themselves only conform to the principles of socialism to the extent they are democratic. In fact, “democratic socialism” should be a redundancy, because socialism should consist of the application of democracy to all aspects of life.

There are plenty of different ideas for how to make the world more democratic, to ensure that people’s lives aren’t being controlled by mysterious private or state forces that they have no control over. Socialists have a variety of proposals for economic democracy, such as the Universal Basic Income, worker cooperatives, and mandating profit-sharing. But the democratic principle isn’t just about economics. It’s also what turns socialists into feminists and anti-racists. Sexism and racism are outside forces that are acting on people against their will, making their lives more difficult on account of demographic characteristics that they cannot choose. The principle “everyone should have the most fulfilling possible life” means that women shouldn’t be harassed at work, transgender teens shouldn’t be bullied, and people of color shouldn’t face unique structural disadvantages.

One may think that by identifying ideas like “giving everyone a maximally fulfilling life” as core principles, I am draining socialism of meaning. After all, who doesn’t want people to have fulfilling lives? If socialism just means “things should be good,” everyone is a socialist. But that’s part of the point: socialism tries to apply values that are essentially universal. What differentiates the socialist and the non-socialist is the “apply” part. Everyone talks about democracy and freedom and fulfillment, but socialists are concerned to figure out what those things would really entail, and ensure that they are meaningful components of everybody’s lives, rather than only existing for some. The United States is “democratic,” and people are “free.” But when the public’s views don’t affect the government’s policies, and when people can’t get vacation time to go and take advantage of their freedom, these concepts are not being fully realized. Socialist principles may sound like platitudes, but when taken seriously they have radical implications: they mean a world without war, crime, prisons, and vast wealth inequality. A socialist world would be very different from our current one.

The principles themselves, though, don’t contain any definitive prescription for how to get there. My comparison with the “edit and rewrite” process may imply that I am advocating “piecemeal reforms” or “baby steps.” But that’s not what I mean by experimentation. Experimentation doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be bold. It just means constantly checking to make sure you’re upholding the principles. Preferring principles to systems doesn’t mean you can never be a revolutionary, it means making sure your revolution is actually advancing your principles rather than “breaking a lot of eggs but never getting an omelet.” Nor does it mean that “socialist” today means “social democrat,” i.e. capitalism with a welfare state. It could mean that, if that were the best we could hope for. But genuine socialism is idealistic: the perfect application of its principles would only occur in a utopia, which means the work will never fully be done.

The millennial embrace of socialism, then, does not mean that millennials are trying to implement some complicated new economic system that they do not understand. It means that they measure any economic system by the degree to which it is humane and democratic, and they are angered by the degree to which our current one fails people. It means that they reject selfishness and believe in solidarity. And it means that they are determined to help each other build something better, whatever that may be.

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