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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

How To Explain Socialism Clearly In a Way That Actually Persuades People

Comedian and writer Danny Katch on how socialists can explain their ideas to non-socialists in a way that is intelligible, friendly, and compelling.

Danny Katch is the author of the most accessible and entertaining existing introduction to socialist ideas, Socialism…Seriously, available from Haymarket Books (in a new edition that promises 50% more socialism). Danny’s book attempts something quite difficult: it tries to make reading about socialism fun. It’s full of jokes and is non-dogmatic.

Today, Danny joins to discuss how he explains socialism in a way that ordinary people who aren’t socialists can understand. We talk about misconceptions around Marxism, why we still need the word “socialism” and can’t just “rebrand,” how we can bring joy to the struggle, how you can talk to people who disagree with you, and why it’s annoying when leftists pretend they’re not surprised by anything. 

This conversation has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity. It originally appeared on the Current Affairs podcast.

Nathan J. Robinson

Early in your book, there’s something I think is delightful, which is that you rewrite the opening passage of the Communist Manifesto for the contemporary era:

“A ghost is haunting the United States—the ghost of socialism. All the old powers are united in their aim to eliminate this demon: Presidents and preachers, Hillary and Rush, Wall Street CEOs, and NSA spies.

Where is the Republican who doesn’t claim that his Democratic opponent is a socialist? Where is the Democrat who doesn’t run away screaming from this horrible accusation?

This means two things:

1. Socialism is widely seen by the One Percent as a threat to its rule.

2. It’s about time that socialists should openly make our case to the world and replace the boogeyman version of socialism with a declaration of what we’re really all about.”

An excerpt from your book was adapted recently for Jacobin, and you included this in that, too. Obviously, Marx and Engels wrote one of the enduring classic texts of socialism, but they wrote it about the world of the mid-19th century. As I take it, your point in writing this updated version in modern language about the contemporary United States is that it has enduring relevance.

Danny Katch 

Yes, that’s definitely something I wanted to get across. One hope that I had in the book—it’s not the only one. Obviously, the primary hope is fame and fortune for myself, regardless of what happens.


Yes, leftist literature is famously the route for that.


Totally, I chose very well. I wanted to discuss socialism in a way that is accessible. You don’t need to know references to 19th century Germany and 20th century Russia to understand it, but I also really value the writings of Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg. I don’t think people when they read my book will have to go read that stuff, but I wanted to create a bit of a bridge to give people who are coming or questioning socialism the idea that people have been thinking about this stuff for a while.

The opening lines of the manifesto about how a “spectre is haunting Europe” really is the 1848 version of panicked Republican governors warning about the evils of socialism and sellout Democrats, in turn, throwing socialism under the bus, like all those Democrats who signed on to that resolution in the House condemning socialism. The book just begins with this brilliant “people are all talking about this boogeyman, it’s time for actual socialism or communism,” and time for us to actually say who we really are and what our aims are.


When I read it, at first I didn’t notice the trick of it being the Communist Manifesto updated. I just thought that it’s a good and clear expression of the trends of our time. And then you give us what Marx wrote, which is the same thing:

“A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies. Where is the party of opposition that has not been decried as communistic?

I actually love that I didn’t notice it at first. Because the fact that you don’t necessarily notice it makes clear that it could be written today, that the original really hasn’t dated.


It’s very hard to write a gripping opening to your book, so I totally steal it from Marx and Engels. They’re our comrades, and I’m sure they’d be cool with it.


Early in your book, you respond to people’s obvious question—and I got this too because I wrote a book called Why You Should Be a Socialist, and I knew people would ask—”But what do you mean by socialism?” I really don’t like the definitional questions because people answer it in many ways. Obviously, it’s a rich and complex political tradition with many different tendencies (and they all fight each other).

But, you have a really nice answre in terms of getting it down to a little, pithy phrase. You write,

“Socialism is a society whose top priority is meeting all of its people’s needs, ranging from food, shelter, and health care, to art, culture, and companionship. In contrast, capitalism only cares about any of that basic human necessities stuff to the extent that money can be made of it.”

Tell us about why, in thinking about how you’d first present socialism, you decided to present this particular brief definition.


I’m sure you know that when you try to offer a brief answer to what socialism is, people, rightfully so, always want to know, “So, you’re a socialist, and you do all this writing. Tell me, what is it? Give me the quick version.” And then, of course, when you try to do that, sometimes those same people will come back at you saying, but you didn’t talk about this or that.

I have a bunch of videos out that are little two minute explainers on different socialist questions, and I definitely got some of that. I offer different definitions of socialism as the book goes on, as I think anybody would have to, but I think that’s a starting point. Because if you think about the words socialism and capitalism, it’s social versus capital: a society governed by the needs of capital, versus a society governed by social forces and the needs of society. To me, that’s as good a starting point as any. But, probably more importantly, it’s trying to label things in a pretty straightforward to understand way that resonates to the way we live or don’t get to live our lives.


The reason I liked it so much is that you put art, culture, and companionship as part of people’s needs. You emphasize that socialists believe in a rich experience and existence, that it’s the roses as well as the bread. But what was so good about that as an entry point is where you write that capitalism only cares about that stuff to the extent that money can be made off it. I think that is such an important point. Because it’s not that capitalism never produces food—you can go to the grocery store—it’s not that capitalism never produces any kind of shelter—you can rent an apartment—it is that it provides it to the extent that money can be made off it, and the moment those human imperatives of the basic needs conflict with the money being made, the money will come above basic needs.

And because there are so many points in which the interests of capital diverge from the interests of society as a whole, those basic needs often don’t get met, but sometimes they do. And this is, I think, what’s so good about that definition You help us think that there are two ways in which we could go about pursuing those basic needs: we could do it as a route to making money, or we could do it as an end in itself.


That’s right. If we lived in a world where capitalism didn’t have any avenue for meeting those needs—and I hope this is my only reference to The Matrix in this interview—it would be like in The Matrix where they discussed the first experiment where it didn’t work because things were too perfect. But the basic idea is that capitalism needs us as workers, in all the capacities, and raise the next generation of children doing work. Our needs have to be, at least inadequately, met for the majority of us. The drive for profit and extracting as much as possible gets them into trouble sometimes because their greed actually gets them to the point where they’re not even meeting enough of our needs to even function, and that’s not even a new problem.

We mentioned Karl Marx and Engels—you go back to the dawn of industrial capitalism in the 1800s and there are crises because capitalism is running the working class into the ground and not even allowing the conditions to exist where people can raise the next generation of workers, and different chapters of the struggles happen.

Defenders of capitalism will then turn around and say, “But you use an ATM, don’t you? And you call yourself a socialist?” People will point to any form of our needs being met under capitalism as somehow evidence that this is a superior system or the only possible way that those needs can be met. So, I do think it’s important to put out those two paths. 


I like that you take a somewhat Marxist approach here because a lot of free market libertarians will do this thing where they point to all the incredible things produced under capitalism as evidence that it works. “Look at all this abundance and the expansion of our productive powers.” But of course, you take us back to the Communist Manifesto, where Marx says, of course, that’s what I’m saying: Capitalism expands the productive powers, but also that it’s an insane and ultimately self-destructive system. And so, the libertarian defense that points to the many wonderful things capitalism produces is not really an argument against a Marxist perspective, but instead says that it’s a stage in history that we need to get past and share the abundance that it has produced.


I think that’s what the Marxist tradition is having many conversations about. How much of that still completely applies when we’re facing what we’re facing ecologically? How do we face the need to not continually expand? I think a lot of the Marxist tradition, for a long time, was able to see that in an uncomplicated way. Capitalism brought this level of production, and then socialism takes it to the next level.

A couple of things complicate that. One is the question of how much of that happened through enslavement and colonialism, and some Marxists definitely fall into the trap—including early Marx, not so much late Marx—of thinking that it’s part of the historical process or whatever, which is one thing when you’re standing on one continent, and another thing when you’re standing on another continent in that process.

But I also think there’s the question of, to what degree is socialism going to be able to take the expansive capacities of capitalism and finally make this more rational by making it democratic and putting it under collective control? That is still somewhat true, but also that in the age of capitalism, many technological developments happen. There are libertarians who act like socialists don’t get to then build on those achievements, that we have to return them to the checkout counter of history as if like that’s ever happened. All stages of history build on each other.

But I do think those questions of growth are real. There’s another quote I have in the book from Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations, which I find interesting because it doesn’t sound very libertarian either. And make no mistake, Adam Smith talks about the invisible hand and the free market and all those things. But some of his appreciation at the dawn of capitalism, when he’s seeing the rise of industrialism, is how it brings people together through market relations. He writes a lot about the sort of beautiful cooperation around the world of all the different things that it takes to produce a coat and then have it be sold on the market. He is very much not talking about the enslavement of people—there are many things he’s not talking about.

But it is also interesting that even the person who I think these days is considered by many the patron saint of individualism and greed was actually attracted to some of the aspects of capitalism that build relationships with people in different places through the market and in ways that can be changed. It shows up, among some of the early intellectuals, that this capitalism thing can work much better than the King’s ministers deciding our economy. There is a humanism there, at least, that has been cleanly absent in today’s anti-society, libertarian types.


Right. Adam Smith is often cited by those anti-society libertarian types for that one quote about how the butcher and the baker don’t give you stuff because they like you, but because they have their own self-interest. It’s used as a kind of justification in constructing the Social Darwinist idea—which you’re heavily critical of—that the rational individual goes out to maximize everything for themselves, and the pursuit of this war of all against all will ultimately somehow end up benefiting everybody.

But as you point out, Smith is actually very complicated. As you say, Smith is also talking about how to build institutions where many people from around the world can cooperate to achieve the best for society. And in fact, Social Darwinism, as you point out, has been this very pernicious and powerful myth, in part because it draws on scientific Darwinism to suggest the natural state of human beings is a competitive war of all against all.


Yes, and it’s complicated because it does and doesn’t draw on Darwinism at the same time. To the extent that it does draw on Darwinism, scientists don’t come to their ideas simply in a laboratory, or in Charles Darwin’s case on the Beagle sailing around the world—they can’t help but view whatever they’re studying through the lens of their understanding and the world they live. So, is it that surprising that an English person in the late 1800s is going to see the workings of nature in a way that reflects the brutal capitalism of 19th century England?

So, you have Darwin, in part, viewing what he’s studying on the Galápagos Islands through the lens of his society, just the same way that our metaphors for the brain change—now we think about it as computers, and we can’t help but do it. Darwin, of course, can’t help seeing metaphors of capitalism in what he’s observing in animals, and that’s going to completely inform his theory of evolution.

So, the fact that capitalism influences the theory of evolution doesn’t really prove that the theory of evolution justifies capitalism. But beyond that, Darwin himself was incredibly critical of what became known as Social Darwinism. He did not want his name attached to the idea that the poor should be left to their own devices, and thought it was a complete misapplication of his ideas.

I completely agree with you that it has a powerful hold, partly because we live in a “dog-eat-dog” society. In the same way that Darwin is going to view nature through the workings of his society, people growing up in this society hear the ideas of Social Darwinism, and it resonates with many of them. The word evolution means change, and Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution are about how throughout history, species and ecosystems change. And yes, Social Darwinism claims any attempt to alter the economic laws of free market capitalism is doomed to fail because the only thing that’s unchanging in this world and can’t evolve is capitalism. And so, if you really want to talk about evolution, you have to be able to say something’s going to follow a capitalism.


Yes, I think this is an interesting point. We’ve talked a lot on this program about right-wing arguments, how they work, and how so many of them are some variation on how nothing can be changed. If you try to change anything, you’ll fail and only make things worse; you’ll produce a dystopia, dictatorship, and disaster, so you have to accept things as they are. As you’ve noted, there have always been socialist Darwinists, from Peter Kropotkin onwards, who have pointed out that this understanding of evolution as it occurs in nature is just wrong. You write,

“Evolutionary theory holds that species are constantly in the process of changing to better adapt to their environment, which itself is also constantly changing, whereas Social Darwinist proclaim that nature favors the strong over the weak, and therefore the gross inequality of capitalism can never be changed.”

I’ve never liked the word dialectics, but tell us a more about the place of these ideas of change and flux in socialism.


I’m curious to hear more your opinion of dialectics. I’m someone who grew up politically in a tradition that loves the word dialectics, and I’m cool with it. I’ve definitely heard it misused. It’s a word people throw around to mean “shit is complex” or more than one thing is true at the same time. I’ve never really had much of a philosophical bent myself, so it’s not something I dive into too much. To me, the idea, whether we want to call it dialectics or not, is there are all sorts of competing and conflicting forces under the surface of things that are not always apparent to the eye.

The way that applies to a society that’s riven with class conflict is that people often look to these kinds of ideas to make sense of moments when it feels like we don’t see how a substantially different kind of society is possible. Because you look around, and see we’re living in a society where it looks like it’s going to be Joe Biden versus Donald Trump again in 2024.

And so, from a certain kind of linear way of thinking about it, if the most left-wing alternative that the majority of people in this country are willing to tolerate is Joe Biden, then ergo, something as radical as socialism is simply impossible in the short and medium term. By the way, I think socialism is also impossible in the short and medium term, simply because it’s not something that happens with a snap of a finger, but not for that reason.

So, we understand that underneath this seemingly centrist to far-right wing surface of a political system that produces Joe Biden versus Donald Trump, are seething class tensions, movements for racial justice, fury at the overturning of abortion, and radicalization among young people around questions of gender that is not reflected in terms of the laws happening in the States. That gives you a different vision, how sometimes those tensions can come bursting forth to the surface and produce something very different.


I don’t think I consider myself a Marxist, but one of the things I respect about the Marxist tradition is that it involves a lot of examination of history and how things have radically changed at various points and why they have changed. As you’ve suggested, because we’re each born fresh into the world, it’s easy to look around us and see the society we live in and the snapshot that is the brief span of our life, as society—that’s what it is. But then when you start to study history, you begin to see revolutions, the displacement of one kind of economic and social structure with another one, and the crumbling of various hierarchies.

We had Adolph Reed on the show a couple of months ago, and he was talking about the collapse of the Jim Crow order here in New Orleans, and how suddenly, it vanished. It had seemed, when he was growing up as a child, the Jim Crow order was the social order. That was the society and the hierarchy. And then, within about 15 years, the whole thing just completely turned out to be, as he said, very brittle. Give it a shove, and the whole thing gives way.


Right. I’ve been thinking lately about just how striking it is that in this country people are familiar, on a surface level, with the movement that ended Jim Crow, and 100 years before that, the civil war/revolution that ended slavery. And yet, most of us, at times myself and including oftentimes much of the left, really don’t walk around with a sense of that history belonging to us and being something we can draw on, none of which is to say that you can just replicate everything that was done 60 or 100 years ago. Of course not, but that history is definitely something the Marxist tradition can emphasize.

Simply belonging to various political schools of thought and tradition is so valuable, in part because usually, except for liberalism, it gives you some sense of history and belonging to something larger and deeper than your current moment. Bodily and psychologically—if there are listeners or readers who don’t want to have to watch videos or read history—it really helps you deal with the existential despair that all of us sometimes feel, knowing that there are many reasons to be very frightened about the growing right and about climate change or whatever it is. Having some sense that the world is larger than the day that you just woke up to is really grounding.


I think that’s very profound. I had a similar feeling when I was confronting, in writing my socialism book, this question you will get from people, “But why call yourself a socialist?” You quote Norman Thomas saying Americans would just accept all the things socialists want if you just call it liberalism. And you point out that, in fact, it somewhat works the opposite way and that socialists can end up doing all the liberal things while calling themselves socialists and not notice that they’re abandoning all the core tenets of socialism.

But I dealt with this question of why to call yourself a socialist, and one of the answers I was persuaded by was that it grounds you in this tradition of these people who have fought for the same things that I believe in. You go back in history to the people doing the things that needed to be done, people like Eugene Debs, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King Jr.—they were all socialists, and called themselves socialists. So, when I call myself a socialist, I am grounding myself in a tradition. I’m not saying I am the same as them or equivalent to them, but I am trying to pick up the project that they were committed to in generations before.


Absolutely. I am more appreciative for that, as time goes on. And it is so important to proudly talk about King’s socialism and his political training, which, by the way, at the time all the white supremacists were screaming from the rooftops about him being a communist and all that. Obviously, some of that was a tactic, which we very much see still in effect today, but some of it was true. There was a radical socialist and communist tradition that was scattered and pulverized by McCarthyism in the 1950s, but he still managed to have networks that really helped contribute to the Civil Rights Movement.

What you’re saying really resonates with me there. I mentioned liberalism before, and I think it’s really important because many people who become socialists come from being liberals. I certainly did. It can be a default to think this is wrong and that’s wrong, but not say capitalism itself is wrong—it seems quite impractical to talk about negative capitalism.

A starting point is many more liberals than socialists are significant parts of movements, but as an institutional force. I do feel like liberalism really helps contribute to an anti-history because there’s this constant state of liberal shock at how bad things are that I think partly comes from having to keep upholding this idea that “this is not American.” No, this is very American.

Part of the history of the Debs, the Randolphs, and the Kings is understanding we’ve been fighting this for a long time. There’s been ups and downs, and we can learn things from those struggles, as opposed to constantly feeling “I can’t believe this is happening. What’s gone wrong? Maybe it’s Putin’s secret agents. Maybe the Internet has just spread fake news.” 


That’s one of the nice things about Marx: the effort to give a persuasive explanation for why certain things are happening and why the world looks the way it does. I am skeptical of the ability to create scientific theories of the way that society works because society is so complicated. But it’s true that when you start to understand how a capitalist firm works, you can better predict the behavior of your boss. When you start to understand how economic power works, you can start to see why the U.S. Congress works the way it does, and why it’s so difficult to get Medicare for All passed. Things start to click into place and make sense for you when you adopt a socialist understanding of the way the world works.


Yes. It might be interesting for us to talk about what Marxism is to you and what it means to me. Personally, I don’t have that much of a stake in saying the socialist movement needs to identify itself as Marxist or else it’s doomed or something. But I agree, Marx came of age at the height of scientific prestige, and cast his ideas as a scientific analysis. There’s nothing’s wrong with science, of course, but that there are observable laws of history, just like the laws of physics, that can be analyzed is certainly something that, in lesser hands than Marx, can become ridiculous. I mentioned before that liberals have a weakness for constantly being surprised at everything and shocked. I think there’s a radical tradition, Marxist and otherwise, that has the opposite vice, which is constantly acting like we’re not surprised by anything.


Yes, I get this. Every time I express outrage about something on social media, leftists reply, “Oh, and this surprises you?”


Thank you! That’s correct, and really contributed so much! All of us who are on the left, we deserve a lot. It’s not easy. I think it’s like a self-defense mechanism. There’s a lot of stuff that’s surprising. That being said, my own evolving sense of why I identify myself as a Marxist is certainly not because I think that the working class is destined to triumph due to the laws of history. But what I do see in the Marxist method and approach—which maybe isn’t unique to Marx, but I think his and other people’s best writings do this—is this attempt to analyze society and realize that there are forces of history—not laws of history, but larger forces—that you have to analyze and just figure out what role you can play. And by “you” I mean the forces that you’re trying to build, to marry the morality and willpower of the movement we’re trying to build with an understanding that at different moments in history we can do our best to attempt to realize different things are possible.

There are moments when widespread revolutionary change is possible, and moments when that is not happening at all, and if that’s your goal, you’re actually going to crash against the rocks and do more harm to your movement. What those are is, of course, what we’re always debating, and that’s the evergreen importance of attempting to build movements that know how to argue within each other without destroying each other, which is not what we’re not particularly good at. I don’t talk about scientific socialism very much, but there’s something about that understanding of the marriage of analysis and the idea that there are things that may not seem possible on a small level, but put some people in motion and see what can happen and then take it from there.


You mentioned earlier in the conversation that you used to have a more liberal analysis, and then you developed a more socialist one. Your book is an effort to introduce socialism in an accessible and compelling way, especially to those who don’t necessarily hold socialist beliefs yet.

So, if you meet someone, and they say they share your concerns about inequality and that the concentration of wealth is far too great in our society, but when you start talking about capitalism and superseding capitalism itself, it seems unrealistic and are not with you at all on that—we can obviously have sensible political reforms that are going to ameliorate the worst of capitalism. Where do you begin to talk to such a person about why you think they should be a little more critical of capitalism?


Almost inevitably, I don’t have a go-to point. I will ask more questions, and some of the questions I will ask are, how do you think we move forward? There’s a way someone can “ask questions” that’s actually just being a dick, where they’re basically saying they want me to have a fully spelled out theory of change. There are ways to be somewhat aggressive about it, and I don’t mean that at all. What I mean is trying to have an open-ended conversation. I can get to the different points I have about socialism, but usually, what I’m looking to do in those kinds of conversations is to find the points we have in agreement, and I don’t mean on a superficial level, like we both like the Mets. That’s cool. We’re both human. What are the things that the person thinks are messed up? What are their frustrations about why we can’t have universal health care? Whatever it is, this is probably a pretty lengthy thing, and then I try to find with that person some of the contradictions in their own thinking, which sometimes is the contradiction between someone’s lived experience and the ideology of the society we grew up in.

So, you scratch the surface of “I don’t think we can go beyond capitalism.” I’m getting a little hypothetical here, but you pursue their own thinking about it. Because I find, in general, I can have plenty of facts at my disposal, but almost never find facts to be that persuasive. I don’t mean that in a condescending way, like “your average person doesn’t like facts.” No, I think that’s true of myself as well, as for all of us.


I agree with you on this, and I don’t use statistics very much either. I think the thought experiments and hypotheticals are much more powerful. For example, in your book, you write “It’s impossible to have a society with vast economic inequality that does not also have vast political inequality. You can have billionaires, or you can have democracy, but you can’t have a lot of both.”

I think that, for example, is quite powerful. It’s a theoretical thing, rather than a factual thing. You’re not listing all the ways in which insurance companies successfully pressured people in Congress to not sign on to single payer. What you’re doing is asking the person who believes that capitalism can be fixed: Do you believe there should be billionaires? And if you believe there should be billionaires, can we talk about the way in which wealth functions as power? How is a society going to function with those kinds of giant power differentials? If the market is a place where you vote with your dollars, one person gets a billion votes, and another person gets no votes.


I very much agree with that. Later in the book, I have another definition of socialism. This comes back to the very beginning when I talked about socialism, among other things, being a phase of history that we haven’t yet entered. That can sound a little cosmic, but one of the objections people have to socialism is simply the uncertainty and fear. It’s sticking with the devil we know, like the laws of private property, than with something we don’t. There’s the uncertainty of whether different kinds of socialism could “work.” There’s also, of course, the uncertainty of the backlash and the reaction we’ll face, and I say that because I think there are different arguments that are persuasive to different people, but there’s also no getting around the growing dread, particularly and primarily about climate change, but it takes different forms. The right wing is wonderful at then projecting existential dread on to trans children or migrant children.


They’re what’s going to bring down society. 


Right, they’re able to sort of jujitsu it. There’s an actual dread that they get to mold and shape but didn’t create, and that they’re using very well. We have the harder but also more straightforward task to be more honest about where the dread is, but not in that way where we shout from the rooftops about how if we don’t get rid of capitalism in the next 20 years, this is what’s going to happen with the oceans. I think we all know that doesn’t motivate people. But that idea of explaining all the ways that socialism is more rational, with policy starting points like Medicare for All or free childcare and where that can get you, we also have to develop an ability to build trust and honesty.

I’ve learned a lot from reading Mariame Kaba, the abolitionist, who writes about police defunding and abolition, and I find her words really straightforward about people. What do we do without police? People could have different opinions about this, but she writes about how in the local experiments with reducing police and building alternatives, we learn more about what the next step is going to look like, but that’s not great for winning elections and for talking points because it’s not reassuring. It’s not the only way that I about socialism, but I think it has to be a component. I’m not going to be able to allay all of your fears about what it looks like if we have a society that isn’t governed by private property and the profit motive, but look at when we’re fucking heading.


I will say, though, to people who think that you’re dodging the question of what functional socialism actually looks like, that in the book, you do engage in one of my own favorite exercises, which is with utopian fiction about what life in a socialist society would look like. You choose life on a bad day in the socialist society, which I like because we have to do this combination of saying that you build a society through experience and experimentation, and discard what’s not working. You can’t just plan it all out ahead of time. But also, we have to engage in those imaginative exercises where we try and give people an understanding of one way in which that it might look so that it doesn’t sound like some abstraction.


Yes, I ended up doing two chapters like that. I’m glad you brought it up because I find that so useful. I think one of the chapters takes place in what used to be an Amazon warehouse, and it helps you to envision what this sort of distribution, logistics, and technology would be under democratic ownership. What would it look like if these famous algorithms Amazon has were public and subject to regular tweaking by committees of workers and consumers? Where it’s like, last month, the production schedule helped deliver this thing to this neighborhood, but workers are complaining about this. We know we’re not about to win that in Amazon, but it really can help you think about how so much of this, just tweaked 10 degrees, could look so different.


It doesn’t have to be this way. A better world as possible, as we like to say. You note that in some ways, socialists over the last decade have some victories, and how many people in my generation certainly were radicalized by the financial crisis in the United States and the bailout of banks, then the election of Barack Obama on a platform of change, and then the absence of any ensuing change. You have a great quote from Terry Eagleton who says, “Capitalism is in trouble just when people start talking about capitalism because it’s ceases to be as natural as the air we breathe, and be seen as a historical and rather recent phenomenon.” And so, there’s been a flourishing of socialist media and books, and anti-capitalist critiques have made their way into film and television.

At the same time, socialists have had a lot of disappointment. Bernie Sanders ran for president twice as a democratic socialist, a lot of us got very excited for him to win, and now Joe Biden is the president. You mentioned that we’ve got a choice, seemingly, between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. So, I conclude with you by asking, for socialists today who have come to share your analysis in the book but feel a sense of political disappointment and dread, and are looking for some words to help them in their resolution and determination, where do we go from here?


People have told me that when they buy multiple copies of my book, it just gives them a stronger sense—


That the more you buy—I think there’s no upper limit. A hundred books makes you a hundred times more socialist!


Yes. So, again, this is still trying to make the leftist writer thing work. I don’t totally know, and this book doesn’t get a lot into strategy. I’m going to come back to your question, but I really tried to also lay out some of the debates that socialists have, and I write it from a tone of voice where the imagined reader is someone who is not yet a socialist or is thinking about being socialist. I think people who are already socialist find that useful. But it’s written with this tone of, here are some of the debates we have, and the more of you who join us in bringing your ideas is going to help us figure this out.

That’s my way of dealing with many of the kind of fork in the road questions that we’re facing, and that this book isn’t going to take a stand on it. I was skeptical of Bernie running as a Democrat in 2016, and really saw that some of the things that I thought that would be weakness about that didn’t come to pass, and I was much more on board with the potential he had in 2020. The electoral momentum on the left, which is the most recent kind of expression of radicalization, has stalled out from the major momentum it had—it hasn’t completely stalled out, Brandon Johnson just won and became mayor of Chicago.

Clearly, there are still things happening, but I think most people understand now that this will not be a series of victories—or even something like that. It doesn’t mean that all that was useless, but we’re definitely in a phase now where we need to ask how to consolidate some of the gains, in terms of there being more socialists and a wider support for a number of left wing policies. What does it mean to consolidate that and move on? I don’t totally know. I think for people who are socialists and aren’t part of networks and organizations, getting involved in some kind of organizations along with other people that don’t just exist via social media is incredibly important. That’s how we retain our numbers and weather the ups and downs.

But beyond that, I think that the questions of how we’re confronting far-right attacks in various ways that don’t just defend ourselves, but are heightening what we stand for, instead—a left that’s able to show that it knows how to defend trans people, drag shows, comrades in states with horrible right-wing governors—is not only the moral thing to do, but can expose what is still at this point is hyper-online braggadocious aspect of the far-right before it becomes actually more fully formed.

So, that’s highly specific, but I do think that these things that are only going to get worse as Republicans are outdoing each other for the nomination aren’t just things that the left can ignore while we build our own thing, even though I know there are things in terms of the online shit that we absolutely should ignore. It shouldn’t just be guided by the latest provocation from Texas, Florida, Missouri, or wherever, and we just have to respond to that. But I think actually showing in practice what building solidarity means and the kind of joy and different kinds of community that we build is very important.

Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

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