Why Socialism Is Back as a Political Force That Will Only Grow

The political and economic ideas of socialism are coming back into fashion.

Socialism saw its heyday in the 20th century when its ideas were adapted by a number of countries, in a variety of bastardizations of its message. In fact, some would argue that a pure socialism never existed. Now it is experiencing a tremendous resurgence in the 21st century due to the growing economic disparity, anger at the establishment and charismatic older socialist politicians like Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. who gathered massive support from the young. A new wave of socialist thinkers is also beginning to emerge that looks to distance the movement from the historical stigma to formulate a new socialism that speaks to the challenges of today.

What is socialism? In the most basic definition, it is a political and economic system where the means of production and essential resources are owned by the community. Socialism comes in many different forms and has been practiced with great variety around the world. 

Jacobin, a magazine that’s gained popularity for “offering socialist perspectives” on political and cultural topics, published a guide on how to redefine socialism for the modern age. In it, the publication’s editor Bhaskar Sunkara describes socialism as, fundamentally, a way to build the kind of world where people don’t take advantage of others for gain but rather for the benefits of cooperation. To Sunkara, socialism is “abolishing private ownership of the things we all need and use factories, banks, offices, natural resources, utilities, communication and transportation infrastructure and replacing it with social ownership, thereby undercutting the power of elites to hoard wealth and power.” 

Private property would not exist, but personal property would remain. The government will not take away your “Kenny Loggins records,” jokes Sunkara.

An old Russian woman fixing her belongings on a vandalized symbols of the Communism, the Hammer and Sickle, on an avenue of Moscow, on November 1990. At the time of creation, the hammer stood for industrial labourers and the sickle for the peasantry; combined they stood for the worker-peasant alliance for socialism and against reactionary movements and foreign intervention. (Photo credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

In their guide, the writers and editors of Jacobin also try to dispel some of the confusion related to socialism. In particular, they argue, many people tend to associate any kind of government institution, even the DMV, with socialism. But just because it’s a part of the government doesn’t make it socialist. In fact, an average person has so little say politically due to the stronghold of corporate interests on the government, that any “state action will disproportionately benefit capitalist interests at the expense of everything else,” writes Chris Maisano in the Jacobin’s guide.

The journal also offers a defense against the charge that socialism inevitably ends up in authoritarian governments. Joseph M. Schwartz writes how Marxists and European socialists could not anticipate that revolutionary parties would try to create socialism in “predominantly agrarian, autocratic societies” like Russia and China. 

“In many ways, one-party Communist states shared more in common with past authoritarian capitalist “developmentalist” states such as late nineteenth-century Prussia and Japan, and postwar South Korea and Taiwan than with the vision of democratic socialism. These governments prioritized state-led industrialization over democratic rights, particularly those of an independent labor movement,” writes Schwartz.

Jacobin’s prescription for building a more socialist country - mobilize the people through education and direct participation in the government. 

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (C) addresses a rally with protesters calling for higher wages for federal contract workers in the rain on Capitol Hill November 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Is Bernie Sanders a socialist? He is the country's most popular active politician according to the polls, but he's not socialist enough, according to the editors of the Jacobin. Noam Chomsky famously called him “a decent, honest New Dealer.” Sanders himself draws the distinction, calling his politics - democratic socialism. He often refers to Scandinavian countries as models for what he would like the United States to become.  Sanders’s key themes of reducing economic inequality and the influence of politics in money appeals to a cross-section Americans from the left and the right.

To combat the negative stereotypes of socialism, Sanders invokes the New Deal policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that were called “socialist” like establishing social security and the minimum wage. Sanders also links the way he sees the world to Martin Luther King’s calls for social and economic justice.  

To Sanders, education, affordable housing and universal health care are the public’s right rather than private commodities that can be used to turn a profit. Still, he has not called for nationalizing any industries, saying specifically “I don’t believe government should own the means of production.”

He defined “democratic socialism” himself in 2015 as a necessary adjustment in an increasingly unequal society.

“Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy. Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt.,” said Sanders, adding “In my view, it’s time we had democratic socialism for working families, not just Wall Street, billionaires and large corporations.”

Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party speaks during a campaign rally at Union Chapel Islington on June 7, 2017 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Is Jeremy Corbyn a socialist? The leader of UK’s Labour Party, which won a surprising number of seats against the ruling Conservative Party in recent elections, also identifies as a “democratic socialist.” Labour’s 2017 manifesto, titled “For the Many, Not the Few” includes plans to re-nationalize the rail, postal and water services, abolish college tuition fees, increase the minimum wage and spending on national healthcare, as well as upping the tax on the wealthy. Many of these ideas are certainly more to the left of what's been proposed by Sanders for the U.S.

Corbyn’s message has energized young voters in particular, with close to 70% of those 18 to 24 supporting Labour. How much more support can these kinds of ideas gain?  The latest polls show the party’s appeal growing wider still, now 5% ahead of the Tories at 46%. Corbyn’s personal approval is also high, better than the Prime Minister Theresa May’s.

To consider why the ideas of socialism continue to have followers in our times, let’s turn to Albert Einstein. One of the world’s most brilliant thinkers who had seen the effects of socialism in his lifetime, Einstein wrote an essay called “Why socialism” in 1949 that still resonates in some of its themes.  

German-born American physicist Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) speaking during his Science And Civilization lecture at the Royal Albert Hall, London. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Einstein critiques capitalism as having a tendency towards becoming an oligarchy where “private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands” that cannot be “effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society”. This happens because the capitalists control the main mass media sources (including education) while the members of the government come from political parties that are “largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature.” As as a result of that, according to Einstein, these representatives do not “sufficiently protect” the interests of the underprivileged.

Sounds familiar? If similar challenges present themselves almost 70 years later, it is no surprise solutions like socialism come back. Of course, there are now also fears of fascism returning to fashion.

Einstein saw the establishment of a “socialist economy” with an accompanying educational system that’s oriented towards social goals as the only way forward for society.

“In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society,” wrote Einstein.

Einstein did caution, however, perhaps with an eye towards the Soviet Union, that a planned economy might result in “the complete enslavement of the individual” by the bureaucracy and saw it essential for socialism to resolve the problem of protecting the rights of the individual. 

Historical lessons aside, socialism is a rejuvenated force. Polls show that somewhere between 30 to 60% of Democratic voters have a favorable view of its ideas. Over 50% of millennials have a positive opinion of socialism. As automation is sure to put a major portion of the world out of work, the issues around ownership of necessary resources and distribution of wealth are sure to stay vital.

Check out this video from mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein on how capitalism can use socialist principles to cure what ails it:

Cover photo: A US-made 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air races past a billboard that reads,'Stronger than ever, Socialism' 14 February near Santa Maria del Mar, Cuba. (Photo credit: ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.