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Socialism Chic

It's back. And it's worse than ever.
March 11, 2019
Socialism Chic

“When Did Everyone Become a Socialist?” asks the cover story in last week’s New York magazine. “Everyone,” apparently, is the creative and activist class in New York and other metropolitan centers, where radical socialist blogging, journalism, and podcasting thrive, the term “comrade” is gaining currency, chitchat at parties turns to building guillotines, and “capitalism” and “neoliberalism” are dirty words.

The article notes that socialism today is “[s]tripped of its Soviet context” and that it’s not entirely clear what the S-word even means to its current champions: for some, it’s public ownership of the “means of production”; for others, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, it’s a “robust version of New Deal liberalism” or “Northern European social democracy.”

But clearly, the new socialists aren’t just incremental welfare statists. They’re full of revolutionary zeal. Many are explicitly sympathetic to latter-day, undemocratic socialist states such asNicolas Maduro’s Chavista regime in Venezuela.

And quite a few haven’t actually stripped the word of its Soviet context: Just look at all the Twitter accounts sporting the hammer-and-sickle emoji, or the admiring feature on Karl Marx and Marx-inspired “social movements” in Teen Vogue magazine (which might be the greatest self-parody in the history of magazines).

Then there’s the book Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism by Kirsten Ghodsee, a professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, which marshals some highly dubious evidence to suggest that Soviet-style socialism had its benefits for women’s sexual and economic liberation. Meanwhile, the hosts of the hit left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House not only view the two sides in the Cold War as morally equivalent but blame the “supposed crimes of Communist countries in the 20th century” on the capitalist West and its “holy war” against Communist revolutions.

For some of us, this socialist chic feels like a time warp—and in a rather personal way.

I spent the first 16 years of my life in the Soviet Union before coming to the United States in 1980. In the years that followed, I had my share of run-ins with American leftists who didn’t truly believe that Soviet socialism was a workers’ paradise—but were convinced that it had to be much better than portrayed in the Western press.

My family and I, on the other hand, tended to think that the American mainstream media were much too easy on the Soviet Union and we found it baffling when “anti-Soviet” was used as a pejorative, or when respectable publications West-splained that Communist countries had their own different-but-equal understanding of human rights in which “social rights” such as free housing, medicine, and higher education took precedence over civil and political freedoms.

My favorite of these encounters was probably the one with the woman on a New Jersey commuter bus in 1983 who was shocked that I didn’t share her dismay at Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech about the Soviet Union. But there were plenty of others.

There was, for instance, the time a young man dressed in black in the Rutgers University cafeteria dismissed Stalin’s mass slaughter by whatabouting “all the people capitalism has killed” via environmental pollution and tobacco-company malfeasance. It was, of course, lost on him that environmental pollution was much worse in the Soviet bloc and that tobacco use there far outstripped the West.

There was also the time my mother, who was also at Rutgers teaching, told a colleague about her and her family’s appalling experiences with Soviet “free medicine,” such as overcrowded hospital wards and lack of painkillers. In response, he exclaimed, “I don’t believe you!” and tried to convince her that her recall was colored by American “propaganda.” Around the same time, another Rutgers professor assured his students (according to two friends of mine who were in his class) that if they woke up in the USSR tomorrow, they wouldn’t feel any less free.

Only a few years later, Reagan’s prediction that “the march of freedom and democracy [would] leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history” came true. Communism’s foundations in the USSR and Eastern Europe tottered and crumbled, taking with them a lot of leftist illusions. Even the idea that Soviet-style socialism offered its subjects superior “social rights” was discredited by revelations about the true extent of poverty in the Communist bloc.

Meanwhile, the opening of Soviet archives showed that the truth of communism was even worse that most Western anti-communists had feared—and Russia’s new leaders explicitly reaffirmed the condemnation of the Soviet regime as an evil empire. The victory of liberal democratic capitalism in the almost century-long war between the two systems seemed complete.

There were diehards, of course. It can be hard to give up on a lifetime of belief, no matter the evidence. For instance, there was the sociology professor bemoaning “all the self-righteous, sanctimonious celebrations of the ‘victory’ of capitalism over Communism” in a 1990 letter to the New York Times. In a 1999 essay in the Nation on The Black Book of Communism, the landmark volume that attempted to document Communism’s body count, leftist Daniel Singer acknowledged the need to reckon with Communist atrocities but at the same time argued that the “corpse-counting” approach to Communism’s history left out the “enthusiasm, construction . . . and social advancement for millions.” That is: For the millions Communism didn’t outright murder.

What’s more, Singer lamented, cataloguing the horrors of communism ran the risk of “whitewash[ing] the West” and “destroy[ing] the very idea of radical change.”

Yet these were the exceptions. By and large, the consensus, even well to the left of center, was that the time of Communism (or Soviet-style socialism) was over. In 2009, when Newsweek ran a cover story asking, “Are We All Socialists Now?”, it was referring to the comeback of “big government” within a mixed capitalist economy—not only Barack Obama’s activist programs, but the Medicare prescription plan expansion under George W. Bush.

What a difference a decade makes.

What happened? Well, for starters, we’ve witnessed a leftward shift and radicalization of liberal discourse in America in the 2010s; it began with Occupy Wall Street, which was followed by the rise of a newly-militant anti-racist movement and a feminist revival that culminated in #MeToo. But what’s interesting is that the dominant energy in all of these movements—even OWS—was about not economics, but identity. When you look at the Great Awokening, there is nothing to suggest that the socialism of Bernie Sanders would be an obvious partner. Indeed, the Sanders campaign in 2015-2016 highlighted the tensions between the class-based views of the old left and the identity-based progressivism of the last decade.

A confession: For a short while, my aversion to the identity-obsessed intersectional left made me harbor something of a forbidden love for the Old Left, which at least generally claimed to champion universalist values and rationality (and which—if you can imagine it—was in some ways less totalitarian than the intersectional left with its endless culture policing and public shamings).

I’d find myself nodding along when class-focused leftists took the identitarians to task for ignoring socioeconomic status, which is usually a far more significant source of inequality—and a far harder hurdle to overcome, social mobility notwithstanding—than race, ethnicity, or gender. One of the best critiques of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s racial fatalism in Between the World and Me, by Chicago writer and organizer R.L. Stephens, appeared in the Marxist magazine Viewpoint and was reprinted in Jacobin, the house organ of the radical socialist left.

But in the last couple of years, the identity-based left and the class-based left seem to have converged.

Today’s new-generation progressive political stars, such Ocasio-Cortez and fellow Democratic House freshman Ilhan Omar, are democratic socialists who are also perfectly fluent in intersectionalese. Angela Davis, a pioneering intersectional feminist and an actual Communist, is also having a moment in the spotlight.

The “white supremacist capitalist [hetero]patriarchy” is the buzz-phrase du jour, and left-wing publications such as Boston Review now effortlessly integrate identitarian “social justice” and anti-capitalism. About a year ago, in a New York Times op-ed defending the enduring relevance of Marx on his 200th birthday, philosophy professor Jason Barker argued that the Marxist analysis of class, power, and exploitation is now finding new life as a critique of race and gender oppression. Lucky us.

The New York essay asking “When Did Everyone Become a Socialist?” confirms this merger. At Democratic Socialists of America meetings, “non-men and people of color” are being prioritized as speakers. (At least in theory: The author, Simon van Zuylen-Wood, wryly notes that a white male DSA member held the floor for quite a while explaining this policy.)

At a “socialist happy hour” in an East Village bar, the organizer, activist and Twitter personality Sean McElwee, snarkily told van Zuylen that he “always forget[s] white guys’ names”—which is a perfect social justice moment because McElwee is—of course—a white guy.

The socialist ascendancy is also due in some part to the Donald Trump effect, and not just because Trump-loathing has pushed many liberals to the left. The sudden success of Trumpian populist nationalism, which was barely respectable only three years ago, has emboldened radicals of all stripes who now ask themselves, “If could happen for them, why not us?” And finally, capitalism institutional legitimacy has collapsed not just on the left, but on the right, too. In 2019 it’s not crazy to ask where, exactly, capitalism’s base of support lives.

It also hasn’t helped that quite a few conservatives have spent decades painting mainstream liberals as socialists, if not outright communists: Remember when Mike Huckabee told a Conservative Political Action Committee gathering in 2009 that Obama’s policies were so socialist, “Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff”?

Such rhetoric was meant to stigmatize Democrats; instead, it ended up weakening the stigma of those labels, just like many liberals’ habit of calling mainstream Republicans racist took the sting out of that label and helped pave the way for Trump. When you cry wolf all the time, all you really do is normalize wolves.

The proper role and size of government in a liberal, market-based society is a subject of legitimate debate; most Americans have long favored some middle ground between welfarism and total laissez-faire, between security and risk. But the new wave of actual, real-deal socialism is an entirely different matter, and it’s far more worrying. Movements that proudly wear the socialist label and reject liberalism and markets are usually bad news. They rarely stay democratic for long; even Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal” would entail massive amounts of coercion and intrusion into personal choices.

Such movements also foster reckless utopianism: I’ve run into people who sincerely believe that with the passing of capitalism, no one will ever have to humor a boss again. (The likely reality, of course, is that you’ll have to humor either a bureaucrat or a collective: imagine having a Twitter mob for a boss, and you’ll get the picture.) And they are encouraging the abandonment of institutions that, for all their flaws, are essential safeguards of human liberty and dignity.

The good news is that, despite the leftward shift of the Democratic party, socialism actually isn’t that popular outside the social media. A new Harris Poll in which respondents could pick more than one label shows that far more Democrats describe themselves as “Obama Democrats” (49 percent) or “moderate Democrats” (38 percent) than as “Democratic socialists” (a meager 13 percent) or even “progressive Democrats” (22 percent). And most 2020 Democratic hopefuls, even dyed-in-the-wool progressives like Elizabeth Warren, are disavowing the “democratic socialist” label. If everyone has become a socialist, a lot of people—even in New York, no doubt—have missed the memo.

The bad news is that the hype about the Democratic Party’s socialist moment is likely to drive more people to Trump—and nobody knows when and where this vicious cycle of radicalization will end.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.