It's Time to Give Socialism a Try." So declared the headline of a Washington Post column in March; one imagines Katharine Graham spitting out her martini. The article, by a twenty-seven-year-old columnist named Elizabeth Bruenig, drew more than 3,000 comments (a typical column gets a few hundred); a follow-up piece, urging a "good-faith argument about socialism," received nearly as much attention.
By now, the rebirth of socialism in American politics needs little elaboration. Bernie Sanders's surprisingly strong showing in the 2016 Democratic primary, and his continued popularity, upset just about everyone's intuition that the term remains taboo. Donald Trump's victory, meanwhile, made all political truisms seem up for grabs. Polls show that young people in particular view socialism more favorably than they do capitalism. Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, which has been around since 1982, has grown from about 5,000 to 35,000 since November 2016, and dozens of DSA candidates are running for office around the country. In June, one of them, twenty-eight-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, upset New York City Congressman Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary, knocking off a ten-term incumbent and one of the most powerful Democrats in the House.
The meaning of socialism has always been maddeningly slippery, in part because it has always meant different things to different people. Michael Harrington, one of the founders of the DSA and the most outspoken American socialist of the postwar era, writes on the first page of his 1989 book, Socialism: Past and Future, that socialism is "the hope for human freedom and justice." By the end of the book, the definition hasn't gotten much more concrete. Karl Marx himself spent more time critiquing capitalism than describing communism, a habit that subsequent generations of leftists inherited. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography that, while he couldn't define it, "I know it when I see it." Socialism sometimes feels like the inverse: socialists know it when they don't see it.
Bernie has only made things murkier by defining his brand of socialism in terms hardly indistinguishable from New Deal liberalism. "I don't believe the government should own the comer drugstore or the means of production," he declared in the fall of 2015, at a speech at Georgetown University, "but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal." But while the meaning of American socialism in 2018 begins with Bernie, it doesn't end there. Every political movement needs an intellectual movement, and when it comes to today's brand of socialism, it's the thirty-five-and-under crowd doing much of the heavy lifting.
Bruenig, the Post columnist, is perhaps the most prominently placed of a small but increasingly visible group of young writers unabashedly advocating for democratic socialism. In writing her attention-grabbing article, she helped elevate a discussion that has long taken place on Twitter. Of course, the relative merits of socialism--and Marxism, Maoism, anarchosyndicalism, you name it--have been debated in lefty journals and academic circles for a century or more. Members of this new generation, however, aren't just talking among themselves; they're trying to take socialism mainstream. And unlike their predecessors, they have reason to think Americans will take their ideas seriously.
They've got a double challenge. The first is to convince skeptical Americans that, despite what they may have learned in high school, socialism doesn't have to mean Stalinism, and it doesn't lead inexorably to the gulags of Soviet Russia or the starvation of Nicolas Maduro's Venezuela. The second may be even trickier. They must explain how their version of socialism fits, or doesn't, into the American political system while showing how, specifically, it is distinct from traditional Democratic Party liberalism. In other words, they must not only defend socialism in the twenty-first century; they must define it.
Nathan Robinson hated Bernie Sanders before he loved him.
It was the fall of 2015. Robinson, a doctoral candidate at Harvard and, at the time, a recent law school graduate, had been steeped in socialist thought since high school, when he discovered the writings of anarchistic socialists like Mikhail Bakunin and Noam Chomsky. Socialism has always been dogged by the question of whether it's possible to participate in electoral politics while remaining truly radical. Like many leftists, Robinson initially saw Sanders as an example of intolerable compromise.
"Based on Senator Bernie Sanders's public statements, one of the following things must be true," he declared on his blog in October 2015. "(1) Bernie Sanders is unaware of the definition of socialism or (2) Bernie Sanders is fully aware of the definition of socialism, and is lying about it." Sanders, he explained in a follow-up post, was "not asking for public ownership of the major sectors of the economy," but merely calling for expanded welfare and regulations. "Socialism means an end to capitalism. Bernie Sanders does not want to end capitalism. Bernie Sanders is not a socialist."
Those turned out to be among Robinson's last blog posts. In January 2016, he launched Current Affairs, a deeply irreverent leftist magazine, with backing from a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign. Despite being essentially a one-man operation, Current Affairs quickly developed a substantial following on the left thanks to Robinson's extraordinary writing talent--especially his knack for composing viral takedowns of conservative intellectual hucksters like Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson.
By 2017, Robinson seemed to have fully shed his earlier hostility toward Sandersian socialism. Here he was, last summer, writing on the difference between leftism and liberalism: "As Nancy Pelosi said of the present Democratic party: 'We're capitalist.' When Bernie Sanders is asked if he is a capitalist, he answers flatly: 'No.' Sanders is a socialist, and socialism is not capitalism, and there is no possibility of healing the ideological rift between the two."
That's a long way from calling Sanders an ignoramus or a liar. What happened?
Much has been made of how Sanders has pulled the Democratic mainstream to the left. Presumptive 2020 presidential candidates are racing to capture the Bernie vote by declaring their support for policies--single-payer health care, free college--that once seemed impossibly radical. But Robinson's evolution on Sanders is representative of a complementary phenomenon that has received less notice: Sanders seems to have also pulled the far left closer to the mainstream. The American left of center is like a soft mattress, and Bernie is an anvil dropped in the middle: whichever side you're lying on, gravity pulls you a little closer to him.
"Those of us who consider ourselves on the more radical left were kind of disdainful of the political system," said Robinson. "It was a real minority within Occupy saying you should even contest elections." Sanders's tantalizingly strong primary run--roughly equivalent to the MIT basketball team making the Final Four--made some lefties reconsider. For the first time, it seemed as though they could actually win. But winning requires engaging in politics, and politics requires some degree of pragmatism--a recognition that the achievable will always fall short of the ideal. That, in turn, requires giving up the ideological purity of the fringe.
Consider Jacobin magazine, the leading publication of the Millennial far left. It's a magazine that wears its Marxist affections on its sleeve, with the tagline "Reason in Revolt." Across the first seventeen issues, by my count, the word "Marx" or its derivations appeared an average of about forty times. But, since then--that is, beginning in summer 2015, when people started feeling...