Is Socialism Coming to America?

NY Times, Sept. 29, 2020
Is Socialism Coming to America?
By Mitchell Cohen

What’s Different Now About the Left
By John B. Judis

“Henry James once said that being an American is a complex fate,” the critic Irving Howe wrote in “Socialism and America” (1985), one of the most penetrating essay collections on the subject. “We American socialists could add ‘He didn’t know the half of it.’”

The word “socialist,” which signifies deep egalitarian commitments, was encumbered in the 20th century by many disasters done in its name, particularly Stalinism. Howe felt that socialists could not simply shed those “burdens.” He hoped for “friends of tomorrow” who would have “so completely absorbed the lessons” of what went wrong that they wouldn’t need to repeat them. After all, he added, ”yearning for a better mode of life … will reappear.”

Is that tomorrow now? Are the lessons learned?

Conservatives vexed by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fret that tomorrow is here. Anti-socialist bluster riddled the 2020 Republican convention, even though the Democratic Socialists of America, the country’s largest socialist group, refused to endorse Joe Biden against Donald Trump (Sanders did the opposite).

In “The Socialist Awakening,” the journalist John B. Judis proposes that a new socialism is emerging among the young and educated. He builds on his earlier volumes on nationalism and populism, collectivist ideas that have surged because of a “breakdown” of the “consensus on the virtues of the free market and of globalization.”

Judis points out the new interest in the economic historian Karl Polanyi and his 1944 book “The Great Transformation.” Self-regulating markets, Polanyi argued, are myths. Governments always regulate; it depends for whom. Bypassing Marxism, Polanyi supported ethically based socialistic reforms through democratic regimes.

Market fundamentalism, inequalities, recession and a pandemic’s economic dislocations have, Judis says, brought what Polanyi calls a second movement in the opposite direction. Sanders captures it, championing universal health care, green politics and egalitarianism.

But Judis stumbles when it comes to history and ideas. He leaps from early-20th-century socialists like Eugene V. Debs to Sanders, with a bow to the New Left. Virtually airbrushed out are principal figures like Howe, Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington, who battled to disentangle democratic socialism from Communism. For Judis, they represent little more than moments in the Cold War. But the lesson Howe wanted absorbed was that they fought for socialism’s soul.

Turning to Sanders’s British contemporary, Jeremy Corbyn, Judis compares this recently replaced Labour Party leader with Clement Attlee, Labour’s most successful prime minister, who created a welfare state between 1945 and 1951. The key to Attlee’s success, Judis thinks, was nationalism. Yet while Attlee was a patriot, he would surely dissent from Judis’s formulation: “Stalin and the Nazis robbed the term ‘national socialism’ of any except the most heinous connotations, but what the Attlee government did combined a commitment to democratic socialism with one to economic nationalism.” But for Attlee, socialism expanded democratic citizenship — a concept unaddressed by Judis — through social rights like health care.

Corbyn’s fall is ascribed by Judis to declining nationalism within the Labour Party and to Brexit-induced party factionalism. More insight comes from a paradox noted after Corbyn became leader in 2015: Supporters hailed Corbyn as a renewer, but his convictions hadn’t altered one bit since the 1970s. Last December Corbyn led Labour to its worst electoral result since 1935.

For Judis, populism constitutes society’s underlying “logic.” It is, he says, like an automobile chassis, and it can be used for a variety of models: left, right or center.

The metaphor is a shaky one (and not only because in most cars these days chassis and bodies are fabricated as integrated structures). It fails to explain why right-wing populism is usually more successful than left-wing kinds. Polanyi, among others, rejected such mechanical modeling.

Populist rhetoric often opposes The People to the elites. But are The People homogeneous? Don’t populist enthusiasms obscure more particular divisions? Judis is no friend to American racism, but he might have asked why Black voters helped Biden defeat Sanders. He also minimizes bitter debates on anti-Semitism during Corbyn’s tenure.

Those like Judis who are sympathetic to socialism may need to think more about pluralism than populism, about securing equality-oriented social coalitions amid diversity. And they might consider melding collectivist ideas with other, admittedly imperfect, liberal notions like individual autonomy.

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