Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week, we’re talking about the rise of socialism.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of “Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism.”
Bernie Sanders and his young supporters say, “No worries, we’re democratic socialists.” Outsiders say, “No problem, they barely know what socialism is.” Others see Sanders’s movement as a passing response to an economic downturn.
All of this is largely mistaken. Modern American socialism is decidedly undemocratic; its young acolytes are far less ignorant of socialism than they appear; and contemporary socialism is more of a religious than an economic phenomenon. Distracted by the disturbing rise of Donald Trump, liberals and conservatives alike are responding far too complacently to a recrudescent socialist movement that is destined to harm our democracy.
Today’s socialism is a direct descendant of the student radicalism of the 1960s. Sixties radicals were enthusiasts of violent, socialist revolution. Ostensibly democratic in their preference for consensus-based decision-making, the radicals favored authoritarian “self-criticism sessions,” precursors to modern-day political correctness. As the passions of the ’60s cooled, the radicals placed revolutionary hopes on hold and flooded into two professions: community organizing and academia.
Saul Alinsky-style community organizing is a form of incremental socialism. Instead of overthrowing capitalism, Alinskyites “confront power” and “attack targets” (like conservative politicians or “capitalist” donors to conservative causes). Instead of nationalizing banks, Alinskyite groups intimidate banks into programs of financial redistribution. This ideologically reticent, yet still self-consciously socialist world was President Obama’s milieu. He has helped to popularize and legitimate it.
America’s leading community organizers of the ’70s and ’80s worked closely with Michael Harrington, then America’s most respected democratic socialist. Although they adopted Harrington’s rhetorical commitment to democracy, most let slip in private that violent revolution was their long-term hope and democracy merely a tactic. Harrington himself made a similar admission in 1967. Even Marx once adopted democratic gradualism as an expedient. Yet the very structure of Marx’s thought was irreconcilable with liberal democracy, and this is no less true of socialism today.
Classic socialism is commonplace in academia, yet the many neo-Marxist approaches to gender, race, ethnicity and the environment are more influential. Marx saw religion, individual liberty and the rule of law as masks for the interests of the capitalist class. He aimed to puncture the proletariat’s belief in these comforting myths by exposing the exploitative nature of the system. Thus disillusioned, workers would seize power by force.
Marx’s intellectual descendants in the academy write off individual liberty and the classic American narrative as masks for the power of wealthy white European males. They point to “systemic oppression” to justify group preferences and their attacks on the free speech of the “privileged.”
Postmodern thinking expands this debunking critique. Yet knowing of socialism’s despotic tendencies, postmodernists have abandoned Marx’s Utopian vision. They drift toward nihilism and paralysis instead.
This cocktail of neo-Marxism, multiculturalism and postmodernism has long since migrated from colleges to our high schools. The popularity of Howard Zinn’s Marxist-inspired rendering of American history is the clearest example, but the College Board’s Advanced Placement history courses draw on the same broad ethos.
So while Sanders’s millennial supporters may not be able to define socialism or recount its despotic legacy, they have absorbed its debunking critique of our democratic liberties and are drawn to the hardball tactics of its organizer-activists.
Sixties socialism was a phenomenon of affluence. Amidst a fraying social fabric, the first generation that could afford mass higher education was pulled from family and community at the brink of adulthood. Leftist protest movements served as antidotes to the alienation. The Vietnam draft was a factor, but the ’60s ethos also spread through Europe, where there was no draft.
Economic stresses are a factor today, yet socialism remains a creature of affluence and alienation. Years of postgraduate education and delayed marriage drive isolation and secularism, and also the yearning for a substitute secular faith. It was only a matter of time before postmodern pessimism gave way to Utopian yearnings once again.
The upper-middle-class climate-warriors at the heart of Sanders’s movement imagine themselves victims of a world-destroying capitalist conspiracy. Incremental nationalization of the energy industry is their path to global salvation; nor is the silencing of climate dissenters too high a price to pay. Other Sanders socialists aim to shut down Trump rallies. This is not democracy but a return of authoritarian socialism, the most seductive secular religion that history has ever known.
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