Two Cheers for Socialism: Why Liberals Need Enemies on the Left

Delegates on the floor of the Democratic Socialists of America National Convention vote on a resolution Friday, August 4th, 2018. Photo: Scott Heins

Since the New Deal era, American liberalism has had a fairly stable meaning. As Franklin Roosevelt put it, a radical was “a man with both feet firmly planted — in the air,” and a conservative “a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned to walk forward,” and between those extremes, “A Liberal is a man who uses his legs and his hands at the behest-at the command — of his head.”

Liberalism meant a mixed economy, using either government or the market depending on what the evidence seemed to favor in any given case. (After Roosevelt’s era, liberalism also came to stand for more egalitarian social relations.) Roosevelt’s call for “bold, persistent experimentation” encompassed both the strength and the weakness of his creed. Experimentation meant liberals lacked any fixed principle to guide their shaping of the state, but it also meant that it would change with evidence. Rather than wage class war against the rich, or on their behalf, liberals set out to mediate it, preserving capitalism while sanding off its rough edges.

Over time, liberalism lost its identity as a creed of the center, and for the vast majority of Americans, has come to mean “left.” Decades of right-wing propaganda turned liberalism into a synonym for “socialism,” when conservatives weren’t calling liberals outright socialists, which they often were. Now, for the first time in decades, real socialism — as opposed to the scare term — has become an extant force in American politics. As a person of very-much-liberal (and very-much-not-socialist) sympathies, I might be expected to see this as a threat. Instead I see the potential rise of socialism as a way for liberalism to restore its vitality.

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American liberalism has always been a historical curiosity. For decades, social scientists have tried to explain why the United States, unlike most other advanced democracies, never developed a major socialist party devoted forthrightly to the material interests of a working-class base. But recently another peculiarity has overshadowed that mystery: the unique radicalism of the Republican Party.

Elsewhere in the industrialized world, right-of-center parties accepted the welfare and regulatory states, advocating more cautious and market-based versions. After the New Deal, something like that appeared to be happening in the United States, too: Republican presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon expanded Social Security, established the Interstate Highway System and the Environmental Protection Agency, and proposed universal health insurance. But as the conservative movement slowly took control of the Republican Party, it grew more dogmatically anti-government. Now it is the Republicans, not the Democrats, that stand out. Among major right-of-center parties worldwide, only the GOP opposes tax increases on principle, rejects universal health insurance, denies climate change, and so on.

The Republican Party operates with a level of coherence and conviction Democrats could never match, because it is driven by an ideological vision with much clearer abstract principles. Both parties believe their programs serve practical ends. Republicans believe tax cuts and deregulation increase economic growth, just as Democrats believe Obamacare helps people afford insurance and that regulating air pollution increases health. The difference is that practical reasons are the only justification for liberal policy — if Obamacare did not help people afford medical care, or pollution regulations did not improve air quality, they would have no liberal justification at all.

Conservatives have a deeper justification: They believe small government increases human freedom, regardless of whether it “works” in any empirical sense. If tax cuts or deregulation fail to yield faster economic growth, at least they restore control over property to its rightful owners, as determined by the free market. Small government is not only a means to an end but an objective of its own. Barry Goldwater denounced the “immorality and discrimination of the progressive surtax” — objecting to the unfairness, not just the alleged growth-dampening impact, of taxing the rich at higher rates. “‘Freedom’ in economic arrangements” — as Milton Friedman put it, using his description for a market economy — “is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so ‘economic freedom’ is an end in itself to a believer in freedom.”

We habitually think of liberalism and conservatism as mirror images, but they are asymmetric at their very core. Conservatism uses simple precepts — “government is the problem” — for which liberalism has no ready answer. Liberalism is an attempt to pragmatically balance the market with the state, adjusting each specific case with the evidence.

The asymmetry between the two parties can be measured in Congress, in media organs, or in the composition of the parties. But you don’t need to have any special knowledge of political science or history to grasp its consequences. It is the story of the major political events of the last generation — from Bill Clinton’s impeachment to the Brooks Brothers riot (when mobs of Republican staffers shut down a vote recount in Miami) to the Republican refusal to negotiate anything with Barack Obama to, well, Donald Trump (around whom Republicans have formed a protective shield and prevented any oversight in return for orthodox right-wing policy on taxes and regulation).

Perhaps the older curiosity — the absence of a socialist party in America — and the more recent curiosity — the anti-state radicalism of the Republican Party — are in some sense the same curiosity. Perhaps liberalism simply isn’t equipped to hold up over time as the sole opposing force to an ideology that is not its parallel. Perhaps the best thing that could happen for liberalism would be for the Democrats to evolve into a party that, if not like the Republican Party, is more like it. That is, for the Democrats to become less liberal and more socialist might be the best thing for liberalism itself.

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The rise of socialism on the American left is one of the notable developments of the Trump era. Of course, “rise” is an inherently relative term. The election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Bronx and Rashida Tlaib in Detroit will bring the number of self-identified socialists in Congress to three, along with Bernie Sanders.

Among voters, the rise of socialism looks the same: a steep rise in relative terms, to a still-negligible level. Measuring the change through polling is difficult, for the interrelated reasons that pollsters and the media have traditionally used “left-wing ” and “liberal” as synonymous, so there are few attempts to measure anything to the left of liberalism. One measure I’ve seen, a 2016 poll of college students, offers “far left” as a choice in addition to “liberal,” and finds 4.2 percent of college students identify that way — higher than in recent years, but still quite low.

Democratic Socialists of America protesting on May Day, 2017. Photo: Scott Heins

The upsurge is most visible among activists and, especially, intellectuals. Socialism is being advocated not only in dedicated organs like the magazine Jacobin, the podcast Chapo Trap House, but also far more frequently in liberal commentary, including op-ed sections of the New York Times and Washington Post and general-interest magazines, all of which publish socialist commentary, which was largely invisible even a half-decade earlier. The Chapo podcast has encouraged its audience to enlist in Democratic Socialists of America, a once-minuscule organization that has seen its membership rise tenfold in two years (to a still-small 50,000). Socialists are more of an intellectual vanguard vying for influence in progressive politics than an electoral constituency.

But that should not discount their importance. Gaining influence over the spread of ideas can transform a party’s outlook, even if it can take decades to bear fruit. The conservative movement was a minority sect within the Republican party in the 1960s, and took decades of struggle (and slow generational change, as old-line Republicans were defeated, co-opted, or simply retired) for it to attain its now-dominant position within the GOP. Parties change slowly. The Democratic Party under Trump has not changed much from the Democratic Party under Obama. The importance of socialism lies in the changes it might bring in the future.

While it remains a small sect of the left, the socialist movement covers a wide range of ideological ground, encompassing plenty of fundamental disagreements. It is difficult to pinpoint where on the ideological spectrum “liberal” stops and “socialist” begins, nor the point where democratic socialism gives way to the undemocratic kind. And all these sub-identities bleed into each other around the edges.

Socialists, in general, may or may not believe in any of the following: public ownership of the means of production, abolition of profit, confiscation or extremely onerous taxation of private wealth. Most would advocate, at minimum, universal unionized labor and a very large welfare state. Perhaps the most common defining trait distinguishing socialists from liberals is not any specific program, but a belief that capitalism is irredeemable. Just as conservatives believe big government is wrong whether or not it “works,” socialists consider capitalism an inherent attack on human dignity. “The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree,” writes Corey Robin, “even if liberals come to support single-payer health care, free college, more unions and higher wages, the divide between the two will remain. For liberals, these are policies to alleviate economic misery. For socialists, these are measures of emancipation, liberating men and women from the tyranny of the market and autocracy at work.”

Socialists’ ideological distrust of capitalism is an almost perfect mirror image of the conservative distrust of the state. Socialists of course draw on an enormous amount of economic and social science research to form practical arguments for their policies. (As do conservatives.) But at bottom they are motivated by a philosophical belief that their program represents human freedom, and alternative visions represent unfreedom, regardless of their technocratic merits.

A recurring theme of socialist criticism of liberalism is its reliance on technocracy at the expense of ideology. A fascination with empiricism is held as the reason Democrats have allegedly abandoned the interests of the working class. “‘Needlessly clinical’ is exactly their style,” writes Thomas Frank of liberals. “The subject, for them, must be positively cloaked in wonkery. They don’t talk much about ‘class,’ like some troublemaker from the ’30s; they talk about ‘inequality,’ which is a delicate and intricate signifier. Oh, it is extremely complex. It requires so many charts.” It is the reason liberals have failed to challenge capitalist dominance. “My suspicion is that what technocratic ideology really is, deep down, is just a belief that whatever the hegemonic moral ideology happens to be is by definition correct,” suggests Ryan Cooper. And it is why liberals failed to anticipate Trump’s victory. “Statistical wizards, journalists brandishing white papers, and denizens of various social-science faculties were too busy looking at each other to see the populist tsunami rushing toward the Capitol,” (Timothy Shenk in the Nation.) The critique is so common that these terms have become a kind of shorthand that pops up in any dispute between socialists and the center-left. (Bhaskar Sunkara on Ezra Klein: “a technocrat, obsessed with policy details, bereft of politics, earnestly searching for solutions to the world’s problems through the dialectic of an Excel spreadsheet.”)

This suspicion of technocracy is reflected in Bernie Sanders’s policy agenda, which emphasized abstract value statements with clear heroes and villains at the expense of detail and practicality. One recent episode pitting Sanders against much of the progressive technocracy was telling. The senator wrote a bill proposing to tax large corporations for the cost of their employees’ federal income support (like Medicaid and food stamps). When the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities criticized the plan as regressive and unworkable, a Sanders staffer insisted the think tank — which has spent decades advocating higher taxes on the rich and more generous spending for the poor — had been corrupted by a donation by the Walton Foundation.

None of this is to say socialism is inherently incompatible with technical policy mastery. It is simply that American socialism at the moment has incorporated a revolt against liberal technocracy as a central feature.

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In part this is because American socialists take inspiration from American conservatives. They have studied the right’s path from the political margins to power and set out to emulate it. The conservative movement decided its success required bypassing, or destroying the legitimacy of, the Harvard-to Washington technocratic elite, which implicitly accepted the legitimacy of government intervention in the economy. Socialists do not have a uniform political style, but in general, they are more likely than liberals to see the methods conservatives used to take over the GOP as an inspiration.

Perhaps the most important unresolved question is whether socialists can add energy and resolve to progressive politics without threatening democratic values. Socialists, like conservatives, tend to define freedom as a certain economic outcome (for conservatives, freedom from government; for socialists, freedom from capitalism). Liberals, in contrast to both, define freedom as a process, the following of democratic norms and rules. There are of course both conservatives and socialists who follow the rules of the democratic game even at the expense of their agenda. Trump has shown the willingness of conservatives to exploit authoritarian demagoguery in the pursuit of their agenda. The ascendant socialist faction displays a militancy that can bleed into contempt for democracy.

Sean McElwee, a socialist organizer, might be the left’s answer to Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist and conservative impressario who presided over weekly meetings of conservative organizations. McElwee convenes a weekly socialist happy hour in New York, and has cited the tea party as a model. Like Norquist, McElwee is shrewd, witty, media-friendly, and dedicated to purifying his party of heretics, and defining politics as a zero-sum, ethically unbounded class war in which parties use control of government primarily to seize control of wealth and political power. “There was a recent study that suggested Republicans were so effective at murdering poor people through policy that it meaningfully affected election outcomes. That’s the level of raw political brutality the GOP operates on. The sooner progressives internalize this, the better,” he tweeted recently. “fuck your enemies, help your friends . that’s the sum of politics. there is nothing else.”

Democratic House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images

It would be a slur against American socialism to hold up The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason, published this year, as a representative account of left-wing thought. The Chapo book does, however, repeat some of the most fashionable tropes of ascendant socialism. The book’s five authors, who host the Chapo podcast, are forthright in their admiration for the Republican Party’s approach to politics. “The essential problem is not that liberals are ‘as bad’ as conservatives but that there is a giant sucking void at the core of their beings,” they write. “Conservatives, on the other hand, have no such void at their core. They know what they want, and they have a political vision for how to get it.”

The most striking aspect of the Chapo manifesto is the degree to which it dehumanizes its enemies. Unlike Sanders, who presents the overwhelming majority of the country as the virtuous victims of a minuscule, predatory “billionaire class,” Chapo sees vast swaths of their fellow Americans as devoid of any worth or dignity. Chapters on archetypal ideological enemies (“Wine Mom”; “Corporate Feminist”; “Neocon Cuck”) are illustrated with literal grotesqueries. One morbid and especially earnest passage describes a conservative co-worker of Matt Christman, one of the authors. Christman recounts learning of his colleague’s death and cleaning out the man’s desk.

The deceased had listened to conservative talk radio and had a jingoistic pro–Iraq War editorial cartoon on his wall. Christman concludes from this that “his only source of pleasure and purpose” was “his imagined connection to the violent triumphs of the American military.” He does not pause to consider that he might have had friends or family, or some other sources of pleasure and purpose unknown to Christman, or that he might have earnestly if wrongheadedly believed that, say, deposing Saddam Hussein might make the Middle East safer and more stable. Christman simply reduces the colleague’s entire existence to political error, and concludes the chilling passage, “I ate the dead man’s candy and threw the rest of his shit out.”

Chapo speaks for socialism’s testosterone-addled youth wing, whose rhetoric habitually runs toward violence. “I really hope Eli Lake gets to be the Michael Kelly of the Iran War,” wrote Chapo host Will Menaker recently. Kelly supported the Iraq War, then died covering it, leaving a widow and two young children, which is to say that Menaker is wishing Lake, another conservative journalist, will be killed. The usual defense of this kind of rhetoric is that the real killing is done by the American military and carceral states, and any response in kind merely helps even the score.

And yet it can be difficult to tell where transgressive fantasy violence ends and the real kind begins. In August, the left-wing street-fighting cult antifa beat up a Bernie Sanders supporter in Portland, mistaking him for a reactionary because he was toting an American flag. Antifa is an offshoot that hardly represents socialism, but left-wing activists frequently defend it as a valued ally, or lash out at anybody who criticizes it.

The Trump era, with its authoritarian rhetoric and bludgeoning of political norms, has encouraged supporters of political violence, who present drastic methods as the only possible defense against incipient fascism. Trump has merely stoked a militant spirit that was already firing up elements on the socialist left before he came along. Nearly three decades after the Cold War ended, socialists have shed their defensiveness about communism. Previous generations of socialists defined themselves by where one stood vis-à-vis Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky, and by what point in history (if any) they believed the revolutionary movement in Russia veered off course.

The newer socialists treat that as distant, mostly irrelevant history. They are unhaunted by the fear that declaring a large swath of the polity to be an enemy class can justify stripping them of their political rights. Few socialists are eager to follow Marxism’s bloody 20th-century path. But neither do very many of them worry about joining with people who might be.

Jacobin is new enough not to have any contemporaneous coverage of the Soviet Union. It has, however, overlapped with the authoritarian left-wing Venezuelan regime of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. Its tone has been defensive and apologetic, dismissing “so-called human-rights abuses” as Yankee propaganda, and consistently scoffing at calls for “dialogue or reconciliation … harmony and understanding” and instead calling for “a radical commitment to press decisively forward.”

Jacobin’s apologetics for Venezuelan authoritarianism provide a vivid illustration of the endpoint of the logic of “no enemies to the left.” Almost everybody on the left identifies as “democratic,” but of course embracing the label does not guarantee results (as evidenced by the German Democratic Republic and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — or, as those states are colloquially known, East Germany and North Korea). If your definition of democracy requires the triumph of socialism or any other economic system, then you are not a liberal democrat.

The tension is already evident within the left. The DSA, swollen by an influx of Chapo devotees, has seen the formation of a “North Star Caucus,” dedicated to working in some kind of cooperative relationship with the Democratic Party and to committing itself to small-d democracy. “We’ve seen a trend of people, often operating through anonymous social media but sometimes identifying themselves openly, behaving in a manner that can be only described as toxic,” note the caucus organizers. “They demonstrate a willingness to scrap any hint of due process or democratic deliberation and to organize digital mobs to enforce some sort of orthodoxy.”

It is disturbing that pro-democratic sentiment within DSA has been challenged to the point where it is the concern of a faction. But that should not be taken as proof that socialist politics is doomed to veer into extremism and political irrelevance. There is a powerful self-correcting dynamic that is already evident: As socialist politics gets closer to actual power, it is forced to broaden out. DSA-endorsed Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed the party’s governor candidate Andrew Cuomo in November, to the dismay of DSA’s tactical maximalists. Sanders himself is a political liberal who has denounced antifa violence and the habit of campus leftists to shut down right-wing speakers. If socialists are to expand their tiny foothold in American politics, they will have to shear off their politically illiberal edges. A successful socialist movement will need to be guided by a spirit of broad social empathy, not the ethos of dehumanization and shaming favored by its online vanguard.

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And for all the differences liberals may have with socialists and liberals, we liberals have many reasons to hope for this very outcome. Liberalism is, by its nature, a mediating force between competing sectors. It is difficult to maintain such a balance among business and labor and environmentalism when Republican control of government means completely ignoring the interests of the latter two. This same imbalance can be seen elsewhere. It has been a stable fact of American politics since the Reagan era that Democratic presidencies are forced to pay for new programs by finding wrenching and usually unpopular fiscal trade-offs, while Republican administrations can avoid that political pain by financing all their priorities with debt.

David Frum has an essay in The Atlantic arguing that Republicans must rediscover their bygone liberal identity: “Free trade. International partnerships. Honest courts and accountable leaders. Civil rights and civil liberties. Private space for faith but public policy informed by science. A social-insurance system that cushions failure and a market economy that incentivizes success.” In the postwar generation of Eisenhower and Nixon, a broadly liberal Republican Party was not the absurdity it would seem today.

The crucial premise in Frum’s formulation is that Democrats must open up space for Republican liberalism. “As increasing numbers of Democrats shift leftward on economic issues, even to the point of identifying as socialists, their party is becoming more statist and more redistributive,” he writes. “Many Americans will reject this approach, and they will need a party to champion their beliefs.”

For the moment, Americans who subscribe to his version of liberalism have an easy choice — or, put differently, no choice at all: They can vote for the Democrats, who have carried out the kind of rules-based open mixed economy he calls for. Frum’s argument for the Republican Party to move left requires that Democrats also move left. European democracies that have powerful socialist movements have also developed responsible right-of-center parties. Those parties have accepted the legitimacy of the state rather than clinging to simplistic anti-government bromides. They work with business, but they don’t turn over the regulation of air pollution to coal lobbyists. They believe in real budget math.

In the United States these positions would place them squarely within the Democratic Party. The Democratic party’s moderation has enabled it to co-opt all the most viable liberal Republican policies. Cap and trade, Romneycare, the Earned Income Tax Credit – every humane and practical idea that liberal Republicans have come up with has found its way into the Democratic program. And the logic of partisan competition has helped push Republicans away from all these ideas, to denounce them as socialist. And so the American equivalents of Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and David Cameron all find their home in the Democratic party.

But it is very weird to have a party that brings together Michael Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders. A functional two-party system would have liberal elements in both parties. Liberal arguments with socialism — I have plenty — would be easier to work through in a world where a bloated far right didn’t cram us all into the same party. The Democratic party might eventually go too far left, and the Republican party too far right. But a tug of war between a party favoring too much government, and another too little, might wind up in just the right spot, from the liberal standpoint.

To be sure, this calculation might be totally wrong. One can imagine a Corbyn-style trap, where socialists gain control over the party, drive away moderates, and refuse to compromise with the electorate. Or worse, a more socialist-influenced Democratic party might simply contribute to escalating polarization, and one side or another would eventually resort to the outright authoritarianism Trump’s vote-suppressing, FBI-intimidating party is edging right up to already. (Perhaps one day chunks of this essay will be mockingly read aloud to me by my fellow gulag inmates.) In a two-party system, the optimal number of ideologically extreme parties is zero. But given that pushing that number below one is not an option in the short term, there is a case to be made that two is better than zero.

The Republican Party of the modern era has waged class war that has metastasized into a war on academia, media, and governing norms. The Democrats have built a trans-class identity, out of which they have labored to hold together the besieged consensus. But it is ultimately hard to mediate a class war that is being waged from one side.

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