Civics: The Socialist Revival

John Judis:

As the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, so too, it seemed, did the dream of socialism. The German sociologist Rolf Dahrendorf declared, “The point has to be made unequivocally that socialism is dead and that none of its variants can be revived for a world awakening from the double nightmare of Stalinism and Brezhnevism.” In the New Yorker, Robert Heilbroner wrote, “Less than seventy-five years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won.” Of course, there was still Communist Cuba as well as some holdouts in Asia and Africa, but as far as the advanced capitalist countries of the West were concerned, socialism seemed to be dead and gone as a popular politics.

Three decades later, socialist politics has risen from the grave. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and a self-described democratic socialist, almost won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and is a top contender for the 2020 nomination. Two members of Congress belong to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). An organization that once numbered in the mere hundreds, the DSA now has about fifty-six thousand members, including more than ninety city and state legislators. Opinion polls register surprising support for socialism. A Gallup poll last May found that 43 percent of respondents said socialism was a “good thing.” According to a Harris Poll last March, 61 percent of Generation Z (ages 18–24) have a “positive reac­tion” to the idea of socialism.

Socialism is making a comeback in Europe as well. In the United Kingdom, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his second in command, John McDonnell, were long-standing members of the So­cialist Campaign Group, which dissented from former prime minister Tony Blair’s attempt to move the party away from the Left. Within Labour, Corbyn is backed by Momentum, a group established in 2015 by younger party militants. In Germany, Kevin Kuhnert, the leader of the Young Socialists (Jusos), the youth wing of the Social Democratic Party, wants the ailing SPD to re-embrace its Marxist socialist roots, which it formally repudiated after World War II.

Today’s young socialists, many of whom were born after 1989, no longer think of Soviet Communism as socialism. But at the same time, many don’t share a clear alternative conception of what a socialist politics should consist in, or what socialism itself might look like. In explaining his democratic socialism, Sanders invokes Franklin Roose­velt’s New Deal and Scandinavian social democracy. Kuhnert and the DSA socialists embrace a neo-Marxist socialism that would abolish the capitalist class. That raises the question: is socialism, as currently conceived, a stark alternative to capitalism or merely a symbolic rebuke to the prevailing values and practices of capitalism—or is it something in between?